Sunday, September 30, 2007

Teaching with Brain in Mind

Over the years the metaphor for the brain has changed from blank slates, to a mechanical model ( each piece doing special job), to 'left' and 'right' brains, to being compared to a computer, even the Internet - and in all this there is the difference between the brain and our mind. And, actually who is in charge of our thinking nature or nurture?

While over the past few years we have become more aware of the workings of our brain, adapting our teaching to match this understanding is another thing.

In the Industrial Age schools were modelled on a factory transmission analogy. Today our schools, all too often, still reflect this dated idea with students passing from standard to standard to achieve defined 'bits' of learning.Today the brain is seen as a self evolving learning organ, learning both consciously and unconsciously, for the life of the person given the right circumstances.

Scientifically the brain weighs about 1200 grams, is about 2% of our body weight but uses 20% of our energy - energy it gains from circulating blood. The brain is 78% water. A living brain is so soft you can cut it with a butter knife but ironically it doesn't feel pain! The brain is the critical centre of our body wide data collecting nervous system and produces chemicals to reward itself for positive learning experiences. Divided into two large hemispheres it also has three levels, the cortex, or 'thinking' part, and two earlier evolutionary levels relating to emotions and instinct.

Our life success relates to how we learn to use our conscious thinking ability to our advantage - but, unfortunately, we can also learn self defeating habits.

The 'old' view was that we lose our brain cells once in adulthood but, thankfully, the 'new' view is that this doesn't matter, as learning depends on the new neurons, or connection, 'we' make. Active 'open' minds build active neurons until late in life and, even if damaged, new 'circuitry' re-routes the missing function to other sections of the brain. You can , it seems, learn 'new tricks' even if you are an old dog.

Unfortunately many students have 'lost' their learning ability and have become locked into self defeating patterns, or habits, which are then applied as if stuck on repeat. Students fall into these habits unconsciously because they worked in earlier situations and their minds have become 'closed' to new possibilities

To complicate matters some researchers believe it is the unconscious brain that is more 'in charge of us than we are of it'. For humans, who value ability to reason, or rationality above all, this is disconcerting. But, if we accept this, then how 'we' influence the unconscious become very important.

Aspects of behaviour are picked up unconsciously by the 'brain'. The brain/mind somehow selects and stores 'messages' from experiences. It seems that the mind has a mind of its own! Our consciousness is, at best, only a limited 'dashboard' for the unconscious mind, and not aways trustworthy. We have to learn to reflect, pause, to consider options, so as to juggle the demands life places on the brain. Many of our young people have not learnt to do this and rush in without thinking , making use of ingrained habits. By doing this they creating learning 'problems' for themselves and behaviour 'problems' for teachers.

So it seems we all are a complicated mix of our conscious ( 'stop and reflect' ) and our unconscious minds ( 'where did that come from?' ). All people, it seems, are 'deeper' than they like to think. Our imagination, creativity, originality and intuition come from 'beneath the surface' and are continually 'shaped' by our experiences. Brains develop best in a non threatening but challenging environments.

There are obvious lessons in all this for teachers.Teachers need to create safe moral cultures that value all students; cultures that hold everyone responsible their own actions. Our learning 'minds' are always weighing options before choosing any action -it is over to the culture of expectation teachers create to ensure students learn appropriate behaviours.

To change 'bad' habits students need support, training, practice and encouragement so as to be able to 'rewire' themselves - to build new neural pathways. They need to be helped to avoid 'premature articulation', 'right answers', or 'hit first think about consequences later'. They need to learn to wait and ponder, to make use of feedback, and sometimes, to do nothing and accept ambiguity and confusion as the best option. It is at these times the subconscious mind through, dreams, imagination and meditation provides the insight to solve issues - often at unexpected times.

Appreciating that the brain is capable of creating new structures is a positive step. Teachers can help their students develop more positive habits, or patterns of behaviour . Students can learn to 'change their tune' and 'sing a new song' and break out of their fixed 'one track minds'.

Students can, with help, begin to rethink who they might become. They can be helped to learn to think through new situations armed with the idea that there are always options and choices available to them. Even to do nothing is a choice

When they learn to use their brains wisely their minds are working for them rather than leading then down the failing track of unexamined habits. A 'learning' brain driven by curiosity is always constructing the best sense it can. This 'mindfulness' is a long way from the previous simplistic transmission of knowledge approach.

We now know enough about how our brains work, and how our minds develop, to ensure all students develop 'enriched' brains 'turned on' to learning, but only if, as teachers, we change our own minds first. We need to teach with the brain in mind!

As Henry Ford once said, 'If you think you can or you think you can't you are both right'.

Saturday, September 29, 2007

The challenge of project based learning

Most schools have a historical site ( this is a European Redoubt from the Land Wars) to base an in depth research project on.

If schools were really student centred then all learning should be based around in depth relevant inquiries integrating whatever subject areas and skills necessary.

This the approach young children use before formal schooling but from the moment schooling begins the teachers agenda and predetermined skills take precedence; the students lives and real concerns and interests become sidelined. There is no need for such a 'shift' in learning approach. Project based learning ( or inquiry learning) is a natural extension of how students learn and ought to be central to schooling at all stages.

In Junior classes, unfortunately, an obsession with a 'Victorian three Rs' literacy and numeracy agenda takes precedence and, in secondary schools, subject specialisation requires all learning to be divided up into centuries old isolated compartments.

No wonder many students become disengaged.

