Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Teachers learning through dialogue -the power of learning conversations.

A jazz group is an ideal metaphor for an innovative school - all playing the same tune but each contributing as required to make a distinctive sound. Each player is expert in the chosen instrument and is trusted to contribute as the situation takes them . Improvisation is an important skill. A good school, or individual classroom, shares many things in common with a jazz group. Fluid, creative but all working within agreed beliefs: consistent creativity.

Learning through dialogue or learning conversations.

‘We know more than we know we know’ Michael Polyani

‘An ability to take a fresh look at the taken for granted seems equally important: without this ability most of us remain submerged in the habitual.’ Maxine Greene

‘The problem is never to get new innovative ideas into your mind, but to get the old ones out.’ Dee Hock (founder of Visa)

The 'new' New Zealand Curriculum provides the motivation to 're-frame' our programmes to ensure all students become 'confident, connected, life long learners' able to, 'seek, use and create their own knowledge'. Ironically the imposition ( and associated confusion) of National Standards will distract and distort schools from such an exiting challenges.

1. What are the problems with teaching and learning as you see them?
In small groups ‘brainstorm’ issues. Then list them with no judgemental comments from others. Combine similar ones but only if people who suggested similar ones agree. Then use a 10:4 voting system to gather the ‘Wisdom of Crowds’. With this system members in turn placing their 10 points over three rounds – placing up to four points any round. From this we might establish an agenda for the day or for future inter school research teams.

2. Consider your own interests and abilities – the things that make you special (your ‘identity’). List things you like doing that you feel are above average – don’t be modest.
Think about Howard Gardner’s multiple intelligences. Select one and consider how you developed your ability. Share with others in your group. You might think how come you were ‘turned off’ some areas of learning.

Possible group dialogue / learning conversation topics.

3. Considering the changing and unpredictable world our students will enter what future skills, competencies, or disposition will our students need to thrive? What metaphors for a learner can you think of? ‘Brainstorm’ individually and then make up a composite list. From this develop an image of a successful student – what you want your students to leave your school with. You might refer to the vision pages of the NZC.

4. Think about what would make up a ‘dream school’ for teachers, students and parents. Combine individual ideas and write a descriptive paragraph to present to the whole group. Ignore your present school situation – see if you can ‘sell’ your dream school to other groups...

5. Challenge: we have decided to personalize learning so as to ensure all students develop a positive learning identity. Such a personalized learning approach values each student’s feelings, ‘voice’, talents. interests, culture, ideas, questions and theories with the idea of leaving students feeling it is their learning the school is interested in pursuing. Make a list of teaching strategies to achieve this.

6. In our transformed ‘dream school’ all learning is based on an inquiry model.
There are ideas to consider in each of the Learning Areas in the NZC. Outline for your group an agreed process of inquiry – the stages most learners will have to go through.

7. In our transformed school we need to ‘re frame’ literacy and numeracy to contribute to the inquiry programme – the inquiry programme is to be the most important aspect of the day. The NZC requires school to ensure all students are able to ‘seek, use and create their own knowledge’. How can we integrate literacy and numeracy programmes so they contribute to in depth afternoon inquiry? List ideas. Think about how we can develop a positive ‘feeling for’ or attitudes towards maths and reading.

8. In our transformed school, where we value students’ creativity and empowerment, what is the role of the teacher? What metaphors, or images, come to mind? How do we help students ‘turned off ‘, or disengaged from areas of learning?

9. In transformed schools/room environments, where student inquiry and in-depth understanding and personal expression are central, what would you expect to see? In such schools the message is to ‘do fewer things well’ in depth is understood by all. List criteria to assess rooms.

10. In groups develop five beliefs to base your transformed schools teaching on and list a few ‘we will do’ ideas for each.
These beliefs will form the basis of ongoing School Self Review, Teacher Appraisal and Professional Development.

The agreed beliefs provide consistency between teachers but also encourage creativity of each teacher; an environment of ‘no excuses’.

(1) A phrase to sum up the role of literacy and numeracy – a metaphor?
(2) A phrase for the kind of learners – another metaphor?
(3) A phrase to sum up the role of the teacher – another metaphor?
(4) A phrase to sum the school approach to the curriculum
(5) A phrase to sum up management and room environments.

