Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Garden 3

Garden 2


Wednesday, December 23, 2009

My piece of paradise.


Best wishes for the festive season from me

2009 has been a kind year for me as I have had the opportunity to travel widely around New Zealand to share ideas about creative teaching - ideas that are being placed at risk by the Government's imposition of National Standards - so the challenge continues.

My thanks to all who have asked me to work with them. They have all helped me have my house painted!

Ka kite ano


Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Testing times?

Mrs Tolley will go down as one of the disasters in education if her uninformed and simplistic views are imposed on teachers. The question is how strong will teachers be in resisting her reactionary ideas? We will find out next year.

‘May you live in interesting times’, the Chinese saying goes; or as Charles Dickens’s wrote about the Victorian Era, it is the ‘best of and the worst of times’.

Just as schools were becoming enthusiastic about implementing the 2007 New Zealand Curriculum the ‘new’ government is imposing its populist national standards in literacy and numeracy on schools; standards which have more than a whiff of the Victorian Era about them.

It all sounds simple enough. From next year all primary schools will have to test children against national standards in literacy and numeracy (reading writing and maths). Schools will have to report the results to parents in clear language, with suggestions on what each child needs to learn.

So what is the problem?

Well, like most simple solutions to complex problems, there is more to education than competency in the ‘three Rs’. And it is not that schools are currently neglecting them. Most primary schools already spend all morning on such skills leaving little time for other important learning areas. Those parents who assist in schools would attest to this but for many the cry of ‘back to basics’ makes equal sense and for populist politicians always a good vote catcher. Primary education suffers more than its fair share of scaremongering. Standards, it seems, are always falling without any real evidence. Many people feel there was a ‘golden era’ when all children learnt to read and write and do their sums but it is a hard era to pinpoint – particularly when you include the words ‘all children’.

It is time to move on from such polarization and name calling.Children deserve better from our nation’s leaders and shapers of opinion but it seems it is hard to shake off the legacy of Victorian thinking. Old habits of thought die hard. What we need are students ‘with the future in their bones’. As the Hebrew saying reminds us, ‘do not confine your children to your own learning for they were born in another time.’

The Government claims parents are overwhelmingly in favour of their standards but the Ministry’s empty rituals of consultative meetings were more explanatory than democratic. A recent NZCER report indicted parental support was lacking.

Are New Zealand students failing?

International tests show that New Zealand students do well in the areas the national standards are focusing on. The Minister’s argument is that standards will further improve student achievement and help teachers solve the problem of the worrying ‘achievement tail’. The trouble is that there is little research or evidence to back up such claims and in the two countries that have gone down this testing line (the UK and the US) their students do worse than ‘kiwi kids’.

Creating a crisis to solve?

What this emphasis on the need for national standards is doing is creating a crisis to solve that does not exist and diverting valuable teacher energy and time from implementing our new exciting curriculum. As Francis Nelson, President of the NZEI writes, ”league tables driven by simplistic data and complied for the ‘titillation’ of the ‘blame the teacher’ adherents will see the highly regarded New Zealand Curriculum turned on its head.” Kelvin Squire, a past president of the NZPPF, has written that ‘Tolley’s folly’, the national standards, have ‘sown a political seed that somehow or other we can’t trust the profession.’

Editorials have been one sided in their view on teachers, accusing them of self interest and being frightened of what the tests might show. Even the president of the School Trustees Association writes, “that those who are scaremongering now need to get over it.” Scaremongering obviously has a better ring to it than saying ‘those with viable educational views that run counter to the Government’s intentions’.

Not all is lost – let the teachers teach.

The editor of the Sunday Herald got well beyond the Government’s press releases in its editorial of October 25 headed, ‘Let the teachers teach not count’. “Everybody knows best about education,” the editor writes, “by having been to school … no one claims that their experience of driving a car confers any specialist authority in automotive mechanics.” He says, the announcement of the education standards was calculated to induce warm and fuzzy feelings in parents by capitalizing on the anxiety parents feel about their children’s education, which can be relied on for a rich source of political capital. “For the widely trumpeted fulfillment of an election pledge,” he says, “it is a bad look.” Teachers, he believes, have a right to question things that are not in the best interest of their students. They are right to bring to parents’ attention that there is so much assessment of learning going on that there isn’t any time for teaching.

These are not the only concerns of educators.

New Zealand teachers have a proud reputation for being innovative and creative teachers; a reputation that has been put at risk since the imposition of the 1986 National Curriculum. The 2007 New Zealand Curriculum replaces this previously overcrowded and unmanageable curriculum. The new curriculum has been welcomed by teachers and widely acclaimed internationally.

It is ironic that just when teachers are becoming enthusiastic about the possibilities of the new curriculum the current emphasis on national standards will divert their efforts and the students will be the real losers in this confusion

Wednesday, December 09, 2009

Mary Chamberlain's defense of National Standards.

Mary Chamberlain's new role seems to be defending the imposition of the Government's populist simplistic National Standards.After having observed her present 'her' ideas at a seminar held in Northland I am sure her heart is not in it. After her great work in developing the highly respected New Zealand Curriculum this diversion is a shame. This blog is in response to a letter she wrote to our local paper defending the standards.

It is sad to see Mary Chamberlain, a highly respected educator, in the role of the Government's 'spin doctor', defending the educationally unsound National Standards.

While Mary acknowledges that New Zealand students are among the best in the world in student achievement it is the worrying 'achievement tail' that requires the implementation of the National Standards to identify failing students. National Standards, she writes, are to be seen as 'signposts' for teachers and parents to indicate progress and suggest next steps.

Sounds sensible enough but she neglects to say that schools can already identify the children who are underachieving and also know that most of this underachievement relates to the considerable disadvantages in the circumstances of the children's lives. Anyone who has taught in low decile schools will understand this and parents, who do their best to get their children into high decile schools, obviously have good idea.

The introduction of National Standards in other countries have failed to make any lasting difference for such children. In the UK achievement at first lifted, then plateaued and now is trending down. Worse still children's attitudes and enjoyment of maths and reading is falling and teacher morale is at risk. Some price to pay for a politically imposed idea.

What is really required is to improve the home circumstances of the children 'at risk' and to provide schools some real resources and teachers professional assistance.

As for Mary saying that National Standards will not involve 'testing', children instead will be 'assessed', what does this mean? Standards, she assures, will also not result in 'teachers being pressurised to teach the tests'. In this she is being naive as this is exactly what has happened in countries that have introduced National Standards. In these countries other important areas, including the creative arts and science, have been sidelined as teachers focus on literacy and numeracy. Teachers have become snowed under collecting evidence and data taking them away from interacting with their students. Most parents know ,and research backs this up, that it is the quality of the teacher, and the relationship with their child, that really makes the difference. Under National Standards every learner will be assessed against the Standards as below, average, or above average twice a year. This will create winners and losers.

Mary concludes her letter by saying 'National Standards will improve teaching and learning in ALL areas of the curriculum and for ALL students'. This is being somewhat economical with the truth. She fails to mention that the current range of school advisers ( in physical eduction,art, music, science, technology, environmental education etc) will now be restricted to literacy and numeracy. For many students this will restrict their chances to shine in areas they love and, for teachers, reduce support for them to introduce the 'new' New Zealand Curriculum - one they are keen to implement.

Our children deserve better than being sacrificed by the hurried introduction of an idea that has been shown to fail in the countries where it has been introduced.

The best answer to National Standards would be to run proper trials to see if they do work with underachieving students before imposing them on all schools.

This is what Mary should be fighting for.

Thursday, December 03, 2009

A chance to do some real inquiry: Harakeke study.

An environmentally alert teacher aways keep an eye open for interesting things to introduce to his, or her, students. November/December is an ideal time for environmental or ecological studies. My visits to schools this term indicates such awareness is a lost art.

By term four students should be fully equip ed with all the skills and strategies in place to undertake inquiry topics on their own or with minimum assistance. The ability to do this would indicate that students are able to 'seek, use and create their own knowledge' as asked by the New Zealand Curriculum.

Driving around last month I couldn't help but note the untapped resources available for teachers to involve their class in exploring.