It is no great challenge to introduce inquiry learning as the basis of education in primary schools, if teachers wanted to, but it is problematic at the secondary level where teachers are 'trained' to teach within their specialties. The resulting subject timetabling limits any real cross curricular experimentation with such an idea. A small number of innovative secondary schools however ( mainly newly established) base their learning on an integrated inquiry approach so it is not impossible. Introducing the idea in years 9 and 10 is possibility for all schools, even if only over two or three subject areas at first.

In America the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation 'champions' 'project based learning'. Bill Gates has stated that he feels American High Schools, as currently structured, are obsolete and that eduction ought to redesigned to be 'real, relevant and rigorous' to solve the disengaged learner problem.

Secondary schools that have tried the idea have not always found it easy as such an approach requires teachers to embrace new attitudes, develop new skills and to risk failure. It is a lot easier to continue with the 'status quo'. Excellent resources for school, who might be thinking about introducing such ideas, are the Big Picture Company and the Edutopia site.

Project based learning can be introduced in separate subject studies but ideally integrate other learning area as required. Most often an inquiry does not fit into one particular subject although there is often a focus on certain subjects. Ideally teachers need to collaborate to share their expertise and students needs to work in team to research particular aspects. Students ( along with teachers) will have particular skills that can be utilized.

Such ideas cut across, not only the idea of timetabling, but also 'coverage'. The approach requires teachers to believe in 'less is more' and the importance of developing positive attitudes towards learning in students by doing 'fewer things well' and, in the process, developing in-depth understanding by students.

New thoughts about assessment need to be developed
. Teachers work with students as learning 'advisers'( 'coaches') and engage in 'learning conversations' to clarify and challenge students thinking and providing appropriate feedback and 'scaffolding' as required. Although 'formative' assessment is integral to the approach the major assessment is realised in the final presentations, demonstrations and performances. All such final products have negotiated rubrics or criteria so students can self assess their own progress.

On the positive side it encourages teacher collaboration, breaking down the privatisation of practice that limits secondary education. It also allows the natural integration of information technology that all to often is underused at all levels of schooling. Inquiry learning also leads into a 'personalisation' of learning.

When schools decide to implement such an approach, learning as they go along, the support and feedback from fellow teachers, and school leadership, will be vital and will make all the difference.Schools once they get involved will find that their are all sorts of resources they can make use of.

Our 'new' New Zealand Curriculum encourages such an approach.

All we need is for teachers to change their minds first and schools could become, 'real, relevant and rigorous', for all students.

Thursday, September 27, 2007

Some questions to ask about your school.

Rodin's thinker - time to reflect on what is happening in your school?

In the months ahead schools will be considering what changes they will have to make to introduce the 'new' New Zealand Curriculum.

Even a quick read will show that the emphasis being placed on 'key competencies', the importance of inquiry as the basis for learning, and the need to see all students as 'active seekers, users and creators of their own knowledge', indicates it will not just be 'business as usual'.
The 'new' curriculum offers an opportunity to 'revision', with your community, what the school stands for.

A few ideas to think about

1 How much time is currently being taken up with the mantras of 'best practice' and 'evidence based' literacy and numeracy programmes
in comparison to other equally important areas? One UK commentator believes that the 'evil twins of literacy and numeracy have all but gobbled up the entire curriculum'. In the USA the creative arts are at risk as school focus on improving literacy and numeracy 'targets'. The trouble with 'targets' is, that it is not what you achieve that counts, it is what you miss by focusing too hard an a narrow range of experiences.

2 How much is student inquiry, in all curriculum areas, the basis of the school's programmes?
Is the school celebrating students thinking about issues they feel is important? How much do the rooms reflect their questions, ideas and researched answers? Are the students able articulate the inquiry approach and able to self evaluate their own progress? How much does inquiry learning integrate curriculum areas and make us of skills taught in the literacy and numeracy block?

3 Can the teachers articulate the vision, values and teaching beliefs of the school? If asked, can they articulate how they see their role in the learning process and can they discuss the various agreed teaching strategies the school has agreed to implement? Can they discuss the basic inquiry process and the ideas behind 'constructivist' teaching? Are they aware of the need to do 'fewer things well' and to help students being aware of the need for personal effort and perseverance?

4 How well are students making use of higher order thinking skills to develop in depth research of real quality that reflects their own 'voice', or is it, 'higher order thinking for thin learning'? Is real content being explored by students based on topics or issues that really involve them or is is just about process?

5 How well is e-learning integrated into inquiry based teaching
as an important tool for both searching and expressing students' ideas. Information technology are a high cost items - is the school getting value for its money that could have been used elsewhere?

6 Is the school able to demonstrate that they are developing the gifts, talents and passions of all their students
- exploring the full range of intelligences as developed by Howard Gardner? Does the school see this as a priority, at least equal to literacy and numeracy and, if so, how much time is provided to develop such gifts. How much does the school reflect the concept of 'personalised learning' - customising learning around the needs of each individual learner, working towards ensuring every learning has their own individual learning plan? How much of the children's real world is celebrated in the classrooms?

7 How important are the creative arts in the classrooms allowing students, not only to develop their artistic gifts, but also to understand the demands of the creative process and the time it takes to complete work of personal excellence? Does the creative work on display, or able to be demonstrated, reflect the individuality of each student.

This list of discussion points could go on forever and no doubt reflects the ideas I holds to be important. None the less they are a starting point and schools can delete or add their own queries if the idea was felt valuable.

If a school were dedicated to developing the talents and gifts of all students it would require considerable rearrangement of most schools priorities and programmes. 'Learnacy' would need to replace literacy and numeracy as the focus of learning!

