Saturday, December 22, 2007

Anita Roddick on education

I was recently sent an article which included a quote by Anita Roddick, founder of the Body Shop. As I result I 'googled' her site and enjoyed reading a variety of articles expressing her ideas to make the world a fairer place..

Anite Roddick is a unashamed activist. Her site states,'Get informed.Get outraged Get inspired.Get active.'

Now in her early sixties she believes the older you are the more radical you can become.

Her 'entrepreneurialship', she says, is a result of her dysfunction. An entrepreneurs dream is almost a kind of madness.The difference, she says, between a crazy person and the delinquent mind of the entrepreneur is that the latter can convince others to share in the vision. Entrepreneurs act on what they see,think and feel. Entrepreneurs are often loners, vagabonds and troublemakers. Success is simply a matter, she says, 'of surrounding ourselves with those open minded and clever souls who can take our insanity and put it to good use'.

Back to the quote about learning.

Education ought to about giving all students the freedom of thought, judgement, feeling and imagination they need to develop their talents and take control of their lives as much as possible.

Anita's quote is as follows:

'Let's help children to develop the habits of freedom.To encourage them to celebrate who and what they are.

Let's stop teaching children to fear change and protect the status quo. Let's teach them to inquire and debate.To ask questions until they hear answers.And the way to do it is to change the ways of traditional schooling.

Our education system does its best to ignore and suppress the creative spirit of children. It teaches them to listen unquestioningly to authority. It insists that education is to get a job.What's left out is sensitivity to others, non- violent behaviour, respect, intuition, imagination, and a sense of awe and wonderment.'

Education, according to Anita, is about getting a life rather than just getting a living.

Anita's site.

Where, or who, are our education entrepreneurs?

Friday, December 21, 2007

Let them take Ritalin!

Learning better through chemicals?

Recently I have come across research by Dr Leonard Sax's about the difference between the development of boys and girls brains and that the current education approach favours girls.

If we accept that all children have differing learning styles and intelligences then gender must must be part of the mix. Dr Sax believes the answer to boy's failure are boys only schools but equally the answer could be to transform schools into personalized learning environments - fitting the curriculum to individual learners rather than the other way around. 'One size fits all', fits nobody.

Dr Sax is however critical of the overuse of Ritalin to solve boys learning ( usually behaviour) problems. One in eight students in the US are prescribed Ritalin!

His thoughts on the subject are interesting.

Ritalin is a stimulant in the same class as 'speed' and is according to Sax becoming the greatest drug problem in the USA. Speed has an immediate effect but Ritalin is slow to be absorbed. Ritalin has been prescribed for forty years and its use is increasing dramatically. To appreciate this, Sax says you have to understand the something about hyperactivity disorder, or ADHD.

He writes, 'as long as there have been children, there have been children who misbehave, those who don't listen, who can't sit still, who don't follow instructions, no matter how many times you tell them.' All sorts of names have been assigned to such children as ADD, and ADHD and ODD ( oppositional defiance disorder!). The typical ADD/ADHD child is bored, easily distracted and not performing up to potential. Observing in some classes these would seem appropriate responses!

The rapid increase of behaviour requiring Ritalin Sax puts down to two causes.

The first is television and use of computers.

Today's young generation, in contrast to children of the 70s, spend more time indoors - having fun indoors has multiplied. The dynamic rapidly changing world of TV has lessened the ability to concentrate. Children now spend six hours every day staring at some sort of screen and this has coincided with the rising use of Ritalin. Being sent to your room is no longer a punishment - today's room link children, through the Internet, with the wide world. Play , if it can be called that, is often solitary. Being in touch with the natural world through the senses is very limited. Some call this NDD or nature deficit disorder!

The second issue causing the growth in Ritalin is the obsession of school with testing. Standardized 'high stakes' testing is a growth industry in the USA. Testing, or focusing on narrow academic 'targets' has the effect of narrowing the curriculum. An 'academic' curriculum has never suited more active practical children ( which includes lots of boys) and any narrowing of the curriculum results in the growth of learning and, in turn, behaviour problems.

Buys Sax's writes, are not well suited to a diet of reading writing and arithmetic. Such students need the diversion of art, music, environmental and physical activities. I would add all children grow in a personalized creative learning environment. The 'pushing' down of inappropriate academic expectations to kindergartens is making the situation worse for boys while limiting the creativity all students. Children who can't cope are prime suspects for a dose of Ritalin ; 80% of all students who are given Ritalin are boys.

Ritalin might solve the symptom but in the process take attention away from the real problem - inappropriate learning opportunities. Ritalin is all too easy. Dysfunctional schools are the real issue not boy's failure. Many of today's creative and highly active adults would , if they were in today's schools, be placed on Ritalin! Schools have never known what to do with nonacademic students, particularly boys; in the past they simply left as soon as they could to get ajob.

In the US Ritalin has increased 4000% in twenty years. There are few studies of the long term effect of its use. Teenager in the US ask for Ritalin to get them through their exams- the have become psychologically dependent on it.

Most countries have lower use rate of Ritalin than the US but its use is spreading particularly in countries introducing standardized teaching regimes.

In Germany there is a growing counter movement to to establish kindergartens ( Waldkindergartens - 'forest kindergartens') outdoors focusing on sensory development, environmental experiences and field trips. I would add lots of opportunities fr play and creative activities.

For all their use of standardized testing and teaching American students still lag behind other countries on academic achievement.

Ritalin usage is not the answer it only disguises the underlying problem. Developing more active single sex schools for boys would, it seem to me, to be in the same category.

What is required is for education to get away from an aobsesion with an acdemic tradional education for all students ( the'one size fits all' model) and to develop a diverse range of developmentally appropriate learning experiences suited to the age nad needs of the students.

Easy solutiions are never the right ones it seems.

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

The difference between boys and girls?

Do boys and girls learn differently? This is a question not often asked about teaching and learning. Maybe it is time to give the issue some thought?

While presenting to a local group of secondary principal the ideas of Dr Leonard Saxs came up. Just recently he was talking on national radio about his ideas about learning differences between boys and girls and, in particular, the need for single sex schools to ensure boys realize their potential.

I can see his research being eagerly grabbed by principals and parents who believe in the more traditional single sex secondary schools.

There is no doubt too many boys are failing in our schools , and from an early age. With this in mind the ideas of Dr Sax need to be examined even if one does not believe in segregated education.

Up until now it has been assumed any differences were cultural and that co-educational schools were the appropriate approach to help all students. Co-education was made the legal approach in American in 1964 to avoid discrimination by any means including gender. Differences were then believed culturally derived or socially constructed. There were no innate differences.

Today new research on the brain throws such ideas into doubt.

If boys and girls do learn differently, in what they like to read, how they study, and how they learn, then some major rethinking is required. Reverting to single sex schools doesn't seem, to me, to be the only option which is Dr Sax's position.

The answer could well lie in 'customizing', or 'personalising', learning to suit each learner whether boy or girl, or any learner with any particular spacial need.

Research is now saying sex does matter and that there are immutable differences between boys and girls- that there are genetic differences between the sexes. Girls brains develop faster for starters, even before birth. The brain of a six year old boy looks like the brain of four year old girl - men evidently don't catch up until they are in their thirties! Emotional development is different in boys and girls brains- it is more evolved in girls. With their rapid brain development girls acquire language skills more readily. Boys, forced to read too early, begin to fail. Girls are currently getting better grades than boys in all areas, including maths.

As well girls thrive in collaborative learning situations and boys are more motivated by competitive environments with clearly defined winners and losers.Different reading preferences of girls and boys are well known.

My view is that if schools continue in their traditional mode then single sex schools may well be an answer but not the right one. One has to ask what competencies will students need in the future to thrive. Maybe the boys will have to learn new future attributes if they are to thrive . In the meantime there are enough competitive organisations, sports and occupations to absorb them - but not forever. Ritalin seems to be another solution- one that does nor face up to the real cause of boys behaviour. Single sex schools are at best a temporary solution and will only be under real threat when traditional secondary schools ( with their genesis in a past industrial age) transform themselves into 'learning communities' dedicated to creating the conditions to develop the gifts, talents and passions of all learners.

Will secondary schools be up to the challenge?

Monday, December 10, 2007

Learner centred education

If you want to access a summary of student centred research about teaching and learning download the American Psychological Association's Learner Centred Framework.

Word wide people are arguing for a new approach to learning and schooling, one that includes emerging electronic learning technologies, to better prepare students for a fast changing and complex world.

