Friday, August 17, 2007

Points of view from Mount Eden School

I was really interested to hear about how Mt Eden School had implemented aspects of the 'new New Zealand Curriculum ( see earlier blog) from principal John Faire and team leader Janet Moyle at a conference held in my home town of New Plymouth.

John introduced their sessions by saying, 'it is what happens in the classroom that count'! A good start to two very informative sessions. And his advice, re the 'new' curriculum was, not to rush, to take it easy, that we have three years to come to terms with it. Schools, he said, have 'three choices' - to 'bolt it on', to 'rewire the school', or to 'redesign the school', favouring the third approach.

With regard to the 'new' curriculum John said that for many it is a bit 'back to the future' and that the curriculum statements and accountability demands imposed since the early 90s had all but 'squashed out the creativity' that was to be seen in the 70s and 80s. I couldn't agree more! It is now he said, quoting from Stoll and Fink , 'about teaching and about time.' The front half of the 'new' curriculum he said approvingly is 'future focused' but the 'second half' is the 'same old same old'. John hopes that the more creative future focus is not lost by the continuing emphasis on specific learning objectives.

When it comes to the 'key competencies' John recommends that they need to be thought of of as attributes a graduate at year six might work towards. At Mt Eden they are displayed in every class as 'touchstones' to remind teachers and students of what future learners will need to have in place and to realize their school's vision of, 'every student to be wide eyed and enthusiastic about learning'.

The school sees the key competencies as a 'constellation of dispositions' appreciated by their 'net effect'. But, however they are implemented, they must not be seen, said John, 'as business as usual'. For secondary schools they would signal a revolution! It would be a shame , it was said, if the key competencies were to be atomized and then individually assessed - they are best 'caught not taught' and that this is best achieved if they are to be kept in mind during all teaching. It was recommended that teachers did not put then in a planning box to be ticked off while teaching!

For the 'new' curriculum to be successful it is easier if schools are convinced of their worth. And if schools are to develop successfully they must 'keep the main thing the main thing' and not get diverted by distracting demands. Professional development must focus on realizing school defined needs.

Mount Eden has set of 'generics' that underpin all they do.

1 The school has divided the curriculum into Foundation and Contextual Areas with health and PE, possibly art kept apart.

2 'Co-constructivism' is the way to go. Both Janet and John referred to the wonderful, but sadly neglected, ideas of the Waikato University Learning in Science Project (LISP). This is an approach where students' questions and 'prior ideas' are valued and where it is the teachers role is to interact to challenge students ideas.

3 Developing inquiry across the curriculum. Inquiry, it was suggested, is not a 'linear' process but a 'recursive' one as students continually reconsider their ideas. Inquiry learning includes the recent emphasis on teaching thinking but emphasizes both in depth content as well as processes. Teachers have to become skilled in helping students learn to ask and follow up their own questions and to value their own thoughts. 'Thinking' ( and multiple intelligences/learning styles etc) cannot be seen as a 'bolt on' - it must be linked to assisting students realize important learning.

Janet emphasized that inquiry learning needs to underpin maths tasks as well. Students need to see maths as a means of exploring relationships, seeing connections and, most of all, to think deeply. To do this teachers need to be 'comfortable' with maths content, at least two years ahead.

Inquiry, at Mount Eden is to be seen as a 'state of mind' as the school evolves into an 'inquiry community'.

4 Contextual studies are entirely open to each teacher's choice to determine. But such topic choices need to be made with explicit criteria in mind:, they need to be 'attractive' to the students, 'future focused', planned with a co-constructivist approach ( students as active partners), to value students thinking, to cover selected 'big ideas', developed with the key competencies in mind and assessed 'in situ'. 'Rich, relevant and rigorous' comes to mind or, as the speakers said, 'doing fewer things well, in depth' ( which does not, Janet and John emphasized, mean long 'woolly' units).

Students need to know their goals, feel 'confident about being a learner' see 'mistakes' as a natural part of learning and have the skills to communicate their ideas.

It is this depth of thinking about important ideas, with a balance between knowledge and strategies, that is all too often missing in schools today.

5 All studies are reviewed and reported on. Assessment is to be seen as integral to all aspects of a study and ought not to result in a greater workload. 'Slimline assessment' was discussed. As for learning objectives 'coverage' only team leaders checked on these. I did like the idea of 'drizzle' assessment, a little done each day based on focused observation. Assessment in literacy and numeracy are against agreed school benchmarks set for each level.

To conclude specific practical examples of in depth studies were outlined. Fascinating accounts were given of studies involving students research and presentation of ideas about their local mountain; studying the insides of our bodies; and human cells. Teachers were also encouraged to take advantage of any 'teachable moments' that arise.

For me it was 'back to the future'. This was the approach that was common before the technocrats imposed all the strands, level and learning objectives!

Janet and John sessions were all all about students 'grappling with real ideas and in the process having their attitudes and thinking challenged'.

Quoting Garth Boomer, John said, 'that principal ought to be the learning conscience of the school,'

Excellent stuff!


Anonymous said...

Excellent ideas.Thank you Bruce.

Anonymous said...

Good to see the LISP 'interactive teaching' has not been completely forgotten. It doesn't have to be complicated. The best of learning and its true reward for the learner is always found simply within the context of doing something of interest and doing it well. What we need are more teachers with the commitment and skills to make the most of what should be a very natural learning process.

Bruce Hammonds said...

To be honest the LISP research has all but been forgotten but let's hope, now that there is supposed to be a focus on teaching and learning, it will return to our classrooms.

I couldn't agree more with your last thoughts about teachers making the most of a natural process to make sense of things.

Graeme Lomas said...

As usual, excellent Bruce. I find Johns ideas continue to be challenging, but exciting.

Iain said...

Music to my ears Bruce!! Had read this on your web site which prompted me to call John and we are meeting next week to yak in more depth about this...we are doing similar stuff at Gladstone so will be great to hear and compare. Our work has continued from the work you did with our whole staff at Hotel du Vin in January - exciting things are afoot! Keep up the great work!

Bruce Hammonds said...

Wow - two innovative principals in the same room!!!! Was that an oxymoron? Great,as always, to hear from you!