Sunday, October 24, 2004

Tomorrows Schools had their day?

'Good people poor system' it was said when the Labour Government introduced 'Tomorrows Schools' in the mid eighties. These changes were part of the transformation of the New Zealand's economy under an ideology that came to be known as 'Market Forces'.

School changes were 'sold' to the public as a means to develop greater community democratic control and authority over schools. In reality there was no real dissatisfaction or desire to change things at the time. It was later to be seen as part of the above ideology; all about the advantages of efficiency and competition.

As in other areas of government, it all happened so fast. It was, as one politician said , all about 'ambush, hijack and speed.' To add to the confusion, 'hyper - rational' curriculums were introduced. With their endless learning objectives to be 'ticked off', they would provide parents with a means to compare schools. Once again as part of the 'market forces' ideology of choice, accountability, efficiency and competition.

Well it didn't work out according to plan. Nothing ever does it seems. Schools became burdened with compliance demands and curriculum confusion and incoherence. Teacher's professionalism was neglected and morale dropped. This was made worse by Education Review Office reports, made independently of the Ministry, which called the 'tune' that schools had to 'dance' to. School were now being judged on their paperwork and audit trails. Forced to work independently, competing with each other;many schools started to fall by the wayside.

Started by Labour, under Roger Douglas's influence ( dictated by Treasury officials and the Business Roundtable), it was continued by Ruth Richardson and the National Government. Ironically none of the dramatic changes introduced were written into the Manifestos of either government.

Democracy and the 'voice' of the people had been redefined. The social infra structure of New Zealand had been all but destroyed. In the process the gap between the rich and the poor widened.

Things are changing. Disillusioned with politicians New Zealanders limited politicain's 'unbridled power' by voting a Mixed Member Proportional system. What will eventuate time will tell. People are slowly becoming aware of the need for new 'mind-set' to replace the failing 'market forces', 'user pays', one. The importance of the 'common good , an appreciation of the 'health ' of the community and the need for shared of values are becoming appreciated as important elements of the future social fabric of the country.

As far as schools are concerned the all powerful curriculums have all but disintegrated and schools are beginning to work with each other again .

What had become 'Someones Elses Country' ( The title of Alistair Barry's documentary of the era) will have to be returned to the people. Politicians will have to start listening to the people again.

The era finishes with the same saying that it began with: 'good people poor system'. We need to have a national 'conversation' about:

'What kind of country we want to become?'
'What values we want to encourage?'
'How can we create the conditions to realize the talents and creativity of all citizens?'

We have 'sold all the silver' - we now need to tap into our collective imagination. It is time for schools to take a lead!

Friday, October 22, 2004

Looking back

It is not often you have a chance to look back into the past. Just recently I have been sorting through hundreds of photo slides I have taken of classroom environments since the early sixties! Up until now I have not had the technology to view them but , with modern digital cameras, I can now convert them to digital photos and store them on my computer.

I have always been an enthusiast for the creation of stimulating rooms environments that display with pride student's creativity in art, language and in their studies. I have to admit that the rooms environments I visit today, particularly in my own province of Taranaki, compare well . Not in every room I will admit but over all very impressive. Some individual school I visit are just fantastic!

In the early days the rooms that impressed were those who involved themselves with itinerant art advisers, who in those day actually took lessons ( this was before the idea of giving 'advice' became the norm). There may not have been many of these creative teachers in the those days but they made a real difference. They in turn looked back to the wonderful of work of early pioneers and in particular the work of Elwyn Richardson . Learning Media have recently reprinted his wonderful book, 'In The Early World'. I highly recommend it.

In the 70 a group of teachers ( including myself) introduced environmental education ideas in Taranaki and, as part of this, an emphasis was placed on the displaying of the creative arts, language and studies of the students. Most of these teachers have since retired but their influence lives on, even if it is not often acknowledged.

Recently one of the teachers, Bill Guild, decided to put together all the language , art and projects he had kept, or had photos of. With the aid of his digital camera and his Apple Mac, he has produced a wonderful book full of colored photos of student creativity ranging over more than 20 years of his teaching. It was originally produced for a school jubilee but modern technology has meant it can easily be reprinted as often as you like. Scores of his book, 'A World Of Difference', have been purchased by interested teachers.

Teachers everywhere ought to search out and visit creative teachers in their own area. There are creative teachers in all areas to gain inspiration from and it is time to realize that it to these creative teachers that we ought to be looking to for ideas rather than imposed curriculums!

It is a good idea for teachers to keep photos of the work their students do. We have the technology! Doing this enables teachers to observe how their ideas of quality improve with experience and they may be useful to gain new positions - teacher portfolios.

Good advice?

Thursday, October 21, 2004

Putting students first.

In the business world more and more companies are creating a more customer focused culture. They appreciate that their survival depends on customers having a positive experience - one that makes them return for more. As a result they win loyalty and trust and in turn more customers as people share their 'stories' with others.

