Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Memo: the challenge of the NZ Curriculum

A close reading of the 'new' New Zealand Curriculum would indicate that our schools need to dramatically change if they are to provide all our students an education to allow to thrive in the future.

The 'new' New Zealand Curriculum provides schools with a challenge but only if they are able to think out of the current 'mental boxes', or 'mindsets', they find themselves in.

This will requires more than 'makeover', or a few 'add-ons', what is needed the questioning of all processes and activities . All too often the basic assumptions underpinning schools remain unquestioned but unless the purpose of schooling in the 21st is faced up to, and 're-imagined', things will remain much the same. UK educationist Guy Claxton's latest book, 'What is the Point of School?', provides the question (and a few answers).

A few thoughts to consider:

1 Schools ought to be about keeping the love of learning alive in all students to ensure all are 'confident, connected and creative learners'(NZC).

2 As research indicates, and reinforced by common sense, that students learn when their, curiosity, interest, or attention is alerted. Ensuring this innate disposition to learn is kept alive, in all students, ought to be our number one priority. Guy Claxton has written that 'learnacy', or the drive to learn, is more important that literacy and numeracy'. This is echoed by creativity expert, Sir Ken Robinson, who says that creativity will be as valuable as literacy or numeracy in the future. Our 'new' curriculum wants all students to be 'seekers, users and creators' of their own knowledge.

These thoughts are not reflected in the schools I visit.

A look at the time spent on various Learning areas, or a glance at the school wide assessment 'targets' that schools report on, would reinforce this lack of balance or reflection of past practices.

3 The 'new' curriculum indicates a need for future capabilities, or as they are called Key Competencies', to become central to all learning and that they are to be seen as a 'means and a end' to develop 'life long learners'.

Developing engaging 'rich' real life problems, based learning contexts, for all Learning Areas, is a future challenge. Schools need to see themselves as 'communities of inquiry' allowing teachers to utilize the idea that 'intellectual curiosity is the heart' (NZC) of all learning. If this were the case programmes ought to feature students' questions, 'prior ideas', tap into their individual talents and gifts, and take advantage of their immediate environment. The 'new' curriculum wisely recommends that schools do fewer studies in depth' to develop students competencies and understandings. This would also apply to maths studies.

Classrooms would need to feature such inquiries, drawing and integrating where necessary, all the Learning Areas. In contrast most primary classrooms spend most of their time and energy on literacy and numeracy, all too often, with little 'connection' (NZC) to other Learning Areas.

The 'essence' and the different perspectives, or ways of thinking, of each Learning Area, are vital to ensure the talents of all students are to be given a chance to be recognised and amplified and to develop key competencies in authentic situations. Currently Learning areas are being neglected simply due to a lack of time and a lack of appreciation of their value, by teachers, of how important they are to individual students.

4 Literacy and numeracy programmes need to be 're framed' to achieve the vision as outlined in the NZC. All to often the are taught as independent of other Learning Areas. This is not to underscore their vital importance as 'foundation skills' but to emphasize they are are also a 'means to an end' - 'confident learners' able to use such 'basic skills' to interpret and express ideas involved in inquiry learning challenges across the curriculum.

Future schools need to integrate into the literacy block all the skills students need to read and research information and also ways to express ideas gained. This would include aesthetic design and presentation skills and use of appropriate information technology. Meaningful skills of research reading are obviously of vital important if the limited time given to inquiry learning is to be taken advantage of. Every opportunity to integrate inquiry content into literacy block would, in effect, 'kill two birds with one stone'. First drafts of research tasks should be completed in this time to allow students complete their work independently in the afternoon 'inquiry block'. Science experiments ( shared science thinking and writing) could be completed and written up as models during literacy time.

The same integrated concept applies to maths that is required as part of students investigative work. This needs to be modelled in the numeracy block.

Such thinking integrates the morning skills block with the afternoon inquiry learning time ; and provide the means to infuse the Key Competences.

I think the above ideas expressed are worth consideration by schools.

To me, they reflect not only what modern research into learning, and how our brains work, but they also the creative work of both our 'pioneer' teachers and the 'creative' teachers still to be found in our schools. If such ideas were to be implemented then school assessment priorities would need to change to reflect the competencies as outlined in the New Zealand Curriculum. We need to assess what we value.

