Tuesday, June 30, 2009

National Standards - patching the Titanic!!!

The difficult times we are going through are not the time for timid or reactionary thinking - now is the time for new ideas, structures and transformational ways of thinking. If all we do is bail out failing structures nothing really will change. The Titanic sinking marked the beginning of the end for sea liners but they were finished off when big planes took over.

I was recently sent an article about the US Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan, making one of his top priorities national standards to replace the hodgepodge of benchmark testing of the various states.And this on top of the failing No Child Left Behind testing! He wants better tests to replace the current bad ones!

More recently I listened to Sir Ken Robinson, a international expert in creativity in education and business, say that, although he was enthusiastic about President Obama's presidency, he was becoming worried that all that had happened so far were quick fix answers propping up the very organisations that had so dramatically failed.

Duncan's response in education is in the same category. Insisting on standardisation when times ask for innovation and creativity to solve the inherent problems of a failing education system developed for a past industrial era.

Research from the US and UK suggests that such polices have failed to lead to significant improvements - the National Literacy Strategy in the UK has had almost no impact on literacy levels and worse still is turning kids enjoyment of reading off! It is what happens in classrooms that is the key and by imposing standards on teachers will erode any teacher goodwill. There is evidence, as well as common sense, that shows that it is the students who receive the most intellectually demanding programmes who posited greater gains on standardised tests. All too often, however, teachers simply teach to the tests, narrow the curriculum and limit their student's creativity in the process. These unintended corrupting consequences are called by some 'collateral' damage and threaten the very purpose of education

Only innovation and creativity,as Sir Ken says, will solve the problem that face us; and schools he believes ought to seen as the places to foster this creativity.

With all this in mind it was great to read an open letter to President Obama written by Herbert Kohl. Kohl writes that he was pleased that the president said of his book '36 Children' that it provided him with 'tremendous hope' and that the book had had a 'big impact' on him.

Kohl wrote the book in 1965 when working with disadvantaged black students - students whom others had given up on. Kohl's aim was to provide a classroom to let the ' student's creativity and intelligence speak for itself. He also wanted to show how it was important 'to provide an interesting and complex curriculum that integrated the arts and science, and utilized the students own culture and experience to inspire learning.'

Kohl writes, saying that 'we have come along way from that time in the 60s and now the mantra is high expectations and standards. Yet will all that zeal to produce measurable learning outcomes we have lost sight of the essential motivations to learn'. Kohl writes students tell him they are now learning 'how to do good on the tests.'

He says to the president, 'It is hard to understand how educators can claim that they are creating high standards when the substance and content of learning is reduced to getting answers on tests'. 'in the panic over teaching', he continues, ' getting students to perform well on reading tests, educators have lost sight of the fact that reading is a tool, an instrument that is used for pleasure, and for the acquisition of knowledge and information about the way the world works.'

Reading, Kohl writes, develops 'through interaction with a knowledgeable, active teacher- through dialogue, and critical analysis.It develops through imaginative writing and research.'An emphasis on teaching towards standards', Kohl writes, 'naturally leads to boredom and alienation from school based learning.' 'This disengagement is often stigmatized by attention deficit disorder.'

'This impoverishment of learning is reinforced', Kohl writes, ' by cutting programmes in the arts.The free play of the imagination, which is so crucial for problem solving, is discouraged in a basics programme lacking in substantial artistic and human content.'

'Add to this the elimination of physical education..and it is no wonder American students are lethargic when it comes to ideas and actions.

'It is possible to maintain high standards for all children, to help students to speak thoughtfully, think through problems, and create imaginative representations of the world as it is and as it could be, without forcing them through a regime for high-stakes testing.Attention has to be paid to the richness of the curriculum itself and time has to be allocated to thoughtful exploration and experimentation.It is easy to ignore content when the sole focus is on test scores.'

Kohl concludes his letter to the president by saying, 'Your administration has the opportunity ..to set the tone, aspirations, and philosophical and moral grounds for reform that develops the intelligence, creativity, and social and personal sensitivity of students. I still hold the hope you mentioned you took away from '36 Children' but I sometimes despair about how we are wasting the current opportunity to create truly effective schools where student's welcome the wonderful learning we as adults should feel privileged to provide them'.

Kohl finishes his letter by saying to President Obama that 'he would welcome the opportunity to discuss these and other educational issues with you.

Sincerely, Herbert Kohl.'

Good stuff!!!

The sentiments expressed by Kohl are well beyond the grasp of our current Minister of Education! She is not willing to,listen. Let's hope President Obama is.

Monday, June 29, 2009

We want the 'wow factor'( back)!

Illustration from a Guardian article 26th May 09 showing the teacher with her class cooking Chinese food as part of a literacy lesson based on a Chinese story.

It seemed , for a while, that New Zealand, with its 'new' 07 curriculum, was a leader in the creative educational field. That vision has been put on hold by the new government's plan to impose National Standards on primary schools. The imposition of National Standards , a concept already shown to be failing in the UK and the US, will have the effect of distracting teacher energy away from implementing the 'new ' curriculum and, more disturbing, could lead to the development of 'league tables'. We are becoming followers of failed imported ideas again!

Ironically, in the UK, a new creative curriculum is being introduced which doesn't sound too far away from our own 'new' curriculum.

