Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Bridging the Language Deficit Gap – appreciating that before the word comes the experience!

John Hattie
Alexandra Horowitz
& the
'The need for rich conversations'

In a recent article in the New Zealand Listener ( Feb 23 2014) research by  educationalist John Hattie  stated  ‘that infants start building their knowledge from day one – and that the nature and volume of that learning can set up a child for lifelong learning success or failure.’ I think we all knew that?

Another Hattie study confirmed that in reading at least, ‘the poor get poorer the rich get richer….if you don’t read by eight you don’t catch up.’

Research states ‘if you look at the number of words some kids know when they start compared with others – the catch up can’t be done –it’s almost impossible.’ Some children hear 5000 or 6000 words a day, while others may hear a couple of hundred

'Openness to experiences'

Hattie recommends parents become involved in ‘rich conversations  with pre-schoolers – reminding them of things they already know and asking them questions to slowly build on that – is even more valuable’  so as to enlarge children’s vocabularies.

Another important factor, the article stated, is a child’s openness to new experiences. Unfortunately, the article continues, many children are very cautious about entering into learning, are risk averse and give up all too quickly. ‘What every child needs’, Hattie comments, ‘is a significant adult to express positive regard about him or her.’ 

This language deficit and lack of openness to learning made me think. If babies are born with a default mode to learn what has happened to the students at risk, and can it be recovered?

'Before the word the experience'

It also made me remember a presentation I gave in 1985 titled ‘Before the word the Experience’. In this presentation I covered the below territory:

1    1    That we need to appreciate the sensory and emotional basis of language development – that ‘before the word came the experience’; that students are born ‘meaning makers’ programmed to make the best sense of things they can.

2     That we need to savour any experience, to slow the pace of observation and to educate the senses so as to develop reflective thinking – a chance for curiosity  and wonder to be expressed.

3   3 That there are a number of ways to explore any experience – the more ways a learner has the more aware they become – and this leads to a wider vocabulary. Children can explore as young
Expressing feeling through art (Age 9)
scientists (which they are), as historians, artists, poets etc. Each providing a framework to explore an experience. All experiences need to be seen as holistic or integrated and not become unnaturally fragmented by adult conceptions of subjects

4    As well there are also a number of ways to express or interpret any experience – not just through words

      With the above in mind teachers  need to provide students (of any age) with authentic, or realistic, learning experiences.

      6 Finally such an approach requires that teachers interact with their students to help them explore and interpret any experience; adults to become involved in ‘rich conversations’ always keeping in mind that it is the student’s role to make their own meaning. Students must, at all costs, remain in control of their own learning.

'Schools favour certain pupils'

 I went on to say that our school system benefits those children who enter with such reflective thinking in place (Hattie’s point), that schools unfortunately judge students on a narrow range of academic skills, and in the process, downplay the vital role of intuition, creative expression and imagination and, finally, gives students the idea (the ‘hidden curriculum’) that knowledge comes from the teacher and not from their own efforts to make sense of their experiences.

Schools unintentionally seem to add to their student’s language gap.

I suggested in my presentation that teachers need to value sensory awareness as the basis of all learning and that to help them make sense of any experience children need to be encouraged to focus their attention on the important things.

Imagine, for example, how to help students experience sitting in a piece of bush, or trees full of cicadas, or by waves at the seashore. An important phrase in my presentation was to ‘slow the pace of looking’ (or any work); students often think ‘first finished is best’.

 Such ‘slow’ experiences enrich their visual curiosity and, in turn, enrich their vocabulary and bring to mind questions that have the potential to lead to explorations in a range of learning areas.

Drawing//reflecting about a dead bird
I also suggested the importance of developing students’observational drawing skills as an ideal way to ‘slow their pace of work’ and to develop reflective thinking – and once again in the process developing both vocabulary and ideas for further studies.

Teachers need to value their students’ views, thoughts and questions by entering into dialogue with their students to extend, elaborate and enrich their ideas (Hattie’s ‘rich conversations’). The model of teaching encouraged was a ‘co-constructivist’ one – challenging students’ ideas and clarifying their views.

'Exploring through a range of viewpoints/frameworks'

As mentioned the teacher’s role is to help students’ explore and express their ideas through a range of ‘frameworks’ or ‘viewpoints’. For example a bridge could be interpreted aesthetically or metaphorically through the ideas of an artist or poet, or through the eyes of a scientist, mathematician or
How many ways to view the bridge?
engineer, or even through historian’s eyes.

