Monday, November 24, 2008

Powerful Learning.

This book provides the research that backs up powerful learning strategies.A must read for school leaders and policy makers. Linda Darling-Hammond is a spokesperson on education for President elect Barrack Obama.

This is a book for the times
. Published with the support the George Lucas Foundation ( ) its premise is to demonstrate how innovative learning environments in classrooms, supported by new technologies, could revolutionize learning.

As industrial assembly lines are being given away in industry as they move towards more collaborative ways of working schools are remain caught in a web of educational thinking and systems that originated a century ago.

Fortunately the ‘dominant paradigm’ of mass education is showing sign of wear and seems incapable of being able to cater for today’s diverse range of students.

The book outlines how schools can transform themselves to help all students learn in more powerful ways so that they can meet confidently the demands the future will place on them and allow them all succeed in ways that align with their personal talents and skills.

These demands, the book argues, cannot be met by a return to basic skills and obsessive testing but instead will require that schools provide more meaningful learning experiences.

The book outlines the kind of teaching that produces more powerful learning but, more importantly, presents research on learning and teaching that summarizes what is known about effective teaching and learning strategies in three major areas – reading and literacy, mathematics and science – as well as selected strategies that are used across all learning areas and in interdisciplinary contexts, including project based learning ( inquiry learning) performance based assessment, and co-operative learning. It also looks at the factors and conditions that can influence the effectiveness of these strategies.

The book is intended for the policymakers whose decisions shape our education systems and the teachers and other educators who determine what happens in the classroom. Most valuable is the evidence the book gives about the outcomes of successful educational strategies, examples of what the looks like in practice, and insights about how they can become the norm, rather than the exception in our schools.

Of particular interest are the chapters showing how literacy and numeracy programmes need to be integrated into the inquiry programmes. All too often in our schools they are locked into their time slots and, because of this, the power of literacy and numeracy are underutilized.

This book will provide both inspiration and intellectual support for innovative schools, both primary and secondary, who are moving towards implementing the transformational spirit of the ‘new’ New Zealand Curriculum.

Natural born learners.

'Scintists in the Crib' by Gopnik, Meltzoff and Kuhl. A great book for parents of young children - and for teachers who need to trust children to do their own learning.

I had written, a while ago, that children, given the right conditions, had the attributes of young scientists.

A comment, from the Netherlands, suggested I ought to read the book The 'Scientist in the Crib' because it provided up to date research about how children learn to back up what I had written.

Great advice.

This book comes with high praise from educationalist. Jerome Bruner who writes, ‘this book is a gem, a really beautiful combination of scholarship and good sense’.

This exciting book discusses important discoveries about how much babies and young children know and learn. It argues that evolution designed both adults and children to naturally teach and learn off each other, and that the drive to learn is our most important instinct. Very young children, as well as some adults, use much of the same methods scientists use to learn so much about the world.

The Washington Post says this book, ‘should be placed in the hands of teachers, social workers, policy makers, expectant parents, and everyone who cares about children’. Another critic writes, ‘This is a terrific book – a page turner- , in fact I couldn’t wait to see what was going to happen next’. ’It is a must’.

Howard Gardner (of Multiple Intelligences fame) writes, ‘few books about human development speak so elegantly to both scholars and parents’.

A few extracts sum up the spirit of the book:

‘Scientists and children belong together in another way. New research shows babies and young children know and learn more about the world than we could ever have imagined. They think, they draw conclusions, make predictions, look for explanations, and even do experiments. Scientists and children belong together because they are the best learners in the universe’. ‘What we see in the crib is the greatest mind that has ever existed’. ‘It is not that children are little scientists but that scientists are big children’.

All the learning dispositions, including how to learn off others, are already in place at birth. One has to ask what happens to this innate ‘learning power’? If we are all born with the ability to discover the secrets of the universe why do so many children lose this love of learning; this infinite capacity to wonder and urge to question and explore?

The book expands on the three elements children have to ensure they learn :

1 Children are born with innate knowledge in place

2 They enter the world with powerful learning abilities.

3 They are 'programmed' to gain unconscious tuition from adults.

By watching young children learn, the book suggests, we can learn how to create the conditions for all students to learn. This is in contrast to the belief that underpins most teaching, that without teachers they couldn't learn. It redefines the role of the teacher to one of creating positive learning conditions, to personalise learning opportunities, providing appropriate feedback as required but always leaving the responsibility in the hand of the learner.

The book holds the solution to close the so called ‘achievement gap’ that seems to concern politicians so much. It asks us to stop teaching and to start observing. To place trust in learners because they are born to learn, it seems, until they become distracted by anxious teachers and the imposed demands of schools.

This is in contrast to those teachers who seem to want to 'deliver', plan and assess all the learning in their class. It asks of teachers to trust and respect to the natural learning abilities that all learners are born with.

