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.


Unknown said...

Wonderful post Bruce, I was surprised to see the lack of action via NZEI (at the moment). Check out their site at:

On the NZC discussion forum there doesn't appear to be much debate about the possible affects of so called 'national standards' on our new curriculum... my sense is that it will dilute it and that it has the potential to kill it. We could become like the UK or US education system where control is the norm and learning/creativity/imagination/etc. is squashed...

I'm with you,

Rob Clarke

Mac Stevenson said...

Me too Bruce.
From this week's Listener. Professor Johanna Montgomery ... "She has young children and is fascinated by how their brains work. ...what astounds me is they have this enormous capacity for learning and I wonder why they lose it." she says.

Well we know why. They go to school. Then they have to be schooled. Then they have to do Literacy and Numeracy for at least 4/5 of every day.React with their environment -you're kidding. Have fun - not often. Do their own thing - rarely.

If only the intent of the NZC had been allowed to flow through before the National Standards circus had taken over we would have led the world again perhaps.

Bruce Hammonds said...

Thanks for your supportive comment Rob. Your worry about the National Standards diluting ( even destroying) the 'new' cuuriculum is well founded. For all the talk of the 'nanny state' we are now getting 'big brother'! Will teachers just roll over and comply?

Greetings Mac

Well we keep fighting the battle for creativity! Education has , as you say, been reduced to 'schooling' devised by 'experts' sitting in their well paid ivory towers and populist politicians with their National Standards 'circus'! Must read that Listener.

It seems the government is intent on leading us back into the past century -what next payment by results a la Hattie?

Kelvin Smythe article is well worth the read!

Mike said...

Good stuff Bruce.

The big problem I have is that because of the very existence of national standards (without yet given explicit directives for practice)is that teachers will have another excuse for not being creative.

For me the bigger issue in your post was extremes or purism. Learning intentions and feedback can be fun or can be part of rigid school model of learning that a few staff and no kids understand. You heard me ranting on this in Ashburton a few years back.

It aint what you do it's the way that you do it.


Bruce Hammonds said...

Greetings Mike

I respect your thoughts Mike after hearing and watching your presentation a few years back in Ashburton. I thought, at the time, at least someone with creative ideas to share -and in an area I am not up with - really making innovative use of ICT. ICT is more over-promised than delivered in my opinion. I remember well your views on whiteboards the latest classroom must have!

But in respect to my 'purism' I stand my ground although I agree, 'it not what you do it's the way that you do it.'

I have yet to see a classroom that uses all this 'intentional teaching' , 'success criteria' stuff in a way that is really creative. By creative I mean that each childs individuality, creativity and 'voice' is celebrated. This could be remedied by making them one of the criteria or intentions? All too this approach results in over-teaching, over coaching, over'feedbacking' and, as such, results in 'formulaic' 'outcomes' ( to use a technocratic word).

So, I agree, it is the way that you use them. But I side with Kelvin Smythe on this, they are badly used. Creativity is a word too easly used in education - those who really believe in it have to risk sticking their neck on the block. I am not sure it has been a great period for creativity - give me the 60s and 70s anyday. But boy we sure need it now , or at least some intellectual courage from those 'leading' our schools to combat such things as National Standards and the desire to measure things, while at the same time ignoring other important qualities.

Reef said...

While Hattie's results could be implemented in a variety of ways, my reading of Hattie's work leads me in a very different direction from the strict pedagogical approach to teaching. I interpret Hattie's work as a call to provide more mentoring (the Guide on the Side approach) rather than a strict formulaic system. If indeed Hattie's work is used (by himself or anyone) to support a narrow teaching approach, then it is, to my mind, a sad misuse of the concepts the book develops and supports.

Bruce Hammonds said...

Greetings Reef

I re-read my blog and am sticking with what I wrote. I have just read Hattie's two latest papers and viewed a Powerpoint of his, and his approach is narrow ( his tests are all in literacy and numeracy). He is over rational, academic and technocratic. So last century.He is not into affectice education - where the real creativity lies. I would hate him to get any more power in New Zealand than he has claimed already. Whether he wants it or not his approach will narrow and distort teaching. And I would not want his associates to mentor me although there is nothing wrong with the idea of mentoring or sharing. It is just that I would rather be mentored by a creative person - one suited for the 21stC