Sunday, May 29, 2005
Doing fewer thing well - a simple answer!
Helping students make sense of schooling.
I have just returned from the opportunity to observe in a low decile secondary school for a full week. It is not an experience that I have had before. My role was to help in whatever way I could.
The opportunity arose because the government, in its wisdom, had closed several primary schools in the area and, as a result, the secondary school gained all students in the year 7 and 8 age groups. This restructuring has not been without its problems. Developing nine or so new classes has caused considerable stress for the school, the teachers, and not the least, the new students. And then there is the issue of skills that are lacking in students arriving at the school. I am not talking about test results schools say their students can do, but what students can actually do – there seems to be a difference. This is a common complaint throughout the country as students enter secondary schools? To counter this problem there is the research that says that students in the early classes in secondary schools are not engaged or challenged and get worse!
I have great sympathy for teachers working at both levels. Now is the time to clarify and focus expectations across the transition and in the process break down the division between primary and secondary teaching. For too long students have been caught up in this problem of school transition and too many students, for no fault of their own, have fallen through the cracks. For many students it must be as if visiting a foreign country!
The strange thing is that we know some of the answers but schools have been overwhelmed trying to implement confusing imposed curriculums. It is becoming obvious that secondary schools, as they are currently structured, might have suited students of earlier times, but they are struggling to cater for all students today. Teachers struggle to keep all students on task as too many students’ exhibit poor skills and attitudes to learning. Unless changes are made teachers will battle on trying to fit students into schools that just don’t fit them.
The first thing schools need to face up to this reality that all is not well. There are students who do get on with their learning born up by the high expectations of their own families. As for those who are less than enthusiastic, there are all sorts of reasons given as to why they don’t learn. What is too often ignored by schools is the research that indicates that it is the individual classroom teacher’s skill that is the most important variable in student achievement.
Teachers need to take the time to reflect on what are the basic ideas about teaching and learning they all need to use, to define them, and then be willing to be held accountable for implementing what they have agreed to do.
They need to consider what knowledge (including attitudes and skills) students really need to have in place, at any level, and then do their best to ensure they are in place. This means doing fewer things well. Rushing through content, as is the current practice, only produces thin, or fragile, learning at best!
The fewer things that are chosen need to be implemented by challenging experiences that engage students. This is the next challenge. Students need engaging content if they are to feel ownership of their learning.
For students to retain understanding and gain confidence requires that they be given appropriate feedback and guidance, and opportunities to reflect on what they might need to do next time. This suggests that the role of a teacher needs to be seen as one of a creative coach not a transmitter of knowledge. As for assessment, students should be able to demonstrate what they can do through action and demonstrations. Schools should not rely on abstract data, or marks recorded in teachers documents, passed on to the next school as seems the practice!
Such basic teaching would ensure that all students understand: what, why, how, when and what they need to do. Such ‘focused teaching’ would guarantee that all students gain success and that this success will develop into the positive attitudes that are too often missing.
If these simple ideas were put into practice from the earliest classes the students wouldn’t arrive at secondary school ‘at risk’, unmotivated, and with counter-productive ‘learning’ behaviors. And secondary schools would be able to extend all students at level 9 and 10 (or 7 to 10 depending on the school). Equally importantly, all teachers would not suffer from the draining pressure that represents their current existence.
Once these ‘basics’ were in place teachers could then introduce the more exiting ideas such as: higher order thinking skills, cooperative learning, constructivist teaching, the use of ICT and multiple intelligences. Without the basic ideas above in place, introducing such ideas will actually make things worse!
Considering these ideas might be a start for the school I visited.
It's not brain surgery!