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It's Time to Celebrate Schools

"The school gate isn't where education begins for children." Chris Sullivan

If you live in the U.S., it probably sounds strange that there would be a celebration of education. Too often, the dialogue (or monologue) about U.S. education is not always kind. What makes this even more amazing is that it is a whole country celebrating education.

Celebrations, at a small scale, are nothing new for educators. Elementary, middle and high schools celebrate student learning by having different events throughout the year. They bring a sense of pride to the school community. Perhaps it's a Travel Expo, art exhibition, music concert or science fair. Students show their unique and creative examples of what they learned, and everyone celebrates...school.

However, we don't typically see those types of celebrations at the state or national level. At those levels it becomes much more political, and instead of taking a strengths-based approach, the education conversation turns into a debate about who is right and who is wrong. In the U.S. we seem far away from celebrating education.

Festival of Education

On March 21st, 22nd and 23rd, New Zealand begins their Festival of Education in Auckland. It will be followed by Festivals of Education in Christchurch and Wellington. According to the Festival website, "Throughout the Festival we will share what is great about our education system. The Festival will feature people, programmes, and collaborative approaches that should be shared."

In a Wellington, NZ interview (listen here), Chris Sullivan from Cognition Education (which owns Visible Learning Plus) helped organize the festival, and said the focus will be on "Innovation, Collaboration, Excellence." Sullivan said the festival is split into three different areas. First, they want to attract the public, so they will have, "A range of interactive displays, and have some of the best performers from around New Zealand."

Secondly, they have a series of public debates and discussions around education. In the interview Chris Sullivan said the public debates will help, "Parents, grandparents, and community members learn a little bit about what is going on in education."

Lastly, the third part of the Auckland Festival of Education, which I will be attending, has a line-up of great speakers like Michael Fullan, John Hattie, Christian Long, and Hon Hekia Parata, the Minister of Education for New Zealand.

Why Have a Festival?

The simple answer to that question is that New Zealand wants to focus on the positive contributions of their educational system. Michelle Boag, the communications specialist who is part of the Cognition project team says,

"The Festival is important because it will give people involved in education - be they teachers, students or parents - the opportunity to celebrate, showcase and share the great things that are happening in the sector.  Too often media attention focusses on the operational problems and fails to recognize the innovations, collaboration and inspirational achievements that are a feature of our educational institutions. We want to recognize and celebrate the excellence and achievements of many of those involved in this sector that is so vital to our lives, to our economy and to the future of our country."

Boag goes on to say,

"We would like participants to walk away with a better appreciation of the great things that are happening in education - we want them to be inspired by the inspirational leadership that is producing innovative approaches, which is finding new ways to engage and encourage what we call priority students (who may come from a disadvantaged background) and that is producing better student achievement."

Equally as important, the Festival will also focus on the rich cultural contributions happening in New Zealand as well as innovative practices. Boag said,

"We want them to see, experience and enjoy the wealth of cultural diversity in our educational institutions through performance (music, dance, oratory), through chat room discussions and through the opportunity to hear world class educational leaders in symposium sessions.   The exhibition floor plate of the Festival will also showcase the impact that technology is having on learning and student achievement."

In the End

No one goes unscathed in the education debate. Every country has a list of ways they can improve in their educational practices. However, it seems as though in the U.S. we always focus on ways to improve, and spin our wheels on the best ways to get there. As a former long distance runner, I used to believe that I was only in competition with those runners around me, only to find out that over the long run, I was really in competition with myself. The same may be true for our education system, because we don't seem to be moving forward as we compete with everyone else.

What I like about the Festival of Education in New Zealand is that they focus on all of the areas of education that they get right, and want to celebrate that. It is a strengths-based approach to learning, which is refreshing these days when it seems as though we take a one-size-fits-all approach to learning...still.

Even better, is that even in the rooms where they discuss and debate education, they seem to be channeling the important work of Carol Dweck, and approach education with a growth mindset. New Zealand educators seems to want to see where they can take what they are doing, and watch it grow.

As much as I have always enjoyed the celebrations that have taken place in school buildings and districts, it would be nice to get to a place where the rhetoric about education in the U.S. isn't about what schools are doing wrong, but focuses on where we can nurture what we are doing right. Before my career ends, I hope that the U.S. gets to a place where we can have our own Festival of Education, because we certainly have a lot more to celebrate than we think.

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