As mentioned the ideas above could provide the inspiration for a debate about how to implement the vision and the challenge provided by the 'new' New Zealand Curriculum?

It would be beyond much current'tinkering! Dramatic times require courageous thinking; it is time to escape from the limitations imposed by the past before it is too late.

Any thoughts?

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Powerful Learning

What do we know about learning? What can we do to create powerful learning? This small readable book by Ron Brandt ( past editor of the ascd) draws upon findings from psychology and research to describe the conditions that promote learning.

Why schools don't implement such ideas is the real problem.

Learning, the introduction of the book, says is an ambiguous term. All forms of life learn - that is, they change their behaviour on the basis of experience.

This book, by Ron Brandt, focuses on creating the conditions for more complex learning - or 'powerful learning'. Young children learn to walk and talk through a natural process of trial and error and some accomplished artists and musicians are described as self taught. People can solve problems and make scientific discoveries without being directed by a teacher.

Some educators, the book states,are sometimes intrigued by the contrast between traditional school practices and the way learning takes place in other settings.

New research now offers teachers the information to make learning more meaningful for all their students.

The following are presented as guidelines for teachers who want to create powerful learners.

1 People learn what is personally meaningful to them. The search for meaning is innate. Problem based learning, or experience, or project based learning, where students investigate real problems, is a means to achieve this in the classroom. In other words people learn when they want to learn. When 'engaged', and if goals are achievable, they will extend effort and will also be appreciative of guided practice. Teachers are advised to tap into students interests and questions and ensure the tasks they negotiate are of optimal novelty and difficulty.

2 People learn when they are accept challenging but achievable goals. There is no limit to growth and educators must not underestimate what students can do. All students have greater potential for learning than is commonly recognised. Students learn more actively when they are challenged to reach for high goals, when teachers demonstrate confidence in their students, and when they are provided the necessary 'scaffolding'. Challenge is tricky as it is only effective if the learner accepts the challenge.

3 Learning is developmental. Because there are predetermined sequences of mental development in children individual and age differences need to taken into account. All learners move along 'novice' to expert' continuum; with new experiences learners may need more concrete step by step assistance. When some expertise is gained they need to be encouraged to show initiative and creativity.

4 Individuals learn differently. Every human brain is uniquely organised and all students make use of different strategies, approaches,and capabilities. The research of Howard Gardner ( 'multiple intelligences') indicates there is no such thing a single general intelligence; 'one size does not fit all'.Teachers need to be expert in 'negotiating' the curriculum with their students, to value students questions,and to provide a growing degree of student choice and control.

5 People 'construct' knowledge by building on their previous ideas. They learn through recognising patterns and their learning is not aways orderly because learning can be 'messy' and intuitive. All learners encounter new learning they 'construct' their knowledge but only if it makes senes to them. Teachers assist this process by challenging students views and/or by introducing material that conflicts with their current ideas. This approach to learning is called 'constructivism' and values acknowledging students 'prior' knowledge; the ideas, attitudes and skills the children bring with them to any learning situation

6 Much learning occurs through social interaction. The most radical of all the 'new ideas' is that the brain is a social brain and learns by relating to, and learning from, the views of others. Teachers need to create their classroom as 'communities of inquiry' where students work together to share ideas to continually negotiate meaning. This social interaction , or teamwork, is a valuable future disposition in the work force.

7 People need feedback to learn. Positive social interaction and respectful relationships allow teachers to provide positive feedback to learners. Students need feedback about the accuracy and relevance of their thoughts and actions. It is vital for feedback to be accurate, timely, and useful. Learners need to know what changes might help.

8 Successful learning involves the use of strategies - which themselves are learned.Learning is both a conscious and a unconscious process. People can learn 'how to learn' by sharing aims, planning targets, and reviewing achievement. Self management ( 'meta cognition' - becoming aware of their own thinking) is critical. Students can be 'coached' to think ahead, to envision possible steps, to reflect on their own progress ( self assessment) and to consider what they might do 'next time'. Future learners need a repertoire of strategies to call upon and to be able to use them effectively ( In NZ our 'new' curriculum calls these capacities 'Key Competencies'). 'Knowing what to do when you don't know what to do' will be a valuable future attribute in changing times and requires that students feel confident enough to act on their intuitions. People learn such capacities unconsciously by picking up on the 'messages' of the class culture as valued and modeled by the teacher.

