Friday, June 11, 2010

Finding a real curriculum

A creative interpretation of a six year olds pet cat arising from a class study of cats - cats are amazing creatures with impressive adaptations to survive in the wild and as a pet.Students also researched their cats wilder, larger, more famous relatives. How much do you know about your cat?

This is another blog based on my reading of Julie Diamond's book 'Welcome to the Classroom - a year in the lives of children'

Julie writes that 'by the age five, when children arrive in elementary schools, they have evolved definite selves.....the have their passionate interests, concerns, topics,humor; a style that is theirs'.

In other words their own personal curriculum for teachers to tap into , amplify and challenge. Unfortunately, even from a very early age this curriculum is subsumed by topics teachers want to study with their class. Nothing wrong with this but it ought not be at the expense of children's interests and concerns. Eventually teacher imposed curriculums lead to the disengagement of many older students.

Julie lists a wide range of topics arising from the children's own environment and the questions and concerns they have .Children are curious about whatever attracts their attention.They are, Julie writes, 'incessant investigators, particularly about real things in the world.Teachers do not have to wait for questions to arise, but can initiate studies'. I like the quote from Jerome Bruner who says teachers need to 'practice the canny art of intellectual temptation.' Julie writes, 'we can find and display resources - real objects, books, photos - that will pique interest. When a study begins with something that is already part of the children's world, their involvement can be immediate.....Children invest certain topics with meanings that resonate for them at a certain age' She mentions: blood, injuries, dinosaurs, animals and pets.

Teachers just need to ask the students what they wonder about? what worries them? and what they would like to learn more about? A curriculum will 'emerge' and 'evolve'. Julie refers to the exciting Reggio Emilia approach - an approach similar to language experience idea of earlier decades.

Children learn best through first hand experiences. She writes ( referring to John Dewey) ' children learn through their senses; they look closely at things, poke at them, smell them, and shake them to see what sounds they produce'.

Observational drawing are vital for Julie ( she calls them science drawings) to help them investigate and observe closely. During the drawing process Julie encourages her students to tell her what they notice, their questions and thoughts thought.

This is the beginning of literacy - thinking, writing and reading. As studies evolve ideas are documented, photographed and displayed to show the children's learning journeys. In this way students insights and thinking is valued.

The key to such teaching is the teachers conception of the teaching role. Trust in kids is not easy, she says, and it is hard for some teachers to avoid being didactic. Julie values her children's theories and carefully elicits her children's ideas. New Zealand teachers may recognise this as co-constructivist teaching.

If we really value children's understanding we must value their 'prior thoughts and help them clarify and expand on them. It is this approach Julie outlines as her theory of instruction. Questions and answers both provide insight into children's thinking. In the term of the New Zealand Curriculum this is about children 'seeking, using and creating their own knowledge.

Children's questions and studies lead students naturally into the Learning Ares and disciplines. The teacher, Julie writes, 'acts as a bridge between the reality of the children and the logic of adult disciplines'. In this she one again quotes John Dewey who wrote that' eduction is rooted in the child's psychological reality but headed towards the logical reality of adult knowledge, the seeds of disciplines are implicit in children's curiosity about interactions with things in the world.'

Teachers need to know when to step in and assist children in their learning - this is the 'artistry' of being a teacher. They have to notice what is being learnt and what is not being learnt. Julie quotes Eleanor Duckworth. 'the essence of pedagogy is giving children the occasion to have wonderful ideas'. This means teachers 'need to take their students thoughts seriously so as to help them pursue them in greater depth and breadth'.

All this doesn't mean that teacher cannot provide information to students when required.

One idea I liked in Julie's book was that every Friday she gets her students to dictate a letter to her to send home to their parents about the weeks learning events.

Julie's book is about authentic learning - around tasks children have initiated for themselves or assigned by the teacher - learning that is congruent with children's intrinsic motivation, their intense desire to learn, explore , and make things. One indication of authenticity is the degree of energy invested by the children.

This is an approach that begins with their responses, respects their thinking; it is an open ended approach. The belief is that high quality work results when children's intentions and ways of thinking are respected.

Our job as teachers, Julie writes, 'is to see that children's feelings of intense and personal connection are maintained and extended....teachers ensure that a curriculum provides a multiplicity of approaches, children can make their own sense of a topic, and such a topic is likely to appeal to more of them. Their discoveries and conclusions, their idiosyncratic juxtapositions, their eccentric observations and conclusions, and even the public challenges to what we know to be so, add unplanned dimensions layer, and extensions to a study'.

And all this constructing of knowledge leads into authentic reading and writing. In too many New Zealand classrooms literacy and numeracy have all but squeezed out the kind of authentic personalised and creative learning Julie writes about. There was a time when this wasn't the case.


Tricia said...

I across Reggio Emilia schools when I was reading my daughter - in -law's early childhood books. What do you know about them?
I am loving your writings about Julie Diamond - they have come at the right time to remind me about the joys of teaching-thank you. Can you keep sharing about her please.

Bruce Hammonds said...

Hi Tricia

Reggio Emilia schools are wonderful -every junior teacher should be aware of their approach. Based on real life experiences of teachers not long distance academic research! And so much like the good progressive childcentred teaching of earlier days. 'Google' to find out more.

I have a couple of blogs from Jukie's book to go - such an inspirational read. About her take on literacy!! Real student centred learning - kids in the 'drivers seat' not 'passengers' implementing teacher intentional planning!