Friday, April 27, 2007
Wednesday, April 25, 2007
A professor at Harvard in 1830, Lois Agassiz, had an effective but memorable technique with his doctoral students.
When his students first entered his laboratory, expecting a lecture or an assignment, they would find in front of them a tray with a dead fish in it. Agassiz would say to his students, 'look at your fish', and then he would leave the room. An hour later the professor would return and the students, trying to please would describe their observations. Agassiz would listen and and the repeat, 'look at your fish.What do you see?'
Invariably, Agassiz's students counted scales, drew likenesses, measured, dissected, took notes, and comprehensively ascertained all there was to know about the fish.
After repeating this scenario various times over a couple of days Agassiz would ask , 'do you see the fish yet?'
What he was doing was encouraging his students to know something well.To realize that what was to be discovered lies already to hand , before ones eyes.
It seems counter intuitive in this age of speed and the Internet to encourage students to look carefully and to think slowly but it this experience our students need today. Observation, which involves all the senses ( and especially with a smelly fish) , leads to questioning and imagining - the source of authentic learning.
And the material to observe lies all around - there for the taking.Our students see a lot but too often notice little.
Observation is key skill all too often rushed through with only a cursory glance and little reflection .We should do more of it.
What we what in our schools is memorable learning - the positive sort!
Monday, April 23, 2007
This school week, broken by ANZAC day, is an ideal moment to for the students in your class to think about what ANZAC Day means to them and to us all as a country.
By using the two days before, and the days following, a small, but focused, in depth mini study could be completed.
ANZAC day is a vital part of our New Zealand heritage and it would be interesting to see what ideas your students have picked up through their life experiences and in turn how much , you as teacher, can help them gain a deeper understanding.
The best thing for you as teacher to focus the study will be to find and research the ANZAC kit in the school and any associated school journal or newspaper articles. Sharing with fellow teachers is a good idea to develop ideas.
To introduce the study one idea might be to give your students a 'test' to see what their 'prior ideas' about ANZAC are. Select a few issues for them to respond to such as: What does ANZAC mean? Where is Gallipoli? Who were our soldier's fighting there? Why do we wear red poppies? You may find other equally interesting issues to gain their prior idea with.
The data collected could be used to graph ( for maths) the classes understanding of ANZAC and the test repeated at the end of the study to see how their ideas have changed.
To continue the study it would be useful to ask the class what questions they have about ANZAC Day. Once again questions might be answered by class members if that think they have some idea to share - their answers will provide further evidence of their prior understandings. Select out a few key questions for the class to research or break the class into small groups to research questions. For any questions selected there needs to be resource material available.
The scope of the study will focus not only on the siege at Gallipoli and the Western Front but could represent all the wars NZ as been involved in as well as philosophical discussions on war. This will depend on the age of the students.
For those teachers who make use of the ideas of multiple intelligences, or integrated studies, it is worth while developing questions, or tasks, that make use of the various ways of experiencing or expressing the study. There could be data ( maths) about casualties to be discovered; in the language area students could write descriptions using their research about the either Gallipoli or the Western Front, or write letters home to their parents telling how bad the situation is; for art they could recreate scenes, research uniforms, and paint images of war; for music there are war songs to discovered and learn; for drama scenes could recreated. At the very least they could draw red poppies and white crosses and make a small display for the wall with a few important comments or poems about war. Some students may have access to great grandparents who they might be able to interview about World War Two.
After ANZAC day itself students may have further ideas to discuss. Many class members may have been to an ANZAC ceremony.
Following ANZAC Day research, art and language tasks will need to be completed and displayed.
A repeat of the first 'prior knowledge' test will show students how much they have learned.
ANZAC Day is a good example of an 'emergent' curriculum or what was once called a 'teachable moment.
Too good not to make use of.
Such a child, relying on her own ideas, is inadvertently reducing her learning capabilities.
The arm, placed around exercise book or exam, was used in traditional schooling to protect others from seeing ones answers. Cheating was a big issue in such schools.
Mind you co-operative learning can create a similar situation if some students let others do the work for them. Hopefully most teachers are aware of this 'freeloading' and design projects with their students to avoid such poor learning.