11 In the last 30 minutes we will list ideas from today’s dialogue to follow up the remainder of the year (maybe another 10:4 voting?) and develop some inter school Action Inquiry Teams to research and later to share with all schools at a later date? See teaching as inquiry in the NZC.

12 Assessing children’s attitudes. Back at school list all the activities and Learning Areas and the ask each students to assess how they feel about each – using a 1 to 5 scale maybe using sad to smiley faces? Run through the list with the class to show that when you were their age you had different feelings about various areas. Repeat later in the year to see growth in attitudes.

Monday, July 26, 2010

Two Agendas for School Review

This blog has been written as an introduction to a group of schools who are getting together this week to consider the implication of school self review.

Learning through ‘dialogue’ or ‘learning conversations’

‘The task of the teacher is not to impart knowledge where it does not exist, but rather to lead the minds eye that it might see for itself’ Plato

1. There are two agendas for school change

(1) To improve current programmes with predetermined ‘best practices’

(2) To transform current programmes for the 21stC - best practices continually 'emerge'.

The first is a conservative approach – the second a creative one.

2. For a school to ‘self view’ itself it needs to clarify its teaching beliefs; what it is stands for. Only then can it become a ‘learning community’ able to evaluate progress and continually grow. To do this schools need to uncover hidden assumptions or taken for granted ways of doing things. They need to look hard at how they timetable their day.

'Creativity ...consists largely of rearranging what we know in order to find out what we do not know.....we must think to look a fresh at what we normally take for granted.' George Koeller.

3. To develop ‘confident life long learner’ schools to be transformed so all children leave with their innate spirit of learning alive. The desire to learn, to explore, to create, is the ‘default mode’ of all learners but for too many this has been ‘flipped’ by school experiences.

4. In current programmes the teachers determine and assess the learning often within a narrow range of achievement. Some children learn to fail by having their talents neglected. The major emphasis is a narrow focus on literacy and numeracy (which takes up all the ‘prime time’) with other areas of the curriculum receiving lesser attention.

5. In a transformed or creative programme, student inquiry is placed at the centre with an emphasis on students ‘voice’, questions, culture. Learning how to learn (process or key competencies)) as important as what is learnt or content. Literacy and numeracy can be still in ‘prime time’ but need to be ‘reframed’ and integrated in the service of inquiry and seen as ‘foundation skills’. Literacy is vital to ensure children develop the skills to ‘seek, use and create their own knowledge’ NZC.

6. A transformed agenda leads away from a past orientated standardized mindset towards a personalized or creative future.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Aesthetics: Where Thinking Originates

My well worn and underlined copy of Art Costa's collection of articles 'The School As A Home For The Mind'. Art has been a leading proponent of the explicit teaching of thinking to be infused throughout the curriculum. Art has been an enthusiastic educator since the mid 50s and is a living example of a life long learner. His book features his 'habits of mind' which many schools have introduced. His 'habits of mind', or dispositions, are aligned with the 'key competencies' of our 'new' 2007 New Zealand Curriculum. Guy Claxton, an United Kingdom educator, also aligns his 'learning power' approach with Art in his latest book. Such approaches see the 'mind as a muscle'- able to be amplified through experience and practice; able to grow intelligent behaviour rather than seeing intelligence as 'fixed'.

Visit Art Costa's site for further information.
Article at Leading and Learning

Art Costa places premium on developing our greatest human resource, the human mind.

The second essay in his small book introduces the notion of aesthetics, an area not mentioned much by those academic 'best evidence' researchers so loved by the Ministry of Education who have a narrow view of cognition - worrying only about what teachers can gain data and evidence on and measure. Such a narrow approach demeans the work of creative teachers who know that many learners are transformed by powerful experience that literally change their minds.

All information, Costa reminds us, comes through the various sensory channels.Those, he writes, whose sensory pathways are open are able to absorb more information from the environment than those whose pathways have withered through neglect. Too many children today suffer from sensory deprivation it often being substituted by more limited virtual experience via computers and TV. Our more cosseted world does not encourage children to freely explore their immediate environment nor are many parents, or their teachers, knowledgeable or confident enough to take children to explore such places.

Developing aesthetics through sensory experiences is vital to all learning and the basis of developing all sorts of language and creative expression. Children who do not experience such rich sensory experience will come to learning with restricted language acquisition facilities. Before the word must come the experience.