9 A positive emotional climate strengthens learning. Thinking and learning is closely associated with our emotional well being. Motivation to learn is influenced by the individuals mental state. Positive emotions enhance memory and is associated with curiosity, excitement, laughter, enjoyment, and appreciation. This however does not argue against an orderly and supportive environment as learners need to feel safe so as to be able to take learning risks. Students need to feel their views and questions matter.

10 Learning is influenced by the total environment. Students absorb the values underpinning the class and so educators need to attend to all aspects of the setting - physical, social,and psychological. Our brains are continually monitoring the environment to 'see' if it supportive to our learning, picking up on the attitudes and actions of teachers.

The above guidelines are probably too abstract to be very helpful and educators need to think about them, elaborate them, and then apply them to their own circumstances. The conditions apply as much to teacher and school learning as it does to students and all are intertwined and need to be implemented holistically.

The book concludes that research, and creative schools, shows that these beliefs do work but only if they are shared by all and integrated into the culture of the school.

If we are to develop our students as 'confident, connected life, energetic and enterprising life-long learners' able to be their own 'seekers, users and creators', schools need to develop themselves as 'learning communities'.

This you would have thought, is what schools ought to be.

Monday, October 27, 2008

What's the Point of School?

Guy Claxton, University of Winchester,is one of the UK's foremost thinkers on developing students 'learning power'.

His most recent book is called 'What's the Point of School' and ought to be compulsory reading for anyone involved in education. His book is all about 'rediscovering the heart in education'.

His concept of 'learning power' is very much in line with the Key Competencies of the 'new' New Zealand Curriculum (07).

I couldn't wait to receive my copy of Guy Claxton's latest book from Amazon as I have enjoyed his earlier writings. I wasn't disappointed.

'The purpose of education' Claxton writes, is to prepare young people for the future.Schools should be helping Young people to develop the capacities they will need to thrive.What they need and want, is the confidence to talk to strangers, to try things out, to handle tricky situations, to stand up for themselves, to ask for help, to think new thoughts'

'This is not to much to ask', says Claxton, 'but they are not getting it'.

'Education' he says,' has lost the plot'. It is not just the performance that counts, he believes, but rather the 'quality of the learning skills and attitudes in the long run'.

Claxton writes that we have to start by seeing just how bad things are and to appreciate that most of the school reform has made little difference. Claxton provides a viable alternative and his ideas resonates with the direction of our 'new' NZ curriculum.

The key resources that make up a confident learner:

1 Being curious - keen to engage in new challenges.
2 Being resilient - being able to stick with difficult things.
3 Know how to balance your imagination and your logical mind.
4 Wiling to ask for help and receive feedback without getting upset.
4 Being able to step back and take a deep breathe and calmly think things through.

These seem barely more than common sense but Claxton asks why are so few people in education talking about these 'habits of mind'. Young children are born to be enthusiastic learners pursuing whatever takes their attention. What happens to this learning drive or power?; schooling that dulls the mind and spirit rather than one that stretches students' learning power!

We need to move beyond the rhetoric of life long learning and developing all student's potential
seen in all school documents.

What is needed is a 'sustained attempt to grow those qualities of curiosity, resilience, imagination and reflection that are collectively going to give you the deep-down confidence you need'.

Calxton's book provides a range of example of how to develop students' 'learning power'.

His message is that schools must change. We ought not to put up with students enduring a passive depersonalised assembly line experience. We now know enough , writes Claxton, that no student need fail if we 'attend more successfully to cultivating the qualities of character and mind that modern life demands; curiosity, imagination, disciplined thinking, a love of genuine debate, skepticism. These are the learning dispositions that students can use their whole lives.

There might be a danger that teachers might, in the process of developing such dispositions, neglect content. Claxton writes about 'learning power' but also states that this 'power' cannot be learnt without in-depth content or interesting and challenging contexts.

