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?


Maurie said...

I bet you are not getting much consultation work with MOE!

Bruce Hammonds said...

Funny that! A person would have to have a very flexible concept of integrity to work for the Ministry!
They would have to be Marxists - Groucho that is,he said, 'I have my principles ,I can change them if you don't like them!'

Anonymous said...

Be great if school 'leaders' took a stand against the standards. They should send a clear message to all their parents about the truth of it all - the lack of consultation, the rush through parliament, what it really means when it comes to other creative areas of learning that will suffer, and its lack of success in other parts of the world where it has falied to deliver.

Like most simplistic solutions it will fail and worse still will distort teaching and learning.

Anonymous said...

Parents need some good information about what the standards would mean for their children, and how they have distorted education in countries where they have been used.

They seem to be a good idea until real thought is given to the issue - so parents need information.

Without real information - both for and against, populist politicians can do what they like.

Anonymous said...

Mrs Tolley would be at home in one of Charles Dicken's
novels with her Victorian 'Three Rs' approach to teaching.

Does she think we need to go back to such a narrow uncreative view of education?

The answer seems obvious as she has cancelled all the art and environmental advisers in schools.

Doesn't she know learning is about engagement or motivation?

Bruce Hammonds said...

It would be great if schools were to take a leadership role but too many seem quite happy as they are, too caught up in their traditional subject diciplines to focus on the personal needs and talents of their students. 'One size, it seems, still fits all' at secondary and it will be literacy and numeracy forever at primary schools.We are in the 21stC?