Tuesday, March 25, 2014

New School Year - what has been achieved ?



It is now six weeks into the new school year - what is to be seen?

I have had the opportunity to look around a number of classrooms. I have to say I was disappointed with what I saw – or rather what I didn't see.

Many years ago the group of innovative teachers I worked with, teachers  used to believe that a glimpse of any classroom, the work on display and student book-work, could instantly tell you about what the teacher felt important.

This ‘blink’ approach has been well written about by Malcolm Gladwell – such insight however only applied if the observer (or wine taster!) had long experience to call on

The impression I got from my flying visits indicated that teachers were simply doing what is currently being expected.

I suppose many were also just coming to terms with their new classes –we used to believe that really excellent work appeared in Term Three when a culture of high expectations was well established. Teaching is one career where there is no shallow end!


I appreciate that I am no longer in a position to give advice but my past has experience provided me with useful ideas that I can't resist sharing.

In the late 60s (after a decade of being an adviser in science) I took my first class in the UK.  My first position was in very formal streamed school in South London where as long as my students kept out of trouble no one seemed to care.  For me, survival was the name of the game.

Creative English junior schools of the 60s.

My second school in the UK was a complete contrast – a wonderful child centred school like nothing I had ever seen in New Zealand. I did my best to learn by doing the approach expected by this school. I was lucky to be able to gain help with an exciting group of creative teachers.  Essentially their programmes were based around four rotating groups – mathematics (based mainly on activity often integrated with the current study); language (reading instruction, as I knew it  in NZ, was a bit light so this was mainly language experiences); art and craft and topic. The current study topic, drawing heavily on the immediate environment was the unifying element. Work in all areas was integrated by teacher arranged displays these (and the classroom walls) featured the finished work of the students as completed.  Displaying of student work was a real feature.
Quality work by a 10 year old ( by slowing pace)
Slow pace of work - do fewer things well.


A phase I absorbed was the need to ‘slow the pace’ of student work and the need to ‘come alongside the child’ if quality thinking, language and maths was to result ( today known as feedback). Also the idea of doing ‘fewer thing well’.  Depth rather coverage.At this time there were no national curricula to 'deliver'. The educational scene in the UK has changed dramatically with a National Curriculums, targets, tests and league tables and, in the process, the baby was thrown out with the bathwater.

In the 60s there were creative teachers in New Zealand, mainly in rural schools, who were developing similar creative programmes - the most well known being Elwyn Richardson.
Elwyn Richardson

Taranaki quality teaching approach.

In the 70s/80s I worked closely with a small group of local teachers in Taranaki introducing some of the ideas that impressed me – close observational drawing ( NZ teachers at their time were well ahead of UK teachers I observed when it came to creative art); introducing studies through displays; well-presented wall displays of student work; integrated studies; making use of the immediate environment and a rotary way of working but limited to current studies. Language and maths were integrated as much as possible.

In the late 70s I taught a class  ( it is a good lesson for advisers to return to the classroom) and applied idea learnt from my UK experience and from creative New Zealand teachers I had worked with. I refused to use ability grouping and integrated all learning as best I could.. I had a lot to prove and after a very tiring first term felt I had done well but I had the support of teachers I had worked with.
Study booklets from my class

When, as principal in the 80s/90s I did my best to introduce similar  ideas gained across a school. Other local principals worked along similar whole school  lines.

Unfortunately most of the ideas we implemented have all but been lost – as confirmed by my recent class visits.

Since the late 80s NZ has gone down the same top down compliance technocratic lines as the UK.


Back to my recent classroom ‘flying visits ‘and what I would've liked to have seen.

I would've liked to have seen:

Evidence of a simple environmental study - based on students’ questions, valuing their ‘prior ideas’ including some observational drawings, language work and creative art. To ensure quality teachers need to teach simple presentation techniques/’scaffolds’.

I would've liked to have seen the above work well displayed with appropriate captions.

I would've also liked to have seen some focused personal writing about something the students’’ had experienced during their holidays. I would have liked to have seen these displayed well along with portraits or drawing featuring some aspect of the experience. To ensure students achieve best results teachers need to teach their students some simple presentation skills.

First weeks difficult settling in time.
Teaching is not easy!!

