Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Experience and Education -John Dewey 1938

Such a lot of the ideas expressed today have their genesis in the ideas of John Dewey.That Dewey's ideas have yet to be fully realised says something for the power of conservatism in education. 'Experience in Education' is Dewey's most concise statement of his ideas written after criticism his theories received. In this book Dewey argues that neither 'traditional ' nor 'progressive ' ideas are adequate and he outlines a deeper point of view building on the best of both. The following are ideas he expresses in his book.

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Maybe ,as the self centred greedy capitalism of the West is crumbling, the time is right to develop a new democratic vision for the 21st Century. John Dewey's book Experience and Education provides idea to think about for the century ahead of us? Dewey wrote extensively about the relationship between education and democracy (1916) - a link that those in power today choose to ignore but what better place to establish democratic ideals through example than the school.

Dewey wrote Experience and Education after criticism of his earlier ideas and was an opportunity to reformulate his philosophy.

Dewey was concerned that education had divided into two camps, the 'traditional' and the 'progressive'.One relying on the transmission of traditional subjects the other exalted learner's interests, Neither he thought were sufficient in themselves. Neither of therm applies the principles of a carefully developed philosophy of experience. He was particularly concerned that progressive education must employ progressive organisation of subject matter and not be limited to children's fleeting interests.

John Dewey's ideas have all but been lost in our current system particularly as students reach higher levels and, because of this, we now have such worrying problem of dis-engagement of learners.

Dewey introduces his book with the idea that we like to think of either-or opposites recognising no intermediate possibilities.

Traditional education is one of imposition from above and outside and the attitude of pupils, on the whole, must be one of docility, receptivity, and obedience. Unfortunately much of the subject matter is beyond the reach of the experience of young children.

This imposition from above, even in so called child centred primary schools, is opposed to personal expression and individuality and learning through experience. Such an education is all about preparation for a distant future than the opportunities of present life.

It is at this point the either-or philosophy becomes pertinent.Dewey believed there needed to be an intimate relationship between experience and education and that students had to construct their own learning.

It does not follow however that the knowledge and skill of the mature person has no direct value nor the knowledge that is contained in traditional subjects. Early progressive schools made little use of organised subject matter nor any form of direction and guidance. This , Dewey believed, was too much of a reaction against the sterility of traditional teaching. Too much emphasis was placed on freedom for its own sake and neglected the role of the teacher.

Dewey believed in one permanent frame of reference; namely the organic connection between education and personal experience. This however did not mean that all experiences are genuinely or equally educative. Some experience can distort or arrest growth and can also lead learners to land them into a groove or rut.

Traditional learning experiences render many students callous to ideas; many students lose their impetus to learn; and all too often leave students with no power to continue learning.

Everything Dewey believed depended on the quality of the experience; experiences that lead to desirable future experiences. The problem for teachers is to select the kind of present experiences that live fruitfully in and creatively in subsequent experiences.The more definitely and sincerely it is held that education is a development within, by, and for experience, the more important it is that there should be clear conception of what experience is.

Traditional schools, to this day, can get along without any consistently developed philosophy of education but educational reformers and innovators alone have felt the need for a coherent philosophy of education. And, Dewey, writes, it a difficult task to work out the methods for a new education that for traditional schooling.

Dewey admits that the 'new' education is simpler in principle as it is in harmony with growth but the easy and the simple are not identical. To discover what is simple and to act upon the discovery is an exceedingly difficult task.

This is the challenge of creative teaching. It is easier to follow the old ways. Those who wish to be creative need to develop new organisations, says Dewey, beyond current fragmented timetabling.

Deciding on experiences that are worthwhile is vital. Every experience enacted modifies further experiences and results in positive attitudes and growth of understanding and skill. A worthwhile experience arouses curiosity, strengthens initiative and provides a desire to learn sufficiently intense for students to apply effort and to persevere through difficulties.

Teachers need to be able to evaluate each experiences and to assist the student to gain success without imposing control. Teachers need to be on the alert to see what attitudes and habits are being developed and this requires that the teacher has some ideas of what is going on in the mind of the learner. The teacher is an important part of any learning experience.

The primary responsibility of educators is to assist shaping the experience by providing environing conditions and to utilize the surroundings to build up experiences that interact with the personal desires of he students. This is in contrast to traditional teaching where learning is all too often disconnected from the learners experience. Dewey writes that enduring attitudes of likes and dislikes are the collateral results of teaching . Such, attitudes he writes, are what fundamentally counts in the future; the most important being the desire to continue learning. He writes, what avail is it to gain information if the learner loses his own soul - the ability to extract meaning from future experience.

Dewey asks us to look back on our school days and wonder what has become of all the knowledge that was taught to us.

This means , he says, that teachers must give attentive care to the conditions which give each experience a worthwhile meaning and the potential to provide a favourable effect upon the future.

An issue in traditional eduction is one of control. Dewey believes that the total environment the teacher and students create provides social control by being involved in a community in which all share responsibility. Students, Dewey writes, are controlled by the 'moving spirit of the group'. The teacher reduces to a minimum the occasions in which he or she has to exercise authority and when it is done it in behalf of the interests of the group.

