Thursday, June 28, 2007

Moving from High Schools to Learning Communities

A rural New Zealand school with the exciting challenge of developing a unified learning community for students from year 1 to 13

Redesigning our High Schools for the 21stC - the real challenge for those involved in education

The 'in' phrases these days are 'Schools as Learning Communities' and 'personalised learning'.

Around the world innovative educational thinkers and politicians (such as our own Minister of Education) are writing and talking about such things but so far not too many school have made the transition.

And it is not that the ideas are new - they were central beliefs of the early progressive educators of the last century such as John Dewey. John Dewey even thought schools should be developed as democratic organisations! Ideas, it seems, takes a long time to establish themselves in schools but one senses that the time is now right as we enter a new Millennium demanding new qualities from its citizens. The industrial era is now over and hierarchical industrial aged school are no longer appropriate.

If I were a principal I would want to be seen as being a part of such 'new' thinking. Unfortunately too many schools are held back, facing the wrong century, by the deadening forces of the 'status quo' and a general resistance to change.

With this in mind it was interesting to read New Hampshire's (USA) vision for redesign called , 'Moving From High Schools To Learning Communities.'

New Hampshire authorities appreciate the urgency of the need to making transformational changes. The report notes that once few students ( about 20%) attended High School and now that it is compulsory 20% drop out, or leave with little to show for their time. This would be the New Zealand experience as well.

The vision of New Hampshire accepts this reality and wants to redesign their high schools to recognise the talents, interests, passions and dreams of each students so that all can become successful learners.

They have developed six guiding principles - most of which will sound familiar to creative teachers.

1 Personalisation and relationships. Personalisation places each individual learner at the centre of educational provision. Schools need to focus on developing individual learning plans that create a real sense of belonging and enabling students to take ownership for their own learning. To be successful each learner needs student advocate or mentor. Personalisation of learning is seen as central to high school redesign.

2 Rigor and High Standards. Every student, the report states, deserves a course of study that allows them to learn in a deep and practical way.To achieve this requires high standards be to be expected of all students. Such standards should address character and emotional development as well as academic growth. They should address not only academic knowledge but also everyday life skills , problem solving, team building and time management. These sound very much like the NZ Curriculum's 'key competencies'.

3 Relevance and Engagement. Relevance, the report states, connects what students learn to the skills they practice in real life situations.By engaging every student in learning the number of students dropping out will be reduced -students gaining the skills they need to be successful and able to contribute to their communities. Learning opportunities could be provided through, internal credits, independent studies and by using courses provided through the Internet. There are schools in New Zealand already using these approaches and the innovative use of NCEA units tailored to suit individual student needs would fit into such an approach.

4 Results. Analyzing the results of innovative programmes would be vital to redesigned high schools. Such data should be used to determine steps to support a student's growth and help students understand whether he, or she, has reached set goals, and, for teachers, to see if a course needs modification.

5 Empowered Educators. ALL educators must become effective leaders, making choices as they serve the vision of the school. Teachers will need to change from delivering to mentoring and facilitating student learning.They will need to be active curriculum designers encouraging students to assume responsibility for their own learning and to move from teacher-centred to student-centred educators.This transition will require strong professional development and will lead to more exciting and rewarding careers for teachers.

Parent and school collaboration will be required. Such community involvement will create schools that share the responsibility for the delivery of eduction.

School will need to develop themselves as Professional Learning Communities to become places of continuous learning; vital and spirited environments in which there is an openness to ideas, information and insights. Mutual supportive relationships will be crucial to be successful. the school environment needs to be inclusive and school structures developed that facilitate engaged learning. As idealistic as this sounds it is both necessary and possible if every student is to leave the school system as an engaged and successful learner.

6 Follow the child. A student centred approach calls for personalized assessment so each learner can flourish in four domains: personally, socially, physically and academically. Each learner needs an educational plan personalized by analysis of who the student is as a person. Parents, educators and students work together to determine an individual student's pathway. Goals developed will be both short and long term and will draw on resources inside ad outside of the school. They will combine classroom and community learning, coached and mentored learning, and independent learning. All students' learning paths need to be monitored and delivery plans adjusted as required. Schools that develop this type of personalised approach to eduction help students learn more, and encourage more students to leave school with appropriate qualifications according to their particular needs well equipped for the next step in their lives.

Once again these are ideas that many schools are implementing, or considering, in many New Zealand High Schools.

This seems an important report - one that ought to influence the direction of our own secondary schools - schools whose structures and 'mindsets' face a past factory industrial era rather than a creative innovative future.

It asks school to think about the hours and days schools are open - features that reflect an agricultural heritage let alone an outdated industrial age.

Schools are being asked to allow their students to gain credits at various times and not necessarily inside the school walls, able to access both community and distant resources ; to acquire knowledge other than in traditional classrooms settings. Students need to master required course competencies in a variety of ways - in New Zealand the NCEA offers such a possibility but only if schools can see past their traditional subjects and structures. In this New Zealand, through the NCEA, is well ahead.

Personalizing learning asks school to develop programmes tailored to the needs, learning styles, interests and strengths of each learner.

The hope in New Hampshire is that the report will inspire high schools across the state to take advantage of the increased flexibility.

While back in New Zealand the debate is being distorted by self centred schools claiming that traditional practices, developing winner or loser students ( 'failure is good for kids') and antiquated Cambridge exams, are the way to go. They are, if we do not want to be seen as leaders in the field of creative teaching and learning.

We could be world leaders if we had the wit and imagination!

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

New Hampshire can't be much bigger than New Zealand? - if they can do we can!