There is no doubt that we can do better in education if we ( teachers and parents) have the collective will and imagination. 'Happiness', Claxton writes, ' is better seen as a regular by-product of having done something challenging and worthwhile.'

'If we can help them to discover the things they most passionately want to get better at, and to develop the confidence and capability to pursue those passions, then I think more happiness and less stress will be the result.'

CLaxton hopes his book will 'inspire people to help their students and children become brave and confident explorers, tough enough in spirit, and flexible in mind, to pursue their dreams and ambitions'.

If education has 'lost the plot' we need 'a narrative for education that can engage and inspire children and their families - a tale of trials and adventure, of learning derring-do and learning heroism. Let's fire the kids up with the deep satisfaction of discovery and exploration.They are born with learning zeal; let us recognise, celebrate and protect it, but also stretch, strengthen and diversify It.

You need to to read Claxton's book to fully appreciate the power of the 'learning story' he is so enthusiastic about. All good for me.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Learning:It is all about Passion!

Nigel Ogle - the man behind the Tawhiti Museum. The Tawhiti Museum, an expression of Nigels' passion, is one of the most stimulating museum experiences you will see anywhere.

Although there is a lot of talk about students needing 'future learning capacities' ( called 'key competencies' in the new New Zealand Curriculum) so as to become 'life long learners' it is important to remember that learning needs to be about something. Students interests, gifts and dreams provide the passion that drives individuals to learn more and more...forever.

Author Rebecca Priestly, in her book 'The Awa Book of New Zealand Science', conveys the excitement of science and the thrill of discovery. She writes that she was not prepared for 'the ferocious passion - often crossing the line into obsession' she found in the journals. Reading their writings she found expressions of 'intense excitement' and 'burning curiosity'; a sense of surprise and awe as they made their discoveries.

The myth of the dispassionate rational, and rather boring, scientist is far from the truth. Scientists are driven by their curiosity to explore and explain things that attract their attention. In this respect they have much in common with any two year old, except young people do not have the need to ensure their findings stands up to inspection.

The message is clear for educators, we must do everything to keep alive the curiosity and openness to learning of our students. We need to tap our students innate gifts,interests, talents and dreams and then to encourage them to dig deeper into what attracts their attention.

At the beginning of learning, and science, is curiosity, and with curiosity is the delight in mastery - the joy of figuring it out that is the birthright of every child. One scientist said to another 'What we can't tell then that it's so so much fun' A Nobel prizewinner said 'We were like children playing'. It is, as another said, 'a rage to know - the acute discomfort at incomprehension'.The so called scientific method is not as scientific as you would think and is more a process of enlightened trial and error.

If teachers were to be aware of: the importance of passion and curiosity in learning; the need to explain as best we can; and the process of science, a curriculum would 'emerge'. As well, creative teachers can provide their students experiences with the potential to attract their student's attention . As educationalist Jerome Bruner wrote, 'teaching is the canny art of intellectual temptation'.

Back to Nigel.

In an article in our local paper Nigel says he has 'aways been interested in old things - old waggons, old tools - just the feel and character of things' As a young person he collected old things but when he took history at secondary school he was disappointed there was no New Zealand component but, when attending Palmerston North Teachers College, he met tutors really interested in history and, as importantly, interested in the arts.

During this time Nigel visited creative teachers in New Plymouth to see what he said were, 'absolutely inspirational teachers working on what was then called integrated programmes'. They were, he said, 'ground breaking' and after seeing them he said to himself,' Yeah teaching is something I could really do'.

Nigel had short but successful career as a teacher
. I had the opportunity to visit Nigel's classroom in those days and was always impressed with the stimulating programmes and environment he developed.

Nigel left teaching in 1980 to establish his museum, a museum that combined not only his deep interest in local history but also integrated his art and teaching skills.

He observed a young boy visiting his museum with his class who threw away his worksheet and 'did a runner' into the museum. Nigel followed him and found him entranced by a display of small figures of Maori in canoes. Nigel engaged the boy in an intense conversation about the display. This is the kind of reaction Nigel said he wants. 'In three questions', Nigel related, 'the youngster had got to the core of that display and related it to place he remembered and had experience of'.

Of a new display he is working on Nigel says, 'It's is all incredibly exciting', I'm working on it 24 hours a day - every waking moment.

