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'.


Anonymous said...

So true. Schools are complaining they haven't enough money to buy computer technology while at the same time ignoring the rich sensory learning to be gained, for free, by exploring, in depth, the immediate enviroment, or by valuing each learner's personal 'voice', or the uniqueness of their imagination.

I would love to visit these complaining schools to see how well they tap into the free resources that are far more important than computers.

Bruce said...

There is more hype about computer education than there are great 'evidence based' results. Time for a rethink? Where they are used well is in the classrooms with teachers who use them as valuable tools to assist student research and expression. Trouble is there are so few such teachers around due to an unhealthy 'Victorian' focus on literacy and numeracy.

Anonymous said...

Well said!