Friday, April 30, 2010

Leave the learning to the kids!

Education is too important for adults to take so seriously - such seriousness kills the creative spirit that is every child's evolutionary inheritance. Schools , like doctors should at least do no harm! Progress depends on first imagining possibilities.

As Einstein said,'Imagination is more important than knowledge for knowledge is limited whereas imagination embraces the entire world stimulating progress giving birth to evolution'.He also said it was a miracle that children's' sense of wonder was not crushed by modern schooling.

School are increasingly looking like organisations dedicated to the standardisation of children.Teachers have been infected over the past decades with a range of pseudo scientific management processes to ensure all students learn - what their teachers intend them to learn. Standardisation and formulaic teaching is the name of the game.Creativity and imagination are not really valued -and this will worsen with the introduction of the National Standards. And who know where the standards will take us!

The spirit of creative teaching is being lost. Once such creativity, by both teachers and students, was a feature of many New Zealand classrooms.

We need to value childhood for what it offers us - to remind us of what many of us have lost. Being childlike is a valuable trait. Free of imposed conceptions young learner are able to see clearly for themselves and in the process create their own unique minds.

What they get up to may seem irrational to our adult 'trained' minds but children's imagination is what the world needs. It needs to be protected and valued not shaped by teacher's intentions, success criteria, endless testing, so called best practice, heavy handed feedback, feed forward and next steps teaching. All left over thinking from failed industrial age thinking. The future demand creativity in every sphere and particularly in teaching. Teachers, it seems, are now the most over controlled professions of all.

We need to encourage wishful thinking in our children, encourage them to have ago , try things out , enjoy their 'mistakes' as information for their next time. After all this is how Google works with it's staff. But what would they know - have they done their mega research on old ideas?

Young children are idealists ; they like dreaming of new possibilities. These attributes are the best predictors of future success not the narrowing down of intelligence by imposed standards no matter how sensible to academic adults they seem. We need students who can ask good questions and who can engage in good discussions.

All the wisdom does not reside at the Ministry or in university education departments - teachers can learn more by just watching their students, and by providing the necessary conditions and providing encouragement - this is a creative art in itself. In such an environment( as at Google) a engaging curriculum 'emerges' with teachers and learner learning together.

All too often schooling restricts children learning capabilities and narrows their view of what could be. And all too often a fear of trying new things becomes the norm - and a fear of experimentation. Children soon learn to sink down to the level of teachers expectations measuring themselves by the wrong criteria.

Creative teacher believe that all kids want to learn and see their role as providing supportive and challenging learning environments -once again as at Google.

By being too heavy handed we are under-estimating children's ability.We need to stand back and involve ourselves lightly. We need to observe and listen to notice appropriate times to assist. Socrates is still a state of the art teacher!

If we could truly develop creative schools then we would have a better chance of developing adults that are open to new ideas, able to make the world a better place. We have plenty evidence of what alienated and uncreative school failures can do.

For a new creative age we need new ideas-and only creative schools and teacher can achieve this. We need students who know how to explore and how to think about issues that they see as important. In the future successful people will be those who use their minds well - who know how to ask the pertinent questions for a living. Those with a well developed sense of imagination will have the currency to thrive in the future.

Being creative is all about being comfortable with the unknown -and this is the essence of both science and the arts. The future is search for the best questions not past best practice answers.

As country we need to develop a cutural disposition to encourage innovative thinking and risk taking.

The Ministry of Education ironically taking us back to the failed certainties of the past -and too many schools seem set to follow.

Now if they were children they would see clearly the the Emperor has no clothes.

Are you listening Mrs Tolley?

Thank you Iain Taylor for this guest blog. The below are Iain's notes for his thank you speech to the Minister after her presentation to the Auckland Principals Association. Iain is well known for his point of view and is currently principal of Manurewa Intermediate School.

Thank you Minister for having the courage and tenacity to address the APPA… as you can see from the numbers here today what you had to say was keenly awaited…and thank you also for ‘putting to rest’, we hope, our fears of national league tables.