This is a great time to study harakeke or flax, one of New Zealand iconic plants. Students could visit to admire the shapes,patterns and movements and to observe the recent flower stalks and developing seed pods. Digital photos could record various aspects to later draw or write thought poems about. From such activities questions will arise for students to research. If you can find some last years pods count how many seed on an average flax bush - this will involve estimation.

Other interesting areas to explore are roadsides, lawns or wilderness grassy areas, to find out what plants thrive in such special conditions. There is no need to worry about naming plants - this will evolve with time.In the first instance take digital photos of plants and record how common they are on a scale the class can develop themselves. Individual plants an be studied, drawn , described and named where possible ( there will be experts in the community you could call on). If there are daisies on the lawn throw some PE rings and count out how many there are - or run a line across the lawn and count the daisies ( or any other plant) touched.This is a simple line transect - real maths in action.

Most schools have interesting plants ( annuals or shrubs) flowering at this time of the year.Take digital photos of some, do observational drawing of them, study them and display what has been found out. Vegetables and fruits make interesting studies - study them and research where they originated.

What birds inhabit the school grounds - once again take photos and descriptions and research back in class.

Some schools might be near the seashore with the possibilities of ecological studies of rocky shore or sand dunes but at this time of year time might not be available for such interesting studies. Same with the bush. However many schools have native plant gardens, what plants have been used. Take digital photos, draw and research.

Leaving natural science studies students could just develop artistic and aesthetic awareness. The digital camera is ideal. Send students out in small group to photograph, say six, interesting patterns, tree trunks, maths patterns, very small things, strange small plants..anything. Print and display. Add thought poems.

Classrooms should be full of such things.It is time for blue penguins, disaster studies, and save the rain forest studies to move over and let the real world in.

Mr popularity and Mrs simplicity but where are we going as a country?.

'While I am popular we can do whatever we like - just keep smiling'.

The new government is having a dream run.

Running up to the election they tapped into all the fears and prejudices of the public - crushing boy racer cars, locking up people forever in jail and, of course, introducing national standards in reading and mathematics.

This, plus a electorate grown increasingly tired of the previous government demeaned by those in opposition as leading us increasingly into a 'nanny state', has given them the mandate to put into action a range of simplistic solutions to complex problems.

The simplest solution to a complex problem is the governments answer to education and they couldn't have picked a better minister for the job! Our minister has small range of simplistic answers to any question asked of her.

Recently, in a amazing piece of 'spin' ( propaganda), our minister sorted out the facts from the fiction about national standards. 'Facts', it seems, are whatever the person in power wants them to be and 'fiction' is what other people believe to be facts.

So it boils down to the ministers opinions (and her unnamed lackeys*) versus the others with a wealth of experience who are happy to be identified.

Before the election the government spread ( shock horror) that one in five students leave school without reading, writing and maths skills and, worse still, these failing students made up a long low achievement tail 'robbing children of a bright future'.

The researched 'truth' ( Lester Flockton) shows this tail is not restricted to New Zealand and relates to children coming from disadvantaged socio economic situations. Before the election even our current Prime Minister had discovered that we have a growing underclass in New Zealand. How this underclass had been created is a question politicians would rather not discuss. Nor the relationship between economic hardship and failing learners.

Our minister wants to solve the problem of the failing students and 'her answer', is to impose national standards to find out what students need help and how much help they need. Parents will be told bluntly in 'plain english' using 'plunket' style graphs' where their child stands.

It seems we have exchanged the 'nanny state' for an autocratic 'big brother' knows best one. And we already know which students are failing and the schools they attend. The answer is not national standards, which have failed in the UK, but to improve the teachers capabilities in such schools and, even better, solving the problem of unemployment and hardship these children's parents suffer. The minister is going to get her tame technocrats to deliver better standards than were developed (and failed) in the UK - yeah right!

Our minister does not see national standards as labelling students - well I am pleased she does. I am not so sure that being told twice year, for eight years, that you are below average will be a positive experience for failing learners. And I am not so sure that being judged on a narrow ( if important ) range of traditional skills and in the process ignoring a child's special talents and strengths will do non-academic students any good.

The minister claims the 'their research' indicted parental support for their proposals but other research show almost the opposite - so much for 'truth'. It depends on what side of the political fence one stands.

This is all about political dogma not education - but that is an opinion. The minister counts such a views as mischievous!

She want professional support to implement her idea but she has no inclination to listen to their voices and concerns
- we are moving well a way from democracy in this respect. Professional integrity is of no concern to our minister. Dogma , it seems, trumps integrity.

Opposition to the Ministers dogmatic point of view ( her truth) is dismissed by her shrilly as 'hysterical' or 'threats' from 'naysayers'. She twists the truth to say the reason why other advisers are to be disbanded and replaced by more literacy and maths adviser was at the request of teachers because 'they' said they needed more help in these areas. In the USA such advisers are seen as 'literacy Nazis' enforcing central government orders.

The legislation was rushed through Parliament, there is to be no trial period, no concessions, the minister know best. The parents want them ( read the government wants them and some parents agree) they will be imposed.

For those who speak out against her views she say 'please get your facts straight and stop trying to mislead parents'.

Is she for real

This is the poorest education minister we have ever had - so much for Nationals standards - there are none.

* It seems Mary Chamberlain, Group Manager Ministry of Education, has been given this role - more a 'hospital pass'.It would be a shame if such a respected educationalist were to be finally remembered for the failing introduction of the imported concept of national standards!

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

National Standards or political dogma

School principals need to have a vision, no matter how undefined, and a set of shared beliefs to propel their imagined waka into an unknown future. Imposed distractions must be ignored.

I am off to the far north this week to share my ideas of the dangers implicit in politically imposed national standards which will take schools attention away from the New Zealand Curriculum.

This blog is an attempt to clarify what I want to say.

I used to be totally opposed to the previous New Zealand Curriculum (NZCF) and all those who 'delivered' it to schools through predefined Ministry contracts. It was an incoherent curriculum; a futile attempt to impose an impossible confusion of strands, levels and countless learning objectives. It was all about accountability, measurement and and efficiency. This all changed for me with the introduction of the 2007 New Zealand Curriculum (NZC).

Since the introduction of the earlier NZCF the creativity of teachers has been at risk as formulaic 'best practices' have been imposed on schools; practices devised by distant 'experts' seeing clearly what is need in their Ivory towers.

Sharing the ideas of creative teachers has aways been the driving force in the work I do in schools. Interestingly the far North was the home of our most important pioneer creative teacher - Elwyn Richardson. It is to such teachers we should be looking to for inspiration. If we are not alert national standards could well be the last straw for such creativity.

We must do everything we can to ensure the implementation of such standards do not distort, distract, or divert us from belief in the creativity of teachers and students.

Let's be clear national standards are pure political dogma. A political interference that has not worked in countries that it has been introduced notably the UK where , combined with demeaning 'league tables' it has all but destroyed their education system to the point that a recent report( the Cambridge Review) is asking their government to introduce a curriculum which looks very much like our own new NZC.

Ironically the Cambridge Review was announced in the same week our government presented its reactionary standards policy.

It seems the Ministry can find few 'experts' to back up 'their' standards implementation. My impression is that the technocrats who work for the Ministry are too busy learning to dance to the tunes of their new masters - and in the process putting their personal integrity at risk. Even John Hattie, once a Ministry favourite, has come out against the standards. Who are their tame experts?

Lester Flockton writes that, make no mistake, the standards are not neutral; they reflect the ideology of those who wish to implement them. Kelvin Smythe has said that 'the standards will become the de facto curriculum enforced by the Education Review Office'.

And what is the rationale for the standards? If it is to find out which children are currently failing (our 'achievement tail')well we know that already through the National Monitoring Programme (NEMP).And we know this 'tail' represents wider issues of poverty beyond the scope of the school to solve by themselves. And we know that it is the quality of teachers that make the biggest difference. This is where we ought to be putting our emphasis. Terry Crooks (of NEMP) has said that the issue is not one of testing it is one of motivation - and motivation depends on the insight creative teachers.