Secondary schools seem resistant to such voices.

It is a moot point whether schools will have to be 'learner centred' to make use of such emerging technologies or whether such technologies will force schools to change to become learner centred.

A bold new view of education is needed. One that focuses on the needs of learners and the best available knowledge about how humans learn. Getting this knowledge into schools is the problem.

Education is a dynamic process of moving a learner ( of any age) from a novice to an expert. The challenge, as educators, is create learning experiences that capitalize on the richness , creativity and complexity of human learning.

Being learner centred means placing the learner at the centre of the process and, as such, needs to take into account each learners background, experiences, perspectives, talents, interests, capacities and needs. Such a 'personalized' approach is a long way from the thinking that underpinned the development of our current standardized school system.

Research underlying learner centred education confirms that learning is non linear, recursive, continuous, complex, relational and natural in humans.This is contrary to what you hear from many ( mainly secondary) school teachers and is in conflict with our current failure rate of about 20%.

Research supports that learning is enhanced in contexts where learners have supportive relationships with teachers, have a sense of ownership and control over the learning process, and can learn from, and with, each other in safe and trusting learning environments. Prescribed content is no longer the foundation of learning rather rich context and creating an opportunity for learners to make meaning are more relevant

Content needs to be customized to meet learners needs and this demands a new role for teacher as learning advisers and/or co-creators with their students. 'Just in time' learning needs to replace 'just in case' and 'anywhere anytime' describe future learning environments.

We now know enough about teaching and learning to transform our schools. Emerging technology and the creative aspirations of students will place demands on schools for such changes.

Exciting times ahead.

Sunday, December 09, 2007

Edutopia - interview with Alvin Toffler

This is a wonderful site ( established by George Lucas of 'Stars wars' fame) to gain practical ideas for problem baaed learning integrating technology.

Forty years ago Alvin Toffler and his wife Heidi set the world alight with the publication of their book Future Shock. The Tofflers have a deep belief in the power of a transformed education system to shape the hearts and minds of future youth.

In answer the question about the most pressing need in education today Toffler replied, 'Shut down the education system!Adding that he was roughly quoting Microsoft's Bill Gates.

Toffler believes we should start from the ground up rather than trying to change the present system. He believes that there are countless creative teachers but that they are operating in a system designed to produce industrial workers.

He comments that our present compulsory system is only about a 100 years old and when it was introduced many parents did not want their children to go to school - they needed them to work. After a big debate, and following rural people flooding the industrialised cities, business leaders wanted workers with 'industrial discipline'. Things like working to the clock and bell so as to be able to work on the assembly line. It was not necessary for such workers to think but to do what was prescribed.Secondary schools reflect this image to this day. Toffler believes our current schools are, 'stealing the students' futures. He asks, why is everything 'massified' rather than personalised in our system? New technologies make customisation and the necessary diversity possible.

Toffler says while businesses are changing at a 100 miles an hour schools are only changing at 10 miles an hour. Schools still use methods of teaching at the secondary level that have not changed in hundred years. Teachers from a century ago could walk into a secondary classroom and get busy. The read and remember and listen and remember style of teaching is an old paradigm. Up until now modern information technology has not been fully used to transform learning approaches.

When asked what he would do he would want to hear of lots of new ideas not the same old solutions
. He would want teachers to not be constrained by imposed expectations and impossible bureaucratic rules. Currently, he believes, 'we are holding millions of students prisoners every week' trying to achieve narrow achievement outputs.

School, he says, should be more real life. Students who have interests ought to be able to tap into people in the community and learn from with people who are passionate and excited about the same things.

Everything about school ought to be questioned.Why should schools be compulsory? When should they be open? Who could be teachers? Why are students kept in age groups? Schools today are too focused on being custodial and not enough on personalising learning. Schools ought to be integrated with their communities to be able to take advantage of community skills.

While admitting his views are utopian the main thing is to get out of your head the ways schools are structured now. Teachers parents, people outside education, should get together to rethink the shape of education. Diversity ought to be the theme not an obsession with industrialized standardization.

The biggest wall to knock down , Toffler believes, is the attitude of teachers
. Too many of them have been locked into the system and are afraid ( Toffler called this 'future shock') to change and move towards the technology that their students use out of school naturally.

Such a conversation with everyone involved,Toffler believes, would be healthy for any country to do.

Search the edutopia site and join up to receive their newsletter.

Great professional development.

Our schools are dysfunctional

A book for holiday reflection.

A friend of mine just recently returned from a study trip abroad and mentioned to me that the book he had been advised to get hold of was 'The Best Schools' by Thomas Armstrong( available ascd organisation. See a summary of the book on our site.

I remember I already had the book so naturally I reread it to refresh my memory. And I was pleased I did - the real reason, according to the author, for so many students failing is is not the students' fault but the dysfunctional 'academic' educational system that has evolved.

I agree totally with Armstrong, well known for his previous publications on Multiple Intelligences.

And he is not alone.You can add to his 'voice' people such as Alvin Toffler, Tom Peters, Bill Gates, Sir Ken Robinson, Tony Buzan ...the list goes on. The only support for the status quo comes from the dead hand of tradition, those who currently gain from the system, and the conservatism of teachers!

In the meantime over 20% of all students continue to fail leaving alienated and often angry

Armstrong's message is that schools are currently dominated, by what he calls, an 'academic' discourse ( or way of thinking) which has nothing to do with what we know as effective pedagogy.

Armstrong is calling for the return to what he calls an a 'developmental' discourse ( 'personalised learning'); an approach to teaching that enables all students to realize their individual strengths and abilities.

The idea that each age group of students have particular developmental needs that underpinned teaching was once well known - if only at the early educational levels. Even the recently published New Zealand Curriculum all but ignores such developmental differences.

The academic discourse , with its emphasis on testing and narrow accountability targets, totally ignores such thinkers as Piaget, Dewey and Gardner, along with what we now know about human mind works. As such this discourse is restricting the full development of all our students - not just those who currently fail.

The developmental discourse asks educators to to pay close attention to the differences that exists in the physical, mental and emotional differences of our students and to value the creativity of all students

Armstrong defines four level of education -each with an appropriate metaphor to base teaching around. These are far more potent than the arbitrary levels of our current, so called, 'seamless' curriculum.

For young children the appropriate metaphor is one of play so as to provide opportunities for the dramatically forming brain to make connections. At this level young children's brains cannot differentiate between the real and the imaginative. Armstrong is very critical of the 'high pressure' academic discourse curriculum that is being imposed on such minds - calling such institutions 'kinder factories'. In the best early schools curriculum 'emerge' spontaneously out of children's interests.

At the primary levels( from age six or seven) brains re able to increasingly differentiate between fact and fantasy and students at this age are busy 'learning about how the world works'. Children at this age have curious minds for teachers to tap into. The current obsession with narrow 'academic' literacy and numeracy may well be counterproductive. There is a wonderful world out there to explore and an abundance of creative approaches to utilize.

Puberty is an age of turmoil, one Armstrong writes, 'is all accelerator and no brakes', is about 'social, emotional and meta cognitive learning. Armstrong makes strong case for specialist middle schools to help students develop growing control their impulsivity. Students at this age have been developed by evolution for 'breeding' and the development of identity - programmes need to be appropriately challenging, creative and diverting, to allow all students to gain success and a sense of self worth.

Finally 'developmental' secondary education should be about 'preparing students to live independently in the real world. High schools, with their almost total academic bias, are in need of dramatic change. Far too many students do not gain the skills of independent learning. As well many highly successful innovators were high school dropouts, none the least Bill Gates, who has stated that high schools are obsolete.Their highly academic curriculum only fuels the discontent of those students for whom it is painfully not suited. Academic high schools currently reflect an 'industrial age mindset'. One based on passivity,obedience, specialization, bells and timetables; as well as isolation from the real world their students are to enter. For too many students it must be nightmare of boredom and irrelevance. Too many students leave school feeling disenfranchised, bored, or alienated by programmes that have no relevance to the needs or interests. Such students have had little opportunity to discover their own unique paths to success. Sadly, because of such depressing educational experiences, some never will.

Armstrong has been compelled to write his book because he believes the pressure of the academic discourse is not only ignoring the developmental needs of students but is continuing the tragedy of cohorts of failing students, which we can ill afford, morally or economically.

The book outlines inappropriate programmes and exemplary practices at each level in the process giving valuable guidance about how to create his 'best schools'. Creative teachers will be reassured by his suggestions.