Sharing ideas is vital in learning, enabling others to take advantage of ideas, as well as being able to gain insight from others. And sharing allows ideas to be examined, questioned and challenged.
Sharing is equally vital in the work situation where many of the tasks are arranged in projects requiring teamwork. People who are secretive with their ideas, trying to keep any credit for themselves, will find themselves left out of the learning opportunities provided by sharing.
The problem is with people and organisations that are not open to new ideas that they become stale by missing out on the innovative energy provided through people sharing ideas.
It is important to appreciate that the more ideas you give away will result in more ideas that will come back to you. As well you will always be working on the next idea in your head - an idea the germ of which you may have picked up from someone else. Anyway no idea belongs to one person - they are aways out there waiting to be picked up and shared and, if they they are worthwhile they act as if they have a mind of their own - and in the right conditions will spread creating an 'idea virus'.
Schools should be a environment dedicated to developing such co-operative minds; minds able to discover, grow and create new ideas.
Wednesday, April 18, 2007
Saturday, April 14, 2007
Progressive ideas are not new in China.In 1939 John Dewey toured China and his idea were well received even if interpreted to suit Chinese culture of the time. Today the most revered educator is Harvard's Howard Gardner appreciated for his liberating ideas about multiple intelligences. The Chinese however place a greater emphasis on instructional mastery of identified talents than Gardner might expect.
Liberated China has almost achieved its goal of mass education and is considering a pedagogical renaissance as a growing middle class expands its horizons.
China is beginning to realize that there is a price to pay for its current narrow rigid education; initiative and creativity now being seen as vital skills in global community. To continue their current economic success there is a need for them to escape from their straight jacketed system. Such a change will not be easy. Big changes cause concern in any society and many Chinese parents believe that their current exam system is fairer. There will aways be conflict between conservative traditional conformist old style schooling and more flexible and innovative innovations
But changes are sure to come. If China can combine its traditional emphasis on effort, diligence and basic skills with a greater emphasis on talent development and creativity who knows what they will achieve.
Increasingly worldwide countries are seeing the need to 'personalize' learning and to cultivate the creativity of all students . The 'creative 'capital' of all citizens will need to be realized for any country to thrive in the future.
Ironically while Asian countries seem to be developing an appreciation of of this need to encourage creativity Western politicians are constraining such developments by introducing narrow accountability measures that distort liberating educational aims.
Although change is no simple thing Confucian thought may inspire the Chinese: 'A person is not simply a container, a teacher should be the fire, light the match and should know what sort of wood they are lighting'.
Long term change will be a matter of getting the balance right between 'adventure seeking' versus 'scripted' learning. Chinese politicians have the opportunity to broaden their curriculum and to nurture and not infantilize their students. If they begin to see the need for their students to be braver and more confident, able to work things out for themselves, who knows what they might achieve. Particularly if the West is trying to return to more basic learning as a reaction to Asian success in international testing.
All too often currently Chinese students just go along the road laid out by their parents. Chinese students, known for their diligence, silence, obedience and academic success could be transformed into being more active and adventurous. The future will demand that all students know how to define their own futures and are able to contribute to there wider community and society.
A generation of such independent minded Chinese students with wider horizons is a prospect that may inspire some trepidation as well as optimism amongst Chinese leaders. By combining academic and creative prowess would become the imaginative hybrids that a global society (and China) needs.
In all this ferment her are lessons for the West to take notice of. Conservative politicians, who pander to their equally conservative middle class voters, may undermine their own countries survival.
No country has yet to develop a true 21st century talent based education system - the first to do so will the winner in what some are calling a second renaissance - a new 'post industrial' society.
It will be about the country that can combine the best of past and new ideas about how students learn.
China ( and Asia) and the West are coming from different positions.
Only the future will tell who will make the wisest decisions.
Friday, April 13, 2007
This month there was an interesting article in the New York Times about a highly successful Chinese students called Meijie studying at Harvard.
It was great story about the interface of culture, politics and education and relevant to both Asian and Western cultures.
