Sunday, August 12, 2007

The 'new' curriculum and where to from here?

By the end of the year schools will have the final copy of the New Zealand Curriculum. Most schools will be enthusiastic but it is definitely a 'game of two halves'; beware of the fine print - the second half contains a few concerns.

I attended the New Plymouth Principals Conference last week.It was a great chance to hear the state of the game about the 'new' New Zealand Curriculum from 'those who know'.

There was no doubt it was a highly successful conference in every respect and those who attended gained a good picture of what lies ahead -and it mostly looks good. Below are some of ideas I picked up.

Mary Chamberlain from the Ministry ( responsible for overseeing the redevelopment of the NZ Curriculum) opened the ' learning conversation'. For Mary it was a return to her 'turangawaewae'. Born under the mountain she completed much of her teaching in the province. Mary acknowledged the reputation that Taranaki schools have for quality teaching and learning - one that goes back to innovative work of creative teachers in the 70s and 80s. She continued to talk about what motivates a learner to 'engage' them and encouraged us to build on students 'feelings, interests, experiences and personal lives'.

Quality 'messages' ought to be a feature of schools from the moment they hit the school gate. For many teachers the focal point of the 'new' curriculum, the Key Competencies, are 'not new but more so'. Key competencies remain unchanged but all will requite a 'stretch' to enable all students to develop 'self regulating strategies'. As for assessment Mary gave good advice, saying that assessment should be embedded in in realistic learning contexts and that we should avoid the temptation to develop a checklist approaches.

We need to focus on the 'dreams and passions of our students to ensure they have a 'happy and fulfilled lives.' We need to capitalize on those 'teaching moments' and provide students with the competencies and strategies to do so. Quoting Terry Crooks, she said we , 'need to trigger kids personal desire to learn so as to carry them through disappointments on the way'.

Students need to be seen as 'co-creators' in their own learning and be involved through 'learning conversations'. Changes to the NZC strengthen an inquiry model and make more explicit the learning objectives requirements ( the 'second half'). More about this later!

The Minister of Education challenged all educationalists to 'step up' and take a lead in the educational debate. Too many principals, he said, have been 'gun shy' the past (and whose fault is this!) Teachers need to see themselves as 'authorities on learning', to work towards 'educating their communities', and to focus on creating the conditions to develop challenging learning opportunities for all students.

Responding to criticism about the NCEA being seen as 'dumbing down' the curriculum he made the point that all students are gifted and and the NCEA allows schools to develop innovative programmes to challenge all students. It is a shame he can't convince either the general public or most secondary schools! The 'shift', he emphasized, is for all students and demand a new style of pedagogy to 'engage' creative students who, he said, all too often leave without being catered for.

I believe, if we want relevant and engaging education for both the creative and those who are currently disengaged ( approximately 20%), then the problem ought to be placed firmly in the secondary school court. Schools who seem only too happy to remain locked in their 19thC thinking and structures! - as do their conservative parents. The 'gap' between progressive primary and reactionary secondary educational teaching styles, it seems, is never to be mentioned!

The new curriculum , the Minister said, signals the need for a 'seismic shift'. In some secondary schools it will akin to 'teaching the dinosaurs to dance'!

The NZ Curriculum, he believes, is a 'future orientated' curriculum for changing times. The curriculum is to be at the 'heart' and learning is not, as it has been the past decades, to be driven by assessment. We are shifting towards 'personalised learning' which will dramatically change the styles of teaching, assessment and curriculum 'design'. The Minister acknowledged, that for many NZ teachers, this is not new but doing it well it is vital if we want to develop 'innovative, creative, self starting students'.In answer to a question the phrase 'personalised learning' will not be seen in the new curriculum! This seems a poor decision.

The Minister left us with a challenge as well
. As educational leaders we are not just leading in our schools but we need to be seen as leading the debate in our communities. To 'talk up' the development of the 'lifelong learning competencies' and to see education as the key to the success of NZ if we are to become a 'future oriented, caring and creative country'

Realism was provided by sessions from John Faire and Janet Moyle from Mt Eden School Auckland. To give Janet and John ( that sounds familiar) full credit for their inspiring and practical sessions I need to dedicate a separate blog to their contributions.

I did like their vision for their students 'to be wide eyed and enthusiastic about learning'. Mt Eden has developed the Key Competences as 'touchstones' that underpin all their teaching. They have developed a statement from the competences that they want all their students to achieve by year 6. They see the key competencies as a 'constellation of disposition's' best seen as a 'net effect'.

John mentioned that he thought the NZ Curriculum was a bit 'back to the future' and that developments since the 90s had all but 'squashed the creativity out of too many teachers' but he also emphasised the NZC did not mean 'business as usual'. John liked the 'future focused first half but said that it was 'the same old same old' at the back! He hoped that the 'front does not get lost by the lists of learning objectives at the back'! You have been warned! More of this from Lester Flockton.

I liked the Mount Eden emphasis on in depth inquiry studies to develop real student understanding. I see to few such studies when I visit schools -all too often all I see is 'evidence' that teachers use endless 'higher order thinking' processes which seems to result in 'thin learning'.