The primary source of social control, resides in the very nature of the work done in which all individuals have an opportunity to contribute and to feel responsibility for.This is the essence of Dewey's concept of democracy. Dewey appreciates that some students, due to prior experiences, will not respond positively and will be challenge for teachers but he also believes many poor attitudes arise from a failure by teachers to arrange the kind of work that will create involvement. To achieve this will require considerable planning of powerful learning experiences but also that this planning needs to be firm enough to give direction yet not restrict individuality. Developing a positive learning community so all students learn one of the most important lessons in life, that of mutual accommodation and adaptation, is the challenge for all teachers.

Dewey's book is an attempt to define the nature of freedom. The only freedom of value, Dewey writes, is the freedom of judgement exercised on behalf of something worthwhile. It is a mistake to treat freedom as an end in itself as, he says, it can be used in destructive ways. Dewey believes in freedom to frame purposes, to judge wisely and to consider consequence. Dewey writes about the importance of reflective thinking, to stop and think before acting; to postpone immediate impulsive actions. The ideal aim of education is self control ordered by intelligent judgement.

Intelligent judgement is all about purpose in new situations that we need to pay attention to. To do this requires the learner to observe, to appreciate the significance of what is seen, to be aware of possible consequences. In such unfamiliar situation we cannot be certain of consequences so we need to reflect on past experiences and translate possibilities into a plan of action. The crucial thing involves the postponement of immediate action until observation and judgement have intervened. This reflective process gives direction and the beginning of a plan of attack. Teachers have a vital role to help students in this process. Combining suggestions from others assists in this process and can result in co-operative ventures.

This is in essence the scientific inquiry process.

Question and possible answers arise from observation and ideas must be tested. To ensure the process is of value demands keeping track of ideas, activities and observed consequences. Keeping track is a matter of reflective review and summarizing to record salient features and to extract meanings. Such studies will lead into the the expanding world of subject matter and a continual reconstruction by each learner of what is being learnt.

As for subject matter, Dewey writes, anything that can be called a study including, arithmetic, history, geography, must at the outset fall within the scope of ordinary life experience. From this experience the next step for the teacher is to develop it into a richer and also more organised form. The environment, the world of experience, constantly grows larger , and so to speak, thicker. Such experiences need to lead to appropriate subject disciplines.Teachers need to select experiences that have the promise and potentiality of presenting new problems and the opening of new fields - connectedness and growth need to determine choices.

The objectives of learning for the future needs to be found in present experiences but can only be carried forward only in the degree that present experience is stretched, as it were , backwards.

A single course of study is not possible but the selection and organisation of subject matter is fundamental but, whatever is selected, must allow for improvisation and unforeseen occasions.

Dewey saw the learning process as a continuous spiral linking past experiences with the present. This experiential process of learning would ideally begin early and carried out throughout schooling, making use of the method of intelligence as exemplified by scientific thinking.

No experience is educative that does not tend to both knowledge of more facts and entertaining of more ideas and to a better, a more orderly, arrangement of them. It goes without saying, Dewey writes, that the organised subject matter of the adult cannot provide the starting point nevertheless it represents the goal to which eduction should continually move.

Dewey was writing to answer both the critics of his ideas and those who misinterpreted them.

He appreciated that the road to the 'new' education was not an easy one but a strenuous and difficult one. The fundamental issue, he believed, was not of a new versus old eduction, nor progressive against traditional, but a question of what must be worthy of the name eduction.

Such an education needs to be based on a sound philosophy of experience.

Dewey's ideals about democracy and experiential learning as are relevant and distant as ever.

Monday, April 20, 2009

John Dewey - New thinking 1897!

John Dewey's famous declaration concerning education was first published 1897 and is still as pertinent now as it was then. All school communities ought to declare their beliefs about education and then work towards aligning all their teaching to achieving what they believe in. If they do not determine their own destiny someone else will. Having clear beliefs provides both security and the basis of making all choices - or simply saying no as appropriate. The following are excerpts from Dewey's declaration

Article One: What Education is.

I believe all education...begins almost at birth, and is continually shaping the individual's power, saturating his consciousness, forming his habits, training his ideas, and arousing his feelings and emotions.

I believe the only true education comes through stimulation of the child's powers by the demands of the social situations in which he finds himself. Through these demands he is stimulated to act as a member of a unity, to emerge from his original narrowness of action and feelings, and to conceive of himself from the standpoint of the welfare of the group to which he belongs.

I believe ... the child's own instincts and powers furnish the material and give the starting point for all education.

It is important to foretell definitely just what civilisation will be in twenty years from now. Hence it is impossible to prepare the child for any precise set of conditions. To prepare him for the future life means to give him command of himself; it means so to train him that he will have the full and ready use of all his capacities; that his eye and ear and hand may be tools ready to command, that his judgement may be capable of grasping the conditions under which it has to work...It is impossible to reach this sort of adjustment save as constant regard is had to the individual's own powers, tastes, and interests..

Education, therefore, must begin with...insight into the child's capacities, interests, and habits...These powers , interests, and habits must be continually interpreted- we must know what they mean.

Article Two; What the School is.

I believe that the school is primarily a social institution...the school is simply a form of community life.