Nigel is a brilliant example of a person following his own dreams and passions.

Helping each student realize their passions ought to be central to every learners education - and such passions provide something to develop those future capacities around.

A must read!

I haven't time to write a blog about this book written bu Guy Claxton - one of my favourite writers.

Suggest you check it out using google at Amazon.

Surprisingly inexpensive!

'A powerful and timely examination of why our schools are built to fail, and how to redesign them to meet the needs of the modern world.'

Written with passion blending latest advances in brain science and practical down to earth examples. Outlines the need to develop in all students learning capacities ( the NZC Key Competencies) and how to achieve them.

A powerful voice that has contributing to the thinking of the Ministry and which builds on the ideas of creative teachers who have always being in developing students ability to 'learn how to learn' in tandem with students passion to learn what engages them.

More later.

Friday, October 10, 2008

New Zealand Curriculum 07

The framework for the decades ahead? A lot of things will have to change if its vision of 'confident, creative and connected students' is to be realized.

The New Zealand Curriculum is a confusing and repetitive read and very little in it contains anything new for creative teachers. For such teachers it is a little 'back to the future' but for secondary schools in particular it will be a foreign language.

But for all that the NZC provides an opportunity for teachers to develop their school as learning communities centred on inquiry. It is strongly based on a co-constructivist and personalised approach although it mentions neither.

Cliches abound but they are saying the right things. Students are to be 'confident, creative and connected' 'life long learners' equipped with the 'key competencies' - 'literate, numerate' - 'active seekers users and creators of their own knowledge'. The emphasis on values and the principles all say the right things.

The five 'Key Competencies' , or 'capabilities to become life long learners', are a central feature and are to be caught rather than taught; a 'means as well as an end'.

(1)Thinking is all about students being 'creative, critical', and 'meta cognitive' thinkers, able to 'make sense of their experiences'. 'Intellectual curiosity is at the heart of thinking'. Students need to actively seek and create knowledge' able to 'reflect on their own learning'.

Thinking should 'draw on their personal knowledge and intuition' and be based on 'their questions' and 'challenge their current assumptions'.

(2)Language is all about students 'making meaning' through reading and 'expressing meaning' to writing etc and able to interpret texts and images of all kinds.

(3)Managing Self is all about the importance of 'self motivation', developing 'a can do attitude' and able to set goals and plan their own projects.

(4)Relating to Others is all about developing empathy for others; able to listen to others and 'be open to ideas'.

(5)Participating and Contributing. The need 'to develop a sense of belonging' and be actively involved.

The Learning Areas.

Students are to gain the essence of each area; they are to be seen as ways to assist students 'interpret their world'.
Studies selected need to affirm New Zealand's unique diverse cultural identity. There is less emphasis on 'learning objectives' and these are to be 'selected to fit the needs of the students' and the learning context. Strands are to be covered over a period of time and not every year.

It is a shame that there is not a section on inquiry learning as composite statement as the need for such an approach is emphasized in all learning areas.

Learning is to be based on 'real life contexts' to engage and challenge students and that 'connections' between learning areas are to be encouraged.

1 English is about 'enjoying communicating' meaningfully, 'orally, visually and in writing, for a range of purposes'. Students need to 'be critical', able to 'interrogate texts'; able to 'receive, process, and present ideas or information' Able to receive meaning from reading and able to create meaning through all forms of communication.

Further into the curriculum document is states that for year 1-6 students that 'learning builds on the experiences students bring with them', as well as being exposed to the Learning Areas, with a focus on literacy and numeracy along with key competences etc. This is hardly a justification for the current time allowance for such areas.

2 The Arts.This area values children's experiences and are to be seen as powerful forms of expression. The arts provide an opportunities for students to 'use their imagination' and to 'create multiple interpretations'. The arts are all about 'developing students unique artistic expression' and visual arts 'begins with children's curiosity and delights in the senses and stories and develops visual literacy and aesthetic awareness'.

3 Health and PE is all about developing, in every student, a 'sense of wellness' ( Hau Ora) and developing 'resilience and a sense of personal and social responsibility'. PE develops 'positive attitudes towards physical activity'.

