Friday, December 31, 2010

A few quick New Years resolutions!

This will be short and sweet.

I don't usually make , or keep, New Years resolutions but this year will be different!
So hear goes.

This year I will pull back from working in schools. Over the years, beginning in the sixties, I have worked with countless people, influenced some but only really worked with a dozen or so like minds - and most of these people a number of years ago. I will just keep up with my reading ,blogging and writing. I still have one major presentation to make late in January and will pick my presentations in the future.

I am going to put my energy into my garden which is becoming my latest enthusiasm - I have built several bridges and walkways and planted lots of new plants. I intend to spend an hour a day in my garden.

I am going to take up painting again -well I never really took it up but this year I will make a real effort.

That should be enough to keep me busy.

All the best to every one for the New Year!

Hell I turn 70 this month - others can hold up the creative teaching flag from now on!

Jan 1 2011

PS I said 'pulling back' not giving up - putting my energy where it counts most with those inspirational creative teachers; the future leaders.

Friday, December 17, 2010

The future lies with creative teachers!

The above photos were sent to me by a very creative teacher and are the result of on tern work with a year 3/4 class.

I am more convinced than ever that real educational progress depends almost entirely on tapping the originality and innovative thinking of such teachers.

Not curriculums developed by distant experts - they need to be kept as simple frameworks for teachers to work within.

Not principals - their job is to create the conditions to encourage 'their' teachers to take learning risks and try things out within agreed frameworks . Not all this ridiculous testing and accounting for 'achievement' - measuring never made the pig fatter . And not phonics.

Not college of education advisers - they are simply educational mercenaries passing on contracted 'best practices' they never used themselves.

Certainly not Ministry technocrats - who dance to the tune of whoever pays the piper and certainly not Education Review Office bureaucrats - whose careers have been one of toeing the line and saying yes to those in power. Not the Minister - who can only sing ( badly) one limited song.The Ministries role is to create the conditions to realise the energy of principals and teacher leaders and, in turn, the gifts and talents of all students

But finally only creative teachers make real changes! And there are so few. Thanks Deborah - rooms like yours cheer me up no end and give me a glimmer of hope.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Time to stop all the standards nonsense - we are teachers not accountants.

This slide is directly from the Finland Ministry of Education.

This is from a USA teachers blog called: ( slightly abridged)
'Advice to student teachers :Hold fast to your dreams'.

I hope you remember what it’s like to be a kid because I think that’s just what we need to "make a difference."
It is all about human curiosity

Sometimes my three-year-old son, Max, complains about going to school. And I so passionately preach about how he needs to enjoy it while he can, while the scent of magic still lingers in the air. He creates without boundaries, he discovers without opinion, and he intrinsically cooperates. Most three-year-olds want to be in school. Damien Cooper, formative assessment guru, puts it like this: "Human beings come into this world innately wired to learn. We're curious. We are not innately wired to compete." But when kids advance through the grades something happens. Their natural curiosity about the world slowly shrinks and shrivels and is replaced with ( add your own words!)

A Political and business approach to education

The edge of the knife is on a direct course to core curriculum subjects like reading and writing. Math and science is all the rage nowadays. I'm sure you've heard. It seems like President Obama's pressure to improve science and math skills are outweighing language arts. Some states like New Jersey are going to extreme measures to make sure that math and science are top priority. I hope you are shaking your head -- it doesn't seem logical to me either. I do believe Albert Einstein (I think he was a scientist or something) said: "Imagination is more important than knowledge."

Where Does This Lead Us?

Here's a quick look at the science plan: Obama will work with governors and educators to ensure that state assessments measure test inquiry and higher-order thinking skills including inference, logic, data analysis and interpretation, forming questions, and communication. Improvements to assessments will also include developing tests that call for students to design and conduct investigations, analyze and present data, and write up and defend results.

I'm sure you figured out why I bolded most of those areas of improvement. Yes, you’re catching on here. They are all constantly practiced and honed while reading and writing and imagining. Right?

Think about it.

Do you think the President really wants our youth to think critically, analyze, and interpret or does he want to graduate more engineers than China? The latter will only promote the “How do I get the most points with doing the least amount of work” attitude. Is that how we’re going to change the world? Is that going to keep kids in school? Will the true thinkers, the real reformers, value what school has to offer? Better yet, will anyone even have a chance to think? As for the magic I mentioned earlier.