The UK 'new' creative curriculum is encouraging teachers to 'engage children in learning everything
from maths to drama' as part of integrated themes; 'most subjects are to be taught through a broad theme, used for up to one term at a time.'

In the illustration above of a seven year old student is talking about next weeks medieval day where she will go dressed up as a maid or a princess, not just for fun, but as a way of themed learning system her school has adopted. The over-arching theme of the class was castles. Students are shown eating stir fried vegetables and rice that they have prepared as part of a literacy lesson. This is a bit strange - I would have thought they might have been studying medieval cooking? The idea of integrating literacy time to contribute to providing content ideas for current studies is a vital one.

This way of teaching was once well established in New Zealand classrooms until the imposition of the National Curriculum of the 80s with all its impossible learning objectives to be assessed. Ironically this technocratic curriculum was modelled on an earlier UK National Curriculum. It seems our Ministry loves to be second!!

Another school in the article reports that in response to a growing awareness that children were not enjoying learning as much as they could the school concerned decided to review their national curriculum and the time it was spending on different objectives. In this we were well ahead with our 'new' 07 New Zealand Curriculum - well up until now.

Plans for an overall of the primary curriculum was drawn up by former Ofsted chief Sir Jim Ross was published last month. Ofsted is the UK equivalent ERO. He recommended 'six areas of learning' designed to allow more flexibility and to encourage cross curricular teaching. The areas are : understanding the arts; understanding English; communication and languages, historical, geographical and social understandings; understanding physical development, health and well being, mathematical understanding; and scientific and technological understanding.

It might have been simpler for the UK to take our 07 curriculum in exchange for their National Standards testing and league tables? in the UK their 'new' curriculum ( their is nothing very new about their suggestion for those who can remember the 1967 Plowden Report)is to be implemented by 2011.

Many schools in the UK (as in New Zealand) already have a more creative curriculum.One UK school has decided to introduce an 'inquiry- based' curriculum- so called because 'every lesson starts with a question.' In this school most subjects are taught through broad themes that run for between half a term and a term. Topics covered are castles, space, water and mini-beasts. Each theme has a history or geography element, and uses discussion and debate to extend pupils' emotional and social development. Schools still have to meet national curriculum objectives and sit the UK national tests. Such schools, teaching in this creative way report that their students attitudes have been transformed.

Teachers in such schools are including the students in planning their own work and teachers report that the new curriculum gives them more flexibility with the timetable. Tne key is to develop in students the confidence to tackle whatever is required.

New Zealand teacher, who have read the NZC, will resonate with such ideas - so will older teachers with memories that reach before the imposition of the bureaucratic curriculum of the 80s; for such teachers it is 'back to the future'.

The article asks why are not more schools moving towards such creative approaches?

New Zealand teachers will soon have their own answer to the question but in the UK Tim Burgess author of the report 'Lifting the Lid on the Creative Curriculum' says schools, 'are often reluctant because of an oppressive data -police mentality and fear of standards agenda'. He writes, 'that although schools had been given the green light to be more flexible at the same time they were under huge pressure to meet targets and adhere to standards. Moving to a creative curriculum involves taking risks - some schools don't believe it will improve results'.

In Burgess's report to the National College for School Leadership he looked closely at creative schools and found all had good results but more importantly the approach had 'given teachers back a sense of ownership and behavioral problems had evaporated.'

He believes teachers are at the heart of the creative curriculum and that overly prescriptive approach of the last 15 years had had a de-professionalizing effect. The lack of emphasis had turned teachers into technicians.if teacher are empowered and enthusiastic, that rubs off on the children.This is an exciting time if you have passion, vision and are prepared to take risks.'

If only our populist government had such wisdom - instead they are leading us back into the past.

One school written up in the article says that the new creative curriculum has brought a 'wow factor' to their school. This school says it want its children to 'have a chance to learn by doing rather than just by reading and watching videos.' The principal writes that 'the word creative can be misinterpreted as woolly , but this is a child-friendly and extremely rigorous curriculum. We want the children to be outside as much as possible, doing hand-on activities and getting dirty.'

The operational director of the NCSL ( National College of School Leadership) says the debate around engaging children in learning should focus on the quality of teaching and school leadership rather than the type of curriculum a school follows.' He continues, ' the important thing is that children have deep and rich learning experiences whether their school follows a creative curriculum or a more traditional one. However the pressure on principals often 'mean they lack time to talk to staff about how to provide the best learning experiences for children.'

The last school refereed to had had a creative curriculum for six years and maintains that the point of a creative education is that school can still teach all key skills but in ways that use the interests of the children and teachers and reports that parents are as enthusiastic as the children.

So, while we are being lead back to a conservatist Victorian 'three Rs' mentality, in the UK schools are moving in ways that we were once seen as leaders in.

Who would want to be a teacher in NZ?

Thursday, June 25, 2009

The killing of creativity by the technocrats.

John Hattie, professor of education Auckland University, confidante of the present Minister of Education. Is his influence undermining the creativity of our teachers?Kelvin Smythe thinks so and, after visiting a number of classrooms, I have to agree with him. Read Kelvin's full article on his site.

As I visit classrooms I have become increasingly concerned about the use of a number of strategies as defined by John Hattie and promulgated by the contracted advisers spreading the word about his 'best practices'.