Each way of interpreting has the potential of being a mind altering experience. This multiple interpretation idea has been well expressed by educationists EliotEisner, Art Costa and Howard Gardener and also by creative teachers such as Elwyn Richardson. It is also aligned to the intent of the all but side-lined New Zealand Curriculum.

Ideally when visiting a school dedicated to developing ‘rich conversation’ and sensory awareness one should see countless evidence (true ‘evidence based learning’!) of students’ exploring and expressing their ideas through a range of    Learning Areas. Students’ ‘voice’, identity and interests should be paramount.

I don’t think this is often the case –  a situation made worse by the current over emphasis on literacy and numeracy standards and the ‘silver bullet’ of current education, computers.

 By ignoring students’ personal concerns and their environment their real world becomes increasingly divorced from school.

Imagine - first dip in the sea for these boys!
If students’ are to bridge the gap Hattie talks about, the deficit in vocabulary of many children entering school, then the answer is to focus teaching on helping  students probe, explore, challenge, extend and deepen their ideas and, in the process, keeping alive  students openness to learning.

 As I mentioned I  was motivated to write this blog by Hattie’s Listener article and the presentation I gave in the 1980s but if teachers want inspiration to develop their environmental awareness then I recommend a book I have just read: ‘On Looking – Eleven Walks with Expert Eyes’, by Alexandra Horowitz.

'On Looking - Eleven walks with Expert Eyes'

In this book Alexandra shows how to see the spectacular in the ordinary. The book is structured around a series of walks the author takes with experts in diverse range of subjects including an urban sociologist, an artist, a geologist,  a blind person, a physician a sound engineer, a child and lastly her dog to see the world as they perceive it. Her book shows how much more there is to see – if only we would really look.

 It is a book all about paying attention to our taken for granted experiences and was originally motivated through taking her dog for a walk! It is about seeing what is hidden in plain sight in front of us; about making the familiar become unfamiliar; the old new. She writes that once being exposed to a new viewpoint the world is changed forever – we become ‘seers’.

'Learning to pay attention'.

Teachers are always asking their students to pay attention – but to the wrong things! After her experiences with experts her perceptual field is opened, each expert offering a selective enhancing and highlighting. It is about learning to being ‘mindful’.

 She writes that the walks ‘re-awakened in me a sense of perceptual wonder in my surroundings ….. (perception) available only to experts and the very young (not yet expert in being people)’. The results of her walks, she writes, ‘refined what I can see’  and developed ‘a sense of wonder that I, and we all, have a predisposition to but have forgotten to enjoy’.
Exploring a down pipe ( age 9)

Her book is an example of Hattie’s ‘rich conversations’ and ‘openness to learning’ that might well solve the language deficits that Hattie has brought to our attention.

The answer, it seems, is not more literacy and numeracy but a greater respect for the real world our students live in – one it seems being side-lined by the almost overpowering ‘virtual world’ provided by computers.  ‘Our culture’, writes Horowitz, ‘fosters inattention; we are all creature of that culture’. The ‘unbelievable strata of trifling, tremendous things to observe are there for the observing. Look!’

All students are born to explore and learn through their senses driven by their curiosity. When this default drive to make meaning is subverted by difficult home and school experiences we inherit the students with deprived learning abilities brought to our attention by Hattie.

The solution is obvious if we stop to think about it
Learning recovery.

As Alexandra’s book shows it is never too late but, for children, only if teachers change their minds first.

Bush lino cut by boy non reader age 9rs


Anonymous said...

Thank you Bruce for reminding us of the real basics of learning. The book about walking with experts sounds really great.

Bruce said...

Thanks anon.

I was motivated to write this blog to follow up John Hattie's observation of the language gap when children begin school - something junior teachers are well aware of. I was given the On Looking book and it reminded me of ideas many teachers believed strongly in in the 60s/70s/80s about experienced based learning - the ideas in my Before The Word the Experience presentation.

The current emphasis on reading achievement ignore this vital sensory/emotional/experience basis of learning.

Anonymous said...

What you have written reminds so much of the kind of teaching that I was part of in the 70s. The ideas you express are more relevant today as students increasingly experience a virtual world. More please.