Sunday, May 27, 2007

Assessing a 21stC learner

A comment to my previous blog asked me for ideas to solve the problem of the constraints of the current focus on narrow literacy and numeracy 'targets'; 'targets' that narrow the curriculum, distort the quality of teaching and diminish the creativity of students.

To me, it would seem important to negotiate with the Board of Trustees and the wider community, the qualities that will be required for students to thrive in the future as we move from an 'Industrial' to a 'Creative Era'.

The vision of the draft New Zealand Curriculum might be a good start. I like the phrase, on page 11, where it says all students need to become 'active users, seeker and creators' of their own knowledge; applying this would transform schools as we know them!

Successful future citizens will need to be 'driven' by their instinctive talents so valuing and uncovering possible life long interests ought to becomes a priority for schools.

Future orientated students need to be assessed for: their range of talents and how well they have realized them ( personal excellence and effort); their ability to self assess, self monitor, self- regulate themselves, and set their own learning goals; their ability to keep their own records of achievement; their initiative and creativity; their ability to ask good questions; their communication skills ( including use of modern media); and their ability to work constructively in a collaborative community.

Very little of the above is currently assessed through 'targeted' literacy and numeracy testing. Rather it is a good example of Stephen Jay Gould's book 'The Mis-measure of Man.' It is interesting to note that Martin Luther King scored well below average in verbal skills at school. Many other examples abound.

With the 'press' towards narrow literacy and numeracy targets, passed on by less than courageous principals, creative teachers have been forced to leave more innovative ways of teaching and in the process ignore the very important cognitive, problem solving, personal and creative skills that will be necessary for the students. We see such attributes in our 'new' draft as 'Key Competencies' so maybe the developments of new 'mindsets' will emerge?

To teach to the tests is good advice but only if they focus on the 21stC attributes as earlier outlined . This should be done in a way that it becomes integral to teaching not an unnecessary imposition. Ideally assessment activities should reinforced 'state of the art' teaching practice.

The most powerful assessment should focus on assessing 'whole' learning outcomes - performances of writing, oral presentations, researched findings, expressive art completed work, and so on.

Most of the assessment would be carried on during the process ( 'formative' assessment) by means of teacher conferences,learning conversations, or by what was once called 'kid watching', with teachers coming alongside the learner(s) to provide 'feedback' and 'feed forward' and, where necessary, to challenge the students to explore or express their ideas more deeply. Simple checklists or criteria could be negotiated to make the process simpler for both teacher and student self assessment. At the conclusion of any project a reflective , 'how well did we do and what did we learn for next time?' is vital. The classroom walls ought to reflect examples of past and present 'powerful' learning.

Naturally this needs to involve students self monitoring their own progress and taking greater sense of self responsibility for their own work.

By such a 'repertoire' of assessment procedures teachers would be able to develop a reasonable picture of each students' progress. Samples of work could be collected or students could keep their own portfolios of ideas and finished work and the completed work available would provide parents with powerful visual 'evidence'.

This multiple approach to assessment provides a better 'picture' of the 'whole' child and, if quality outcomes/products are part of the process ( as they ought to be), then the success, as mentioned will be seen by all.

This is as it is in the real world. Process and product are equally important and perhaps the best phrase, to bi-pass the 'either/or' debate is, 'product via process' or vice versa.

Successful people in the future will be recognised by what they can do - their last project will be the best 'evidence' of what it is they are possible of. And success will only be maintained if continual improvement and innovation is the name of the game.

Creativity, not mediocre conformity, will be the mark of 21stC learner.

Saturday, May 26, 2007

Natural born learners

I have over the past two weeks or so had the opportunity to visit over a hundred or so classrooms, even if briefly. And to be honest all one needs, if one know what they are looking for is able to be seen in a 'blink', according to Malcolm Gladwell ( author of the book Blink).

All I can say is that what I have seen leaves me feeling disappointed.

And for this I place no blame on the teachers themselves.I believe they have been manipulated by pressures from outside of the school to focus their teaching too narrowly on literacy and numeracy.

