Monday, November 26, 2007

Last term of the year - a celebration of creativity!

A display based on bicycle science and maths.

The last weeks of the school year is a great opportunity to walk around all rooms to admire the research skills and creativity of the students at your school.

During the year , if developing students as life long learners has been the emphasis at your school, then by now all the skills ( or 'key competencies') involved ought to be in place.

Students by now ought to be able to devise, research and present work with minimum assistance and the room should be full of what they can do with minimum help. At the very least the room should celebrate the current class topic.

Study topics, in my mind, ought to provide the intellectual energy to inspire all students to engage in worthwhile learning.

Such topics naturally provide the context to develop, over the previous term (and in previous years), all the various skills needed to work independently - including relevant literacy and numeracy skills such as research writing and use of graphs and visual mathematical data. As well all the various information media and visual design skills will have been integrated during previous terms and available for students to select from. A whole range of skills from observation to imaginative expression will also be in place to be called on as required.

So take a close look at your rooms. Take out of your minds work students have done to satisfy teacher demands and any shallow work with no intellectual substance.

Look only for evidence of students' points of view, for their questions, their 'prior ideas' and material that illustrates their research. For the latter look to see if what is presented is in their own words and reflects their own ideas and not just 'cut and pasted' from other sources!

Look for provocative headings to focus current or past studies. Look for 'key questions' and negotiated tasks. Look for criteria developed with the students to allow them to self assess their own work. Look for student evaluations of their research which indicates what they have learnt and look for question that they have yet to find satisfactory answers.

Our new curriculum asks schools to develop 'creative connected and actively involved students' equipped with what are called 'future competencies'. The curriculum talks about students being 'active seekers, users, and creators' of their own knowledge, who 'can set and manage their own goals', and who can 'reflect on their own learning'.

My bet is, that if you visit all the rooms, you won't see much of what I have described above!

I would love to be proved wrong.

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Basic learning habits

Young children do ask questions but all too often they lose this vital habit.

It does worry me that teachers of young children are obsessed with ensuring their students learn to read and do maths. Nothing wrong with literacy and numeracy but gaining these valuable skills ought not be at the expense of 'learnacy' or resilience - the desire to learn and to bounce back when things go wrong.

Evidence of intelligent habits can be observed whenever a learner is faced with a situation or challenge that, at first, they do not know what to do. It is the acquisition of positive learning dispositions that enable students to cope with such ambiguous situations that are the basis of 'learnacy'.

The trouble is that teachers work in an environment which has a 'press' towards conservatism and all too often school 'targets' are biased towards the acquisition of basic literacy and numeracy skills which reinforces this conservatism.

Teachers, to develop, 'learnacy', need to encourage their students to be open minded, not to worry if at first the answer is not obvious, and to persevere in the face of ambiguity and complexity. Research shows that when students are given a maths or science problem , if they can't get the answer in 10 seconds, they simply give up; as a result they become, 'I can't do it kids'. When this attitude becomes fixed it is hard to change.

Teachers need to teach students, 'what to do when they don't know what to do! Students need to be encouraged to wait a minute and not to jump to premature conclusions. They need to be encouraged to try our possible strategies without fear of being right or wrong. This creative attitude needs to be encouraged by teachers. This is the essence of the inquiry approach and it needs to become second nature to students. To achieve basic habit this requires encouragement , reinforcement and practice.

Unfortunately both teachers and parents all too often do not value this habit. Often teachers have a one 'right way' in their minds and expect their students to replicate their approach. Naturally most students will learn what is expected of them but, for creative students, failure is all too often the result. Preset rubrics and criteria might result in 'quality' results but, all too often, may equally inhibit creativity. A look a students research charts, or art work, will often illustrate this conformity.

Students need to be valued for saying, 'I don't understand', and for asking questions. These need to be recognised as intelligent responses. In fact a creative classroom can be recognised by the number of questions students ask and for the diversity of ideas they exhibit in whatever they are studying.

On writer on the subject suggests that the stance of a sports coach is a good example. When a good move doesn't work out the coach calls out, 'unlucky'. This response underscores the need to the player that you have to keep taking chances so as to develop both confidence and skill. A player might have to try the move several times until it works out. The coach need to keep the players confidence up until practice makes perfect.

