Monday, October 04, 2010

What messages does your school pass on to students?


This students' mural of going to school in the 'olden days' gives pretty clear 'message' about what was important in such times. The green lipped backboards is central and, along the walls, the olden days equivalent of laptops . The clock stands front centre representing the importance of the timetable and a 'special needs ' corner complete with dunces hat. I am not sure that they were ever used in New Zealand? Spot the mistakes. The students are facing away from the board .In earlier days desks were screwed to the floor - no moving around allowed. And the teacher ought to be immense as she, or he, ruled supreme. In her hand is a cane or, in my time a length of supplejack, or leather strap. Note the ceramic ink wells in the desks.

What school was all about was clear. Obedience, conformity, no talking and the 'three Rs'. In those times classes were called standards - maybe this is where Mrs Tolley is taking us. This approach to education lasted up until the late 1950s -and in many ways is still the standard village dance in many secondary school classrooms
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The other day I had occasion to look at a teachers timetable for the coming term and I considered the 'message' it was giving to both the teacher and their students. All the morning were to be spent on literacy and numeracy with the afternoons given to art, te reo, technology and sports. The afternoons only went from 1.30 to 3.00. An inquiry topic seemed absent. Little emphasis was placed on students 'voice', cultures, or the various aspects of the local environment. It seems that nothing much has changed in this school?

The following are some clues to determine the 'messages' of a school?


The use of time is a major clue.


The first thing to look for in a primary school is how time is apportioned out during the day.

In a secondary school note how all students are timetabled, sorted, and graded. If learning is fragmented as if a factory it results in a ‘hardening of the categories’. Another clue is in primary schools if literacy and numeracy take up all the prime time and the other Learning Areas are virtually light entertainment in the limited time remaining. This will be exaggerated even more in such schools by National Standards, giving off more than a whiff of a Victorian mentality.

Once inside the school, look for evidence of student ‘voice’.

Does the learning centre around students’ questions and concerns or are students busy following teachers’ pre-conceived plans? Can you see, or read, their personal thoughts about their lived experiences, their responses to their environment, and their critical thoughts about whatever study has caught the class’s attention? Look for individuality in the way children’s work is presented and particularly in their art which ought to be as diverse as the students. Do classrooms have an aesthetic quality? If in primary classroom, students’ ‘voice’ is overwhelmed by literacy and numeracy demands and in inquiry studies student ‘voice’ is often missing with children happy to simply present information, this too is a clue.

To solve these problems teachers need to reframe both literacy and numeracy as vital ways for children to express personal, critical, or interpretive points of view in their inquiry studies.

In such classrooms literacy is used to ‘frontload’ content by developing comprehension and information inquiry skills to contribute to current inquiry studies. Such an integrated approach makes literacy and numeracy more important and more meaningful.

It is important if students are to become active learners for them to tell their own stories, to pose their own questions and to make their own interpretations of what they experience. If their ‘voices’ are not recognised there will be many who will continue to disengage from their learning. That is the problem that standards are meant to solve!

Learning is essentially personal. How personalised is learning?

We all invent ourselves in response to experiences we have. It is obvious that it is impossible for every student to have their own programme but it is possible to value each learner’s interpretations and creativity. Teachers, who believe in a constructivist approach to learning, who respect learner’s prior knowledge and skills, and who give whatever help is necessary, are well on the way to personalising learning.

There are also teachers who follow James Beane’s model and negotiate a curriculum based on asking students for the problems, issues and concerns they would like to study. From such an emergent process curriculum themes are democratically arrived at and then students individually, or in groups, become personally involved in purposeful research. The ideas behind science, mathematics, or science fairs can be extended to part of normal teaching. The Reggio Emilio early education schools of Milan are excellent models of true community schools whose curriculums ‘emerge from their students’ interests. This approach was common in New Zealand primary classrooms of the 70s and is equally relevant today.

Does the school value students’ gifts and talents?


All students are different and ‘one size’ never fitted all. As students progress through school their innate differences ought to become more diverse. Current pressures for standardisation and focusing measurement on a narrow range of academic abilities repress such diversity. Schools must celebrate diversity.

Howard Gardner tells us that children can exhibit intelligences in a range of areas – the visual arts, music, sport and dance, mathematical and logical thinking, natural history, linguistics, and inter personal and intrapersonal skills. Do schools recognise and value these or do linguistic and mathematics ‘intelligences’ dominate? And if this is the case what happens to those students whose talents lie elsewhere?

Imagine if schools made developing students’ creativity their central focus and then introduced appropriate skills to help then realise their gifts? Such teaching would move teachers well beyond predictable ‘best practices’, or standards, and asks them instead to accept the ‘unknowability’ of what might evolve. Personal excellence based on a comparison with previous achievements would be the criteria for success.

Does the school assess values and dispositions?

Schools in past decades have been encouraged to demonstrate achievement in literacy and numeracy and no doubt this will be exaggerated by National Standards. Some schools however are also recording students ‘feelings for’ the various learning areas and are able to demonstrate how their students’ attitudes have improved through the year. As well, other schools are making efforts to assess students’ dispositions towards learning - the competencies that contribute towards ensuring all students become confident life long learners.


How central is inquiry in the school?