And what is more amazing is that no one seems to have noticed the distortion of what real learning should be about - students being helped to develop their own talents, 'meanings', and value judgements. And even more amazing some of the schools I visited had just been through the official Education Review Office review system with flying colours. Is it a case of the Emperor having no clothes?

It is as if the 'evil twins of literacy and numeracy had gobbled up the whole curriculum'. This of course has been escalated by principals doing their best to focus on literacy and numeracy 'targets' to show how 'on task' their schools are. The trouble is with 'targets' is not that you achieve them but what you miss by focusing to narrowly on them.

At one school I was shown the charter of a Victorian School ( the State as well as the style!) which, by means of a computer links, gives the school pages of 'data' on maths and reading success and indicates areas needed to improve ( or else!)

Are we going mad? Is this the last ditch attempts of a scientific age, premised on measuring, graphing and reporting only on what they can measure, and in the process neglecting more important aspects?

If this is so then it is a case of 'institutional intellectual violence' or faulty 'mindshaping'. Are we so busy 'mining' a couple of 'Victorian' areas of basic learning that might have been required for a past Industrial Age we can't see the 'shadow of the future? And, by doing this, are we ignoring vast areas of human creativity; very creativity that future learners ( and countries ) will need, in what some are calling, the 'Second Renascence'?

I may be being too harsh.I did see many examples of creative work but I did not see a real focus on a 'problem centred learning environment'; one based on exploring students real concerns or questions; nor did I see rooms where students ' voice' and ideas were the dominant feature;after all it is their learning.

It was as if a narrow focus on literacy and numeracy, plus a shallow approach to other learning area were enough.

I hear a of of talk about 'personalized learning', the need to develop the creative talents of all students, and students being, 'users, seekers and creators' of their own knowledge, but so far little action. Students have instinctive drives from birth to express themselves in their own idiosyncratic ways. Teachers need to tap into these instinctive drives, passions and latent interests if they are to recognise students as 'natural born learners'.

What we need is for teachers, principals and the Ministry to recognize that developing the far harder areas to measure like talent development, deeper thinking, creativity and love of learning are the real challenges that lies ahead.

The 'evil twins', and their narrow measurement allies, might need to be somewhat controlled to allow space for such innovative creative thinking?

Afer all we are in the 21stC - or hasn't anyone noticed?

Sunday, May 20, 2007

What's your message?

This was a question recently asked of me - and I have been thinking about what I should've said. The simplest answer to , 'What's your message', would've been to say to do fewer things well - we try to do too much in our classrooms and it shows.

This would've been a good start but needs some clarification.

The whole point of education for a world so different from our past is to recognise the talents and gifts of all our students and then to do our best to extend and amplify them. And as well we need to develop in all students a sense of personal values to enable them make appropriate choices in their lives and with respect for the common good.

The total classroom environment, or climate, is itself the most powerful means of 'educating' students
. What the classroom stands for should be felt, caught and expressed by all. An ideal classroom values and celebrates the lives and concerns of every student above all else. We seem to have made teaching too difficult. As one wise old principal once told me,'Teaching is not that complicated, it is about 30 kids, a good relationship, and doing neat things'. Do neat things and value relationships - good advice.

I think we fail to develop 'engaged learners', and particularly to valuing the creativity and talents of our students because we are too concerned about ensuring our students achieve what we ( or others) think is best for them.

Perhaps the move towards 'personalised learning' will provide teachers with motivation to develop curriculums to fit the student rather than vice versa.

The 'one size fits all' standardized curriculum, it seems, fits no one! Personalized learning to me would mean developing an 'emergent' curriculum from the questions and concerns of the students themselves but this would not preclude teachers introducing them to areas of learning they might not think about. As Jerome Bruner once said, 'Teaching is the canny art of intellectual temptation'. Students are essentially curious and this curiosity is there to be tapped by rich, real and relevant studies.

When we place rich learning contexts at the centre of our classrooms such studies provide the 'energy', or 'driving force', for all that goes on in the classroom.
Such problem centred classroom will naturally integrate focused ICT ,information research, literacy skills,and expressive media and ought to involve, as appropriate, numeracy skills to interpret what is being studied.

