Sunday, June 29, 2008

Creative teaching - timeless

Elwyn Richardson - pioneer New Zealand creative teacher 1950-60s. Forget the research and current conformist 'best practice', go back and see what teachers like Elwyn did that we have forgotten about.

According to Kelvin Smythe, and I agree with him, creative 'teaching in its fundamentals has hardly changed, nor is it likely to change.' Kelvin has written widely about Elwyn Richardson, a pioneer New Zealand teacher from the 1950/60s on his site and, for those curious, it is well worth reading what he has to say.

While schools rush to get on board the 'new' New Zealand Curriculum Kelvin offers a critical and informed voice. Along with people like myself Kelvin believes strongly in the creativity of classroom teachers - creativity he feels that has been put at risk by the obsessive assessment requirements, and the demands of impossible standardized curriculums, imposed during the 90s. Ironically the Ministry is now 'rescuing' us from such demands( imposed by themselves) with their 'new' curriculum!

The four characteristics, according to Kelvin, of Elwyn's teaching were his:

Attentiveness and sensitivity to the responses of children.

His demand for children to be rigorous in their observations, thinking, and expression.

The way he linked thinking with imagination.

And his determination to work things out for himself.

I would add a fifth;

The immediate environment was seen as an important resource to explore leading into both artistic expression and scientific study.

Elwyn' curriculum 'emerged' out of a mix of student and environmental interests but the key to it was for students to be encouraged to express their 'voice' and create works of outstanding quality and diversity.

Elwyn, a biologist by training, saw his students as teaching him as much as he taught them.

Kelvin writes, as society becomes more technocratic, pressured, and impersonal, and less beguiling- there will be greater demand for teaching about creativity and expression.

As we leave the Industrial Age and enter, what some call 'The Age of Creativity', or the 'Second Renaissance, it will be important to make certain all all students have their personal skills and talents developed because these are the very things that will ensure they will be able to thrive in the future.

Kelvin makes the point that we do not have to go to America's Howard Gardner, and the like to seek inspiration so as to develop programmes that feature creative expression we have out own heritage and icons. Personally Howard Gardner is one American educator I really like as he challenges the traditional one dimensional academic approach to learning but I take Kelvin's point. All too often when visiting New Zealand classrooms you see evidence of all sorts of thinking processes but all too often little real quality work to show for it. Process and product are intertwined but sometimes you get the impression all students need is process - knowledge can be gained as required.

Elwyn's approach, when it was finally accepted by authorities as 'best practice', influenced a great many teachers throughout New Zealand and worldwide.

There is, writes Kelvin, a universality about Elwyn's creative approach and it does not preclude the use of information technology not available at the time to Elwyn. Elwyn was a great fan of the printing press as a means to share his students art , research ad language work.

We need to be careful with the current obsession with imposed 'best practice' and be more concerned about creating our own ever changing 'best practices'. By all means be 'informed' by research but not 'led'; we need to use professional judgement as to how value it is in your circumstances - research is never as objective as it claims to be and you ought to know your classroom best! As with Elwyn, we need to work things out for ourselves!

I know, from my own experience visiting school, such teachers still exist. Perhaps with 'new' curriculum giving 'permission' such teachers now have the opportunity to expand their creativity if they have the courage to take it.

What is really required is courageous and creative school leadership to create the conditions for both staff and students to develop their talents, gifts and passions.

Better still would be for groups of school to work together sharing the expertise of their own teachers.

If this were to be achieved then the work of pioneer teachers, such as Elwyn Richardson, would live on.

Friday, June 27, 2008

Do we really need selfish capitalism?

New Zealand -at the edge of great possibilities or a winner loser unsustainable society?

With the election coming up isn't it time to consider what kind of country we want to become before we actually vote?

What is needed is a 'national conversation' about future scenarios, or possibilities, or we will get what we are given. It would have been a great idea to bring together a wide range of respected non partisan citizen to consider issues facing our country. This is what happened in Australia, but after the election - a lite bit too late to help educate the people about the threats and possibilities that confronts their nation?

In New Zealand we have two choices it seems. To elect the current opposition, which seems to have no policies but in effect would reintroduce the 'Selfish Capitalism' of Market Forces, or to elect the current government, simplistically seen by many people as representing a 'nanny state'.

Is it too late to clarify what the real issues are and the consequence of electing a neo-conservative government?

People seem not to recognise the very real positive polices the current government has introduced, nor to remember the consequences of a 'winner loser' society that the current government has done its best to recover from. The issue is confused because it was the current government that originally introduced many of the failed privatisation policies!

People need to appreciate that the choice is between two easily understood alternatives: 'Selfish Capitalism' or 'Caring Capitalism'. Simplistically the 'look after me first' tax issue versus the 'nanny state'.

The issue facing the government is to redefine the unpopular phrase 'nanny state' and to highlight the consequences of a return to selfishness.

The derisionary 'nanny state' phrase needs to be seen positively as caring for all in society so all can contribute to developing New Zealand being recognised worldwide as a positive country fit for all.

