Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Whose learning is it?

Posted by Picasa I have just returned from a farewell function for a retiring principal, and other staff members, of a local school.

The school is low decile school and it was interesting to sit at the front of the school hall during the function, surrounded by well presented children’s art, to observe all the, mainly brown, cheerful faces singing Maori songs in between the speeches.

The energy, vitality and sense of creative potential of the students, was obvious for all to see. 'Potential' is the appropriate word because, looking at all the faces, the thought that came to my mind was what would their fate be in the school system as they grow older? Listening to the mass singing and haka and, in particular, one young Maori girl who sang a solo, it was an impressive experience. The farewells, and associated gifts, added to the heightened emotion of the situation. And I noted those who spoke in te reo ( Maori) seemed far more at home with their thoughts than when speaking in English. Culture does make a difference to confidence; and confidence is at the heart of any future learning.

Afterwards, over a ‘cuppa’ tea and kai, a group of current and retired principals were discussing the fate of such children. It was agreed that many of the delightful faces, so full of promise, might end up in a few years disillusioned with what their schools might provide. One ‘semi retired’ principal, now visiting adolescent students who no longer go to secondary school and are on correspondence, said he often talks to them about how they see school. It seems they all thought secondary school ‘sucked’ but they enjoyed the ‘neat’ things they did at primary school. The value of education to such students , it seems, is all but lost

So what goes wrong! It all too easy to blame the students themselves, or their parents, or whatever .This is counterproductive – we need to think hard about how we can keep such students engaged in their own learning.

This business of engagement is the key. Preschoolers ‘work’ on their own curriculum’ driven by their insatiable curiosity, a need to communicate, to make sense of things and, in this process develop a sense of personal agency or power.

The problem of 'disengagement' begins for many of the students, whose faces in todays audience exuded such a wonderful sense of possibility, when ‘their’ curriculum is replaced by a curriculum devised by others who profess to know better. For some students, whose backgrounds are aligned with the school, this is no great problem but for other students school soon becomes a ‘foreign country’.

The answer, to me, would be to devise a curriculum based on the environment, culture, interests, dreams, questions, concerns, issues and queries of the students themselves.

This is not a new idea and there are schools, at all level, that do just this with great success.

The question is ,whose learning is it? Schools ought to make it their prime role to ensure the dreams, talents and sense of personal power of any learner is never placed at risk. This love of learning (one writer calls it 'learnacy') is what school ought to be all about.

Perhaps we need to be creative as a society and 're-imagine' our schools to ensure all students learn. There is no doubt we know enough about how students learn to achieve this if we had the wit and imagination as a society to do so. Any system that ends up with 20% of student achieving little in the way of qualifications and, instead, has students leaving with poor attitudes towards themselves and society, is surely a waste of talent and creativity, and too high a price for society to pay.

It all depends on the pupose of education and whose learning it is, and whether we are facing a past indusrial 'mass' education age or a future age of personal creativity.

Once we sort out the purpose of education in this new creative era we are entering can we ensure all students remain open, postive, and enthusiastic about 'their' learning.

This would be more fun, and creative, for both teachers and learners - at any level.


Anonymous said...

It seems the issues your small story brings up are at the core of the problems confronting our current 'schooling' system.

'If we take', ( to quote John Holt) 'from someone his right to decide what he will be curious about, we destroy his freedom of thought.We say, in effect, you must think not about what interests you, but about what interests and concerns us'.

Holt of course today would say his or her!

In other words at school students learn not to do their own thing -except for strong willed individuals like Peter Jackson.

Anonymous said...

A powerful experience - and insightful observations. The questions you ask should be a concern to us all.

Bruce said...

If we want to close the so called 'achievement gap' we need to change our approach to learning and teaching and focus on developing the talents of each individual learner - personalised learning - working with whatever talents,stories, experiences each child bring with them. IEPs for every learner!

Anonymous said...

I once was on a secondary school Board of Trustees and we wanted to include in a job description for a sience position "The ability to teach in Te Reo Maori would be an advantage" This was removed by the teaching body as it was perceived to disadvantage those teachers who could not teach in Maori!! Should not all teachers who train in our country be required to gain fluency in the Maori Language? as this is an official language with equal status as English . While we are at it should the system be required to teach those students who are of a different ethnicity in their own toungue if they want this? Or should we force all to learn in english?

Bruce said...

I am of the opinion that 'tagging' jobs limits the field of applicants - although 'an advantange' I guess would be OK. You always want the best teacher.

As much as it would be great I can't see that it would be possible to train all teachers to speak 'te reo' and it be even harder to teach all ethic groups in their own tongue. The point I was making was that most children do reasonably well at primary school but it is after this that too many kids start to drop out - it is the structure of schools at this level which is the limiting factor. If teachers worked in teams, offering 'personalized learning', then it might be possible to for some of them to have the various language requirements along with a range of other diverse skills.

Anonymous said...

I have seen a secondary school establish a bilingual school within a school and this still teaches in the secondary area with the standard curicculum. Thus unit is expanding very sucessfully and is starting to gain support from Maori parents and students . The success this initiative is related more to students being sucessfull and working in their own language and cuture as well as having teachers who are bilingual and able to teach across the curicculum.The most important aspect is connection to the family/community rather then the structure of the school! PS Do you not acknowledge that Te Reo is an official language equal to English? Do you think English is more relevant than Te Reo?

Bruce said...

My thoughts are that bi-lingual units have had to be created in schools because 'normal' education is just not able to cater for some Maori students ( and others)

If schools, and I am thinking mainly about secondary schools where lots of students become 'dis-engaged', were to be transformed then the need for segregated units would not be needed? In the meantime it is a postive concept for the students themselves.

Such units do cater for the students within it but take pressure off the system to make real changes to face up to the endemic 'deficit theory' of many teachers.

A transfomed system could make use of many Maori/Polynesian concepts and, if combined with new ideas about how people learn, might make bi-lingual classes unnecessary?

I am thinking about such things as: creating schools as 'learning organistions' working closely with their communities; about schools developing democratic values based on respectful relationships; about power sharing and negotiating learning with students; about valuing the different cultures of all students; about learning based on real problem solving research rather than learning 'stuff';
about valuing the talents and creativity of all students; about personalisation rather than 'one size fits all' learning; about a diversely skilled group of teachers working with groups of students - and for many of these teachers to have te reo; about valuing the 'voices', stories, culture, and concerns of every student.

About totally 're-imagining' everything about education and in the process creating a truly 21stC learning environment.

And , no I don't think 'te reo' is more important (for me personally) than English but I agree that for some it is really important. And for me the more I know the better! We should be doing everything we can in schools to assist its 'acceptnce' by all.