Such integrated programmes or thematic studies are nothing new but all too often they have played second fiddle to literacy and numeracy - the so called important things!

Literacy and numeracy have been over-emphasized. As one English critic said , 'The evil twins of literacy and numeracy have gobbled up the rest of the curriculum.' Literacy is obviously important but as far as numeracy goes students need competence in basic computation, develop a positive attitude, and an understanding that 'real' maths happens in realistic contexts.

All the effort spent on assessing reading and maths reducing in the process success to such a narrow 'Victorian' conception of learning. What about creativity ? Teachers have only so much time and energy and it is a shame to waste it on time consuming testing no matter how well researched it is.

As for literacy I believe it should arise out of students thoughts and experiences first via oral expression and then personal writing ( at first scribed) and writing arising out of the students' current questions and studies. Students need to see themselves as authors to really appreciate reading. Their writing ought to reflect their 'identity' and 'voice' - these are the qualities that so called 'disengaged' students have lost.

A number of other things are obviously important but need to fit naturally into a classroom dedicated to students making their own meanings.

Information technology is all too often 'oversold but under-used' but when integrated into helping students seek for, use, and create new knowledge it most powerful.

Thinking skills likewise. All too often a range of 'higher order thinking skills' are introduced ( and displayed over classroom walls) but there is, all too often, little to see what the use of these skills have created. All too often higher order thinking results in 'thin learning! Their use ought to be about creating quality 'products' via quality 'processes' - not one or the other.

What is important is that all students have the confidence to tackle any new learning experience
; to undertake an inquiry approach when they came across something they want to explore - and to appreciate that this process is full of confusion, dead ends, false trails and risk taking. What is required is that students develop the resilience and perseverance to stay on task.

So it gets back to doing fewer things well. It is obviously not as simple as it sounds and requires of teachers that they are able to articulate what they believe about teaching and learning and are prepared to become learners themselves

This is course is far easier if there is a school wide agreement about the kind of learning that they all want to put into practice - a shared vision. If this is done then the school becomes a true learning organisation.

If you were to visit such a school ( or a classroom)what the school stands for would be obvious.

You would see students involved in range of tasks. If asked they would know why, how and what they need to do - and how they know when they have achieved their goals. The classroom walls would be covered with students quality work. There would be focused displays from across the curriculum. Such work on display would indicate that students have been 'taught' appropriate aesthetic design skills. There would be displays of quality art work- no piece the same. A close look at any research work would illustrate students' questions, their prior ideas and their 'new' understandings.

And as much as the rooms would celebrate students creativity they would also reflect a powerful learning 'mentor' role of the teachers who will have worked along side the learners, providing guidance ( 'co-constructing' learning), formative feedback and, most of all, making certain that whatever help is given protects the individuals creativity and individuality.

It all gets back to helping students achieve quality work and thinking by doing fewer things well.

Friday, May 18, 2007

First impressions and 'thin slicing'!

The concept of 'thin slicing' comes from Malcolm Gladwell's book 'Blink'. Those with expertise in any field, he writes, can gather a lot of accurate information in a 'blink'. Without expertise 'thin slicing' can also get you into trouble by letting you jump to wrong conclusions.

I visited a school recently where the principal asked his senior team to imagine they were visiting their school for the first time, or to look through the eyes of a prospective parent, or new teacher, or as a parent themselves looking for a school for their own children.

All too often we take our own school for granted and we need to take a fresh look at it every now and then. As it is said, 'fish are the last to discover water'.

What would be their impressions?

They were to start at the front gate and tour all classrooms starting with the office area.

They were asked to quickly record their impressions, good, bad, anything, and any suggestions for improvement, and be prepared to share, in confidence, with the others in the team.

What does the outside reflect? How does it relate to learning? How 'student friendly' is the school environment?

The school foyer. Is it welcoming? How does it celebrate student learning or what the school values?

The classrooms ( teachers were told there would be quick visits to their rooms). What is the overall tone/relationships/behaviour of the room? What did the wall displays feature? Did the room reflect the school vision? Was there evidence of the personal lives of the students as seen by personal language, student questions, their research, or their particular talents?