Those who have high jacked us and led us down the technocratic academic discourse have lot to answer for. It will take courage for schools to return to more appropriate developmental approaches.

Armstrong reminds us of the, 'adventure of learning, the wonder of nature and culture, the richness of human experience,and the delight in acquiring new abilities' , which, he says, have been abandoned or severely curtailed in the drive for accountability, 'benchmarks' , 'targets' and reducing the 'achievement gap'.

Armstrong's book is a must read if we really believe in developing the full potential of all our students and if we want to develop programmes to inspire all students to discover ( or 'recover') their passion to learn.

It was the ideas that underpin the developmental approach that led most of us into teaching in the first place - not an obsession with complying with a focuis on narrow achievement testing.

As I said , ideal holiday reading if we want to ensure all students get fair go.

Monday, December 03, 2007

Celebrating the end of the school year.

A powerful display of student creativity.The end of year is time to reflect on the years achievements of the class and as individuals.

With the school year drawing to a close now is a good time for the students (and the teacher) to reflect on what has been achieved. This is preferable to letting the end of the year become 'fill in' time. As a principal I always encouraged teachers to work right up to the last minute. I had learnt, from experience as a teacher, that working hard is easier than improvising programmes the last week or so

One idea would be to develop a unit of work with the students for them to reflect on the class's and their own achievements. Not only will this bring a sense of closure to the year but it will help the students develop a sense of accomplishment and an affirmation of their years efforts. One theme could be, 'This is what I could do at the beginning of the year and this is what I can do now', or, 'Things I am most proud of this year'.

The class could 'brainstorm' all the activities they have studied throughout the year. It would feature all the exciting content studies that have provided the 'energy' for the years student research and creativity. This in itself will remind the students of what an interesting year they have had.

A display, featuring artifacts from the various studies (and maths and language themes), could be developed with information on the 'big ideas' of each study.

Students could develop their own wall display, or chart, of things ( say. the top six) they have learnt during the year. This could include, not only ideas, but also poems and pieces of art. Digital cameras would be useful to capture visual information. An idea would be to develop a 'My Reflections and Memories of the Year' booklet, or 'Things I have learnt during the year', or 'Things I am most proud of,'or 'Talents I have developed during the year'.

Students might also like to include their thoughts and hopes for the year to come - this might involve questioning older students in the next class to gather 'data'.

One valuable idea ( really an evaluation of the culture the teacher has established) is to ask the students to write, for next years students, 'How to survive in this class', or 'Tips for New Students'. This might include ideas, to the teacher, about how to improve the programme for the next year, and even things that students felt were not useful to them!

A class newsletter to all parents , based on the reflections of the students, would be a great way to finish the year on a positive note.

Monday, November 26, 2007

Last term of the year - a celebration of creativity!

A display based on bicycle science and maths.

The last weeks of the school year is a great opportunity to walk around all rooms to admire the research skills and creativity of the students at your school.

During the year , if developing students as life long learners has been the emphasis at your school, then by now all the skills ( or 'key competencies') involved ought to be in place.

Students by now ought to be able to devise, research and present work with minimum assistance and the room should be full of what they can do with minimum help. At the very least the room should celebrate the current class topic.

Study topics, in my mind, ought to provide the intellectual energy to inspire all students to engage in worthwhile learning.

Such topics naturally provide the context to develop, over the previous term (and in previous years), all the various skills needed to work independently - including relevant literacy and numeracy skills such as research writing and use of graphs and visual mathematical data. As well all the various information media and visual design skills will have been integrated during previous terms and available for students to select from. A whole range of skills from observation to imaginative expression will also be in place to be called on as required.

So take a close look at your rooms. Take out of your minds work students have done to satisfy teacher demands and any shallow work with no intellectual substance.

Look only for evidence of students' points of view, for their questions, their 'prior ideas' and material that illustrates their research. For the latter look to see if what is presented is in their own words and reflects their own ideas and not just 'cut and pasted' from other sources!

Look for provocative headings to focus current or past studies. Look for 'key questions' and negotiated tasks. Look for criteria developed with the students to allow them to self assess their own work. Look for student evaluations of their research which indicates what they have learnt and look for question that they have yet to find satisfactory answers.

Our new curriculum asks schools to develop 'creative connected and actively involved students' equipped with what are called 'future competencies'. The curriculum talks about students being 'active seekers, users, and creators' of their own knowledge, who 'can set and manage their own goals', and who can 'reflect on their own learning'.

My bet is, that if you visit all the rooms, you won't see much of what I have described above!

I would love to be proved wrong.

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Basic learning habits

Young children do ask questions but all too often they lose this vital habit.

It does worry me that teachers of young children are obsessed with ensuring their students learn to read and do maths. Nothing wrong with literacy and numeracy but gaining these valuable skills ought not be at the expense of 'learnacy' or resilience - the desire to learn and to bounce back when things go wrong.

Evidence of intelligent habits can be observed whenever a learner is faced with a situation or challenge that, at first, they do not know what to do. It is the acquisition of positive learning dispositions that enable students to cope with such ambiguous situations that are the basis of 'learnacy'.

The trouble is that teachers work in an environment which has a 'press' towards conservatism and all too often school 'targets' are biased towards the acquisition of basic literacy and numeracy skills which reinforces this conservatism.

Teachers, to develop, 'learnacy', need to encourage their students to be open minded, not to worry if at first the answer is not obvious, and to persevere in the face of ambiguity and complexity. Research shows that when students are given a maths or science problem , if they can't get the answer in 10 seconds, they simply give up; as a result they become, 'I can't do it kids'. When this attitude becomes fixed it is hard to change.

Teachers need to teach students, 'what to do when they don't know what to do! Students need to be encouraged to wait a minute and not to jump to premature conclusions. They need to be encouraged to try our possible strategies without fear of being right or wrong. This creative attitude needs to be encouraged by teachers. This is the essence of the inquiry approach and it needs to become second nature to students. To achieve basic habit this requires encouragement , reinforcement and practice.

Unfortunately both teachers and parents all too often do not value this habit. Often teachers have a one 'right way' in their minds and expect their students to replicate their approach. Naturally most students will learn what is expected of them but, for creative students, failure is all too often the result. Preset rubrics and criteria might result in 'quality' results but, all too often, may equally inhibit creativity. A look a students research charts, or art work, will often illustrate this conformity.

Students need to be valued for saying, 'I don't understand', and for asking questions. These need to be recognised as intelligent responses. In fact a creative classroom can be recognised by the number of questions students ask and for the diversity of ideas they exhibit in whatever they are studying.

On writer on the subject suggests that the stance of a sports coach is a good example. When a good move doesn't work out the coach calls out, 'unlucky'. This response underscores the need to the player that you have to keep taking chances so as to develop both confidence and skill. A player might have to try the move several times until it works out. The coach need to keep the players confidence up until practice makes perfect.

In the classroom students need to be given encouragement for trying out new ideas and to learn from them, even if it doesn't work out. Such encouragement underscores the intelligent habit of 'having a go' and then looking for evidence that things are working out.

If students are afraid of making mistakes, or are too concerned with approved answers, or are simply afraid to 'give it a go', than no matter how well they may read or do maths, they will not succeed in the future.

Developing creative and critical thinking in students is the basis of 'learnacy' and are the real 'basics' of learning.

Creative teachers need to create the conditions that require such intelligent habits.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Back to the real basics - Creativity

Tony Buzan - expert on creativity.

I was sent a link to listen to a presentation Tony Buzan gave to some United Kingdom teachers and thought it worth sharing his message.

Buzan believes passionately that schools are about developing the creative potential of all students. He believes that, with what we now know about the brain, this is entirely possible. So much for our acceptance of our current appalling 20% failure rate!

Buzan, quoting research on creativity, states that95% of pre-schoolers are creative, 75% of primary students, 40/50% of secondary students, 20/25% of university and college students and for adults only 10%.

This loss of creativity Buzan believes is global crisis.

Our students as they 'progress' through school become less creative. And that this is seen as normal! We are teaching, he says, 'un creativity'. This decline is a result of the teaching students receive and this teaching is contributing to a decline of natural genius in our students.

The good news is, he says, is that normal is not natural.

The current emphasis is on learning - not learning how to learn. We have an important choice, Buzan believes,teach students what to learn or how to learn. No choice according to Buzan - teach students how to learn. Value your students creativity and develop their cognitive skills and do this in realistic contexts.