I do appreciate that the first few weeks can be a difficult settling in time for both teacher and students. As mentioned there is no shallow end!

At the beginning of the year it is important to establish routines to give both teacher and students a sense of security.  I have always liked the advice that wing walkers used when balancing on the wings of ex WW1 planes  at air shows after the war , ‘Never let go of anything until  you have got hold of something else’.

I also believe it is important to accept students as they are and then to slowly set about helping them achieve better work – to slowly develop a sense of personal quality. It is my experience that many students will not have gained this appreciation from their previous classes.

Teaching is the 'canny art of intellectual temptation'.

I believe strongly in the idea ‘people get good at what they get good at’ (Jerome Bruner) and that ‘teaching is the canny art of intellectual temptation’. If students are given tasks that think are reasonable, and if students are given all the help required (the concept of ‘scaffolding’), then they are all  capable of improvement – even in the first term of the year. Some students may take a long time to show improvement – but with time and support they will surprise themselves. Some students, in my experience, will only show dramatic growth if they continue with the teacher for a second year.

Importance of respectful relationships.

Achieving quality learning depends on positive respectful relationships, interesting relevant things to become involved in and teachers working really hard to help each learner improve. In some cases, for mutual survival, it will be necessary to do things because ‘we have to’ – students will understand this.

I wasn't expecting miracles - maybe I visited too early!
I wasn't expecting miracles on my visits. I was just hoping for the early signs of the beginning of quality learning – the beginning of the class being a home for mutual studies by teachers and their students. Students as 'seekers, users and creators of their own knowledge'. ( NZC 2007)

Anyway – what would I know!
It’s not too late to start the quality journey.

Here are some practical links;

Inquiry approach - see co-constructivist model below
Room environment
Wall display ideas.


Just to prove me wrong!!!!  Take look at this great blog!

4 comments:

Allan Alach said...

I suspect, deep down inside, you expected what you found, even though your heart would have wished otherwise. It will get worse....

Bruce said...

To be honest Allan I wanted to see what I would have expected when I was a teacher and principal but things have changed since those days - and for the worse as you say. If the government is returned creative or holistic student centred education will be lost. Standardised education will become the norm, dictated by testing just when NZ needs a personalised approach focussed on developing the gifts and talents of all students.

Anonymous said...

"Anyway what would I know". Sadly experience counts for little and teachers who have it choose to tuck quietly away to be left in peace or move on.
Here are some sad changes I have seen in junior rooms ( its been a while since I taught juniors and I respect the teachers who work in that area but they seem to be their own worst enemies.)
1. It's all small group work and teachers claim that they have 15 reading levels in a room because somewhere along the way reading at a level of the colour wheel has become three levels- (Green 1,2 and 3) So while they 'direct teach' with all these groups the majority of the class are busy doing not much. ( Same in Maths)
2. They don't have time to read to children. i remember 3 books in the morning, two after morning tea and another three after lunch from the box beside my chair. Teachers now say they have to fit in phonics programmes ( purchased and proscribed horrors) and just don't have time to read to. ( Interesting to note that the skill of reading to is being lost- I remember the wonderful Mem Fox over here some years ago teaching the basics that i thought everyone knew)
3. You mentioned that ability grouping- reading, writing and maths and spelling and handwriting!!!! What happens to the scattergun approach ( whole lesson) followed by the targeted approach to get in beside the kids who needed help or extension. Movement between groups is very rare and grouping becomes a self fulfilling prophecy
4. No time for topic! No fun in the day. ( if that's the teacher's complaint - imagine how the kids feel)
5. Classroom displays have to be "perfect" models so teachers spend time typing up kids work bringing about false expectations from parents later.
6. Learning Centres have vanished. Letter tables gone. Science corners a thing of the past. No big blocks. Water and sand play are too messy. Art is about gluing down precut shapes and all the sameness to make pretty displays.
All this pressure comes from within the junior school teaching community. They were doing it to themselves before national standards came along.
I'm not picking on juniors but it came as such a surprise because I've been at intermediate level for a while.

Bruce said...

Thanks so much for your comment. Authentic creative teacher voice has been replaced by formulaic 'best practices' which in turn become 'fixed practices'. Clone like is one ay to describe schools these days.