A book worth reading by those who want to explore such issues is 'The Selfish Capitalist' by Oliver James
. 'Selfish Capitalism', introduced in the 70s, was based on the idea that privatisation would free initiative and enterprise and create wealth which would 'trickle down' to better the conditions of all. We all know the results - the rich got richer and the poor got poorer.

The book points out that in the countries that introduced such polices, and New Zealand was a leader in this development, have now the highest rates of emotional distress in their citizens caused by massive inequalities and insecure working conditions ( World Health Organisation research 2004). NZ is second only to the USA - and appallingly we are second only to the USA in incarceration rates. Is this the kind of country we want to be seen as?

'Selfish Capitalism' is an ideology based on materialism, consumerism and freedom from state interference for big business to focus on making money for their shareholders. Interestingly the countries that have avoided emotional distress are the 'Caring Capitalist' higher tax paying countries of Western Europe and Japan. Frighteningly our stress rates have doubled since the 70s!

Along with mental distress everyone must be aware of the breakdown in the fabric of society that is best seen in South Auckland. More needs to be done to provide equity in such communities but a return to self capitalism will provide few options, except 'boot camps' for offender and more gaols.

The book points out that individualism, materialism and consumerism has not provided, even for the so called successful, positive feelings. The books thesis is that 'Selfish Capitalism' encourages distress. The simple solution is to 'continue with the long journey towards societies that put well being of all before the wealth of a minority'. This is the truth hidden behind the derisionary use of the phrase 'nanny state' by those who are encouraged to see themselves as future 'winners' able to pursue more and more material things! Such pursuit of material status is associated with risks of depression, anxiety, substance abuse and obsessive self centeredness.

As a country we need to put the well being of all above individual greed
; healthy communities above the needs , or greeds, of short term individual wealth. This must be the new interpretation of 'nanny state' as Caring Capitalism'. An alternative that develops greater poverty for some families is creating future problems for all. Resentment and alienation, as we are all well aware, will aways find ways to be expressed.

That many of the problem we are suffering are not seen in the Western European democracies must be worth bringing to the attentions of all? These countries did not introduce 'me first' inequalities of free market 'Selfish Capitalism' holding to beliefs of the importance of the well being of all. In such successful countries 50% more is spent per capita on welfare and health - where they see the state as more than a safety net; where everybody has right to participate in the economy.

Once this 'Caring Capitalism' was the image many held of New Zealand.

Just as we are moving to recapture this image it is now to be put at risk in the coming election 'Caring Capitalism' being demeaned by the phrase 'nanny state!

Can we afford to return to pursuing an unequal society based on personal wealth sacrificing those unable to cope in 'uneven playing field' where 'trickle down' is a myth?

The solution is simple. As citezins we must becme aware of the real challenges we all face. The ideals of 'Caring Capitalism' needs to replace the unhelpful phrase 'nanny state'. 'Caring Capitalism' is the only real alternative to hollow materialism. Being rich, people need reminding, is not as important as developing a country that meets the needs of all its citizens.

People must be reminded of the consequences of electing toxic 'Selfish Capitalists'.

What kind of country we want to become is the important issue of the upcoming election.

Monday, June 23, 2008

Lester Flockron.Nothing wrong with being critical!

Lester Flockton Research Fellow and Co- director of the University of Otago Educational Assessment Unit. Lester has contributed to many educational projects including the recent New Zealand Curriculum.

I have aways enjoyed listening to Lester's Flockton's views on the New Zealand educational scene. He is one of the few people who is both respected by the Ministry for his expertise and able to be critical of the Ministry as well. This is something I certainly have never enjoyed!

With this in mind it was great to read his comments in a recent New Zealand Principal's Magazine where he was encouraging principals to develop critical reflective thinking about what is 'put before us from on high, or the latest offering from theorists, researchers, policy pushers, advisers, consultants, programme package purveyors and the like'. 'Such people', Lester reminds us, 'often have claims that are incomplete in their perspectives and insights about the working of schools and classrooms'.

As a person who has aways believed that lasting educational innovation always evolves from the efforts of pioneer creative teachers, and not from 'distant experts' whose advice has little to do with 'real time schools', Lester's advice aligns with my own.

The only advice that is worth listening to is advice that, after full consideration, you can turn down; saying no can be a creative act.

Educationalist Michel Fullan has written that 'central governments aways get it wrong' and his advice is worth remembering. Where the Ministry see themselves as 'up with the play' in most cases they are are saving schools from their own previous bad decisions. The current 'new' New Zealand Curriculum is a case in point, an attempt to correct their past misguided effort's.

Lester wisely suggest that we need to reflect carefully on the 'over stated claims' based on this thing called 'evidence'. It is almost impossible these days to avoid 'evidence based', or 'best practice' whatever, in any Ministry document! 'Best practice', when imposed through heavy handed contracts, can 'mutate' into, what educationalist Dean Fink calls, 'educational sects' that make it all but impossible for teachers to develop new creative approaches. If we are to be creative then there will be times that we can't wait for the 'evidence'. Schools must feel free to create their own 'best practice' through their own actions. Such an approach is what some scientists call, 'enlightened trial and error' - or simply common sense.