The government is determined to place dogma ahead of creativity and imagination, qualities that are already at risk by a decade or so of Ministry imposed formulaic conforming 'best practices. Elwyn Richardson would be appalled if he were to see what currently passes for creative art, language or student research.

Andy Hargreaves has written about Four Worlds of Change since the Second World War. The first the 60s/70s an age of creativity but all too often determined by the 'lottery' of getting a creative teacher. The Second World was the result of the Market Forces Efficiency model - all those measurable strands levels and objectives. Rationality gone mad - led by the same Ministry technocrats we now are being led by! As this proved impossible this morphed into the Third World with its narrowing focus on literacy and numeracy targets. With targets it is not what you hit that counts it is what you miss because you weren't looking! As a result literacy and numeracy have, according to one commentator, have 'all but gobbled up the rest of the curriculum'. Creativity was now at at real risk.

And then the Fourth World represented well by our 'new' New Zealand Curriculum.
Elwyn, and his creative antecedents would see this curriculum as 'back to the future!'. Creativity and imagination seemed poised to return to centre stage.It was to be the 60s again but this time to be done better through schools networking with each other.

And along comes the National Standards and New Zealand seems set to lose its leadership role in developing a 21st Century education system. National standards have more than a 'whiff of the Victorian Era about them' no matter what the ministry apologists say. At best it is a 'big brother' imposition - 'free market Stalinism'.

All the art advisers, and the like, that add valuable dimensions to student learning and teacher education, are to be replaced by literacy and numeracy advisers - referred to as 'literacy Nazis' in the USA. All so sad and misguided.

This narrow minded approach neglects the power of transformational experiences, the essence of creative teaching, that can turn failing students into learners - the motivation of Terry Crooks. Teaching, Jerome Bruner writes,' is the canny art of intellectual temptation'. The Te Kotahitanga research of Russell Bishop has shown it is about valuing students' voice, identity and culture; about respectful relationships

Guy Claxton in his book, aptly named 'Whats the Point of School', believes that the desire to learn ( he calls this 'learnacy') is as important as literacy and numeracy. Creativity expert, Sir Ken Robinson, writes that 'creativity is as important as literacy and numeracy' and that schools need to focus on finding what every learner is good at and then amplifying their gifts and talents.

Simple stuff and yet the government, without real evidence , is set on imposed their failed national standards. They, of course, say they have developed a better model! it is simplicity disguised as truth - one dimension thinking lacking any real debate. What it will mean is that every student will be tested twice year ( 16 times at primary school). Many will be found below average and will stay there - that is unless our Minister thinks that we can make them all above average with good teaching! Failure will stick and society will pay the price for such idiocy.

I am for standing up against such simplistic educational nonsense. It panders to the public anxiety stirred by the current government for their own ends. It will prove to be giant error no matter the Ministry's justifications. It will not solve the growing disengagement of our students who simply can't see the point of our antiquated school system with its genesis in a past century. The standards are a reversion to the failed market forces model. Standardisation is over - we now live in an age of ideas and imagination, some are calling it a 'second Renaissance; our schools need to reflect such exciting future thinking.

I am for creative teaching - it was once the New Zealand way. We need an updated vision building on the ideas of Dr Beeby ( who developed such ideas in the 1940s) - a creative personalised learning pathway is required for every student.

I am for the intent of the 'new' NZC.

Our students are entering a new millennium - they will need 'new minds', new dispositions, to thrive, to face up future uncertainty and ambiguity, and to solve problems we currently seem unable to face up to. Literacy and numeracy are important but they will not be enough and an over emphasis on them will distort our teaching and sacrifice our very students survival. They deserve better. We deserve better.

With apologies to Martin Luther King, I have a dream of a creative education that releases the gifts and talents of all our students. And, like folk singer Pete Seeger's hymn of the 60s civil rights movement, if we stick together 'we shall overcome some day'.

We will need real leadership. Creative teaching - developing the gifts and talents of all our students is 'worth fighting for'.

Our kids deserve our best efforts.

Kia kaha

Friday, November 13, 2009

More information please: National Standards

It all seems so simple but does it give a true picture of a learners progress and what will be neglected while the focus goes on improving the graphs? With the 'real' plunket graphs parent could at least feed their child to improve height and weight.

Newspaper editors and opinion writer have had a field day with the national standards 'debate'. Actually 'debate' there hasn't been. Opinion has held sway fed by Ministry of Education spin.

Where are the investigative journalists these days are are papers just worried about pandering to the prejudices of their readers?

Anyway I was motivated to write to our local paper after a poorly written editorial featuring the full range of shallow writing that seems to have taken the place for editorials these days.

Maybe others should write to their local papers?

Dear Sir

I guess it is in the nature of editorials to be full of generalizations and to be provocative. I refer to your editorial of the Friday 6th of November about the misinformation about the proposed national standards. Most of it, you state, coming from educators with vested interests.

If parents are not to be left, as you say, ‘languishing and wondering’ who is right in this ‘fiery nasty debate’ about national standards then this surely is an opportunity for some real in depth investigative journalism?

There is no doubt on the surface national standards do seem a sensible idea but what do they really mean beyond the simplistic ‘plunket style’ graphs showing student progress in a few defined areas?

If your paper is interested in enlightening parents and readers I suggest your education reporter researches:

1. What evidence can the Minister, or the Ministry of Education, provide to support the introduction of such standards? Can they point to other countries using them successfully without any distorting side effects?

2. What countries do best in international testing and do they use national testing in the areas to be covered by national standards? And where do New Zealand students stand in these tests?

3. What does the three year Cambridge Study of Primary Education say about the effects of national testing (and ‘league tables’) in the UK? What does it say about the levels of anxiety and stress for students, teachers and parents?

4. What do internationally recognized New Zealand assessment experts say about national testing? Or international experts for that matter?

5. What current testing going on in primary schools around literacy and numeracy and the time spend each week on such important areas of learning?

6. What did the recently released NZCER research say about the feeling of parents re national standards?

I am also curious to know what you mean about by the ‘softer focus and broader learning’ that you mentioned in your editorial. How does it relate to the exciting demands of the recently published and internationally acclaimed New Zealand Curriculum?

Is education to be a debate between the Right’s narrow accountability culture and the Left’s soft focus (whatever that means) as you seem to think it is all about?

As you say in your editorial there is a great deal of misinformation about but I do not agree that it is coming from the educators. In my experience teachers work hard on behalf of their students and not, as you infer, for their own vested interests.

Maybe your paper can help sort all this misinformation out for your readers?

Yours faithfully

Bruce Hammonds

If we are to enter the debate we ought to know the answers to most of the above questions?

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Creativity places creativity further at risk.

New Zealand creative teachers about to be straitjacketed by the imposition of the failed concept of national standards.

NZ is introducing national standards in education. This is akin to shifting the deck challenges on the Titanic! It will finally destroy what is left of creativity in the system after a decade of conformist ‘best practices’. We need a better vision of what the world can be and then to develop education systems to develop all the gifts and talents of our students to help this vision be realized.

In NZ we have a futurist curriculum but it is now being sidelined by reactionary national standards.

New Zealand currently sits in the company of the best in the world educationally yet the populist (and thus popular) conservatist government is determined to introduce the failed concept of national standards.

Our Minister seems set to destroy the creative spirit of New Zealand teachers.

Educationalists know the damage that will result: a narrowing of the curriculum, distortion of teaching and a limiting of teacher creativity and innovation. All this will create confusion just as schools are introducing a new innovative future orientated curriculum.

Kelvin Smythe has written that the pressure created by national standards will in effect make the standards the ‘de facto’ curriculum.

Lester Flockton makes the valid point that national standards are not ‘neither good nor bad’ and that it is nonsense to say that the standards are neutral; they represent the political mindset of those who construct them.

New Zealand assessment expert Terry Crooks, after a lifetime in educational assessment, says there is little evidence that students actually improve when testing is in place. ‘The answer isn’t measurement’, he says, ‘it is one of motivation’. ‘What we want is better teaching to engage all learners. We need’, he says, ‘to compliment their interests and find ways to broaden them. This is the prime purpose of education.’