If schools had to survive by attracting potential students I wonder how much schools would have to change? It would be great if schools took the time to have conversations with students and their parents about the purpose of the school and in particular what ideas the students themselves have to improve it. These conversations should also include past students, both those who have been successful and those who were not.

Students could be asked:

1 If you were to attend a school where you would be exited to learn and study how would the school be organized?
2 How would you be taught?
2 What would you expect to learn?

These questions were answered by a group of students in the US. Some consistent themes that emerged were: that students wanted a more interactive teaching style, a more relevant curriculum and schools that gave them a role and a voice in their own education.

I wonder what secondary students would say in NZ? If we were willing to listen and solicit their opinions, we might find ways to engage students in their own education. They mightn't have all the answers but we might be able to learn how to make school less alienating for many students. Working together it might be possible to break through current superficial changes that are doing little to solve current school failure.

Worth a try. Seems to work in the business world.

Wednesday, October 20, 2004

Save Our Schools

Peter Drucker, the business philosopher, gives advice about how to turn around any organization. Seems to me also good advice for traditional schools struggling to cope with students who already live in a future oriented technological inter-connected world.

Many organization have grown like 'topsy' and many things are done for no other reason than it has always been done this way. It might seem obvious but it is important to re-assert the purpose of the school. Drucker believes that no other organization faces challenges as radical as those that will transform schools.

The advice follows three steps, I have just altered the order a bit.

1 Consider the things that are working well; the things that are improving the school? What are the great things about the school that you would like to amplify?
2 Then think about the things that are not working well? Things that just waste time and energy, or just make things too complicated? Be prepared to abandon all the things that don't work.
3 Then sort out the half successes, the half failures. To turn your school around abandon anything that is not 'adding value' to the school and then focus on ideas that might work better with more effort.

A vital leadership task may be as simple as getting rid of things that currently block quality learning for students, or waste time, or are too confusing, and then to focus on creating the conditions to release the energy and creativity of both teachers and learners.

Seems like common sense?

Tuesday, October 19, 2004

Technology will transform schools.

New technology is engulfing our schools and will transform the way we learn and teach within a few decades. Even the role of school will change dramatically according to Peter Drucker the well known business philosopher.

This will not be the first time technology has transformed schooling. The first revolutionary technology to transform schools was the book! Not only did the book transform schools, it transformed society and led the West into its current supremacy. Before the book China and Islamic Ottoman Empire were the world's 'super-powers'. China and Islam however chose to refuse to redesign their schools around the book - China favored calligraphy and the Islamic clergy saw the book as a threat to their authority because it allowed the students to read on their own.

While the above cultures stagnated the West became the powerful new force - a place it has retained to this day. It was not so much the technology that changed things but the rethinking it caused, creating the vision of universal literacy, and allowing citizens to read the bible for themselves thus challenging the power of the Catholic Church.

Today new technology is creating the knowledge society but as yet no country has created the educational system the knowledge society needs. No one even knows what it will even look like but it is certain it will be dramatically different from what now currently exists. With information being the 'new capital' and with the ability for learners to get knowledge from anywhere, anytime, just when they need it, schools will need to reflect this new environment.

The definition of literacy will need to be redefined; all students will need to become 'life long learners' ( not just the ruling elite); schools need to be open to information coming from outside the school and will need to be available for people throughout their lives; both knowledge and process will be important; education will be available from different community organizations and, some say, it will eventuate in 'learning community'. Teachers will have to be both learners themselves and a resource to their students so as to ensure that their student's acquire a wide range of learning competencies so that they can learn from whatever challenges the future holds for them.

All these ideas provide a real challenge to schools still based on a transmission knowledge mind-set. As all students will need to focus on 'personal learning' customized around the strengths and talents of each learner.

The best model of a teachers will be that of an artist, or creative coach, or mentor. They will need to see that their students achieve to a high level and to appreciate that it is achievement itself that motivates and that this is best done by encouraging students to excel at what they are good at. This needs to involve both rigor and practice - good coaches and artists undestand this!

Will current schools ( particularly the past oriented secondary schools ) be able to make the changes? Or will they , like the early Chinese and Islamic cultures, stick to traditional roles? If they are not able to change new organizations will emerge to take their place. This is the more likely scenario.

Peter Drucker believes that no other institution faces challenges so radical as those that will face the schools. He believes we will see these new schools emerge by 2010 or 20. By then we will be in a new era where modern information technology will have changed society as much as did the book.

Monday, October 18, 2004

The new generation - brave new world?

People are always comparing generations. One thing is certain the coming generation will be different than the one it replaces.

At the 2003 NZ Principals Conference a speaker ( Ian Jukes) illustrated, through a multi media presentation, that our students have 'new minds', while many of their teachers are still 'wired' into a linear book environment. He of course was talking about the multi media generation. A generation that can access information from anywhere at any time. The multi dimensional world wide web is their medium of choice not the one way TV we were brought up on.