The New World

This is where it gets hairy. This is what you probably didn't learn in college. I'm not your boss, your teacher, or your mom so this is going to be sugarless. I want to stir your brains a bit. I don't mean to come at you at time of blissful joy. You are about to teach. But this burden you just inherited needs to be on your plate. Your dream of teaching will now be realized in a different world. The President means well. He wants the kids of America to succeed (I really do believe this). But maybe his idea of success is different from theirs and maybe his plan is one-sided. I don’t know. This may seem like a cry for the creative soul, but then again looks are deceiving. What I'm really talking about is beyond creativity. What I'm talking about is divergent thinking. You see there's more than one way to play a note, paint a picture, and write a story. Max thinks (creatively) divergently in pre-school every day.Does it have to stop?

By the time a child is in third grade we've just about bashed divergent thinking out of their psyche. And now with music, art, reading, and creative writing waiting in the gallows, it will happen sooner. Yes, math and science makes the world go round, but art makes us human.

And if the President believes that divergent thinking will emerge in math and science without art . . . well, then I'm not sure about the future of our country. Author, Donald Murray, states that we look to art for a meaning. Not the meaning, but a meaning. Real learning needs time to simmer. I'm not talking about lowering our standards. We need solid standards and we do have them, but maybe too many? We need time to find meaning within the standards and use the one that works for us. But what we're really doing is cramming years of information into months, which only leads to one-answer-one-way-fill-in-the-bubble-educational-reform. It's mediocre at best. Testing pushes teachers into sprint-and-cover mode, which does exactly that: It sprints over the deeper understandings to cover what's on the test. Teacher and Author, Kelly Gallagher warns of the this poisonous mode in his article, "Why I Will Not Teach to the Test."

Reality Check

And here's the biggest kicker of them all. If all of the politicians, celebrities, and movie makers are so concerned about the United States being number one in the world of education, then why is the current reform movement speeding in the opposite direction of number one, Finland. Check the diagram above.

I don’t think I need to explain this slide, do I? Yes, you will face resistance and feel the shackles of the standardization of American Education. There will be bouts of compromise, tears, and loads of questions. But when you finally chew through the crunchy, bitter crust, you'll find the magical stuff in the middle. That's the good stuff. Your students will always be waiting for you in the middle. You'll also find your dream: The one you might have had in Kindergarten where you proudly shouted, "I want to be a teacher!"

There is hope. Well . . . it's you, really.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Re -integrating language teaching with reality

In an inquiry based classroom every aspect of language teaching could well relate to the current study - reading to develop understanding, writing thoughts , descriptions and theories, and lots of oral language, drama , poetry. This was once the case in many schools until literacy become so dominant and largely divorced from the rest of the curriculum.

The need to express ideas is an evolutionary ability which made posible a wide range of diverse and creative human cultures.

It is this need to comprehend and express meaning that should underpin all language experiences in classrooms. Over the past decades the language experience approach, once a feature of New Zealand classrooms, has been reduced to formulaic literacy approaches. International tests have shown that literacy levels have not improved and that there is a 'tail' of low achieving students who are losing this vital means of being successful in our schools. Successful students bring with the 'cultural capital' to take advantage of current technical and measurable approaches. This situation will be worsened with the imposition of Literacy Standards and targets.

The answer may be to return to a language experience approach based on the belief that language development can only be gained when students are placed in meaningful contexts that recognise the reality of the students lives or cultures.

I believe we are now failing the very children we set out to help and in the process we are ignoring the linguistic prior learning experiences of such children.

Learning must begin with a thought provoking curriculum - one that recognises the lived reality of all students. Students need to offered the chance to use powerful forms of talk and writing in meaningful contexts leading to meaningful reading.

The children's own lives, their cultures, the sensory experiences gained exploring their immediate environment, and challenging class studies based on their own questions, need to provide the required meaningful contexts.

These approaches are restricted with the current politically inspired literacy approaches with their focus on reading.

