Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Transforming Secondary Education – the most difficult challenge of all.Thoughts from a past age – ‘Young Lives at Stake’ by Charity James

James worked at Goldsmiths
In the late 60s in the United Kingdom there were moves to develop new comprehensive secondary schools to replace the tripartite system of Grammar Schools, Secondary Moderns and Technical Schools. New Zealand, at this time had comprehensive secondary schools but in reality the three streams existed in the one school. The situation remains unchanged but with students staying on longer at school, plus the challenges of an ‘information age’ the need for transformation is even greater.
One of the educationalists working towards a new conception of secondary education was Charity James of Goldsmiths College and in 1968 she published her book ‘Young Lives at Stake’. I think I must have one of the few copies available and it remains at the top of my favourite educational books.

Charity James believed it was important to get secondary education right if all students were to leave able to take advantage of the exciting opportunities the future might offer.  The challenge remains. Secondary schools need a radical reappraisal to ameliorate the effects of obvious social and cultural disadvantages and also to develop the needs, talents and gifts of all students

Industrial age thinking
The problem is that teachers bounded by the present live in the past and this makes it hard to envisage new possibilities but the growing discontent of alienated (and since the publication of the book growth of information technology) students provides motivation to change. Secondary schools, if anything, remain determined to lock both teachers and students in a fossilised 1950s punitive environment of isolated specialist teaching, arbitrary periods of time, timetables, streaming by ability, uniforms and hierarchal power structures.

Such schools are dysfunctional but there seems little pressure to change them – instead teachers are criticized for students’ lack of success and even poverty is not to be seen as an excuse.  We need a new model – and describing this is the thesis of Charity James’s book. Her ideas are exciting, more so today when the power of information technology is added to the mix! Knowledge is longer held by ‘expert’ teachers to transfer to students.

A country like New Zealand needs all the talent and creativity it can get and schools must be seen as the obvious place to develop such self-reliant and adaptable citizens. So far the teaching profession has not offered creative alternatives to parents. In contrast, school are becoming even more conservative to cope with the political straitjacket of National Standards and Ministry targets. Standardisation rather the personalisation is the current political agenda.

Time it seems for some courage from educators to provide viable alternatives to parents.  The field is open for change but any alternative needs to be realistic, intrinsically interesting and relevant. Anew view of schooling needs to be sufficiently diversified to ensure range of talents is able to emerge. Currently our system favours the academic s, the quick learners and the conformist students.  Too many students find their schooling too restrictive and for such students there is not the opportunity for them to identify and solve real problems – to become the ‘seekers, users and creators of their own knowledge’ as it states in the currently side-lined 2007 New Zealand Curriculum.

Charity James’ book faces up to the radical challenges of creating a truly comprehensive school able to realise the diversity and talents of all students. James reminds us that each individual student has one life to live. Schooling should at least do no harm. Young lives are at stake.

A transformed school requires a curriculum that is intrinsically interesting and involve collaborative learning experiences and this, in turn, requires a new role for teachers as facilitators, and learning consultants/advisers. Schools need to ensure their students learn how to learn and, to achieve this, teachers need to work with their students as partners in discovery. This is not ignoring the subject strengths of teachers – their specialist knowledge remains a valuable resource for students to access – and challenge.

 Charity James asks her readers to envisage a good junior class where children are immersed in a whole diversity of pursuits – and then to picture a typical secondary school class. Mind you junior classes, due to pressure to comply, are not as creative as they once were! The two pictures still represent fundamental differences of values.

Charity James warns that  it would be a grave error to go overboard for individualized learning and that being given opportunities to follow their bent does not follow that students must learn as isolates – there needs to be time when students work collaboratively  in groups and on their own. This warning applies equally to the current idea of personalized learning.

The first step, she advises, is to appreciate that within flexible grouping there will be times when students work alone. Learning is not an ‘either/or’ situation.

The second step is to recognise that programming on the basis of individual needs, interests, themes, or projects across age groups, can be one part of the day and working with more defined groups another. She envisages third or half the day would be spent on flexible grouping in interdisciplinary work an increasing remainder will be spent on interest based ‘orbital’ work, in mixed ability groups which are related to individual areas of interest working and in autonomous studies ( for example mathematics/literacy/ music) with relevant specialist teachers. Students will also be withdrawn for ‘catch up’ remedial work as required.