This new 'Generation XX ' ( Roman numeral 2000) are an interconnected generation. Brought up with net working and teamwork they are more akin to follow-ship than leadership - but follow-ship of ideas they pick up from the world wide web. They will be the first fully computer literate generation. In the past children were sent to their bedrooms for isolation - now in their bedrooms they can converse with the world! Marshal McLuhan in the 60's predicted the global inter-connected village, 'the medium', as he said, 'is now the message'. They are a generation brought up on instant gratification. Learning things 'just in time' in contrast with their current schools obsession with a 'just in case' curriculum.

As well the new generation are also the most over protected generation, products of over protective parents. As a result they may have trouble when entering the traditional workforce let alone traditional schools. They are 'instant' thinkers, enjoy teamwork, and belonging to fun cultures rich in personal meaning. They may be not used to long range thinking nor to reflecting on things as they go along or plain old hard work.

Brought up on 'fast food' and 'fast communication' they may need to be helped to slow the pace a bit, consider the long term, and enjoy learning as it unfolds? They might have trouble doing things they see no point in? Or maybe future employers ( and schools) will have to re-imagine themselves into learning organizations to attract the 'we' inter connected generation who will want to be trusted and to do personally meaningful things?

Whatever the future will be shaped by new forces that few fully comprehend but we better learn quickly or we will be left behind wondering what happened.

To test or not to test, that is the question!

Politicians as ever always like the easy answer. Sort out schools by national testing and then in turn sort out schools and individual teachers and all will be well

Primary schools have been introducing a new innovative testing program in literacy and numeracy designed by Auckland University lecturer John Hattie. The tests allow teachers to choose what they test to suit what is being taught and then to remedy both their student's knowledge and their own teaching. The tests also show how students compare with similar students throughout NZ. So far so good.

Now Bill English, Opposition Education spokesman ( searching for some political traction)wants to turn these valuable diagnostic tests in to 'high stake' ones by making them automatically available to parents. I guess this seems sensible on the surface as well. The next step would be to align the tests across all schools ( having all students sit the same tests) and by this means to introduce national testing by default. And I guess this would seem sensible to many parents as well.

Simple but simplistic. First of all the tests are time consuming and need to be used sensibly if time is to be protected for other equally valuable areas of the curriculum - creative problem solving in areas other than literacy and numeracy, science, information technology and the creative arts.

If such valuable diagnostic tools were to be scaled up into compulsory testing then we will also have to accept the 'surveillance culture ' that comes with it: the narrowing of the curriculum, teaching to the tests, and a loss of teacher creativity and spontaneity. As well, countries like the UK ( with their League Tables comparing all school on narrow criteria) after an initial improvement have found that their scores trend down again. The uniformity of our system already fails the non conformist talented and gifted and, equally importantly, the students whose life experiences or cultures are not currently fully recognized. National tests would do nothing to solve these systemic problems - quite the opposite.

If we are to really face up to students failing in our schools we need to avoid national testing and use whatever tests are available diagnosticaly ( sharing results with parents ) but most of all by focusing on improving the quality of teaching and learning. I don't think ( as it is being suggested) that teachers do not want to share test results because of defensiveness - their arguement is a professional one. Even the designer of the tests in question does not want them to be turned into national tests. This of course was always the risk.

The Assessment Tools for Teaching and Learning ( asTTle) are exactly what they say. If used wisely they empower teachers and provide detailed feedback to teachers and learners to remedy any gaps. It would be a shame of these great ideas were limited to only numeracy and literacy. Negative aspects of the tests in question are that they are time consuming - we should at all costs protect the time for teaching and learning unless we agree to let the tail wag the dog!

The parents who seem to demand test results already have students with the 'social capital' to do well at school. I would hope they have as much concern for the students who struggle or who come from less fortunate homes. Research shows that having high expectations, quality teaching and parent involvement will help these students. If diagnostic testing is part of the solution then they should be used. But testing in itself with no feedback - and particularly resulting in national league tables is already a failed idea.

And of course all the tests are about literacy and numeracy. It is vital that these be seen for what they are 'foundation skills', skills which enable all students to develop their full learning potential and contribute to a love of learning. If these were tests of 'learnacy' I wouldn't mind so much!

Saturday, October 16, 2004

What makes a 'kiwi'?

I just caught the end of a discussion on the radio about a new exhibition at Te Papa ( our National museum) based the identity and image of being a New Zealander.

Worldwide the New Zealand identity been given centre stage the Lord of the Rings trilogy - which showcases both the creativity of our film makers and the majesty of the landscape. Over the years countless New Zealanders have also contributed to the growing sense of who we are. We are becoming to see ourselves as an innovative and enterprising people; a country that fuses the courage and determination and talents of the migrants from the earliest Maori migrations, the European settlers , the peoples from the Pacific, and more recently from Asia.