Somehow, just because Hattie has amalgamated every piece of 'school effectiveness' research available ( mainly it seems from the USA) his findings, it seems, ought to be taken for read. The opposite ought to be the case - we need to be very wary of such so called 'meta research.'. More worrying however is that the approaches he is peddling is pushing into the background the home grown innovative creative learning centred philosophy that was once an important element in many classrooms. Overseas experts always seem to know best - or those that return with their carpet bag full of snake oil.

Smythe,after reading Hattie's book 'Visible Learning', writes that Hattie's 'feedback' is really attached to a direct instruction process .It is more concerned with testable transmission of teacher devised content to the students and as such is antithetical to individuality and creativity. The book, according to Smythe, is 'skewed to a certain style of teaching and learning ( learning set up for measurement) and towards appealing to conservative influences'. Enter, from the right, the School Review Office to collect the evidence, and the Minister's National Standards to narrow teaching.

The classrooms I visit are evidence to this conformity. His 'feedback' ( and 'feed-forward') process leads to 'next step' teaching driven by the teacher's 'intentions'. Applied to language and art it develops into formulaic teaching and the results, though of a high conformist standard, are anything but creative.

What is developing as Hattie's idea are being implemented is a 'a narrow, controlled, teacher dominated classroom practice'. According to Smythe , it is he writes, 'delivering direct instruction' and is 'impoverishing learning'. Nothing wrong with direct instruction it its place, Smythe says, but it has little to do with developing creative students who are 'active seekers, users and creators of their own knowledge' that is the vision of our 'new' cuuriculum.

And it is not as if 'feedback' is anything new. Just a technocratic term for teachers coming alongside the students to assist them in their learning. Creative teachers observe and naturally provide such information but with sensitivity. In such creative 'learning communities' problems cannot be approached in an exact 'next step' way because space needs to be given for student creativity and imagination. Hattie, Smythe writes, seems uncomfortable with the the affective, with creativity. He prefers only what can be measured.

Smythe is warning us not to be drawn into false precision and certainty of Hattie's 'next step' teaching. Hattie is not presenting bold ideas, they are at best, according to Smythe, simply 'tightening of the screws on a fairly ordinary and long standing' direct teaching approach.

So be careful when using the latest jargon: 'learning intentions', 'success criteria', 'WALTS', 'modeling', 'guided practice' or you will be leading your students to conformist learning and, in the process, limiting their innate individuality and creativity. As an antidote, at least, ensure that students appreciate the need for individual creativity and value their 'voice' in what they present.

Smythe writes that Hattie is positioning himself ( and his associates) to dominate professional development in New Zealand. We already have Hattie's 'clunky' AsTTle standardized tests. Hattie is also agitating for performance pay possibly based on his tests! As if ERO, with their 'evidence based teaching', isn't enough. Creativity and imagination will as aways be the losers when it comes to the 'measure what you can see technocrats'. Add to this the reactionary confusion being created by the introduction of National Standards. What is the bet that the Minister, to compare schools, will need 'one size fits all' national testing to be able to do this - and guess who will be waiting in the wings to develop them!

Do we really want to go down the school effectiveness, teacher dominated, style of formal assessments as seen in the USA and the 'league tables' of the UK. If students are to thrive in an uncertain future they will need more than Victorian Industrial aged litearcy and numeracy skills - they will need to have all their gifts and talents developed, their creativity, their imagination and their innate desire to learn alive and well.

To avoid this narrow teacher dominated pedagogy Smythe writes that the need is for students to think deeply about what they are learning and that feedback has always been a natural part of this process.

Smythe draws attention to three creative models for teaching where learning is developed in a more holistic and personal way.

In 'Smythe's' writing process the main aim is to write with honesty and clarity. The teacher is circumspect in making suggestion always aware that it is the students who are creating their ideas rather than being pressurized by WALTS, 'success criteria',teacher 'intentions' and 'feedback'. Smythe's teachers sensitively 'nudge' students to think more deeply. always alert to preserving each students 'voice'. Later students share their writing and, by this means, become aware of new possibilities for the future. Feedback in this process is done judicially.

Smythe's second model is in science based on the almost forgotten Learning In Science Project( LISP). This model, writes, Smythe, 'provides for Hatties "corrective information" and "alternative strategies" but in a way that guided by the teacher, gives children a sense of initiative and opportunity to make their own discoveries.'

In such a generative model it is impossible for learning to be predefined by teacher 'learning intentions'. The process begins with children's own questions and their current ideas ( theories) and then challenges them to think more deeply about what they believe. Student answers are often not right or wrong but are consistent with the evidence the student has gathered. This is creative learning at its best - ideas being continually modified by further experience. Student research should reflect the evolution of their findings and why they have changed their minds, if indeed they have.

Such student research is week in schools.

The final model Smythe brings to our attention is a holistic topic teaching. Topic teaching is used in a number of learning areas. Such teaching, in contrast to the deterministic approach taken by Hattie, and following the philosophy of John Dewey, the children will not always be provided with a clear idea of where the problem they are exploring might lead them. However as they investigate they wIll find themselves appreciating main aim of the project. This is in line with the Learning in Science Project outlined above.

Such an approach values in-depth understanding and not, as is all too often the case, only valuing the process. A quick read of student's' research findings will soon indicate if their personal understanding and 'voice' are being reflected.