Was there evidence of an interactive inquiry approach, or evidence of integrated learning themes? Is the current study obvious with clear headings and key questions? How well is ICT being integrated into learning pr grammes?

What evidence of thinking skills, or multiple intelligences, could be seen in the room - and could you see evidence of them being used?

What evidence of quality work is to be seen -beyond what would be normally expected for the level? Did any bookwork show qualitative improvement since the beginning of the year? What was the quality of chart work on display - did it reflect student thinking?

Is there evidence of the teachers skill in modelling a strong scaffolding role as seen by students, self correcting and doing less better.

Is there evidence of predictable class management structures to allow students to work independently? Do students seem to know what they are supposed to be doing - and why?

This was probably too much to ask teachers to attend too but the discussion that followed indicated that in their brief visits their 'slin slicing' came up with a lot of positive things noted and ideas to improve what was seen.

Before a similar staff 'walk and talk ' visit with the whole staff after school it was agreed that a simple criteria needs to be drawn up and agreed to to help teachers focus their thinking and to self assess their own rooms.

It needs to be made clear that what is wanted is not clone like consistency but enough consistency to show that there was a pattern to be seen in every room.As well each room ought to reflect the creativity of the individual teacher and the students in his, or her, care.

A few digital photos of each room taken before the push for improvement and after would indicate the qualitative growth of each teacher and the whole school.

Diversity within consistency is the theme

The above is a simple process but one that will make a powerful difference to any school and in turn will create a climate of sharing of good ideas and recognition of teachers talents.

As teachers get at more expert they will become better 'slin slicers'.

For ideas to develop a criteria for your rooms see article on our site

Visions, Missions, Values and Teaching Beliefs

What a great graphic vision from Microsoft.

I am a school junkie.

When I visit a school I am always keen to find out what it is that is felt important by all involved - the teachers, the parents and most of all the students. I want to know what are the 'messges' all they share about the school - and mostly if they all share similar versions of the same story.

I guess I want to know if the school has vision that underpins all they do and not just fine words in glossy brochure or website. Mostly I want to find out if all feel 'ownership' of the vision as something really worh pursuing; does it really make a difference in the teaching and learning.

School ought to driven by the vision not by the book.

To be powerful the vision must reside in the heads of all involved. And if anything is to be assessed then it ought to be the vision - is it making a diference, and how can you demonstrate it is? There must be an advantage in having a vision or why bother.

It might be time for schools to assess their visions?

Visions are about direction. As Chekhov wrote,'If you cry "forward" you must without fail make plans in what direction to go.'Every school should have a shared conception of of what the schools wants to become.

A compelling vision, if attractive enough, can 'pull' individuals or organisations into their desired futures.

A Vision is an image of a desired future; it gives shape and direction to the school. It is best summed up in a memorable phrase ( in many respects this acts like a 'motto'). The word vision comes from the Latin 'to see'. Obviously a simple phrase is not enough and a short paragraph may be needed to flesh out what it means in a little more detail.

The Values.The word value comes from the French word valoir, meaning 'to be worth'. Values indicate the way we operate , the behaviours we value in achieving our vision. They draw up lines we will not cross as we interact with each other, our students and our parents. The values act as a moral compass to self reference all our actions against; it is easier to speak honestly when we all have agreed-upon values.

Often schools have a long list of values but it is a good idea to select a key phrase that all can remember easily that sums up the values. 'Learning to make the right choices', or 'Caring Sharing and Daring', are examples.

Missions seem to get confused with Visions in many cases. Mission is another word for purpose and it represents to the staff what they are going to do to realize the Vision.

The Vision,Values and Mission are best realized through a set of Teaching Beliefs which define for teachers what is expected of them. It is good idea not to have too many so they can be also be easily remembered and five or six are usually enough.

The ones many schools I have worked with are:

1 Foundation skills to be in place.
2 Students to be powerful learners.
3 Teachers as learning coaches
4 Challenging learning experiences'
5 Safe celebratory and informative room environments.