It also begs the question of why it is that so many children lose this innate drive to learn? It seems that schools have become places where students learn not to do their own thing.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

The end of the world as we know it!

Most of our organisational structures, and the 'mindsets' of those work within them, reflect the industrial age they originated from. Most now no longer work and any amount of 'tinkering' will not help them survive. A new interconnected world awaits those prepared to let go of the past - in reality they will have no choice! Change will be painful for many but it will be inevitable.

I was convinced in the 80s that we were to enter a new age. Marilyn Ferguson supported my thoughts in her book 'the Aquarian Conspiracy'. Her idea was that slowly, by natural evolution, all organisations were in the process of being transformed. I think now she was wrong to believe things would naturally change just because good ideas were in the air. The past has away of clinging to power whatever happens.

The dramatic financial crisis the world is now experiencing is more an earthquake than an evolution. It is the result of a build up of pressure, but my feeling is, when the dust settles,it will result in a transformed world. At least I hope so! Perhaps we needed such an earthquake to remind us we should take nothing for granted.

We now are at, what physicist Frijof Capra calls, a 'turning point'. A time of dramatic and unannounced change that will transform human consciousness. An industrial 'mindset' of growth at all costs by faith in progress will be replaced by an ecological interconnected sustainable world view.

Such turning points have punctuated human development since the dawn of time. First farming and agriculture reshaped human development, then the Renaissance ( with the aid of the printing press) and in the 19thC the Industrial Revolution. Now we have the immense power of new technologies that are eroding away all barriers.

A new wave of change is upon us which will replace the mechanistic assumptions of our present systems.

It is at such times, when old paradigms crumble ,and when new ones are not fixed in place, that we get a great burst of creative thinking. There are those who say we are entering a new Creative Era or a Second Renaissance.

This certainly is my view. We will all have to think differently - we will need 'new minds for the new Millennium'. Education must be at the centre of this revolution. This will require us to change our whole education system. For some this will be frightening ( and some will try to return to past certainties) but for others it will be exciting.

In the meantime ,as in any transition, it will be messy as people search for solutions in time when no one seems to have any answers.

The demands of our times require people to develop new capabilities. Courage, innovation, experimentation and creativity will be at a premium. Not attributes one associates with current education!

Courageous school will have to let go of old ideas which are failing our students and embrace the new. This must go well beyond the current 'tinkering' we all too often see. One thing is certain those who currently 'control' educational development have little idea of what do do. If there is to be a change it will come from creative ideas from the 'edge' but for ideas to survive they conditions to grow and spread. As the poet Yeats wrote, 'Things fall apart, the centre cannot hold'.

At the centre of our survival will be our innate ability to learn to see new patterns and take advantage of new ideas that will 'emerge' out of the chaos.

Our 'new' New Zealand Curriculum, with its vision of 'confident, connected and creative' students is timely. It asks schools to ensure all students appreciate that learning is for life; to be 'seekers, users and creators' of their own meanings. The important attribute of a future learner will be to know what to do when they do not know what to do, to paraphrase Jean Piaget. Or to act in the way that all two year olds already do and which is put 'at risk' as soon as they enter formal schooling!

The rhetoric of 'new' New Zealand Curriculum is far from being realized. What we have in out school is not a student 'achievement gap' but a 'rhetoric reality gap'. It is our industrial aged schools that are out of step with the future.

We urgently need to transform our school system to develop both the 'learning power' ( or 'key competencies') and the talents and gifts of all our students.

We need a new story to replace the mechanistic 'mass' education sorting system we now have. If all students are to leave school equipped to solve the tremendous social, economic,and environment problems that our world currently faces schools have to change. Schools need to be 'personalised' so as to ensure all students succeed to realize their potential and not just the academic students. And we now know enough to achieve this but only if we change our minds as teachers first.

Now is the time to reflect on the purpose of education.

We need, as UK educator Guy Claxton writes, ' to inspire students to become brave and confident explorers, tough enough in spirit, and flexible enough of mind, to pursue their dreams. We must help them discover the things they most passionately want to get better at. To develop the confidence and capacity to pursue their passions'.

If we are to achieve this it will be because of the efforts of creative teachers and schools. It is no use waiting for the politicians because , as Michael Fullan says, 'they always get it wrong'.

The crisis we are in goes well beyond the financial - is marks the end of past thinking and the beginning of a new world.

Friday, November 14, 2008

Real life learning!

More thoughts from Guy Claxton's book 'What's the Point of School'.

Children are born to learn but you wouldn't think so when you consider 'school failure'! This appetite to learn , according to Guy Claxton, is innate and failure ought not to be an option.

All those unmotivated students are simply kids who don't want to learn what the school wants to teach them. The question, writes Guy Claxton, 'is not whether young people can be persuaded to learn,it is: 'what stops them, or puts them off'.