Lester is careful not to say don't listen to statements like, 'research says', or 'research tells us', but he reminds us that research is 'only part of the story'. Our teaching ought to be 'research informed' not 'research led'. 'All together', Lester says,' educational research has become absurd, out of harmony with good judgement'.

It is with this in mind that Lester believes that it is important that principals exercise critical thinking able to, 'mediate the messages of others in the light of experience, maturity, healthy dollops of common sense, commitment to beliefs, values and aspirations'.

This, Lester says, is all about 'the grit of honesty and integrity' and 'professional judgement'.

The imposed compliance, curriculum and assessment required of schools these past decades have put these qualities at risk.

What is now required, and the opportunity has been given to schools by the 'new' New Zealand Curriculum, is courageous leadership.

It will not be easy to be critical because criticism is not always be accepted by those in power. 'Being critical',Lester writes, 'ought not to be confused with being negative'. There is nothing wrong with saying no if it allows the school to focus on what the school thinks is important or to conserve teacher energy.

It is important for schools to be reflectively critical so as to weigh up what the school is currently doing and to consider whether what is being suggested will add to what is already being done. It is obviously important to question and to weigh up the benefits of any advice.

Lester concludes by stating those who are in the best position to lead the direction of schools are the school leaders themselves.

But, he asks, is this the case? Do leaders 'indiscriminately trail behind so-called gurus and experts who proclaim' that this is the next best thing? Are principals too much 'under the influence'? I would add, as another leadership issue, under the influence of past unquestioned assumptions and structures.

Perhaps the important questions to reflect on are: what is the role of education in a society that is suffering the stresses of 'selfish' materialism and environmental despoliation; are our school outdated?; and do we need to transform our school to meet the needs and to develop the unique talents of our students? Leaders need to reflect on such issues rather than focusing on narrowly based school defined achievement?

What changes do schools need to make to ensure a safer, fairer and more sustainable world?

What we we really need the moral educational leadership by school principals that is asked of us by Michael Fullan.

I apologize if I have misinterpreted Lester's ideas. Read his unadulterated comments in the June Principals Magazine!

Thursday, June 19, 2008

The only way to change your mind.

With the aid of a digital camera a visiting teacher collects 'evidence' of quality teaching ideas. Back at school teachers reflect on the visit and consider what ideas the school might implement.

I have aways believed the best way for a teacher develop ideas is to learn off creative fellow teachers. Inspirational teachers as leaders has been ignored as in recent decades as teacher have been encouraged to implement 'best practice' ideas 'delivered' by contracted advisers.

The way teachers interact with their students during the school day depend on the beliefs they hold about teaching and learning.

All too often the assumptions teachers hold are never questioned making it difficult for teachers to evaluate and accept new ideas.

All learning involves changing ones mind but to do this you must be able to articulate what it is you, and your fellow teachers, believe. Following this an openness to new ideas is vital for any learners future success. Learners who are overwhelmed with imposed expectations, or fear failing, easily 'turn' off learning or, in the current terminology, become 'disengaged'.

The best way to change ones mind is to see for yourself what others who are developed exciting ideas. Visiting other schools that have developed worthwhile ideas are by far the best source of inspiration.

For several decades I have had the privilege of taking groups of teachers to observe quality teaching in selected schools in my own area. Such visits involve considerable expense and time and so it is important that schools selected that are worth the visit. There is no point in visiting to see a school that is doing much the same as your own. The schools I choose are ones well known to me that reflect ideas that fit in well with my own beliefs. Obviously there are other schools in our area with things to share but I can only visit schools with confidence that are known to me.

Selecting schools to visit requires some thought so as to be worth the expense. That schools continue to visit schools I am associated with suggests that valuable ideas have been gained.

As mentioned visiting inspirational schools is a far better professional development than implementing imposed 'best practices or' contracts 'delivered' by people who have themselves never put such ideas into practice. Even reading 'best evidence research', cannot match the reality of seeing for yourself creative teachers in action.

This week I watched a group of teachers visit two selected quality teaching and learning schools that I had selected. They had been told about why they might see but it was only when they visited real teachers, with real students, that the ideas became exciting.

The foyers of both schools indicted that something different was in store for them. A short introduction to the school by the principal set the scene but it was the classrooms that made the 'eyes light up'. We visited every classroom to show it was a whole school approach but it was almost impossible to keep the visiting teachers moving as they did their best to absorb, and photograph, what they were experiencing.

Each room visited had the 'wow' factor with quality displays of students research, language and art work. The current class study was an obvious feature of all room each with impressive headings, key questions and finished work. Teacher blackboards were equally impressive with clearly defined tasks, goals and group organisation patterns. With closer observation the visiting teachers were impressed with the quality of students thinking and presentation seen in the individual student books and research charts. What they commented on, in every room, was the 'engagement' of the students.

All the above is the result of clearly thought out school philosophies, or belief system, 'owned' by all teachers.