4 Mathematics and Statistics is about 'the exploration of patterns and relationships' and 'equips students with an effective means of investigating, interpreting, explaining, and making sense of the world'.

5 Science. is a way of 'investigating, understanding and explaining our natural, physical world and the wider universe'. It is about 'observations, carrying out investigations' and develops a 'respect for evidence'.

6 Social Sciences focuses on 'how societies work' and how people 'participate'. It is about 'people, places, cultures and historical contexts drawn from the past, present and future and from places within and beyond New Zealand'. This area helps students 'appreciate New Zealand's heritage' and develops students' identify as New Zealanders. It also is based on an inquiry approach based on 'students question's, the 'gathering of information', 'analyzing it' and 'reflecting' on findings.

7 Technology assists students develop 'practical skills as they develop models, products and systems'. Good advice is given to study 'fewer contexts in greater depth drawing on learning from other disciplines'. For primary classes it is more an aspect of science?

8 learning Languages to provide 'a means to communicate with people from other cultures'. This would seem to be another aspect of the Social Sciences?

Effective Pedagogy.

Although not mentioned in the NZC the pedagogy is underpinned by a co-constructivist approach to teaching and learning.

Teachers are to:

1 Create a supportive learning environment valuing the 'uniqueness of each learner'. The importance of 'acceptance' and positive 'relationships'.

2 Encourage reflective thought and action. This mirrors the thinking skills competence. Reflective learners are able to 'assimilate new learning, relate learning to what they already know' and 'translate into new actions' and in the process 'develop meta- cognitive ability' - 'the ability to think about their own thinking'.

3 Enhancing the relevance of new learning.Students need to know what, why, about their learning. Teachers are to 'stimulate curiosity, challenge students, and involve them in their own learning.'

4 Facilitate shared learning. To develop the classroom as a community of inquiry and to include in this 'the teacher as a learner'.'Teachers to challenge, support, and provide feedback'.

5 Making connections to prior learning. Children learn when it 'builds on what students already understand'. Teachers 'help students make connections'.

6 Providing sufficient opportunities to learn. Students need 'time to engage, practise and transfer new knowledge.' Teachers may decide to 'cover less' and to do what is selected to 'greater depth' Great advice.

7 Teachers as inquirers. Teachers need to continually 'inquire into the impact of their teaching on their students'.Teachers need to 'decide what is worth spending time on', decide 'what needs their students have', and 'what strategies are likely to help', and to 'evaluate what has resulted' from their teaching.

Assessment. An excellent section.

'The primary purpose of assessment in to improve students learning and teachers teaching.' Assessment is seen as 'ongoing process between teaching and learning. Much of which 'takes place in the mind of the teacher who uses insight' to assist their students. Schools need to be able to show evidence' of their programmes success through selective 'school wide data.'All too often assessment ends up by being the tail that wags the dog!Schools should assess what they value ( learning capabilities?) above and beyond 'basic' skills. Schools are asked 'to gather sufficiently comprehensive evaluation of student progress and achievement and to identify those at risk, and Maori students, to gain further attention.

The School Curriculum.

The New Zealand Curriculum is based on the premise 'all students can learn' and recognises that all students have idiosyncratic needs. The basis for personalisation?

'School have the scope and, flexibility and authority to design their curriculum in response to the needs, talents of individual and groups.'

'Schools may develop their curriculum's around central themes integrating values, key competencies, and skills across a number of learning areas.There is a need to address real life situations so that learning crosses apparent boundaries'.

A question was asked, under Teaching as Inquiry, about what is worth spending time on?. Schools need to look at how they distribute time at present and consider how to re-arrange their priorities to develop their school as communities of inquiry if they are to achieve the NZC Vision of developing 'confident , creative life long learners'.

I wait, in anticipation, to visit such creative 21st C schools. In the past I have been fortunate enough to visit very creative teachers but just imagine a creative school? Or groups of schools!

Thursday, October 09, 2008

Power through reading!

Reading, and writing, are not just processes to be 'achieved' but are all about power - power of the imagination, power of gaining messages through literature, and power to gain and share ideas that can change how you think. Unless students, particularly those from from families who lack 'cultural capital', appreciate this power why would they bother to read or write?.