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

My revised vision and beliefs

Our Leading and Learning Logo stands for combining the best of 'child centred' and 'traditional' teaching - learning centred eduction; the 'best of both worlds' - combining the creativity of primary education and the depth and rigor of secondary teaching.

Over the years I have assisted a great number of schools develop their Vision, Values and Teaching Beliefs. The process I use follows a similar format - first to establish a Vision with all involved ( and usually finding a key phrase or metaphor to represent this Vision); then to determine the Values they hold to be important ( once again finding a memorable phrase to make them memorable) ; and then to develop a set of Teaching Beliefs to implement the agreed Vision and Values.

I guess the 'normal' set of teaching beliefs are easily modified by any school to suit their particular context.This is because they include the ideas that most schools are implementing. The key to the process I use is to limit the number of points to five or six so they can be easily articulated.

My 'ideal' set reflects my personal 'point of view', or 'stance', about what is required to ensure all students gain success in 'our' education system. It also reflects the current personalised learning agenda.

I believe that society is at a 'tipping point' as the structures developed in an Industrial Age are increasingly failing their original function. This is understandable. It would be common sense to understand that such a system, with its genesis in the past, would find it difficult to cope in what some call a new Creative Age; one requiring flexibility rather than a 'one size fits all' mentality.

The big issue is what kind of society do we want new Zealand to become? This is all the more important as we emerge out of a market forces 'me first' society. Certainly our students need new competencies than those envisioned for an past industrial age.

Human skills of creativity and innovation will be required
if, as a country, we are to be at the 'leading edge' in a 'brave new world'? If this is the case, then education will have to be transformed from a 'factory' metaphor to one better suited to the times.

If schools were to focus on developing all the gifts and talents of all their students, imagine what this challenge would mean. It would require new roles for students as 'seekers, users and creators ' of their own knowledge and, for teachers, to become 'learning advisers' skilled in assisting each student develop personalised learning plan.

So my Vision would be, for 'my' school, would be, 'To value, celebrate and develop the talents of all students'.

Students, in such a school, would need to develop the Values to enable them, 'To learn to work with and respect others, and, in the process, learn to make the 'best choices' they can and, always, to consider 'next time'

1 To respect and build on students talents and gifts and to provide opportunities for new interests to develop.

2 To develop every students' 'learning power' to enable them to take advantage of any new experience.

3 To provide students with a range of challenging learning experiences to develop both 'learning power' and to uncover potential talents.

4 To see teachers 'learning advisers' able to provide personalized assistance to all students.

5 To create stimulating learning environment to celebrate student thinking and creativity.

Each of the above would need a list of agreed specific 'We wills' to give direction to parents and teachers.

Focusing on each students particular mix of talents, and building on their life experiences would realise the dream of personalised learning.

Powerful learners would need to have the basic 'foundation skills' of literacy and numeracy in place but would require, what one writer calls, 'learnacy' - the desire to learn. Powerful learners 'need to know, ,what to do when they do not know what to do'. Powerful learner also understand that the learning ( or creative ) process involves confronting difficulty and confusion and requires , resilience,perseverance and personal effort.

Powerful learning experiences need to be, 'rich, relevant and rigorous' Students , to be engaged have to see meaning in what they do and to make use of whatever traditional subject disciplines as required. Seeing 'connections' between traditional subjects needs to be encouraged. Students need to do 'fewer things well' so as to study chosen topics in depth. Much of the learning would 'emerge' around problems and questions identified by the students themselves and, where possible, relate to to their environment and the cultural heritage of New Zealand.

The teachers role is vital to achieve such a talent based vision. The priority would be to accept unconditionally whatever students bring with them to the learning experience, to value their 'prior ideas', their thoughts and then to build one and challenge each student so as to develop positive attitudes towards learning. This depends on teacher pedagogical skill as well as understanding ( or access to) appropriate content. Respectful mutual relationships between all involved will be be vital.

Every classroom, and the whole school, including the grounds, should celebrate and respect student's creativity. Classrooms, in particular, should inform all of the quality of students thinking as will information stored digitally. All students, in such a 'learning community', ought to know, what, why, how , when (and what is regarded as quality work) in all they do.

Together the Vision, the Values and the Teaching Beliefs would transform education as we know it.

All very possible.

Monday, September 24, 2007

Tapping the wisdom between schools.

Over the decades innovation and creativity has shifted from isolated creative often misunderstood individuals, who network with each other for mutual support, to whole schools development where schools develop a common language or learning culture across the school.

The future development is for teachers to share ideas between schools.

Ministries of Education worldwide , after experimenting with the ideas of competing schools and 'top down change', have now realised the real power is to be gained through collaboration at the lowest level.

School collaboration, along with the idea of personalisation of learning, has the radical potential to transform our education system. These ideas are expressed in small pamphlet written by Michael Fullan for the UK Department of Education and Science but it is also an idea schools are coming to realize for themselves.

Appreciating that change is a 'bottom up' process is a radical thought but ,according to Fullan, it only works if in a dialectal relationship between the 'top' and 'bottom' - moving beyond either. It is an approach that believes that the 'actors' involved make meaning in the process of learning; and when this happens whole systems evolve.

Fullan believes there is need for teachers to encourage deeper learning and a wider range of pedagogical strategies and that, to do this, there is a need to engage the creativity of practitioners. The people with the problem, says Fullan, also have the potential to develop the solutions.

To achieve this systemic reform is a long way from the 'informed prescriptions' of current 'top down' 'best practices' and 'evidence based' literacy and numeracy strategies.