Such schools are 'philosophy led'. Although they implement the imposed expectations of 'evidence based teaching' and 'best practices' these are secondary to the power of their shared beliefs. Both schools have defined clear expectations in their literacy and numeracy programmes, but they have ensured that such programmes have not 'gobbled up the rest of the curriculum'.

Both schools, while having clearly defined, and owned' shared expectations value the individual creativity of their teachers and students.

Such a visit confirms that it is creative schools and teachers we should be looking towards for developing teacher professionalism, and not taking advice from those distant from the reality of the classroom.

It will be interesting to see what evolves when the teachers return to their own school. One thing is certain, the visit will make a difference.

Thursday, June 12, 2008

The next big step in the school change process!

Ever wondered about what an ideal school might be like from your point of view? And what you might say to prospective students, parents and teachers to get them to come along on the adventure? Those in power who try to transform the system have failed, maybe it is your turn?

Schooling as we know it is essentially conservative. The pressures on teachers , real or imagined, are so strong that little seems to have changed over the years.

But there have been real changes if only in the primary years but secondary schools still teach 'five subjects hourly each day', according to a local principal. Maybe the recent government requirement to ensure all students are in schooling, or training, up until the age of 18, will create the pressure to change that so far has been resisted?

I began primary schooling in the 50s. From this perspective primary schooling has changed dramatically. In my day primary schooling wasn't to different from secondary. A lot of sitting still in desks, listening to the teacher, copying things down and the use of the strap but, after World War Two, change was in the air.

When I began teaching in the 60s liberal ideas, introduced by pioneer teachers in the 50s, were beginning to change the face of primary teaching. By the 70s things had changed dramatically. students worked in groups and learning was 'individualised' (if not 'personalised'). Innovative schools introduced integrated or related arts programmes breaking down the tyranny of timetabling. Today, even the promise of technology, hasn't really changed schooling since those heady days.

The lack of real change is not due to a shortage of innovative ideas to make use, both within New Zealand, and worldwide. It seems there simply is a lack vision and educational leadership at all levels. Once again it is time for pioneer teachers to lead the way - or preferably pioneer schools - or, even better still, groups of collaborating schools.

A key phrase in the 'new' New Zealand Curriculum
, for me, is for teachers to ensure all students become 'active seekers, users and creators of their own knowledge'.

'Personalisation' is another key idea - tailoring education so as to develop the 'gifts, talents, passion and dreams' of all students.

If I were in position to make changes I would premise education on the following hardly original thoughts but, if they were to be implemented, would transform schooling.

From the beginning education should be seen as a partnership between the learner, the parents, the teacher and the school. The student's potential needs to be central. 'Learnacy' ( the desire to learn) must come before literacy and numeracy. The education system should be premised on the challenge of tapping into the talents and interests of all learners above all else so as to retain the joy of learning. Once the joy of anything is lost - reading and maths are two such areas, learning is lost.

All teaching must focus on developing in every learner a positive learning identity, or attitude, towards learning. With this in mind a profile of interests and potential talents needs to be introduced from day one ( involving parents) and evolve and deepen throughout the students life, leading to future occupations and leisure activities.

To achieve this classrooms would need to centre around each student's questions, ideas and personal concerns. From this an 'evolutionary' curriculum would 'emerge'. As well teachers would need to present 'rich' learning challenges, making full use of the immediate environment, to 'attract' learners attention and curiosity. Students need to be exposed to all the values and key ideas that future citizens need to have an appreciation of. To achieve both quality thinking and 'products' would require students to 'do fewer thing well'.

Students, as 'seekers, users and creators of the own knowledge', need to also become their own judges of quality; aways aiming to beat their 'personal best' and to focus on what they need to do 'next time' to improve. Nothing teachers do must distract the students drive to make meaning of their experiences, or their responsibility to be in control of their own learning.

The teacher's role in such a personalised learning community will be more vital than ever. Not only will teachers need to have an appreciation of the range of human talents ( by making use of multiple intelligences ideas of Howard Gardner) they need to ensure all students achieve the basic skills of literacy and numeracy in ways that preserve student's joy of learning. This will naturally integrate the use of information technology as a powerful learning and expressive tool, along with the other equally important expressive arts. Teachers need to see themselves as diagnostic learning coaches whose success will be judged by student attitudes as much as by their achievements.

All such learning will not only develop whatever talents each individual student has but also the 'learning how to learn' meta cognitive and inquiry skills.

All the ideas above by themselves anything new but, if implemented, from early childhood ( where they are most commonly to be found) through primary up into secondary and tertiary levels they would transform education as we know it. As students grow older the challenges to transform schooling becomes more difficult. Traditional structures and mindsets of teachers at this level are not aways conducive to change.

The 'engagement of all learners' is as vital.if all students are to leave school as 'life long learners' with all the appropriate 'competencies' in place somethings have to change.

The answer is a system based on preserving, in all student, a joy of learning and a desire to continually expand their horizons. If so a system of education, premised on developing each learners special set of gifts and talents, is urgently required.

This would take us on from the gains made in primary and early education in the 70s. If not it will remain a half realized revolution.