Communication occurs naturally when students are involved in stimulating experiences. 'Curiosity is at the heart of all learning' as it says in the revised New Zealand Curriculum; we want all students to become 'seekers, users,and creators of their own knowledge'.

The teachers role ,as Jerome Bruner has written , 'is the canny art of intellectual temptation'. Teachers need to establish their classrooms as communities of scientists and artists exploring whatever captures their attention. And to do this all aspects of learning need to be integrated. Instead we are still focusing on a isolated curriculum centred approach. Even innovative schools I visit sadly keep literacy and numeracy separate from their inquiry programme.

Worst of all current 'best practice' approaches, and Education Office Review pressure, and even internal school bureaucracy are an attack on the autonomy of teachers. Conformity or consistency is being valued over teacher enterprise and creativity. Current approaches ignore the power of transformational experiences that give students 'feeling for' whatever they are learning. Current approaches all too often disassociate literacy and language from the real lives of children.

To really develop integrated approaches we need to celebrate the artistry and creativity of teachers not just the ideas of contracted advisers most of who may never applied what they are 'delivering'. Principals need to create the conditions for teacher leaders to feel safe to develop more creative ways of teaching that respects the learning identities of all the children they teach. Approaches that see students as producers rather than reproducers; approaches that result in rooms full of examples of the diversity of children's 'voices' and creativity as seen through their written language, inquiry research and their art.

Teachers need to be responsible for negotiating with their students a unique curriculum that is sensitive to their needs. For many students ( those lumped into the 'achievement tail') recognising and building on their culture and their lived experiences are important. Pioneer New Zealand teachers such as Elwyn Richardson and Sylvia Ashton Warner knew this as did many language arts teachers up until the technocratic curriculum imposed during the late 80s sidelined them. Paulo Freire, long ago, worked with illiterate peasants in Brazil and taught them to read and write by being interested in their thoughts. As they gained confidence in sharing their ideas he helped them write down key words and phrases. From these words the peasants learnt to read and write and gained liberating power in the process. All in eight weeks. An intensive language arts programme based on real purpose!! Not unfamiliar to approaches used by creative teachers such as Elwyn and Sylvia.

If we are to develop the language capability of all students we need to re-integrate literacy with our inquiry programmes. The inquiry topics should be the source of the creative energy of the classrooms. As part of this 'reframing' it is also time to rename the literacy time the language art block.

We now need to celebrate diversity in our classrooms and help all students achieve their personal best in all they do. We need to move away from the one dimensional classrooms that result from the current conformist undemocratic 'best practice' approaches. We need to 'scaffold' our help to children with care. Both teachers and students need freedom to learn in their own ways. Knowing the rules and criteria ought not constrain individuality and creativity.

Current approaches are marginalizing our students imagination; their individual ways of seeing and interpreting their experiences. By tapping into the real world of children, by valuing their thoughts, ideas and questions students could achieve so much more - beyond what can be easily measured or achieved.

Through developing their language capability children will become more powerful as individuals and learners. Through positive language experiences students develop a powerful positive sense of self; a sense of new possibilities for themselves. Education ought to be about chances for students to find out who theyare is and who they might be.

Learners currently placed in the 'achievement tail' need to be given the power to escape such a restrictive definition by experiencing equally powerful classroom cultures that build on their own cultures and experiences.

It is time to re-integrate language with the total classroom programme so all students can become 'seekers, users and creators of their own knowledge'.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Real Mathemetics

Is this work by Escher art or maths? Increasingly once fixed lines between subject areas are becoming blurred.

Over the years there have many attempts to develop a more active math programme but for all this far too many students leave school with anything but a positive feeling for the subject. The introduction of the mystery of algebra finishes most of us off.

With this in mind one wonders why maths takes up so much time in the primary school day. One reason is tradition - left over from the era of the three Rs. Another is that politicians seem fixated on literacy and numeracy as the key to success. No doubt they are important but they need to be seen as foundation skills to be used in learning contexts. And of course schools simply do what they have aways done without questioning the real purpose of mathematics and the time they give to it.

Recently I read a Intermediate School Maths scheme. The introduction was brilliant -all about linking math to real life contexts ( ideas lifted from the revised NZ Curriculum) but when I turned the page the programme was just a series of traditional maths topics.

