Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Teaching Best Practices - a book in line with creative teaching in contrast to most current 'best practice'.

I have been clearing out notes I have kept over the decades. It is a difficult thing to do and I couldn’t resist keeping articles that had been important to me – and, of course, material I had written!

My next task is to sort through all the books I have acquired. I plan to keep a small number of books that have been seminal  to the development of my own educational beliefs. In an earlier blog I listed a number of important books.

Still one of the best!
One book , I have decided, is the most valuable for anyone wanting to develop  creative/progressive or/holistic approaches to learning in contrast to the current formulaic approaches based increasingly on standardised testing in literacy and numeracy.

I have chosen ‘Teaching the Best Practice Way’ by  Harvey Daniels and Marilyn Bizar because not only does it provide  a theoretical background to such teaching but also provides classroom based practical examples for teachers to read and gain insight to improve their own teaching.
Marilyn and Harvey

I have the 2004 second edition (the original was published in 1998) which strategic reading is now placed as the first strategy – reading that goes far beyond the current isolated (usually ability grouped) reading approaches. ‘Reframing’ reading (and numeracy) in the service of inquiry learning is a vital idea if developing your class as a community of learners is to be made central.

This is, as mentioned, a very practical book based around the world of ‘real’ experts – classrooms teachers who develop their programmes around their students experience and expression. For schools who want to develop personalised authentic teaching this is a book that will help them to develop quality learning that will be hard to criticize.

The authors write that ‘best practices’ is a phrase that is almost used as a slogan – something teachers are supposed to embrace – practices that have the official seal of approval. This book sees ‘best practices’ as something arising from research in child development and such educators as John
More relevant than ever!
DeweyTo the authors ‘best practice’ means less: whole class teaching;  less trying to cover large amounts of material; less tracking or ability grouping; and less reliance on standardised testing; and more: experiential hands on learning; fewer topics; responsibility  and choice for students;  more modelling democracy and heterogeneously grouped classrooms. The authors favour students learning like scientists, mathematicians, artists and historians etc.

For progressive/creative teachers little is new but in this age of accountability none the less welcome. The book’s ideas relate to pioneer teachers (in New Zealand Elwyn Richardson and Sylvia Ashton Warner) and such educators as Piaget, Dewey, James Beane, and Howard Gardner. In other words the‘best practice’ teachers in this book are heirs to what is commonly called the‘student centred or progressive paradigm of teaching

Elwyn Richardson
The authors research show that thematic integrated units are the hallmark of the highest achieving schools but even such schools are now under attack by the ‘standards movement’ under the banner of accountability imposed by political imperatives. To stand up to such pressures to conform/comply takes considerable courage and for teachers who want inspiration (and practical methods) this is the book for you.

The authors have confidence that schools following an integrated learning approach still do well on high stake standardised testing. As a result of good teaching students become powerful learners, proficient readers , writers and thinkers accustomed to taking responsibility for their own learning., experienced at solving problems..

The book aligns well with the vision, values andcompetencies of the New Zealand Curriculum which asks that students are able to‘seek, use and create their own knowledge’. It
s\ Sidelined?
is unfortunate that the current emphasis on achieving targets in National Standards and NCEA  have all but side-lined an excellent curriculum. The book also aligns well with the current move towards ‘Modern Learning Environments (MLE).

The book is premised on the idea that accomplished teachers possess a small repertoire of powerful structures to make learning happen. These ‘methods that matter’ are recurrent, complex integrated and generative. The book identifies seven building blocks of good teaching.

The seven structures or patterns are applicable to all age levels; they are broad generic strategies or, simply good teaching methods. Although they are process orientated they are adaptable to all learning disciplines and require considerable teacher skill to implement.

All methods include have common features – they all include: student choice or ownership of learning; responsibility which is the other side of the coin to choice; the need to express meaningful ideas in a range of media; a community rather than an individual bias; diversity and an appreciation of student differences;  and the use of modern technology to leverage and support learning.

The Seven Best Practices.

Each practice begins with the theory behind the method followed by practical examples of the method (and learning strategies) in use by teachers across a range of ages and further references.

1 Reading as Thinking.

Reading instruction is a hot topic but the book sees reading not just as a set of sub skills   but rather as a specialised form of thinking. Since reading is thinking ‘we must provide our young readers with rich texts worth thinking about, strategies to help them and others with whom to think.’ Reading isabout constructing meaning – it is about reading to learn not just learning to read. Integrating reading with the current inquiry study is obvious but all too often this is not seen in schools. Literacy time is a time to ‘frontload’ content and strategies for later inquiry learning.

2 Representing to learn.

This relates to the need for students represent experience so as to engage and enjoy life more deeply. This builds on ideas about writing to learn (not just to copy or cut and paste) Writing as a tool of thinking to‘seek, use and create’ as it says in the New Zealand Curriculum. Representing includes drawing, mapping, drama, movement, the arts and the use of modern information technology.

Learning through writing is a feature of this chapter and a number of strategies are explained and modelled through teacher examples but all other learning areas are covered – relating to the ideas of Howard Gardner.

There are a lot of excellent straggles that could be ‘frontloaded’ in the literacy programme to later contribute to the class inquiry study.

3 Small Group Activities.

Students need to be able to practice democracy and to work in small collaborative groups. It seems that the world is catching on John Dewey ideas (or in more recent times James Beane) Several models of collaboration are included. Group structures must have enough inherent structure to operate autonomously for students to remain engaged on tasks.  Students need well-structured collaborative experiences to learn deeply, to really understand, to share knowledge (or their prior ideas) and to ask important questions. All this requires rich experiences to challenge students.