We can't continue to tinker with a system developed in, and for, a past industrial age; a system that is well past used its 'use by date'. If we are to thrive, individually and as a nation, in an environment based on a fast pace of evolutionary change, we have no choice. This is particularly so in a environment at risk, full of what seems impossible social and environmental challenges, that simply can't be solved with 'old minds'.

'We need new minds for a new millennium'.

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Developing a personalised talent based programme

Student engaged in close observation as part of her research study.

'Every teacher has had the satisfaction of seeing a child 'turn on' to a topic or school experience that demonstrates the true joy and excitement of learning ' says Joseph Renzulli of the US National Research Centre of Gifted and Talented.

Many teachers wonder why these 'high points' don't occur more often; why students are not more engaged in highly positive learning experiences? In contrast teachers are all too aware of student boredom and lack of interest which all to often results in 'difficult' behaviour.

The problem is, according to Renzulli, that teachers do not have the time to tap into potential student interests and talents. All to often teacher energy is dissapated by, 'delivering' imposed curriculum's, by assessment and achievement pressures; and by pressure to 'target' literacy and numeracy areas.

To engage students schools need to focus on developing attractive problem centred learning as a priority. To do this requires students to acquire the vital skills of problem finding and focusing, stating research questions, understanding the tasks selected, identifying appropriate resources ( including web based sites), understanding investigative methods, and research writing skills. And such studies need to result in producing quality products to realistic audiences.

Such a change of emphasis would create schools as exiting learning centres but it would require a dramatic change of 'mindsets' for many teachers. It asks teachers to place talent development and joy of learning ahead of literacy and numeracy.

The first step would be to create a personalised profile for each learner of their strengths, interests, learning styles or preferences, including, naturally, literacy and numeracy. Such a profile would indicate areas of personal interest that students might like to pursue in greater depth. Groups of students will be identified who share the similar interests.

The beginning of the year, as part the parent interview process, would be an appropriate time to gather information from parents about their children's interests and talents. Each year the profile could be added to and each student could keep their profile on a school website. Howard Gardner's eight intelligences would be a useful starting point to share with parents and students.

The goal is to ensure high levels of engagement by providing studies, or by tapping into personal interests, where students can engage in thinking, feeling and doing what practicing professional do, but obviously at an appropriate level. High engagement engagement is the most important single criterion that distinguishes high from low achievement.

Renzulli's model is in line with inquiry learning, constructivist teaching, project based, or integrated teaching. Learning based on students interests cannot be totally planned in advance as ideas, questions and new direction will 'emerge'. As in the 'real world' studies will be 'ill-defined' until students begin to clarify their questions and define their tasks.

The first requirement is expose students to topics that might inspire their interest. Learning that evolves will need to access whatever appropriate subject disciplines, or outside expertise, including the Internet, as required

Teachers then need to provide students with the inquiry skills and resources necessary to acquire an in depth understanding of content. The students, says Renzulli, are to be seen as 'first hand inquirers', or as the New Zealand Curriculum states , their own 'seekers, users, and creators of knowledge'; to do 'fewer things well'.

Opportunities need to created for students to apply their skills in self selected areas of interest, or problem they want to pursue individually , in groups, or as a part of a class project.

To conclude students need to develop authentic products, displays, performances, or reports that are primarily directed to a specified audience.

To work well, according to Renzulli, the problem, or task chosen, must be 'real' to the student
, based on a sincere interest rather than one assigned by the teacher. Secondly, whatever is chosen must make use of the investigation methods of the appropriate practicing professional. Students need to do what real scientists, artists or community activists do, even if at a junior level. Finally is is important to be geared towards an audience other than the classroom teacher - other students, parents, a science fair etc.

The teachers role in all of this is vital. Teachers act as a creative coaches, or 'guides on the side'.They: help students retain their focus; provide access to resources; encourage student meta cognitive thinking and self organising skills; encourage reflective thinking; provide research and inquiry skills; and finally, the necessary design and presentation skills to produce work of quality. Diagnostic assessment incuding 'feedback' is a natural part of all interactions but the true value is only fully appreciated after presentations of findings to the selected audience.

Such an approach would transform education and would provide the 'new literacies' and 'key competencies' required for students to succeed in the challenging times ahead. Information technology, both to search and present ideas, defines this generation's experience and is easily integrated into such an approach.

With almost unlimited access to the world's knowledge it is critical for educators access this knowledge wisely and effectively. There are five major skill sets involved in the 'new literacies':

Identifying important questions
Locating relevant information
Critically evaluating information
Synthesizing information
Communicating effectively

These 'literacies' need to be introduced when students start school.

Our current industrial age fragmented schooling has resulted in far too many students being disengaged and bored; all too often alienated from their own learning power.

Renzulli's area of expertise is 'gifted students' but he believes a 'gifted education approach' improves the engagement and achievement of all students. Renzulli has written an article entitled 'A Rising Tide Lifts all Ships'

Working on something that is of personal interest, at any age, develops an infectious enthusiasm for learning. Such an approach challenges students to want to 'stretch' beyond their current levels. Engaged students, with a positive attitude towards learning, would also make teaching more fun and rewarding.