Once again this is all too often missing,

In such a creative approaches to teaching space is provided for children to come up with ideas that had not been prefigured by the teacher in the form of 'learning intentions'. 'The best way to develop imagination and creativity is genuine open-endedness in the setting up of activities', writes Smythe.

Hattie, writes Smythe, comes at learning from an academic and clinical perspective of learning; he is coming from pedagogy of direct instruction. Smythe, in contrast, says he is coming from the reality of how classrooms actually work, especially making the best use of classrooms as learning communities. In such learning communities there are many things that cannot be easily measured, things simply evolve.

Smythe is happy to agree with some of Hattie' research findings but believes much of what Hattie has written about is a natural part of creative teaching. Most of all Smythe want teachers to leave spaces for children to discover things for themselves, to value their imagination and idiosyncratic 'voices'.

Smythe quotes an example about language teaching from Hattie's book to make a point. Hattie discusses the the use of 'learning intentions' and how they require explicit 'success criteria' to enable their 'performance to be judged'. In a writing example he says, ' What you're looking for is that you have used at least five effective adjectives'!!!

Smythe is in despair at such an approach completely lacking in integrity, honesty and respect for the child's 'voice'. It is particularly worrying to Smythe when there are New Zealand inspirational models of the highest quality for teachers to make us of.

Smythe is deeply unimpressed with Hattie's dominance over New Zealand education. Education is being monopolised by overseas 'experts', populist politicians, education bureaucrats, contracted advisers, and commercialized academics.

Smythe is intent on not giving Hattie a free pass to pass his formulaic ideas off as blueprint tor education, ideas complicit with conservatist educational influences including the Education Review Office.

Smythe still gains strength from the existence,against all odds, of strong vestiges of the imaginative and creative teachers in our classrooms.

He urges you all to make your voices heard.

This is my attempt - I am with Kelvin.

I am for valuing imagination and creativity.

Monday, June 22, 2009

Tapping into the student's world

Every student brings with them memories and ideas gained from the experiences they have had. All too often this personal form of motivation is overlooked by teachers who seem to think they have better ideas to use - their own. It is as if students come to school as blank slates ( tabula rosa) when instead they come with a wealth of ideas to share but to do their ideas need to be valued.

The idea of school that many people have, unfortunately including many teachers, a place where students come to learn. Such people see children as not knowing much and school is the place where they will learn what is required as defined by adults who presume to know.

There are those of course who have the opposite view that from birth children are programmed by evolution to learn from their experiences and by the time they arrive at formal schooling they have achieved the amazing ability to walk, talks , draw and develop theories about everything; theories they continually revise as their experience enlarges.

The stance taken about how children learn is vital. Those who think they know more than the child work out prescribed curriculums and, as part of this, develop elaborate systems to see thing as are being learnt - including National testing. This is the 'jug and mug' theory of learning where the teacher is the full jug and the teachers job is to pour knowledge from the full jug to the empty mug.

For others the aim is to do everything to keep alive those innate desire to learn - or to 'recover' it if it has been subverted by prior experiences. No child is ever an empty mug and every child comes to school with their own 'knowledge'.The teacher's job is to find out what the students know and help them develop better understandings by providing the necessary conditions and challenges to do so.

To help students value their own desire to learn teachers need to tap into their student's experiences and to value their questions and concerns. To do this we need to be concerned with their culture rather than judging them on how well they fit into adult expectations.

There is an endless range of topics we could introduce to find out what they really think and many could well evolve into a curriculum of real depth and challenge - one the students feel represents their own lives. The need to write, draw, read, and, most of all, think is a natural outcome of such teaching.

Before anything is learnt comes the experience - really experiences and learning are one and the same thing; the richer the experiences the richer the learning.

Creative teacher need to be alert for the 'teachable moment'. Seasonal changes provide wonderful opportunities to gather children's poetic responses question and theories: storms, heavy rain, flooding gutters, vicious winds, thunder and lightening, hail, a still day, clouds, frosts, Autumn leaves caught in the fences, all provide experiences to make use of.

Many such experiences might only take a few moments but some will evolve into extensive studies if they catch the students curiosity.

The immediate environment provides another source of inspiration - both man made and natural.To take full advantage of such events students need to be skilled in using their senses and be encouraged to express their ideas poetically. Digital cameras are ideal to capture aspects to later write or draw about. Most schools have access to parks, flowering trees and shrubs, pieces of bush, cemeteries, churches, car wreckers, and all sort of shops and local industry to explore.

Students all have special interests and hobbies they can share with class members -and one again some might develop into studies. Parents interests are another rich area to tap into.

When it comes to motivating topics for oral expression and writing every child has their own rich store of memories to tap into - the stories of their own lives should be the first stories they encounter. All sorts of themes could inspire personal writing:time in hospital, accident, parties, celebrations, exploring emotions ( fear, being lost, moments of sadness, punishment, worrying times, happy events etc), favourite food experiences, things I love to do, secret adventures, the wedding, birth of my bother/sister, getting revenge, in trouble, the accident, all about my mum, dad, gran or grandad, family stories, best holiday ever, things I wonder about, adventures with my pet, so embarrassing, it's not fair,secrets, my room, thoughts about the future, whats good about school, the argument....