Central reform, it is now realized, can only take us so far but, 'letting a thousand flower bloom' in schools, will not us very far as well. Good 'flowers' ( creative ideas) need help to spread. Systems must be developed to mobilise the ingenuity and creative ideas of schools so as to achieve a critical mass. What is required is a 'we- we' mentality between schools , supported by central authorities, to share and spread idea between schools.

Systems must be developed to identify ideas worth spreading to develop collective action.School need to meet and discuss ideas and to identify individual teachers that have ideas worth sharing with others. The only way to make progress, says Fullan, is to 'learn by doing' - learning through action as you go along.

Developing a collective identify requires a new form of school leadership to break through the inertia of the 'status quo'. School leaders need to become as concerned about the success of students in other schools as much as in their own, seeing that the potential changes will benefit all schools.

An independent adviser is an advantage to ensure all schools live up to their expectations and to identify, nurture, and extend 'emerging' ideas. Developing systems to sustain and deepen the capacity for collaboration and implementation are required.

An exciting aspect will be to develop in all teachers concerned a sense of belonging to something important and valuable more than that their own school or classroom can provide. Individual teacher will also have the opportunity to be valued for their expertise that, up until now, they may not have had the opportunity to share. This will remedy the feeling that all ideas are developed outside of the school and passed down to them from 'experts' distant from their classrooms. Harnessing and fostering the energy, creativity, commitment of teacher is an exciting concept.

The really exciting thing is that the only way to develop new idea is by 'doing' and by building up networks, and ways of sharing what is learned, as part of this process. What will develop will be determined by the specific needs of the group and, in some cases, ideas will 'emerge' that will be impossible to predict.

As Fullan says,'Nothing beats learning in context'.

School collaborative learning has the potential to radically transform our education system particularly if developed in tandem with 'personalised' learning. Collaboration is process that enlarges the opportunity of all involved - both teachers and students.

The basic challenge is to break down the boundaries between schools and teachers and to develop partnership, both horizontally and between schools, to develop the potential to unleash unimaginable creativity.

Thursday, September 20, 2007

Secondary Futures - thinking about students!

The age of mass education, one size fits all, is coming to and end - but far too slowly!!

Many of the signposts to make more learners successful are evident today, say the guardians of the Secondary Future group, in their report on students.

'Shaping secondary schooling may not so much as a leap into the unknown as ensuring today's indicators and successes are better understood and more widely distributed'.

You have to wonder what stops these ideas from reaching fertile ground?

Currently the National Certificate of Achievement ( NCEA) gives schools the flexibility to design more relevant personalised learning for their students but it seems senior traditional principal spend more time running NCEA down, hankering for the good old days of pass/fail examinations. Accusations of dumbing down need to be replaced by schools creating learning environments to encourage students to do their best by engaging them on tasks that interests them.

Seems pretty obvious, but schools are either not truly 'learning organisations' or they are extremely 'slow learners!

The report says schools are moving towards a, 'students first' approach by allowing students more control over what is learned, how it is learned, and when it is learned, by making use of, what is called, a 'co-constructivist approach'. Such an approach actively involves students in their own learning, values their questions, their 'prior' ideas, and ideas about how to solve problems. The teacher's role is more of a 'learning adviser', or a 'learning coach', than a 'teller'. This could lead to each student negotiating their own Individual Learning Plan ( IEP) - a process more currently limited to special needs students.

Students in the future, the report continues, will need help to screen out unhelpful data and to develop the capacity to process information. A good outcome of schooling, it says, is one where all students leave school with a positive learning identity, self confidence, and the necessary skills to live, work, and proper. This is to include an ecological sense of sustainability, and an appreciation of the heritage and cultures of New Zealand. Students who have the capacity to not only value self but also the common good and welfare of others.

All far to important to wait for 20 years to realize!

Four trajectories have been identified by the report:

Customised learning pathways involving dialogue between students and the parents so students feel the motivation of ownership. This directly in conflict , 'in schools where custody is perceived as a major role, students seen as unquestioning detainees... and where parents are seen as obstacles to progress.' This trajectory would require developing unique student pathways; Individual Learning Plans (IEPs), 'that build on individual interests and enthusiasm'. This is the 'personalisation of learning agenda' we hear so much about.

Linked up Learning Programmes. This requires students being able to access a range of learning programmes that could occur in more than one centre, other schools, and distance leaning through on line learning.

Multiple Learning Portals. Traditional 'face to face learning' will be complemented, even replaced, by a wide and growing range of opportunities. Schools will need to assess the quality of such learning and to guide students, and help them use it, to serve their particular needs.

Synchronised Learning Platforms. Required to develop synergies and communication between neighbourhoods, communities of interests, social services, ethnic collectives and the eduction system. Links between levels of schools also needs to be strengthened. Such ideas are a real challenge for a schools that originally developed to serve, an increasingly out of date, industrial era. Our current schools have developed independent of each other, school that cater for different age groups, with little inter-school interaction, to the detriment of the learners.

All the above will requires a considerable paradigm shift - a new way of looking at the role of teachers and schools in respect to how they serve 'their' students. Such thinking requires an attitudinal shift from the current conformity of our secondary schools.

To achieve these pathways the report suggests:

School leaders taking up the challenge to think and act differently.

More discussion with students and families about each students learning goals.

The emergence of mentoring systems for all students and teachers

More diverse learning programmes, times and sites

Stronger links between students and their families, community organisations, businesses and public services.

All seems simple enough to me - the 'blocks' to such change lies 'between the ears' of those who lead and teach in our secondary schools and the lack of imagination and courage of our our politicians.

Not so simple after all.

