Friday, July 13, 2007

Some heretical thoughts

Heresy - holding an alternative point of view to those in authority. Not usually a good career choice!

I have been having a few heretical thoughts lately which I want to expand on later but, until then, here they are.

1 We need to see literacy (and numeracy) as arising out of children's experiences as a means to make sense of their world.

The current emphasis on literacy and numeracy is distorting the educative process. Before students enter school they have been fully occupied in making sense of what is happening to them. Driven by curiosity they ask questions incessantly. They make full use of their senses in the process - feeling, tasting, touching, smelling and looking. At first they rely on gestures, language and drawing - or making marks. It has been shown that most young children begin to write even before they come to school and can recognise words ( or marks) that have personal meaning to them.

They are natural learners - continually working at the edge of their competence.

Then they arrive at school full of excitement and possibilities. All of a sudden they are taught to read ( as if they might not achieve this naturally in an environment that values reading). Learning to read through their own stories and their reactions to experiences and their own curiosity is not take advantage of. Their voice and identity is not as important as the measurable achievement of learning to read.

As one UK commentator has said ' It is as if the evil twins of literacy and numeracy has gobbled up the entire curriculum'.

Classrooms that ought to reflect the interests , questions, ideas and all sorts of ways of expressing them through the arts, is replaced by 'reading type writing' and 'art' related to reading, or derived from the often low level studies that teachers use to complete what is left of the day.

Once, creative teachers worked with the 'raw material' of their students lives, working with then to transform their ideas into a range of idiosyncratic artistic expression in all forms. Reading and literature was an important part of this creative personalised learning environment, but as a means to an end

Time for a rethink?

2 The current emphasis on accountability and assessment is killing the creativity of teachers and, in turn, their students.

Creativity and risk taking suffers under this heavy 'low trust audit culture' environment which values simplistic measurable achievement. The trouble is the most important things, such as love of learning, resiliency, creativity, and valuing of personal excellence, are not easily measured.

Ideas about self assessment, feedback and formative assessment are valuable ( but hardly new) ideas. They were 'grist for the mill' for creative teachers, even if they didn't use the terms.

Recent articles have shown that most schools, when they set their 'targets', focus almost exclusively on literacy and numeracy! What they ought to be looking at is how many students have been helped to realize their creative talents in whatever field that 'attracts' them. Assessment ought to more about performance than technocratic achievement of predetermined criteria.

And, if we are to really value creativity, we need to be careful how we use assessment - it is all too easy for creativity to be lost in the destructive attempt to measure everything.

If we want to measure something lets measure the quality of the learning culture we establish as teachers to encourage all our learners to keep their love of learning, as 'creators, seekers and users of knowledge', alive.

3 Let's throw away all the curriculum frameworks or at least to see them as guides only.

The Ministry, without really admitting they led schools down the wrong track, at least have walked away from 'their' faulty ideas. The curriculums of the 90s, with their incoherent strands, levels, and countless learning objectives have all but killed the creativity and enthusiasm of to many teachers. Enough of curriculums 'an inch deep and mile wide' - we need to do fewer things well and in depth. And, better still, we need to develop the concept of a curriculum that 'emerges' out of the questions, concerns, and interests of the students themselves. Such an 'emergent' approach would require an interdisciplinary integrated approach. Subject disciplines remain important resource - particularly the 'big ideas' that underpin democratic communities.

The success of such a 'personalised' programme would be seen in the quality of the performances , demonstrations, portfolios and in the depth of understanding and the thinking involved. And of course by the talents of students that have been developed and their passion for continuing learning.

A couple of other things come to mind.

We need to rethink principal-ship
and develop leadership by vision, values (as seen by behaviour) agreed teaching beliefs, with everybody taking a leadership role.The fancy word for this is 'distributed' leadership). As well schools need to work together sharing ideas to the mutual benefit of all - and as well to work with their communities.

Possibly the area we need to give greatest thought to is the need to develop creative cultures in our schools . If the culture is right the rest falls into place. Assessing the learning culture to see if it developing the creativity of teachers and students would be am important task! 'Culture counts' the most of all.

Obviously the whole concept of school ( an outdated term?) needs to the basis of a nation wide conversation - a conversation that involves everybody thinking about future direction would be most heretical of all - tapping the wisdom of the people. Democracy revised!

Any other heretical thoughts out there?

Come to think of it most of the above ideas are not so heretical - it is just that they have all but been lost under the destructive pressure of an imposed managerial compliance culture?

That enough for now.


Anonymous said...

Classrooms that don't have the day sectioned up into 'blocks' of time for subjects for all five days of the week ... I know why it is done... I know why the principal and parents like it ... but I really don't think my brain works like that... learning for me has always been some formal some play and a lot of thinking and experimenting.

Bruce Hammonds said...

This whole timetable thing, bells, standardized curriculums , testing, kids working in segregated age batches controlled by teachers, etc, are the leftover ideas of an antiquated mechanical industrial era.

In a 21stC fast changing environment education ought to more 'organic' - emerging from the interests, concerns and creativity of the students. Learning 'advisers' and students 'co-creating' together. 'I.E.P's for all!

Your brain is on the right track - sorry direction!

Anonymous said...

Too much of what happens in schools ( even in so called 'child centred' primary schools) is based on the premise that without teachers arranging programes and testing them children would learn little - the school lives of many gifted people would prove the opposite is true.

More heresy!

Bruce Hammonds said...

Without heresy nothing changes! Trouble is, those who think they know best find it difficult to listen to alternative voices!