For many students maths is a 'no mans land that has never quite yielded its secrets' according to Australian educationalist Garth Boomer. He continues saying like most teachers he, 'dwelt largely on the edges of this domain, secretly envious of the very few people...who are truly mathematicians.' I know the feeling; as do too many students.

Where many teachers now make use of their language times to develop ideas and skills to be used in their inquiry programme maths remains watertight. Maths is taught as cut and dried abstracted from real life; a matter of learning the predetermined processes and steps. Many teachers and students actually like this 'right/wrong' approach.

But maths can be so much more than this and many attempts have been made over the years to introduce a more active exploratory approach but these are lost as children grow older and teachers teach mathematics as this is how you do it. Boomer calls this way of teaching catechism - 'the act of asking questions to which one usually knows the answers and where answers are unchanging'. This kind of maths is 'school, learning' and not related to real life problems. No time for exploring, discovering hidden patterns and challenging ones understandings - more like following a pre-planned tourist guide book. This sort of teaching, Boomer writes, 'does not encourage teachers to leave the beaten track' and to use maths to explore and express ideas. Mathematics teachers, he writes, are among the most conservative of teachers.

Mathematics teaching seems decades behind the the teaching of the language arts and science ( although there is not much science to be seen). No matter what suggestion are made, teachers stick to traditional expectations, no doubt reinforced by expectations of parents, politicians and even the students.

Teachers will only change if their learning theory about teaching maths changes. They will need to change from teaching maths as catechism to one where where they see knowledge as being personally constructed and applied by each learners. This is reinforced in the New Zealand Curriculum which states that learners should be their own 'seekers, users and creators of their own knowledge'.

If teachers change their minds about maths students, in turn, will develop a more positive 'feeling for' mathematics. This needn't mean changing all mathematics. There will still be basic things that will need to be learnt until recall is automatic but for the rest a couple of ideas come to mind. The first is to introduce realistic maths experiences for students to explore (and where possible linked to the current inquiry study) and to do fewer things well. And, as well , if teachers do introduce an active maths programme them less time could be given to maths as it would be demanding to use all current time in such an active way. And maths will be a integral part of other curriculum areas.

One idea would be to make it clear to students the difference between 'practice maths' and 'real maths'. Mathematics is a great field to introduce inquiry learning processes. There are some excellent maths resources in schools to help teachers to begin such an active programme. Most physical science studies require mathematics to solve problems. The field of art provides wonderful areas to introduce aesthetic maths. Mathematics itself has plenty of interesting ideas to explore. Such things as number patterns, symmetry, history of zero, maths in other cultures, and so on. Every subject , once the right maths mindset has been established, involves realistic mathematics.

Such an active approach will need to involve collaborative group work. Students need to explore student questions, recording their findings, and then to share their knowledge. Some teachers might like to start with one group of 'real ' maths' while others are busy with 'practice' maths. Or maybe, now and then, a 'real ' maths study could replace the more formal programme.As such ideas are introduced the teachers role will also change. Teacher are already used to interacting with students, valuing students prior ideas and theories, in other areas.

Seymour Papert the computer educationalist has written that there should only be applied maths ( and science).Too much current maths is anything but applied and is only comprehended by students who appreciate the demands of 'pure' or abstract maths.

Another mathematician Dr Z P Dienes ( of dienes block fame) described the classroom situation when he said, 'It is suggested that we shift the emphasis from teaching to learning, from our experience to the children's, in fact, from our world to their world'.

We can't afford students who do not see maths as vital form of communication -a special but accessible language to help them make sense of their world. Currently some students gain a 'feeling for' maths the rest simply give up.

We need an education that sparks children's mathematical imaginations but first we must rekindle our own.

Monday, December 13, 2010

What is it all about? Future learning

Future learner need two attributes to soar into the future - to become the 'confident life long learners' of the New Zealand Curriculum - openness to new experiences and skepticism about whatever is presented to them. And to motivate them to fly they need their gifts and talents developed.

As the year winds up teachers and students will be facing up to leaving the communities they have established during the year. It will be both celebration of achievement and a time of sadness. And of course not all students will have committed themselves to being a full part of the class.

What will have made made positive learning communities will be based on the mutual respect developed between the teacher and each learner and the shared culture established that somehow tells each student 'what is expected around here'.