We are now seen as a dynamic county that 'fights above its weight' in many areas of human endeavor. We are seen as a country with an energetic spirit; a country that is realizes that its continued success lies with the development of the talents, versatility and creativity of it's citizens. Our future will depend on how well we cement and develop relationship with each other and with other nations. We must learn to value cultural diversity as a strength.

Our young people need to have both an appreciation of the wider world ( beyond the Americanised 'global' culture that originates from Los Angeles!) and equally an appreciation of the special culture of their own country. Michael King, the journalist and historian, wrote in his book 'Being Pakeha ', 'If we wish to present ourselves to the wider world as New Zealanders we must be able to listen to our own voices, and trace our own footsteps; we must have our own heroes and heroines to inspire us, our own epics to uplift us; we must persist with building our own culture with the ingredients to hand and not import those ingredients ready made from abroad.'

With this in mind all schools ought to think deeply about the themes they need to expose their students to if we are to further develop this sense of being New Zealander. And they ought to think equally deeply about how they can ensure all the talents of all their students can be realized.

In a book ' Albion:Origins of the English Imagination' the author ( Peter Ackroyd ) makes the point that the English are not a race but more people who live in place - a place of spirit; the spirit that comes from living and identifying with an environment.

Similarly we are not a 'race' in New Zealand but a mix of different people living together in a special place. All the various cultures add to developing a sense of shared identity and image of for us all.

Nothing could be more important than for schools to do their best to contribute to the development of such a positive and diverse sense of being a New Zealander.

Friday, October 15, 2004

Do leaders prefer 'dogs'?

It was interesting to read in an article about the difference between the ideal and the reality about leadership. Leadership profiles talk about: 'communicates a clear vision' , 'helps people develop their potential', 'values differences', and avoids 'playing favorites' etc.

All leaders say the want people who 'challenge the system', 'to express their opinions' and 'say what they think' but in reality many leaders encourage the opposite. It seems many leaders are not aware that they do so and would be upset if they were told that they encourage others to 'suck up ' to them! We can see this in other people it seems, but not in ourselves!

The article uses the example of a leader who owns a dog. When he /she comes home the leader is asked to think about how they treat their dog in comparison to their spouse or family. The dog is usually the first to get lots of affectionate attention. When questioned why, the reply is, 'the dog is always so happy to see me', 'the dog never talks back'.In other words the dog is a 'suck up'.

It seems if we aren't careful we can treat people at work like dogs by rewarding those who heap unthinking admiration upon us. In return people learn to 'suck up' to us.

As leaders we can stop this behavior by first admitting we have a tendency to favor those who favor us, even if we didn't mean to. We should try to value people for the ideas they have - even if we don't relate to them so well.

Seems like an idea that most teachers are aware of. We all know about 'teacher pets'.

Is there enough conflict in your school?

We hear a lot about TEAM ( 'together everybody achieves more' ) these days in regard to school cultures; and also that 'there is no 'I' in team'. My own experience would say otherwise, or at least suggest, that without some conflict nothing much changes and as a result many new ideas are not taken advantage of. With this in mind it was interesting read about the role of constructive conflict in school improvement in recent article.

Conflict is a natural part of being human. In our efforts to cooperate with one another we have all have differences of opinion about how best to accomplish our common goals. It is natural to want to protect our individual interests when confronted with ideas that may require us to change. Most conflict is unsettling and leaves us ill at ease and so we tend to avoid it, or suppress it, and even when this avoidance fails, we work quickly to restore harmony. Unfortunately the very differences we try to suppress may well have the capacity to advance our collective efforts or at least make us think more deeply. So if conflict were used more sensibly it could become a spur for creative change.

Treated more constructively controversy can become a creative force and given this how organizations treat conflict, or dissent, could be to their advantage. The trick is to keep the conflict at some optimal level and also to keep participants responses appropriate. Trying to avoid conflict , in contrast, can sap the organizations energy and enthusiasm and handled badly can create rigid thinking and even hostility.

To make use of creative conflict requires a culture based on trust and respect for all and an understanding that conflict is a dynamic process. School leaders ( and class teachers) need to constantly struggle with the balance between harmony and constructive tension. Innovative principals appreciate the value a certain amount of debate.

For principals the struggle is between teacher autonomy and school wide preferred practices and protecting teacher time and energy from too many changes while at the same time valuing the need to develop new ideas. As well many teachers prefer a culture of isolation in preference to joint work so it takes time to develop more supportive environments so everyone sees the value cooperation, debate and controversy.

Conflict is present within our schools whether we like it or not. All to often schools wanting to present a united front do not always appreciate those from within or outside the school who challenge them . Maintaining a constructive level of conflict requires skill and an open environment and a respectful attitude to all involved. The trick, it seems, is to maintain courtesy in the face of criticism.

