Tuesday, May 08, 2012

National Standards or personalised learning?

A literacy/learning rich environment.

This month schools are required to supply the Ministry of Education with National Standards data relating to literacy and numeracy achievement,

Seems sensible enough but the process is open to the law of unintended consequences. The creations of comparative League Tables are an obvious possibility. As the system beds in I’m betting that the Government will insist on a more standardised system make school comparison easier. When this occurs then New Zealand schools will line up with what is in place in the US and the UK – both countries whose position on international testing tables are well behind New Zealand’s.

Standardizing education is an ideological imperative – part of the corporatisation of public services which requires simplistic ways of measuring progress to create a competitive environment.

More worrying to me is pressure for teachers to narrow their teaching to conform to school based requirements as schools do their best to supply the Ministry with data and for teachers to interpret their roles focussing on teaching literacy and numeracy.

All this compliance, conformity and associated surveillance places teacher creativity and initiative at risk; schools will be under pressure to implement approved ‘best practices’ in an attempt to keep up with other schools.

The general assumption in our culture is that students need to be taught to read – even to be taught to learn. When it comes to reading there are a variety of approaches for schools to follow ranging from explicit phonics teaching to what is called ‘whole language’. It seems the ‘evidence’ is that reading needs to be taught. Huge amounts of time and effort goes into teaching reading and there is a vast range of instructive materials for schools to select from.

For all this reading emphasis reading achievement changes little. In the UK, following imposed literacy and numeracy approaches, levels rose but have since plateaued and are trending down. In the USA, for all their intrusive stanardised testing little can be seen for the money spent.

I have always believed students will want to read (or learn anything) if they see there is power to be gained. The key to good teaching is to create the conditions to allow a wide range of ablities and talents ‘emerge’. As Jerome Bruner once wrote, ‘the canny art of the teachers is one of intellectual temptation’. The desire to learn this has to be seen as an innate ability – the default way of making sense of experiences. That student’s leave school as failures – or unmotivated, must be seen as the result of being in the wrong environment – at school or at home.

Back to schools. As a result of imposed pressure literacy and numeracy seem to have gobbled up the entire curriculum.

When a teacher I placed student’s inquiry central to the school day, integrating reading and other language skills, in the process. Due to some parent (and student confusion) I had to ’educate’ parents that we were actually teaching reading! As a principal I tried to encourage teachers to ‘reframe’ their reading programmes to teach the skills and cover content needed in their inquiry programmes. This is not as easy as it sounds because many teachers have been ‘conditioned’ by their own experiences to see reading as a stand-alone learning area.

I continue to believe that students will learn to read given the right conditions and that they will learn to read in their own way. Some will need a lot of careful encouragement while others learn seemingly without much assistance at all. If young people are surrounded by people who read they will learn to read. They will learn to ask their own questions and get pointers from others but this they can do by themselves. The same applies to any area of learning.

Creating the environment or learning culture and developing positive relationship with all learners is the essence of personalising learning – the antithesis of the current standardised approach of the current Government. Students will learn if immersed in a culture in which people are communicating regularly with the written word in any form much as they learnt to walk and talk. Many creative teachers have introduced reading through students interest in expressing themselves through writing and indeed the best first real books could well be the books they write ( with assistance if necessary).

It is ironic to realize that schools may be creating reading failures by their misguided attempts to ‘teach’ their students to read – failure that will be amplified by current standardised teaching.

By making reading so important those who fall behind will label themselves as failures. Placed in ability groups by well-meaning teachers only reinforces children’s perceptions- ‘once a weka always a weka’! Some of these early reading failures become labelled as behaviour problems as such students ‘lose the plot’ as they see little meaning in what they are asked to do. The more pressure placed on these children the worse it gets. Some students learn to hate reading- and in turn learning itself.

Children learn to read, or learn anything, if they see the need. They learn by being involved with others on joint tasks. Often students will help each other and thankfully students are not scared to ask for help from others. Such help is provided at the point of need not ‘just in case’ which is the basis of teacher reading programmes. At home many children write and illustrate their own stories making use of phonetic spelling and asking adults for help as required.

Every learner is unique. Everyone learns to read, or anything, in their own way. Only by observing your students can you pick the moment to provide help but give help lightly as students soon pick up that teachers have taken over. At this point many students, particularly those who have experienced failure, withdraw and stop asking for help.

Some children learn exotic words before they can read simpler ones. Some learn to write before reading. Some learn quickly and others take many years before they become fluent. Most of all children will learn to read if something has caught their interest.

I wonder how many personalised creative approaches will be overlooked in the need for schools to look good by following approved ‘best practices’ and the need to complete accountability requirements?

Teachers, like their students, can either be encouraged to be creative or compliant – they can’t be both.


Anonymous said...

Creativity has all but gone, a delicate flower at best, compliance rules the waves.

Allan Alach said...

I agree with your observations about the learning of reading, and everything else, for that matter. The more that 'experts' decree that each subject area is stand alone, and needs to be quantified, the worse the problem becomes. If someone can prove that reading, writing, maths etc is a separate discipline all by themselves then I will eat my proverbial hat. If learning of each discipline is not totally separate and isolated from others, then how can each discipline be measured?

Your bet that the government will move towards a more standardised system has already been won. We know that contracts were let in late 2011 for the development of 'tools' to assist' teachers in making their 'assessments of achievement.' This includes an online database where 'assessment data' can be entered to ranked against relevant 'standards.' It doesn't take much thinking to extrapolate where this is heading - a national database of all children's 'achievement' over the year, and, hey presto, 'proof' of teacher 'effectiveness.' This kind of thing is also in development in USA.

Bruce said...

I am afraid you are right Allan - do school principals appreciate what they are getting into?

Jody Hayes said...

Creativity and the natural curiosity of my lovely children is what makes our class interesting, motivating and fun. Not to say there is not the pressure to get them to 'standard' but I believe that what you put your focus on grows so I am working hard within my own thinking to make sure my thinking is focussed on what my children bring that enriches our class.

Bruce said...

As you say Jody it all depends on your focus.

Sosa said...

I agree that creativity and creating the "temptation" to learn are very important aspects of teaching. I also think frameworks, including the judicious use of quantification can be helpful to teachers. I am not sure it should really be treated as an "either this or that" argument. Surely, there is a middle way that doesn't treat everything as a dichotomy.

Bruce said...

I agree that either/or situations are counter productive. The trouble is schools have been pressurised to focus on narrow accountability at the expense of creativity. It is a matter of balance?