For those teachers with composite classes there will be at least some children who will bring to the next year class the shared expectations they have helped develop to sow the seeds to establish a new culture.

If teachers had taken a survey earlier in the year of their students attitudes towards the various aspects of the curriculum it would be interesting to see how their attitudes have changed during the year - hopefully students will now be more positive.

It is also interesting to ask your students to write out a note for next years students about: 'How to survive in my class next year'. Ask them to write about the kinds of things they think you are looking for, or don't like. You might ask them to write the best memories they will take with them from the class and/or the best things they did with you. This can be very enlightening, after all, they are the real experts about you as a teacher.

The big , often unasked, questions in the minds of all learners are:

Who am I ? Who do I want to be?

What do others think of me?

How am I doing? What am I good at? What do I need to do to get better?

Where am I going? What might I do in the future? What will it take to get there?

It is the answers to these questions that provide all if us with a sense of who we are - our identity. And it is the real role of any education system to help students develop positive answers to such questions.

It is also these questions that underpin the idea of a personalised inquiry based education. Education for the future will need to celebrate the uniqueness of each learner. To do this requires that schools need to recognise and uncover the special gifts and talents of all learners rather than, as at present, measuring them against some arbitrary standards and grading them as below , average, or above average, in selected areas of learning

Students need the opportunities to follow up their own questions and concerns and, with their teachers help, develop their own 'emergent' curriculum. To answer such questions they will need access to the traditional disciplines of learning. A personalised education will require new school structures and new roles for teachers as learning advisers.

Questions of identity are all about student self realisation. If students develop an unhealthy sense of identity trouble lies on the horizon.

All students need to leave your class, and eventually the school system, as positive , confident 'seekers, users and creators of their own knowledge'.

Tuesday, December 07, 2010

An inquiry based classroom

'How is your inquiry programme going?' seems to be a common question asked by principals these days.

Behind such a question seems the idea that inquiry is another programme to include in the school day along with literacy and numeracy.

Two things are wrong with this.

Firstly inquiry isn't a programme to simply be added to the daily programme rather it is a disposition ( their 'default' way of learning) that children are born with until it is 'flipped' by life experiences and by schooling.

Secondly the teachers I have admired over the years see inquiry as the basis for all learning - literacy and numeracy included. Today many teachers ( and schools) have allowed literacy and numeracy to all but 'gobble up' the entire school day. National Standards will further dissipate this missing inquiry dimension.

As the school year is drawing to a close I made the effort to make one last visit to a very creative teacher in local school to gather up a few photos.I almost arrived too late as the teacher, Deborah, was dismantling parts of her room. None the less I was able to take more photos in her room than many schools I have visited this year.

My visit reinforced three interrelated ideas that will hopefully become the alternative educational agenda for the new decade. An agenda to confront the 'big brother' top down National Standards demands of the Ministry of Education; a Ministry that has lost any educational integrity with its flip flops since the appointment of the new conservative government.

The first idea is to return to teachers the leadership role they deserve as idea developers ( not 'deliverers); the second is to to see the principals role as the creator of the conditions, the culture,and the agreed expectations for teachers to develop such ideas. The principal main role is to develop with all involved an agreed direction for the school - to define a vision and teaching beliefs for all to be accountable to.

This concept of 'parallel leadership', when combined with networking with other schools to share teacher strengths, makes the third idea. All combined the present a democratic educational agenda able to hold top down dictatorial mandates at bay.

For Deborah, the teacher I visited, there was no confusion over inquiry learning.It is just something she does. The room was full of interesting things for the class to 'inquire' into. She is a great example of what educationalist Jerome Bruner calls a teacher with the 'canny art of intellectual temptation'.

There were skeletons hanging around arising out of a study called 'Inside Out'. I just missed seeing a full size medical skeleton! Iam not sure where it came from but a body suit that children took turns to wear was popular - it had body parts velcroed for children to remove. This 'rich topic' had sparked (or 'generated') several lines of inquiry into a range of Learning Areas.I missed children exploring fish guts and the excitement of a fish eye, when cut into, squirting fluid across the room! This brings up the issue of planning. Inquiry learning is often going with the flow until study questions, or lines of inquiry, are defined. Predetermined planning and inquiry are contradictions - teacher artistry is required.