So it seems 'together everyone achieves more' works only if there still remains an 'I ' for individual in teams!

Tuesday, October 12, 2004

Who dares wins!

Are you an innovative thinker?

If you fire off ad hoc answers, hate timetables and resent authority you are a potential winner according to research on potential innovative thinkers by Dr Fiona Patterson, an occupational psychologist at Nottingham University.

Many organizations say they want innovative thinkers but few it seems have a clear idea of what innovation is , let alone who has it. The good news is that innovation can crop up in unexpected places the bad news is that innovation is present or that it is not. Dr Patterson's research says either you are a stubborn devil who tells it like it is - or the model worker who doesn't complain nor change much.

The conscientious employer, who always get reports in on time, is less likely to come up with inventive ideas than the difficult person whose chaotic approach often dismays his colleagues. An innovation is not , she says, the same as creativity - innovation is about pushing ideas to fruition rather than dreaming them up and dropping them.

The four attributes of innovative people are:

1 A positive attitude to change.
2 Willingness to behave in a challenging way.
3 Ability to think radically.
4 And an efficient working style

Those who thrive on change, seem independent, and are able to conjure up the strangest ways to solve problems and the ones who don't stick to what they are told to do are the ones to watch! These are the change agents.

Organizations might want to recruit innovative thinkers but do they really want non conformists on board? The risk of not having them it seems is greater. If companies don't innovate they die - just look at the gaps in any main street! And, almost by definition, you have to be difficult in order to innovate because it is about challenging the status quo.

And the trouble is, such people are often seen as troublemakers. In a blame culture people are scared to step outside the norms. So it is only brave organization that takes on the brilliant mavericks and they are wise enough not to want them to fit in. They want them to help them see the world with new eyes. So it seems it is important to develop cultures which makes challenge possible. Taking no risks may be the most risky thing you can do. The art, it seems, is to create cultures that keep people roughly on track but encouraging them to break free from conventional thinking when the opportunity arises.

Doesn't seem that secondary schools are such an environment; too many mavericks leave school as soon as they can! Be great though if schools were centers of creativity and talent development. Would seem the right model for new 'post industrial' age? An 'Age of Ideas and Imagination.'

Monday, October 11, 2004

Learning from great coaches.

Missing from the educational debate the past decade has been valuing the importance of the artistry of the teacher.

Our Minister of Education has just caught up with the idea, but it's better late than never. As well, the unwieldy curriculums, which were once the Ministries 'pride and joy', and a source of great frustration to teachers, are away being mutated into an emphasis on 'key competencies' or 'learning how to learn'. A little like 'back to the future' for creative teachers?

The artistry of a great teacher has much in common with that of a great coach. The metaphor of a teacher as a 'creative learning coach' isn't a bad one.

Great coaches help their 'students' visualize the outcome of what it is they want to achieve. They do their best to get the students to focus on the present and to put out of their minds previous failures or thoughts of failure. Negative thinking interferes with learning and can 'talk' people out of trying.

By helping the student visualize a positive outcome and also by asking them how they would feel if they achieved it, they help the learner create a positive mind set. They also ask students, how they felt when they last achieved something that worked out well in the past, to remind them of the motivation of feeling confident and that 'it can be done'.

They then provide focused practice based on observed needs ( starting with the easier aspects to improve). They begin to 'grow' a sense of success by giving positive feedback , guidance and encouragement. As the song goes they 'accentuate the positive and eliminate the negative.'

Young students, in the right environment learn from an early age to believe in themselves. A lack of this belief, in regard to school learning, may well be the real source of the 'achievement gap' that is the Ministries current mission. Learners who a held up by high expectations of both home and school can handle setbacks/ mistakes up as natural events to learn from.

Coaches, not only build up physical strength but also develop mental strength. Finally all the training must enable students to make instant decisions in the heat of playing or competing - or learning. Coaches train their students to focus on the present ( not on what went wrong last time), to focus on what the learner can control and not be distracted by things out of their control. This is the true discipline of a focused learner or sports-person.

Coaches also help their players work together as a team and to balance individuality with mutual obligations. A sense of community and belonging is vital to develop 'peak ' performers or learners. Winning cannot be assured but players are encouraged to give it their 'best shot' ( 'personal best') and to balance the tensions between an ideal result and reality. And no matter the result, be thinking about how to do better 'next time'.

A great coach is a great teacher - and vice versa!

Who cares about Local Government?

The local government elections are all over until next time and the voting numbers were worse than usual? So many people, it seems, just couldn't be bothered to vote. The question that ought to be asked is why?

There have been suggestions that we need to get rid of postal voting, or that what is needed is better PRO, or more media involvemnt. Any thing it seems except the need to re-imagine the whole local government situation.