Under each of the above ( or whatever 'key beliefs' are chosen) teachers need to list the actions they will take to ensure the belief is realized.

If the Vision, Values, and Teaching Beliefs can be developed around a metaphor or a simple narrative they will be more easily remembered.

When completed ( although the belief sub-points will need to be reviewed each year) the school will have 'vision community' sharing a common language that makes it clear to all what the school stands for, the values it holds to be important, and the beliefs that will ensure the teaching team implement it.

In many school the 'fuzzy' art of visioning is badly in need of clarification.

There are examples of visions and ideas to create them on our website: leading-learning for the 21stC

Thursday, May 17, 2007

Developing everyones' talents - the key to the future success of any country.

The future of any country will depend in the talent it can tap in all it's students.

A discussion paper (2001) to the government, I happen to read, believes that talent development is the fundamental platform for creating future wealth. Talented people, it says, plays a critical role in New Zealands economic transformation as, when it it is combined with capital, it drives innovation and technical change.

The report goes on about the need to keep talented people in the country and to attract talented people from elsewhere to come and live in New Zealand.

I like the idea of talent development, particularly 'growing' our own but the report is a bit light on education's role in the process.I would have thought it would have been tne most important issue. Listed last amongst its strategies to develop talent the report says that the education system needs to 'grow' students talents , 'by ensuring that young New Zealnders are equipped with world wide competitive skills'. It goes on to say New Zealand must, 'benchmark educational attainment with appropriate international standards'.

What does this mean? Isn't it just a bit vague?

To my knowledge there is no country that has yet developed a 21st Century education system able to equip students for what will be an exciting and challenging future. Most school systems are still struggling to break free from the shackles of their 'Industrial Aged' heritage, and have a long way to go ensure their students are equipped for the Information Age.

Shouldn't they've indicated how schools need to change to enable all students' talents to be encouraged?

Do they think our schools are already hothouses, focused on developing every ones talents already? What about the 20% that fail totally? And does so called school sucess relate to talent development?

The report suggests a number of societal transformational changes to create a wider environment that makes success possible. It is rightly critical of past economic reforms to develop an 'efficient' economy and state that this has not necessarily led to developing talent. What is needed, it says, is to develop New Zealand as a nation that takes pride in its talented people - country where mature talent is honoured.

All very well but if we are to develop New Zealand as a talented nation we need to start to engage the hearts and minds of its very youngest members.

Currently our schools only encourage the diverse talents of all its students as if by accident. Imagine if the focus of all education, from the earliest age, was to recognise and amplify the particular mix of talents all students have. Talent is seen, in the report, as 'superior performance in some area of human endeavour', and that, 'creative peope demonstrate some combination of leadership, creativity, problem solving and initiative. Talented people build knowledge capital through innovation.Talented people have the enterprise to bring ideas to life.

Imagine if schools were given the challenge to bring the talents of every student 'to life'.

Currently far too many talented students leave schooling with little to show for their time. All too often creative people are punished by our 'one size fits all' standardized current system.

The best strategy to develop New Zealand as a creative nation would be to develop a creative education system.

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

More 'Magic' of Teaching

Mid Canterbury Principals Association holds their second highly successful 'Magic of Teaching' Conference.

It was great to be asked to return to Ashburton to give a keynote and a couple of workshops at the Mid Canterbury Principals 2007 Conference.

Not only was it an opportunity to listen to the other guest keynote speakers but equally importantly an opportunity to listen to the expertise shared by local teachers.

It would seem to me that if we want to develop a creative education system, able to develop the talents of all students, then we need to listen more to those teachers who have gifts they could share with others. All too often 'we' think that all good ideas come from 'on high' but hopefully this myth is losing its power as current curriculums are being found wanting - ironically by the very people who introduced them.

The key statement in the new draft curriculum is the need for students to be users, seekers and creators of their own knowledge. The key competencies, important as they are, ought not get in the way of ensuring all students develop their own set of expanding talents.