Bean plants climbed up the window wall with data being collected about rates of measurement and estimation of possible growth. Another maths display featured data about themselves. I was shown photos on the computer of the results of a study of mould that had 'emerged' and which developed into a major, if smelly, ( inquiry) study. The best inquiry classroom feature lots of 'emergent inquiries.

In the school foyer I saw clay animals that the children had created - the results of their 'inquiry' into clay . I was shown a 'wonder display' where children were encouraged to post things they were wondering about ( or 'inquiring') about . The wails were cover with art, language and science work - in particular an impressive spring display featuring - the centre piece being daffodils. There was also display based on parachute experiments following a school wide theme on transport( a helicopter had landed in the school grounds). I was also shown the results of studies arising out of a dead bird being brought to school -which encouraged a number of dead bird arriving at school.

I asked Deborah about her literacy programme and she replied that much of it related to developing ideas that contributed to the class inquiries. As for maths it was integrated where possible or there were mini math inquiry topics and she said the children also liked using text books as well.Variety, as ever, is the spice of life. The important thing, we agreed, is that children should see maths as another area to inquire into and get a 'feeling for'. Inquiry is about turning children on to learning - to ensure they become 'seekers, users,and creators of their own knowledge ' as it says in the New Zealand Curriculum. In other word 'life long learners' - or inquirers.

I am the first to admit that not all teachers are able to imitate Deborah's style but all teacher can move along a continuum toward a total inquiry based classroom. Other teacher might like more order and this is fine. Boundaries are important -even if only to break them.

Elwyn Richardson, New Zealand's pioneer creative inquiry based teacher ( he worked in the 1950s) classroom was once described as 'a community of scientists and artists' busy exploring their internal worlds and their immediate environment. Deborah continues this philosophy - integrating an electronic whiteboard and computers.

Teachers who plan one, or even two, enquiry studies a term have not really understood the concept of inquiry as a disposition. Such classrooms result in thin inquiry at best as literacy and numeracy still rule supreme. Not so with such teachers as Deborah. All the above inquiries are the result of one terms work!

Every school has 'stand out' teachers with skills to celebrate and share.

Such teachers are the real experts not the out of town consultants with PowerPoint's with step by step inquiry models to follow. We don't want our classrooms to be full of inquiry processes' and no real content which all too often seem to be the case. Nor do we want to become testers and educational accountants destroying the inquiry dispositions in our students , and ourselves, in the process.

If principals saw teacher as the key to real educational change, and if they saw their role as developing cultures to encourage such teachers, and if they were to network with other local schools we would have the beginning of a real educational transformation.

It is all about inspiring each other to become 'seekers, users and creators of our own knowledge'; for us all to be 'inquirers'.

Sunday, December 05, 2010

Why is inquiry learning a problem?

I was visiting local school when a teacher of a year 3/4 class called out to me to come and see her Kowhai Study. It was motivated, she said, by a previous blog I had written. Made my day! Thanks Sheila.

Link for an inquiry lesson on flax:
(Inquiry learning)

(Links to other inquiry blogs)

At a social function yesterday I overheard a comment made between a couple of principals and a deputy principal about inquiry learning.'Where are you up to with inquiry learning?' one said.The other explained about having recently had a TOD on the subject taken by a visiting expert and how they were having her back to plan the next terms inquiry units. One school was following Kath Murdock's model.

I offered my thoughts saying, 'What was the issue? Inquiry is the way all students learn , that is, until they come to school'. Then I thought I better get back to my beer and sausage roll.

On the way home I was thinking about the issue. For most of my teaching career I had been a science adviser helping teachers develop 'inquiry' into their classrooms.Science is only another word for inquiry learning.

So what is inquiry learning problematic requiring out of town 'experts' to spend a whole day assisting teachers come to terms with it? It seems that all the great work done by teachers in the past has been forgotten? Surely this can't be the case?

We are all born with ability to discover the secrets of the universe and of our own minds, and with the drive to explore and experiment until to do.Science isn't the province of 'scientists', instead, it's continuous with the kind of learning wee all do when we are young. The advantage of this natural learning is that it allows you to find out about your particular environment. It is not that children are little scientists ( inquirers) but that scientists are big children.