I believe that education, therefore, is a process of living and not a preparation for future living.

I believe that the school must present life - life as real and vital to the child as that which he caries on in the home, in the neighbourhood, or on the playground.

I believe..that school ... should reproduce them in such ways that the child will gradually learn the meaning of them, and be capable of playing his own part in them.

I believe ..it is the business of the school to deepen and extend his sense of the values bound up in his home life.

I believe that most of education fails because it neglects this fundamental principle of the school as a form of community life. It conceives the school as a place where certain information is given, where certain lessons are to be learnt, or where certain habits are to be formed.The value of these is conceived as lying largely in the remote future; the child must do these things for the sake of something else he has to do; they are mere preparation. As a result they do not become part of of the life experience of the child and so are not truly educative.

I believe that the moral education centres upon this conception of the school as a mode of social life, that the best and deepest moral training is precisely that which one gets through having to enter into proper relation with others in a unity of work and thought. The present system, so far as they destroy or neglect this unity, render it difficult or impossible to get genuine, regular moral training.

I believe that the child should be stimulated and controlled in his work through the life of the community.

I believe that under existing conditions too much of the stimulus and control proceeds from the teacher, because of neglect of the idea of the school as a form of social life.

I believe that the teacher's place and work in the school is to interpreted from the same basis. The teacher is not in the school to impose certain ideas or to form certain habits in the child, but is there as a member of the community to select the influences which shall affect the child and to assist him in properly responding to those influences.

I believe that the discipline of the school should proceed from the life of the school as a whole and not directly from the teacher.

I believe that the teacher's business is simply to determine on the basis of larger experience and riper wisdom, how the discipline of life shall come to the child.

Article Three: The Subject Matter of Education.

I believe that the social life of the child is the basis of concentration, correlation, in all his training or growth. The social life gives the unconscious unity and the background of all his efforts and of all his attainments.

I believe that the subject- matter of the school curriculum should mark a gradual differentiation out of the primitive unconscious unity of social life.

I believe we violate the child's nature and render difficulties the best ethical results, by introducing the child too abruptly to a number of special studies, of reading, writing, geography etc.

I believe, therefore, that the true centre of correlation on the school subjects is not science, nor literature, nor history, nor geography, but the child's social activities...and ( such subjects should) not precede such experience.

I believe accordingly that the primary basis of education is in the child's powers at work along the same general constructive lines which have brought civilisation into being.

I believe that the only way to make the child conscious of his social herbage is to enable him to perform those fundamental types of activities which makes civilisation what it is.

I believe, therefore, in the so called expressive or constructive activities... it is possible and desirable that the child's introduction into the more formal subjects of the curriculum be through the medium of these activities...because it gives the ability to interpret and control the experience already had. It should be introduced, not as so much new subject matter, but as showing the factors already involved in previous experience and as furnishing tools by which that experience can be more easily and effectively regulated.

Language is is the devise for communication; it is the tool through which one individual comes to share the ideas and feelings of others. When treated simply as a way of getting individual information, or as a means of showing off what one has learned, it loses its social motive and end.

I believe that there is, therefore, no succession of studies in the ideal school curriculum.If education is life, all life has, from the outset, a scientific aspect, and aspect of art and culture, and an aspect of communication. It cannot, therefore, be true that the proper studies for one grade are mere reading and writing...The progress is not in the succession of studies but in the development of new attitudes, and new interests in, experience.

I believe finally , that education must be conceived as a continuing reconstruction of experience; that the process and the goal of eduction are one and the same thing.

I believe to set up any end outside of education, as furnishing its goals and standards, is to deprive the educational process of much of its meaning and tends to make us rely upon false and external stimuli in dealing with the child.

Article Four; The Nature of Method.

I believe that the question of methods is ultimately reducible to the question of the order of development of the child's powers and interests.

Because this is so I believe the following are of supreme importance as determining the spirit in which eduction is carried on:

1 I believe that the active side precedes the passive in the development of the child's nature; that expression comes before conscious impression..

I believe that the neglect of this principle is the cause of a large part of the waste of time and strength in school work.The child is thrown into a passive, receptive, or absorbing attitude.The conditions are such that he is not permitted to follow the law of his nature; the result is friction and waste.

2 I believe that the image is the great instrument of instructions.What a child gets out of any subject presented to him is simply the images which he himself forms with regard to it.

I believe that nine tenths of the energy at present directed toward making the child learn certain things, were spent on seeing to it that the child was forming proper images, the work of instruction would be indefinitely facilitated.

I believe that much of the time and attention now given to the preparation and presentation of lessons might be more wisely and profitably expended in training the child's power of imagery and in seeing to it that he was continually forming definite, vivid,and growing images of the various subject with which he comes in contact in his experience.

3 I believe that interests are the signs and symptoms of growing power. I believe they represent dawning capacities. Accordingly the constant and careful observation of interests is of utmost importance for the educator.

I believe these interests are to be observed as showing the state of development which the child has reached.

I believe they prophesy the stage upon which he is about to enter.

I believe that only through the continual and sympathetic observation of childhood's interests can the adult enter the child's life and see what it is ready for, and upon what material it could work most readily and fruitfully.

