Populist politicians, their supporters, and the media see the answer in simplistic terms – what is required are National Standards ( tests) to identify the students at risk and to focus teachers to correct the situation. Like all simplistic solutions it is not as simple as such people would think.
The conventional wisdom sees that teachers and students deserve most of the blame and that a little bit of ‘market forces’ (pressure to improve or face the consequences) will do the trick. Test. Rank. Reward. Punish. Publicize. Penalize.
The irony is that we already know which students are failing and the suggested cure will be worse than the problem – it certainly will narrow the curriculum even more than it currently is but, worse still, it will put at risk teacher creativity and the unrealized potential of the new curriculum. The National Standards will become the curriculum!
And all this totally ignores how students learn.
Students are born with an innate desire to make sense of their experiences. This is their default mode and it is putting this mode at risk which is creating the so called achievement tail and the eventual disengagement from learning.
There is a lot of talk about complexity theory, or system thinking that seems to have bypassed school totally yet it is the system that young learners make use of from birth. Not for them the need to fragment learning into subjects – they simply make use of whatever is required to solve their problems. Only, it seems, do scientists and artists retain this facility. Young children, artists and scientists are drawn by their intense curiosity and need to express what they discover. For such learners there is no such thing as a need for motivation or any worries about failure – these concerns only begin when adults interfere with their learning process.
They are system thinkers, creating connections as they learn; continually revisiting and revising their theories about how the world works. It is a process of enlightened trial and error – the essence of life long learning.
Trouble happens when this systems approach to learning clashes with the conventional subject fragmentation of the school system. The students who fail are those who cannot cope with such fragmentation, or more basically, lose faith in their personal systems of learning that, up until formal learning, has suited them well.
At school they have to achieve according to what adults presume they ought to be able to do. Many children arrive at school with the appropriate experiences to cope with school in place, and obviously succeed, but at the price of their individual creativity. For others, with less school orientated backgrounds, it is the beginning of losing faith in their own ability to learn for themselves.
Imposing National Standards will not help such students –what is required is for adults to appreciate how children learn. This is the real challenge. Teachers need to appreciate that their efforts to assist learners can both help or hinder.
The problem with ‘failing’ students is one of motivation – motivation they had before they reached school. Their intrinsic motivation is replaced by this thing called the curriculum. It is the curriculum that is causing poor achievement. The educational reformers have been immersed in the traditional curriculum all their lives – they literally can’t imagine alternatives to it. As the saying goes the fish are the last to discover water.
There is already a curriculum available for teachers to tap into –every student brings with them their own lives, their curiosities, their concerns , their questions, their sensory impressions, their theories, their environment, all available to be utilized, amplified and extended by the teachers. In the past creative teachers did exactly this. It was the bread and butter of innovative primary teachers until curriculums were imposed – particularly the incoherent learning objective curriculum of the 80s Today the early education Emilio Reggio schools of Milan continue this tradition as does the writings of James Beane for middle school students.
In this emergent and personalized learning approach traditional subject area are not simply dismissed they are still vital but must be used in context of the child’s learning. By means of internal motivation children will want to talk about, write and use number to describe and express what they see, imagine, do and feel. If they see the point of writing , reading and maths they will happily make use of the power of each to express what it is they want to say or do. As mentioned this was the basis of the child centred learning of the 60s – until ‘our’ curriculum got in the way. And of course music, dance, drama and the visual arts, and modern ICT, all will be used if students see the point, or if it is to their learning advantage. It is a world of connections and relationships – which is the basis of complexity theory or systems thinking.
As system thinkers, students use whatever they need to satisfy their curiosity or to solve a problem; they will happily cross traditional subject barriers. They come to school (well all except those whose experiences have been less than wonderful) as ‘confidant, connected, active life long learners’, already able to ‘seek, use and create their own knowledge’. This is the vision of the New Zealand Curriculum. The challenge it is not so much to develop these future competencies but instead not to crush them.
National standards will distort this natural way of learning. So will well intentioned ‘best practice’ teaching’ based on ‘expert teachers carefully shepherding their students to achieve outcomes defined by external criteria, pre planned teaching intentions and required evidence of success. Such formulaic teaching will develop competent conformist learners. Standards simply standardize and create winners and losers; all a time when creativity and talent development is at a premium.
Those children who currently succeed under this imposed technocratic model of learning may well be competent but they certainly won’t be creative. And, as well, we will still have our ‘achievement tail’. Problems of boredom, discipline, disengagement and burnt out teachers will still be the inevitable consequences.
The role of the teachers is to help every student recognize and amplify their natural gifts and talents and their ability to work with others. This is a creative and hopeful challenge. It will require teachers who will still to know their content so as to provide help as required; but ‘just in time rather than just in case’.
Students have an organic ‘system’ of learning hardwired into their brains. The teachers role is, as Jerome Bruner has written, ‘the ‘canny art of intellectual temptation’. We need to expose our students to all the forms of learning that make us human. As teachers we have to surface, acknowledge and cultivate our students’ knowledge making frameworks. This desire to learn is one of our deepest drives. That this love of learning is lost to many students need not be the case if we changed our own minds about learning and worked with their default mode of learning.
It is our curriculum based fragmented thinking that is the problem. A curriculum that ignores the natural thinking capabilities that students bring with them contributing to school failure – but who is failing who? It is conventional wisdom that is the problem. Learning is not simply passed on, and tested, it is created individually by each student. This is the basis of constructivist teaching.
Who would want to learn if one can't see the point of it?