Monday, August 29, 2005

Schools for learning!

Vital dispositions - curiosity and skeptism! Posted by Picasa

As Robert Fried says, in his excellent book 'The Passionate Learner', ‘Every child is a passionate learner. Children come into the world with a desire to learn that is as natural as the desire to eat move and be loved, their hunger for knowledge, for skills, for feelings of mastery are as strong as any other appetite…..They learn an amazing variety of things in the years before they enter school.

And he continues, ‘we are less likely to see this same passion when we look at kids at school…the passionate learning of their early years begins to decline, often with permanent results.’

Nothing, he says, conspires to deny these children but something gets in the way and as a result learning is slowly turned into a low energy, task orientated compliance activity, lacking the earlier intensity, enthusiasm and joyfulness.

Creative teachers are the key to recapturing this enthusiasm for learning. They are disposed to value the creativity and individuality of their students and they are ever on the alert for student’s interests, or ideas, that they can build on. And, from experience, they know the kind of experiences to introduce that appeal to their students. As Jerome Bruner wrote, such teachers are, ‘aware of the canny art of intellectual temptation.’ It is the things that don’t make sense, amuse, or confuse, that creates the desire to learn.

We need to consider the kind of attributes our students will need to thrive in what will be an unpredictable but potentially exciting future? Once we have thought about this then we need to consider what would classrooms be like if were to give conscious attention to such dispositions?

If we were to re-imagine our schools we would need to come up with something dramatically different from our current ‘egg box’ secondary schools with their genesis in the factory mentality of the 19th C?

Students learn best when they are engaged with real problems that attract their imagination, or conflict with what they currently believe – situations that challenge them to ‘construct’ new meanings and to produce new ideas. Implementing these simple ideas would transform schools we know them.

The challenge for teachers is to create such positive learning environments so that all students become involved in meaningful learning.

Imagine schools dedicated to involving students in real life projects from day one that are ‘rich’ in scientific, mathematical, language and expressive possibilities.

The first thing you would have to give up, according to Seymour Papert renowned expert on children’s learning and computers, is the current idea of curriculum. As another educationalist, Peter Ellyard from Australia has said, ‘we need a just in time curriculum rather than a just in case one’.

And, as part of this idea of a prescribed curriculum, the idea of separate subjects also needs to be ‘re-imagined’ as this fragmentation is a product of past industrial age thinking. Real learning is not fragmented. The future demands learners who can see connections between learning areas - the very attributes that two year old demonstrate everyday. Such an ‘emergent’ curriculum, based on student's question and concerns would need to be linked, by innovative teacher, to the ‘big ideas’ that underpin the requirements of being an informed future orientated citizen.

Literacy, one of the foundation skills of all learning, would be easily integrated into such real life learning. Mathematics however, says Papert, himself a mathematician, needs to be reinvented. Mathematics, he writes, started off as a way of solving real problems but that over time has developed into abstract ‘pure’ maths. He believes we need to reverse the order of things and develop projects that that requires maths to solved.

By exploring such rich integrated experiences students Papert Seymour believes students will develop a sense of themselves as learners able to call upon appropriate content as required. They will see learning as valuable and that setting your own goals and working towards them is vital. A new word ‘learnacy’ may be the most important literary of all. It is the obvious antidote to the current problem of 'disengaged' students.

The biggest challenge of all, for teachers who have long been exposed to a traditional model of transmitting knowledge, even under the guise of discovery methods, or teaching the old stuff in a more constructivist way, would be for them to work alongside their students 'co-constructing' meaning.

There is no need for the passion for learning to be lost. We now know enough now that no child need fail – but only if we changed out ‘our’ minds ( and schools) first.

Time again, it seems, to observe our two year olds in action and figure out how to keep their wonderful curiosity and skepticism alive; far better than looking for inspiration from distant curriculum ‘experts’ with their mind firmly fixed in the last century.


Anonymous said...

I think you are right. Another thing that many schools and teachers seem to have forgotten about is the world outside the classroom. Children's natural curiosity about the world outside the classroom is such a powerful and inspirational source of learning that is for various reasons often overlooked or avoided. Children must to certain degree suffer from a form of sensory deprivation the hours they spend trapped inside classrooms.

Bruce said...

I agree about the importance of the immediate environment as an inspiration for learning. I reckon that for every hour kids are in front of a screen they ought to have three hours exploring the bush or sitting by a river to compensate.

And who knows - during such reflective times exiting ideas might pop into their heads. It is times like these when creative people often have their best ideas.

Anonymous said...

It is amazing that the general public accept such dated industrial age schools as a successful model. If anything they seem to want to go back to the past! They would not accept the degree of 'product failure' ( student dis- engagement and alienation) from any other organisation.

Anonymous said...

Perhaps people are less critical of what they regard as 'free'.
Of course it is not free but the social cost and the scale of the lost opportunities in an inflexible and unresponsive education system is not widely understood.

Bruce said...

The most traditional schools are often the fee paying schools - the issue is one of philosophy?

Anonymous said...

Money and ideas get caught up together. If a clients pay for a traditional education I guess they are satisfied when they get it.
The question is what should we expect from state education- a lot more than what we get I think. It is an issue of what is understood and what is valued in society in general?

Bruce said...

There are powerful conservative pressures on schools, from parents and politiciansm, to maintain the 'status quo'; this applies equally to independent or State schools. Innovative ideas do come from independent schools, set up with a particular progressive philosophy in mind; and the State ought to foster a wide range of equally innovative schools, so successful ideas can 'spread' to other schools.

However, of all organisations, schools have changed the least - place a teacher from a 100 years ago in a secondary class and he/she would probably cope quite well. Place a Doctor, from the same time, in modern hospital and he/she would be totally confused.

Many students now do much of their learning , for better or worse, through modern communicaton media. Schools for many is just a necessary inconvenience but at least it is where their friends are.