Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Learning Without Limits – personalised learning

 The future:Mondrian or Jackson Pollock

Education is caught in no mans land - between an education suited for a unpredictable  but potentially exciting future where students will need all their gifts and talents identified and all the learning power  they can muster to thrive or an ideology that seems determined to conform teachers and students by standardized approaches tied to National Standards and league tables.

Mass standardisation or transformational personalised learning? To be or not to be....

Towards the end of the previous government the then Minister Of Education was keen to share ideas about the need for personalised learning an obvious extension of the 2007 New Zealand Curriculum. The new conservative government has another agenda – one determined by a corporate approach to learning (for more read about GERM). This new agenda is based around assessing children by ability against National Standards leading eventually to league tables and national testing. RecentlyNew Zealand educational academics came out strongly against such an approach. Read what Tapu Misa writes about league tables in the Herald
The issue is now a moral one for school leaders – to comply or to stand up for what is educationally right. One respected principal has already expressed his concerns.

Ability grouping has long been take for granted but it is time to question this practice – schools that continue with such an approach are already well on the way to the standards approach.

New Zealand has had a well-earned reputation for creative holistic teaching – schools need to consider if it is worth putting this at risk.


The book Learning Without Limits developed from the practice of teachers some practical pedagogical principles that give schools keen to fight for what is right  some guiding principles– to place inquiry learning central to their programmes as outlined in the 2007 New Zealand Curriculum.

As teachers  taught in a way that set aside notions of fixed ability were studied  common principles emerged that contributed to the lifting all students’ capabilities.

Pedagogical principles to develop active learners:

1 The principle of co-agency- the power to transforming learning capacity of all students is to be seen as a joint enterprise between students and teachers. This principal includes co-constructivism; negotiating learning with students; the valuing of student’s questions, valuing the contribution of student’s prior ideas and respecting and challenging their theories. Students need to learn to make their own choices and take responsibility for the consequences.
2 Within common inquiry activities in any learning area there is scope for diversity in experience, activity, modes of recording through giving students choices so they can construct their own personal meaning. Connecting with learner’s hearts and minds.
3 To ensure all students developing a sense of trust and shared responsibility for their own learning and behaviour.   Developing the possibility all can be trusted to learn given appropriate conditions, help and time.
4 The principle of everybody. Choices must be made in the interests of everybody not for specific determined ability groups – some children will dig deeper into learning depending than other .Students working in diverse groups to solve problems and present ideas... The emphasis is on a common starting point not the stopping place rather than being limited by ability grouping.
5 The principal of trust. Teachers by negotiating with students a range of activities trust students to construct their own meanings and strategies The teacher’s role is to make certain the right conditions are in place and appropriate activities are available that connects with student’s concerns.
I am sure that the above principles will be similar to those held by creative teachers and they certainly align well with the intent of the 2007 New Zealand Curriculum’s vision of creating ‘lifelong, engaged connected learners’ – learners able to ‘seek, use and create their own knowledge’.
It is obvious that the contexts for learning are vital. All teachers involved developed practices and learning experiences based around the core idea of transformability.
All teachers also found that this kind of teaching was made difficult by government policies. As one teacher wrote, ‘we were very constrained in what we can do …the government prescribing how one sets targets….about raising achievement in a completely measurable way…it’s a very limited view of achievement.’ Also damaging was the ‘narrowed focus on”standards” rather than achievement in the widest sense.’ Other constraints were the ‘Literacy and Numeracy Strategies; the amount of paperwork required of teachers; and all this in an environment of national testing and league tables!

Teachers had to to cope with the negative environment of imposed requirements as well as their own capacity building strategies – this made their work more difficult and demanding. Some of these constraints were mediated by the schools they worked in.

Ultimately teachers can only do what they can do within the contexts they work in. For the work of such teachers to be taken advantage of teachers need a political climate whereby teachers can be feed to make choices.