US critic Alfie Kohn gives us further inspiration for us to fight back writing, ‘A plague has been sweeping through our schools wiping out the most innovative instruction and beating down some of the best teachers…ironically this has been in the name of improving schools invoking such terms as tougher standards. This heavy handed, top down, test driven version of school reform is turning schools into test prep centres, effectively closing off intellectual inquiry, and undermining enthusiasm for learning…this is a political movement that must be opposed.’

Herbert Kohl (an inspirational voice from the creative 60s/70s) recently wrote to President Obama about the President’s misguided intention to develop USA wide standards, saying, ‘this teaching towards standards naturally leads to boredom and alienation from school based learning. This impoverishment is reinforced by cutting programmes in the arts The free play of imagination, which is so crucial for problem solving, is discouraged in a basic programmes lacking in substantial artistic and human content,’

Frank Smith (Literacy expert) says. ‘I discovered the brutally simple motivation behind the imposition of all systematic programmes and tests – a lack of trust that teachers can teach and children can learn’.

I am with Kohn, Kohn, Smith, Smythe,Flockton and Crooks. Even John Hattie ambivalent about the value of national standards -I guess he wants to protect his own testing marketing. Who is actually is on the other side other than politicians?

We are faced with ‘Free market Stalinism’; the ‘big brother state’ will become the NZ Way!

Are we to prepare our kids for a life of testing or the tests of life?’ Our schools are already over testing for little lasting effect; the tail is already wagging the dog’!

If only politicians would listen!

The creativity of New Zealand teachers, having had to put up with recent formulaic 'best practice' teaching, is now at real risk.

Thursday, November 05, 2009

Guy Claxton - building learning power.

Anyone who has attended one of Guy Claxton' presentations ( as I did yesterday) ought to buy his book 'What's the Point of School'. This book is 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.' The challenge of redesigning schools is a big ask but the book gives lots of very practical advice about how to create enthusiastic learners and more effective teaching. In particular the 'learning power' ideas gives guidance to how New Zealand teachers can implement the 'key competencies' of the new curriculum.

I have just spent an enjoyable day listening to Guy Claxton talk about 'Building Learning Power'.All the more enjoyable because I have long been an avid reader of his many books and find myself often quoting him.

After such a day the question is what will those attending do when they get back to their schools? He asked us all to consider the ideas he was sharing and to place them into three baskets : 'We already do it', Maybe? Or we used to'; and 'ridiculous'. Good advice.

With the onset of National Standards the day was even more valuable.Although not mentioned at any great length the message was that by focusing on developing students 'learning power' ( our 'key competencies') teachers and their students will cope the standards without too much anxiety. As Claxton quoted, 'Are we preparing our students for a life of tests or the tests of life?'

We need , he said, 'To provide our students with the emotional and cognitive resources to become the 'confident, connected, life long learners'; the vision of the NZC. To achieve this is all about powerful pedagogy

The important thing, he said ,was to infuse the Key competencies into every thing that happens at school and not see them as a 'bolt on'. Those who have attended presentations by Art Costa will recognise this 'infusing' approach. Costa's habits of mind are another version of the future orientated key competencies. Such capacities, or dispositions, need to become part of the culture of the school. It is about what Claxton sometimes calls 'learnacy' - the openness to continually learn. This 'learnacy must be at the forefront of all teaching in any subject area. Powerful thinking classrooms could have student generated 'What to do if you are stuck' charts.

At center is the belief that all students can develop their learning power? How do your students see their ability - one one fixed by birth and set for life ( a 'fixed bucket') or one that can be continually expanded ( a 'learning muscle'). The 'mindset' a student holds will effect all their future learning - or non learning. We need, he said, to ask our students about their mindset about learning. 'Bucket thinkers', high or low achievers, do not like taking risks for fear of failing. 'Learning muscle' students are 'have a go thinkers' - the right mindset for National Standard testing!

Both teachers and students need to know what habits of mind ( learning muscles) that they need to exercise, stretch and strengthen. These 'learning power' capacities need, as mentioned, to be part of all learning. They must be a permeate of the culture of the school. 'Messages' that learning power is important ought to be obvious to all. Everone at the school should speak 'learnish' - using common thinking phases .

When we introduce content to our students they need to experience it as a means to develop such habits, to be skeptical and questioning, to use their imagination, develop empathy ( what Kelvin Smythe call a 'feeling for') as well as in depth understanding. This is process and content.

I agreed with Guy Claxton when he said that much of what is seen in many classes makes little impact: thinking styles -we all have our own style; de Bono's hats - more displayed than used; and mind maps - poorly used. Not that, he said, they all can't be useful. And all that drinking of water! With much isolated thinking skill teaching their is little evidence of transfer into new situations. Teachers have to help their students develop this facility in new situations; use it or lose it. An excellent metaphor Claxton introduced was that of 'split screen'; teaching where the teacher interacts with their students ( say when experimenting with magnets) providing prompts to support students process/science thinking and as also developing in depth content thinking.

Claxton repeated, what we all know, that it is the quality of the individual teacher that counts - that, 'there is a fourfold difference between the most effective and least effective classrooms( Dylan Williams)'. And this is backed by John Hattie's 'meta research'. Teachers have to be the best learners in their classroom. Students pick up 'learning power' by example as much as anything. How teachers demonstrate how they struggle though a problem is an excellent lesson for their students!

The language we use is also important. We need to say 'you could do' rather than 'this is the way' makes a big difference. Even replacing the use of the word 'work' for 'learning' makes a big difference. Worth trying as school?

The room environment should also celebrate children's thinking, their prototypes, as well as their completed projects. I like the idea of students having 'thinking journals' ( 'process folios') where they draft out ideas to help them sort out their thinking. Such a book would be a vital means for teacher,students and parent dialogue.

Students and teachers, Claxton suggested, could discuss what makes a powerful learner -and a teacher. These could be displayed and shared with parents. The key competencies would provide ideas for such an activity. Students , Claxton said, after compiling such a list of dispositions, could then self-assess themselves to see how good a learner they are. Resiliency would be top of my list.

As for reporting on students progress towards being powerful thinkers ( with key competencies in place) the suggestion was to write narratives indicating strengths and areas to focus on for individual students - plus of course the results of National Standards testing!

'Learning power ( the key competencies) is the lifeblood of happy life.' Happiness' quoting Csikszentmihalyi, 'arises ...from engaging in a worthwhile challenge'. 'Where there is hope of success'.'Progress is made'.'Full absorption is possible'.'Feedback is clear'

Today wasn't about worthwhile challenges it was about giving students the power to 'seek, use and create their own learning'.

'Things won are done; the joy's soul lies in the doing',Claxton quotes Shakespeare. I agree with this but the feeling of achieving something great lasts forever as well.

I am sure all who attended left with their 'practical thoughts and possibilities' baskets full.

Tuesday, November 03, 2009

Are we brave enough to live for the future?

The past seems a simpler place to think about - the future is so messy and unpredictable.

Years ago educational philosopher John Dewey wrote that the best preparation for the future is to live well today. Good advice.

A while ago I listened to an interview about such things.

Hindsight bias, it seems, drains the uncertainty from the past while looking into the future is just so unpredictable. This uncertainly interferes with our judgment and provides us with a bias to conservatism.

Our conservative autious minds tend to see minor changes as progress but most of such changes are inconsequential. We, it seems have two sorts of minds - a reasoning one and an emotional one. Over the centuries we have learnt to distrust our emotions but they still underpin our actions. Unconsciously our minds decide quickly if any event brings a feeling of fear or is positive. Reasoning is just too slow so we need to learn to value our emotions positively.

Research shows that it is our unconscious minds that make all the decisions - our intuitions - our gut feelings. The trouble is that this goes against what we have been taught to believe. After our mind has been made up ( by itself) we go over the event and reconstruct it as if we actually planned our actions and then we make up rules for the future.

This quick response comes from our stone age past when decision had to be made fast for pure survival.The trouble is today we do not live in this ancient world. Today electronic media 'burn' memories, such as stranger danger, into the brain making us fearful.

As a result we are becoming a risk averse society. Our media is full of bad news to be worried about and all well beyond our immediate experience- this is in contrast to our stone age ancestors.

Reality is being distorted.

