Monday, April 25, 2011

Guest Post by Allan Alach - a 'must read' and share with others blog

My principal friend Allan sent me an e-mail that was so on the mark that I asked him to extend it into a blog. To my mind it is a piece of writing all teachers and schools should read -and then pass it on to as many other people as is possible.

Schools have two choices. To go along with the populist anti educational agenda of the current government, or to decide what is worth fighting for. A good decision to make on Anzac Day or Easter

So many schools seem to have given in just to get along - swallowing unthinkingly the superficiality of 'educational Easter Eggs'. Worse still many have become 'poster schools' for the Minister - and, in line with Easter, 'educational Judas Sheep'.

Loved your latest blog post, Bruce "Authentic Inquiry Learning - the focus for all classwork."

I wish there was a magic wand to get this message into all schools and into all teachers' heads around the country, and beyond them, our politicians. Sadly I fear we are losing the battle, bit by bit. The rot set in during the 1990s and seems to be spreading, in spite of the best intentions of the New Zealand Curriculum. I guess it hasn't helped having 'standards' imposed upon schools to meet yet to be announced political agendas. I used the quote marks, deliberately as labelling these vague statements as 'standards' is an oxymoron of the highest degree. Setting 'standards' aside, why are schools and teachers not taking advantage of the NZC?

It appears that there is a pervasive need for control of children's work in the classrooms. I was going to use the words pedagogy and learning, but to my mind, what we are seeing, and having imposed upon us, is not pedagogy, and has little to do with learning either.

Like you, I am at a loss why WALT is so predominant in classrooms, along with learning intentions and success criteria. This concept of telling children what they are going to learn, before even starting the learning experience, is illogical as well as pedagogically unsound. Trying to blend WALTs and LOs, into an authentic inquiry learning classroom, sounds to me like a definition of insanity - doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results. How can children genuinely be able to inquire and manage their own learning, when the use of WALTs and the like predetermine what they will learn and do?

I believe that politicians and schools and teachers need to feel in control of the learning programme is an underlying factor. Taking hands off the learning reins is somewhat daunting as it flirts with the potential loss of control of what children are learning and doing. This begs the question though, of whose learning are we talking about? The technocrats would have us believe that the teacher is responsible for learning, hence the need to structural teaching sequences, which leads inevitably back to testing and 'standards'.

This logic of this approach goes down a one way street, which is that a child's failure to learn must be the fault of the teacher in the first instance, and underpinning that, of the school. Going further down this street, this then leads to mechanisms that target teachers, and schools as it must their fault that a child fails to learn. Name and shame these schools? Let's set up league tables. That will make them lift their game. Maybe teachers of children who fail to learn are bad teachers and should be dismissed? What about their principals? Maybe its the school's fault so let's close it. USA here we come.

Less pessimistically, I believe that the great majority of teachers do hear your message about establishing authentic inquiry learning classrooms, but as to putting it into action, that's another story. There are many factors that I think make it difficult for these teachers, who have to juggle national and school requirements as well as providing a great learning environment. Schools and teachers are overwhelmed by never ending demands to change/implement new curricula, assessment routines, reporting systems and so on. These pressures tend to make teachers inherently conservative and reluctant to take risks, and who can blame them? Unfortunately, this can lead to teachers moaning and grumbling about work load, and resistant to change: "Please don't rock the boat because we're too busy".

Busy doing what, I wonder?

For a while now, I've been wondering why teachers are required ( or choose) to do running records on all children, especially older children. Most of these children are competent readers anyway, so why use a diagnostic, time consuming reading assessment on them? Fine for children whose reading is causing concern, although running records are primarily a test of oral reading, and as such are only indicative of what might be happening. As for using them as summative tools, why?

Where did this come from? Is this the best use of a teacher's valuable time? Wouldn't spending that time and energy on children's learning be far more productive? A similar argument can be made for the amount of teacher time and effort swallowed up by numeracy assessment.

The present 'standards' focus, which is merely a repacking of the 'back to basics' movement of twenty or so years ago, and which in itself was a repackaging of the 3Rs, inevitably leads to more and more teacher time being spent on 'assessing' and categorising learners, and correspondingly less time on fostering learning.

I've deliberately avoided using 'teaching' here. We teachers have been indoctrinated that kids need to be taught. That's not new, obviously, but it does fly in the face of educationalists going all the way back to John Dewey in the early years of the 20th century. Here we are, a century later, and Dewey's message is still overlooked. Why? There's a substantial amount of direct and indirect evidence that the bulk of children's learning isn't the result of 'teaching', or 'schooling' for that matter. Ivan Illich made this clear in the 1970s. Closer to home, Elwyn Richardson, nearly sixty years ago, provided very rich examples of children learning through environmental experiences

Richardson's pupils wrote very imaginative and expressive prose and poetry, without any need to be taught the formulaic processes and rules that are current, such how to write in different 'genres' such as procedures, narrative, reports and so on. Why 'teach' children how to write in such a formal way? Do children need to know how to write 'procedures' anyway? I'd rather they master the art of expressive and imaginative writing.

