Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Schools as communities of fixed ‘best practice’ or schools as learning organisations based on the evolution of‘next practices’.

Teachers between a rock and a hard place!

A year or so ago I wrote an article for the Education Todaymagazine headed ‘Teachers in No Man’s Land’. My theme was that primary teachers are caught between implementing a student centred education and an education influenced by ‘best practice’s adapted from the business world.
Teachers, like the soldiers caught in no man’s area in World War One, were doomed no matter what direction they chose. Today teachers seem just as confused not knowing whichagenda to follow and, worse still, oblivious to the agendas being imposed – all too often exhausted just trying to implement what they are being asked to do. To extend the theme teachers are all too often ‘led’ by principals, who like World War One generals, have no idea what they are asking their teachers to do.  A s a consequence wrong decisions, influenced by Ministry compliance requirements (National Standards – and the inevitability of League Tables) and the surveillance culture created by the Education Review Office, being made
Easier it seems to do the wrong things well.
Forty year waves of change!

I read many years ago that big world-wide trends come in 40 year waves influences all in their way.  After the failure of capitalism resulting in the Great Depression and also the waste of lives in World War Two Western societies developed welfare societies in a democratic attempt to develop the potential of all citizens not just the elite power holders. In New Zealand the first Labour Government develop a range of state organisations and, as part of this, new liberal ideas about education were promulgated. Every student was too receive an education best suited to their needs.
The sixties were seen as the high point of these world-wide changes. After the austerity and need for security following World War Two the sixties, reflecting growing prosperity, was a period of great creativity challenging  traditional ideas in all areas of life. Education was no exception. Child centred educationwas encouraged by the then Director of Education, Dr Beeby, In England child centred education was officially recognised by the then government’s Plowden Report (1967). In New Zealand experimentation was also in the air. In 1964 pioneer creative teacher ElwynRichardson published his inspirational book ‘In the Early World’. Another creative teacher Sylvia Ashton Warner also published her book ‘Teacher’. The then Department of Education encouraged such developments. Junior teachers introduced developmental education, family grouping, integrated programmes and in particular the language experience /reading/writing approaches that were highly regarded worldwide. Another important influence was the work of the art and craft advisers (led by the late National Director for Art and Craft Gordon Tovey) which tapped into the creativity of teachers throughout New Zealand.
Exciting times to be a teacher.
By the 1980s economic conditions had changed for the worse and new worldwide trend  arose that was to change the direction of all aspects of society and, once again education was not to be excluded.
This Neo-Liberal ‘wave’, based on ‘market forces’,  individual responsibility, choice and the centrality of a  privatisation agenda influenced all aspects of life. The changes hit education with the introduction of Tomorrows Schools in 1986. The Education Department, regional Education Boards school inspectors and advisers were disbanded; proponents of the changes believed such bureaucracies stultified individual school creativity. The baby was to be thrown out with the bathwater! Schools were to be governed by Board of Trustees.
The market forces society!
Confusion and ambiguity reigned supreme. Schools enjoyed the greater responsibility to develop approaches that aligned with their philosophies (those that had them) but soon it became apparent that the freedom was in many ways an illusion as compliance requirements were imposed by the Ministry of Education and achievements reported on by the Education Review Office.   The imposition of the New Zealand Curriculum dictated to schools what was now to be expected.  Countless learning objectives in eight Learning Areas, arranged in arbitrary levels were to be assessed.
The revised 2007 New Zealand Curriculum briefly provided both relief and inspiration – every student to be seen as ‘a seeker, user and creator of their own knowledge.
This return to a learner centred education was to be short lived. A new conservative government set about imposing a return to a neo –liberal agenda based on business ‘bestpractices’. When ‘best practices’ are taken too seriously, as they are by far too many schools (once again reflecting a lack of real educational philosophy), creativity is crushed. As a result ‘communities of best practices may well be achieved   resulting in conformity rather than creativity. Formulaic ‘best practices’ becomes the norm.  Examples to be seen are an emphasis on teacher predetermined ‘learning intentions’, WALTs (we are learning that...); success criteria and an obsession with recording achievement in literacy and numeracy. Such ‘best practices’ do have value need to account for creative individuals otherwise sameness is reflected in classrooms.  National Standards, national testing and comparative ‘league tables’ are natural extensions of such ideas as are value added assessment leading to teacher appraisals and comparative school performance measurement.
So this brings us to the future.
Each forty year wave seems to sow the seeds for its own destruction. The freedom and creativity of the sixties finally resulted in individual selfishness the basis of neo liberal thinking. Welfare security led to a bureaucratic nightmare and middle class capture. Neo liberal thinking in education creates conformity and narrowness of thinking (teaching to the tests) requiring a new sense of creativity.
The future requireskeeping what is good from the past - reviving what has been lost and creatingconditions for new ideas to emerge. Emergence seems a key word. Someone has said ‘we need to return to the sixties but do it right this time’. Certainly in education the ideas developed by the creative teachers of earlier times such as Elwyn Richardson need revisiting.
Two educators that provide inspiration for future orientated teachers are Sir Ken Robinson and GuyClaxton – but they are only two of many innovative thinkers who are callingfor an educational transformation. Sir Ken says the ‘creativity is as important as literacy and numeracy’ and believes a future education system ought to focus on developing the gifts and talents of all students. Guy Claxton has written that ‘learnacy is as important as literacy and numeracy’. These ideas are reinforced by the 2007 New Zealand Curriculum’s (currently side-lined) phrase for teachers to see students as ‘seekers, users and creators of their own knowledge’.
Creativity as important as literacy

Currently, as one commentator has written about primary schools, ‘it is as if the evil twins of literacy and numeracy have all but gobbled up the entire curriculum’! ‘Best practice’ becomes ‘fixed practice’. As for secondary schools they are still locked in a traditional shape, with their timetables, subject compartmenting, streaming, bells and uniforms, determined by the factory metaphor of an industrial age.
Rather than developing schools as conformist ‘communities of best practices’ we need todevelop schools as ‘learning organisations’ – centres of ‘next practice’.
A new world wide theme is gaining strength. A world of connections. A world that needs to evolve so as to be sustainable. A new fluid organic  emerging world, continually recreating itself. The importance of ecology in both natural and human communities. The destructive ideology of market forces and individual greed is coming to an end.
A constantly evolving universe

World-wide there afew schools that are leading the way in this new educational development but, to my knowledge, few schools as yet in New Zealand.
 I would love to be proved wrong.

1 comment:

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