Wednesday, December 20, 2006

A shared language of teaching and learning.

Pedagogy to cross the primary secondary gap!

It is only when you work in a school that spans the year 8 and 9 age groups that you really appreciate that there is world of difference between teaching approaches of primary and secondary schools and that this difference makes learning too difficult for many students.

For all this it seems it is an issue that is all too often sidestepped by educationalist who happily talk about a ‘seamless’ curriculum on the grounds that all curriculum documents are developed to cover students from 5 to school leaving. As for teachers, or school themselves, they are so busy developing, or ‘delivering’, curriculums that they seem blind to the problem. Primary teachers often quietly despair about the lack of pedagogy of their secondary colleagues while secondary teachers often grumble to themselves about what their students can’t do when they reach their area.

As for students, they either accept differences in teaching and learning as how it is and always has been and, if they can’t cope with the change, then any difficulties must lie within themselves.

The truth is that for many students entering secondary schools must be like visiting a foreign country where their learning, once taught by one teacher and often in integrated way, is now taught by a range of separate teachers. Teachers who have no idea about what each other are teaching or the teaching strategies they each use.

What is required as we enter the 21stC is the development of a common language of teaching and learning to cover all ages. A few years ago, the then Minister of Education, announced that his researchers had informed him was the classroom teacher that made the difference! More recently the current Minister of Education stated that ‘since 1989 we have moved to a focus on teaching and learning based on a growing body of evidence about what works best’. His ‘new manta’ is the need to personalize learning!

It is as if common sense had finally permeated the walls of the ivory towers.

The truth is that the revolution in teaching and learning that reaches back to John Dewey (and even earlier educational philosophers) has had trouble finding a place in the specialists secondary schools whose genesis lies within a mass education ‘one size fits all’ 19thC, industrial aged, ‘mindset’.

It is as if there are two competing narratives about teaching – the ‘old story’ where learning is seen as a form of cultural transmission to often passive learners; where students are taught by s subject teachers, tested and sorted. Teaching in this narrative is about ‘covering’ or ‘delivering’ the curriculum by specialist teachers and successful student are those who can remember the ‘stuff’ they are taught. The metaphor that comes to mind is that of a factory and the production line, complete with waste products. Many teachers blame their students for any failure (‘deficit theory’), or poor earlier teaching, when, all too often, it is the school itself that is ‘learning disabled!

The ‘new story’ sees schools as ‘learning organizations’ based on the belief that with the right tasks, help, and time, all students can learn. An important element in this narrative is the relationship between the student and the teacher. In this ‘story’ learning is co-created through the actions of both, but led by the interests, question, queries and concerns of the learner. Through realistic problem solving tasks, meaningful to their students, teachers do their best to develop whatever talents their students may have so as to develop a positive learning identity in all their students. This is where the ‘new’ idea of ‘personalized learning’ comes in but such an approach brings into question the whole concept of a preplanned curriculum; learning in this 'story’ is a process of students actively creating their own ‘knowledge’. Our ‘revised’ New Zealand curriculum represents these ideas and, if put into practice, it would challenge many current secondary practices.

The problem is that is all too easy to fall into ‘either /or’ camps and for opponents to harden their positions.

The solution is to combine the best of current primary and secondary approaches. In schools that include students from year 7 to 9 there is a great opportunity to do just this and in the process escape, what some writers call, the ‘muddle in the middle.’ Such schools have an opportunity to lead educational transformation by developing this ‘best of both worlds approach’. These schools, by combining the strong relationship and integrated learning of primary teaching with the rigor and depth of subject disciplines of secondary teaching, could become centres of new educational thought.

Our own site was developed with just this challenge of developing a ‘More Informed Vision’ inclusive of all age groups – a vision that if put into practice would have the potential to develop the learning power and creative talents of all students. The new ‘capital’ for any country, in what some are calling the ‘Creative Era’, will be the innovation and creativity of all students.

This blend, of the best elements of ‘child centred learning’ and ‘subject centered teaching’ needs to be founded on interplay of student inquiry, problem solving and an increased depth of knowledge and understanding as provided by subject specialists. It would also require teachers to ‘do fewer things well’ and for them to ‘design’ studies with their students. Most of all it will require teachers to see themselves as ‘creative learning coaches’ practicing high kevels of ‘pedagogy’ or ‘artistry’ of teaching.

Such teaching will be seen as ‘co-constructivist’, representing Vygotsky’s idea of ‘scaffolding’; ‘What a child can do by with help today she can do by herself tomorrow’.

This ‘learning centred approach’ avoids the false dichotomies which persist in education to the detriment of the learners. Learning, for some students particularly for students whose backgrounds impose limits on their success, need not be as if finding yourself in foreign country.

Creating this unified pedagogy, and common educational language, by combining primary pedagogies and secondary subject expertise combines ‘the sage on the stage with the guide on the side’. It will create a ‘seamless’ and ‘personalized’ educational experience for all learners – and, as well, provide an exciting creative challenge for teachers.

Such a ‘best of both worlds’ approach has the power to bring learning to life for all concerned; all we need to do is change our collective minds and let the future emerge through our joint actions!
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Anonymous said...

Such an approach as you ouline would seem to be common sense but I fear secondary schools would have to be the ones to make the more dramatic changes?

Bruce said...

One writer has called it 'the half finished revolution' meaning 'learning centred' ideas never made it acoss the primary secondary divide! . It is a sad comment that very young children are given more freedom to work on self chosen tasks that senior students. The school system should have, as it end point, independent learners leaving with all their talents developed ready to take on further challenges.

Anonymous said...

Schools ought to have a long conversation about how they would have to change to really cater for the students who currenty do badly - it is over to the every school to attract and keep all students.

Anonymous said...

Such a 'conversation' would make a creative challenge for all schools! Schools are for students not teachers!

Anonymous said...

The ideas you mention are excellent but I don't like the chances of them being put into practice in any secondary schools I know! To successful at doing the wrong things well for the wrong kids!