Thursday, August 24, 2006

The dark side of Literacy and Numeracy

  Photo: Dean Fink Posted by Picasa

It would seem heretical to suggest the current obsession with Literacy and Numeracy is limiting the learning of our students. Every classroom you visit is full of the current approaches as introduced by ‘contracted’ advisers following their written scripts; all passing on the John Hattie message of intentional teaching, feedback and the dogma of ‘evidence based teaching’.

Not that it isn’t a good message but to restrict it to literacy and numeracy is to limit the potential power to develop students’ talents in equally, or more important, areas. Literacy and numeracy are 'foundation' skills. They do not 'drive' learning – learning is driven by students’ interests and talents and their deep desire to make sense of their lives.

As Dean Fink and Andy Hargreaves write in their latest book ‘Sustainable Leadership’, ‘our continuing obsession with reaching higher and higher standards in literacy and mathematics is exhausting our teachers and learners turning vast tracts of the surrounding learning environment in the humanities, health education and the arts, into barren wastelands as almost all peoples achievement and improvement are channeled elsewhere.’

They continue, ‘the political pesticide of teacher professional standardization’ is resulting in ‘collateral damage in creative and critical learning.’ ‘The coming of such a ‘Silent Spring’ in education’ is a ‘looming danger as the all consuming standardized education reform leaves plagues of exhausted teachers and joyless learning in its wake’.

Hopefully we will avoid the worst of this in New Zealand but I see the beginning of the educational monoculture of literacy and numeracy. One only has to look at the educational ‘targets’ schools are setting in their Annual Plans.

Fink and Hargreaves write, ‘ All teaching and learning are emotional practices – if learning isn’t personalized- that is, customized to the meaning, prior knowledge, and life circumstances, then many students, especially the most disadvantaged, will scarcely learn at all.’

If learning is to be sustained teachers must tap into area of learning students enjoy – the areas we most linger over? We need, they believe, endurance in learning not the efficiency of measurable performance. Still waters, they continue, run deep. Deep learning takes time. According to Guy Claxton, ‘Slow learning is essential for our lives – it draws on creativity and ingenuity needed to solve complex problems’ and ‘to learn their way out of trouble’.

It is 'learning to learn' that ought to be the focus of all teaching and not restricted to literacy and numeracy which seems to be the current trend.

We ought to be concerned with the ‘art of teaching’ so as to develop all the talents our students have, talents all too easily lost if we focus too much on literacy and numeracy.

As Fink and Hargreaves write, ‘When people have a passion and a purpose that is theirs, not someone else’s, and when their passion is pursued together and is sharpened by a sense of urgency...there are no limits to what they can achieve.’

What is wanted, they say, is learning that is self sustaining. Learning that really matters to the individual students. Learning that lasts a lifetime; learning that sticks.

Schools ought to ensure that such important ideals are not forgotten or overwhelmed by schools with their current, almost Victorian, obsession with literacy and numeracy.

Perhaps the 'new' New Zealand Curriculum will provide a challenge to schools to look beyond such limited horizons?


Anonymous said...

Sounds like an interesting book Bruce? I can see why you like their message! The average teachers, or principal, would find it hard to take - they are caught hook line and sinker on what you call a return to the Victorian 'three Rs' curriculum.It is heresy to be critical of literacy and numeracy!

Anonymous said...

One of the interesting thoughts I often have is fact that before you make progress for positive group action you require the allignment of all stakeholders around the goals and objectives. This ability to make such allignments has been almost lost in communities and schools. Schools especially have lost this alignment even though the reason for tomorrows schools was to establish such alignment or was it choice or market forces or cost savings?
If you wish to alter the way you teach kids then you need to seriously consider starting a school on the philosophy you hold dear. If you could get Government funding I could see little problem in gaining the support from parents/kids teachers and so long as you are correct in your assumptions about how best to educate the postitive/creative potential of the kids the success will be self evident. It is very difficult in my experience to try and change an existing school as the fixed opinions in the community and staff will stop or choke the change. But if you were sucessfull in starting a new school with the exciting prospects you uphold you would see the community come to you once they see the benifits and got over the initial shock. The first step would be to hold a meeting of like minded educators and prospective community suporters to establish a supported philosohpy then start a school!

Bruce Hammonds said...

Couldn't agree more. Sounds like a good plan!

Bruce Hammonds said...

I was a bit quick with my reply to your comments.

What you have outlined would seem a sensible and practical way to go about developing a shared vision and teaching beliefs for a school - new or otherwise.

You are right aslo to think that there is little alignment between schools and their communities. Alignment is often just taken for granted; as long as things go along smoothly no-one questions it or considers other more inclusive options.

Having a 'conversation' with all involved about the challenges of the future, and the qualities students would need to thrive, would naturaly lead on to defining appropriate teaching and learning beliefs. Such 'conversations' would bring to the surface assumptions that for too long have been taken for granted.

If eveyone had the oportunity to voice their concerns, and there was some process to aggregate people's thoughts ( 'wisdom'), then everyone might be willing to support the new directions that they have together defined.

New ideas, are you say are often 'choked' by reluctant, or cynical, staff members ( who often resent community input) and are also 'blocked' by community members who care little for the democratic voices of others- parents or teachers.

If the dialogue process was handled properly such 'voices' could be included in a positive way.

Of course, if you were starting a new school, the process would be a lot easier.

Anonymous said...

Schools are not so much 'dream killers', with their obsession with achievement in literacy and numeracy - but totally unaware of the power of dreams.