Such events are part of the life of us all and provide material for personal writing or drawing/painting. Often literature, or poems, or artwork, can contribute to, or inspire, personal thoughts and in turn writing (and reading).

If the classrooms belong to learners their response to ideas above ought to feature. Even in class themes there is plenty of room for personal interpretations.

Teachers who wish to capitalize on such experiences would be advised to begin the process by sharing some of their own remembered experiences modeling the types of language they want to encourage.

A good idea for teachers is to encourage their students to choose one thing ( or the important moment)and then to expand on what has been chosen if they want their students to feel the power of story telling or writing ( or drawing).

Teachers who see their role as one of ensuring students value their own lives will ensure students develop a positive sense of self -students who are able to learn through their experiences and to continue being the 'confident life long learners' able to 'seek , use and create their own knowledge' as required by our 'new' curriculum.

Links for Ideas for themes and the writing process.

The writing process.

Friday, June 19, 2009

Written in 76 - so what is new?

A display featuring work from students studying the symbolism of Churches. After visiting local churches students researched famous churches from around the world. This was typical of the teachers I worked with in 1976. The background made up of potato prints. Teacher John Cunningham.

I was visiting a school recently and while looking at their teacher resource shelf I came across an NZEI Yearbook No 6 published in 1976.

I remembered that one of the writers ( John Clough) had included some words from me in his article so it was interesting to read what I was saying in 1976.

As is aways the case the author was commenting on the need for schools to change to cope with the future that lay ahead of the students. After reading the artice, full of exiting ideas about the future shape of education it seems little has changed. Let's hope that our 'new' NZ Curriculum fares better.

The author begins by quoting John Holt a writer that had a great influence on us all in those days -and whose ideas are as pertinent as ever. Holt wrote:

'Oh, we make a lot off nice noises in schools about respect for the child and individual differences and the like. But our acts, as opposed to our talk, say to the child, "Your experience, your concerns, your curiosities, your needs, what you know, what you want, what you wonder about, what you hope for, what you fear, what you like or dislike, what you are good at or not so good at - all this is not the slightest importance, it counts for nothing. What counts here, and the only thing that counts, is what we know, what we think is important, what we want you to do, think and be." The child soon learns not to ask questions; the teacher isn't there to satisfy his curiosity. Having learnt to hide his curiosity, he later learns to be ashamed of it.Given no chance to find out who he is, and to develop that person, whoever it is, he soon comes to accept the adults evaluation of him.'

Clough say Holt's emphasis on acts rather talk is crucial as much sense as been spoken and read but classroom practices remain unchanged from decade to decade.

Clough goes on to quote William Glasser who writes, 'very few children come to school failures, none come labelled failures; it is school and school alone that pins the label of failure on children.Most of them have a success identity, regardless of their home or environment. In school they expect to achieve recognition....the shattering of this optimistic outlook is the most serious problem of elementary schools....We may wish to blame failure on their families, their environment, or their poverty, but we would be much wiser to blame it on their experience in school.'

That we still end up with over 20% of our students failing means we cannot ignore Glasser's words.
In 1973 50% of children who sat School Certificate failed! Glasser writes a lot about preserving every student's confidence to learn - an important part of the vision of our 'new' 2007 NZ Curriculum.

Then Clough comes to me! Saying Bruce Hammonds has for some time inspired and and encouraged a group of teachers in Taranaki. The teachers I worked with have long retired but the good work still goes one but now the emphasis is on whole school development. In 1970 it was all about individual creative teachers.

One quote sums up 'our' approach in those days, 'the classroom is seen as a development and extension of the child's own environment. Outdoors , children explore bush, stream, seashore and waste areas, look after pets , make models, read books, play games and talk. A major breakthrough comes when the children come to realize that this sort of learning , within limitations, is to be continued in the school'

Making use of students own experiences, question and concerns as the basis for learning is still an important issue, as is making full use of the immediate environment. This is all the more important these days as far too many children spent too much time receiving a second hand edited world through TV and computer screens.

From their own questions and concerns, and through environmental explorations, 'emerge' real reasons to write , read, to count and measure, and to make art. All students need are teachers with the 'artistry' and confidence to take advantage and amplify such learning opportunities.

All teachers would be well advised to read Holt's quote and to spent time in developing an authentic curriculum, one that 'emerges' out of their students question and visits. Developing every child as a 'confident life long learner', able to 'seek, use and create their own knowledge', as our new curriculum asks, might be the real answer to avoiding school failure?

Or is it just more more fine words ? It is time for reality to back up the rhetoric. It can be done - today, as in the past, there are teacher already doing it. Such teachers however are aways at risk by imposed simplistic answers to school failure , like National Testing , so loved by populist politicians.

As Holt wrote -'whose education is it'?

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Fundamentals in education

Ask most people what they would consider fundamental in education and they would probably say 'the three Rs' or, in,today's, speak literacy and numeracy. Certainly this is the view of our current conservatist government. But , like most simplistic answers , if people give the question more thought, more enlightened answers come to mind. Learning to interpret and express ideas about ones experiences is the basis of all learning from the moment one is born. As in the illustration we all see and interpret our world idiosyncratically - that is until we get to school! Loss of identify is the cause of school failure as much as is lack of ability in literacy and numeracy - identity is developed out of the experiences we have for better or worse. We need to pay more attention to helping our student attend to perception positively.