You will already have heard around the country I am sure that it is not national standards we fear at all - we already use a wide range of assessments which are standardized. We already know where a child’s performance sits compared to their peers of similar age or stage and teachers already use a range of measures to inform judgments on where a child fits. What we fear is what will happen to that information.

I am sure I speak for all principals here today, but perhaps particularly for lower decile schools it is “value added” that is far more important and valid than reaching a set achievement standard
.We all know kids arrive at school with a wide range of strengths and of course weaknesses, all the result of differing personalities, differing home backgrounds and experiences, and a host of immeasurable factors that make our kids who they are.

The revised NZ curriculum I believe is fantastic. We really hope testing in the broadest sense does not signal a narrowing of its intent whereby schools only focus on literacy and numeracy.

A broad education is most important.An education which recognises the huge array of children’s strengths and successes and builds on those.

We want our curriculum to actively combine challenging life type experiences with academic rigour and creative opportunity in the personal education of every student. But a curriculum of this ambitious nature cannot be confined to the classroom alone with a focus solely on literacy and numeracy and all that, sometimes, ‘irrelevant testing stuff’.

The distinction of core curricular and extracurricular components is invalid in my opinion. In order to develop students across a spectrum of intelligences we cannot merely focus on literacy and numeracy, we must still do all the other interesting things. We need to integrate experiences on the sports fields, in outdoor education, using technology, through service projects, in scientific experimentation and down at the stream and the beach and in the bush, in the art room, and in musical and dramatic performances.

It is has always been the strength of the NZ school system that an active, challenging curriculum provides students with the opportunity to develop all their intelligences and these then strengthen each other leading to well balanced, perceptive individuals who have the confidence to take risks, to think outside the box and to take action to improve the lives of themselves and others. We all expect our students to be fully and constructively involved in a range of activities on offer in our schools and testing could well put a stop to many of these relevant and motivating experiences that our kids are doing every day, in every Auckland primary school.

The message we want to constantly convey to every Auckland student is to grasp every opportunity available in their school. The worst thing that can happen is for students to leave our schools saying “I wish I had tried that” and we don’t want that to be the case! National testing and any national comparisons or league table scenario could create that sort of environment.

Once again Minister Tolley thank you for your time and interest.

No reira,
tena koutou,
tena koutou,
tena koutou katoa

Iain Taylor
Auckland Primary Principals Association

Thursday, April 29, 2010

Game bird study - Duckshooting season.

I am sick and tired of visiting schools and hearing principals tell me it is all about: assessment, success criteria, teachers' intentions, WALTS, best practice ( really fixed practice) feedback, feed forward, next steps teaching and now National Standards. All part of the same failing scientific management ideology of control and conformity. Worse still, all but a few creative schools have been sucked into all this 20th Century thinking. It seems to be repeated as some state imposed mantra of success, an educational rain dance, when the real problem is motivation or engagement - keeping the desire to learn alive. This is what teachers' should be keeping to the forefront of their minds. Duck shooting is on us - what is it all about? Why shoot ducks?

As teacher and principal I was always on the lookout for ideas to share with students, or teachers, to inspire learning because when learners are engaged then authentic literacy and numeracy have to be involved - and of course scientific and social science thinking and the creative arts.

All I see these days are teacher planned term long units across the school. So much for children's voice, autonomy, choice and potential. Drawn out boredom. Actually all I usually see is most of the day being spent on literacy and numeracy - bring back the language blocks or language experience!

Back to the ducks. A great mini study, a teachable moment -we used to call them one day wonders. The duck shooting season opens Friday 1st May.

What are students' first questions and prior ideas.

Why do we have a game bird shooting season?
What are game birds? Research species; groups or individuals could study one in particular.
What species are called game birds?
Where are the ducks,and other species, to be found?
What are the life cycles, habitats of such birds?
What are the shooting rules? What happens if the rules are broken? Who enforces the law?
What is the police advice about using guns?
What kind of guns are used.
When do shooter hunt? What is a duck shooting dog? What are decoys or maimais?
Has shooting anything to do with conservation and sustainability?

Students could undertake observational drawing of birds ( from photos) and use these drawings as visual research to draw, paint, crayon, some expressive scenes.

