Sunday, March 13, 2005
A return to personalised learning
Sylvia Ashton Warner
Sylvia Ashton Warner is a legend to many educators worldwide, even if not greatly appreciated in her own country. She was, from what I have read, an unpredictable and sometimes difficult individual, but there is no doubt of the value of her creative teaching ideas in the field of language.
Lynley Hood has written a fascinating account of Sylvia’s life in her book ‘Sylvia.’
In this age of pretend rationality, where distant elites have worked out what we are to teach and how we are to assess it, it is refreshing to be reminded that people can never be regarded as merely passing on messages from on high.
There seems, as students worldwide are failing to engage in traditional education, a trend towards what is being called ‘personalized learning.’ This is to be welcomed but, as exciting as the idea is, it is hardly new. Until the imposed rationality of the 90s curriculums, the philosophy of personalized learning underpinned many creative teachers in New Zealand. Such teachers have almost been crushed by the obsessive compliance requirements of planning, tracking, proving and graphing everything that they were supposed to have taught.
If personalized learning replaces all this it will indeed be great. Personalized learning is about tapping into the passions, ideas and imagination of students, and using these as the basis for a wide range of creative expression. For personalized learning to be done well requires that such learning results in quality expression – the development in every learner of a sense of excellence. Teachers will need to encourage their students to work in depth and to provide sensitive help to ensure learners achieve their personal best.
Teaching in this sense is a creative art.
Sylvia represents the ‘central personality the artist – sensitive, imaginative and unique’ and as Lynley Hood writes, ‘she will go down as one of the seminal voices of our age.’ Sylvia worked in the 50s, an age not conducive to such creativity, but her determination to tap into the ‘life forces’ of her students is an inspiration to us today. Sylvia worked with the very children that today we call our ‘achievement tail’.
We would be well advised to replicate her ideas about ‘unlocking the storehouse of imagery native to each child’ and base their development on each child’s ‘key vocabulary' of personally important words. This would be amore creative way of ‘engaging’ students than more of the same, or an imposition of ‘scientific' phonic programmes.’
Sylvia no doubt was a difficult individual but, as George Bernard Shaw wrote, all progress depends on ‘unreasonable’ individuals!
Some idea to introduce personal writing into your programme, and for the really brave to base your literacy programme on, are to be found on our site. There are articles on: developing writing; mums and dads helping; and personal writing themesand oral language.