Arguments about literacy never seem to go away. Phonics or whole language arguments occupy literacy critics. Like the nature/ nurture argument the answer is both. Either or arguments only force proponents into corners; the future is always the best of both.

The trouble is that too many teachers can't see past literacy and numeracy demands ( 'targets) to see that it is the evolutionary desire to learn, to make sense of things, that is the most important 'literacy' of all. Guy Claxton calls this 'learnacy'.

If a lack of cultural capital is limiting many students who enter our school system then this is where teachers must begin. This goes well beyond what is called 'whole language' or phonics. Teachers need to look back to pioneer educators who really appreciated the power of personal experience and the power of having the skills to express things that attract learner's attention. It is this power that is the genesis of 'organic' reading and writing programmes. Such an 'organic approach' appreciates that the other learning areas ( now being neglected) are the key to provide motivation for students to utilize their curiosity and imagination.

In New Zealand, one such pioneer, was Sylvia Ashton Warner who developed her ideas in the 50s. Thankfully there are still some creative teachers who still utilize aspects of her ideas. She called her approach 'Key Vocabulary' and started her students reading and writing with words from their own experiences. She saw her young students as having a mind 'inhabited by instincts; wants, fears, desires and loves, hates and happiness. She saw her role as 'engaging in conversation' to help her students express their personal feelings and from their idea their first reading books. She believed in 'using the childs own imagery as working material; not wholly, but enough to keep it alive.' She believed that this native imagery was being replaced by images presented by modern media and when when idea come from somewhere else it results in 'lots of carbon copies' and we of 'get' conformity. 'Books made from their own vocabulary , their own lives, drama, and their own vocabulary, have a natural place in organic work.'

Thankfully there are still some creative junior teachers who continue to use aspects of Sylvia philosophy of valuing the natural imagery of each student as the basis for developing their reading and writing programmes -and with this the desire in each student to continue learning.

In the 60s and 70s these ideas were introduced into upper primary classes based on the ideas of another New Zealand pioneer, Elwyn Richardson. Developmental programmes, whole, or experience based learning, environmental studies, and integrated related arts, all contributed.

Unfortunately much of this creativity has been lost under the pressure of the standardised curriculums and associated accountability demands imposed in the 90s and, today, by the current obsession of schools to achieve reading and maths 'targets'.

The 'new' curriculum (07) offers creative teachers an opportunity to take centre stage once again but we will need new courageous pioneers who are able to inspire others.

Another who really valued the power of literacy was Brazilian educator Paolo Friere. His ideas reflected similar ideas to those of Sylvia Ashton Warner and other creative New Zealand teachers. Paolo worked with illiterate villagers who were under threat from those who oppressed them.

When Paolo, and his co-workers, entered a village his first step was to get the villagers to discuss their lives, interests, concerns and problems.Many were afraid to express their ideas or simply believed that nothing they could do would ever make a difference. It was, what he called, a 'culture of silence' and he set about to teach these villagers 'the awakening of consciousness'.

Slowly the villagers gained the confidence to talk and eventually they put more of themselves into their words, and began to speak with passion and conviction. As they talked Friere noted what he called 'key words'.Friere called these 'generative words' as they generated ideas out of which other words could be built from. Freire would write these words down and show the villagers how to write them, and by writing them, take hold of them, own them, possess them, and have them for their own use.

From such beginnings he was able to help the villagers, after a hard days work, become functionally literate over a period of eight weeks.

Too many of our failing children ( the 'achievement tail') and illiterate adults in the workforce, and in our prisons, have never felt the power of reading and writing. They have never understood the link between their speech and the written word, and that, behind every written word there is a human voice speaking, and that reading is a way to hear what these voices are saying. And, most importantly, that they have their own stories to share with others. This is all about 'learning power' rather than phonics and whole language.

Teachers don't 'teach' students to read, they provide the conditions to tap into students felt concerns to allow the innate evolutionary ability of all learner to 'make meaning' develop.

Sylvia Ashton Warner, Paolo Freire, and many creative teachers, have shown it can be done. What we now need are new creative pioneer teachers with the courage to believe to do whatever it takes. Such teachers, like Sylvia and Paolo, will have to believe that 'authentic' curriculums 'emerge' from their students innate talents, interests, dreams, passions, concerns and problems.