 The key to success is for students to be genuine decision makers involved in purposeful (to them) activities. Teachers however, in Charity’s model, still need to use their expertise to suggest areas worth investigating but always careful to ensure students ‘buy into’ the suggestions. This is in line with educationalist Jerome Bruner’s who has written that, ‘teaching is the canny art of intellectual temptation’. Students need to formulate the questions, identify the problems, create hypothesises and test them. This aligns well with the direction of the 2007 New Zealand Curriculum.

 Teachers also need to be on the alert about what skills are needed by their students, to assist their students their evaluate progress and assist in establishing ‘what next’. This sounds very modern advice! In such situations Charity James requires teachers see themselves as ‘enablers’, or ‘catalysts’ providing positive suggestions, pre-planning or sketching out possible activities for students to consider even if the study has been chosen by the students. Gifted teachers, she writes, can do a great deal to relieve the students of the debilitating fear of failure by framing problems in ways that make it meaningful for reluctant learners. This form of teaching relies for success on respectful relationships necessary to provide students the emotional security to take risks and to encourage them to express their concerns. Teachers, at all times, must keep in mind the dispositions towards learning they want to encourage in their students – in current language - the ‘key competencies’. James writes she is ‘seeking an education in which young people are actively engaged…in which they are the decision makers…and in which their perception of each other and of themselves,…is a major concern of the collaborative approach.’

Charity James suggests three different modes of engagement.

She defines this as Interdisciplinary Enquiry (IDE). Enquiry she writes, ‘is the characteristic of the person who is at heart a scientist to underline enquiry…and of a person who is more akin to the artist, concerned with creation, to emphasize making.’ Enquiry involves exploration, experimenting and explanation. The fundamental drive of enquiry is to make sense of things of expanding ones conception of reality.

Successful enquiry requires students acquire a repertoire of problem solving skills, strategies and tactics, including taking advantage of serendipity, being comfortable with not knowing, and valuing persistence and effort, common to all learning. I envisage this as mainstreaming such things as the research learning that is involved in Science or Maths Fairs and Art performances and the like.

The second is Making – making something new.

Making, James, defines as inventing new possibilities. Designing is about realising selected possibilities and not following   others pre –planned designs. Making requires rigour, collaboration, often frustration and to be successful must be meaningful to the learner

The third is Dialogue – time to engage with materials, objects, ideas or people

Enquiry demands curiosity, Making originality, Dialogue requires being aware of objects, creatures and persons through the senses and should be a continuing value underlying all school work. Students need time to observe to appreciate objects, natural and man-made. They need time to listen and to talk with others and they need time to reflect on their own experiences. Such Dialogue assists students understand their sense of identity and increases their sensitivity to others. Students also need time for private discourse for ideas to sink in.

James is asking schools to be sufficiently diversified to allow very different children to realise their talents and for all to experience success. Any success will only be achieved by the quality of student engagement through meaningful challenging tasks provided to cater for a range of appropriate levels of competence.

James suggests a fourfold curriculum.

1.      Interdisciplinary Studies based on open ended negotiated themes/studies/projects involving Enquiry and Making (IDE/M). Advisory teachers (with pastoral responsibilities for small groups of students) will be required to assist individual students with their individual learning plans (IDP) and to assist them create their portfolios of achievement. The various subject disciplines provide students with ‘lens’ to interpret experiences to create new knowledge – this echoes how students learn in ‘real-life’.

2.      Autonomous Studies – in some schools this may involve mathematics and literacy and also relate to remedial studies. Literacy and numeracy need to be ‘reframed’  to contribute skills to IDE/M

3.      Remedial Education – related to special needs holding some students back

4.      Special Interest Studies – allowing students   (individually or in groups) opportunities to follow strong individual interests arising (‘orbiting’) out of IDE/M studies.

The approach, as outlined above, goes well beyond what happens in even the most progressive primary or intermediate schools.

James sees students moving through three stages.

1.      The first two years (ages 11-13) (Our Intermediate schools). Security and recognition are paramount when first entering secondary schools. Suggested themes could be ‘Man the Explorer’ and ‘Growing Up’ plus integrated studies calling on traditional learning areas.

2.      13 to 14 year olds (years 9/10 in NZ) continues as above but with greater emphasis in special interest work.

