Thursday, February 21, 2008

Reclaiming the lost art of pedagogy

John Dewey -time to apply his pedagogical ideas.Pedagogy - the art of teaching.

Pedagogy has long been a neglected area in most countries.

In recent yea the emphasis has been on providing technocratic curriculums for teachers to follow and to be held accountable to.

Now the ‘evidence’ suggests that it is the quality of the individual teachers that makes the greatest difference to ensure students learn. It seems the ‘experts’ have been looking in the wrong place for answers the past decades overlooking, in the process, the successful ideas of creative teachers in the schools.

The ‘new’ New Zealand Curriculum now places emphasis on effective pedagogy and outlines conditions that support positive teaching including; creating a supportive learning environment emphasizing the importance of relationships; the need to encourage reflective thought and action in students; ensuring learning is relevant to students by tapping into the curiosity and desire to make meaning that is innate in all students; that learning is a social activity emphasizing the importance of 'learning conversations'; building on the ‘prior knowledge' students bring to any learning; to encourage connections between learning areas; and the important of giving students time to 'do fewer things well'.

Nothing really very new in all the above.

The question is why such ideas are not widespread through our schools.

The conservative nature of schools makes changing teaching practice difficult. New ideas are also opposed by even more conservative parents and the media. The impossible curriculum and accountability demands, that have been placed on teachers the past decades, have diverted teachers from placing an emphasis on pedagogy.

Assumptions about pedagogy rest on theories about how students learn. Traditional teaching is based on a transmission approach to learning – teachers know best (or rather those who design the curriculums do). At the other extreme is the belief that students best learn through their own actions. Developing a balance between the two is very important, not either or.

Ideas about teaching and learning have changed over during the 20th century.

The view of the learner as an empty vessel to be filled with useful information had moved towards encouraging the development of students’ ideas (often called ‘constructivism’). This is a movement from a ‘one size fits all’ to a ‘personalization’ of learning. This shift sees the process of learning as important as the content. Teachers, to assist their students, would still need to have an appreciation of the ‘big ideas' that students need to learn; guided discovery rather than letting students learn for themselves.

In earlier days an excess of progressive ‘students know best’, and learn through activity, resulted in less than wonderful learning. Today the role of the teacher in assisting learning is now better appreciated. The writings of Lev Vygotsky and Jerome Bruner placed a greater interactive role of the teacher and the need for an appreciation of importance of the ‘big ideas’ involved in any learning. Such thinkers are referred to as ‘constructivists’ valuing both reflective understanding and problem solving strategies. Today teachers working alongside their students to challenge their thinking are often called ‘co-constructivists’. This is the essence of 'personalization'.

The general assumption is that students develop their abilities when they try to solve intellectual problems in any area of learning.

Another reason for lack of success of ‘new’ pedagogy is teachers having low expectations of students. When it comes to expectations teachers get what they expect. Teachers need to appreciate the importance of effort in learning (and practice) and to present learning challenges that confront children’s’ current knowledge. Teachers need to help their students ‘think about their own thinking’ (metacognition) by asking them to explain their actions and to reflect on thinking processes. Teachers assist by ‘scaffolding’ learning (providing temporary help), introducing thinking strategies, and by assisting students see patterns and connections between learning areas.

The biggest change in pedagogy is the move from concentrating on needs of classes and groups to individuals. Once again this is the essence of personalization of learning. The variation of students in any class make the use of flexible group work necessary but, to be successful, students need to be ‘taught’ to work in groups - how to listen, share and discuss things constructively. Teachers also need management skills to be able to work with individuals, or small groups, while others work independently. All too often group work results in individuals working alone in groups, or activities being completed for their own sake.

Personalization of learning is made difficult by the wide range of student abilities. Flexible grouping is required to help those in need. This is compounded by research that indicates teachers over estimate low achieving students and under estimate high attainers. A personalized pedagogy is not an easy one.

Traditional approaches make use of ‘streaming’, ‘setting’, or ability grouping, to solve the problem of student diversity. This is to miss the point – personalization requires flexible grouping which value each students learning style. This leads to the ideal of every student having their own 'individual learning plan'; one allowing them to learn at their own pace to solve their particular learning problems and to extend their talents and gifts.

This aspect of learning styles and classroom management is a difficult issue. Personalization can be taken too far and could result in teachers having no time left for teaching. The key is to develop independent learning and self managing capacities (‘key competencies’ in the NZF) from the earliest years. Secondary students ought to be capable of independent study.

Such personalized independent ideas are not made easy by the number of non self motivated students currently in our schools.