What we have been doing for 150 years, says Buzan,is placing the focus on learning content. The imposition of curricula has resulted in decline in global creativity.

Buzan believes there is brilliance in every one of us. Achieving is increasingly possible as we now have brain research to help us unleash this brilliance. The teachers role is to 'provide the soil to nurture the brilliance of the creative process'.

Creative intelligence is now the worlds greatest asset - future developments will be 'fueled by creativity'. Sixty percent of future jobs will be in the creative sphere.

Buzan believes young people 'grow their brains' through exposure to stimulating experiences. At birth they are all potential to be realized. Brains to grow need nurturing in creative environment so as to allow their braincells to make connections - to develop what Buzan call their 'internal architecture'.

Unfortunately at school teaching is all too often too linear, predetermined and compartmentalized discouraging such important integrated brain connections.

The teachers role is to 'engage' the the brain and to encourage it to create it's own meanings. This engagement is essential.

This is not about curriculum versus creativity. Creativity, Buzan states, is the 'fuel of all curriculums'. Learning ought not to be seen as hard as it is natural, spontaneous, generative and creative.

Creativity is not 'airy or fairy'. Creative people are disciplined, the are focused and they have the ability to see differences making use of multiple perspectives. Genius arises from rich internal worlds.

Creative teachers make use of all the curriculum's. They need to teach children how to learn and for then to understand the process of cognition. What teachers need are creative curriculum's.

Buzan sums up his presentation by saying it is about 'the need to nurture nature'.

That there are no limits and that all students can be creative given the right environment. The 'teacher gives the light and loam' to develop such creativity.

The real 'back to basics' is to 'give teaching back to the students and the teachers to give learning back to the students'.

IT all make sense to me!

We need a creative school movement!

Friday, November 16, 2007

Five Minds for the Future

Howard Gardner, renowned worldwide for for his theory of multiple intelligences, shares his latest ideas in his new new book 'Five Minds for the Future'.

Based on the premise that students are entering an accelerating world of change in every area of life Gardner believes that such changes call for new ways of learning and thinking in schools if students are to thrive in the world during the eras to come. The directions our society is taking and the future of our planet demands such 'new minds' able to explore creative alternatives for problems that cannot be anticipated.

Gardner's 'five minds' have much in common with the 'key competencies' that underpin the recently published 'new' New Zealand Curriculum.

1 The first of Gardner's 'five' is acquiring a disciplined mind. This involves the mastery of at least one way of thinking and the utilisation of a scientific inquiry approach to solving problems in any area. All disciplines (Learning Areas) have their own ways of investigating ideas. Gardner says it takes many year to achieve a disciplined mind in any area. Discipline also means the need to practice to improve performance.

2 The second is the synthesising mind, a mind able to gather information from disparate sources and put ideas together in ways that makes sense to the learner. This mind is crucial as information continues to mount at dizzying rates. The ability to synthesize ideas is a vital future skill - a skill basic to innovative leadership. Such a mind requires interdisciplinary understanding beyond individual disciplines. A synthesizing mind, one that searches for connections, is required to take advantage of teams made up of different specialists.

3 The third is the creative mind
, a mind capable of breaking new ground, developing new ideas and asking new questions. Innovative individuals have not always been treated well in the history of humankind and, even today, are often seen as a mixed blessing. As such creative individuals are seen as very different from disciplined experts. Not for nothing do many creative students find schooling problematic! Encouraging a creative bent of mind is a most important future trait of teachers. It is a sad comment that student creativity lapses as they progress through current schooling. Recognising, nurturing and amplifying students diverse talents will underpin successful future schools

4 The Fourth is the respectful mind, a mind that recognizes differences between individuals, groups and cultures; one that learns to appreciate a sense of 'others'. This mind requires an imaginative leap to enable us to understand others on their own terms. Unfortunately humans exhibit a tendency to value their own groups above others and schools must do its best to mute, or overcome, such proclivities. Differences need to be respected and the earlier this is achieved the better.Respecting students requires that teachers need to reflect on the imposed (undemocratic) power relationship that form the basis of much traditional education. Working together on joint projects is one way to develop respectful relationships.

5 The final mind is the ethical mind which considers how students can serve purposes beyond self interest. This mind takes into account the 'common good' of the wider community particularly under challenging situations or dilemmas. The development of shared beliefs are important to achieve this mind and projects that involve providing a service to others.The ethical mind should be infused into all aspects of the curriculum.

Gardner sees these five minds as different from his eight, or nine, intelligences seeing them as broad uses of the mind that could make use of any combination of intelligences.

Gardner believes it is important to cultivate such minds.The first three minds deal primarily with cognitive thinking and the last two with our relationships with other people. The last two are vital if we are to work together to ensure the survival of our planet. 'Life long learning', almost a cliche these days, demands such minds.

The beginning of the third millennium poses a challenge for schools to cultivate such minds and will call for new educational forms and processes. One cannot, says Gardner, even begin to develop an educational system unless one has in mind the knowledge, skills that one values.

Gardner makes the point that these minds can only be seen by authentic performances that represent understanding. Gardner is also aware that there are often conflicts between these aspects of the mind for example the tensions between respect and creativity. The five minds work in tension and synergistically.

With such minds developed Gardner believes that positive human potentials can be cultivated but only if teachers can articulate what it is they are trying to achieve. Our future survival depends on their success.

I think I prefer Gardner's 'five minds' to the 'key competencies' of the new New Zealand Curriculum but, essentially, they are one and the same thing.

Thursday, November 15, 2007

The New Zealand Curriculum - good news at last

I have just managed to get hold of a final copy of the New Zealand Curriculum.

I think most teachers will feel well pleased with it. Teachers ( well creative ones anyway) have always 'colonised' official curriculum's to suit their own hard earned beliefs. The day of 'experts' knowing best in any organisation s well past and, today, real change requires a creative mix of both 'top down' and 'bottom up' initiatives.

The key to the future is to establish conditions to release, and take advantage of, the creativity of all involved.To use two current 'buzz words': 'life long learners' working in 'learning organisations'. This, one would hope, would include schools. For schools to transform themselves however it will require new forms of leadership and a genuine respect for the ideas of their students.

A close read, for those who can be bothered, will show that there are a few subtle differences of emphasis in the 'new' curriculum. Naturally there is no attempt to 'own up' to the poor design of the previous curriculum with its endless strands levels,objectives and impossible accountability demands. I guess it is seen as 'organic' growth but of course it isn't. In many respects it is 'back to the future' for creative teachers who now will be able to breathe more easily.

Premised on the need to thrive in an unpredictable future the key to students success are the key competencies and the development of 'students who are creative, energetic and enterprising.' I particularly like the phrase that students are to be, 'active seekers, users and creators of knowledge. I also like a little more emphasis on issues of sustainability.

As for the key competences ( a phrase that still reminds me of a past mechanistic or technocratic era) there is an interesting rearrangement and an emphasis that they should 'not be seen as stand alone' and are both 'a means and an end' to learning. Thinking ( previously listed 5th) is now number one and includes my favourite phrase: students who 'actively seek, use, and create knowledge'. A constructivist philosophy underlines the curriculum.

The Learning Areas are also to be seen as both a means and an end and, 'while presented as distinct, this should not limit the ways in which schools structures the learning experiences offered to students'. Emphasizing connections between learning areas and integration is encouraged.

The biggest change from the past curriculum is reducing individual Learning Area books to an A3 pullout page for each level
(included in the new document). I am sure this will be more than enough to ensure a core of learning requirements are achieved.

The effective pedagogy has been rearranged placing 'creating a supportive environment' first. As mentioned a constructivist philosophy underpins the this section if not mentioned directly. 'Personalised learning' ideas are also apparent but once again is nor mentioned directly.This is a surprise because it seemed to underpin the speeches of our previous minister and expresses the real difference between the future emphasis and the academic 'one size fits all' approach of the past.

An new inclusion in the NZC is a suggestion to do fewer things well - 'to cover less but cover it in greater depth'. This will be welcomed by those who have been overwhelmed by the need to cover all the previous unwieldy curriculum requirements. Those who have aways known that depth of understanding and pride of achievement can only come from such approach will feel rightly justified.

The new emphasis placed on inquiry learning will please those who believe that students awareness of the learning process is important. Not a lot is new in this section ( John Dewey wrote about this early last century) but it is most welcome.