In recent years education has become more and more cognitive or rational; learning that can be seen and measured so as to prove evidence of growth.
In the process real fundamentals have been overlooked.

The creation of the mind is more than simply cognitive. The mind is a unified, active, constructive, self creating, and symbol making organ; it feels as well as thinks- feelings and emotions are a kind of thought. Attitudes are created from feelings and emotions.

If we are concerned with the eduction the full potential of all students then how we 'see' the mind, how we imagine we learn, is important. We are, hopefully, well past the 'blank slate' or the 'filling the jug' metaphors, long the basis of traditional 'one size fits all' schooling.

All this is important because our minds, once created, 'control' what we think or feel.And a mind made up, is as we all know , is hard to change. And it seems we are are often more successful 'turning minds off' learning than keeping them 'turned on'!

Our minds give shape to our learning. It is the mind that does the composing.It is the mind that thrives on information it receives from the outside, and which it generates itself. Humans are 'meaning makers' or 'meaning hunters'. Mind fall in love with learning - but they can fall out of love with learning if given the wrong experiences. The 'in phrase' is called 'disengagement' and it is rife in our schools.

So what are the fundamentals of learning? It is too simple to fall back on the default mode of literacy and numeracy indispensable as they obviously are.

The real basics of learning are : perceiving, thinking, and forming and the tools to make use of these faculties are words, numbers and shapes. Or to misquote the Bible 'in the beginning there was the experience' . All too often those who are failing in our schools lack a variety of experiences that they need to call on to learn to express themselves and to read.

To develop rich imaginative thoughts students need to be exposed to rich sensory experiences in contrast to sitting passively watching TV or gaining information second hand.

Rather than focusing failing learners on more of what they can't do it would be better to build on, or motivate, their interests, to explore the immediate environment, to educate their senses, to develop vocabulary in this process,and by investigating ,questioning, wondering and making things. From all this arises a natural need to read, write and express ideas through a range of media but only if students involved feel the emotional power from doing so. Such experiences are all the more important as most of our 'falures'are boys and the first experiences of failure for them is reading and mathematics both all too often removed from authentic contexts.

Once there were creative teachers who understood this. These teachers appreciated the innate imagery of students that were there to be tapped to write and draw about. Curriculum emerged from such interactions.

This is the 'artistry' of the creative teacher.

It fits into the self invention theory of the mind.

It is all about the unfolding and nurturing of the creative potential of every student.

As educators it is over to us set up the conditions and establish the relationship to allow all our learners to learn in as a natural way as is possible.

These are attributes all children were born with. Children are natural wonderers, scientists, artists and explorers.

This is how their brains were made to be used.

Turned on ,active, hunting for meaning, and an inclination to express what they have found out; to make a 'mark' in life, to be somebody worthwhile.

How come about 20% plus of our students have lost much of their natural gifts; have lost the plot of their own lives?

Artistry versus conformity in teaching.

Over the decades I have had the privilege of working alongside several very creative teachers. Teachers who had the wit and skill ( or artistry) to take advantage of teachable moments and use them to enlarge their students' awareness, skill and knowledge. One such teacher was Bill Guild, long since retired but still learning! A dead (and smelly) wasp nest provides opportunity for observation , investigation and inference as well as creative language and art.

Creativity is at risk in our schools today. Not that it was ever valued much by those whose natural inclination is to stick to the tried and true.

Today 'best practice' rules supreme as teachers follow suggestions to try to direct their students' learning by the use of defining intentions, negotiating 'success criteria', or something called WALTS. Teachers are too busy interacting with students providing 'feedback' and 'feed forward' all too often unconsciously removing student intuition and imagination in the process.

There is nothing wrong with such intentions if used lightly but this is not the case. Combined with a growing obsession with measuring progress in literacy and numeracy such ideas are distorting true learning. This obsession with measurement will be given even more emphasis with the inevitable political imposition of National Testing.

Teachers need to claim back their professional judgement, or 'artistry', and place greater emphasis on ensuring every student develops their innate gifts, talents, individuality and creativity.

Observing a teacher with such 'artistry' in action is an enlightening experience. During the flow of the day more unplanned actions unfold than intentional ones but things mostly happily work out for the best. Teachers who have such confidence in their own artistry have gained this confidence from their previous experiences. This teaching 'artistry', often unstated, is also intuitively shared with other teachers.

From previous experiences, or memory, such a teacher has knowledge of precedents to call on. From his, or her, rational mind, comes an awareness of current 'best practice'. With 'artistry' such a teacher combines all these influences unconsciously using imagination and intuition. Such teacher have the confidence of an artist who puts trust in the creative process.

This is almost the opposite of the advice of best practice' and many teachers who wish to control the learning process. With such misguided advice students 'products' end up by looking remarkably similar even if this is not the teachers intention. Such conformity indicates a lack of both student and teacher creativity.

Creative classrooms should be full of focused action. Any planning should centre on the need to assist students to get on with their tasks. It would be wrong , however, if such planning was so good that students were not able to make mistakes because it through the consequences of mistakes ( or risk taking) that students learn.