It is this approach that schools should 'target' not more of the same old literacy and numeracy.

Monday, June 09, 2008

Reaching the future down.Yeah right!

Who reaches
A future down for us from the high shelf
Of spiritual daring?

Landfall in Unknown Sea
Allen Curnow

Karen Sewell, Chief Executive of the Ministry of Eduction, introduces her thoughts to Ministry staff in their June newsletter with Allen Curnow's quote above.

The future may be unknown , she writes, but education is critical to ensuring our young people have the knowledge, skills and values to succeed. The Ministry's role is to provide leadership to develop an education system that will equip all New Zealanders for the 12stC.

This is the overarching outcome in this years Ministry's Statement of Intent.

A quick read of this bland document soon puts to rest any vision of 'reaching a future down of spiritual daring'.

After saying 'we' are making steady progress in all areas of learning from early childhood to tertiary level she then goes on to say that the system is still under performing for many Maori Pacifica children.

How 'steady progress' equates with, 'Too many young people are leaving school early with low or no qualifications.Forty percent leave school with less than Level 2 NCEA qualifications', is beyond me. 'Around 20000 15 to 19 year old are not engaged in learning or work', she continues.

We sure are in need of some 'spiritual daring' but little is to be seen.

'In previous years', she says, 'we have focused strongly on the "drivers" of presence, engagement and achievement. While these are still critical we must now direct our resources at critical points in the education system.' 'This means rigorous reporting against targets so we will know how far we have come and how far we have to go.'

Once again that doesn't sound like 'spiritual daring' to me; more like a continuation of the 90s technocratic obsession with efficiency. Lots of time will be sent by schools gathering data, making graphs, and reporting against 'targets', while all about the system keeps steadily failing. The Ministry's Statement of Intent is a political accountability document that subverts the fine aspirations of its own New Zealand Curriculum.

Certainly children need strong 'foundation skills' and 'key competencies' and the 'system must focus on the needs of children' but does this have to be a reactionary fallback to literacy and numeracy?

The most vital 'foundation skill' to be kept alive at all costs is enjoyment of learning.

Engagement is still the big concern. The issue is, how to make learning more engaging? The Ministry seem to want to do this without admitting is might be the antiquated secondary schools, desined for the wrong century, that might be the real problem.

Changing such schools will require real 'spiritual daring'.

Teacher are going to 'trained' to deliver 'best practices' which will certainly take any 'spiritual daring' away from those teachers who 'reach to the high shelf' of creativity. This 'new' literacy and numeracy crusade will be 'personalised', she says, to assist learners. It is a shame that Ms. Sewell hasn't the courage, or daring, to focus on personalising the whole system?

In the UK, the following of such 'targets' has improved children literacy and maths achievement but at the cost of enjoyment and, as well, results are plateauing as teachers lose enthusiasm. As for 'achievement targets' two issues come to mind - the 'narrowing' of the curriculum caused by the targets selected, and the idea that it is often not the targets you hit in life that count, but the ones you miss because you weren't looking!

Placing the focus on an education system on developing every child's, talents, passions and dreams ought to be 'target' for 'spiritual daring'. And this, is turn, might well be the key to retaining student's engagement?

Ms Sewell would have better advised to stay away from poetic thoughts and stick to her technocratic 'best practices', 'evidence based research', outcomes and targets.

'The future is a foreign country they will do things differently there'. There are no targets to report against on the way. What is needed is the wit and imagination to be daring; to have the courage to transform our school system as required.

Curnow's quote was used more appropriately by Peter Biggs, then Chair of Creative New Zealand, when addressing a New Zealand Primary Principals Conference in 2002.

His theme was we need to 'live life like an artist' and to embrace the vision of New Zealand as 'daring, pioneering, creative country'; one that 'celebrates the entrepreneurs of the imagination'.

To do this, he said, we need our schools to 'inspire learning', to tap the talents and gifts of all students so they can see themselves as 'adventurers'; 'people who burn ,people who challenge, people who believe nothing is impossible'.

Now that is reaching for a 'future for us from the high shelf'

Thursday, June 05, 2008

Educating for a new Age

It seems ironic that in this hyper fast world what young people need most of all is to experience their world more slowly. Children it seems have no time to stand and stare - to reflect about what it is all about!

A few years ago, when I was a school principal, I felt the pressure from parents to introduce computers. Our school was missing out it seemed to others. I did my best to resist but the pressure and promise of computer education was too great. Once introduced no parent ever asked how they were being used - they were just a felt necessary to keep up with other schools.

Years later, after observing the use of computers in 'technologically advanced' schools I still have my doubts but where they are used well it is no doubt they are a powerful learning tools. Recently a principal on a study leave visited selected schools to see how well they were using ICT, he was disappointed and so changed his emphasis into researching inquiry learning. In this he was also disappointed. ICT is a case of over promising and under-delivering - and at tremendous continual expense.

