Tuesday, September 26, 2006

Personal thoughts on literacy and numeracy

  Posted by Picasa It seems almost heretical to criticize the obsessive interest schools place on their literacy and numeracy programmes. Best advice might be to let schools get on with it and to ask for teachers to work equally hard on the remainder of the curriculum. But this is just not possible. Teachers have only so much time and energy

In maths it would be sensible to decide what students should know (basic computation) when they leave primary school and to achieve this by teachers presenting as many 'rich topics' about maths they can and, where possible, to integrate maths into other learning areas. I would want learners to know the basics and to enjoy maths before leaving primary. It seems we achieve neither.

Maths is simply overdone. I have even heard University maths teachers wonder why all children need to spend so much time on it – unless they were going to be mathematicians! ‘Do less well’ would solve the problem. Brain research indicates that our brains are hard wired to ‘do’ maths, along with everything else, and that we need to build on this inclination keeping them ‘turned on’ to maths by exposing students to interesting maths experiences. Maths ‘savants’ know maths without being taught by anybody!

As for literacy this is possibly a more sensitive area; literacy being seen by many primary teachers as their number one strength or even duty. Without teachers how would students ever learn to read!

It seems many students learn to read by osmosis. They see the power in reading to engage their imagination and to find about what they want to know.

Unfortunately all too often reading has been 'subverted' into a process to be measured by endless levels of achievement. The process seems to work for the ‘literacy rich’ students but for all the emphasis we are still left with long ‘achievement tail’- a kind of ‘Mathew effect’, 'the rich get richer and the poor get poorer'. We then identify ‘students at risk’ and give them more of the same (but more focused) and no doubt improvement is achieved but it seems that it cannot be maintained. This 'plateauing' of results is now occurring in the UK after initial improvement.

Rather than giving students more of the same (even if it is more intensive) we need to think about the intrinsic process of learning that all children are born with and the conditions required to sustain and deepen this search for meaning. All young people are on a life long learning journey to answer such basic questions as: 'where did we come from? who are we?what can we do? and what will we become'? Answering these questions could well be the basis of developing 'personalized curriculums' as all students are all looking for meaning, recognition, autonomy, power and the ability to live their lives to the full.

Personal engagement is vital to any learning and this develops from having a keen sense of wonder and curiosity about all that happens, magnified by being in the company of others who share what they know, or have the skills, to be able to help us in our search.

Imagine if these ideas were to be the basis of education, that education ought to be a continual search for meaning, created through involvement rather than being 'given' to us by those who already know.

As for the development of literacy it is important to appreciate that ‘before the word comes the experience’! Students are well on the way to literacy before they come to school. They have learned to talk simply by being exposed to the need to talk. Research shows that the quality of their conversation is far richer at home than at school; that they ask more questions and feel in more control of their own learning. And all this without targets and achievement graphs! Some of young people come to school with the advantage of a richer basis for continuing their literacy learning and it is this missing experience that ought to be the real concern of teachers.

To solve this 'gap' we need to build a bridge between their real world and the book experience. Creative teachers of past eras, notably Sylvia Ashton Warner and Elwyn Richardson, have shown the way by building on the inner world of their students.

By valuing students own concerns and thoughts about personally felt experiences and explorations, by listening and talking about such experiences with respect, and when appropriate ‘scribing’ their thoughts into writing that preserves and celebrates their ‘voice’. Using these thoughts as first books allows students to see the relationship between their world and the world of books.

The preservation of each individuals sense of voice is critical to ensure a positive sense of identity is developed by all. This is what is missing in so many classrooms. We need to help students see themselves as valuable people with ideas of their own not just readers. It is important to see talking, thinking, writing and, eventually, reading as integrated forms of expression, all contributing to each child's sense of identity.

Of course all this needs to be in association with lots of being read to and wondering about the magic of the translation of sounds into marks on paper!

And behind all such developments is the thought that before the word (or the thought) is the experience. All students, but particularly those whose lives are restricted by situations beyond their control, need lots of rich environmental experiences; another area of teaching that has been lost.

Children need to be exposed to a full range of sensory experiences and each sense needs to be ‘educated’ fully so to be able to ‘see more, hear more, feel more and wonder more’. The more children notice the more questions they will ask ( solving the problem of the curriculum), the more words they will develop, and the greater the need to express what they see; not only in words but using all available means of expressions (what was once called the ‘related arts’). And when students express their thoughts creative teachers will make every effort to preserve the ‘voice’ and poetic qualities of every student.

At this point the ‘curriculum’ of the classroom will be a more focused extension of the best of ideal early learning students would have experienced. Students exposed to such learning will develop deep preoccupations with the human themes and problems for them to expressed and be recognized in their reading.

If such learning were to be achieved teachers and students will develop their classrooms as 'communities of shared inquiry' leading to personal aesthetic satisfaction and excitement for both students and teachers. And I am betting that those students in the so called ‘achievement tail’, when they realize that learning is about meaning making, would be learning with more enthusiasm – they may even have better stories to tell, write and read about!

To tap into such a reservoir of creative energy and talent, and for both students and teachers to rediscover the joy of learning, we need to rethink the purpose of our schools! Maybe the 'poor learners' are a result of our faulty assumptions?


SC said...

your writings touch so many chords I have always thought. It's encouraging to read similar ideas.
This seems to be one of the powers of blogging: you can express ideas and thoughts in ways that dont seem to surface in the staffroom. Everyones so caught up in their own mythology!

Bruce said...

Thanks SC

Seem to me that too many teachers keep their thoughts to themselves in staffrooms - I guess I am thinking of secondary schools where there are a number of unresolved issues that need to be brought out into the open. Last night on the news the issue of violent student behaviour was aired - the answer can't be smaller classes or video cameras!

'Factory' schools designed in the 19th C just 'don't work anymore' for too many kids.

I like your 'caught up in their own mythology' line!

I have yet to write my blog about the mythology of literacy and numeracy that pervades primary schools.

It is time for a big educational rethink - we have had enough of re-arranging deck chairs on the Titanic.

Anonymous said...

It does seem like heresy to suggest that many students learn more effectively before they come to school; those who are home schooled also seem to have an advantage. Be a courageous school to take your advice totally but many teachers could, and many already do, use many of the ideas you suggest.

SC said...

I have my thoughts on violent student behaviour.
I believe student behaviour is reflective of the environment they are working or living in. (either home or school)
If students are bullied (by teachers!), or disempowered, not involved in decision making processes, dont have ways of therapeuticaly dealing with issues outside of school then violent behaviour is much more likely to manifest.
On the other hand, if students are 'listened to', empowered, have an increased sense of connection with their school, are engaged in a dialogue about ‘their journey’ they can ‘find’ alternatives to violence.
There is some place on the planet- a tribal culture- where the social more is to actively discuss dreams- and the prevalence of violence is zero! (Just wish I could remember where it was!!!)
Rather than present a meaningless curriculum, engaging in simple, non-hieracrchical dialogue with adolescents is an element is not discussed enough in this caper! Particulalrly at yr9-10
Anyway, that’s what I think.
(I could write 10,000 words on this topic, but risk getting caught up in MY OWN mythology!)

Bruce said...

Thanks S C

I must get around to writing my blog - but the book by david Hood (NZ) I used as an ilustration says it all!

It seems we are in agreement.