If students are able to imagine what they intend to do, and appreciate the need for others to get on with their tasks, then the teacher is free to creativity interact with individual and groups as circumstances require.

With benign planning and routines, involving real tasks, and an implicit trust in students to learn for themselves, the artistry of the teacher comes into play.

This is a long way away from from all the current highly rational 'evidence based teaching' imposed by those who see teaching from a managerial frame of mind. Ironically creative classrooms are full of 'evidence' of the success of their students as a natural result of their investigation in a range of learning areas. What is on display is 'evidence' of the 'voice', questions, concerns, theories, research and creativity of the students.

Creative students are developing a 'life long learning confidence' by being active 'seekers users and creators'. Such students will be able to demonstrate success even when confronted with National Standards testing.

I would place more faith in a school of teachers following such a creative approach than a school that follows a more managerial approaches to learning.

Who will remember the managerial teachers who live on planned certainty? No one remember the managers, the administrators; only those with imagination to see beyond current expectations.

It artists not managerial technocrats that finally count.

Only the artists, the creators will be remembered!

Sunday, June 07, 2009

Whose learning is it?

This painting, featured on the cover of Elwyn Richardson's wonderful book 'In The Early World', is a good example of expression based of the real life experience of the student involved. Such personal paintings are no longer common in our schools; even personal writing about felt experiences no longer feature. The curriculum of the school now seems to belong to the teacher but this begs the question: whose education is it? Elwyn's inspirational book is still available from the NZCER.

My regular visits to classrooms over the years has brought to my attention that the default mode of most teachers centres around ensuring their students can show evidence of achievement in literacy and numeracy. Nothing wrong with this except that there are other equally important areas that are being neglected in the process.

The important question is to ask what is the purpose of education and once this is identified to keep this in mind during all teacher student interactions?

Our 'new' New Zealand Curriculum vision is the need to ensure all students become confident life long learners. The need to ensure all students gain success is a relatively new idea and is a daunting challenge for schools ; one that has yet to be realized.

The curriculum defines life long future learning dispositions as 'key competencies'.The term 'key competencies' is an unfortunate one as it has a impersonal or technocratic ring about it but the intent is clear enough. It is about ensuring all students retain , or develop, the attributes to cope with whatever challenges they will have to face up to in the future - to become confident and competent 'have a go' learners!

One phrase, found in the thinking competence, is that students need to be seen as 'seekers, users, and creators of their own knowledge' is an important one. Teachers need to reflect on: what skills need to be taught ( in realistic contexts) to ensure students know how to seek knowledge; for students to make use of it in the context of their current understandings; and, most important of all, to be able to use this knowledge in an imaginative and creative way?

This surely is where literacy and numeracy play vital role? Obviously students need to be able to learn to read and count but this ought to be in the service of students making personal meanings of their experiences. Students, as Guy Claxton writes, need to see the point of their learning.

All too often, when visiting rooms, it is not the students questions, 'voice' and ideas that are celebrated but rather 'work' undertaken to develop teachers literacy and numeracy goals. The difference is important. To quote Claxton again 'learnacy' ( the innate desire to learn) is more important than literacy or numeracy.

Claxton has written ,'The classroom should be a place where talk about the process of learning, the nature of oneself as a learner, and ones improvement and intentions for oneself as a learner, is continual and natural, Claxton sees the NZ Curriculum's key competencies as providing 'learning power'.

Really valuing students thoughts requires teachers coming alongside their students to enter into 'learning conversations' - not to pass on our intentions to students but to listen to what they have to say and to assist them consider what they need to do to solve their problems. It would seem that over the past decade or so teachers have become too good at ensuring student creativity is restricted with their overuse use of 'teaching intentions', 'WALTS', 'success criteria' and the like. This bring us back to whose learning is it? Such techniques need to be used sensitively if we really want to value student creativity.

As Elwyn Richardson has written.'What I myself have learned I have mainly my children to thank. They were my teachers as much as I was theirs, and the basis of our relationships was sincerity, without which I am convinced their can be no creative education.' In this comment Elwyn echoes the philosophy of Sylvia Ashton Warner who believes the first reading book should be make from the 'stuff' or imagery within the head of every child. Sylvia wrote: ' From the teacher's end it boils down to whether or not she is a good conversationalist; whether she has the gift or the wisdom to draw out and preserve the other's line of thought'. Both Elwyn and Sylvia worked in the 1950/60s!

Today literacy is almost totally book orientated and student 'voice is hardly to be seen.

To return to the purpose of learning surely the overriding goal is to develop the gifts and talents of all students and to provide them with the means (key competences) to realise them.

To achieve this requires a rich and stimulating learning environment

The first source of learning 'energy' to tap into are the questions and concerns of the students themselves. No matter how trivial they may look to teachers most, if not all, can be built on and, in the process, cover much of what would be included in the teachers programme or the 'official' curriculum. This approach has been developed by American educator James Beane. Certainly the personal lives of the students provide 'rich picking' for personal or poetic writing if teachers encourage students to expand on what Elwyn Richardson calls 'felt moments. Such writing becomes a source of meaningful reading - teachers can scribe young children thoughts out for them and model powerful or poetic writing in the process.

Carlina Rinaldi writes, ' The child is an incredible resource.Because the child's search for meaning in life pushes you, if you dialogue with him.'