This rush to give children every advantage at school and at home is becoming counter productive. This is the theses of Carl Honare latest book 'Under Pressure'. His earlier best selling book was called 'In Praise of Slow'. Honare writes about children 'being nannied, pressured and overprotected' by their parents and schools being obsessed with targets, testing, milestones, monitoring, and quantifying and recording achievement in narrow areas of learning. 'The tyranny of tests ,targets and milestones', Honare writes, 'sucks the joy out of learning', and, I would add, teaching. Honare, quoting Einstein writes, 'Not everything that can be counted counts, and not everything that counts can be counted'.

There is no longer time to stand and stare and to see infinity in grain of sand. Students are losing out on their childhood and becoming anxious, stressful and spoilt, all their time taken up by scheduled activities to maximize their potential. Few children now play by themselves or walk to school. Safety risks are imagined everywhere. It does no good for young people, or their parents, to think the world revolves around their achievement.

This pressure to achieve is squeezing out, time for the creative arts and results in shallow learning. Children have no time to learn through play, to learn from 'messy trial and error', or the opportunity to dig deeply into areas of personal interest. Children either conform to expectations by becoming self centred or by rebelling. There could well be a link, Honare writes, between all this pressure and the growing problem of ADHD and other disorders?

Honare believes it is time to make childhood more about the children -and the same applies to schools.

The early years are not a race. Young people need simple things: lots of interaction with each other and adults; stimulating conversations about things of interest where their views are taken seriously; learning to trust others; to engage playfully in natural world; to test and stretch the boundaries; to play and create imaginary worlds; and to be creative; all without teachers or parents running the show.

Creative educators have always known this.

There are are schools such as the Reggio Emilia that flow a more natural learning centred approach. Reggio schools believe in doing nothing that does not bring joy; they believe in unleashing each child natural curiosity. Countries like Finland have avoided most of the imposed pressures schools feel in New Zealand and still come out tops in the doubtful international tests. Finish students don't begin school or formally learn to read until 7 but still achieve.

Many creative schools schools have no fixed curriculum and allow students to delve deeply into projects that spring from their own interests. In such enlightened environments the teacher's role is to help , challenge , support, but not to teach. Amazing things happen when children follow their instincts Honare writes.

So maybe it isn't computers that are the key to the future? Perhaps it is something far simpler and less expensive? Maybe it is allowing students to follow their questions and interests and to develop them into personal projects? Maybe it is valuing creativity in all its forms? Perhaps most of all it is giving students the time to process their thoughts, to think and dig deeply into what attracts them? Such ideas ensure students learn to take responsibility for their own learning.

You don't have to be a anti technology 'Luddite hold such views?It is a matter of using them well.

Honare quotes Bill Gates as saying, 'If you've ever watched a child with a cardboard box of crayons create a spaceship with cool control panels, or listened to improvised rules...then you know that this impulse to make a toy do more is at the heart of innovative childhood play. It is also the essence of creativity.'

Modern technology, it seems, has it costs. Too much time in front of screens makes a difference not only in limiting time for other activities. Balance is required. An addictive 'high tech diet' may even effect children's weight let alone their minds; we may even be creating generation ADD Honare suggests.! Human brains need time and quiet to absorb the days experiences.

Schools are become to obsessed with academic achievement, which Honare says, 'is squeezing the lifeblood out of schools'.

Honare believes schools 'need to encourage their students to learn to solve problems together in groups, how to distinguish good information from bad, how to connect and share ideas with peers.. and how to think across disciplines.' And there is need , he says, 'to anchor part of the curriculum in Mother Nature'...'to give students an understanding of how the Earth works and how mankind has a role in preserving it'.

I no longer feel the pressure to become a technophile.

The challenge of the future is to recover what we are at risk of losing, an environmental creative education, one that develops students who are well informed, articulate, creative, disciplined and hungry for learning
. Creative nimble minded innovators, or in the words of our 'new' New Zealand Curriculum, active seekers, users and creators of their own knowledge'.

It is time for creative schools to rediscover the joy of learning of realizing the the aptitudes and talents of their students. This means Honare concludes, 'giving children structure and guidance along with some of the freedom... it means planning for the future without losing the magic of the present'.

Honare's aim, for hs own children, is to 'encourage my children to stretch their wings but to let them choose the flight path.'

Good advice but, for some of us, it will be a bit 'back to the future'.

Wednesday, June 04, 2008

Environmental education or 'Ecophobia'!

Several themes feature in the lives of primary aged children. Adventure,exploring, maps and paths,special places, imagination and gathering things are part of their natural play - the best curriculums connect with these themes.Through such activities children develop a strong sense of place and environmental responsibility.

Now and then you come across a book that has the effect of clarifying ideas that you have held for years. One such book for me is 'Childhood and Nature' by David Sobel.

Exploring the natural world has been an important part of my life since boyhood leading to my becoming a Nature Study Specialist and later Science Adviser. As a class teacher, exploring the environment was feature of my programme. Such studies allowed my students to tap into their interests and learn how to research and express their ideas in language, and the creative arts, as a natural learning process.