 Fixed ability grouping (or worse still tracking) is not part of such group work but this does not mean assisting small groups with common needs so they can return to their learning with skills in place.

Specific learning centres are one approach with students rotating. During such rotational time  the teacher is typically supervising, roaming, solving problems,  undertaking student conferences, acting as a resource and doing observational assessing of student’s achievement. This, as the book says, requires considerable ‘teacher artistry’.

4 The Classroom as a Workshop.

Classrooms are seen as working laboratories or studios where genuine knowledge is created, real products are made, and authentic inquiry is pursued. The workshop model is simple and powerful – based on children learning by doing... All too often schools fail to provide enough time  for 'doing' maths, science, reading, writing, art, music and history- all too often time is taken up  by an over emphasis on isolated  literacy and numeracy programmes. The book provides outlines for workshop sessions in a range of subjects (reading, writing, mathematics, science) for readers to make use of. The key to good workshops is the provision of student choice. Workshop activities contribute to a  work to contribute to the current topic.

During such workshop sessions teachers involve themselves in a range of student conferences to ensure students comprehend the learning objectives involved.

5 Authentic Experiences.

A range of educationalists have long argued for school to be more lifelike, more genuine, and more authentic. Authentic experiences can range from the simple - like writing a letter to a favourite author, or an unexpected weather event, to the complex such as an ecological study of a local river.

 Authentic studies provide the means to develop an appreciation of the inquiryprocess that is integral to all learning – the process of learning how to learn..

Authentic studies can focus on one learning area or integrate a number of learning areas. In New Zealand the strands of each Learning Area give teachers of the range of areas they could introduce to their students. The immediate environment also provides inspiration for a range of authentic studies.

The key to real learning is tapping (and extending) student’s curiosity, involving students in planning activities, and valuing  their questions and prior theories all of which developing in students a sense of ownership. The wider the range of experiences  the greater the possibility of developing the unique talents of the students.

6 Reflective Assessment.

The authors are critical of the move towards standardised measuring of achievement as they distort or narrow learning and, too often, drag teachers down to 'gaming' or 'rorting' the system, by test coaching. New Zealand teachers will be well aware of such pressure to perform.

Current 'best practices'.
An interesting diversion is a history (and misuse) of standardised testing. To this day schools still screen, track, rewards, and segregate students using tests rooted in bad science and the use of metadata. The trouble is that, in America,  standardised testing is now the main ingredient of ‘reform’ programmes. The areas tested then become the' default' curriculum... This test obsession is a political not an educational issue. Unfortunately the schools that need the ‘best teaching’ promoted by this book , in the poor areas, are the least likely to get such empowering experiences. Such effects of toxic testing are a political issue.

The authors want to be clear about using assessments that relate to the principals of their book.  Good assessment should be an integral part of good teaching. Powerful assessments should focus on the major whole outcomes rather than contributory aspects. Most school assessments should be formative meaning teachers should assess to ensure students learn better and for teachers to teach more effectively.

Traditional norm referenced testing provides little helpful formative assessment. The key of effective thinking is being able to self-monitor and self-evaluate. Rather than checking students against arbitory age grade targets teachers should track the story of each learner’s growth through developmental phases. Current standardised tests yield an exceedingly narrow and unreliable picture of student achievement and are poor indicator of school performance.

The authors outline (and provide examples) of a range of constructive, formative, reflection orientated assessments that can be used at any age level: Portfolios; Conferences; Anecdotal records; Performance assessment rubrics and classroom tests are all covered.

7 Integrative Units

This, the authors write, is the most complex of the methods. In this chapter they show how great teaches blend the other six methods into days, or weeks, or rich, cross –disciplinary investigations driven by student interest and scaffolded by teachers who model, coach, and manage the inquiry process.

With integrated units, teachers step emphatically out of single subject instruction and lead children into inquiries as complex and multi-disciplinary as the real world issues that adults face as workers, parents, and citizens.’

This integrated learning is not new to the few creative teachers in our schools.

The trouble with the separate subject approach is that students do not  learn to appreciate the connected view of learning and also fail to appreciate how real world learning occurs. Stu also dents miss out in a powerful set of tools for solving problems.’

The book encourages teachers  to seek coherence by crossing subject boundaries; by encouraging students to value ‘deep ‘ learning; by providing experiences to develop every students' unique talents, and by integrating ‘basic skills’ into  integrated experiences.

The authors are clear to state that traditional subject matter fields are  not to be disrespected. On the contrary the disciplines of knowledge they see are vital in achieving  learning. Authentic learning takes the disciplines of learning seriously.

The separate subject teaching is powerful and enduring, particularly at the secondary school level, and the authors provide how  schools have changed their approaches to develop integrated learning. Such change requires teachers being given the support to work at the edge of their professional comfort zone. Excellent information for middle schools and secondary school integration is provided by middle school educator James Beane.


Current reforms!!!
The authors conclude by  writing, no matter how passionate their call is for real world  experiences to be the basis for learning  until this happens many students  will continue to find their educational experience problematic.

The application of the best practices outlined would contribute to a powerful transformation of learning and create schools where all students students are given voice, choice and responsibility.

Daniels and Bizar finish their book by saying,‘We possess the tools and structures to make powerful learning happen; we just have to put them to work.’

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