The highlight of the conference, for me, was being able to listen to Mike Anderson, the principal of North Loburn School, talking about 'Kid Based Learning.' Mike made the point that it is the 9 to 3 interaction of students with a living teacher that makes the real difference. Teachers, he said, have to care about their students and involve them in authentic projects.

Mike outlined the development of his own thinking - a reminder to all that everyone that our beliefs are continually evolving -or ought to be.

Mike based most of his presentation around his use of information technology, making the point that if not used appropriately its misuse can restrict students learning. All too often, he said, teachers are overly impressed by the promises of technology 'snake oil salesmen'.

Mike's educational journey with computers and information processing evolved through several stages.

The first phase was one of using them for skill acquisition, which he said, had 'more than a whiff of Victorian three Rs teaching'.

The second phase led to using computers to make such things as PowerPoint's which, all too often, resulted in lots of flying captions and whizzy noises, finishing with students saying, 'thank you for watching my PowerPoint'. Little real thinking was involved as impressive as they may have looked.

Phase three was 'rubric ism'. For a while Mike was became 'rubric crazy' but all too often they ended up as 'horizontal checklists' and, as well, the emphasis was more on the final product than the thinking processes involved.

Rubrics evolved into negotiated assessment criteria for ideas about how the students can do things well. An improvement, but not one that Mike felt valued creativity or imagination. And, once again, swinging back to a focus on product.

Phase four was 'modernisation'.This involved the belief that adapting a model seen in another school would save the day. Once again, Mike felt, that this conflicts with students' individual ways of working and their creativity.

Inquiry models can never be as neat as diagrams suggest. Creative learning is often 'chaotic and messy' and it is wrong to suggest otherwise. Higher order thinking is brilliant but can never be used as a recipe. Learning is not a linear process and is more an organic thing.

Real learning involves messy challenges that involve a range of human responses including, conflict, frustration, resilience and perseverance. What is chosen to study must be seen as authentic. With reference to computers Mike quoted Seymour Papert, 'By turning computers into information and presentation machines we have destroyed 90% of there value in education.' Learning requires 'mingrinding' and intellectual grunt', Mike stated, to develop learners 'neurological pattern development'.

As for assessment ( Mike had mentioned earlier that obsess and assess seemed to be synonymous) his approach had equally evolved. Mike asks his students to mindmap what they has learnt and then to refine this to five or so most important aspects. Students need to be able show 'evidence' of their improvement in learning and thinking and if working in co-operative ventures need to explain what they have contributed as well as the other team members.

Future students will be able to assess themselves against the new 'key competencies'.

Mike was at pains to value the creative process as against the product.

For me, the distinction is never 'either or' but product developed 'via' process or vice versa. Students' need to feel pleased with both the process they have acquired that they can further apply in the future but I bet they are equally really proud of the product they have created.

The workshop was a great example of 'teacher magic'!

Saturday, May 05, 2007

Straightjackets for creative teachers.

A picture says more than a 1000 words!

A creative teacher.

It is no fun being a creative teacher in what is essentially a conformist education system - the more so as you move up the levels of schooling. It is to creative teachers however we need to look to if we are ever to change the current focus from achievement to realizing the diverse talents of all students.

Creative teachers focus on developing whatever talents their students have, where possible, through collaborative integrated programmes. This however is in conflict with the, so called, current 'best practice' 'scripted strategies' that focus on literacy and numeracy - imposed to solve the poor 'achievement tail'.

Teachers have always had two important qualities they need to preserve - their time and their energy and, all too often, both are wasted on endless assessment and recording requirements focussing on narrow literacy and numeracy 'targets'. Even if they achieve their 'targets' it is the more creative self discovery learning teachers miss. It is this narrow focus that worries creative teachers.

This reductionist, fragmented, measurement, audit culture' approach is destructive to teacher creativity which relies on professional judgement in an atmosphere of trust and support. And the mantra of 'evidence based teaching' is equally not conducive to imaginative expression or any creative endeavour where what eventuates is a process of intellectual evolution. Not everything can be 'evidenced' or measured - even if teachers had the time! This is not to say that creative teachers do not assist their students , far from it, they are continually interacting to challenge and assist but at heart they want all their students to express their own individuality. This is formative assessment at its best and the results of such creative teaching are best assessed by what their students can perform , exhibit , or demonstrate.

