Wednesday, December 15, 2004

A return to real basics to reach all students.

It is pretty obvious school currently fails many students as evidenced by the existence of the achievement gap. The usual answer is to introduce simplistic solutions such as more emphasis on literacy and numeracy and higher expectations or more targeted accountability. While this may deliver short term results little will change in the long run.

It might be that the model of schooling itself is the problem? A century ago mass schooling was just dream but for many students today it has turned out to be nightmare!

Before mass schooling was invented children spent their time in the midst of multi age settings in small communities, maraes, villages and farms where they knew grown ups at work and play. This is not to say that the ‘olden days’ were idyllic. Far from it, hardship and poverty marked the lives of children in those days but some would say that many of our students today have similar difficulties – the very children that contribute to the ‘achievement gap’. But for better or worse, in the past, learning took place formally or informally in the company of grownups.

Learning in pre -school situations was learning by absorption and imitation. Formal schooling, when it was established, downgraded anything learnt in a non school environment leading to greater depersonalization. Curriculums became disconnected from the passions, interests and cultures of the students; timetables divided learning into arbitary segments; and the older the children the less ‘real life’ it became.

The children from the dominant groups managed this transition, having what is often called ‘social capital’, while other students, often from a different social or cultural background, found it increasingly unfamiliar and fell behind.

The real key to help students who find school difficult is to develop personalized learning again', a learning based on a respect for what the children bring with them. Mutual respect and sense of trust is required between the teacher and the student in line with the experiences they had before so learning can validate their out of school lives.

In traditional communities, or before school today, students learn through an innate curiosity as evidenced by the need to ask endless questions. They learn by making mistakes that are greeted with approval by parents who see them as efforts towards greater proficiency. They literally and figuratively pick themselves up, dust themselves off and have another go. The adults around them do not expect them to learn anything 'first go' and there is no sense of judgment. Help is given only as needed.

At school, even in well meaning classrooms, children soon learn not to ask questions and many become fearful of making mistakes. From these small beginnings some children gradually become uncomfortable and some even alienated. It doesn’t take much to turn learning off!

Gradually they learn that their own lives, their personal stories and culture are no longer relevant. School becomes more and more incomprehensible and as a consequence their view of themselves as learners suffers. All they learn is to show off their ignorance and some even fall into the trap of gaining attention by being ‘bad’, or uninterested, or by just withdrawing.

The solution for these (and really for all children) is to make full use of their real life experiences as a basis for literacy competence. Teachers need to value their questions, their prior ideas in any learning situation and most of all by tapping into their talents and interests.

Children at school need to be introduced to rich topics or tasks by teachers who are willing to learn alongside the learner. Children in such situations learn by wanting to, by copying, by listening, asking each other questions, by helping each other in joint tasks, and by gaining pride by having plenty of opportunities to demonstrate their new skills or knowledge in real life situations. This is imbedded evaluation!

Students will learn in such environments because they will sense we expect them too. When they feel trusted they will continue to ask ‘dumb’ questions and see mistakes as a good try - next time they know it will be better. And they will know there is no rush and that they will have time to figure things out.

The drive to learn and make sense of our lives is innate. It is schools that have to change to see that this curiosity is not lost or diverted into less productive activities. The students who are included in the so called ‘achievement tail’, if we don’t help them, might not learn 'school stuff' but they will learn and for some we will pay the price.

We need to reinvent schools to foster authentic learning and to do this in concert with the children’s parents by making them full partners in the process. We need to return the schools back to their communities so that school and out of school worlds overlap – and at all levels.

Creative teachers have already shown us that this faith in student creativity results in all students achieving school success. It can be done.

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