The aesthetic dimension permeates the spirit of inquiry and is inherent to creativity and a prerequisite to discovery. For all this such important ideas have not received much emphasis from cognitive academic educators and researchers

Students to learn need the curiosity sharpened by being 'enraptured' with natural phenomena. As Costa writes 'in order for the brain to comprehend the heart must first listen'.

Aesthetics as Costa sees it 'means sensitivity to the artistic features of the environment and the qualities that evoke feelings in individuals. Such feelings as enjoyment, exhilaration, awe, and satisfaction'. It is from this aesthetic beginnings that lead to language and rational thought and questions about the environment.

From aesthetic and sensory experiences come the inquiry 'skills of observation, investigating, further questioning, germinate.' And, he continues ' aesthetics may be the key to sustaining motivation, interest, and enthusiasm to young children, since they must become aware of their environment before they can explain it' - learning becomes, he says, a 'tenacious quest'.

Parents and teachers need to take every opportunity to ensure children 'commune with the world around them'. Children to need time to experience and reflect on such things as the ' opening of a bud and to sense the logical simplicity of mathematical order.They must find beauty in a sunset, and intrigue in the geometric of a spider web'.

'We need' Costa continues, 'to observe and nurture these aesthetic qualities in children. Students who respond to the aesthetic aspects of their world will demonstrate behaviour manifesting in intangible values....Their curiosity will become stronger as the problems they encounter become more complex. Their environment will attract their inquiry as their senses capture the rhythm, patterns, shapes, colours, and harmonies of the universe. They will display cognizant and compassionate behavior towards other life forms as they see the need for protecting their environment: respecting the roles and values of other human beings'.

From such encounters with their environment children can express what they have seen and felt using a variety of media - including the use of digital cameras. They can research their questions and deepen their understanding by digging deeply in what has attracted their attention and curiosity.

And also from such encounters children will develop their What? Why? How" Why? and What if ? questions and from such questions begin writing 'scientific' explanations and personal poetic expressive writing.

Children will need help to explore and express ideas they develop from their awareness. Each sensory mode can be sharpened with parent or teacher encouragement. Children thoughts can be written or scribed for them. Observational drawings are a powerful medium to encourage depth of thought and imagination .

Creative teachers have always valued children's curiosity about their natural environment even if academics take it all for granted.
Both teachers and students need to become 'ardent observers and insatiable questioners. Teachers may be the only ones who develop in young people a compassionate attitude towards the environment, to develop a curiosity with which students will continue wondering through life - a prerequisite for higher level thought.'

Perhaps it an absence of these very qualities that lie at the basis of the so called 'achievement tail' in our schools - children who have been rushed into academic work before the ground floor of sensory experience has saturated their minds to be called on during such things as talking reading and writing.

Developing such an aesthetic awareness is far more important than the current obsession with measuring academic skills many children do not as yet have!

Thursday, July 08, 2010

Learning from oudoor play

It is holiday time in New Zealand and I hope time for young people to take time away from their computers ( the 'virtual' world)to get outside and explore the real world of their immediate environment.

Early this week I had the opportunity to listen to early childhood educator and creative playground designer Robin Christie at the Napier Kindergarten Teachers Conference.

It was an inspiring presentation. Robin is a live wire presenter and he illustrated his talk with a wide range of slides of creative playground environments he has helped develop or he has seen in his travels in Europe or the United States. Particularly impressive was the playground environment he has recently helped complete on Matakana Island.

Possibly the most important reason to involve students in outside the classroom experiences is to contribute to their development of a healthy sense of place and identity as young New Zealanders. The late historian Michael King wrote, ‘If we wish to present ourselves to the wider world as New Zealanders then we must be able to listen to our own voices, and trace our own footsteps; we must have our own heroes and heroines: we must persist with building our own culture with the ingredients close to hand and not import these ingredients ready made from abroad.’ The same plea can also be heard from artists and all those who love nature. This spiritual connection, the essence of Maori tikanga, is the basis of developing a proper sensitivity towards protecting and sustaining the natural world.

Creative teachers who value listening to the voice and interests of their students have long appreciated the power of making use of the immediate environment to involve their students in learning across the curriculum.

Young children are programmed by evolution to learn from their experiences. By the time they arrive at school they have already developed the ability to walk, talk, draw, ask questions and develop theories about everything.