With regard to assessing the key competencies we were warned not to 'atomize' and assess all the bits. They are to be seen as 'pervasive' and, John believes, they should be 'caught and not taught.' I liked his 'assess in situ' as teacher 'co-create' learning with their students. 'Inquiry ought to be a 'state of mind' and set in a 'rich community of inquiry' across the curriculum. The school however needs to be able to articulate how their teaching is making a difference but this ought not be endless checklists.

John reminded us, as had Mary, that there is no need to rush the NZC .We have time to accommodate all the ideas as we gain confidence. This was to be further emphasized by Lester Flockton.

Lester Flockton ( who had been involved in the development of the NZC revision to contribute, I would think, a challenging 'voice') added to the realism provided by Janet and John.

Teachers should lead the profession and that 'best evidence' can only tell you so much. Be 'informed' by it but not necessarily led'. Lester believes in the self manging school concept but that to work it needs strong leadership. Leadership that can balance the all the often conflicting demands asked of schools. This requires, of leaders, informed professional judgement.

He believes we need to 'temper our enthusiasm' and to be careful of imposed 'learning packages'. 'Ownership' will be vital to the success of the new curriculum. To do so leaders need to take an informed responsibility. And we need to be informed as much by the excesses of the past as the promise of the future. All students need to be literate, able to relate to others and able to solve problems. Seemed like a good summary of the new requirements.

Schools need, Lester said, to develop their own visions within the NZC and to 'localize their curriculum's' as 'Janet and John' had demonstrated to us. To do this they will have to think hard about what is learning? How do students learn? What is the role of the school in learning? Learners learn all their waking hours and, he reminded us, that schools cannot overcome 'deep deficits'. Quoting James Popham he said, some kids are just lucky in their gene pool, their environment, their parents etc. It is a case of 'nature via nurture'. All students need to be 'ready, willing and able' to learn. All students need 'time care and respect'.'All students have talents to develop'.

Lester said there little to worry about in the 'first half' of the NZC except to avoid becoming an 'assessment junkie' re the competencies. With regard to they Learning Objectives however- the 'second half' - Lester firmly reminded us they 'are not going away'. Some of them are still nonsense but it seems politicians, and those who believe learning must be defined, have had their say. Schools, however may 'choose' their own objectives. Lets hope, like any 'appendix', they will be removed - but of course they won't. We will just have to be creative!

In full flight Lester gave us all a inspirational 'lecture' what it is to be educated: the need to develop 'spirit' in all students; to develop in all learners a sense of the aesthetic, saying that he disliked seeing the arts relegated to the edge as they were fundamental to human expression contributing to the richness of the human soul.

The ultimate realization of life 'is to achieve happiness' and this , he said, was not to be confused with instant gratification. Happiness does not require material richness but the 'realisation of ones aspirations, dream and gifts'. It is a continual and critical search for truth requiring ethical toughness and courage in world it seems in moral collapse. Teachers will need: 'vitality, courage, sensitivity, intelligence; they must love their students above all ( focusing on the child not the system); have 'know how, good relationships, high expectations; an openness to experience and considerable wisdom'.

Wow! Worth the entry money.

All in all a great conference! Well done New Plymouth.


Anonymous said...

Thank you Bruce for sharing with us ideas that are most important. Sounds like a very worthwhile conference.

The 'second half' - the now more defined learning objectives - will hold some challenges for us. The advice about not 'atomizing' and asessing all the 'deconstructed bits' of the key competencies is good news.

There are already 'advisers' out there doing just this!

Bruce said...

I feel that common sense will prevail and that those advocating 'atomizing' the key competencies, in an attempt to assess them, will not win the day.

As for the 'second half' I have yet to see exactly what it is all about except that the learning objectives, if 'slimmed down', have not gone away and have been also 'hardened up'.

Whatever , key competencies need realistic contexts to be implemented. We need product via process, not just 'woolly ideas', if we want in depth understnding.

amber Lee said...

It is great to see the comments from Mary and the Minister recognising that the Curric needed a major refocus. The story of the Emperors New Clothes springs to mind Bruce and how it has taken a few commonsense people to stand up and say enough is enough. We all want a curric with real life application - the next challenge is to take on the propoganda coming out about the Numeracy Project and getting lots of real life context back into Maths.
I am still frustrated by the Key Competencies though - for something as essential and KEY as these, what are the MOE doing about unpacking them? We have spent time at our school looking at what Self Management looks like at different Year levels only for ERO to say "thats great but its not normed so what value is it?"
What wasted man hours, yet again, if we are left to try and reinvent the wheel individually.

Bruce said...

The Emperor has certainly changed his clothes but the learning objectives remain. Evidently , although reduced, they even more 'hardwired'!

'Rich topics' need to be applied to literacy and maths, as you say. And numeracy is overdone!'Learnacy' is what we should aim for!

Please don't start 'unpacking' the 'key competencies' - all the best advice is to see them 'infused' through all teaching; to be seen as what students might achieve when they leave your school/class. Good inquiry based teaching - using a co-consructive model, will achieve them by default. Self management applies to any age - you would just expect more of it with maturity.