As part of her studies Meijie addressed the question of what is success. Was it financial worth? Moral perception? And how do families, schools and popular culture invite students to think of success?
Meijie herself embodied success in Chinese terms - a nation whose mission is to become a 21 st century incubator of world class talent. Meijie had become uncomfortable with all the adulation she received from her homeland and began to question the meticulous regime that had produced her. A regime believed in by Chinese parents for their , often, single child - 'little emperors' as they are called.
Meijie background was a little unusual as her parents had allowed her to excel in a range of activities outside the classroom and as result she had come to believe that the last thing Chinese students needed was a blind reverence to a narrow academic education and all the pressure that goes with it. She felt that the Chinese system was overly driven by an exam system that led to a cramming ethos that eroded student curiosity and creativity.
Education in China is a family endeavor worthy of great sacrifice. The desire to find and promote talent has been a long tradition in Chinese culture along with a belief in personal effort and diligence. Western education, in contrast, has placed greater faith in personal expression and talent.
Meijie believed that her American experience had led her to appreciate the less pressurized and more appealing approach to learning. As result of her experience Meijie set about to develop exchange summer programmes for Chinese students exposing them to a more 'freewheeling' system with small group discussions on a wide range of issues offering excitement and and social discovery allowing students to try new things and to connect with one another rather than compete for prizes.
In China there is a growing concern that too many students have become stressed out, test-acing drones who are failing to to acquire the skills of creativity, flexibility, initiative, teamwork and leadership that are felt necessary for success in a global world.
Meijie experience had led her to believe that too many students arrive at college exhausted and emerge from it unenlightened at the very time her country needs a talented elite of innovators. The result of the 'stuffed duck' education system may be counterproductive!. Chinese students do well if their tasks are defined but if the tasks are ambiguous they get lost and have to ask for help.What is missing, all too often, is imagination and independence.
So it seems ironic while Western counties are seeking to emulate Asian success in maths and science while at the same time Asian countries are trying to introduce critical thinking, versatility and leadership! While China is deciding to loosen its administrative control Western countries are demanding more narrow accountability from their more decentralized systems.
When China starts to develop student talents and creativity it will effect the whole world.
China has no intention of jettisoning its strong Asian heritage of discipline, a belief in effort, diligence and family commitment but there is growing agreement to move away from a conformist, adult driven hyper competitive academic system. There is a growing appreciation of the need to help students to 'learn how to learn' , to enquire and to be more creative.
Saturday, April 07, 2007
Thursday, April 05, 2007
Sooner or later people in power will realize that it is not the failing students that are the problem. Maybe the problem are the assumptions that underpin our schools that are failing our stuents?
It seems it is easier to shift the deck chairs on the Titanic than to worry about the faulty engineering. And those who have captured the 'social capital' in our society are not about to give it away -even if in the long run such short term selfish thinking is disastrous.
Being critical doesn't get you many friends but being critical is required if we are ever to change the conservative climate of thinking that determines current 'mainstream' thinking. The only way to gain any purchase is to 'spread' a better story that resonates with what people want - even if such thoughts haven't yet reached the surface. It is always too easy to fix what is broken than to try out a new idea.
To change people's minds those who can 'see the light' need to have the courage to challenge the current assumptions that underpin our struggling current institutions and organisations.
In education have suffered from disastrous reforms seen at their worst by the 'back to basics' of the 'No Child Left Behind' of the USA and the narrow 'league tables' of the UK. Now, in NZ, we have the Leader of the Opposition pushing for a similar approach! These technocratic reforms have led to imposed curriculums and formulaic teaching, with measurable targets as the only barometer of of value. This narrow approach reflects the dominance: of a failing privatisation ideology; rampant consumerism; and an economic competitiveness philosophy where everything - including achievement, is to be measured.
The trouble is that there are important things that cannot be audited in this simplistic way. Schools should be about helping students grapple with the moral, cultural, and spiritual challenges of their world, says the author of a recent book, 'Losing Heart'. The author believes we need a powerful vision of education that focuses on helping young people 'appreciate and navigate a world of increasingly and varied and interrelated identities'.