The interest is always the sign of some power below; the important thing is to discover this power.

4 I believe that emotions are the reflex of actions.

I believe that if we can only secure the right habits of action and thought, with reference to the good, the true, and the beautiful, the emotions will for the most part take care of themselves.

Article Five: The School and Social Progress.

I believe education is the fundamental method of social progress and reform.

I believe that all reforms which rest simply upon the enactment of law ... are transitory and futile.

I believe that education is a regulation of the process of coming to share in the social consciousness; and that the adjustment of individual activity on the basis of this social consciousness is the only sure method of social reconstruction.

I believe that this conception has due regard for both individualistic and socialistic ideals.

I believe that in the ideal school we have the reconciliation of the individualistic and institutional ideals.

I believe that it is the business of every one interested in education to insist on the school as the primary and most effective interest of social progress and reform in order that society may be awakened to realize what the school stands for, and aroused to the necessity of endowing the educator with sufficient equipment properly to perform his task.

I believe that the art of thus giving shape to human powers and adapting them to social service, is the supreme art; one calling into its service the best of artists; that no insight, sympathy, tact, executive power, to too great for such service.

I believe, finally, that the teacher is engaged, not simply in the training of individuals, but in the formation of proper social life.
I believe that every teacher should realize the dignity of his calling; that he is a social servant set apart for the maintenance of social order and the securing of the right social growth.

It is time to return to John Dewey's vision now that the politics of self interest and 'market forces' has all but destroyed the social cohesion required to ensure the common good and success for all?

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Time for some heresy?

The word heretic simply means having an alternative point of view. Unfortunately new ideas have a way of upsetting those who hold the power or the status quo. To make things more difficult education, being essentially conservative, is always slow to change; schools are slow learners.

According to some writers we are poised on the edge of a new renaissance -a rebirth of creativity beyond our imagination . This post modern world will be an age of ideas and education systems that focus on developing the creative capital of all their citizens will lead the the way.

And, according to others, the world faces problem of sustainability that are beyond current thinking and if we don't develop new mindsets that appreciate the ecological complexity and connectedness of all aspects our lives them then the future of humankind will be placed at risk within decades.

If we want to develop 21stC education systems then we will have no choice but to re-imagine education dramatically. We need to implement some heretical alternative thoughts to transform current systems with their genesis in an industrial age an age well past its use by date. Strangely enough none of the idea being considered are new it is just that few school have put them all together. School are inherently conservative and some schools, secondary ones in particular, seem impervious to change. Those that transform themselves will be leading the way; the others will remain, like dinosaurs, relics of past thinking. Increasingly students, with access to powerful information technology will simply bi-pass schools that do not have the capability to transform themselves. Worldwide students are already disengaging from traditional schooling.

In New Zealand our 'new' curriculum provides an opportunity for schools to take creative steps to transform themselves. Ironically our new government's desire to introduce national testing may divert such positive energy and add to inherent school conservatism just when we need to value school leaders with the courage to be creative.

It would be a shame if the intentions of the new ' curriculum to focus all learning on developing all students as 'confident life long learners' who able to 'seek, use and create their own knowledge' were to be overwhelmed by the political imposition of national standards.

Now for the heresies.

1 The focus from the earliest days should be on recognising and amplifying whatever gifts and talents students bring with them at every level of the system. This is the essence of the desire to personalise learning to replace the current mass industrial age 'one size fits all' emphasis. This emphasis places diversity, creativity and imagination as important as traditional literacy and numeracy.

2 An emphasis on develop every students gifts and talents places 'learnacy' ( keeping alive the desire to learn )as more important than the current over-emphasis on literacy and numeracy. 'Learnacy',a phrase coined by UK educationalist Guy Claxton, is all about ensuring all students retain their inbuilt evolutionary 'learning power'. These future learning dispositions, or capabilities, are defined as 'key competencies' in the 'new ' curriculum.

3 Schools need to be re-imagined as communities of inquiry based on students being actively involved in 'seeking, using and creating their own knowledge'. For this to happen students question, concern and interests need to betake seriously and be used by teachers to create an 'emergent' curriculum. Teachers , of course, would not just rely on student's questions, but would need to introduce studies to broaden an enrich their students. To be successful such studies would need to be 'rich, relevant,and rigorous' and negotiated with the students to ensure engagement and ownership. To develop in depth understanding it would be advisable to do 'fewer things well', in depth, as our 'new' curriculum suggests. Schools need to build on the natural disposition to inquiry students are born with. Inquiry studies will naturally integrate the various learning areas calling on subject discipline as required. This has implications for secondary education. Students need tobeable to intepet and express ther idea baoyut therworls in a range of ways - fron maths to the creative arts and not as framented subjects.

4 Although the inquiry, or learning how to learn process, is vital it is equally important that students are helped to produce the best work they can do. It both process and product. Whatever students produce should value their own 'voice', creativity and individuality. Students should be assessed by what the can do, demonstrate, exhibit, or perform. Teachers should never underestimate the power of an transformational experience - an activity, or situation, that literally changes ones mind in the process.