In the classroom students need to be given encouragement for trying out new ideas and to learn from them, even if it doesn't work out. Such encouragement underscores the intelligent habit of 'having a go' and then looking for evidence that things are working out.

If students are afraid of making mistakes, or are too concerned with approved answers, or are simply afraid to 'give it a go', than no matter how well they may read or do maths, they will not succeed in the future.

Developing creative and critical thinking in students is the basis of 'learnacy' and are the real 'basics' of learning.

Creative teachers need to create the conditions that require such intelligent habits.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Back to the real basics - Creativity

Tony Buzan - expert on creativity.

I was sent a link to listen to a presentation Tony Buzan gave to some United Kingdom teachers and thought it worth sharing his message.

Buzan believes passionately that schools are about developing the creative potential of all students. He believes that, with what we now know about the brain, this is entirely possible. So much for our acceptance of our current appalling 20% failure rate!

Buzan, quoting research on creativity, states that95% of pre-schoolers are creative, 75% of primary students, 40/50% of secondary students, 20/25% of university and college students and for adults only 10%.

This loss of creativity Buzan believes is global crisis.

Our students as they 'progress' through school become less creative. And that this is seen as normal! We are teaching, he says, 'un creativity'. This decline is a result of the teaching students receive and this teaching is contributing to a decline of natural genius in our students.

The good news is, he says, is that normal is not natural.

The current emphasis is on learning - not learning how to learn. We have an important choice, Buzan believes,teach students what to learn or how to learn. No choice according to Buzan - teach students how to learn. Value your students creativity and develop their cognitive skills and do this in realistic contexts.

What we have been doing for 150 years, says Buzan,is placing the focus on learning content. The imposition of curricula has resulted in decline in global creativity.

Buzan believes there is brilliance in every one of us. Achieving is increasingly possible as we now have brain research to help us unleash this brilliance. The teachers role is to 'provide the soil to nurture the brilliance of the creative process'.

Creative intelligence is now the worlds greatest asset - future developments will be 'fueled by creativity'. Sixty percent of future jobs will be in the creative sphere.

Buzan believes young people 'grow their brains' through exposure to stimulating experiences. At birth they are all potential to be realized. Brains to grow need nurturing in creative environment so as to allow their braincells to make connections - to develop what Buzan call their 'internal architecture'.

Unfortunately at school teaching is all too often too linear, predetermined and compartmentalized discouraging such important integrated brain connections.

The teachers role is to 'engage' the the brain and to encourage it to create it's own meanings. This engagement is essential.

This is not about curriculum versus creativity. Creativity, Buzan states, is the 'fuel of all curriculums'. Learning ought not to be seen as hard as it is natural, spontaneous, generative and creative.

Creativity is not 'airy or fairy'. Creative people are disciplined, the are focused and they have the ability to see differences making use of multiple perspectives. Genius arises from rich internal worlds.

Creative teachers make use of all the curriculum's. They need to teach children how to learn and for then to understand the process of cognition. What teachers need are creative curriculum's.

Buzan sums up his presentation by saying it is about 'the need to nurture nature'.

That there are no limits and that all students can be creative given the right environment. The 'teacher gives the light and loam' to develop such creativity.

The real 'back to basics' is to 'give teaching back to the students and the teachers to give learning back to the students'.

IT all make sense to me!

We need a creative school movement!

Friday, November 16, 2007

Five Minds for the Future

Howard Gardner, renowned worldwide for for his theory of multiple intelligences, shares his latest ideas in his new new book 'Five Minds for the Future'.

Based on the premise that students are entering an accelerating world of change in every area of life Gardner believes that such changes call for new ways of learning and thinking in schools if students are to thrive in the world during the eras to come. The directions our society is taking and the future of our planet demands such 'new minds' able to explore creative alternatives for problems that cannot be anticipated.

Gardner's 'five minds' have much in common with the 'key competencies' that underpin the recently published 'new' New Zealand Curriculum.

1 The first of Gardner's 'five' is acquiring a disciplined mind. This involves the mastery of at least one way of thinking and the utilisation of a scientific inquiry approach to solving problems in any area. All disciplines (Learning Areas) have their own ways of investigating ideas. Gardner says it takes many year to achieve a disciplined mind in any area. Discipline also means the need to practice to improve performance.