The key is to base school learning on 'real life learning' that occurs when people have to deal with their 'rich, messy, disconcerting life'.

Real life learning usually happens in the context of getting something interesting done - mostly learning is a means to an end. In real life 'you zoom in on a specific bit of focused learning at just the moment you need it.' In school, a good deal of learning lacks this timing.

School learning is often piecemeal broken down into little bits. School learning usually involves solving problems of carefully graded difficulty. In real life there is no one to to do the pre-grading for you. The learning curve is anything but smooth but you usually have more control over when, why,and how you go about doing it.

In real life learning often involves a lot of collaboration and talking. No one know the answer ahead of time. More knowledgeable members help each other. In school , though there is group work, learning is essentially individual and may even be competitive

In real life people:

Watch each other and copy or adapt what they see.
They go off by themselves to practice 'hard bits'
They ask their own questions and select their own 'teachers'.
They make scruffy notes and diagrams to hep them think and plan.
They create half baked ideas and possibilities and try them out.
They run through things in their head imagining how things might play out.
They imagine themselves doing something better and use this to guide their practice.

In school, he says, you may or not make use of these kinds of general learning tools, but you will rarely hear them talked about.

The missing key, states Claxton, 'is thinking about how to narrow the gap between the way learning is 'done' in schools, and the way it is done in the outside world'.

Children , Claxton says, quoting Cambridge professor Joan Riddick, are 'hungry for the three Rs -responsibility, respect and real- and the three Cs - choice, challenge and collaboration'.

Schools, it would seem , need to do some 'real' learning if they are to ensure all students retain their birthright to learn. 'School' failure ought not to be an option.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Guy Claxton's Magnificent Eight

Guy Claxton author of 'What's the Point of School', a book that examines why our current school system is failing so many children and how we might put it right.

Claxton's first priority is to create enthusiastic learners who can thrive in our complicated world.'Learnacy', he believes is more important than literacy and numeracy'.

Guy Claxton believes that teachers need to focus on how they relate to students in their classrooms. What is important , he writes, are the values embodied in how they talk, what they notice, the activities they design, the environments they create, and the examples they set day after day. These represent the culture of the class.

Every lesson invites students to use certain habits of mind, and to shelve others. The 'key competencies' ( or 'dispositions'), he says, are not a whole new thing but are an attempt to prioritize the 'habits of mind' young people are going to need to thrive in the 21stC. For some teachers, he continues, 'key competencies' are merely making explicit what they already do.

In his book 'Whats the Point of School' he outlines what good learners do (as against being a 'successful' students). He has sorted the dispositions of good learners into what he calls his magnificent eight'.Teachers need to encourage all of them.

1 Powerful learners are curious. They are born curious and are drawn to learning. They wonder about things, and know how to ask productive questions. They enjoy the process of wondering and questioning. Curious people, however, can be demanding and skeptical of what they're told.

2 Confidant learners have courage. They are not afraid of uncertainty and complexity. They have the confidence to say, 'I don't know?' - which is always a precursor to, 'lets find out'. They are willing to take risks and try new things. They 'stick' with things and 'bounce back' when things go wrong. They also know when to give up. They have 'mental toughness' or resilience.

3 Powerful learners are good at exploration and investigation they like finding out and are good at seeking and gathering information. They take the time to attend carefully and do not jump to conclusions. They are good at 'sifting' ideas and trust their ability to tell 'good evidence'.

4 Powerful learners requires experimentation. This is the virtue of trying things out to see if it works, or just to see what happens. They make mistakes, keeping what works for 'next time'. They like adjusting things, enjoy admiring their work in progress, and seeing how they can continually improve things. They say, 'lets try'...and, 'what if?' And they also know the importance of practice.

5 Powerful learners have imagination. They know how to use their 'inner world' to explore possibilities. They know how to make use of 'mental rehearsals' of how they might act.They also know how to relax and let idea come to them, finding links and connections ; they have a good feeling of 'rightness'.

6 The creativity of imagination needs to yoked to discipline. They have the ability to think carefully, rigorously and methodically. They are good at 'hard thinking' and ask, 'how come'? They are good at creating explanations, making plans, crafting ideas, and making predictions based on their evidence. They are also open to serendipity and to changing their minds if necessary.

7 Powerful learners know the virtue of sociability. They are happy collaborating and sharing their ideas and resources. They are good members of groups able to help groups solve problems. They are able to both give their views, receive feedback, and listen respectfully to others.

8 Powerful learners are reflective. They are able to step back and take stock of progress. They are able to mull over their actions and consider how they might have done things differently. Good learners are self aware, able to contemplate their actions to continually 'grow their learning power'.

Claxton believes that his 'magnificent eight' are both specific enough, and general enough, to cover most of the positive learning behaviours ( 'key competencies') we need to encourage, both as teachers and parents.

They seem to me to be the 'dispositions' that we would want of our teachers as well?