Our risk averse habits widen. We need to be aware of this development and be more critical. We must learn to examine our emotions. We need real information, to debate issues and examine feelings. Stone age primitive 'on /off' thinking is no longer appropriate although our politicians revel in such simplistic thinking.As emotions rule our lives we need to make sense of them - emotional control/ awareness needs to be seen as positive.

Our stone age minds saw 9/11 in vivid colour in our living room. This tended to make us afraid of flying irrationality but it more dangerous to travel by car. After 9/11 people travelled in cars rather than flying and far more were killed than if they had flown.

Learning to adapt to new fears is both a blessing and a curse. We get habituated to such things as nuclear war and climate change. This is why so many don't care about climate warming.It is too big for our stone age brains to comprehend. Too abstract. But with stranger danger we over emphasize the danger.

As a result of being risk averse we have become a 'cotton wool' society.

We need a more realistic approach

We need the confidence to take more risks, to stop being so compliant, and this can only be done by really examining the situation, the facts, and not being side tracked superficially by our emotions, or fears, as if we still lived in simplistic immediate stone age world.

The future needs us to be risk takers.

Seems to make sense to me.

Life is safer than we have come to believe about some things and more dangerous about some big things we can't comprehend. We need to take risks to cope with both.

Monday, November 02, 2009

Creativity or back to the past?

If you haven't heard Sir Ken Robinson speak about creativity you have missed a treat. A great antidote to the current back to the past diversion of national standards. Google him and listen to his TED Talk video.

Teachers' attention seem to have been taken up of late by the issue of national standards where all students in the future will be reported on to their parent about where they stand in comparison to their age group.

There is little research or evidence that students actually achieve better when such testing is in place as in the United Kingdom. The opposite is almost true as initial improvements have plateaued and are now trending down. And to make matters worse students attitudes towards the tested subjects is falling and , as well, considerable anxiety has been created for teachers, students and parents alike. Those who are interested in some in depth thinking around the topic should read the UK Cambridge Review summary which is very critical of national standards.

And it is not even that UK students outperform kiwi kids. The big issue, as in most countries, is the so called 'achievement tail'. Evidence suggests that this 'tail' is the result of poverty combined with ethnicity. Schools can only do so much when the playing field is so uneven for the students who enter. New Zealand assessment expert Terry Crooks has written that the answer isn't measurement it is one of motivation.

Let's be honest national standards is more about populist politics than education.

But it is a done deal and teachers will have to cope with the consequences.Overseas the collateral damage has been : the narrowing of the curriculum; teaching to the tests; and stress and anxiety all round. Simplistic as it all is it is a good vote winner for a society trying to survive in difficult times. The worst aspect has been the sidelining of the highly regarded 'new' New Zealand Curriculum before it even got started.

The good thing is that overseas teachers who have kept faith with creative integrated inquiry teaching, based around relevant learning challenges, have done well in the 'high stake tests' -with of course a little bit of teaching towards the tests!
The answer is for schools to keep their nerve and think hard about developing positive engaging inquiry learning and integrating literacy and numeracy skills into such learning. This once was the New Zealand way. It is now at risk. Do we have the leadership to ensure teachers are not overwhelmed by all the pressures involved with national standards? Time will tell?
Sir Ken Robinson, an international expert in creativity is well aware of the consequences of such a narrow back to basics movement and he believes the emphasis needs to be placed on developing every learners creativity and love of learning. He writes that creativity and critical thinking are as important as literacy and numeracy in the 21stC; they are, he says, 'the crucial 21st C skills we'll need to solve pressing problems'.

He says, in an interview in the recent ascd magazine ( Sept 09),' You can be creative in math, science, music, dance, cuisine, running a family, or engineering ...because creativity is a process of having original ideas that have value...looking at new ways of doing things.' And, he makes the point, it is wrong to associate creativity with being totally free and unstructured. 'An essential bit of every creative process is evaluation.If you are working on a mathematical problem , you're constantly evaluating it, thinking ,"does that feel right?"'Does that work?" "Is that going in a good direction?"'
And it important he says to realize creativity it not just for "special people" and that "everybody has tremendous creative capabilities".

Now developing all students creative capabilities, their specialist of gifts and talents, would be true 21st challenge - it is the basis of our new curriculum. Wouldn't parents, if asked want this for their children -along with literacy and numeracy? We live in 'and' not an 'either or' world!

Creativity,Sir Ken says, 'is not about letting yourself go, kind of running around the room and going a bit crazy. Really , creativity is a disciplined process that requires knowledge, and control. Obviously it also requires imagination and inspiration...but it is a disciplined path of daily education'.
As for the unprecedented environment and economic challenges we face now we will need, he says, 'every ounce of ingenuity, imagination, and creativity to confront these problems.' He say , 'we are living in times of massive one has got a clue what the world will look like in in five years, or even the next year actually, and yet it is the job of education to help kids make sense of the world they're going to live in.'
And that is the real challenge ; the future orientated 'key competencies' of our new curriculum.

And Sir Ken says currently, with our literacy and numeracy emphasis, 'we are systematically educating ( creativity) out of them'
Speaking about the school failure rate - the 'underachieving tail' -the disengaged students - he says, 'there is something wrong with the system'...students are 'not discovering the things that impassion them or invigorate them or turn them on.'
And this brings him back to the culture of standardized testing ( he is talking about the USA). This approach he says is totally counterproductive. 'You become alive', he says, 'when you do things you are good at, you tend to get better at everything because your confidence is up and your attitude is different' As Kelvin Smythe would say, students get a 'feeling for' learning.

'Too often' Sir Ken continues, ' now we are systematically alienating people from their own talents and, therefore from the whole process of education....It is a fundamental human truth that people perform better when they're in touch with things that inspire them.'
'We know human culture is so diverse and rich - and our education system is becoming dreary and monotonous' ( referring to the USA but this is the track we are heading down in NZ). He is 'not surprised so many kids are pulling out of school. Even the ones who stay are detached Only a few people benefit from the process.But it is far too few to justify the waste.'
Education , Sir Ken says, 'is becoming dominated by the this culture of standardized teaching, by a particular view of intelligence and a narrow curriculum..we're flattening and stifling some of the basic skills and processes that creative achievement depends on'.
And in New Zealand we are being led down the standardized track.
Sir Ken talks about teaching for creativity where he says, 'the pedagogy is designed to encourage other people to think differently. You encourage them to experiment, to innovate, them the tools they need to find out what the answers might be or to explore new avenues.'
You can't reduce all learning to a number ( or a simplistic 'plunket type graph).

Standardized teaching has led us to believe everything can be measured. This is a myth of past thinking.

We need creativity as much as we need literacy and numeracy even if it is harder to quantify.

This is what makes teaching a creative art - or did until national standards came along.

If teachers lose their creativity the students will be the real losers.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Future competencies - beyond the 3Rs!

The universe is continually evolving - as are societies and individuals.

Our populist government is rushing ahead to return us to the limitations of a Victorian education system.This is not to say literacy and numeracy are not important, they obviously are, but they are at best 'foundation skills' for more expansive learning competencies.
And if the government's intention is to find out, and focus on, those students who are falling behind ( the so called 'achievement tail') we know where these students are already. And, as well, we have very efficient national monitoring systems in place to uncover areas of weaknesses across the system.
It all boils down to simplistic political promises and tapping into, or creating, parent worries without any appreciation of the success, or otherwise, of national national standards ( testing) in other countries.
What we need as a country, if we are to thrive in these challenging times, is to develop the talents of every student in the school system. If we have a problem it is one children disengaging from learning ; the real problem is one of motivation - of providing exciting programmes across the curriculum . And these programmes need exciting and realistic literacy and numeracy programmes.
It was interesting to read future competencies as outlined by a professor from the Harvard Graduate School of Education .The professor identified five core competencies we should be helping our students acquire.
First is the ability to manage ambiguity. Managing ambiguity is the tension between rushing in to take the first thought that come to mind and, instead, manage or live with the ambiguity. Creative people can cope with messy situations without falling apart .
The second is for learners to take responsibility for their own actions.We need to develop students with the attitude that they have the ability to deal with it.
The third is finding and sustaining community.This competency is about connecting and interacting.About maintaining community and maintaining links with people. This is about recognizing that we are part of a larger community , not just our own private world.
The fourth is managing emotions. This means getting away from the idea that emotions and reason are separate; that they work in combination.
And finally managing technological change - learning to use the new tools to change the ways we do things.
These all sound very much like the Key Competencies of our new curriculum!
As Guy Claxton , the English educator has written, 'learnacy is more important that literacy and numeracy. Resilience , he writes , is an important part of all learning.
How we achieve such things with the national standards in literacy and numeracy is beyond me. It is ironic that, just as our school have been given a 21st Century new curriculum , the new government seem to want to drag us back to the past.
We live in strange times.