While drawing new questions might come to mind and also thoughts to be refined into poems.

A lot of potential learning from a few ducks!

Far more fun than repeating all those hollow technocratic educational catch phrases.

My advice - keep you mind open to anything that might inspire learning .

Forget about all your planned units -an 'emergent' curriculum is the curriculum of the 21stC -and it is the way we all learn.

Our focus ought to be on widening our (and our students) areas of interest. John Dewey trumps John Hattie and the other ivory tower academics, all those formulaic literacy and numeracy contracts, the 20th century obsession with measurement, and the Ministry technocrats.

Friday, April 23, 2010

A take on the current politically inspired changes. A modern myth

Measurement mad technocrats, ivory tower academics, and limited vision politicians have far too much influence in education - time we all woke up! A satirical view from my friend Mac from Auckland.

A Bunch of Nasty Statistics

A small tear in the time space continuum had seen the beginning of a new era in the land of Edu Ka Shun. Patrician Anatoly had been replaced and in schools all around the land there had been great anticipation as to the direction that the incoming Patrician would take.

The first action taken by the new patrician had been the calling together of all the Bureau Rats with an explanation demanded of them about the state of education and the expectations of student outcomes on a national basis. The new Patrician had caused much whispering and incredulous looks when holding up a publication that all but a few had forgotten about over the preceding years. This publication it seemed was one the new Patrician intended to ensure was implemented in schools as he felt its intent was such that it would provide students across the country with the basis of a life long education based on the acquisition of thinking skills and using approaches that favoured and supported creative learning opportunities. The older Bureau Rats of course remembered this document - the revised NZC- and the time of its intended implementation namely around the same time as Patrician Anatoly had taken the reigns of power.

Initially it had seemed the revised NZC was to be the saviour for Edu Ka Shun, which for many years had been tied up with approaches based on educational minutiae and an expectation that all learning was linear in its outcomes. The new approach that favoured inquiry and allowing students to set and pursue their learning goals was welcomed as a means of allowing creative and thoughtful teachers the ability to provide programmes of work that were student centred and interesting. However, the expectation had not become the reality.

In a short space of time Patrician Anatoly had launched a bunch of Nasty Statistics on schools throughout the country and as these settled new outcomes began to become evident. The Pointy Hats, who remained well removed from classrooms, continued to provide an on going source of Nasty Statistics and these regularly invaded schools by means of media statements and publications from the Bureau Rats. Consequently, and in spite of various opposition from concerned parents and school leaders, the Nasty Statistics and their sidekicks the League Tables had subsumed the revised NZC. So a great despondency settled on the land of Edu Ka Shun as schools evaluated, assessed, graphed, reported, assessed some more and reported some more as was expected by the Pointy Hats and the Short Term Acolytes who provided the Patrician with the necessary “public support” for the continuing infiltration of Nasty Statistics.

It would be true to state however that there had been pockets of dissent and defiance in some places throughout this time because a group named the Creative Pedagogues had continued to ply their trade and enable students to be involved in a range of curriculum areas that included The Arts. These Creative Pedagogues while recognising the importance of Reading, Writing and Maths had also continued to expose students to the full range of curriculum through programmes that in fact mirrored the expectations of the revised NZC. They had been encouraged in their endeavours by the writings and statements emanating from Bryce Hambones and his able lieutenant Nug Backstop. It was speculated that these statements and their creators, originated from a hidden location in the shadow of Mt Taranaki however this was never substantiated. Suffice it to say that the statements gave much support to those embattled Creative Pedagogues and it is speculated that without this support many may well have begun to question their beliefs and could well have withered and vanished in the overwhelming mass of Nasty Statistics that had become the norm. Even as the dreaded Performance Pay lapped the shores of the land, in the wake of the attacks by the Nasty Statistics and the scourge of the League Tables, these Creative Pedagogues continued to recognise the talents of students even to the extent of providing for Dance and Drama, and Art and Music on a regular basis. Thankfully, the Pointy Hats had not yet found a way of launching their Nasty Statistics at these and the Patrician saw no merit in doing so while schools remained up to their ears in documentation already.