All in all the NZC gives, 'schools the scope, flexibility, and authority they need to shape and design their curriculum so that teaching and learning is meaningful'. The change from 'delver' to 'design' is pertinent.

Schools now have a great opportunity to be creative and to make full use of the talents of both teachers and students.

If there is a challenge it is whether middle, and particularly secondary schools, can develop structures and meaningful learning contents for all students to be their own 'seekers, users, and creators of knowledge'. This is the area where exciting innovation needs to occur.

I fear a few 'mindsets' will need to change if the opportunities of the Curriculum is to be realised but, if we are to be successful as a 21stC country, we have no choice.

Thursday, November 08, 2007

In Australia

Just in case you are wondering why there have been no blogs of late I have a good excuse- I am in Australia.

I was invited earlier in the year to give keynote presentation to the New South Wales Principals Conference held in a downtown Sydney Hotel. Well that was last week and now I am relaxing in Brisbane and will be leaving for greener pastures tomorrow.

It was a exciting and somewhat challenging experience to present in Sydney but all went well and I have opportunities to return next year to work with some clusters of schools.

The theme of the conference was Focus and Refocus and about 600 principals attended the the three days. I had arranged to stay for the entire conference , plus a few days to explore Sydney. It was a great opportunity to gain some insight into Australian education - or at least primary education in New South Wales, which I was told has 1800 primary schools.

On balance I think principals are better off in New Zealand although similar problems have to be faced up to in both countries.

The advantages, in New Zealand as I see them, are that principals appoint their own staff and local communities appoint their own principals without 'official' input. The latter was seen as a doubtful idea to many NSW principals but I assured them that, in the main, it seemed to work out in New Zealand. They however would all love to have the opportunity to appoint their own teachers!

Perhaps the biggest advantage of New Zealand schools are the opportunities provided by the introduction of our 'new' New Zealand Curriculum, the ideas of which impressed many I spoke to. In NSW schools are still required to implement their seven Learning Areas as we once had to, and, as well, they have to comply to national testing and reporting. The latter informs schools, and parents, how well each school is achieving enabling inter-school comparison. NSW schools are stuck with an 'overcrowded' curriculum and their creativity restrained by a narrow testing regime. When asked how schools in New Zealand knew how well they were doing I explained each school sets their own 'targets' to achieve and national monitoring of anonymous schools provides the bigger picture.

Our 'new' emphasis on 'key competencies', and inquiry learning, are a real advantage to New Zealand schools as is the reduction of the Learning Area objectives to a single page.

As for my keynote a quick flick through my blogs will give you a pretty good idea.

Back to normal blogging next week.

Thursday, October 25, 2007

Negotiating the Curriculum

Learning is a process to deepen personal understanding or skill. This is best achieved with the assistance of a learning 'mentor'. Such a 'mentor' negotiates learning with the learner, aways leaving the 'power' to learn with the learner.

In the book 'Negotiating the Curriculum' 82, Edited by Garth Boomer, ( reprinted 92) four steps are suggested to negotiate a study with students applicable for any level of schooling. Essentially it is an inquiry model that emphasizes valuing the 'voice' of students in the their own learning. It is very much in line with the 'co- constructivist' teaching philosophy

The four steps outlined below are premised that the study has not yet been widely accepted by the students. In this situation the teacher and the learners should ask four questions and together negotiate the answers. This is essentially about power sharing leaving the agency for learning in the hands of the students.

So concerning any topic.

1 What do we know already?
(Or where are we now and what don't we need to learn or be taught about?)

The very act of asking what we know tends to expose what we don't know and so raises questions to be answered. Often one question will lead to another. This approach develop student's ownership and collective understanding.

2 What do we want and need to find out?
(Or what are our questions, what don't we know, and what are our problems?)

At this stage students can list things they already know and things the want to find out about. Students can provide the best answer to their own questions and pool their ideas. By the use of this process a set of key or powerful questions will develop - these are best kept to three or four so as to focus the students studies. Other questions can be studied by groups or by individuals if time allows. There may also be some things that the teacher may need to ensure are covered - students will accept that sometimes learning has to accommodate such curriculum 'restraints' or requirements.

3 How will we go about finding out?
(Or where will we look, what experiments and inquiries will we make, what will we need, what information and resources are available, who will do what, and what should be the order of things?)

The students will by now know what is to be done and why. From the ideas generated tasks need to be devised and assigned for all to complete, individually or individually. These tasks should be displayed on the whiteboard and resources gathered. It is a good idea to develop some sort of group rotation programme ( as seen in many reading programmes) so as to make use of limited resources and to allow the teacher space to move around and assist as necessary. As students sort out their draft idea the teacher needs to be able to challenge their ideas to ensure students gain deeper understandings. Assistance may also need to be given to help students present their findings.

4 How will we know, and show, that we've found out when we have finished?
( Or what are out our findings, what have we learnt, whom will we show and for whom are we doing the work, and where to next?)

Students through such negotiations will have in their minds what it is they are to achieve ( criteria may well have been 'negotiated' to allow students to continually assess their progress). During steps two and three the audience for the research will have been defined and ideas to make a wall display ( or web pages) to celebrate learning discussed. A good idea to have a parents evening to share completed work and this could involve a range of creative activities . ICT media will naturally be included.

The questions represent a logical approach to tackling a problem in nay area of the curriculum. The scientific method is - problem, clarification, hypothesis, test, conclusion - is embraced within them. In a sense all students are at best scientists - seekers of understanding, problem solvers, people who need to satisfy their curiosity about things they want to know about.

The four questions outline a basic approach but with experience students will become skilled in negotiating a range of activities for the class to consider. If negotiation , or inquiry learning, is a new experience for the students the teacher may need to step in and make suggestions but only as a last resort.

One way or another after the the four questions have been negotiated the students will clear about what is expected and will be clear about, what they are to do, why, how, and how the work is to be shared, assessed and evaluated.

With experience students will become expert in planning and undertaking all aspects of any study and teachers role will increasingly be one of ensuring students are gaining in depth understanding and gaining in 'learning how to learn' skills.

The earlier such independent skills are developed through negotiated learning the better.

With such experiences students will become 'seekers, users and creators' of their own knowledge as is suggested by the New Zealand Curriculum

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

How to engage students - advice from the experts!

Students in in family groups from years 1 to 8 engaged in 'seeking, using and creating' knowledge about Antarctic exploration that they have been fully involved in planning and completing.

Engaging students at the year 7 to 10 year age groups seems to be a growing challenge worldwide as non 'academic' students are finding their learning boring or irrelevant.

The obvious answer would seem to be to ask the experts themselves - the students!

This is what was done by the innovative Australian project 'Negotiating the Curriculum' of the early 80s edited by Garth Boomer.The book is now unfortunately out of print but it was a wonderful source of practical ideas to involve (or engage) students in their own learning from juniors to senior classes. Just found the book was reprinted in 1992

The question is, if we want all students to develop their learning power, under what conditions do students learn most effectively? Do they all learn the same way? And, a pertinent question for teachers is, how would they fare as a learner in their own class?

And, if we want students to learn independently, how come we see so few students' questions in our classrooms? Their is no doubt that students need to know how they learn as part of their education - it may well be the most important thing they learn. My guess is that few students, or their teachers, can articulate their learning theory?

When students were asked, 'how they learn best' ( loosely defined as coming to new understandings) their answers are shown to exhibit a remarkable consistency.

Their answers are listed under aspects of the learning process.

1 Engagement. We learn best when we intend to learn, when we become personally involved and interested in the learning we are to do. Our learning should be purposeful - our purposes not the teachers! We need to know what we are to do and why and how we are to do it, but we do like our intentions to 'mesh' with the teachers so that, as much as is possible, we are all thinking along the same lines. Our intention to learn becomes engaged when we become curious or puzzled by things we are to learn. It matters to us that we solve our puzzlement and find satisfactory solutions to our own problems.

2 Exploration. We need it acknowledge that we are all not equal in experience in what we know and can do so we need learning experiences personalised as much as possible to cater for our differences in starting points, needs and interests. We like the teacher to open up a range of options to give us some choices in our learning.
We need to be helped to inquire in ways that suit our needs and to learn through trial and error, and by finding out, rather than being told by the teacher. We need to be involved actively in real learning experiences and not be passive receivers. We understand best when we do things ourselves and arrive at new knowledge through our own discovery.

We need to work and relate with other learners and our teacher. We like working individually, in groups, and as a whole class but small groups is our preferred option because it allows us to learn together, and from each other, as we go along. We like to use each other as sounding boards and as an audience for our ideas. We feel most secure working in groups.