Monday, October 19, 2009

Qualities required for creativity by Claxton

Guy Claxton is aways worth a read.
It is important for anyone interested in developing and new ideas to appreciate the creative process. One thing is certain it is not as simple and as easy as many think. Studying creative individuals in any field involves dedication and good old fashioned practice and personal effort.

Guy Claxton proves some guidance. Creative people, Claxton writes, draw on a great deal of prior knowledge and experience. Creativity , writes, Guy Claxton ‘is an advanced form of learning that involves a finely tuned sympathy orchestra of mental attitudes and capabilities playing together in complicated rhythms… it builds on basic skills and habits of more familiar kinds of learning.’ Creativity, as such, is a long way away from the current formulaic ‘best practice’, ‘intentional teaching’ and ‘success criteria’ which all too often crushes student creativity.

Claxton outlines eight main ‘sections of the learning orchestra’ that contribute to creativity. Many will recognize his ideas as another form of an inquiry approach. All begin with the letter ‘I.’

The first is learning through Immersion
involving steeping yourself in experiences. Creative people are good noticers.

The second is learning through Inquisitiveness. To be creative you have to have a questioning disposition and be able to tolerate the not-knowing that goes along with this. This is what the poet Keats called ‘negative capability’ the ability to ‘be in doubt... without any irritable reaching after fact and reason.’

The fourth is Investigation: the skills of research. ‘You have to know what to do when you don’t know what to do’, as Jean Piaget puts it.

The fifth, sixth and seventh are Imagination, Intuition and Intellect. Imagination to seek out possibilities; Intuition to let things just come to you; nod Intellect, knowing when to put them all together. The eight, oddly enough, is Imitation .All creative people, says Claxton, stand on the shoulders of learning of other people. Some call this ‘creative swiping’! We all pick up our ‘habits of mind’ from those who with whom we collaborate. Claxton quotes Albert Einstein who said, ‘the only serious method of education is to be an example’ and Einstein adds ruefully, ‘if you can’t help it be warning example’. Claxton writes, ‘like all coaches, a creative coach has to walk the talk.’

These qualities provide a challenge for teachers and schools.

It is idealistic to expect that schools will suddenly become creative and place their focus on developing every child’s gifts and talents as there is still a strong sense of conservatism in education to overcome. The power and pull of the status quo will ensure that it will require teachers who are prepared to take the necessary risks and, more importantly, courageous principals who are able to create the conditions to protect such teachers. Ideally creative schools ought to network with others to share their expertise. Creating such networks (but not controlling them) could be a creative role for the Ministry. A study of creative people in any field shows that challenging accepted thinking is a risky business but also that it is to such individuals that we need to look to provide real breakthroughs.

With the publication of the 2007 New Zealand Curriculum, not withstanding the recent intention of the new government to introduce reactionary national standards, the scene is set for another burst of creativity. The standards may well ensure that we do not get into another bandwagon scenario? Creativity ought not to be too easy! Some are saying it will be like returning the excitement of the 60s but hopefully this time doing it right. Creative teaching is also encouraged by those calling for a more personalized approach to learning as against the current standardized ‘one size fits all’.
Only time will tell if school have the courage to take a lead in developing creativity in their students - or as Sir Ken Robinson has written not killing it off. Robertson believes that in the future creativity will be as important as literacy and numeracy.
Will someone tell our Minister of education!

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Rip van Winkle would be pleased with National Standards

At least Rip would feel at home in many secondary schools!
All is not well in our current education systems as more and more students fail to leave the ‘confident, connected, creative life long learners’ equipped with the necessary future competencies, our new New Zealand Curriculum asks of schools to deliver. Failure seems endemic in educational systems worldwide. The new curriculum provides a ‘more informed vision’ of what could be but our current system, particularly our secondary schools, remains caught up in a web of educational thinking that was set in place over a 100 years ago. The assembly line mentality of such schools needs to give way to more enlightened ideas.

If Rip van Winkle were to awaken in the 21stC after a hundred year snooze he would be utterly bewildered by what he would see. Every aspect of the world would baffle him until he found his way into a secondary school. There he would know exactly where he was – ‘we used to have these in 1909’- although her might be a bit confused with electronic whiteboards and computers, the bells and fragmented transmission style learning would be familiar.

Obviously secondary schools are not frozen in time it only seems like this when compared to every other aspect of life. Kids still spend most of their time sitting in rows, listening to teachers drone on, using outdated textbooks, shifting from class to class as if in some factory assembly line.

For many students a yawning gap (with the emphasis on yawning) separates them from the reality of the world outside. Bill Gates has written that American high schools are obsolete – missing is relevance, reality and rigor.

In 2007 the Ministry of Education introduced a new innovative curriculum that has the potential to begin a dramatic transformation of our schools but it could be ‘stillborn’ as the new government has diverted focus to implementing the failed concept of national standards. Rip van Winkle would be pleased.

We need to focus our attention on what our students need to thrive in the future; to move from a standardized mass education to a personalized approach that develops the gifts and talents of all our students. Literacy and numeracy, as important as they are, are a meager minimum - ‘foundation skills’ - at best they are means to an end so as to allow all students to become ‘active seekers, user and creators of their own knowledge’. Future students must leave with the initiative to think ‘out of the box’ as the future success will place a priority on creativity and innovation. Such students will have to know how to manage all the overflowing information available. They will need good people skills to be able to work well with others and with people of different cultures.

Can schools, developed in Rip van Winkle’s time to educate students for an industrial age, able to make the shift to future requirements? It doesn’t look good so far. Schools will have to dramatically change or risk being bi-passed entirely by the use of modern information technology. The pressure is on to change but the resistance is strong. History, as Galileo’s round earth ideas shows, changes over time but time is one thing that is not on our side, as sustainability issues indicate.

Friday, October 16, 2009

Time for a transformational vision?

As Einstein said 'Unthinking respect for authority is the greatest enemy of truth.'
We are a battle between populist politics of national standards and creative education. Time to speak out!

It is at the ‘edge’ that all new learning occurs but it is not always a comfortable place to be. New ideas, in any area of life, are by their nature unsettling and to those in power can even be seen as heretical. Mind you, nothing wrong with heresy –all it means is having an alternative point of view.

I think now is the time for a bit of courageous heresy as the current government is determined to impose National Standards in schools no matter the professional opposition and even though NZ currently does well in International literacy and numeracy testing. The government is well aware that National Standards have a wonderful populist appeal, along with crushing boy racers cars and locking people up in prison. Interestingly NZ is currently second internationally to the USA for incarcerating prisoners – and we even have 20% more per head of population in prison than our neighbours the Australians. The government believes there is a connection between literacy, numeracy and imprisonment – this may be true but it is just too simplistic.

The implementation of National Standards will move NZ school away from the creative future that our ‘new New Zealand Curriculum was heading towards and will lead us back into the restrictive ‘Three Rs’ mentality of Victorian times. This reactionary shift, along with bulging prisons, will be the legacy of our current conservative government.

No one is arguing against literacy and numeracy although, if you listen to media commentators and newspaper editors, you would think no one teaches reading and maths these days. If anything the true is the opposite – literacy and numeracy in many schools have all but ‘gobbled up the entire curriculum’.

