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.


Anonymous said...

I think you are describing a truly creative personalized approach to learning? Great stuff but does anything like it actually exist in reality?

Bruce said...

I guess I am expressing my personal views of what should be seen but most of the things I mention are happening in the various schools I visit - just not all at one school.

The emphasis on talent development comes from my own background in the original advisory service which was staffed by those with a lifelong passion for their particular area - science, art, music or PE ( not like todays advisers who are employed to 'deliver' specific contracts).

As for the total classroom approach there are always classrooms that stand out through the quality of students work that is easily seen.When teachers take their students work to such a high level there is something special happening. It is to these teachers we should look to for inspiration. Such teachers have always believed in what is being called 'personalisation'.

The key to such rooms is a real obsession with introducing 'neat' studies and involving students in all aspects thus solving the problem of engagement.

I think the real barrier to developing such prgrammes has been the truly obsessive focus on literacy and numeracy and the associated assessment and recording that goes with them. This is the area where most schools develop their schoolwide 'targets' and, as well, some of the assessment proceses are just too time consuming leaving little appetite, or energy, for undertakibg more creative work. Teachers can only do so much in a day National testing would make this worse and narrow the curriculum even more.

The main concerns to 'target' would be are the students developing positive attitudes to learning; are they developing values of leadership, care and responsibility; and has the school 'evidence' of the talents and interests of each learner? Naturally basic numeracy and literacy ought to be able to be demonstrated.

Such rooms are based on the professional insight and judgement of teachers and developing this professionalism needs to be the task of principals and the wider system.