5 Thee learning philosophy that underpins transformational learning is a constructivist one where children, through experiences, literally change their own minds. This does not leave students to learn for themselves; teachers need to see themselves as 'creative learning coaches' providing diagnostic guidance ,assistance, challenge and feedback as required. The approach, in this respect is a 'co-constructivist' one relying on respectful relationship between learner and teacher.

6 Currently, in primary schooling, literacy and numeracy programmes have all but taken up all the available learning time. There is a need to 're frame' these 'traditional' areas so as to to place the emphasis on 'learnacy' or inquiry. Both these areas are important ways of gaining and expressing meaning and are best 'learnt' in the process of doing something that makes sense to the learners. Literacy and numeracy ought to be seen as a time to develop skills and understandings that students can use during their inquiry studies. Many teachers already do this but the real change is to see the inquiry studies a central and reading and maths as means to an end - 'reading to learn' and to 'be critical' and 'counting to learn' leading to considering 'what counts'.

If we are to place the focus on developing the 'gifts and talents' and 'learning power' of all students for primary schools the challenge will be to 're frame literacy and numeracy', for teachers at the secondary level, it will be developing flexible organisations to allow for integrated learning experiences.

Both just require a change of mind.

Both require teachers to be learners

As Amelia Earhart, the American aviator said, 'the most effective way is to do it'.

Tuesday, April 07, 2009

Let's return to creative teaching!

This book was published in 1978.Maybe it is time for teachers to search it out and read it as it provides practical inspiration for creative teaching across the curriculum. It explores ways in which teachers help their students discover themselves and their world through creative expression. I am pleased to say it includes work I assisted with in Taranaki - ideas which still inform my thinking.

The 'new' curriculum asks teachers to help their students 'seek, use, and create their own knowledge'. This is what Arts In New Zealand celebrated over thirty years ago!

Most of those involved have retired, or are no longer with us, but their ideas remain as relevant as ever. A dominant force behind the work in the creative arts was Gordon Tovey National Adviser in Art who placed prime emphasis on that most mysterious of faculties, the imagination and who believed that the 'aesthetics' in education - the reflections of thought in the child's expression, was the source of true meaning. The best publication still available, representing these ideals, is 'In the Early World' written by Elwyn Richardson ( republished NZCER).

Creative activities were seen by teachers involved in the 60s and 70s as the central focal point for learning and integrated studies were a means to realize this. The recent emphasis on inquiry learning continues these ideals but struggle against the literacy and numeracy pressures that eat up almost all available time.

A criticism of earlier education still rings true today (written by Scottish educator R F McKenzie) is 'due to the banishing of senses from education. A child's first visit to a rock pool is a vivid sensuous experience' and once this has been satisfied scientific questions come to mind.

Educational aims are clearly expressed in the publication.

The first is to help all students establish an independent identity through learning experiences.

All children should enjoy learning.Schools should be places where pupils and teachers share the decision making.Pupils should be encouraged to look for meaning in their own way and the curriculum should be related to their needs.Such content will help them in the search for skills and understanding and must be relevant to their level of learning and sensitive to the pupils interests. Any planing must respect their individuality.

The second aim was to help people to perceive their world with sensitivity and discrimination.

This means teachers need to recognise each learners background and help students form their own values relevant to the people, the environment, and the culture that make up the greater community. An emphasis was placed on the child immediate environment but education should constantly expand children's horizons so as to widen their perspectives.

The third aim was to help people to express themselves and to communicate with others, with confidence, sensitivity and precision.

It was felt wrong to expect children to conform to a common pattern ( a lesson that has been lost).

The final goal was help people to understand, evaluate,and contribute to the culture of their own society and to appreciate that of others, past and present.

Respect for others will grow through such understandings.

The aims of art education were:

To help students give visual form to the expression of their ideas.

To help develop and sustain the skills and techniques of visual perception : observing, experiencing, selecting, analysing and interpreting the world around them.

Pupils need to be helped to focus their attention on the smaller, more intimate details of their world. All learning should stem from the natural curiosity of the child. Observation supplies the material on which the imagination can develop. Once pupils have selected matter which interests them, they should be encouraged to interpret it in their own way culminating in a personal and unique way (another lost lesson).

To encourage a wide range of art forms by develop confidence and skill in the handling of techniques and media.

Techniques are the means by which pupils express their perceptions. Students must be given opportunities to experiment and learn the habit of searching for, and selecting ,and then refining their chosen ideas (another lost idea). Included will be an appreciation of the artistic accomplishments of others - 'knowing about' art. Pupils should be encouraged to discuss their own images and their classmates as well as the work of adult artists.

To sustain and encourage visual imagination and inventiveness by accepting personal responses as points of growth. Students need to develop expression, imagination, inventiveness, perception, appreciation and communication.

All students need to feel a sense of achievement. Any evaluation must be at the level of the students aesthetic growth.

All good stuff -and much of it lost in our conformist based learning intentions classrooms of today.

The individuality of both teachers ands students is central to the idea of a language arts or integrated programme . Every teacher has their own style and all classrooms reflect the personalities of their students. Standardized 'best practice' classrooms are not a possibility in such an artistic philosophy. How teachers assist is as ever a dilemma - too much and creativity is inhibited(as seen today) and too little and artistic growth may be lost. Teaching in such an environment is itself an artistic endeavour.

