Thursday, November 02, 2006

We have the means but do we have the will?

  Posted by Picasa Another of my favourite books, written by David Hood

David Hood has had along career in education having been a secondary school principal, spent time in the Education Review Office, and was NZQA first chief executive.

He believes New Zealand’s secondary schools have been caught in time warp. Designed for an Industrial Age they are, he writes, becoming increasingly irrelevant.What is required, he believes, is a ‘paradigm shift’ because changes made so far have only been tinkering at the margins.

The past 50 or so years have witnessed great changes in every area of life and we would expect, he writes, for education to also be markedly different but, in reality, secondary schools have changed little. In fact they seem highly resistant to change!

Visit a school and the old industrial mindset is alive and well. Structurally the subjects are much the same, the students are still divided into aged grouped classes (all too often streamed by ‘ability’), the day is rigidly fixed within specific timetables, and teachers teach classes from the front changing classes on the bell every hour or so. This is exactly as it was 50 years ago!

The trouble is both teachers and parents tend to accept this as ‘natural’ or ‘given and yet there is nothing natural, Hood explains, about how schools are organized; they are organised for a world that no longer exists. Their original function was to sort students out but today (with all students expected to stay on until 16) over 30% of them fail, creating the problems of alienation and discipline we hear so much about today. However it is the schools that are failing their students and not the other way around. No business would survive with such a failure rate!

And it is not that there is a lack of research to show that schools are ineffective for a great number of their students. We know more than enough that no student need fail but only if we changed our collective minds first.

It begs the question, Hood writes, why schools haven’t changed dramatically when all around the change is the name of the game. The trouble is schools are so bound up by tradition that teachers themselves are very cautionary towards change. What does take place is tinkering around the edges without changing the schools structure in any way; and as result the gap between what could be done and current reality widens; schools become increasingly dysfunctional.

Even the reforms of the past decade have made little difference. None of the reforms have got to the heart of the matter, teaching and learning, although the recent draft NZ curriculum is a step in the right direction. Don’t bet however on secondary school changing much though – they are experts in resisting change. Hood’s own experience as a secondary principal is evidence of this – changing teachers’ minds he found is a real challenge. The teachers themselves are as locked into a system( and their subjects) as their students, and this has stifled their creativity. Teachers are unable to see the value of developing integrated ‘contextualized’ studies that would teach the very attitudes and skills businesses want.

As we enter the 21stC, Hood writes, school practices continue on without rhyme or reason, ‘In many respects the clock has stopped, time has stood still, and innovation has taken a back seat,’ while in the business world everything has, and continues, to change. The new concept of the 'intelligent worker', capable of problem solving and decision making, of taking responsibity for ones own work within agreed goals has little to do with traditional schooling based on obedience, control and conformity. Schools are just too conservative to be involved in ‘venturesome innovation’ the hallmark of a successful business.

Research clearly indicates that students learn best when teachers collaborate with students to plan studies based on real life experiences, negotiate course objectives and activities with students to achieve goals, integrate use of ICT, and assess results jointly with students against agreed criteria. When these are in place students ‘engage’ in learning with enthusiasm.

Hood believes all learners ought to have the right to:

be involved in making their own decision about what to learn

to have functional literacy and numeracy in place when they leave school

for their learning to be based around real life problems

to succeed at learning

to have their learning assessed.

All new entrants with their parents should be asked to identify their strengths and weaknesses, special interests, talents and aspirations, and agreed action plans put in place; learning to be ‘personalized’ to suit each students' needs.

Groups of teachers, Hood writes, should be collectively responsible for managing and facilitating the learning experiences for groups of students. The conventional timetable would need to go and learning to be focused on ensuring ‘foundation’ skills are in place with the remaining time ‘blocked’ for a wide range of contextual studies.

All this is possible, and even encouraged, in the National Curriculum. It is at the school leadership level where innovation must begin; already there are schools well on the way - but far too few.

Such schools demonstrate what is possible when schools evolve into 21st C ‘learning organizations’; schools willing to question traditional wisdom and embrace change as an opportunity to be innovative and creative.

We need , Hood writes, to be serious about changing our schools - the success of our young people and the viability of our country depend on it. Such schools will be important as we enter, what some are calling, the ‘Age of Creativity’.

It is time, as John Hood concludes his book, for ‘courageous decisions’


Anonymous said...

You don't seem to have much faith in secondary schools transforming themselves!

Bruce Hammonds said...

I live in hope that one day there will be a revolution - in the meantime innovation in secondary schools seems restricted to new schools or those where there is nothing to lose!

None the less it is the area where the greatest creativity will one day occur when lack of student engagement reaches greater proportions - then we may see lots of new schools evolve.

Anonymous said...

You are sure right ( or Hood is) is secondary schools are change averse!

Bruce Hammonds said...

Secondary schools are sure hard to change. The new draft will challenge them.