Obviously there isn't currently enough concern to get anybody really excited but it would be all to easy not to think of real structural changes to make it more exciting and democratic.

My feelings are that there is just not enough emotional involvement in local government as it is currently organized. National politics can spark very strong emotional views! In contrast, in local government no one really knows who they are voting for no matter how hard the candidates try. If local government created groups standing for special points of view, rather than individuals who all sound the same, that may help people decide.

The real answer, if democracy is really important, is to consider that it is the system that is the problem, not the people. Currently local government handles infra structural aspects ( although they have to report on a range indicators that broaden the scope of their traditional functions). Too many important things that effect the lives of many people are still controlled from Wellington although there are moves by the current government to encourage state agencies to be more involved with their local communities. In reality, however, many government agencies still have poor inter agency communication. As well there are other organizations, such as Health Boards, which work independently. And then there are all the schools ( perhaps potentially the most important local organizations of all) which also all work independently from each other.

It would seem that what is needed it to develop a more inclusive inter related form of local government. This would require new roles and leadership from central government.

That might make it more worthwhile voting?

Friday, October 08, 2004

Bit 'rich' blaming the Board of Trustees!

The Cambridge High School saga continues. The latest Education Review Office Report now places blame for what has happened onto the Board of Trustees.

When school get into trouble it is usually over the governance /management issue. The Board's role is one of governance and the principals one of managing the school to ensure the school policies are put into action and reported on. The Board, the Education Review Office report says, should have been aware of what was happening and should have had procedures in place to ensure that things were being done properly.

The reality is that principals have the real power over curriculum delivery and most Boards, if things appear to be going well, are only too happy to look after the other issues such as buildings, grounds and finance. Even the School Trustees Association admit that powerful principal can dominate boards.

I have always believed that there should be more community input into the real work of the school,the core values, what is taught and the basic teaching beliefs, within guidelines from the Ministry of Education of course. As it is, the curriculum is firmly controlled by the Ministry of Education.

With this in mind it seems unfair to place the blame on the shoulders of community volunteers, particularly as the school concerned was seen as a successful school. Even the previous reports from the Education Review Office contributed to the schools reputation. How came they didn't notice all the problems during their past visits - nor did other 'official' visitors.

The real blame for what has happened is because of the 'stand alone' model introduced under the Tomorrows Schools changes. Too many school have become, under the competitive ideology of market forces, 'look at me schools'! What is missing is some regional oversight to provide Boards with independent advice.

Time for a rethink of the system perhaps?

Local Government a big bore!

It is the last day to vote for the 2004 Local Government and once again (except for the Mayoral battle in Auckland) it is hard to get excited. When the votes are all counted, once again, it will be shown that in many area not even a majority of citizens even bother to vote. I must rush down and pass in my vote - its too late to post!

I wonder when someone will work it out that Local Government needs a fresh look. Why is it all so boring and does it have to be? Surely local government is more than 'rates roads and rubbish'?

The problem is that there seems no emotional involvement in local government. Maybe it is because there are so many fragmented bits involved in our lives and to little collaboration between them all. Physicist, David Bohm suggests that the rationality of science has fragmented our world and this has resulted in dividing everything into often conflicting bits. Like Humpty Dumpty we need to think how to put it all back together again. Asking the 'kings men' will be no use, we need to do it ourselves.

The new century will be an exciting age age of relationships and connections and not closed departments. All our big cities have closed organizations within them controlled from Wellington ( and they are well known for their poor inter agency communication). Most of these organizations like, CYPS , the Police and Justice etc have a heavy involvement in many peoples lives and need local input. There are also other independent local government organizations like Health Boards that have little connection with other governing bodies. Add to this scores of 'stand alone' schools that comply to central government and it is all a bit of a mess. Schools particularly have great potential to contribute to a new sense of community if there were some regional coordination.

Once we had Local Government ( Provincial Government) created due to difficulties of travel and communication. This was replaced by a more equitable Central Government. Over the years this central government became unwieldy, inflexible and bureaucratic. In the nineties 'market forces' pushed for less central government and now there is a movement, from the present government, to pass more responsibility down to local communities. I have even heard the words 'direct democracy from our Prime Minister.

If this were to eventuate I envisage candidates or regional councils holding town meetings to discuss what really matters, what is not working and ideas for improvement? I know this does currently happen to a degree but few attend. I can imagine meetings called to involve residents in decisions that concern them. I imagine local communities really becoming self determining and supporting candidates that offer the best ideas or visions of the future.

What is now needed is for a political party to really encourage more inclusive local government and greater coordination between all the various organizations and agencies that exist within them. This inclusive vision could create some excitement and we might get more voters turning out. Might be worth voting then! Sounds like real democracy.

Thursday, October 07, 2004

Dramatic thinking from Minister!