We need help from our teachers, but not dominance by them.We want a supporter, a facilitator, not a dictator. We need to take risks as we struggle for new understandings but will only take those risks in a supportive environment - one in which we are both challenged and encouraged to stretch our thinking. We don't like being frightened of being wrong and like it when teachers help us through any difficulties.

Besides this supportive role we want the teacher to be available to work with us when we need help. We don't want to be bored or confused by the teacher telling things to the class when we already know what is being explained or are hopelessly lost because don't know enough to understand. Anyway in the whole class situations all too often we can't ask real questions or talk things through and we need to do those things.

3 Reflection. At the need of the learning experience we want to feel we have achieved something worthwhile to us. We need to come up with products that mean something important to us and that will please the audience we are preparing for. We don't doing things for no reason at all. We like to share what we have found and the sharing is a way to show others how well we have learnt.

We need to think about what we have done and how we could do it better next time. Out of such reflection new questions, challenges, and ideas will arise that we can use to continue our learning.

Seems like some good ideas to solve the problem of lack of engagement?

Be interesting to ask your own students?

And how would you really enjoy being in your own class?

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Where are we going?

If you don't know where you want to go any direction is OK...or is it?

It has been a wet day so I have been thinking?

Next year is election year and hopefully we will have some alternative visions of our country to consider. Or will it all be about who gives us the biggest tax cuts while we all put our heads into the sand avoiding the mounting social issues that have arisen since the introduction of the now discredited market forces ideology.

It is all too easy to focus on what materialistic 'goodies' we want ( but often do not need) and to ignore in the process the plight of the less fortunate, blaming them for their inadequacies.

The trouble is that if our 'winner and loser' society is not arrested we will develop a serious 'underclass' that will impinge dramatically on those who enjoy a more insulated comfortable life.

What is the Kiwi Dream for the 21stC?

Are we losing track of our egalitarian heritage? Do we no longer believe in giving all people a fair go? Is the current philosophy of self interest to become the driving force of our future society? Is the economy always to be placed above valuing the emotional and spiritual needs of all our people?

Perhaps it is time to hold a mirror up to ourselves and to face up to reality?

The question our leaders ought to be asking us is what sort of country do we want to become, or do we put blind faith in our so called 'leaders' in solving 'our' problems? Are there new ways to re-imagine democracy, using modern technology, to engage all citizens in the 21stC? Do we need to think about how to develop a sense of community to replace the emphasis personal need or greed?

Do we , as a nation, have the imagination and the passion to think of possible future scenarios? Should our politicians set up a group of respected partisan citizens to start a 'conversation' about future possibilities? If politicians are lacking in 'wisdom' perhaps it is to be found in the collective good sense of the people? All that is needed is the process to 'collect' such wisdom.

Do we need to look back into our past to see that New Zealand has had a strong history of leading the world in humanitarian and democratic advances - most often in response to times of great depressions. Would this give us some insight about our future?

We were once seen as world leaders in areas of social conscience - do we need to begin such a process again? Certainly the emphasis a market forces efficiency ideology of the past decades has developed little to admire except for the salaries paid to those who have benefited.

Do we even have a desire for a shared future or is the current divided society of 'winners and losers' to be our future - if so we will be sowing the seeds of problems that will effect us all whether we like it or not.

Is it time to value other than those who have accumulated wealth? Do we need to equally celebrate achievement in the arts, or those who have dedicated their lives to helping those in need , as well as those who are successful in the sports world?

If we want our country to become known as both a creative and a humanitarian society we better start now. We have proud examples from the past to celebrate and build on.

We have a choice to either lead or to follow - to determine our own mutual destiny or be controlled by forces thought to be beyond our control?

All we need is the wit and imagination to take the time to do a bit of thinking - to ask question rather than searching for answers to problems that are beyond our current thinking and structures to solve?

Time to walk the dog?

Saturday, October 13, 2007

Tapping the wisdom of people.

A process to tap the wisdom of crowds - and get away from depending on 'experts'.

It is important, when introducing change into any organisation, to ensure all involved feel 'ownership' of whatever changes are to be implemented. Without agreed 'ownership' change doesn't happen, unless those involved are forced to comply. In such situations change is at best half hearted.

In reality change is often imposed pushed on an organisation by 'leaders' who either haven't the time to involve everyone, or believe that such an involvement isn't worth the time and effort, or, worse still, because those in charge know best.

James Surowiecki in his book 'Wisdom of Crowds' writes that it is only by tapping the 'wisdom of crowds' that real change is possible.

This of course is counter intuitive to what we all have been led to believe. Over the past century the rise of the specialist 'expert' has led us to believe that such people know better. It is hard to believe that crowds know better than such highly informed people.

Of course it is not just a matter of listening to the collective voice of a crowd. We all know crowds can be easily swayed by those with the loudest voice or the most power. A good example of collective wisdom is that shown by the jury process where a group of citizens listen to the voices of, often contradictory, experts and then use their common sense.

Surowiecki says there are three important conditions to be in place to ensure wisdom is to be gained from groups. If the conditions are followed group decisions are better than those provided by an expert, or even a group of experts.

1 The best group decisions come from the most diverse groups ( experts all know the same things).

2 Every person in the group must have an opportunity to have a say ( all too often those with the loudest voices or most power have all the say).

3 There has to be a process in place to aggregate the ideas of the group.

I have been involved with school that made use of such a process and i was impressed.

The process was called '10-4 voting' as goes as follows.

Each group needs a 'facilitator' to ensure the process is followed and a 'recorder' to number and list ideas of members ( both take part in the process as well).

A task is given to the group
e.g. How can we engage our disengaged learners?

1 Sitting in a circle go around the group , each person contributing an idea ( or saying pass). The leader has to be firm to ensure there is no cross discussion or clarification.This is important. It will be hard for some members

2 The recorder numbers and lists each suggestion.

3 Keep going around the group until there are no more suggestions or the agreed time has run out.

4 On completion the 'leader' asks if anyone wants to ask anybody for clarification about any suggestion but only the person who provided the idea can respond.

5 The 'leader',if necessary, can ask that if there are suggestions that look the same if they can be combined. Only those who contributed the idea consider combining. If no agreement leave both ideas on the list.

6 Each person then has 10 votes. They can only use 4 in the first round. Votes can be placed against any of the suggestions ( they can put all four on one idea if they want). Complete the second round of four votes and finally the final two.

7 At the completion certain issues will have 'emerged' that then become the basis of professional development 'action plans' to explore solutions.

At the school I observed using this process all teachers had previously provided ideas that they thought needed to be faced up to to develop their school as one where all students were to be given the opportunity to succeed.

To really work, Surowiecki says, someone has to 'champion' the process and to to ensure that the 'wisdom' that has 'emerged' is capitalised on.

Tapping the wisdom of crowds challenges some our deeply held assumptions about leadership , power and authority. Done properly collective judgements, he believes, can be 'wiser' and more lasting than those imposed by 'experts'.

Challenging assumption that underlie traditional model of decision making is not easy but it is 'smart'. As Surowiecki concludes his book saying that he is cautiously hopeful that that such group decisions will allow us, 'to begin to trust individual leaders less and ourselves more'.

Well worth a try if we really believe in democracy.

Thursday, October 11, 2007

Put the 'experts' back in front of a class!

Dear....... , I am sorry to tell you but you have lost your job due to a glut of 'experts' - please report to the classroom to take up real work on Monday!

Expertise increases, it seems, by distance in time or place from the reality of the classrooms.

It is amazing how much 'wisdom' is gained overnight by people appointed to advisory positions. Equally amazing is how classroom teachers automatically presume such 'advisers' must know what they're talking about just because they have been given a title. More depressing is the ease which teachers demean their own experience and bow down to these 'so called experts'.

It is not to say such advisers do not have knowledge to share but all too often their 'wisdom' evaporates as they become purveyors of 'best practice' ideas to impose on teachers.

It is time for teachers to appreciate it is they who really understand the demands and challenges of teaching. There are no 'right answers', no 'one size fits all' solutions, available to solve any ones problem. That every teacher, and all students are idiosyncratic, and, as well, all schools have their own particular cultures and circumstances is a often forgotten understating by distant planners.

Creative teachers have always known this.

Unfortunately over the years 'experts' have done their best to impose solution onto schools by means of complicated curriculum statements and constraining accountability systems. There was a time when such technocrats even openly talked about 'teacher proofed' curriculums!