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Vision for Secondary Schools 2027

This book, by David Hood, has been happily ignored by most secondary teachers since its publication - perhaps things are about to change? It aways seems though, that for secondary schools, the future is always 20 years away!

The secondary futures site is well worth a look.

Established by the government the secondary futures group's task was to explore, through dialogue with interested parties, the shape of things to come for secondary education.

A few thoughts, from its most recent publication, provides inspirational directions for secondary schools that take the challenge of the future seriously.

The group is led by four 'guardians': Mason Durie, Deputy Vice Chancellor of( Maori) of Massey University; Gillian Heald, Co-Director of Unlimited Paenga Tawhiti ( a new style secondary 'school') and previously principal of Rangiruru Girls School; Bernice Mene, sports educator and previously a secondary teacher; and Ian Taylor Maori businessman, with an interest in the application of information technology and multi media.

A paradigm shift in how we see secondary education is being suggested.

Secondary schools, their principals,teachers and their parent body, their report says, 'have not aways been campaigners for change. Sometimes institutions and their traditions have been valued and preserved even when they are no longer meeting the needs of the students they were designed to serve.'

'In the future the sector will need leaders who can articulate and refresh the vision of an evolving and adaptive education system' that creates, 'a system that continues to best serve the needs of their students.'

The report asks us to, 'Imagine a profession where teachers passion for making a difference to students learning has been put back at the centre of their role.'

Imagine a professional workforce characterised by deep knowledge about the ways that learning can happen... in touch with the boundaries of new knowledge.. with skills to work with other experts...held in high regard as creators and leaders....'

'Imagine a learning environment where teachers have the freedom to tailor their teaching approach around students and to design learning contexts tha thrill, excite and energise both learner and themselves.'

Imagine teachers seeing themselves as: 'catalysts for knowledge discovery', 'heralds of change', 'a champion for Aotearoa', or a 'scaffolder of self worth'.

These are are the roles that the report sees for all teachers in 2027.

'Catalysts for knowledge discovery' is about teachers developing respectful relationships with students so as to inspire a passion and enthusiasm for learning. Such teachers would, 'construct customised learning pathways' based around realistic learning contexts no longer, 'constrained by a uniform approach'. As catalysts teachers would give students, 'opportunities for self directed learning and active inquiry.' No doubt this concept aligns with the current 'buzz words' - 'personalised learning'.

Teachers in 2027, would be, 'herald of change' signposting the way to the frontiers of new knowledge and equipping their students with the skills to succeed in 'a continually changing environment.' They would assist students to, 'embrace change and gain the skills to anticipate and respond to make good choices and judgements in all areas of their lives'. Such teachers would need to, 'work collaboratively', with each other and outside sources, and between educational providers, to design inspiring learning contexts and to make full use of available information technology. Once again this would lead to teachers developing, 'customised learning pathways' for each student by working with their students and their parents.

As 'champions of Aotearoa' teachers, in 2027, will help their students appreciate the distinctive traditions that have shaped the New Zealand ethos and help their students understand the heritage, the natural environment and the diverse communities of New Zealand. Teachers will understand their students backgrounds and cultures, and their 'prior' knowledge, and integrate this knowledge so students feel valued.

In 2027 teachers will be seen as 'scaffolders of self worth'. School, 'will be a place where relationships are fashioned, values transmitted and respect for self and other learned.' This will require teachers to develop in their students, 'emotional intelligence and the ability to take personal responsibility, to take risks and think entrepreneurially.'Inspiring teachers will construct learning opportunities that allow students to express their own values, explore the values of others with empathy'. 'Students sense of self worth and identity acts as a foundation for being able to learn, to participate in society and to cope with change,'

All I can say is why wait.

It is urgent for the success of New Zealand to develop such innovative, creative and empathetic people now. Twenty years will be too late.

Lets hope this is not another exercise in creative thinking.

Our students deserve better than this.Too many student are currently sacrificed by a system not conducive to their learning needs.

We now know enough that no learner need fail but only if we, as teachers, change our minds first!

No creative business, with a desire to survive, would talk about 2027, particularly if they had a failure rate of 20%!

Friday, September 14, 2007

Observations of an imaginary creative classroom

Imagine a learning environment dedicated to ensuring that the diverse creativity that lies within every learner is realised.

For longer than I care to remember I have had the opportunity as a school adviser to visits thousands of classrooms.

One of my overriding thoughts has aways been what if we were to capture the innovative ideas that I have seen that are spread across school and, from them, developed a really creative school?

It is only when ideas are seen in practice that they really exist beyond the insights of educational thinkers or even curriculum developers. This is not to discount such thinkers because their wise words have given courage to teachers to try out new ideas. It seems, that over the centuries, such thinkers have tried to put froward an alternative views to challenge the more conservatist traditional views of the 'status quo'. Only slowly do new ideas become acceptable and leading such changes worldwide are the pioneer teachers who 'march to the beat of a different drum'.

There have been eras when the time was right for the development of creative ideas - the 60s is an example some of us remember! The creativity released during such times, however, is soon tempered and tamed. Forces of conservatism soon turn initial excitement into mediocrity. Currently we are escaping an era of mean technocratic accountability which many see as the last beat of a tired and discredited industrial age. Already we hear politicians talking about a 'personalised learning' to replace the 'one size fits all' standardized system we all know so well - and can see represented in any local secondary school.

Maybe the time is right for another outbreak of innovation as we enter what some are calling an 'Age of Creativity' or even 'The Second Renaissance'.

So back to my imaginary classroom - a junior primary room because it is at this level that progressive ideas have become reasonably established.