Earlier this year the Minister of Education, after three years of exhaustive research, announced that he would be placing greater emphasis on teaching and learning and that this would be his priority for lifting student achievement. Appreciating that the quality of teaching practices by educators is the largest ( but of course not the only!) influence on the achievement of students is, to say the least, to state the stunningly obvious. That many teachers are exhausted from trying to implement the almost incoherent curriculum demands imposed by his own Ministry seems to have escaped his attention. As well many creative teachers of older students are trapped in a school structure designed for an earlier age. At least the students who feel equally trapped can play truant. Still it was at least a start to hear that teachers were now being seen as the most important factor, replacing a previous blind faith in nationally imposed curriculums. By the way the curriculums are away being reshaped as 'key competencies' - the next miracle 'snake oil' to be imposed on schools.

Recently the Minister, in another attempt to close the achievement gap has suggested that schools not waste time using Maori powhiri to greet visitors. Possibly this was more being politically expedient than educational? Now his latest contribution is to add another hour of physical education a week to combat the growing obesity problem in our young people.

The Minister could rename one of his responsibilities as the 'Minister of Instant Responses'? Just as failing students, or the 'achievement gap' can't be solved without facing up to other important factors such as poverty issues, poor health and housing, nor can the obesity problem. When you think of it, is all to easy to blame poor achievement and obesity on schools. It could equally be seen as a way to shift the blame away from the depressing social conditions created by poor decisions made governments over the past decades.

If this is the extent of the Ministers visionary thinking we are in trouble. Every other organization has had to change dramatically the past few decades but our secondary schools carry on in all their antiquated Victorian glory. Be great if one of his solutions to the 19% of failing students was to introduce some new innovative community based schools in every centre to provide a more sympathetic learning cultures for students that can't be made to fit into the current schools.

I have course forgotten to mention that it seems all our educational problems will be solved by providing every teacher with a laptop and by new information technology policies.

Tuesday, October 05, 2004

Schools don't fit all learners?

The press and radio, as well as the general public, seem to think teaching is the same no matter what level of schooling teachers teach in. This couldn't be further from the truth.

A quick visit schools to observe would soon make differences obvious. For many students transferring to a secondary school is like visiting a foreign country.

At the junior level teachers create learning environments based on care and respect, present a range of learning challenges, monitor the progress of all their students and most importantly take responsibility for the same children for the whole day. At the secondary level everything changes. Teachers teach separate subjects in forty minute periods, students are often streamed and students have a number of different teachers to relate to in any one day.

This is a very different world for the students ( and would be for their teachers if they had to swap levels!). As a result many students, particularly those who struggle, fall through the cracks during this transition.

This does not have to be the case. Learners are learners at any age - the same principles apply. That the differences exist is simply because of a mix of unquestioned practices and habits, vested interests and the power of the status quo. Even teachers seem to be blind to the differences their students have to face up to and it is only recently that the Ministry of Education has become aware of the problem. Badly managed transitions are now recognized as contributing to the growing number of failing students.

What is required is a national conversation about the purpose of schooling in the twenty first century? What matters for the students at school? What attributes or competencies do students need to acquire to become life long learners? What is currently working well? What is not working well? What might be ideas to try out to improve the situation? The answers to these question would lead to some innovative suggestions. If the government really believed in direct democracy they should initiate such a conversation.

The press and radio might also take the lead in developing a climate for such changes rather than blaming teachers and schools as if they were all the same.

Monday, October 04, 2004

Webs of habit

Teachers and students will now be back at school beginning the last term of the school year. One more term to make certain all students gain the learning habits to ensure they thrive in whatever comes their way in the future.

In contrast there was a 'debate' on National Radio this morning with two politicians and an author of a recent report on Family Courts about the value of Family Courts for youth offenders. I guess these are the students, for whatever reason, seem to have gained little from the experiences they have gained from life except to be destructive. Most of them no doubt 'excused' themselves from school possibly about the advent of adolescence.

It was commented on that schools are not effective in keeping such kids in the system. However to be effective schools would need to change dramatically to help such students - more of what they can't do won't solve anything. To develop such schools would be a great opportunity for an innovative government.

Interestingly the answers from the politicians illustrated the difference between Labour and National. Labour are working to develop a comprehensive approach to youth offending ensuring that all agencies involved work in tandem. This to include, Child Youth and Family, Health, Education and the Police. The National politician predictably was keen on punishment and focusing this on the 5% who cause most of the problem. For them it is off to jail as soon as possible, no matter that the jail population is exploding dramatically.

The author of the report talked about the young people who felt that there was no place for them in society and that engaging these students positively is the key. This brings us back to the need for an education that offers these students something to change their minds and to break the web of habits that limit their current actions.

To ensure that these bad habits do not develop requires a community involvement and more than just a comprehensive unity between the various agencies. Communities and schools need to work together to create educational experiences to help such students change their minds and to develop new habits

These young offenders are another sign or symptom of 'systems' designed in the last century not being flexible enough to cope. New innovative schools designed for such students could be an answer.