So lets put all the experts back into classrooms.

Give such 'experts' the challenge of engaging and developing the gifts and talents of all students. At least let them teach for a year and see what they can do.

Now as a bit of a 'expert' myself what would I do if I were to be placed back in a classroom and told to get on with it

This has happened to me once before in my career and it was a real learning curve. My own advice, that I had previously thought possible, I found I had no time to put into practice! All sorts of demands, let alone the diversity of learning needs of the students, just got in the way. After several months I managed to raise my head above the water and start to cope well and, eventually, to really enjoy the challenge.

The experience 'taught' me a lot.

I now appreciate the emotional demands placed on teachers simply accommodating the individual needs of the students - let alone teaching anything.

I now respect any teacher who stays in front of a class day by day, week by week. Each teacher is a 'world expert' on his, or her, own class.

I learnt that keeping the joy of learning alive in every student is the real challenge and nothing must get in the way of this.

I learnt it is better to do 'fewer things well' than to try and comply to all the impossible curriculum demands, and to work with individual students to see each learner 'feels' pride gained through success and in turn recognition as a person.

My own belief is that if teachers in any school were to develop process to tap into the 'wisdom' that all collectively hold their ideas would be as viable as those 'delivered' by the various experts. Certainly they would be a lot more 'doable'.

What we now meed are experts skilled in helping teachers uncover what they already know but have often have not had the time to share and make explicit.

When these ideas have been developed into a set of shared beliefs that they all would be prepared to be held accountable to then we would begin to make real progress.

Best of all teachers would feel they had done it themselves - that they are the real experts after all.

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Nobody remembers a nation for its readers

Is our obsession with reading causing unintended consequences - poor writers?

No one would disagree that learning to read is a vital skill but people will make their mark through writing or other forms of creating not just by being a reader. Reading is not everything that counts - being able to express thoughts through speech and writing is equally important.

The first thing Alexei Leonov , the Soviet cosmonaut did,after his world first historic walk in space miles above the Earth, was to sit down and write about it, 'I wrote down everything I saw, so as to not forget something later'. the human statement from US space explorers reduces to , 'golly!'

In our classes if you ask students to write about an important experience they have had you would be surprised ( or maybe not) of how little they can write let alone the lack of enthusiasm they show for such a task.

The uneven push for reading has distorted students learning and has 'warped' reading away from writing when they are complimentary forms of interpersonal communication.

This ought not to be the case - it is entirely a school problem.

Young children achieve 'mans' most impressive language skill by being exposed to an environment which naturally encourages them to talk, building on their innate desire to make meaning and to communicate. From this talk emerged a need to their record ideas at first with art and then writing. Unlike talk, such expression saves our thoughts making them available to be read by others. According to business philosopher Peter Drucker, 'the ability to express oneself is perhaps the most important of all the skills a man can possess'.

We need to get reading and writing into perspective. Before any words arise in the mind comes the experience. Such experience is a mix of emotions and learning through sensory impressions resulting from something that has attracted the child's curiosity. Educating children's senses is a vital aspect of the writing process

Children begin to write well before school even if it is at first incomprehensible, even to the early authors. Soon certain powerful words become memorable ( their own name ) and easily recognised. This is the beginning of their written vocabulary. The young child, not hindered by adult perceptions of correctness, happily write all sorts of things, often imitating those around them. Through such experiences they see thinking, talking, writing and reading as part of a interconnected process.

The trouble is we do not 'teach' the power of writing to the degree we obsess over reading. Writing is part of the active expressive side of being human - reading reflective passive side. If writing were taken more seriously children would learn to notice more, be encouraged to think more deeply and precisely, and to see value in writing.

Creative teachers, in the past, valued students own stories as the basis of reading. They did this by first 'scribing' their thoughts, valuing what they had to say and, by asking perceptive questions to encourage deeper thoughts. They valued students' thoughts about the secrets and feelings in their minds, their thoughts about environmental experiences, about special class events, and about their ideas in other subjects such as science. Teachers helped students focus on the important things, to express what they noticed, what they were thinking, and how they felt at the time. By this process students saw themselves as writers with important things to say. Reading of other stories ( of their fellow students and adult authors) was a natural extension. By being exposed to range of genres and patterns of writing, such as myths and small thought poems ( simple haiku), students developed a range of ways of expressing their thoughts and, most of all, began to appreciate the power of language.

During such a process teachers pointed out important ideas about spelling, letter sound relationships and word families without distracting them from the main point of telling a story. Spelling originally meant to cast a spell with words not to obsess over correctness.

Teachers need to become sensitive to their students thoughts and ensure that they protect each students individuality. They will need to develop the skills of dialogue to develop the authentic relationships to be trusted by their student. If teachers can develop such trusting relationships they will have access to valuable insights, thoughts , understandings, ambitions and goals of their students.

In such an environment of respect children will develop a positive sense of self and a valuing of their individuality and uniqueness.

Through writing students will develop habits of observation and clear communication which will be valuable to them in whatever they do. To be firmly established it must begin as son as students enter school. If this were to happen students would be able to state and write opinions, to observe carefully and to reflect on their experiences.

None of this is to distract from the importance of reading but more to ask for a greater emphasis to be placed on the importance of writing in the learning process. Writing, unlike reading, values students' own stories and leads into the enjoyment of stories written by others.

The writing habit develops a way of attending to reality. It develops an acute sense of awareness and accurate identification of ideas. School failure is more than poor reading - those who cannot write may be more at risk?

Reading opens the doors to other worlds but writing opens the doors to the students own minds.

Reading cannot be the end all of learning. Reading is only one of the keys to success. The keys to school success should also be the spoken, performed, drawn ,and written products.

Nobody remembers a nation for its readers!

Tuesday, October 09, 2007

The creative process

The creative process is a metaphor for life -easier to understand after the event. Then it all seems so simple - a child could do it!

I was asked the other day if I could think of a book on the creative process,off hand I couldn't, but I have been thinking about the issue since.

I am one of those who believe we are entering what some call 'A Second Renaissance', or 'An Age Of Creativity', so understanding the conditions that set the imagination free is an important one. For those involved in teaching it is a real challenge as there is much about our current system that is contrary to the spirit of creativity.

Today too many teachers still work individually limiting exposure to others' ideas in the process. In secondary schools specialist teaching limits important cross fertilisation of ideas ( all new idea originate between the borders of disciplines). The current obsession with planning, predetermined intentions, criteria, exemplars and outcomes limit creative possibilities; all too often creativity is sacrificed for mediocrity.

Equally an obsession with traditional 'three Rs' in primary schools ensures there is little real awareness of the powerful learning power that true creativity provides for students who might otherwise fail at their teachers' predetermined activities. At the secondary level creativity is to be found in the art room and to the artistic performances schools put on to impress their parents. As Tom Peters, the American business 'guru' says, 'You couldn't have designed High Schools better to destroy student creativity than if you had tried!'

So there is a real need to develop an understanding of the creative process, whether in science, art, or any area of human endeavour. Creativity requires students who are happy to explore areas that they only have partial ideas about rather than meekly follow the 'thinking trails' laid down by others. Creativity requires students who are curious - who seek out questions rather than accepting, or proving others, answers; students who retain a healthy skepticism about what they are expected to learn.

The metaphor of an 'original' artist is a good model.

The 'conventional' artist paints a canvas knowing what she ( or her teacher) wants to paint and keeps this intention ( and teacher's criteria) firmly in mind. In the worst case it is 'paint by numbers'.

The 'original' artist commences with a deeply felt but undefined goal in mind and keeps modifying the picture in response to unexpected colours and shapes emerging on the canvas and ends up with a finished work that probably will not resemble anything she started our with ( Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi in his book Flow)'.

Mihaly continues that, 'if the artist is responsive to her inner feelings, knows what she likes and does not like, and pays attention to what is happening on the canvas, a good painting is bound to emerge. On the other hand if she holds on to a preconceived notion of what painting should look like, without responding to possibilities suggested by the forms developing before her, the painting will be trite.'

Trite sums up a lots of the learning one sees in schools where student are not exploring topics of interest in depth and therefore not gaining real understanding in the process.

We all have preconceived notions of what we want but all too often we never become aware of other possibilities and thus limit our creativity. We need to be like the creative artist and be on the alert for possibilities to develop new ideas in any area of learning. We need to encourage students to be open minded prepared to discover as they go along, to keep what works, using feedback and their own criteria of excellence, and aways to consider 'next time'.