Interested teachers are advised to dip into the book to find idea that in a range of media to suit their circumstances. The book is full of anecdotal examples and the illustration themselves are worth a look.

It is certainly not a book just about art teaching, it is an example of a creative approach to teaching that extends to all areas of the curriculum. Art is seen as a form of creative problem solving and extends into technology, design, outdoor education, scientific and cultural explorations. It is all about an experience based curriculum along the lines expressed by John Dewey last century!

Integrated programmes ( now coming back into favour) have long been part of primary school teaching since the late 60s and the book includes several examples.

In Taranaki it was in the 70s that we developed our version of an 'integrated language arts /environmental approach' based on the the need to:

Provide a balanced programme where all subjects share an equal place (as against the current domination of literacy and numeracy).

Allow all learning to stem from the natural curiosity of the pupils, the personal worlds of students, and from direct learning experiences largely based on the immediate environment. Personal research and personal writing were features of rooms.

Encourage skills relevant to the learner - including skills of focus, concentration, craftsmanship, imaginative thinking and independent inquiry. Favourite phrases were the need to 'slow the pace of work' and 'to do fewer things well'.

Encourage pupils to become independent thinkers responsible for their own decisions to help them cope with a future society that will be constantly changing.

Stimulate pupils to produce work of high quality, giving satisfaction, pride in craftsmanship and personal success. A particular emphasis was creating the classroom as places both to celebrate student creativity and to inform classroom visitors.

Those who can remember the times represented in the 'Art In Schools' book will find today's 'new' curriculum a little 'back to the future'.

I certainly do.

Hopefully we now know enough to do it in a more lasting way today?

Monday, April 06, 2009

Our amazing brain

An enlightening book written by by the 'owner' of one of the most remarkable brains on the planet - Daniel Trammet. A brilliant book about how we think, learn, remember and create. And a good read as well.

Daniel dedicates his book to the beauty found in every mind.

Our brains hum with the work of making meaning weaving together thousands of threads of information into all means of thoughts, memories and ideas.

As teachers our job is to capitalize on on this natural desire to learn.
If we can do this no one need fail.

Daniel writes that each child's birth is a Big Bang - the dawning of tiny yet extremely complex cerebral cosmos. And that all brains are unique. Daniel ought to know as a 'prodigious savant' with one of the most intelligent brains on the planet.

Every brain is amazing and Daniel believes that anyone with the passion and dedication can master, or succeed, in any field or subject. Genius is not due to some quirk in the brain, he says, but requires qualities such as perseverance, imagination, intuition and even love.

It seems our role as adults is not so much to teach but to create the conditions for all sorts of innate talents to grow. Imagine a school system based on this premise.

Such a system would be a truly creative one providing a range of experiences for student's brains to make their own meaning from. The role of the teacher is in such an environment, according to Jerome Bruner, 'is the canny art of intellectual temptation'.

To believe our brains are equipped for self learning that automatically build up a model of the world over time, through the senses, would change our conception of being a teacher. Brains reuse past information to help it learn something new - it is all about seeing patterns and connections. Receiving relevant feedback help students avoid pitfalls and help them focus on good choices.

And finding, or expecting, pleasure in a task help our brains remember and learn and encourages persistence. And practice obviously help our ability to perform if seen as relevant. Expertise comes from continuous process of structured diligent study

Ultimately, Daniel writes, it what we learn, more than how, that determines the shape of our lives and even the kind of people we become. For this reason , he says, how we use our minds remains a personal choice we each have to make. After all , what brains help give us, more than anything else, is our own uniqueness and the myriad tastes and talents that emerge from it. It is part of the adventure of becoming ourselves.

Few schools follow such a creative personalised approach. This, maybe , is why so many students fail - or rather the schools fail them. Students, Daniel says, are bent to the expectations of others. As an autistic /aspergers student he ought to know.

Daniel struggled during his school years because his style of imaginative and idiosyncratic thinking did not suit a 'one size fits all' schooling. His is a typical story for many wasted minds brimming with talent but starved of opportunities to exercise it. Luckily he found other ways to feed his gifts and in the process learnt to trust his minds ability to do wonderful things.

Daniel gives standardized and intelligence tests a short shrift but is supportive of the multiple intelligences of Howard Gardner. He quotes schools using Gardner's idea where there was ' a culture of hard work, respect, and caring' , schools that, ' engaged students through constrained but meaningful choices, and a sharp focus on enabling students to produce high quality work.'

The recognition of student talent is vital as a talent pushes a person in a particular direction.Daniel believes everyone is born with certain talents which need to be recognised and nurtured.

Daniel's particular talent lie in the field of mathematics for which he feels a great joy towards. He believes, although his ability is exceptional, that we all have within us from birth mathematical abilities that only need the right conditions to develop. Daniel compares this with the facility young children have to intuitively develop language given the right conditions.That so many people dislike mathematics goes to show what misguided teaching can do.

To recognise and develop this innate 'hard wired' number sense might do much to solve current numeracy problems.Even very young babies have been shown to have intuitive counting skills or a 'number instinct'.