If learning how to write 'procedures' is desirable, why not pick the right time/place and incorporate this as part of a study, e.g. after developing, planting and maintaining a little garden, write that up as a set of procedures. That would then make this a useful tool, used in context, not something to be taught and ticked off. The same goes for all the other so-called 'genres' of writing.

I maintain that children who've mastered the art of writing will have little difficulty adapting this art to all kinds of requirements, with the bonus that their writing will be interesting to read as well as practical. Teaching writing like this equates, in my mind, to paint by numbers paintings. Well done, the results may look like art, but will never be art.It also can be likened to the traditional teaching of mathematics, where children learned the tools but rarely learned how to use these in 'real' life.

Reflecting on this, it seems to me that the educational world (here and overseas) is being split between those who focus on pedagogy, the whole child, and their educational needs for the 21st century, and the technocrats who try to break learning down into measurable bites. It doesn't take much more reflection to see which academics in New Zealand are pushing the measurable bites barrow, and how governments are using this for their own ends. Recently I read, and took exception to, the phrase 'value added' on a political blog. What exactly does 'value' mean when used in this context? What does 'value' mean in any context?

Underpinning this is the debate over the purpose of education. Is education a public good, in which case all citizens should be provided with the opportunities to develop all their potential abilities? Or is education a means to training people for the workforce, in which case citizens need skills based learning programmes?

Like you, I see dark clouds of doom gathering on the horizon, and we may be heading for a 'ragnarok' of our own, the last battle to protect what is so precious about New Zealand's primary school education. The introduction of 'Academy Schools' in England, and "Charter Schools' in USA, provides us with an insight into what we could be facing.

We have one very powerful weapon in our armoury. All schools must demonstrate the full wonder and excitement of 'authentic inquiry learning' programmes, to really establish the contrast between what is and what could be.

It's up to us


Regan Orr said...

A very interesting post to read, Allan. You have raised many issues and comments within the blog, particularly around Standards and agendas. As an advocate for Formative Practice I was very interested in your views about LI and SC and the 'control' these have in classes. LI are valuable in the classroom setting, BUT should be focused on the skill or concept being learned. Being focused on the skill then allows for each child to meet the skill independent of their own learning and understanding. Similarly, being focused on the skill allows for student voice and their engagement. Skills need to be learned whereas tasks and activities don't. I agree, too many classes have LI that are task/activity related, which are 'controlled'. I would argues that skills based LI are relevant and meaningful. Also, SC should be broad enough to meet the LI so that again, each child can meet the LI independent and unique to their learning and understanding. As for Standards, that's another story...!

Allan Alach said...

Hi Regan
The word' assessment' opens up another huge can of worms, which I may unpack someday. Suffice it to say at this stage that it is my contention that the current assessment terminology is but an offshoot of the technocratic ideology! Heresy, I know!

Bruce said...

All this learning intentions and WALT stuff is irrelevant if the work the students produce does not show depth of thinking and understanding that reflects the student's own 'voice'.I have been to so many classes that use LIs, WALTS and goals etc and rarely see any in depth results. And you can throw in classrooms that seem to think covering their walls with de Bono hats, thinking maps, multiple intelligences charts, and Costa's 'habits of mind, even key competencies - reflects real learning. The proof of any cake is in the eating - not just the processes of making the cake.

Real engagement results in real learning as Elwyn Richardson found out 60 year ago.

I wouldn't trust half the assessment data schools collect. And most of it is about the wrong things. Time wasting , conformist and distorting. As they say continual measuring does not make the pig any fatter or plants grow faster. Growth is all about the right conditions.

We need more heresy - which, as history shows, turns out to be the real truth!

Jody Hayes said...

I must admit that even the wording 'We are learning to..' is a yawn isn't it. I am not necessarily learning in a linear way ... I am often thinking, pondering, tinkering, creating, reflecting, adapting, wondering, designing ....
Language can extend or shut down. Language holds power.

Bruce said...

You are so right Jody.All real learning goes through a messy and often confusing stage until ideas clarify.Learning is,as you say, not linear process that teachers simply 'deliver' and assess. To pretend so is to destroy creative learning and turns teachers technicians.

C. Bell said...

I agree this is recommended reading. I've shared with my personal learning network via Twitter.

Sarah Walker Beach said...

I agree with most of what you say, but unsure that making a learning objective explicit is a bad thing. An adult would understand, “Today you are learning to drive a car and to do this you will successfully use the accelerator, brake and clutch.” I would welcome your thoughts.
BTW I don’t want to sound uppity but why all the apostrophes on the ends of these plurals as there is no possession in your sentence? politicians' and schools' and teachers' need to feel in control. Ha ha knew you wouldn’t mind me asking.