Thoughtful schools need to argue that literacy and numeracy need to be seen as ‘foundation skills’ necessary to allow all students to realize their gifts and talents and, in the process, their confidence to become ‘lifelong learners’. If schools are to be judged solely by their scores in literacy and numeracy (this is the spectre of ‘league tables’) this will divert teacher’s time and energy and narrow the curriculum. The argument ought to be that the real need for schools is to develop exciting and challenging programmes to tap into and amplify every student’s talents and for this to include literacy and numeracy. To judge achievement solely on reading and maths will be to demean many otherwise creative students. Do parents, if they were well informed, want this? Don’t they want schools to capture their children’s imagination and individual creativity? Have we asked them?

To develop innovative programmes, and to resist the temptation to narrow their curriculum, teachers will need courageous leadership from their principals and their collective organizations.

The alternative to inevitability of narrowing the curriculum is to put faith in the developing of exciting, authentic programmes to tap into and amplify all students’ innate desire to learn. There is no shortage of research to back up such a creative personalized approach to learning. New Zealand has been always well served by creative teachers, past and present, to provide inspiration for schools to follow. Research shows students engaged in such programmes do well on standardized testing. Powerful learners, driven by a need to explore challenging areas of interest in depth, become powerful readers as they ‘see the point’ of learning to read and do maths. In contrast the Ministry apologists, presenting the government’s position as part of their ‘consultation’ process, have little research to back up their hollow words and overseas examples fail to impress. This is simply populist politics determining policy.

To develop creative schools will require intellectual courage (or heresy) by principals and teachers. Without courageous leadership the vision of the ‘new’ New Zealand Curriculum, of developing all students as ‘confident creative life long learners’, is at risk. It is important for all to appreciate that the ‘new’ curriculum does not neglect literacy and numeracy but it does requires such learning to be achieved through meaningful contexts.

I recently read an enlightening paper by Andy Hargreaves called ‘The Fourth Way of Change: Towards an Age of Inspiration and Sustainability 2009’. Hargreaves’ paper is not only just ‘from the edge’ it also provides a ‘helicopter view’ of the past few decades to put things into perspective

His paper outlines the development of the ‘First Way’ – the creativity and freedom of the 60s remembered by some as the ‘golden age of education.’ Success or failure in those days depended on the ‘lottery’ of creative teachers and principals. As economic conditions worsened in the 70 and 80s a ‘market forces’ ideology was imposed on schools based on competition and choice resulting in standardized curriculums with their strands, levels, and the ‘measurable’ objectives, we are now leaving. This ‘Second Way’, with its almost incoherent curriculums, was found wanting in practice and ‘morphed’ into the ‘Third Way’ of the last few years with its more focused ‘targets’ and Ministry formulaic ‘best practice’ contracts. As a result of the ‘second and third ways’ there has been an erosion of professionalism with principals becoming more managers than leaders, and teachers more technicians following prescribed ‘best practices’. Education has been well and truly captured by a corrosive surveillance and accountability culture. Schools have learnt to be complaint rather than creative.

The current government’s National Standards, with their requirements to pass on data to the Ministry, is a throwback to this controlling agenda of the ‘Third Way’. Schools, it would seem, have exchanged a ‘nanny state’ for an ‘Orwellian ‘big brother’ environment. The relentless emphasis on standardized testing in literacy and numeracy is an agenda which taps into the uniformed general public’s desire to return to the nostalgia of past certainties.

Hargreaves ‘Fourth Way’ is a ‘view from the edge’. He is calling for schools to be more innovative and creative. To succeed, he writes, will require the articulation of an inspiring and moral and sustainable purpose for education rather than a narrow literacy and numeracy one. To achieve this, Hargreaves believes, it is necessary to have a ‘Great Public Debate’ about the future of education in, say, 2020. This transformational approach, rather than compliance to the governments top down imposed standards, is the future schools and their communities should fight for. Hargreaves suggests the need for networks of like-minded schools, and the development of partnerships with parents and students, to work together and to share ideas; tapping the expertise that lies within school communities.

I am with Hargreaves. We need to develop a new coalition between the wider community and the schools. Education needs to be seen as the responsibility of all – not just to be determined by the short term vision of politicians and for the ‘achievement tail’ to be solved by schools alone.

Hargreaves sees creative teachers as the ‘ultimate arbiters of change’ and the key to his ‘Fourth Way’. ‘The classroom door’, he writes, should be seen as a ‘golden gateway’ rather than a ‘drawbridge’. Our new curriculum is such a ‘golden gateway’ but will only be realized if teachers have the courage to stay with it. Unfortunately the imposition of the National Standards has the potential to encourage the opposite – for teachers and schools to ‘pull the drawbridge’ up for their own survival and, in the process, narrowing the ‘rich’ educational opportunities our students deserve.

The ‘Fourth Way’, based on teachers and their communities creating teaching and learning programmes, offers a creative alternative and a real opportunity for the expression of professional leadership. This is in direct in contrast to the demeaning current depressing scenario of compliance.

Such a transformational vision is definitely a powerful view from ‘the edge’ but, as Einstein wrote, ‘Unthinking respect for authority is the greatest enemy of truth.’

Are school leaders, and their communities, up to the challenge?

Saturday, October 10, 2009

Reclaiming the joy of learning

Painting from the cover of Elwyn Richardson's book 'In The Early World' re-published by the NZCER.
The ideas of Elwyn have been a strong influence in my own thinking particularly in trying to place curiosity, creativity, environmental awareness and imagination at the centre of learning. Once someone said I was ,'locked into the 60s' ( when this book was published). At the time I reacted against this but now I no longer mind. Ever since the 'experts' have imposed national curriculums on schools creativity has been at risk. Recently someone said ( but not to me) that my recent book was old fashioned . No apologies from me. The best of education is as much back to the future as it is reaching forwards. Only the status quo is unacceptable - and the imposition of National standards. We need to do the 60's again but this time properly!
It seems proper when thinking of creativity our classrooms to reflect on the writings of 1950s pioneer creative teacher Elwyn Richardson. His ideas are to be found in his inspirational book ‘In the Early World’ first published by the NZCER in 1964 (reprinted 1994).

In the forward to Elwyn’s publication John Melser writes that the book, ‘gives a vivid picture of a school full of vitality in the pursuit of values deeply rooted in the children’s lives and capable of serving them lifelong’. ‘Oruaiti School’, Melser continues, ‘functioned as a community of artists and scientists who turned a frank and searching gaze on all that came within their gambit. Curiosity and emotional force led them to explore the natural world and the world of their feelings…..Studies and activities grew out of what preceded them. New techniques were discovered and skills practiced as each achievement set new standards.’

From such environmental inquiries Elwyn’s students learnt answers, Melser writes, to the question ‘who am I? They gained respect for their and others achievements, taking great pride in their craftsmanship or artistry.’ It was a form of disciplined personalized learning set in a ‘community of artists and scientists.’ Elwyn’s work was based on an awareness of the natural world involving careful scientific observation and a demand for personal and excellence of their ideas in whatever medium used.

Elwyn’s role in achieving personal and artistic excellence was a delicate and encouraging one, always humbly ready to learn from the children. Elwyn has written elsewhere that ‘the children were his teachers as much as he was theirs’. The results were certainly not the standardization of product that one sees today; the result of over teaching. Believing in high standards to Elwyn each new creative product mattered as much as the process.

Elwyn, along with all the other creative teachers I have had the privilege of working with, responded to all children’s efforts and achievements with sincere interest and pride. His book is a testament to his love of children’s ideas and imagery and, the respect he gave their work, respect that was returned in kind to Elwyn. Elwyn gave his students Melser writes, ‘an opportunity to reach their full heights as artists, as craftsmen, as scientists, and as students’ in a ‘community of mutual respect’.

Creative teaching is not new it has just been sidetracked.

