Sunday, April 29, 2012
Why do so many students fail to achieve at school?
In her '70's book, Children’s Minds, Margaret Donaldson asks, ‘whether the school experience is advantageous for our children - as good as we can make it?’
‘We are faced’, she writes, ‘with something of a puzzle. In the first years at school, all appears to go very well. The children seem eager, lively, and happy. There is commonly an atmosphere of spontaneity in which they are encouraged to explore and create…. However, by the time the children reach adolescence, we are forced to recognise that the promise of early years frequently remains unfulfilled. Large numbers leave schools with a bitter taste of failure in them, not having mastered moderately well those basic skills which society demands…’ The problem then is to consider how something that begins so well can often end so badly.
Little has changed since Donaldson wrote this, but the clearly wrong remedy is the current imposition of arbitrary standards on schools. The real solution is not to blame teachers by imposing narrow accountability measures but to take advantage of the way young people spontaneously learn. Teachers must respect the learning process that begins from birth and create conditions to amplify these innate learning dispositions. At best schools should be careful not to destroy young children’s curiosity and should make meaning lie at the heart of all learning.
With this in mind, it is time for educators to consider learning from the child’s perspective, to challenge some widely-held beliefs about learning and what a revision of them implies.
When children come to school it is widely recognised that there is a wide gap between those who are well-prepared and those who are less so. The question is how to close this ‘achievement gap’ exaggerated by the home circumstances between the rich and the poor - created by the market forces ideology of past decades. As a result of increasing poverty, an increasing number of young children need more support than others to make a decent start, to become actively involved and regain their desire to learn.
It is essential for educators to believe that all students are born with a fundamental human urge to make sense of their world. Encouraging these learning dispositions, rather than recording achievement in limited arbitrary standards, must be the focus for learning for students of all ages. The teacher’s role in sustaining children’s desire to learn is vital. If teachers keep in their mind the premise of all children being capable of being competent, self determining, responsible beings then the risk of rejection of schooling is diminished. Less fortunate students will need help, but this must be given with a light touch and respect for each learner’s individuality.
A standards approach, in contrast, simply escalates the winning and losing culture; identifing low performing schools most always in disadvantaged socio-economic areas, which can be ‘fixed’ by external interventions. Overseas efforts to reduce inequalities through a standards and testing approach has often lead to burdensome and counterproductive compliance requirements and micro-management that stifles innovative teaching with little real, lasting impact.
A recent book, The Scientist in the Crib (Gopnik, Metzoff and Kuhl) the authors write, ‘One has to ask what happens to the innate learning power for many children? If we are all born to discover the secrets of the universe, why are so many children lose this love of learning; this infinite capacity to wonder and to examine and explore?’
If children are seen as born to learn, the challenge for teachers, at all levels, is to create the conditions to ensure that this desire to make sense of their experiences is not lost.
Educationalist Jerome Bruner has wisely written that teaching is the, ‘canny art of intellectual temptation’. Tempting children to learn redefines the role of the teacher and is the very opposite to the technocratic, standardised teaching that schools currently are required to implement.
None of the above will be new to creative teachers or those who teach in early education centres. In the ‘70’s educational critic John Holt answered the question how he would change schools in his book The Underachieving School by saying, ‘It would be to let every child be the planner, director and assessor of his own education, to allow and encourage him, with the experience and guidance of more experienced and expert people, and as much help as he asked for, to decide what he has to learn, when he has to learn it, how he is to learn it, and how well he is learning it.’ Today modern technology has provided students with this very environment. Holt’s response is implicit in the philosophy of the now sidelined 2007 New Zealand Curriculum which states that students should be ‘seekers, users and creators of their own knowledge’.
In contrast, those who determine the direction of education in
have decided to take schools down a
standardised pathway and do not appreciate that all learners make sense of the
world in a personal way. They do not
recognise that there can no standardised 'off the shelf' solution to equip
students for future challenges - rather we need to tap the intelligence and
creativity of all our citizens. New
Holt makes the point that, ‘almost every child, on the first day he sets foot in a school building is smarter, more curious, less afraid of what he does not know, better at finding and figuring out things, more confident, more resourceful, resolute and independent than will ever happen again in his schooling’.
It is the amplification of these innate learning dispositions that schools need to protect and amplify, rather than be distracted by obsessive testing of students in a narrow range of traditional skills. Hard as they may be to measure, these are the dispositions that ultimately count if students are to become life long learners.
Teachers should appreciate that the most powerful form of motivation stems from a child’s sense of purpose and mastery of self-chosen tasks. Tapping student’s interests and ‘tempting’ them with new ones becomes the teachers challenge. As Jerome Bruner writes, ‘we get good at what we get good at’. From the student’s concerns and questions curriculums ‘emerge’ - the approach followed so successfully by the early education Emilio Reggio approach and past and present creative teachers.
Children, being innately curious, are tempted by new experiences that lead naturally into exploring relevant aspects of adult disciplines. Insightful teachers are skilled at linking student inquiries into curriculum requirements and naturally integrate literacy and numeracy expectations in realistic contexts. ‘Learnacy’, Guy Claxton writes in his book What’s the Point of School, ‘is more important than literacy or numeracy’. What is unquestionably required is for students to be encouraged to investigate deeply into what attracts their attention, to do fewer things well, to persevere through difficulties and confusion, and in the process gain as complete an understanding as their age allows. Teachers’ task is to help their students focus on chosen tasks, cultivate their skills of perception and observation and, to challenge their thinking.
For students to feel free enough to express their thoughts, teachers must provide a safe learning environment where students learn through enlightened trial and error - as do adult scientists. Teachers, who create such inquiry-based learning communities, follow educationalist John Dewey’s maxim that ‘children are people they grow into tomorrow as they live today’. For students who arrive in class with negative learning attitudes due to difficult home circumstances, teachers must provide tempting learning experiences to compensate. Personalising learning, not standardising teaching, is the answer.
It is a sad commentary that currently teaching is dominated by a standards approach and an corresponding accountability culture.
The wisdom of creative teachers has been all but obliterated by the flood of ‘expert’ advice’ delivered by those with little experience of the reality of classroom practice.
There seems little understanding that every classroom comes with a dynamic range of very different individuals. Teaching that respects and celebrates the thinking and reality of a diversity of students is the ultimate act of creativity - creativity that is easily dulled by both school and Ministry compliance requirements.