Sunday, October 03, 2004

Can we keep the spirit of creativity alive?

Was interested to read in this mornings Sunday paper an article by art critic Gregory O'Brien where he writes that 'great artists would sell their soul to retain the clear vision of their childhood'.

He continues saying that it is during the eight to twelve year old age span 'that most people are unplugged from their natural creativity'. He says that this is not just because of the ' advent of adolescence' but because 'the spirit of childhood
is regularised, sanitised and rationalised by an education system preoccupied with definable outcomes and academic objectives'. 'Art and imagination', he writes, 'should not be put away as childish things'.

How can we in education re imagine the system to retain children's imagination and joy of discovery in all areas of learning? Not by excessive planning of exemplars and key competencies but rather by valuing the raw material of the children's own lives. Why must we always plan everything to death?

Saturday, October 02, 2004

The joy of learning.

What motivates me to write is that we seem to have lost touch with the idea of learning for its own sake - the sheer joy of learning. This is easiest seen when watching a young baby busy exploring it's environment. These days all the press and TV can talk about are failing teachers or schools but they never look deeply to see why it is so many students fail or why so few people these days are attracted to teaching as a career. As Edward Deming , the 'quality guru' once said, 'good people wrong system'! Mind you he was ignored in his own country while the Japanese quickly saw the point of his message.

Today we have become just too caught up in standards, measurements and assessments to see clearly the simple truth that it is the joy of learning that is the crucial foundation for everything else. The Ministry of Education's mission ( vision?) is, 'To raise achievement and reduce disparity'. Now there is nothing wrong with the mission but it lacks what you might call the 'wow' factor! Inspirational it is not!

What about, 'To retain the love of learning by building on the talents, dreams and passions of all learners.' If we really want to be seen as a creative and innovative country, that really appreciates that the greatest resource we have are the talents of our citizens, this would be a start. This however would require a change of mindset by all involved. As Howard Gardner says, 'We are natural mind changers until we are 10 years old or so. After that it is very hard to change our minds.' When does the joy of learning disappear from so many of our students, or more to the point, why?

The joy of learning is no soft thing. People who love learning easily acquire new knowledge and skills and they feel good when they overcome the learning challenges that are part of all learning. All people love learning something - the key is to tap into this intrinsic motivation.

A love of learning is universal but the way this strength is appreciated and encouraged depends on the environment the learner is in. Teachers and parents are quick to recognize when a 'spark of learning is ignited'. Love of learning requires learning be meaningful and challenging ( even risky) but most of all it requires supportive company.

Research shows that individuals with a love of learning are likely to have greater positive feelings about learning new things, are able to self regulate their own learning, to persevere despite frustrations and to have a greater sense of possibility.

The benefits seems obvious and what is more they are lifelong.

But I guess it is all too hard to measure and anyway it means we would all have to change our minds about how to create joyful schools - particularly for students past the age of ten.

Friday, October 01, 2004

Students chronically disengaged

On the news last night, the Ministry of Education was reported to admitting to 86000 unjustified absences every week. Can this be right? Jim Hopkins ( NZ commentator) said, on radio today, that if school were factories they would be closed down - although he was referring to the news about struggling first and second year teachers. He however is right - secondary schools are 'factories' and if not closed down they need to be re-invented into organizations more suited to the new millennium. Robert Blum ( James Hopkins University professor and pediatrician) cites research in the US that states 50 to 60% of all students are 'chronically disengaged'. A similar figure would apply in New Zealand? We know that we currently send out into society 19% of students who have acquired no qualifications to show for their time. Even an inefficient factory wouldn't put up with such a failure rate.

In contrast to the above depressing figures we now know enough to be able to create 'new' schools where all students can succeed. This knowledge is more than just recognizing the power of good teachers, pedagogy and high expectations that the Ministry is keen on talking about. Ironically these same good teachers have been frustrated the past decade trying to implement and assess incoherent curriculum documents imposed by the very same Ministry!

The Education Ministry needs to face up to the painfully obvious fact that it is the system that teachers work in that is the problem. This is something an inspirational Minister of Education ought to be facing up to if he really wants to tap into the creative energy of teachers and students. As David Hood says, in his excellent book, 'Our Secondary Schools Don't Work Any More', there is nothing natural or given about how schools are structured. Schools are bound by traditions that face the wrong century and are just not able to cater for the students now forced to stay at school until they are 16.

No point in catching truants and giving them more of the same medicine! There is no point in blaming students, or teachers, or parents. What we want are some new experimental schools set up to engage disaffected students and frustrated teachers.

We need to ask why do we organize secondary schools so they resemble no other institution in the world? Henry Ford would be at home running one of our current big schools! There will be little real change until communities, parents and the press demand something better rather than continually tinkering with a failing system.