It is this vision of creative teaching that has inspired me and one reinforced by the all the creative teachers I have seen over the years. Creative teaching ideas though have a long history leading back to such writers as John Dewey who wrote about similar ideas in early years of the 20th C in such books as ‘Education Through the Arts’ and ‘Education through Experience.’ In the United Kingdom, after the dark days of World War 2, innovative teachers made a break from the arid formalism of pre-war days, and developed child centred programmes leading to official approval expressed in the 1967 Plowden Report. In the US an ‘open education’ movement added to the impetus. Ironically official approval was a kiss of death as teachers scrambled to get on to the bandwagon. Creativity it seems works best when working for a change. In New Zealand, under the leadership of the then Director-General of Education Dr Beeby, similar ideas were being encouraged – ideas that were also soon under attack from conservatives but not before creative teaching was at least established. Richardson was working in these times. Creative ideas were spread throughout New Zealand by means of art advisers led by their charismatic National Director Gordon Tovey. The art advisers ran Related Arts courses, spreading the idea of integrated learning. I was lucky enough to become involved in the mid 60s and during this time assisted a local teacher to develop the first six week integrated unit in our province based around exploring the life in a local stream.
And today our reactionary Education Minister is dismantling the last of the Art advisers to focus on literacy and numeracy not realizing the problem is engaging learners not measuring them! 'Learnacy', to quote Guy Claxton, 'is more important than literacy'. And Sir Ken Robinson who says, 'creativity is as important as literacy or numeracy. What is really required is to return to the approach of Elwyn Richardson and to integrate it with the power of ICT.
The Taranaki approach to creativity.

In the 70.80s group of Taranaki teachers became well known for what was called ‘environmental’ or ‘quality’ education. Encompassing many of the above ideas the teachers involved believed strongly in making use of the immediate environment, and the need to value effort and perseverance so as to achieve quality work. A particular feature was the stimulating room environments featuring displays of student’s research, language, observational and creative art. Key phrases used by such teachers were the ‘need to do fewer things well’ and to ‘slow the pace of students work’ so as to allow time teachers to come ‘alongside the learner’ to provide assistance. Aspects of this quality learning are still to be seen in local schools today but now as whole school approach. One important idea creative teacher’s hold is that process of achieving success is itself a powerful transformational experience – providing such experiences is the challenge for teachers.

Real change depends on creative teachers.

From my experience, then and now, I believe that all real lasting educational change will only come from such creative classroom teachers particularly if it is a whole school ‘learning community’ approach. Unfortunately, since the late eighties, the climate has changed against such creativity as we entered recent decades of standardized curriculums and imposed compliance requirements. It is reassuring to still find creative teachers working away ‘under cover’ throughout New Zealand and it is to them that we must look for a creative revival.

Tuesday, October 06, 2009

Tapping the learners default model of learning.

The students in this class are following a river from source to sea ( possible in our part of NZ) and are following up their research questions and, as well, with sensitive teaching, making full use of mathematics to measure and calculate, poetic writing, drawing and art. This approach to teaching builds on the natural default mode of the students. It is based on in depth learning; doing fewer things well This is the type of learning that has been lost with the emphasis on covering content.

There is no doubt far too many students do not ‘achieve’ as well as we would like in our education system.

Populist politicians, their supporters, and the media see the answer in simplistic terms – what is required are National Standards ( tests) to identify the students at risk and to focus teachers to correct the situation. Like all simplistic solutions it is not as simple as such people would think.

The conventional wisdom sees that teachers and students deserve most of the blame and that a little bit of ‘market forces’ (pressure to improve or face the consequences) will do the trick. Test. Rank. Reward. Punish. Publicize. Penalize.

The irony is that we already know which students are failing and the suggested cure will be worse than the problem – it certainly will narrow the curriculum even more than it currently is but, worse still, it will put at risk teacher creativity and the unrealized potential of the new curriculum. The National Standards will become the curriculum!

And all this totally ignores how students learn.

Students are born with an innate desire to make sense of their experiences. This is their default mode and it is putting this mode at risk which is creating the so called achievement tail and the eventual disengagement from learning.

There is a lot of talk about complexity theory, or system thinking that seems to have bypassed school totally yet it is the system that young learners make use of from birth. Not for them the need to fragment learning into subjects – they simply make use of whatever is required to solve their problems. Only, it seems, do scientists and artists retain this facility. Young children, artists and scientists are drawn by their intense curiosity and need to express what they discover. For such learners there is no such thing as a need for motivation or any worries about failure – these concerns only begin when adults interfere with their learning process.

They are system thinkers, creating connections as they learn; continually revisiting and revising their theories about how the world works. It is a process of enlightened trial and error – the essence of life long learning.

Trouble happens when this systems approach to learning clashes with the conventional subject fragmentation of the school system. The students who fail are those who cannot cope with such fragmentation, or more basically, lose faith in their personal systems of learning that, up until formal learning, has suited them well.

At school they have to achieve according to what adults presume they ought to be able to do. Many children arrive at school with the appropriate experiences to cope with school in place, and obviously succeed, but at the price of their individual creativity. For others, with less school orientated backgrounds, it is the beginning of losing faith in their own ability to learn for themselves.

Imposing National Standards will not help such students –what is required is for adults to appreciate how children learn. This is the real challenge. Teachers need to appreciate that their efforts to assist learners can both help or hinder.

The problem with ‘failing’ students is one of motivation – motivation they had before they reached school. Their intrinsic motivation is replaced by this thing called the curriculum. It is the curriculum that is causing poor achievement. The educational reformers have been immersed in the traditional curriculum all their lives – they literally can’t imagine alternatives to it. As the saying goes the fish are the last to discover water.

There is already a curriculum available for teachers to tap into –every student brings with them their own lives, their curiosities, their concerns , their questions, their sensory impressions, their theories, their environment, all available to be utilized, amplified and extended by the teachers. In the past creative teachers did exactly this. It was the bread and butter of innovative primary teachers until curriculums were imposed – particularly the incoherent learning objective curriculum of the 80s Today the early education Emilio Reggio schools of Milan continue this tradition as does the writings of James Beane for middle school students.

In this emergent and personalized learning approach traditional subject area are not simply dismissed they are still vital but must be used in context of the child’s learning. By means of internal motivation children will want to talk about, write and use number to describe and express what they see, imagine, do and feel. If they see the point of writing , reading and maths they will happily make use of the power of each to express what it is they want to say or do. As mentioned this was the basis of the child centred learning of the 60s – until ‘our’ curriculum got in the way. And of course music, dance, drama and the visual arts, and modern ICT, all will be used if students see the point, or if it is to their learning advantage. It is a world of connections and relationships – which is the basis of complexity theory or systems thinking.

As system thinkers, students use whatever they need to satisfy their curiosity or to solve a problem; they will happily cross traditional subject barriers. They come to school (well all except those whose experiences have been less than wonderful) as ‘confidant, connected, active life long learners’, already able to ‘seek, use and create their own knowledge’. This is the vision of the New Zealand Curriculum. The challenge it is not so much to develop these future competencies but instead not to crush them.

National standards will distort this natural way of learning. So will well intentioned ‘best practice’ teaching’ based on ‘expert teachers carefully shepherding their students to achieve outcomes defined by external criteria, pre planned teaching intentions and required evidence of success. Such formulaic teaching will develop competent conformist learners. Standards simply standardize and create winners and losers; all a time when creativity and talent development is at a premium.

Those children who currently succeed under this imposed technocratic model of learning may well be competent but they certainly won’t be creative. And, as well, we will still have our ‘achievement tail’. Problems of boredom, discipline, disengagement and burnt out teachers will still be the inevitable consequences.

The role of the teachers is to help every student recognize and amplify their natural gifts and talents and their ability to work with others. This is a creative and hopeful challenge. It will require teachers who will still to know their content so as to provide help as required; but ‘just in time rather than just in case’.

Students have an organic ‘system’ of learning hardwired into their brains. The teachers role is, as Jerome Bruner has written, ‘the ‘canny art of intellectual temptation’. We need to expose our students to all the forms of learning that make us human. As teachers we have to surface, acknowledge and cultivate our students’ knowledge making frameworks. This desire to learn is one of our deepest drives. That this love of learning is lost to many students need not be the case if we changed our own minds about learning and worked with their default mode of learning.

It is our curriculum based fragmented thinking that is the problem. A curriculum that ignores the natural thinking capabilities that students bring with them contributing to school failure – but who is failing who? It is conventional wisdom that is the problem. Learning is not simply passed on, and tested, it is created individually by each student. This is the basis of constructivist teaching.
We ought to be developing the full potential of all our students – not judging them by their success at curriculum that holds so little meaning for so many students.

Who would want to learn if one can't see the point of it?