Another valuable source of inspiration for learning is the immediate environment
made great use of by Elwyn Richardson and teachers I worked with in the 70/80s. Both the man made but, more particularly, the natural world offer rich sources of ideas to investigate leading into science, maths and social studies etc. To take advantage of such ideas students need to be skilled at using their senses to interpret what they see. Most important is the often neglected skill of observation. Those who see more, observe more have more words and images to draw on. Such language experience, another almost forgotten part of past New Zealand teacher repertoire, is a vital means to develop writing and in turn literacy.

Creative teachers, following the advice of Jerome Bruner ( 'the art of teachers is the canny art of intellectual temptation'), can negotiate with their students a range of exciting inquiry topics and learning tasks across the curriculum - including literacy and numeracy studies. Such experiences provide valuable opportunities for students to tap into or discover their talents.

We not have to teach inquiry to our students it is an innate evolutionary disposition they were born with. Unfortunately in the wrong environment, where their 'voice' is not taken seriously, it can go underground.

In inquiry based creative classrooms
( where literacy and numeracy have been 're framed' to teach both necessary learning strategies and to introduce content to think about) students have the opportunity to develop into 'confident life long learners' able to 'seek , use and create their own knowledge.'

As a result of this co-constructivist inquiry approach, students are busy creating their own learning, presenting their findings to their highest personal standards. Teachers following such an approach are in a position to intimately learn how every student is really achieving - true personalised learning.

Such an environment provides the opportunities for students to create their own positive learning identity. Through teachers and student dialogue, or by the use of learning journals or learning stories, teachers can be of great value to each learner as they come to terms with those big questions of: ' Who am I? where did I come from? what am I good at? and where am I going?

Maxine Greene in her book 'Releasing the Imagination' sums it all up for me saying we need teachers,'who provoke learners to pose their own questions, to teach themselves, to go at their own pace, to name their worlds.Young people have to be noticed, it is now being realized; they have to be consulted; they have to question why.'

'Teachers' she continues, 'who are also being asked to treat their students as potential active learners who can best learn if they are faced with real tasks and if they discover models of craftsmanship and honest work.'

Such a learning environment is within the capability of all teachers once they see the point of it all.

Monday, June 01, 2009

Quotes from Tom Peters on education.

Tom Peter's book 'Re-Imagine' is well worth a read if you want to keep up with future trends. The following are few quotes to do with education that have caught Tom' attention. Tom thinks schools couldn't have been planned better to crush creativity than if they were planned to do so!

'The main crisis in schools today is irrelevance' says Daniel Pink in his book Free Agent Nation.

And Alvin Toffler writes 'Our education system is a second rate factory style organisation, pumping out obsolete information in obsolete ways.( Schools) are simply not connected to the future of the kids they're responsible for.'

'It is an inescapable reality that students learn at different rates in different ways.That creates the need for a schedule of sensitivity that not only teachers close to the particular student can devise - not some theory-driven, central office, computer-managed schedule.' writes educationalist Ted Sizer.

And Sizer says of secondary schools, ' We parade adolescents before snippets of time. Any one teacher will usually see more than 10 students and often more than a 100 a day. Such a system denies teachers the chance to know many students well, to learn how a particular student's mind works.

Howard Gardner writes, 'Students who receive honor grades in college level physics are frequently unable to solve basic problems encountered in a form slightly different from the the one in which they been formally instructed and tested.'

'Education , at best is ecstatic.At its best, its most unfettered, the moment of learning is a moment of delight.This essential and obvious truth is demonstrated for us every day by the baby and the preschool child...When joy is absent, the effectiveness of the learning process fails and fails until the human being is operating hesitantly, grudgingly, fearfully', writes George Leonard in his book 'Education and Ecstasy.

'During the first years of life, youngsters all over the world master a breathtaking array of competences wit little formal tutelage.' Howard Gardner.

George Polk writes in his book Montessori a Modern Approach, ' The goal of the child is to develop and he is intrinsically motivated with an intensity unequalled in all of creation.'....'He cannot stand still: he is impelled towards conquest...The child seeks no assistance in his work. He must accomplish it by himself...The essential thing is for the task to arouse such an interest that it engages the child's whole personality'.

And as Roger Schank in his book 'The Connoisseurs Guide to the Mind' writes, 'Actual content may not be the issue at all, since we are are really trying to impart the idea that one can deal with new areas of knowledge if one knows how to learn, how to find out about what is known, and how to abandon old ideas when they are worn out. This means teaching ways of developing good questions rather than memorizing known answers, an idea that traditional schools simply don't cotton on to at all, and that traditional education teaching methods are unprepared to handle.'

'I see it every day' writes Dennis Littky, ' kids who people have dismissed as' dumb in maths" or "uninterested in science" or " non readers" doing incredible things in those same exact areas because they were finally allowed to start something they were can already interested in.'

'Questions, questions, questions.It is all about questions...They disturb. They provoke.They exhilarate. They humiliate. They make you feel a little bit like you've at least temporarily lost your marbles. So much so that at times I'm positive that the ground is shaking and shifting under our feet. Welcome to Socrates Cafe', written by Christopher Perkins author of 'Socrates Cafe'.

The three most important letters: Why?

Isn't it time we began to question what is provided as schooling and stop blaming the students for their ability not to make sense of it all?