Reading needs to be seen by students as a natural extension of the own learning power. It is all about recognising the human 'voice' through reading and writing. It about recognising the power of their own stories the stories of others.

Reading is about power. It gives students a chance to celebrate who they are, to develop a positive learning identity, able to change things for the better.

Anything that increases peoples sense of their own dignity, competence and worth is sure to contribute to making the word a better place.

Literacy, in this respect, is central to being valuing the individuality of every learner but is not what I see in many classrooms today.

Tuesday, October 07, 2008

Educational heresy

Sylvia Ashton Warner introduced the idea of developing reading from the children's own experiences in the 1950s.

A recent National Education Monitoring Project (NEMP), looking at primary science teaching, stated that the lack of science teaching in primary schools was due to so little time being available to do science along with teachers lack of knowledge about science content.

It was a predictable finding.A one UK commentator has said ' the evil twins of literacy and numeracy have all but gobbled up the rest of the curriculum'. The same view was expressed by creativity expert Sir Ken Robinson who believes our current school system 'mines the minds' of our young children for literacy and numeracy ignoring other vital talents in the processes. Howard Gardner's work on multiple intelligences was developed to encourage educators to move away from an obsession with a fixed IQ focused on literacy and numeracy. Both writers see the need to develop the creative strengths of students ( or 'literacys' ) in a variety of creative areas.

A quick visit to any primary school will show that literacy and numeracy still reign supreme taking up all the morning teaching time. 'Targets' required by the Ministry to show 'evidence' of growth naturally focus on literacy and numeracy. As well schools are heavily influenced by formulaic 'best practice' literacy and numeracy contracts. Little time, or energy, is left for making the current studies selected from the other learning areas the focus of class learning. The future promises national testing in literacy and numeracy which will 'narrow' the curriculum even more.

Don't get me wrong, literacy and numeracy are important areas of learning but they ought to be seen as 'foundation skills'. All students need to achieve in these areas but where possible both should be integrated and used as learning 'tools'.

The 'new' New Zealand Curriculum provides inspiration for creative schools to develop exciting programmes based on the needs, interests and talents of their students and places the focus on 'learning how to learn' capabilities - called 'key competencies' in the curriculum.

My advice would be to assure all that students can achieve the agreed school levels in literacy and numeracy but to focus as much of the literacy programme on teaching students to apply and develop their skills in all areas of the curriculum. Students need to know how to to research, to comprehend what they read, and to express their ideas in range of formats ( involving aesthetic design and ICT skills). By this means extending time given to such areas as science. This is the intent of the 'new' New Zealand Curriculum.

This type of integrated teaching was once well recognised as the 'New Zealand 'approach'. 'Pioneers' such as Sylvia Ashton Warner and Elwyn Richardson led the way, followed by 'developmental learning' and the 'whole language'( or 'language experience') teaching of the 60s and 70s. The work of Marie Clay, and others, continued this learning centred emphasis. The valuing of personal and environmental experiences was an important element and provided a seamless connection between reading, writing talking , reflecting, thinking, imagining and creative expression. Exciting class studies played a central motivating role in such classrooms

It is these learner centred, holistic, experience based and creative teaching approaches that we ought to look back to for inspiration.

If we were to do this then we would see content studied in depth and where individual students ideas and forms of expression were celebrated in contrast to the superficial studies currently seen or reported in the NEMP research. Such teaching develops the very 'key competencies' that the new curriculum asks of us.

The literacy programme and, to a lesser degree, the numeracy programme, needs to be seen as a diverse time to develop a range of skills and strategies to contribute to the afternoon 'content' programme.

Such ideas provided rich and challenging philosophy for teachers in the days before the imposed curriculum's of the 90s.

As UK educational Guy Claxton writes, 'learnacy is more important than literacy or numeracy! 'Learnacy' is about 'learning power' necessary if all students are to achieve the dispositions and talents to become 'life long learners'. Or, as the 'new curriculum says, 'active seekers, users,and creators' able to achieve 'personal excellence'.

All we need to do is to think hard about the place of our literacy programmes in all this.

A simple vision for literacy wold be ' to learn to read, to read to learn, and to learn read between the lines.