Much incisive, investigative writing published by Bevin Scythe, of Awa Waikato, also contributed to the challenges that were made from time to time against the reported comments made by Patrician Anatoly. Scythe’s comments served to provide the basis whereby leaders of schools could examine their own school's assessment practices and counter in some way the on-going attacks by the Nasty Statistics. This became even more important in those schools where the Nasty Statistics and the ever-present League Tables highlighted the gaps caused in no small part by the economic conditions prevailing in school communities. Consequently, and thankfully, Scythe’s stance also did a great deal to ensure the practice of labelling students with an L on their forehead remained in place for only a short period of time. This practice, which applied generally in places where the Nasty Statistics were most prevalent, was only used for those who had not measured up to the Pointy Hats expectations in terms of their learning and as it was done with felt tip pen it was not seen as a cause for on going concern. Scythe’s writings constantly challenged those of the Pointy Hats, with their simplistic approaches to learning, and provided a more realistic and student based philosophical approach.

Yet the accepted view, continually reiterated through the media and from the Short Term Acolytes, was that Edu Ka Shun was on the right track and improvements were just around the corner. It is disappointing that this stance was also the one often adopted by the Philosophically Challenged brigade who sought to enhance their own status by recourse to published comment that supported the bleakness that the Nasty Statistics wrought even though this stance ran counter to the mainstream view of educationalists around the world. Inevitably though change would happen.

It was now some years later and as earlier noted the new Patrician was ready to change the face of Edu Ka Shun. Yet it was not quite as simple as that as the Patrician needed some research to show the Bureau Rats that the long-term answer was in fact the revised NZC. He therefore instructed senior members of the Erroneous Reporting Officials to prepare reports that in fact showed the advantages of his new approach and if no sound evidence was available they were to use Executive Summaries or other such obscuration to enable positive press statements to be made. To highlight the importance of this reporting the new Patrician reminded the Erroneous Reporting Officials that a spell in the classroom for all of them was a distinct possibility and this certainly had the desired effect on the resulting research outcomes. By now too the Bureau Rats had fallen into line and were regularly agreeing with the new Patrician and so the future for Edu Ka Shun land looked bright.

It needs to be remembered however that changes elsewhere seem inevitably to impact on Edu Ka Shun and just when teachers seem settled and meeting the expected outcomes of the current Patrician……….

With thanks to the contribution made by the writings of Terry Pratchett who noted in his book “Moving Pictures”:

'You get just one chance. You live for maybe seventy years and if you're lucky you get one chance. Think of all the natural skiers who are born in deserts, Think of all the genius blacksmiths who were born hundreds of years before anyone invented the horse. All the skills that are never used. All the wasted chances.'

Our kids deserve every chance let’s not waste any on disproved ideologies.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Inquiring into Anzac Day

After exploring, students 'prior ideas' and questions about ANZAC Day, class discussions, and researching articles and pictures, students drafted out, and wrote up, their own thoughts. The challenge included appropriately illustrating the topic. A range of skills ( 'literacies') need to be in place to complete such a task.

Alert teachers ( we need more of them) are always on the lookout for inspirational ideas to introduce to their class - ANZAC Day is one such opportunity.

ANZAC Day is an ideal way to develop inquiry skills to your children while at the same time developing some important ideas about what it is to be New Zealander.

Such a study could be introduced before ANZAC Day and concluded after Anzac Day is over.

The 'new' New Zealand Curriculum asks schools to develop: 'Students who are competent thinkers and problem solvers (who) actively seek, use and create knowledge.They reflect on their own learning, draw on personal knowledge and intuition, ask questions, and challenge the basis of assumptions and perceptions.'

To do this it is important for students to be motivated by 'real life', meaningful challenges from across the curriculum that make use of whatever Learning Areas( disciplines) are required.

It would seem obvious that literacy ( and where possible numeracy) programmes should be integrated with current class studies. Students need, the curriculum says, to be able to , 'critically interrogate texts', and to, 'receive, process and present ideas or information'.

Students need both to 'make meaning' of ideas or information as well as 'creating their own meanings' from such information.

