Wednesday, August 30, 2006

What did you learn at school today?

  Posted by Picasa Compulsory mass education has been in place in Western countries for over 130 years and is now accepted without question.

Education and schooling have in turn become synonymous seen as a common good and as a necessary ingredient for a person’s success.

It would seem uncharitable to criticize such an accepted part of our way of life. There is no doubt that for the great majority of students schooling and education seem a happy mix, many thrive in the traditional environment but there are up to 20% who school experience is definitely not positive nor educative.

So what they learn isn’t as simple as it sounds. And all students learn different things. If the schools role is to produce students with certificates to indicate their achievement based on what the school has decided as appropriate then it is successful. And if the students are predictable, fit in with the imposed authority, and easily controlled as well, all is for the best. These are students who will do well but will hardly change the world by developing new creative ideas. And if a few have to fail so what.

Traditional schools are a success if this is all that is required but things have changed in the real work of work. Students will no longer find future occupations jobs in an industrial world, nor even a knowledge based world; the future will require talented, independent, self reliant individuals able to thrive in what some are calling an 'Age of Creativity'.

SchoolS designed in an 'Industrial Era', with by fragmented subjects, run by bells and timetables, will simply not be able to produce the creative individuals we will need.

Future students will have to learn new things. Schools will have to change. Perhaps we will no longer need schools as we know them?

There were those who were writing about this in the 70s .Ivan Illich wrote a book called ‘De-Schooling Society’ which now makes more sense with the advent of the world wide web and modern information technology allowing learners to learn anywhere, anytime. These writers believe the 'agency' for learning should be in the hands of the students themselves. Today we are calling this movement ‘personalized learning’ basing it on the idea that the vision of ‘mass’ education can no longer educate all students to develop their individual potential.

Students, in out current system, learn to do what others expect and ‘not to do their own thing’ .And, as well, their success is determined on how well they achieve based on what the school determines as criteria for success. Although the current system is slowly changing education is still seen as students 'consuming' what school provides and being assessed on how well they do it. The ‘hidden curriculum’ of conformity, control and ‘do as we say’ remains. Those who want to ‘do their own thing’, or refuse to conform, find themselves in a difficult position. Worse still many accept their failure as their fault.

Little thought is given that it may be the school which is failing the student. Maybe we have ‘Underachieving Schools’, a title of a 70s book by John Holt?

Today there are those that see many teachers as having ‘deficit theory’ mindsets, to quick to place the blame for student failure on their culture, their backgrounds, or the weather! Anything but look at the school's culture, structure and their own lack of pedagogical expertise.

As result of such 'dysfunctional' schools (designed for a past era), and teachers who know no better, many students leave school, after twelve years of ‘Compulsory Miss –Education’, (another 70s book title by Goodman) with little to show for their time.

What did these students learn? Students always learn something!

Today we know enough about the conditions required for learning and teaching that no students need fail. And, as well, we now have the technology to transform teaching and to develop ‘personalized learning’.

'Personalized learning' is the style all students bring with them to school; young children learn what they need, when they need it (‘just in time learning’) depending on their interests, curiosity and desire to make meaning of life. And their reward is intrinsic rather than school approval.

At school they start to learn what the school wants of them;what is regarded as ‘good ‘or ‘bad’; how to get on in this new environment. The ‘hidden curriculum’ starts early. Most of all they learn that their interests, concerns, special talents are subservient to the curriculum the teacher sets for them. They learn that school is a place not to ‘do their own thing’.

‘Personalized learning’, which had done them so well in their first few years of life, is slowly replaced by ‘the curriculum’. There have been, and still are, creative teachers who have tried to keep this intrinsic ‘joy of learning’ alive. The best known creative teacher in NZ was Elwyn Richardson who was working in the 60s. His book, ‘in the Early World’, still available from the NZCER, is regarded by many as the most inspiration book on ‘personalized learning’.

Slowly student curiosity, as indicated by the asking of questions and self initiated learning, is substituted by teacher planned activities and associated assessment tasks. By secondary school the transformation is complete. Learning is subject centred, fragmented,taught in separate classrooms, and ‘delivered’ by teachers who know little about the inner thoughts and concerns of their students.

The majority of students learn these new lessons without any awareness and ‘succeed’ at what schools ask of them but at what cost to openness to new learning, seeing new connections, developing emotional sensitivity, aesthetic awareness, individual talent development and creativity?

All the things students need to learn to thrive in an 'Age of Ideas and Creativity'.

Some would say schools have ‘stolen’ the very essence of being a learner from their students - a desire to make sense of their world, spontaneous inquiry and a joy of learning.

If we want to ensure all students retain their desire to learn we will have to change our minds first to learn to see the process of learning and teaching in different light. We now know enough that no student need fail but only if we have the will, wit, and imagination to do so.

'Personalized learning' could be the biggest change of direction in schooling since the vision of compulsory mass education.

Our success in the future demands we transform our schools to make them 'learner friendly'.

Teachers have new lessons to learn.

Exciting times!


Rob Green said...

Excellent stuff Bruce. You have clearly set out the challenge to our schools of today....and this then becomes the challenge to all of us teachers. We need to resist the temptation to the knee-jerk defense of our current practices and seriously examine the realities including what we are doing in our current teaching.

This is easily said but seemingly impossible given that we apparently are given no time in which to leap off the frantically flying treadmill and give this the attention it so clearly deserves.

Nor do we find it easy to break down the isolating barriers from one classroom to the next. The reality is that we often do not know what is going on in our colleagues' classrooms nor are we especially welcoming to people wishing to come in and observe from time to time.

And yet this collegial, considered reflection upon our teaching styles and strategies...our classroom what is most needed.

A challenge indeed. How do we achieve this level of freedom to reflect and collaborate.

Bruce said...

Thanks Rob for your perceptive reply.

As you say it too easy to become defensive but, if we want the best for our students, everything must be up for questioning.

As you aslo say it is all too easy to underestimate the challenge for schools that wish to transform themselves.

I aslo agree it is difficult for teachers, used to the privacy of their own rooms, to open their teaching to the eyes of others.Schools that have done this have had to work out carefully what is to be observed and, as well, the process needs to be controlled by the teacher being observed.

Observations need take no longer tha 10 minutes with a similar time for debriefing - once again led by the teacher, who will be aware of what went right or wrong.They will also know possible solutions to their problems.

Schools that have achieved this have spent time training teachers to do this observation and coaching and have allowed three or four years to change the school culture.

Worth a try?

The school I am thinking of has made this process their appraisal system. They add ideas to the mix with regular fortnightly staff meetings where ten minutes is given to cross school teams to discuss a reading given prior to the meeting, combined with a shared reading where all teachers break into groups to read and reflect on short article chosen by the leadership team.

These are ways they feel important to encourage dialogue in the school to build up a cohesive school culture.

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