2 The second is the synthesising mind, a mind able to gather information from disparate sources and put ideas together in ways that makes sense to the learner. This mind is crucial as information continues to mount at dizzying rates. The ability to synthesize ideas is a vital future skill - a skill basic to innovative leadership. Such a mind requires interdisciplinary understanding beyond individual disciplines. A synthesizing mind, one that searches for connections, is required to take advantage of teams made up of different specialists.

3 The third is the creative mind
, a mind capable of breaking new ground, developing new ideas and asking new questions. Innovative individuals have not always been treated well in the history of humankind and, even today, are often seen as a mixed blessing. As such creative individuals are seen as very different from disciplined experts. Not for nothing do many creative students find schooling problematic! Encouraging a creative bent of mind is a most important future trait of teachers. It is a sad comment that student creativity lapses as they progress through current schooling. Recognising, nurturing and amplifying students diverse talents will underpin successful future schools

4 The Fourth is the respectful mind, a mind that recognizes differences between individuals, groups and cultures; one that learns to appreciate a sense of 'others'. This mind requires an imaginative leap to enable us to understand others on their own terms. Unfortunately humans exhibit a tendency to value their own groups above others and schools must do its best to mute, or overcome, such proclivities. Differences need to be respected and the earlier this is achieved the better.Respecting students requires that teachers need to reflect on the imposed (undemocratic) power relationship that form the basis of much traditional education. Working together on joint projects is one way to develop respectful relationships.

5 The final mind is the ethical mind which considers how students can serve purposes beyond self interest. This mind takes into account the 'common good' of the wider community particularly under challenging situations or dilemmas. The development of shared beliefs are important to achieve this mind and projects that involve providing a service to others.The ethical mind should be infused into all aspects of the curriculum.

Gardner sees these five minds as different from his eight, or nine, intelligences seeing them as broad uses of the mind that could make use of any combination of intelligences.

Gardner believes it is important to cultivate such minds.The first three minds deal primarily with cognitive thinking and the last two with our relationships with other people. The last two are vital if we are to work together to ensure the survival of our planet. 'Life long learning', almost a cliche these days, demands such minds.

The beginning of the third millennium poses a challenge for schools to cultivate such minds and will call for new educational forms and processes. One cannot, says Gardner, even begin to develop an educational system unless one has in mind the knowledge, skills that one values.

Gardner makes the point that these minds can only be seen by authentic performances that represent understanding. Gardner is also aware that there are often conflicts between these aspects of the mind for example the tensions between respect and creativity. The five minds work in tension and synergistically.

With such minds developed Gardner believes that positive human potentials can be cultivated but only if teachers can articulate what it is they are trying to achieve. Our future survival depends on their success.

I think I prefer Gardner's 'five minds' to the 'key competencies' of the new New Zealand Curriculum but, essentially, they are one and the same thing.

Thursday, November 15, 2007

The New Zealand Curriculum - good news at last

I have just managed to get hold of a final copy of the New Zealand Curriculum.

I think most teachers will feel well pleased with it. Teachers ( well creative ones anyway) have always 'colonised' official curriculum's to suit their own hard earned beliefs. The day of 'experts' knowing best in any organisation s well past and, today, real change requires a creative mix of both 'top down' and 'bottom up' initiatives.

The key to the future is to establish conditions to release, and take advantage of, the creativity of all involved.To use two current 'buzz words': 'life long learners' working in 'learning organisations'. This, one would hope, would include schools. For schools to transform themselves however it will require new forms of leadership and a genuine respect for the ideas of their students.

A close read, for those who can be bothered, will show that there are a few subtle differences of emphasis in the 'new' curriculum. Naturally there is no attempt to 'own up' to the poor design of the previous curriculum with its endless strands levels,objectives and impossible accountability demands. I guess it is seen as 'organic' growth but of course it isn't. In many respects it is 'back to the future' for creative teachers who now will be able to breathe more easily.

Premised on the need to thrive in an unpredictable future the key to students success are the key competencies and the development of 'students who are creative, energetic and enterprising.' I particularly like the phrase that students are to be, 'active seekers, users and creators of knowledge. I also like a little more emphasis on issues of sustainability.