In schools that believe in inquiry classrooms reflect students’ questions, prior ideas, theories and evolving ideas being gained as they learn. There are a number of inquiry models but the base of all ought to be the realisation that inquiry is the ‘default mode’ of all learners from birth. Just as students were born to create they were born to inquire and search for personal meaning. That this desire to learn, this love of learning, often dulled by schooling ought to a concern of all. There are those who see process as the new content but the revised curriculum is clear, both content and process are to be seen as complimentary. Learning how to learn is the shadow of in-depth inquiry. A study without real content is a study at risk.

If inquiry was truly central to learning then the results would be plain for all to see. The room would be full of the results of authentic studies covering a range of learning areas. The walls would be covered with study questions, research findings and processes - not just de Bono’s hats or an outline of an agreed inquiry process. The visual environment ought to be seen as the teacher’s main message system and the importance of aesthetic expression in all forms ought to be an integral part of such a message system

Authentic assessment ought to be based on what students can do - particularly in a new situation. ‘It is what children do when they do not know what to do’, that is the key to future success according to Piaget. Innovative schools are requiring their students to undertake a self-chosen inquiry challenge towards the end of each year as an assessment task. Such tasks clearly demonstrate how well students are able to use the critical seeking, using and creating skills required for such learning.

The hardware of information technology is often shown off to visitors as an indication of up to date thinking but all too it often over promises and under delivers. However, if used wisely, it contributes to in-depth inquiry and could eventually transform education, as we know it. Used unwisely it can result in shallow learning. Nothing should be researched that can be answered with one click of Google! A quick look at students’ presentations and bookwork will show, through the language used, if inquiry is robust or if ‘cut and paste’ and shallow thinking is the order of the day.

What is the role of the teacher in the school?

In such a democratic environment the role of the teachers is vital. No longer to be seen a transmitter of predetermined content and chief judge the teacher is now much more of a creative learning coach providing help, negotiating tasks and criteria for student self assessment. And that help should always be given with a light hand.

Creative teachers understand the need to do fewer things well, appreciating that something done well can be a transformational experience for a learner. Not only do creative teachers help students see connections between learning areas they also appreciate the importance of enriched sensory experiences gained through first hand learning.

Most of all creative teachers work hard to establish a democratic, trusting relationship to allow students to take the necessary risks to learn.
As part of such an environment teachers need to negotiate benign classroom organisations, often defining group tasks, to provide their students with a sense of structure and predictability. All too often primary classrooms are too heavily structured in literacy and numeracy and then too open for the rest of the day. And secondary schools too timetabled, fragmented and disconnected. Successful learning depends on organisational patterns that allow students to work independently (often in groups) and also allow teachers to focus on helping those in need.

What is the 'message' given of a future learner?

Teachers, in all their interactions, need to keep in mind the vision of the learner they want to develop. Guy Claxton suggests that students need to be encouraged to be curious and to ask questions; to be resilient and to stick at things; to be willing to ask for help and accept feedback; and to step back and think things through. He asks of teachers to envision their students as ‘brave and confident explorers, tough enough in spirit, and flexible in mind, to pursue their dreams and ambitions’.

The revised curriculum is premised on a vision of all students being ‘confident lifelong learners’ and sees students as able to 'seek , use and create their own kowedge'.

This is not what I see when I visit schools and, heading towards National Standards, is heading in the wrong direction.

7 comments:

Anonymous said...

It is sad that just when schools had the opportunity to be more creative with the NZC they are now rushing back to traditional approaches. Too many literacy and numeracy contracts and advisers haven't helped much. Then there are all those conservative principals!

Alison said...

Howard Gardner doesn't get a look-in. Although, ironically, principals are probably very confident that learning IS personalised and that we are catering for differing learning styles and talents. But of course we're not. Literacy and numeracy in very 'testable' modes completely smother everything else.

Bruce said...

You are right Alison.

In my experience many principals do think they are personalising learning when they obviously aren't.And I think many are against the standards not because of philosophy but because it just takes what they are currenty doing too far. As for inquiry learning it is lost in all the literacy nonsense when it should be central to learning and literacy.

As anon said they are a conservative bunch.

Gary Borg said...

Bruce,
Thank you again for challenging schools and principals on what should be our real focus in learning.At present i am just finishing off your book, "Quality Teaching & Learning" and love the way you have presented teacher & students as 'co-constructors' of learning.Can I recommend a book from Australia;'Focus on Inquiry" by Jeni Wilson & Lesley Wing Jan. It also provides practical applications to inquiry in the learning space. I am in a fortunate position to be starting a school in the western suburbs of Sydney and have a real opportunity to develop something creative. I have tried to share my thoughts on my blog http://principalville.blogspot.com/
Keep sharing your challenging ideas!
Gary Borg

Bruce said...

Thanks Gary for taking the time to reply. I am pleased you are finding my book useful - I originally developed it as series of actions plans. I have heard of the authors you mentioned and will track down their book.

All the best for your new school.If I can be of help contact me.

I gave a keynote to the NSW Principals Conference a few years ago and followed it up with working for some schools in Coffs Harbour.Good fun.

I have been to your blogsite and am impressed - I will go now and leave you a comment.

Anonymous said...

The 'message' given by most primary schools are that the important things are the '3 Rs'. They take up the 'prime time' and the little time remaining is given over to light entertainment. Schools are conservative by nature and do not really believe in creativity, the expressive arts - or science for that matter.

Bruce said...

Schools really haven't changed that much over the years - still flogging literacy and numeracy to the exclusion of the creative arts and science; too busy to focus on developing their students' gifts and talents.