The first thing that strikes me is the general atmosphere, or climate of the room. And aslo that no one notices my entrance as they are all too busy working at a range of tasks. Nothing unusual about this for many active junior rooms.

A quick glance around the room( writer Malcolm Gladwell believes that all you need is 'blink' to comprehend the value of any situation) illustrates a range of creative products created by the students. A close look shows that these are not the usual mediocrity of the 'over taught' products, all too commonly seen these days. Each piece of work shows the individuality and technical skills of the students who produced them. Art is obviously seen as a vital means of expression in this room. Lots of the painting are about personal events of the children's' own lives complete with poetic captions and they are displayed with obvious respect. This is not so common.

Once the art has been admired my attention is drawn to a range of displays featuring the studies that the class has been studying. It is obvious that a number of the painting have been inspired by aspects of such studies.

Display have large headings written as provocations, 'What do we know about Our Bush?' and key study questions arising from the students themselves. Students' 'prior ideas' and their current theories are also on display along with finished charts and booklet which feature close accurate drawings, digital photos, and their answers to their own questions. A quick read reassures that these have not been simply copied unthinkingly from another source; another all too common practice. The children's work indicates that this teacher takes student initiated research seriously.

This 'inquiry approach' is observed to be common across all curriculum areas inspired by 'rich' intellectual challenges including ones from such areas as maths. Maths is largely integrated into current studies and, if not, is based on exciting maths challenges that capture students curiosity . All students can articulate, in their in their own words, the 'inquiry' approach they use in their learning. These are students in control of their own learning!

I am pleased to note that the programme of the room, 'negotiated' with the students, has not let literacy and numeracy demands become the driving force of the room. 'Learnacy', a word coined by Guy Claxton, is all important along with the need to encourage resilience and the need for students to value effort - this is no 'soft touch' classrooms.

Expectations are high
and the students have plenty of work to show me of how they have improved since the beginning of the year. The quality of their book and chart work is outstanding and illustrates the skill of the teacher who has introduced her students to a range of design and visual presentation skills. Students have been encouraged to 'do fewer things well' and to 'slow the pace' of their work to allow in-depth thinking and reflection - always with the thought of what they might improve on 'next time.'

Another noticeable feature of the room is the amount of observational work on display, once again much of it arising from current studies but it is also obvious that the teacher has a keen eye for 'teachable moments' and seasonal events. Education of the senses is a real feature and often leads of students from observation into imaginative art and poetic thinking. Wonderful stuff.

A quick look at the whiteboard quickly show me that the various blocks of time that make up the day are well defined and allowing for all students to know what, when, and where, they are to do what they have agreed to undertake. The day begins an end with reflective periods to discuss programmes and tasks for the next day. Also on display are various criteria that have negotiated with studnts so they can self assess their own work. These have been carefully written not only to give guidance but also to encourage creativity.

Reading for research is a vital ingredient in the room as indicated by the writing seen in the classes studies and it is an important ongoing aspect of the reading programme. Literature and poetry are also obviously important to encourage students to use imaginative language. The teacher ensures all students who have reading difficulties are 'targeted' for extra help.

What is impressive is the emphasis on the 'learning conversation' with students undertaken by the teacher to help them express their questions, ideas and problems. A lot of these conversation are 'scribed' by the teacher and in turn make up an important aspect of the reading programme. Children's writing, building on the ideas of pioneer teachers, is seen as the students 'first books'. By the use of careful questioning students are encouraged to use imaginative language, the very language seen exhibited on the class walls and study charts.

Integrated into this creative environment is information technology. The programme, as 'negotiated' with the students, ensures that there are aways students busy researching, developing graphical representations, or presenting their findings using the powerful media supplied by computers . Digital cameras seem to be almost indispensable, being used to collect data for studies, to illustrate poetic thoughts, and for the basis for creative art.

The 'wow' factor of the environment was obvious the moment I entered my imaginary room.

And the amazing thing is that nothing I have mentioned is even new. All that needs to be done is for teachers to develop collaborative schools that place all their efforts on creating environments that focus all their energy on developing all the gifts and talents of their students.

The future is already here!

Thursday, September 13, 2007

Philosophy for creative classrooms

In the 60 and 70 the environment was more encouraging for creative teachers. May be it is time to return to the creativity of the 60s but this time do it properly?

Developing classroom's as creative learning environments is a challenge worth taking up as we enter what some are calling a 'New Creative Era' -in some cases comparing it to the Renaissance of the 1400s. Certainly we need to escape from schools 'designed' in, and for, an industrial age with its mass production 'one size fits all 'mentality.

But first we need to think about what true creativity involves.

Being creativity is all too often seen in simplistic terms and as such not taken seriously as numeracy and literacy.

To be creative requires individuals to question everything and to hold on to their well thought out views even if everybody else thinks differently. Creativity is not to be seen restricted to 'crazy' artists, or scientist, but is a trait all humans possess in all fields of endeavour. It is, at its simplest, the basis of the learning process as through experience individuals 'invent' themselves. As well, being creative is not just magically thinking of new ideas out of the blue, it often involves real effort, hard work, perseverance, and time to realize. And, to make things complicated the creative process is often messy and frustrating until realized.

Once these ideas have been comprehended, and shared with, and appreciated by, the parents creative teaching can begin.The promise made to parents is to do everything possible to develop the gifts and talents that their children bring to the school situation and in the process keep alive their joy of learning.