A close read of many current student research presentations would show that this is not being achieved. There is little of the tentative , 'I think', 'it could be', 'this suggests'; phrases that show students own 'voice', rather than 'cutting and pasting'.

Students need to be taught stages in research writing following their investigations.

They need to be able to focus their research on a few key questions, and to take notes about ideas they feel relevant to their queries. They also need to be shown a organisational format to assist them present their ideas - essentially, their study question, possibly their current thinking or 'prior ideas',their research, and data and finally conclusions and references.

What are your students prior ideas about what ANZAC Day stands for?
How could they find out more about the day?
How could they express what they have found out.

Teachers need to gather ANZAC resources to share or display in the class.

They also need to be taught a range of design and presentation formats suitable for the students ages. If a booklet is to be produced of their findings, each page needs to be thought through carefully, including any illustrations and graphical data.

Such design skills are best taught by means of student exercise books which offers a means for each students to observe their growth, both in presentation and content.

That teaching such information gathering and interpreting skills are important is reflected by a recent Nationwide survey that showed that the current workforce is lacking in such skills. The lack of interpretive literacy and numeracy skills suggest a greater emphasis on the applied use of them in the school system. And the earlier the better.

Literacy and numeracy are integral to ensuring students are their own users, seekers, and creators' and to create schools as 'communities of inquiry'; tapping the intellectually curiosity of students.

And developing exciting student studies is the key to achieving this. The 'new' curriculum wisely suggests that students need to do 'fewer thing well' so as to develop this, all to often missing,in-depth thinking.

Autumn - a chance to develop inquiry skills

Many schools seem to have got into the habit of collaboratively planning one major ( often school wide) study a term. While this may have some advantages it often means that the idea of introducing small seasonal studies, or current events like volcano eruptions, are overlooked.

Autumn is too good not to take advantage of.

All too often the results of Autumn studies seen in many classes ( usually Junior rooms) are superficial, to say the least, but this need not be the case.

If there are deciduous trees in, or near, the school grounds what a brilliant opportunity to develop a small integrated study.

The study could be prefaced with the provocation, 'Why do some trees lose their leaves?' Such questions introduce an inquiry approach to the students.

A good idea is to listen to the students' answers to the question and for these to be recorded and displayed as, 'Our prior, or first, ideas'.

The teacher could start the thinking process off by bringing along a few leaves to show to the class followed by a walk to visit trees in the school ground or nearby park. This is a chance to get the students to develop skills of sensory awareness - skills all too often lost in today's busy world.

Get the students to throw leaves around, to kick them with their feet, to select a range of leaves, or to collect leaves in different stages of colouring ( a good idea is to use a digital camera to collect stages of change). Children could be asked to write a few thoughts about what they can see, hear and what they are wondering about - these thoughts can be tidied up back in class and new questions to research added to the display. On idea is to do a three line poem: one thought about leaves on the tree; one thought about a leaf falling; and one thought about the leaves on the ground. After refining these thoughts make up a simple haiku.

Back in class students could do detailed observational drawings -this will be more impressive if students are instructed to look carefully for patterns and to draw what they see with care - continually looking back to the leaf they are drawing to collect accurate visual data. If drawn in black ink they can be coloured in and added to the wall display. While drawing student's can be asked what thought have come to mind.

At this stage students could head to reference books or to the computer to research what it is that makes some trees lose their leaves and why. Their answers could be added to the display. Innovative teachers could get their students to digitally record the stages of leaf colouration. Another idea is to count the number of leaves in a defined strip from the base of the trunk to several metres away from the tree and graph the results.

During literacy time poems could be introduced and selected lines used for handwriting. How to write up report or thoughts could be drafted during this time.

Students could also choose a particular tree to study - perhaps one in their own garden or street. Interesting vocabulary could be added to the display.

Teachers usually have range of creative ideas to call upon but one idea is for students to draw /paint/crayon 'magic' Autumn leaves to make a composite Autumn tree for the class wall.

If teachers were to really study Autumn leaves with such an intensity then the results would be anything but superficial.

We all love seeing the colour of Autumn - it is a sign of the end of Summer and the beginning of Winter.