3.      Ages 14 -16 and 16 to 18. ( years 11/13 and 14/15 in NZ) As above with special interest and pre-vocational studies. Ideally students could be assisted in part time employment, or work experience, or contributing to community life.

As far as any learning goes James writes, ‘people learn in so far as they see new knowledge, skills and interests into a context of what already has value for them’.  Ideas for learning can arise from a variety of sources - any aware group of teachers can plan any number of themes that would attract the curiosity of students. Each of the Learning Areas provides contexts that, in turn, naturally connect to other Learning Areas. Such studies will range in time from a few weeks to a whole term. Focus groups of teachers can pre-plan to the extent of anticipating the kinds of questions that may arise but in the final analysis the learning activities must be negotiated to allow student choice and responsibility.

One chilling quote in James’s book is that ‘it is very easy for teachers to become, without knowing it, the hired assassins of talent’ when they assume they know best what students should learn and assume student progress can be extrapolated from past progress. High expectations need to be held of all students. Many students who are seen as having an ‘achievement gap’ in reality suffer from an ‘opportunity gap’ which can be bridged at school. Traditional schools currently limit possibilities for many students by the use of ability grouping, streaming and setting. All sorts of grouping can be used rather than by ability. Charity James also believes that ‘remedial catch up’ grouping will become increasingly important. The most flexible grouping will be the least judgemental.

In James’s vision of schooling the class is no longer the basic unit. Students need to be grouped in clusters of 120 to 200 students ( ‘Whanau’ Groups) working with five or more teachers (who have a diverse set of skills and knowledge) with smaller clusters drawn from the larger unit as required to complete tasks contributing to, or arising out of, the current study. Up to half the time will be spent in IDE/M, the remainder of the time on Autonomous subjects (where possible providing skills required for IDE/M).  The time given to autonomous studies will depend on how well developed remedial help is being provided - this will possibly be mainly in the areas of mathematics and literacy. Some students will need massive experience of success to recover from poor learning identities that may have resulted from previous teaching or due to difficult home backgrounds. What is required is a non –judgemental attitude by teachers.  Special interest work arising out of IDE/M caters for students with special abilities or talents.

Obviously new forms of assessment will need to be developed. Charity suggests observing the learners while performing tasks to note the kind of behaviours (the ‘key competencies’ of the NZC) being demonstrated and noting evidence of growth. Students also need be encouraged to appraise their own improvements or performances as recorded in their personal portfolios. When students are involved in completing their chosen tasks plentiful opportunities are provided for teachers to observe students in action. Students’ reports would identify learners abilities in the various Learning Area noting their strengths and talents, proposals for future directions, and ways in which parents can help.

Charity’s suggestions, presented forty years ago,  outline ideas that are still valid  today  if schools are to develop   new school cultures and organisations all very different from current hierarchical secondary education.  Many innovative schools will find much in common in Charity’s ideas.

Schools, Charity writes, increasingly needs to see themselves  as enabling organisation helping students explore themselves as they are and as they could be and offering all students a smooth passage to future education work, or leisure, and able to contribute their intelligence to solving current and future problems.

The first step is for teachers and principals to consider such forms of interdisciplinary education. It might have been too early for her ideas to be established in the UK in the 1970s but the time is now right, particularly as information technology is transforming the role of knowledge in an interconnected world, making traditional conceptions of schooling increasingly irrelevant.

Charity James’s book was published over 40 years ago but, to me, still remains relevant.

Worth a read - The Big Picture Company

And John Dewey

Charity James’s book  Young Lives at Stake’ is based on  her work undertaking pilot educational innovations in secondary schools in England in the late 60s. At this time Charity James was Director University of London Goldsmiths’ College Curriculum Laboratory.


Anonymous said...

The current government's emphasis on National Standards has placed the focus on primary schools ( and in the process narrowed their curriculum ) when the real problem is the growing disengagement of students at the lower secondary school level. Charity James is a welcome voice - if from the past.

Both primary and secondary school ought to place their focus on implementing the somewhat side-lined 07 New Zealand Curriculum.

Bruce said...

Couldn't agree more. Primary schools often involve students in low level inquiry while secondary schools focus on separate subject content - a mix of both would seem ideal. More depth of understanding at the primary level and more student centred inquiry at the secondary.

Perhaps we need year 7 to 10 schools - true middle schools