Sunday, December 09, 2007

Our schools are dysfunctional

A book for holiday reflection.

A friend of mine just recently returned from a study trip abroad and mentioned to me that the book he had been advised to get hold of was 'The Best Schools' by Thomas Armstrong( available ascd organisation. See a summary of the book on our site.

I remember I already had the book so naturally I reread it to refresh my memory. And I was pleased I did - the real reason, according to the author, for so many students failing is is not the students' fault but the dysfunctional 'academic' educational system that has evolved.

I agree totally with Armstrong, well known for his previous publications on Multiple Intelligences.

And he is not alone.You can add to his 'voice' people such as Alvin Toffler, Tom Peters, Bill Gates, Sir Ken Robinson, Tony Buzan ...the list goes on. The only support for the status quo comes from the dead hand of tradition, those who currently gain from the system, and the conservatism of teachers!

In the meantime over 20% of all students continue to fail leaving alienated and often angry

Armstrong's message is that schools are currently dominated, by what he calls, an 'academic' discourse ( or way of thinking) which has nothing to do with what we know as effective pedagogy.

Armstrong is calling for the return to what he calls an a 'developmental' discourse ( 'personalised learning'); an approach to teaching that enables all students to realize their individual strengths and abilities.

The idea that each age group of students have particular developmental needs that underpinned teaching was once well known - if only at the early educational levels. Even the recently published New Zealand Curriculum all but ignores such developmental differences.

The academic discourse , with its emphasis on testing and narrow accountability targets, totally ignores such thinkers as Piaget, Dewey and Gardner, along with what we now know about human mind works. As such this discourse is restricting the full development of all our students - not just those who currently fail.

The developmental discourse asks educators to to pay close attention to the differences that exists in the physical, mental and emotional differences of our students and to value the creativity of all students

Armstrong defines four level of education -each with an appropriate metaphor to base teaching around. These are far more potent than the arbitrary levels of our current, so called, 'seamless' curriculum.

For young children the appropriate metaphor is one of play so as to provide opportunities for the dramatically forming brain to make connections. At this level young children's brains cannot differentiate between the real and the imaginative. Armstrong is very critical of the 'high pressure' academic discourse curriculum that is being imposed on such minds - calling such institutions 'kinder factories'. In the best early schools curriculum 'emerge' spontaneously out of children's interests.

At the primary levels( from age six or seven) brains re able to increasingly differentiate between fact and fantasy and students at this age are busy 'learning about how the world works'. Children at this age have curious minds for teachers to tap into. The current obsession with narrow 'academic' literacy and numeracy may well be counterproductive. There is a wonderful world out there to explore and an abundance of creative approaches to utilize.

Puberty is an age of turmoil, one Armstrong writes, 'is all accelerator and no brakes', is about 'social, emotional and meta cognitive learning. Armstrong makes strong case for specialist middle schools to help students develop growing control their impulsivity. Students at this age have been developed by evolution for 'breeding' and the development of identity - programmes need to be appropriately challenging, creative and diverting, to allow all students to gain success and a sense of self worth.

Finally 'developmental' secondary education should be about 'preparing students to live independently in the real world. High schools, with their almost total academic bias, are in need of dramatic change. Far too many students do not gain the skills of independent learning. As well many highly successful innovators were high school dropouts, none the least Bill Gates, who has stated that high schools are obsolete.Their highly academic curriculum only fuels the discontent of those students for whom it is painfully not suited. Academic high schools currently reflect an 'industrial age mindset'. One based on passivity,obedience, specialization, bells and timetables; as well as isolation from the real world their students are to enter. For too many students it must be nightmare of boredom and irrelevance. Too many students leave school feeling disenfranchised, bored, or alienated by programmes that have no relevance to the needs or interests. Such students have had little opportunity to discover their own unique paths to success. Sadly, because of such depressing educational experiences, some never will.

Armstrong has been compelled to write his book because he believes the pressure of the academic discourse is not only ignoring the developmental needs of students but is continuing the tragedy of cohorts of failing students, which we can ill afford, morally or economically.

The book outlines inappropriate programmes and exemplary practices at each level in the process giving valuable guidance about how to create his 'best schools'. Creative teachers will be reassured by his suggestions.

Those who have high jacked us and led us down the technocratic academic discourse have lot to answer for. It will take courage for schools to return to more appropriate developmental approaches.

Armstrong reminds us of the, 'adventure of learning, the wonder of nature and culture, the richness of human experience,and the delight in acquiring new abilities' , which, he says, have been abandoned or severely curtailed in the drive for accountability, 'benchmarks' , 'targets' and reducing the 'achievement gap'.

Armstrong's book is a must read if we really believe in developing the full potential of all our students and if we want to develop programmes to inspire all students to discover ( or 'recover') their passion to learn.

It was the ideas that underpin the developmental approach that led most of us into teaching in the first place - not an obsession with complying with a focuis on narrow achievement testing.

As I said , ideal holiday reading if we want to ensure all students get fair go.


Tom Sheehan said...

Great blog as always Bruce.

Just trying to get to the end of the year, complete payroll instructions, find new staff, award prizes, supervise a construction project, liaise with various groups, listen to parents, read and approve reports - oh yes and keep positive and lead !

Armstrong has made some great points and I love the bit where you say "Armstrong's book is a must read if we really believe in developing the full potential of all our students and if we want to develop programmes to inspire all students to discover ( or 'recover') their passion to learn."

This is the greatest thing - that children are learners and love finding out, learning new things and trying really hard !

Just about time for a few weeks of rest and recreation.

Bruce said...

Thanks Tom for your valuable feeback.

I am sure you (and all others involved in this education thing) deserve a well earned holiday break.

A time for rest, recreation and rethinking! A time for intellectual recovery!

Anonymous said...

Tom reflects thr reality of the classroom teacher but to his credit he seems to be able to keep his mind on the big picture.