Friday, January 18, 2008

The power of learning conversations

The discovery of a wasp nest provides ideal inspiration for a focused learning conversation ; one that deepens, in the process, the learner's knowledge and also the teacher's appreciation of the students thinking.

Our current school system is still trapped in the grips of objectivity. When it comes to assessing students personal or research writing predetermined rubrics, or criteria, are used to assess the quality of student efforts.

The trouble is that these rubrics, even if they are negotiated with the students, as they ought to be, can blind teachers to important idiosyncratic or creative features.

Van Gogh never made it into the Academy in his day because his art wasn't up to current expectations! The same could be said for a number of creative thinkers in a range of fields. Stravinsky's Rites of Spring was laughed at in 1914 because it bore no resemblance to the tastes of the day.

Too many students in our school fail to appreciate the power of their own thoughts because of such faulty measurement ideas. This loss of 'voice' leads, for some students, to disillusionment with their school experience and, in some cases, develops into an anti learning identity compounding into social isolation.

Such students, if they were to be asked, would say no one cares about what we really think; teachers don't listen to us a common complaint.

This needn't be so.

Teachers need to treat this so called objectivity ( which distances them from their students) with care and come along side their learner to hear what their students really think and then to interact with them to help them clarify their thoughts.

By doing this they would gain the trust and respect of their students and, in the process, learn a lot about how their students think.More so for students who are showing signs of disengaging themselves from learning process.

Learning is about satisfying curiosity and making meaning by constructing or expressing ideas that make sense to them.

The trouble is that for too long teachers subjectivity has been neglected as the reliance on objective testing has become the norm; this situation is seen at its worst in the United States. As well the simplicity of testing has an unfortunate appeal to politicians and parents.

Teachers need to trust their own perceptions and professionalism ( wisdom) and focus on developing a greater appreciation of how students learn, the dynamics of the creative thinking and their role in the process.

There are still creative teachers about for them to learn from.

Just by including originality into current rubrics would make difference if they want to avoid the blandness that results from rubric overuse. Currently compliant students may score highly because they cover all the criteria but what results may not be inspiring or memorable - and, worse still, like Van Gogh, vice versa.

Student creative thinking, in any field, should be appreciated holistically before looking for particular attributes. It takes judgement to see the value in what students at first present but by coming alongside the learner, and entering in a respectful conversation, such germs of ideas can be developed into major pieces of creative thinking.

In this process meaning and value 'evolves' through the collaborative relationship that develops between the teacher and the student. What finally 'emerges' may surprise both of them.

By such means assessment is integral to the process. The Latin root of the word assessment is to sit beside. Teachers who make the time to sit down with their students to listen and question, in order to help gain a better view of student needs.

The dialogue is the assessment.

The process used can be seen in positive conversations where perspectives are shared and responded to and in the process the two perspectives are blended often resulting in ideas only dimly appreciated beforehand. Through such conversations new insights are developed and minds literally changed.

This process is in contrast to a strict use of criteria to mark work. It is a 'personalised' subjective approach that depends on the teacher's skill to see value in the half formed ideas of their students.

The teacher's role is just as creative as the students.

The creative thinking that results, whether in science,mathematics art, dance or language, is the 'proof of the pudding' - not ticking off lists of criteria.

This approach symbolizes the 'artistry' of teaching and is not to be reduced to a list of key indicators on a teacher's performance appraisal.

It is about the power respectful relationships of teachers towards their students; teachers' whose challenge is to continually improve their insight in how to respond to their students efforts sympathetically.


Anonymous said...

I think you are making a very important point here. All too often teachers seem more interested in the criteria than the 'power' of the writing or art. And a close look at research writing usually shows no real research at all - just copying of material.

An emphasis on 'learning conversations' would make real difference if teachers are after thoughtful expression of ideas.

Anonymous said...

Interactive teaching, inquiry learning, the strength of the learner's voice. Wonder how many teachers currently really know what it is all about!

Bruce Hammonds said...

Not much I fear. Teachers have been distracted, trying to implement less important imposed ideas. The past decades have been about compliance not student creativity. Sadly it is the teachers who have lost their 'voice' in this process.