Students, the book continues, need to see themselves as belonging to a complex interrelated and diverse world community. Students will need to develop a positive self identity so as to be comfortable with crossing cultural borders. All to often such diversity is currently interpreted through fear and anxiety when it ought to be seen as a celebration of diversity.
This vision is a long way from a simplistic literacy and numeracy achievement culture.
Students need to leave their school with a positive sense of values , aware of the need to sustain our delicate inter related world ecology, and respectful and tolerant of others who are different, if we are every to avoid the clashes of cultures that mark our present world.
We need students who leave formal schooling, at any level, who have a responsibility to value the common good of others and to be able to envision new ways of being and relating to one another. A 'winner take all' society is doomed to collapse at some point.
A new vision needs to reinventing democracy to suit a future age age as far too many of our current institutions, designed in an industrial age, are creating as many problem as they are solving. Schools can no longer demand conformity and be 'sorters' of students but need to develop the talents and aptitudes of all 'our' students.
There are creative teachers in our schools but they need to be encouraged to articulate their ideals and live them out in their work. Developing such a creative vision needs to be the central challenge for all involved in education. But they will need help , says the book 'Losing Heart', 'to navigate the current realities without losing heart themselves.'
For those who want to change any aspect of our current system it is not an easy road to follow. Those who see themselves as 'winners' in our current society will take offence and call for reactionary polices. The prophetic voice is often not a popular one until a critical mass of converts develops.
Last words from the book 'Losing Heart':
'Education needs to be understood as more than simply a mirror that reflects the existing culture; it may also represent a light that directs our way to a more hopeful future.'
Let's hope so!
Wednesday, April 04, 2007
A few years ago my sister in law asked me to get a book called 'Freedom Writers' from Amazon for her. It was based on the powerful writing of a class of disadvantaged students from Los Angeles deemed 'unteachable' by their schools.
My sister in law teaches at a big West Auckland School which has a mix of students from a range of cultures. I am not sure how much use was made of the book at the time but it is interesting to know that her school is strongly involved in the Te Kotahitanga approach which is also about realtionships, valuing students 'voice' and respect for students' culture.
Anyway, back to the film which was a battle between uncaring traditional school and a lone creative teacher who really cared for her underprivileged students ; students who lived with first hand exposure to gang violence in a racially divided society. Her students came from African- American, Latino, Cambodian, Vietnamese and Caucasian cultures - the latter very much a minority. All her students had lost friends or family as a result of gang warfare!
The teacher, Erin Gruwell, developed a philosophy that valued and promoted and eventually transformed her students lives. All the more challenging as Erin was a beginning teacher at the time and had to work in an environment of staff and administrative opposition.
After attempting to introduce a traditional curriculum she eventually gained her students respect by learning to listen to the voices, pain and stories of her students. They had made it clear to her that they were not interested in the literature she was trying to introduce them to. Eventually she asked her students to write dairies of their experiences, in any form they wished, and that she would only read them if they asked her to. This diary writing evolved out of studying the Holocaust through the diaries of Ann Franck, and other similar personal stories of bravery against the odds, that resonated with the students own experiences.
As the students began to feel safe, unconditionally accepted and understood they wrote their stories that eventually were published in a book called the 'Freedom Writers'.
The film is he story of a passionate and idealistic teacher but her ideas could be applied in any class at any level. That her teenage students were called 'unteachable' just made her task all the more difficult.
When around the world school are concerned about teenage disengaged learners the book ( and film) provides answers to the problem that go well beyond simplistic 'back to basic' solutions. Students need rich real and relevant students that they can explore in depth.
Erin Gruwell's programme, based on real life experiences, promoted diversity and challenged her students to rethink their rigid racial stereotypes and to become critical thinkers and citizens for future change. Her dedication to her students changed them from apathetic, frustrated, and racially biased to a closely knit but tolerant family or, in current jargon', a 'learning community;.
All teachers, but particularly those who teach teenagers who have lost their love of learning would benefit from applying Erin Gruwell's philosophy.
The philosophy she developed was not anything new - but she had the courage to develop her own approach. Actions aways speak louder than words.
For those who wish to learn more visit the Freedom Writers website. Or just go and see the film.