So why does this natural means of learning need to be reintroduced? How come most students lose the facility to inquire?

It is all to do with the assumptions ( often hidden) teacher have about schooling and possibly this is a result of current, often imposed, expectations?

A look at how time is apportioned during the day is a clue. Today most time is given to literacy and numeracy. As well assessment is also focused on these areas. National Standards will simply continue this trend.

So the question is where does inquiry learning come in?

A little history. In the late 60s a few innovative teachers in our province of Taranaki first introduced integrated units into their classrooms. Such developments occurred throughout New Zealand mainly encouraged by art advisers. Integrating learning still hangs on on during whatever time is left over after numeracy and literacy have been catered for.

Prior to this the day was compartmentalised with every element being assigned a set time. The idea of integrating learning areas was not considered. Schools reflected the efficiencies of mass production factories.

During the exciting years of the late 60s and 70s integrated programmes became the norm and as all 'jumped on the band waggon' sometimes the content of such learning left a lot to be desired. Those who did it properly developed amazing inquiry based classrooms. Some were based on science ( mainly ecological studies) and social studies ( using a 'feeling for' other culture approach) while others focused on the language or creative arts. All together, when done properly, formed a powerful learning approach. Teachers who appreciated this way of teaching used their language arts block to develop ideas and where possible integrated aspects of mathematics.

The came Tomorrow's Schools, a new curriculum that divided Learning Areas into strands , levels, and countless learning objectives; combined with the need to assess and measure them all.It was a curriculum, designed by technocrats, a mile wide and an inch deep. Schools were flooded with contractual quickly trained advisers to confuse the issue further. A later change placed greater emphasis on literacy and numeracy which focused collective school minds even further.

Innovative teachers, with their integrated inquiry based programmes, were all but forgotten. It was not the time for creative teachers. Thankfully a few schools led by such teachers ( now principals) continued doing their best to be both creative and compliant. Most principals simply complied to managerial expectations.

Now we have the 2007 New Zealand Curriculum which stemmed the tide of previous educational nonsense. Although there is no special section on 'inquiry' an inquiry model is included in all the various Learning Areas.

Developing an inquiry approach across the curriculum ought not to be a problem. So why is it?

Well the National Standards, as mentioned, don't help.They present a pull back to the past. A distortion of the schooling experience for both teachers and students.

So maybe the inquiry ideas of earlier times have been all but forgotten overlaid by decades of imposed requirements?

To develop inquiry programmes today requires schools to take one of the key phrases from the 2007 Curriculum seriously , that all students need to ' seek, use and create their own knowledge'.

Unpacking this phrase is the key to developing innovative inquiry programmes. Guy Claxton's phrase 'learnacy ( or, as Sir Ken Robinson writes, 'creativity') is more important than literacy and numeracy'. Their role is that of vital 'foundation skills' necessary to do inquiry and creative learning. The need to develop every learners gifts and talents ought to be a priority for inquiry based schools.

Literacy and numeracy programmes need to be 're framed' to allow students to develop the skills to 'seek and use' in their current inquiry studies. This is all about 'personalising' learning and is a long way from the earlier 19thC factory model that clings on in too many teachers heads.

Inquiry learning is about developing new minds for a new millennium. It requires rethinking of what school ought to look like in the 21stC. It is about how we apportion time in our schools.

There were teachers developing such 'new minds' in earlier times but now all school need to take developing such integrated minds seriously. There are those that say we are moving into a new 'Second Renaissance ' or 'Creative Age' - exciting thoughts!

Creative schools and creative teachers need to lead this change and to do this they need to escape from past assumptions.

To do this they think back to how young children learnt before school -and scientists and artists.

The vision of the New Zealand Curriculum is for every learner to be a 'confident, life long learner'; for 'learner' replace with the word 'inquirer'.

So far we are not doing so good in achieving this vision.But then we don't even assess such an important attribute! That is why inquiry learning is so important.

We just need to change our collectively minds and get on with it.Time to leave the last centuries thinking behind.