Creative teachers, like their students are active meaning makers and creators who have the confidence to have faith in their own choices - and always willing to do it better 'next time'. They believe, like good scientists or artists, in 'enlightened trial and error'.

A quick look at many classrooms with show, that even in the field of art, due to an obsession with pre-planed learning intentions, criteria and exemplars all the art work seems, while technically efficient, mediocre and and cloned.

Too many current imposed initiatives , while introduced in good faith , and often with good results ( until they wear off), inadvertently de-professionalize teaching. If national standardized testing were to be imposed then this would further de-professionalize teachers and lead to an even greater narrowing of the curriculum and, in particular, creativity.

At a time when politicians are realizing it is the quality of the individual teacher that makes the biggest difference any de-professionalizing would be a shame - that is unless they want teachers to conform to, so called, imposed 'best practices'.

This standardizing of teaching comes just as the demeaning 'one size fits all' effects of traditional education are beginning to be comprehended by those in the Ministry and, as well such formulaic teaching is in conflict with the current 'buzzwords' of the need to 'personalizing' learning.

Providing personalised learning will require creative talented teachers who can tailor learning to their individual student needs. Everything should be done to create the conditions for their expertise to be recognised and shared within and between schools.

The development of a creative teaching profession , able to tap into an amplify the talents of all students, will be vital if New Zealand is ever to develop into a creative and prosperous country. Students relate well to teachers who trust and value them - and the same applies to teachers.

We still have chance in New Zealand to transform our education system into a truly creative 21st century one. It seems teachers are not so lucky in the USA where a recent report indicated that the obsessive emphasis on literacy and numeracy, to solve poor achievement, had resulted in students missing out on problem solving, reasoning, relevant content and the creative arts.

Recently , after being awarded 'Teacher of the Year' by President Bush, a recipient said afterwards that they didn't want a nation of narrow test takers but a 'nation of thinkers'. It is possible, she continued, to keep the 'magic of teaching' alive but, to do so, things would have to change.

We have a better chance in New Zealand, I would think!

But only if we re-imagine our schools, throw of the 'straight jackets' and get serious about creativity.

Friday, May 04, 2007

Project based learning - with meaning.

A study of olden days - A junior study.

I guess my background colours what I like to see when I visit classrooms. Having spent most of my time as a science and art adviser I am am a strong believer in the importance of developing students' interests and talents - and even believe that programmes that feature such things contribute to realistic literacy and numeracy.

But when I visit most classrooms it is hard to see what is the driving interest of the class - mostly I see literacy and numeracy and some art work of doubtful creativity. It is almost as one UK commentator said, 'The evil twins of literacy and numeracy has gobbled up the entire curriculum'. And, to make things worse, all too often the literacy and numeracy teaching I observe is heavily 'scripted' teachers following 'approved' approaches at the expense of teacher professionalism and judgement.

All this has resulted in too much time on, so called, basic skills and not enough on problem solving, reasoning, and exposure to a range of studies that open students eyes to untold possibilities.

Real life problem, or project based, learning presents rich, real and relevant topics for the students to discover, explore and 'construct' their own meanings. Such an holistic, or integrated, approach helps students see connections and relationships between various learning areas - vital future attributes.

To be worthwhile students need to study topics in depth. It is important to 'do fewer things well' if quality thinking is to be achieved. All to often , when I do see such projects displayed around the room, the 'research' is at best superficial. A quick read of a few student charts quickly indicates if what is written on them relates to student focused questions or reflects their own 'voice' or concerns.

A thoughtful curriculum based on realistic projects, many hopefully emerging' out of the students own concerns, is a superior way to learn even if it is difficult to plan for. Too many teachers today seem to believe that they must know the 'outcomes' of any learning before the investigations even starts! At best the teacher can have 'intentions' and ensure the 'big idea' behind any study are covered but true learning often 'unfolds' in unpredictable ways.