Creative teachers believe it is the students 'right to be able to express their own feelings, to give their views of events, to explain themselves, to reflect on their own behaviour, to have their fears and hopes taken seriously, to ask questions, to seek explanations, to love and be loved, to have their dreams, fantasies and imaginings taken seriously, and to make their own engagement with life.' ( cited in Croft 2000).

Such ideas would transform our education system.

Imagine schools that focus on developing all the gifts and talents of their students.

Imagine schools that focus on using such gifts to drive learning in such areas as literacy and numeracy - that see such skills as means of expressing thoughts ideas and relationship through all sorts of media in ways that make sense to the learner.

students being helped by their teachers to be more curious, to ask nore questions, to value their 'prior ideas' and to have the desire and skills to search for even better answers.

student who have the passion and intellectual courage to defend their ideas, and to work to achieve them, against all odds?

If we want to become a creative country these are the kind of students we need. Students who still retain the joy of learning, no matter the difficulties.

Such an 'enlightened' view of education challenges the current traditional 'status quo' of a system developed for a past industrial age.

Re-imaging education will lead to the 'emergence' of a creative culture
, one with the possibilities of solving problems which today we find impossible.

Schools must be places to allow such creative possibilities to evolve.

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Creative education - a difficult task!

This is a title of a book that celebrates creative teachers in the UK who have had hard times trying to survive under the oppression of an imposed technocratic National Curriculum.

Creative New Zealand teachers, or at least those who would like to be more creative than they are 'allowed', will feel sympathy for such teachers.

All is not lost however, there remain teachers who have done their best to stick to their principles in response to Government and accountability pressures.

Creative teaching is the antithesis of the approach represented by National Curriculums no matter what country you teach in - a look at a range of them will illustrate that they are all based on the same technocratic ideology. Even the 'new' New Zealand Curriculum , a much improved model, will still restrict true creativity and innovation as the technocratic learning objectives have not gone away. As one commentator said, 'it remains a game of two halves' and its success will depend on which game you play!

Creative education is an art form - aesthetic, intuitive and expressive. It represent how life unfolds taking advantage of 'learn able' or 'teachable' moments. This is the sort of teaching we now need to combat the current idea that all learning can be planned, with prior goals, intentions and criteria; by using exemplars; and by a heavy handed emphasis on giving feedback to students. Such ideas, used lightly are an improvement but they will only result in, at best mediocre, thinking. Creativity requires more subtle approach.

Creativity requires that teacher values students ideas, questions, concerns, feelings and emotions by creating an atmosphere that stimulates students' curiosity and imagination.

What we need now, as we leave preplanned industrial thinking and move into a new age of creativity, are teachers with the courage to develop such a creative learning environment.

Such a movement should be based on every students right to develop their innate idiosyncratic set of gifts talents and passions. Perhaps this is the thought behind the now, often used phrase, 'personalised learning'?

A model already exists if one is to observe the creativity and curiosity of students in their early years - young people ( if in the right environment) happily working at the edge of their competence ( Jerome Bruner) making it up as they go along. They use , what some scientists call, 'enlightened trial and error'; keeping what works and applying what they have learnt 'next time'. If these students have supportive and enlightened parents they will get all the support and feed back they need - and their 'mistakes' will be celebrated as they move towards achieving such wonderful skills as walking and talking. And, as they learn, they absorb appropriate behaviours just by simply being in such a rich learning culture.

When they get to school they learn that creativity is no longer the name of the game. Adults now know best and learning is now to be determined and 'measured' by others. The agency for their own learning is whittled away by well meaning teachers and 'their' curriculums will inevitably lead , for some students whose learning needs do not match their teachers plans , to future disengagement and alienation.

With this in mind it was interesting to recently read a comment by Benjamin Bloom who, after he had carried out a study of exceptional people, said, 'great talent is less an individual trait than a creation of an environment and encouragement'. He continued, 'we were looking for exceptional kids and what we found were exceptional conditions.'

Creativity and talent depends on environments that are stimulating, full of things to interest students, and multiple opportunities to explore and express their ideas.

It seems we have based our current approach to teaching on a misconception. Those who teach need to think hard about what kind of people they hope their students will become and then to create the conditions to best develop such individuals. If we want resourceful, imaginative, inventive and ethical citizens, able to make worthwhile contributions to the problem that face us then the answers are obvious -except to those who determine the structures and programmes of our current schools.

If we were to develop such creative learning environments the role of the teacher would have to change. The teachers role is to assist their students in their life long learning adventure not to get in their way with 'our' curriculums. As Jerome Bruner wrote, the creative teachers role is 'the canny art of intellectual temptation.'

Such beliefs would transform our classrooms. The attitudes and skills students bring with them would become the beginning of an ever evolving, or emerging, curriculum, where students would be appreciated for what they can do, demonstrate or express. Creativity not conformity would rule!

Students ought to have the right for their creative thoughts and expression valued and in the process their gifts and talents developed.

Such a creative approach to education would make teaching the most creative and sort after career of all. Such an approach would contribute to a new vision of what humans could become - people who are valued for their imagination, resilience, sensitivity, and ethical considerations.

Such an enlightened vision of education would make schools into our greatest achievement of all times; centres to develop a new consciousness of what being human could be - people who are able to add to the social and intellectual capital of society

As we enter what some are calling the 'Second Renaissance',or 'The Age of Creativity'; it would seem we have no choice.

At least creative teachers could make a start.

Saturday, September 08, 2007

What matters is creativity.

I think it is safe to say that there are plenty of intelligent people around these days but it is important to appreciate that intelligence and creativity are two different things.