Another change in pedagogical thinking is the move from a single fixed intelligence to a growing acceptance of multiples intelligences (Howard Gardner). The traditional academic curriculum has limited student success and we need to be looking for abilities and talents in all students. This could well be the key to motivating ‘failing’ students.

These are a few reasons why introducing ‘new’ pedagogy is no easy task. It requires teachers not only to challenge their assumptions but for schools to challenge their traditional organizational structures.

Pedagogical approaches come down to the culture of the schools.

It is changing cultures – the shared beliefs that underpin all teaching – that hold the key to developing 21st century schools. New ideas are available that work if teachers know what they are doing. The 'new' cuuriculum challenges teachers to, 'inquire into the impact of their teaching on their students'

The future requires that all students leave school with positive learning identities as ‘active seekers, users, and creators’ of their own knowledge. (NZF p 4)

This is the challenge facing schools as they come to term with the implications of the ‘new’ New Zealand Curriculum.


Anonymous said...

Great pedagogy Bruce. This article needs to be promulgated in the Education Gazette. It spells out clearly what "good practice" is all about and gives very clear outlines for teachers to follow.
As I stated above it needs to be shared much more widely than your blog.
Can take you to some schools in the north where it is happening and they are great places to visit.

Tom Sheehan said...

This is an amazing blog Bruce.

You have encapsulated the essence of teaching and learning. I love the balanced wisdom you write about.

We will read and discuss at St Matthew's.

How does the AToL system currently being pedaled measure up against this thinking ?

Anonymous said...

We hear a lot about the idea that it is poor literacy and numeracy that creates school failures. Your blog points out that it is the keeping of the desire to learn alive, in all students, that is the key.

Students enter school with such 'great expectations'. Why is it that, as they grow older, these expectations are dashed for so many students? Your blog provides the answer - creative teachers that focus on developing the special talents of all students - not just the academic 'elite'.

Bruce said...

Creative education had an important beginning in a small rural school in the far north in the 1950s. Elwyn Richardson was principal.Share the blog with anyone interested.

Thanks Tom. ATol to me , places too much time on literacy and numeracy, is time demanding, and inavertently narrows the curriculum.

Anon. As educator Guy Claxtion says, it is about 'learnacy' not Literacy or Numeracy- the love of learning. Once this is lost the trouble begins.

Tom Sheehan said...

Thanks Bruce - I hear other principals saying, "what contract are you on ?" and when they ask me we are not on one.

There seems to be a faint air of superiority in the ensuing conversation.

Some of it is about controlling the teachers and making them all the same.

It takes quite a bit of courage to plan your own development and chart a course !

I have always found the best lessons and days and classes did not come from my planning or assessing but rather came from the children themselves as we learnt together.

I have the Richardson book. Time for a re-read !

David Warlick said...

An interesting post. Sometimes I feel like the last generation of educators who even heard of John Dewey (been an educator for 30+ years). I've often said that we're replacing the teacher-philosopher with the teacher-technician.

The question that interests me is how the new information landscape (blogs, wikis, wikipedia, increasingly digital, increasingly networked) affects pedagogy. Certainly the way that we learn probably hasn't changed that much. But what we learn with and the environment within which we learn has changed.

How much of our traditional notions of pedagogy are based in information-scarce environments, and what does it look like in information-abundant environments?

Thanks for the reminders and the conversation.

Bruce said...

Thanks for the comment David.

I am aware of your expertise in the field of integrating ICT into education so as to make a sensible use of the modern 'information rich evironment'.

Unfortunatly I am no expert in this new 'information landscpe' and, in truth, am more concerned with exploring the world within each learner's head, developing their ideosyncratic talents, and in making use of the equally 'information rich' immediate environment. The latter , in these 'high tech' days, is being neglected in many of our schools. A new electronic white board is far more exciting, to many schools, than developing an awareness and appreciation of the environment!

However, a pedagogy that is based on personal inquiry is obviously compatible with information technology and, in truth, may be the only thing that will really change traditional schools - particularly the fragmented, time-tabled, subject specialist high schools. I see more exciting integrated use of ICT in our ( New Zealand) elementary schools.

Your point about the 'teacher philosopher' being replaced by 'teacher technicians' rings a bell. Thankfully, in New Zealand, we have finally tossed aside the technocratic curriculums imposed in the 90s. Maybe, in New Zealand, the time of the 'teacher philosopher' is returning - equipped with the new, and powerful, learning tools that you are expert in?

Probably doesn't answer your query?

We couldn't have had such a conversation in John Dewey's day! Ideas can spread so fast today.