Teachers who want to follow a transformational (personalised) approach need to first free themselves from the constraints of fixed ability grouping – still the most common way to teach children in schools.
Once teachers are freed from the ability grouping mind-set they will be able to teach in a way that makes use of their full power as teachers to develop the untapped gifts of all their students.
There can be no standardised procedures but teachers can learn from one another – the theme of the Teaching Without Limits research. Such teaching has to be highly sensitive to the school context, the minds of individual teachers and with the mind of every student.
A whole school committed to enhancing the learning capacity of all students will have to work with its community to achieve success – and to network with other creative schools and their teachers. This is a bottom up transformation.  One model that comes to mind is the Reggio Emilia school of Milan – ‘ the image of children as rich, strong and powerful…They have the potential, plasticity, the desire to  grow, curiosity, the ability to be amazed and the desire to relate to other people and to communicate’.
The future is about a pedagogy of respectful relationships. The vision of the book was to contribute to realizing a vision of schooling that allows everyone to enjoy a full education – specifically the purpose of the book was to develop a model of education that would lead to the rejection of ability labelling.
The book was written to encourage others to think hard about the negative results of ability grouping and the need  to provide positive alternative – something within the grasp of all teachers; one that many teachers already are well on the way to such enlightenment.
The authors appreciate it is not an easy task.
Teachers need to campaign for national policies to ensure the vision of all students succeeding will be realized.
The choice is simple to work in schools being put under continuous surveillance and constant pressure by a succession of politically imposed initiatives and external accountability measures or resist the pressures and work for change based on educational principles. The worse thing would be to become conditioned and following external demands.
Remember people accomplish so much more working together than in isolation.
The idea of developing every learner’s capacity to continually grow and to develop all their talents and gifts is worth fighting for. It is within our grasp if we change our minds first about the limitations of ability grouping s first – it can be done.

Check out this alliance of schools choosing not to use ability grouping


Rosie the riveter poster - an image that encouraged US woman to join the work force in WW2

5 comments:

Anonymous said...

I have to admire you Bruce but do you really think schools can appreciate the negative effects of ability grouping. As you wrote schools are already doing the opposite - rushing into setting students by ability in numeracy and literacy. And , I bet, they will equally rush to show results, to all and sundry, how good they are! So much for creativity!

It won't be long and NZ teachers will be in the same position as teachers in the UK, the USA and Australia.

At least you will be able to say you warned them!

Bruce said...

Thanks anon. You are possibly right.

It is a bit like the saying 'When you are up to your backside in crocodiles it is hard to remember you came to drain the swamp'. Good teachers are often too busy to notice changes that occur in kids perception of themselves due to ability grouping over time.

Nor do they have the time to stop and think about the consequences of what is being done to them -National Standards don't seem too bad but when they morph into national testing and league tables they will constrain creative teachers - as in the UK. the US and Oz.

The biggest worry is that principals will will find themselves in a culture of boasting about their school - to attract parents.

I just wanted to share ideas in the book.

Mac Stevenson said...

Oh Bruce. The worry is that principals will not only do this boasting, they have in fact done so since 1989 and were encouraged to do so through the expectations of Tomorrows Schools.

Unfortunately these are now today's schools and are becoming even more subject to the competitive model. The flight from low decile schools proves this in spades.

If only the creative teaching you promote were the norm what great learning experiences we would provide for kids.

nzkoobi said...

Bruce - is there another blog in the series?

I would like to see some of the lesson designs/structure and the 'how' - in my situation I have 22 Y4 - Y8 children. As a teacher - principal I am ideally placed to teach in this way without the school management team giving me grief!

I spent some time on the Wroxham school website and they very carefully 'play the game' with their preparation for National Testing etc. I think it is a case of paying the piper! Comply, thrive in the NS environment but be a creative teacher.

Bruce said...

I fear you right Mac. All we can do is hang on until the political climate changes - so far Labour hasn't produce much to enthuse about ( oh for Steve Maharey - although now he busy boasting about Massey). I believe there is an alternative evolving.

Koobi - the book's examples don't really help - it is the attitude towards teaching that comes through. As for Wroxham they have to play the game - actually it is no game with testing, league tables etc.

The challenge is how to teach without ability grouping.

If it were me I would really get to know the attitudes and abilities of kids towards learning - partic in reading and maths and focus personalized help for those in need of help to improve their confidence and attitude.

I would place emphasis on introducing interesting whole class challenges in literacy and numeracy with tasks to extend the capable to the highest level . Think of something as basic as writing practice - teacher knows who to assist while other are busy on realistic practice.

Where possible literacy and numeracy should contribute to the current study topic - and seen as 'foundation skills'.

Having a authentic class study with lots of opportunities to give kids choices and to make use of their talents is the key.

To gain 'immunity' you have to be able to show/demonstrate/ exhibit real quality results. Doing fewer things well is the key for me.

Most of my blogs are about this kind of teaching.

The basic premise seems simple but it requires considerable teacher artistry.

The book explains there can't be a simplistic one way of doing transformative teaching.

I am afraid the book doesn't provide magic answers - it is essentially about the mindset teachers bring to their teaching.

At least use ability grouping as benignly as possible and place emphasis on the provision of relevant learning experiences.

And encourage individuality in students work - value and protect their sense of self - their identity. It is the negative self images resulting from fixed ability groupings that inspired the writers of the book.

My real worry is that present 'best practice' teaching and standards are pushing schools towards ability group teaching.