Thursday, May 29, 2008

Learning is the thing!

I happened to read Mary Chamberlain's speaking notes of a presentation she gave to the 2008 Rotorua Learning@School Conference. Mary is the Ministry Curriculum Manager, or some similar grand title.

I have listened to Mary myself and she has a personable style that appeals to teachers so I was interested to read what she was currently saying to teachers in relation to the 'new' New Zealand Curriculum.

Essentially it was an opportunity for her to share how vital the key competencies are as they relate to realizing the intent of the 'new' New Zealand Curriculum.

What makes each of us 'open the door to learning', quoting her mother, is 'how successful we are at learning and how well we have developed the competencies outlined in the curriculum'. I dislike the term 'key competence's as it reminds me of the industrial age but they certainly aren't anything new, no matter how much the Ministry would like us to think they are.

Acquiring these competencies, she believes, 'influence who we become'.

I think this is nonsense. Who we become is influenced by the talents, gifts and passion we develop that drive us to learn more - the competencies are a means to an end. We are driven by an evolutionary curiosity to make meaning of our experiences. As we explore we focus on the things that really interest us us, and as our interest grows we get better at whatever it is we like doing.

Helping each learner discover and amplify their innate talents is the role of the teacher. Obviously process and product are both important but learning is driven by interests and curiosity and it must result in being able to do something ( performing), knowing and understanding.

Creative schools ought to spend their time working out how that can develop an 'attractive' provocative curriculum that will challenge students and give then the opportunity to develop whatever talents they have - and at the same time the key competencies that will be required. The most creative school will develop learning environments that encourages students to ask their own questions and research areas of interest that appeal to them. Innovative teachers can easily ensure that 'official' requirements are covered!

'Teaching', wrote Jerome Bruner,'is the canny art of intellectual temptation. An 'emergent' curriculum, arising from students concerns and interests, is rich, real and relevant and solves the problem of engagement.

This approach represented the best of creative New Zealand teaching that has been all but lost with the imposition of the incoherent standardised curriculum with all their levels, strand and learning objectives. It is worth keeping in mind this incoherent mess was foisted on us by the same Ministry of Education!

Don't get me wrong the New Zealand Curriculum is giant step forwards - or backwards, from the previous technocratic accountability model. The idea that 'schools have the flexibility to design their own curriculum with their own students at heart' should be taken advantage of but it once what we all believed in.

The 'reinvention' of pedagogy is also welcome, even if the co-constructivist model is only implicit. No matter. I like what Mary says about, ' at heart the teachers role is about learning that expands possibilities students see for themselves and expanding their emotional and intellectual resources so they can live life to the full.' Mary feels the key competencies will do this. I feel it will be providing rich, real and relevant studies to inspire students and to develop whatever talents students have. Competencies are nothing new and are implicit in any worthwhile learning challenge. Later she does say that learning areas are as important as competencies but I think not.

Mary placed great emphasis on the traditional values of effort and perseverance. Ironically the rush to cover the past Ministry curriculums that were 'an inch deep and mile wide' has pushed these important values out of teachers minds. Anyone who understands creativity knows it aways involves such values.

I have to agree with Mary than 'we need to go beyond brain gym, mind maps, learning styles and thinking hats' but I part company with her when she includes multiple intelligences. Developing students talents and gifts is the heart of real learning. When I visit classrooms to see examples of what some call, 'higher learning teaching' (HOTS), all see is 'thin learning; real content being lost in the emphasis on process. And learning is more than setting goals, to persist, to work with others etc it must be about something worthwhile. But knowing what to do when you don't know what to do is obviously a very important 'mindset' - 'can do kids'. But we all know this - or used to.

Mary sends a long time taking about the role of the teachers as a diagnostic learning coach providing focused feedback. But once again creative teachers know this, but is good advice.

It is almost as if the Ministry had 'rediscovered' learning after having diverted themselves, and schools, with less educational goals
. There must have been some value for them from their 'best evidence' research - it has uncovered the obvious.

It is also great to see that Mary has listened to Guy Claxton with his idea of 'learning power', 'learning conversations', resilience, resourcefulness,relationships and reflection - that 'learnacy' is more important that literacy and numeracy ( or use of computers). His ideas are compatible with the creative teaching New Zealand was once recognised for.

I guess I am just reminding teachers that developing fascinating learning projects, that are in tune with student's developmental needs, are as important as the key competencies, or learning how to learn. As Elwyn Richardson used to say, 'a study without real content is a study at risk'; or runs the risk of being 'anti intellectual' according to Kelvin Smythe.

I don't think Mary would disagree. Her challenge is to ensure we are all as excited about key competencies as the Ministry is. She will have hard job convincing me.

I did like her quoting, from Margaret Carr and Guy Claxton, that classroom environments can range from 'prohibitive' to student learning, to 'inviting' and, better still, 'potentiating', ones where learning is both appealing and challenging. Classrooms where teachers use 'split screen thinking', one one hand stretching students capacity to learn at the same time as they are developing deeper understanding of important content

It is, as Mary concludes, all about developing an openness and a capacity to learn.

And I agree with Mary, that 'mindsets' will have to change if this is to be realized
so that all students leave with their innate learning dispositions still intact able to thrive in a complex world of excitement and uncertainty.

If this does then then the intent of the new New Zealand Curriculum will have been realized.

The exciting area to explore new mindsets will be in secondary schools. When they are transformed from their industrial aged structures and cultures the revolution will have begun.

It began a long time ago with creative teacher in primary schools.


Anonymous said...

I think you are right.The Ministry has a memory lapse about anything before 'Tomorrows Schools'. As well they see no irony that the problems we are having in education are of their own making. At least 'their' new curriculum gives creative schools a chance - but the 'key competencies are nothing new - just new words for old ideas. What drives people to learn is the issue - once engaged competencies will develop and make learning easier next time.

Bruce Hammonds said...

To be honest I don't think Mary Chamberlain ever believed in the 90s 'nightmarish', technctic accountblity model, of strands, levels and learning objectives, but she couldn't possibly say that? The 'new' curriculum , new, because for many of us with longer memories, it is a bit 'back to the future'. At least is being led by educational 'dreams' that place greater professional trust in the hands of teachers. To confuse the issue there are the traditional public( state) schools, mostly single sexed, that never even really took part in any changes, locked as they are in an older transmission concept of schooling.

Bruce Hammonds said...

I appreciated Mary sending me an e-mail say she was pleased I was 'still at it'! Did she think I had gone away I wonder?