Intelligent action leads to things being done well, to qualitative improvements, but does not always lead to facing up to real change - for this to happen you need to apply imagination and creativity. The trouble is our society and our schools seem to favour intelligence in the narrow sense and, as a result, creative individuals often find it hard to have their ideas listened to let alone accepted. I guess this has always been the case. The power of the 'status quo' has an inertia that is hard to overcome. And people who 'rock the boat' all to often get thrown off. Traditional and blind habit are hard to overcome as they are the very things that keep 'us' from falling apart - or at least keep those with the power in power!

The trouble is that as we enter, what some call the 'Second Renaissance' , or the Age of Creativity', what we need desperately are those with the courage to think differently about the problems we face before we are overwhelmed .

So while smart people are a dime a dozen what truly matters is creativity. As Albert Einstein said , 'Imagination is more important than knowledge.'

Einstein, along with other creative individuals , is worth a study to see what attributes we need to encourage if we really value the importance of new ideas. It is interesting to realize that a great number of creative individual, in a,wide range of fields, did not do well at school and have survived because they were driven by a passion that overcame all obstacles.

Einstein rebelled against rote learning and is was this attitude towards accepted authority that made into the genius he was. Today many students are quickly labelled with ADD ( Attention Deficit Disorder) or worse ODD ( Oppositional Defiance Disorder). As a result, since they can't apply their attention to often irrelevant and boring lessons, are seen behavioural problems. The worst cases are placed on Ritalin to keep them docile. It might be that schools are dysfunctional?

Our success as a nation will not depend on just on how well our students read and write and jump through the various achievement hurdles we set for them by their teachers, it will depend more on their passion for some aspect of learning ( their talents and gifts), their imagination and their creativity. And of course their courage, resilience and perseverance.

All of which Einstein had.

Einstein, contrary to popular myth, was not poor at maths at school but he was slow to learn to talk. This combined with cheeky rebelliousness towards authority led to one of his teachers sending him out of his class and another declaring he would never amount to much. Many successful people who failed school have had similar experiences! Later , at University, he alienated most of his professors and was the only one not to be offered a professorship. He struggled to find work, eventually finding a job in the Swiss Patent Office but it was this job that gave him time to challenge current thinking and develop his own theories.

Ironically these traits have made Einstein the patron saint of distracted students everywhere but they also made him the genius he was.

His cocky contempt for authority led him to question received wisdom. His slow verbal skills led him to thinking in pictures and to observe the wonders of the everyday phenomena that others took for granted. Schools it seem still fit those students with verbal rather than visual or artistic skills. For students with an intense curiosity and need to question must find schools impossible.

Einstein is reputed to have said, ,'Long live impudence, it is my guardian angel in the world.' Not an attribute we value these days.

If we are to value creativity, and to develop a generation of creative students, we have to ensure our schools nurture imagination and even rebelliousness. At least we need to ensure that every students desire to ask questions and exercise curiosity is never sidelined by a dull conformity and acceptance of authority.

These attributes are the well springs of genius and our survival in an Age of Creativity. Intelligence by itself will never be enough.

Monday, September 03, 2007

A neat little 'mini study' -Camellias and Tea

My favourite camellia: Guilio Nuchio.

Spring seems to have arrived in my garden. The camellia are beginning to flower along with the magnolia, the kowhai and the Taiwan cherries. The later are attracting the tuis, busy feeding themselves on the available nectar. For those interested there are ideas for kowhai studies in earlier blogs.

Most schools have camellias nearby to visit or flowers can be brought from home to observe in class.

Using an interactive, or co-constructivist approach, teachers can set about learning about camellias with their students as co-inquires, or scientists; they might even like to introduce the word botanist - scientists who study plant life. A co-constructivist approach allows teachers the benefit of not having to know content beforehand and is, because of this, liberating.

A few ideas to start.

Take digital photos of flowers to display. Students can capture images from home using their own digital cameras or cell phones. Put a heading on the classroom wall: 'What do we know about Camellias?' With students develop a range of questions for students to research. Are camellias natives and if not why not? Where did they came from? How come there are so many different types of flowers ( leading into how gardeners 'breed' plants)? Later on students will realize there are main types of camellias ; there might be local expert who might be willing to share his or her knowledge.

For science a flower could be drawn carefully (or a digital photo taken).A leaf could be measured and the average length and width could be worked out for maths. Finally a description could made of the plant if in the school grounds. The idea of evergreen and deciduous might also be introduced.

Have a display of named camellias in saucers - for the school foyer? Vote for the 'best' one; graph results.

This simple plant study approach could be used with any plant.

Students could also write poetic thoughts about the camellia. One idea is to write one thought about the plant itself, one thought about the flower and, perhaps, one thought about how they feel about camellias. This would make simple three line poems, or haiku, which could also be displayed on the wall.

It would be fun for the teacher to introduce the idea that tea is made from the leaves of a kind of camellia. ( Tea:Camellia sinensis) If this were done it would lead the study into interesting fields. There is an interesting book about tea by Susette Goldsmith , 'Tea, Potted History of Tea in New Zealand', that would make a great student or teacher resource. Tea was first used in China 4000 years ago. The history of tea and its importance at first to the English; the history of the tea clippers ( sailing ships); learning about different types of teas could all be researched. Students could even make 'billy tea'.

Tea bags themselves could be studied to see how the tea infuses into water. No doubt researching the Internet would provide all sorts of interesting ideas. What are the favourite teas of their parents. How many tea bags would a family use in year?

From camellias to making tea.

Such a simple study can lead into a range of learning area.

And if students appreciate camellias a little more as a result that would be worthwhile in itself.

And, who knows, a few future botanists might well have been inspired.