If the students are to complete quality research and are able present their work to others in various formats and media they will need to be taught a range information gathering and design skills preferably in context- an important aspect of any modern literacy programme. 'Higher order thinking process skills currently seem to be a feature of many rooms but, without in depth thinking and research to see, they can result in 'thin learning'. Learning without real content is learning at risk.

When done well such learning for students can be 'mind changing' experience - surely this is at the heart of all learning. When students have the skills to call on and the confidence to take learning risks they have the 'power' to turn, through their own actions, their interests into real knowledge. Knowledge in such situations could be seen as a 'verb' - something a person performs, to be seen in action, not to be stored.

Possibly the best programmes 'emerge' out of students personal felt concerns,and community or environmental issues but most students relish digging deeply into studies of other cultures past and present. Creative teachers, in the words of Jerome Bruner, need to be 'expert at the canny art of intellectual temptation'. The best studies begin with key, 'fertile', 'hook' or 'driving' questions, to focus thinking and, if the teachers is wise, he or she, will tap into whatever talents and interests class members have to explore and express issues that they feel important.

Such teachers only need 'official' curriculum to refer to as as a broad guideline.

I have been lucky enough to visit such classrooms over the years but it seems more difficult to achieve such an approach these days with the press of an 'audit culture' hanging over teachers' heads.

In such classrooms the current study is obvious - a provocative heading gains a visitors attention and questions and tasks are on display, along with the researched findings of the students . As well a range of expressive activities, that have been seen as appropriate, catch the eye. And, if doing fewer things well has been taken seriously, then all the work on display, or in progress, is of the highest quality.

What you can't see, but even more important, are the habits of inquiry and the confidence to tackle challenging questions that the students have acquired in the process, and the talents and interests that have been 'uncovered' ; both will ensure students will continue as motivated life long learners.

Take a look around your room, or the next room you visit. Whose ideas and concerns does it express and are you impressed with the quality of all you see?

For ideas to interpret rooms visit our site.

Why do all the leaves change colour?

Junior class - Rotorua.
An Autumn Study is a popular study in many classrooms and while walking around the neighbourhood this time of year I can see why.
All too often the results seen in many classes ( usually Junior rooms) are superficial, to say the least, but this need not be the case.
If there are deciduous trees in, or near, the school grounds what a brilliant opportunity to develop a small integrated study.
The study could be prefaced with the provocation, 'Why do some trees lose their leaves?' A good idea is to listen to the students' answers to the question and for these to be recorded and displayed as, 'Our prior, or first, ideas'.
The teacher could start the thinking process off by bringing along a few leaves to show to the class followed by a walk to visit trees in the school ground or nearby park. This is a chance to get the students to develop skills of sensory awareness - skills all too often lost in today's busy world.
Get the students to throw leaves around, to kick them with their feet, to select a range of leaves, or to collect leaves in different stages of colouring. Children could be asked to write a few thoughts about what they can see, hear and what they are wondering about - these thoughts can be tidied up back in class and new questions to research added to the display. On idea is to do a three line poem: one thought about leaves on the tree; one thought about a leaf falling; and one thought about the leaves on the ground. After refining these thoughts make up a simple haiku.
Back in class students could do detailed observational drawings -this will be more impressive if students are instructed to look carefully for patterns and to draw what they see with care - continually looking back to the leaf they are drawing to collect accurate visual data. If drawn in black ink they can be coloured in and added to the wall display.
At this stage students could head to reference books or to the computer to research what it is that makes some trees lose their leaves and why. Their answers could be added to the display. Innovative teachers could get their students to digitally record the stages of leaf colouration. Another idea is to count the number of leaves in a defined strip from the base of the trunk to several metres away from the tree and graph the results. Students could also choose a particular tree to study - perhaps one in their own garden or street. Interesting vocabulary could be added to the display.
Teachers usually have range of creative ideas to call upon but one idea is for students to draw /paint/crayon 'magic' Autumn leaves to make a composite Autumn tree for the class wall.
If teachers were to really study Autumn leaves with such an intensity then the results would be anything but superficial.
We all love seeing the colour of Autumn - it is a sign of the end of Summer and the beginning of Winter.