When it comes to creativity a sense of connectivity between all form of learning is critical. This is not obviously helped by fragmented subject teaching. All forms of creativity comes from making novel connections and is best realised in a nurturing environment ( family or school or the wider culture) that values such imaginative thinking. 'Creativity' Daniel writes, ' is not about following rules to reach a result, but rather bending or even braking the rules to create something truly original'. It is hyper connectivity that Daniel describes as, ' a kind of beautiful swirling chaos that draws on information from all over the brain to arrive at results that are truly breathtaking'.

To be creative is to be 'open to new information, new ideas' but that you , 'have to carefully edit and choose ideas...otherwise you'll get swamped'. A dash of autism may well be valuable Daniel comments as those withs aspergers have the ability to intensely focus on a topic showing great powers of persistence and an enormous curiosity and compulsion to make sense of their world.

Very early childhood is a unique period of creative opportunity which needs to be valued if we are to protect each learners creativity.

Our minds depend on information, every idea, image , story, helps shape our memory and our perceptions - in real sense, Daniel writes- data determines our destiny by creating our 'worldview'.

Conversely information overload can damage our minds as can having too little - both extremes dampen down careful reflective thinking and our ability to make meaningful connections between disparate facts.

Information is meaningless unless it can be made sense of and to do this requires an internal system of thought and ideas that can provide the context to relate it to other information we have already learnt.

Creating a creative worldview in our minds starts with a healthy curiosity about yourself and the lives, and the world, around you. Daniel advises us to never stop asking questions; to find joy in learning; to exercise our innate desire to discover truth about our existence; and to use our imagination as much as possible. Perhaps the most important thing, he says, is to treat each new piece of information as a potential piece in a puzzle and avoid simplistic solutions. Acquiring information is not the same as learning or thinking Daniel reminds us. Information only makes sense when it builds reflection and understanding and contributes to something greater.

Good thinking takes effort , or as Carl Sagan says the 'fine art of baloney detection'. Daniel quotes Sagan by saying science is about both the 'openness to all ideas, no matter how bizarre...a propensity to wonder...but at the same time .. the most vigorous and uncompromising scepticism because the vast majority of ideas are simply wrong'.

It is this delicate balance - between an openness to the beauty and wonder of novel ideas and ways of seeing and understanding our world, and a capacity to pause, to analyse, to question, and quite often, to doubt- that is at the heart of thinking well. By keeping our feet on the ground we have the best view of the stars above us.

Daniel's book is an argument for valuing individuals with different minds and to value the extraordinary abilities of everyone.

For schools the message is to develop an awareness of the wide variability of their students talents and energies. The future requires every person to be helped make the best use of their minds possible so all are in position be able to 'imagine a better and brighter tomorrow.'

This is certainly not the case at present.

Sunday, April 05, 2009

A vision of Schooling

The thoughts following have been selected from a paper written by Phil Cullen a highly respected Australian educator and former Director of Primary Education Queensland 1975- 1988. He is critical of the direction education has taken and believes in a system that has faith in the creativity of teachers. He is very concerned about such imposition as national testing. His thoughts resonate with those of Kelvin Smythe and hopefully myself. Maybe it is time for back to the future? See Phil Cullen's full paper on his website.

In his forward to his vision for schooling Phil Cullen writes that he is a 'has been' and that 'nobody takes much notice of has beens'. He says 'he loves primary schools and truly appreciates their importance'.

He asks us to enjoy his thoughts and writes 'I just wanted to do it, so I did'
. He doesn't expect anyone to take notice but we would be wise to listen to his wisdom. It is in short supply in our own technocratic Ministry.

I have certainly taken notice.

Phil Cullen is one of those people who has great faith in the power of primary schooling and has great faith for teachers who spend long, unbroken, learning charged hours with young children.
He shares with Abraham Lincoln that the fate of humanity is in their hands.

He also shares with others, including myself, a vision that portrays schools as exciting learning places where pupils will not just be happy to attend, but will be anxious to do so.

Phil worries that throughout the western world education has been placed in the hands of 'know it alls' with university degrees and with little practical experience. And all too often primary education is placed in the hands of people whose lack of knowledge of primary teaching is staggering.

The time has come for the world of primary education to be returned the their owners rather than the 'top down, some-one-else should know what to do' position. Certainly in NZ our lack of achievement indicates that little has improved since the 1980s; the Emperor has been shown to have no clothes!

Phil Cullen believes that children love learning, it is natural, and 'unless their lust for learning has been fractured they go for it'.

When curriculum are 'delivered' from those on high who know 'there is always the ever-present hope', Cullen writes, 'that the curriculum offerings do not interfere with, or spoil, pupils natural love for learning'.

The imposed NZ curriculum of the 90s have done just this.

Those who compose the syllabus suggestions need to know what they are doing so teachers can convert them into realistic programmes. Such writers need to have been done there and and done that in the classroom, Cullen writes.

It is obvious that this has not been the case since the 1990s in NZ as we have struggled to adapt an international standardized curriculum in our schools. Thankfully it has been discovered, somewhat belatedly, that the emperor has had no clothes. Unfortunately our 'new' curriculum is now being put at risk by the imposition of national testing before it even gets off the ground. Cullen regards blanket national testing, limited to easy things to measure, as an intrusion that appeals to politician and others who like to quantify progress

The classroom , Cullen writes, is the engine room of a country's future and no matter what is written it is when the teacher and the pupils get together that is what matter. Such testing is disrespectful of teachers, wasteful of school time, costly, and destroys the 'curriculum spirit'. 'learning' he says, 'is ongoing, developmental and joyful'.