As for the key competences ( a phrase that still reminds me of a past mechanistic or technocratic era) there is an interesting rearrangement and an emphasis that they should 'not be seen as stand alone' and are both 'a means and an end' to learning. Thinking ( previously listed 5th) is now number one and includes my favourite phrase: students who 'actively seek, use, and create knowledge'. A constructivist philosophy underlines the curriculum.

The Learning Areas are also to be seen as both a means and an end and, 'while presented as distinct, this should not limit the ways in which schools structures the learning experiences offered to students'. Emphasizing connections between learning areas and integration is encouraged.

The biggest change from the past curriculum is reducing individual Learning Area books to an A3 pullout page for each level
(included in the new document). I am sure this will be more than enough to ensure a core of learning requirements are achieved.

The effective pedagogy has been rearranged placing 'creating a supportive environment' first. As mentioned a constructivist philosophy underpins the this section if not mentioned directly. 'Personalised learning' ideas are also apparent but once again is nor mentioned directly.This is a surprise because it seemed to underpin the speeches of our previous minister and expresses the real difference between the future emphasis and the academic 'one size fits all' approach of the past.

An new inclusion in the NZC is a suggestion to do fewer things well - 'to cover less but cover it in greater depth'. This will be welcomed by those who have been overwhelmed by the need to cover all the previous unwieldy curriculum requirements. Those who have aways known that depth of understanding and pride of achievement can only come from such approach will feel rightly justified.

The new emphasis placed on inquiry learning will please those who believe that students awareness of the learning process is important. Not a lot is new in this section ( John Dewey wrote about this early last century) but it is most welcome.

All in all the NZC gives, 'schools the scope, flexibility, and authority they need to shape and design their curriculum so that teaching and learning is meaningful'. The change from 'delver' to 'design' is pertinent.

Schools now have a great opportunity to be creative and to make full use of the talents of both teachers and students.

If there is a challenge it is whether middle, and particularly secondary schools, can develop structures and meaningful learning contents for all students to be their own 'seekers, users, and creators of knowledge'. This is the area where exciting innovation needs to occur.

I fear a few 'mindsets' will need to change if the opportunities of the Curriculum is to be realised but, if we are to be successful as a 21stC country, we have no choice.

Thursday, November 08, 2007

In Australia

Just in case you are wondering why there have been no blogs of late I have a good excuse- I am in Australia.

I was invited earlier in the year to give keynote presentation to the New South Wales Principals Conference held in a downtown Sydney Hotel. Well that was last week and now I am relaxing in Brisbane and will be leaving for greener pastures tomorrow.

It was a exciting and somewhat challenging experience to present in Sydney but all went well and I have opportunities to return next year to work with some clusters of schools.

The theme of the conference was Focus and Refocus and about 600 principals attended the the three days. I had arranged to stay for the entire conference , plus a few days to explore Sydney. It was a great opportunity to gain some insight into Australian education - or at least primary education in New South Wales, which I was told has 1800 primary schools.

On balance I think principals are better off in New Zealand although similar problems have to be faced up to in both countries.

The advantages, in New Zealand as I see them, are that principals appoint their own staff and local communities appoint their own principals without 'official' input. The latter was seen as a doubtful idea to many NSW principals but I assured them that, in the main, it seemed to work out in New Zealand. They however would all love to have the opportunity to appoint their own teachers!

Perhaps the biggest advantage of New Zealand schools are the opportunities provided by the introduction of our 'new' New Zealand Curriculum, the ideas of which impressed many I spoke to. In NSW schools are still required to implement their seven Learning Areas as we once had to, and, as well, they have to comply to national testing and reporting. The latter informs schools, and parents, how well each school is achieving enabling inter-school comparison. NSW schools are stuck with an 'overcrowded' curriculum and their creativity restrained by a narrow testing regime. When asked how schools in New Zealand knew how well they were doing I explained each school sets their own 'targets' to achieve and national monitoring of anonymous schools provides the bigger picture.

Our 'new' emphasis on 'key competencies', and inquiry learning, are a real advantage to New Zealand schools as is the reduction of the Learning Area objectives to a single page.

As for my keynote a quick flick through my blogs will give you a pretty good idea.

Back to normal blogging next week.