Friday, December 03, 2010

An idea whose time has come; schools and teachers working together

'Developing Teacher Leaders' by Frank Crowther, Stephen Kaagan , Margaret Fergusson and Leone Hann, with a forward by Andy Hargreaves. The book provides evidence of the importance of redefining leadership so as to work in parallel with classroom teachers.

The book calls for acknowledging teachers as the key to lasting change and asks for a renaissance of the teaching profession
. Hargreaves's preface states that 'educational leadership is at a crossroads'.

As the focus is increasingly on student learning then developing the capacity of teachers as leaders is an imperative. Teacher creativity, not imposed standardisation, is central. Teacher creativity needs to be celebrated, recognised and shared.

Principals who can share leadership with their teachers and then with other schools will be seen as the real future leaders. Crowther calls this 'parallel leadership' - connecting principals and teachers through mutual respect. Up until now, Hargreaves states, teachers have been marginalised but we all know a school is only as good as its teachers.

This teachers and principals as leaders is an idea for principals associations working in smaller cities and rural towns to consider. There is no doubt that teacher isolation all too often makes becoming aware of new ideas difficult and this applies even more so to isolated schools. Crowther's (and others ) book 'Developing Teacher Leaders' provides an exciting means to break down this teacher and school isolation and to place the centre of new ideas firmly back in schools. Nothing of lasting note has ever been imposed on schools. All the recent Ministry contracts have proved difficult to sustain.Many have disappeared without trace - thankfully!

Three things have motivated me to share ideas of teacher , principal and school collaboration.

One is a National Radio talk I heard recently about the importance of developing collaborative networks between scientific research organizations in New Zealand for their mutual advantage. The theme of the radio discussion was: there are a lot of ideas out there; no one knows everything; and if we collaborated this would result in exponential growth of shared knowledge to advantage of all.

The other is the writings of Frank Crowther, author of ‘Developing Teacher Leaders’, about school leaders tapping into the often ignored strengths of creative classroom teachers as leaders. Obviously a school aligned behind shared beliefs (often inspired by the actions of a few teachers in the school) is ideal but the next step would be to tap into teachers in other schools and to share teacher skills from your own.

Crowther calls the combination of principal and teacher leadership parallel leadership. Crowther thinks it is important to see teachers as leaders and not just as ‘delivers’. He writes that teachers have been pushed out of the limelight the past few decades.

The third motivation goes back to the months before Tomorrows Schools .

The last District Senior Inspector in our area Taranaki, Julian Hoffman, asked all schools in Taranaki to, on a single piece of paper, write out their school beliefs and what strengths the school could offer other schools. Unfortunately the idea was lost in the competitive environment established by Tomorrows Schools. Ironically school clustering and sharing is now being encouraged by the Ministry.

Would it not be valuable for local principals associations to establish a website building on the ideas introduced by Hoffman?

Such a website could have links to individual school ‘offerings’ and these could be then used by principals to search out suitable schools for their teachers to visit (examples: a school with an excellent year one teacher; teachers with ICT expertise; environmental education; inquiry learning etc.). Teachers from other schools could be asked to visit to assist in another school. Currently no one really knows the strengths of other schools.

Possibly associations would need someone to liaise between schools and to help gathering information to post on the website; and to keep the website up to date.
Most areas have a retired principal who could do the groundwork.

This process would see teachers being seen as their own experts and would provide recognition to teachers and contribute to them developing a greater sense of their own worth.

A future possibility is for teamS of teachers from different school, working on action plans, to develop ideas for use of all ('teaching as inquiry' as in the New Zealand Curriculum).This would be an excellent opportunity to develop teacher leaders.

If such a collaborative association were to be established then it could lead to developing focused shared school professional development. Bigger Conferences could share expenses in attracting top guest speakers and make use of identified local teachers for workshops.

I know of only one are which has tentatively moved along these lines (but with no website) and that are the schools in Blenheim.

As such an arrangement is informal, and not linked to any Ministry initiative, there would be no pressure for schools to comply with anything. It is just a means to take advantage of each others expertise.

The idea aligns well with the NZC intent of every student becoming ‘their own seeker, user, and creators of their own knowledge’ as it applies the philosophy behind such statement to teachers and schools.

And as we all know real innovation comes from the edge!

Time for school and teachers to reclaim their rightful positions?