'Schools are places that are especially constructed for deliberate teacher-pupil learning exchanges.A country's greatness is judged by the way it treats its children.If quality schooling isn't its first priority what is, he asks'? And continues, 'It's the quality of the interaction between teacher and pupil that ensures real learning progress.'

Cullen sees the pedagogical gap between primary and secondary education clearly but asks of both system that they contribute , by the end of schooling, that all pupils will leave wanting to contribute to be 'keen learners with idiosyncratic learning styles'. Cullen likes the word 'learnacy' coined by Guy Claxton. 'It is vogue word', he says, emphasizing, 'that there is one 'acy' word that says it all.Literacy and numeracy are part of its domain.It encompasses them and almost every other aspect of human endeavour.'

Claxton, Cullen notes, suggests there is a gap between the way we learn in school and the way we learn in the outside world and that children are hungry for the three Rs - responsibility, respect, and reality and that these can only be achieved through the three Cs - choice, challenge and collaboration. Claxton believes, and Cullen agrees ,that all children should retain their birthright to learn.

Claxton's idea of learnacy, or 'learning power', are very much in line with the key competencies of the NZ Curriculum.The word learnacy suggests that the object of schooling is to develop each pupils idiosyncratic learning styles to the nth degree.

This is obviously not the case at present in New Zealand where the 'once size fits all' mentality still persists and this conformity will only be amplified by national testing.

There is no need for any distinction between process and content as both, Cullen believes, 'can live happily together and it is essential that they do so'. Acquiring basic content is part of the process of achieving high levels of 'learnacy.

Learnacy must however predominate in the teaching acts and that pupils accumulate more basic knowledge while this 'feeling' is predominates. 'The more creative teachers', Cullen writes, 'have achieved outstanding results just by their determination to help each child earn thing better.'

This is a far cry, says Cullen, from the 'efficiency hawks' that see learning as test results a process that 'removes all sparkle and joy from the learning process'.

Cullen is an advocate for valuing the uniqueness of every learner and believes that each child determines the appropriateness of each learning experience for her or himself and no attempt at standardization will seriously alter the differences between them.

The modern primary classroom, Cullen writes, is one of the most complex social institutions on earth and those in authority must keep in mind the eccentricities of students individual needs. This has not been in the minds of those who have pretended to know better the past decades!

Imposed curriculums have put at risk the demanding and mentality challenging one to one exchanges between teacher and learner that learning requires. When pupils feel they are learning what they want to learn, 'the world', Cullen writes, 'is their oyster'.

The creative primary approach to teaching has had a long history and one Cullen's own history gives him the perspective to appreciate. The system before self managing schools (in NZ 1986) had advantages we have lost, none the least advisers and enlightened inspectors who were able to share a wide variety of teacher's wonderful ideas.

It is time, Cullen believes, for a rethink to reflect on what we it is we have lost. We need, he believes, to ensure that those in the bureaucracies are people who have had the hands on experience to know what they are doing. This is not the case at present.

In the past we valued those who knew what the operations of a school was like, people who had run a range of schools during their careers ; they had been there and done that. The old school inspectors were of this ilk, they had a close connection with curriculum development and creative teachers. As Cullen writes, ' they flew with pollen on the wings for they could recognise a good idea and were able to spread its use'. In New Zealand this sharing was assisted by advisers selected for their enthusiasm and not ther ability to 'deliver' a contract.

All this came to an end in Queensland 'about the 1990s when managerial eggheads , whose knowledge of business and corporate structures was regarded as profound moved in.' Managerial new talk' and corporate language took the place of 'school talk'. According to Cullen it was an 'unadulterated debacle' but for those involved in there was no choice - or so it seemed at the time.

The general state of affairs has remained drastic and is likely to deteriorate further. The trouble is, says Cullen, the 'the power folk think the problem lies within the schools, instead of what they have done to them. Again they are starting at the wrong end.' National testing and performance pay will only make things worse.

Both in Australia and New Zealand there is a leadership vacuum in schools to provide alternatives; educational voices ought to be influencing those in power.

As the business world's financial system crumbles it is time for a real rethink and what better place to start than education. It we want to create a sustainable country and to ensure all students leave our schools as 'confident, connected , life long learners' it is obvious that our present system will not do.

We need to tap into the wisdom and experience of those who really know how to create the conditions to inspire creative teaching if we are to move away from the present day business models and managerial experts who tend to structure things from the top .

Phil Cullen says , 'I am alarmed by what is happening at present, especially when I see the wonderful work that classrooms teachers are doing. They need proper support. Unless there is a return to purposeful administration and a revitalisation of each classroom, I remain fearful for the future'.

I am with Phil Cullen.

As it was said in New Zealand in 1986 'good people poor system' .Unfortunately what replaced the previous system has failed to live up to it's 'market forces' promises.

Their must be a better way.