Living a creative life is to continually forge new understandings that work better than past practices

The teacher's role is to value student creativity and to establish the conditions to encourage students to take the learning risks required to try out new things. Such a teacher has to walk a fine line, providing assistance and feedback with care, because all too often students will end up only developing ideas that the teacher thinks are appropriate.

All students need to be helped to take responsibility for 'creating' themselves to develop whatever gifts, talents and passions they have within them.

schools full of such creative teachers and students.

The first country to develop such schools will lead the exciting journey into the 21st Century.

We have a long way to go!

Wednesday, October 03, 2007

A great site to improve your teaching!

A magnificent display of work from several classes at Opunake Primary School that cooperatively worked together to explore an interdisciplinary and inquiry based project on Life in Ancient Egypt. The study involved research based on key questions, the making of paper and food, pyramid building science, integrated a range of information technology, and involved creative language, art and modelling work.

For schools who are interested in powerful pedagogy there are lots of excellent sites to explore on the Internet. Possibly my favourite site to assist teachers to gain understanding about a range of 'learning centred' teaching approaches is the Concept to Classroom site.

The initial funding for the site was provided by the Disney Learning Partnership and it is an award winning site offering free professional development workshops covering important 'hot topics' topics in education. These can be explored in your own time. All have clips from such people as Howard Gardner who talks about his idea of Multiple Intelligences. Video clips allow you to view actual classrooms if you wish.

All the workshops include some theory, the history of the topic and ideas, both for and against, allowing you to make up your own mind. There are plenty of tips and strategies to help anyone apply ideas to their classrooms.

A number of the workshops would make ideal professional development 'action plans' for individuals, or groups of teachers, to explore.

Four I particularly like are:

Inquiry Based Learning.
Constructivist Teaching
Tapping into Multiple Intelligences
Interdisciplinary Teaching

The other Topics are:

After School Programmes
Assessment Evaluation and Curriculum Redesign
Cooperative and Collaborative learning
Making Family and Community Connections.
Teaching to Academic Standards ( Teaching to learning objectives!)
Web Quests. Why use them -and how.
Why the Net? An Interactive Tool for the Classroom.

To give you an idea of the format the Constructivist Teaching unit covers:

1 What is constructivism - this simply explains the theory.
2 How it differs from traditional idea about teaching
3 What it has to do with your classroom.
4 An expert interview with an author of a well known book on the subject
5 The history of constructivism
6 Some critical perspectives
7 Benefits of constructivism.

For teachers , or principals who want to inform their parents about any of the topics, the site is invaluable to develop into a parent information pamphlet, or better still to simply direct parents to. Innovative schools could link topics on the site to their own website and to add them as links in their school belief systems.

Such ideas would certainly clear up parent misconceptions. Better still, if parents were appreciative of what the school was trying to do, they would become powerful allies - or at the least informed critics. Knowledge is power and is the only way to clarify those with opinions but no substance.

Take my advice - take a look at what is on offer.

Tuesday, October 02, 2007

The Interactive Teaching Model

When confronted with new or ambiguous situations the human brain does its best to make sense of things - to 'construct' the best answer it can. Humans are born to learn and it is a crime that so many of our young people continue to be failed by their schools. What can you see in the image?

The active brain searches for patterns.

In the early eighties exciting research was being undertaken by the Science Education Research Unit of the University of Waikato. As a school science adviser I was lucky enough to be involved in applying the idea gained in schools at the time. Unfortunately the impetus was lost under the confusion created by the curriculum changes following Tomorrow's Schools in 1986. As the Ministry is now leaving behind 'their' imposed curriculums it is time to return the focus to teaching and learning and to revisit the inspirational ideas of the Learning In Science Project ( LISP).

The project originated with Dr Roger Osborne from the Waikato University Physics Department. He was concerned that students did not seem able to apply their knowledge to practical physics requirements. After visiting local secondary schools he became concerned to find, although that they were being 'taught' the appropriate material, their 'prior ideas' about physics concepts were interfering their learning in his classes. Later the project was extended to primary classes to see if the same mis-match existed.

It did. Learners from birth do their best to make sense of any learning situation that attracts their attention but all too often develop misconceptions. At school they 'learn' to provide the 'right' answers while at the same time still holding on to their hidden personal views. If this process of a mismatch between teacher and students' knowledge goes unchallenged then students gain, what some call, 'fragile' learning. It was to these 'prior ideas' that students were reverting to in the practical university physics classes. It is as if the 'scientific' view and the students 'common sense' views were in conflict.

The implications for teaching at all levels are immense.

Any form of transmission teaching is suspect ( we all know we forget much of what we were 'taught' after the exam) but equally in discovery, or practical approaches, who knows what the students are really learning? These were the issues that concerned Dr Osborne and his researchers.

If students cannot always learn by transmission, or from their own experience a 'new' model of learning needs to be defined; an 'interactive approach. Hardly new, if Socratic questioning was understood, or the ideas of more modern theorists who believed that learners need to construct their own meanings, but it went against the 'prior ideas', or hidden assumptions, that underpinned much current teaching.

It was soon discovered that students hold on to all sorts of views that make sense to them, no matter how unscientific, but of which the teachers are completely oblivious. It was David Ausubel who wisely said (1968) , 'The most important factor influencing learning is what the learner already knows: ascertain this and teach accordingly'. This was to be good advice. The challenge for teacher was to reduce any disparity but always to leave the learner feeling in control of his , or her, own leaning. As Gibran (1926) expressed it, 'no man can reveal to you ought that which lies half asleep in the dawning of your knowledge'. The idea was that students should 'generate', or 'construct' their own meaning with the assistance of others if possible. One challenging development was an appreciation that students will only 'change their minds' if they see sense no matter what the teacher might insist but that, at least in the process, they will understand that others hold contrary views which could be unsettling.

These ideas apply to all learning areas.

For many primary teachers these idea were liberating as teachers and students could 'co-construct' learning together ( as against teachers having to know everything before hand). For subject teachers it would make sense to value students questions and 'prior ideas' before any further teaching. This 'interactive', or 'constructivist', approach is an ideal mix of process and content; one that places the learner at the centre of the equation. The results of any learning, at school or elsewhere, will only be the best answer at the time.

The teachers role in this process is vital, either as a 'learning guide' or 'adviser', or as a 'co-creator'. Challenging students' current understandings and to see how much they have changed is important, if we are to value in-depth, and lasting, understanding in any area of learning.

The original project produced booklets outlining students' views on a particular topics ( which were remarkably similar worldwide) and suggested activities to challenge student thinking. But even without such focused help the approach is easily applicable in any learning situation.

1 First put students in an interesting situation.

2 Gather students question and concerns about the issue. With experience teacher and students will learn to recognise the 'best' question for students to research ( other questions will 'emerge' as the study progresses). Students, in some cases, can be asked to draw what they know about a topic before they begin e.g symmetry or spiders. This is an excellent way to gain insight into their thinking.

3 Get the students to provide 'answers' to their question to give you insight into their 'prior ideas' and current theories. These can be recorded and displayed under 'What we know before we studied...' The drawing mentioned above will also provide insights into their current understandings.

4 Divide students into research groups to plan how they are going to investigate the question they have chosen ( 'action research'). Students can also work independently. Studnts will need help to develop their 'action plans'. Best results require students to have been taught information gathering skills ( and design presentation skills) beforehand but these will evolve with experience.

5 Students complete their research. The teachers' role is to circulate providing feedback, necessary guidance, and to challenge student thinking. He, or she, may see the need for students as a class, or group, to be given specific help.

6 Students report to other students their finding ( possibly using a range of media). Other students might have the opportunity to comment or ask questions. Through such demonstrations, displays and reflection students will become aware of what they have learnt and how their ideas might have changed. A heading might be added to any wall display, or written up in their study book, called, 'Things we have learnt' and this might include questions 'we' still need to think about.

Teachers will recognise that the approach is a version of inquiry or 'action research' learning
that should underpin all their teaching, valuing and building on the natural curiosity of their students. It is also the basis of Reading Recovery and modern approaches to mathematics and will be nothing new to teachers who value student creativity.

It is a shame that 'constructivist' teaching is not more common in our classrooms.

This is the sort of teaching the future requires of our schools if students are to become, 'active seekers, users and creators' of their own knowledge, as indicted in the 'new' New Zealand Curriculum.