This, Sobel writes, is the best way to develop a sense of place and and to develop a respect for nature leading to students leading ecologically responsible lives

Environmental education is preferable to imposing adult studies on students such saving rain forests, whales, polar bears, penguins and studying pollution and global warming. Sobel calls this ' catastrophe' approach 'ecophobia' - placing responsibility on young children to save our 'fragile' world and in the process developing anxiety about the future. He suggest, no 'ecological tragedies before the fourth grade'. Sobel follows environmentalist Rachel Carson's advice, of building through experience 'a sense of wonder and love for the earth', as a more positive approach. 'Early learning is not primarily to educate or inform, but to foster love and caring' of the natural world.

Sobel quotes research that most environmental education does not lead to later environmental actions. Such responsibility develops from people who have developed a true love of nature from an early age.

Sobel believes in 'place based education', making exploring the immediate environment and tapping students curiosity, as the basis of education. It is exactly this sentiment that a group of teachers I worked with years ago believed in strongly.

It is time to return to such a 'creative' approach. Our 'new' New Zealand Curriculum asks teachers to see their students as active 'seekers, users,and creators' of their own learning. Such a curriculum, offering such flexibility, would have been welcome to the creative pioneer teachers I worked with decades ago.

Developing a sense of wonder, educating student's sensory awareness and following up areas of interest is more basic than literacy and numeracy and, indeed, such skills arise out of student centred experienced based environmental programmes.

That our students no longer are 'allowed' to explore their environment without supervision makes such an education through schools even more important.

Sobel outlines a number of deep childhood impulses that could develop into curriculum design themes for primary aged children. For those who can remember their own childhoods they will be familiar.

Students have a thirst for adventure, to expand their immediate geographic horizons - the chance to explore without knowing exactly what is going to happen. Sensitive teachers ( or parents) build on ideas that 'emerge'. Patches of bush, seashore, streams, wild areas, city walks and parks all await exploration.

Students live in their imaginations. Creative teachers create classrooms where imagination is valued. Exploring can be fun and a source of imaginative interpretations. Young children happily enter into a world of pretend and fantasy playing in their environment

Caring for animals is another childhood theme. It is no coincidence, Sobel writes, that animals feature strongly in children's literature. Children have an empathy for animals and caring for them will leads to a desire to protect endangered animals. Lucky the children whose teachers keep small pets in the classroom. As well such animals provide an audience to many a child's secret thoughts!

Another theme is 'maps and paths'. Young children like to get to know their immediate world, exploring paths and making maps. Few are able to do this today without supervision - and many children never walk anywhere, even to school. Making maps from home to school, local geography and exploring the source of streams, are areas to be explored. Making scale maps, exploring with a compass, 'treasure' maps - all lead into maths.

Special places are another feature of young people lives.In our day we all had forts, huts, tree houses or other 'special' places. Even huts made indoors represent this universal theme. All require imagination and creativity. Opportunities for this inventive play outdoors has all but disappeared.

I once visited a rural school that provided hundreds of fence battens which the children developed into forts and huts - new structures each day. Special places would an interesting class theme. The school, and the classroom itself, ought to be a special place for exploring the children's world and imagination. Children can adopt 'special places' in the school grounds to sit and reflect in. The environment is full of special places to study: pas, historic places, and hilltop views.

Another theme Sobel writes about is 'small worlds'. Children have fascination for making models of natural environments and historical places. Small worlds can be created by gardens featuring native plants.

The final theme of childhood is hunting and gathering. Children like collecting and hunting for things and then sorting and classifying them. Rocks , leaves, digital images, all can be collected and studied. Providing it is done sensibly collecting can be taken advantage of as part of class studies. All studies are searches for knowledge and, as in the best hunts, the outcomes are often unpredictable. This is as it ought to be.

All the above develop an ecological literacy by involving students in actions that develop a love and a appreciation of their immediate natural world.

For Sobel , 'hunting for treasure is one of the core metaphors for what education is all about. One of the objectives of schooling should be to engage students in searching for the meaning of life.' When students, he continues, 'get really enraptured in a topic and start to search for pieces of information, see the connections between different ideas, and then glimpse the big pattern, they are really engaged in kind of treasure hunt'. This, he says, is the basis of what theorists call 'constructivist learning' - 'the process of doing research and probing into the hidden recesses of a subject'.

Sobel's 'place based education' is similar to the inspiration for the environmental integrated teaching that I was involved in years ago.

Students who learn to be respectful of the environment, and involve themselves in protective actions, are in a position to practice ecological behaviours in later life. This is better than the 'premature rain forest education for young children', asking student's to solve overwhelming problems.

Developing positive attitudes leads to positive behaviour. We need, Sobel concludes his book, to teach children from an early age to to learn that it that their behaviour that makes a difference.' 'We have spent too much time, he says, focusing on conveying environmental knowledge and way too little time on developing environmental behaviours. By presenting students with 'ecophobia' issues we are breeding a sense of helplessness and anxiety.

It all begins with playing in nature with the help of supportive adults, rather than watching videos about environmental issues. We need to re-connect children with their natural world and develop school communities that care about their environment.

It is all about valuing children's sense of wonder, recognising their inherent fascination with nature, and protecting, at all costs, their love of learning.