Teachers need to build on such achievements and do nothing to blunt the amazing curiosity young children bring with them. Classroom environments, at all levels, should celebrate students’ interests, questions, and their theories. All too often this is not the case. Our teaching can diminish the minds of our students as well as expand them. It is a sad comment that too many students leave our school system disengaged from learning because of the stance of teachers towards them. Teachers are often too busy delivering ‘their’ curriculums to value the thoughts and concerns of their students.

Seasonal changes provide ongoing inspiration to wonder about, ask questions, draw, capture with digital cameras, measure, read about, and compose descriptive and poetic responses. Thunder, lightening, heavy rain, vicious winds, autumn leaves, clouds, wildflowers, frosts, flooding gutters, all are there to taken advantage of. Language development depends on such awareness – ‘before the word comes the experience’. Many such experiences might only last a few moments while others might lead to extensive studies. In such classrooms the curriculum emerges organically.

Environmental education is a way to recover children’s sense of wonder, their curiosity about their world, and their intrinsic need to find out as much as they can. Many teachers complain of the language deficits that their children bring with them to their classes. One way to compensate for this is to provide rich experiences for children to develop their language around. A child’s first visit to a rock pool is a vivid, sensuous one and once this has been satisfied scientific questions come to mind. All too often teachers ignore this sensory and emotional learning and in the process miss out on the ‘voices’ of their students.

There are other reasons why teachers should make greater use of the natural world. Richard Louv, author of Last Child in the Woods writes that children know more about the Amazon rain forest than their immediate environment. He believes we need to strengthen the bond between young and nature to counter just being plugged into virtual worlds. He writes that, when he was young, exploring nature was his Ritalin. Today, he says, young people suffer from ‘nature deficit disorder’, an alienation from nature, a diminished use of the senses leading to attention difficulties. Unlike television and computers, he goes on, nature does not steal time it amplifies it and is linked positively to mental, physical and spiritual health. Today many parents are frightened of letting their children explore their local environment. In the UK research shows that the freedom of a ten year old to explore today is equivalent to the freedom given a seven year old in the 1960s!

Louv believes there is a great need to reawaken children’s’ awareness of their natural world. He observes that a back to nature movement is growing worldwide and innovative schools should tap into the trend. This might mean a return to earlier environmental and language experience learning that was once a strong feature of our schools. It is also a positive move that many schools are becoming ‘eco schools’, growing natives, developing native gardens and encouraging vegetable plots.

Re awaking a sense of wonder needs to be taken as seriously as the current focus on literacy because to be able to read one must be able to see. To be able to write one must be able to access content, one must be able to see the world and experience ones encounter with it. To see the world one must learn how to attend to it, how to penetrate it’s deep structure, how to capture what is significant. It is through the literacy of sight, smell, and touch that literature and poetry, drama, science and dance are given the stuff with which to work.’

The late Rachel Carson, author of The Silent Spring and A Sense of Wonder wrote that exploring nature with your child is largely a matter of being reflective to what lies around you. It is learning to see with your eyes, ears, nostrils, and finger tips, opening up the disused channels and sensory impressions. She believed that every child needs at least one adult to share experiences with young learners so as to keep the sense of wonder alive. In The Silent Spring she wrote, ‘those who contemplate the beauty of the earth will find reserves of strength that will endure as long as life lasts.’ She believed we should connect our young with the natural world to develop what she called their learning spirit.

Echoing Carson’s thoughts David Elkind, author of The Hurried Child, writes, ‘over the years I have made a practice to take a little time each day to enjoy a sunset, watch a sparrow, admire a snowflake. Such moments should be shared with children.’

Teachers must view their students as embryo scientists, artists, explorers, and investigators with a great desire to see, experience and understand. Learners with naturally inquiring minds backed by vast quantities of energy, a love of words, both spoken and written, and a vivid imagination that for all forms of expression form a natural outlet.

Back to Robin Christie.

Robin's two main themes were to develop outdoor learning environments that help children reconnect with nature and in the process empower children. All too often young children are divorced from nature and, if anything, are a little scared of things they encounter outdoors ( 'biophobia'). Developing a love of nature in small children is vital. Robin he believes children will only protect what they know and experience. This means we need,at all ages, to keep children's sense of curiosity alive and help them feel confidant explorers of the natural world.

Through his slides he shared a number of 'cheap as chips' ideas to enliven any early education centre or primary schools. Many, he feels, are, due to obsessive safety regulation, too boring and pre-planned restricting the use of the child's imagination.

A few ideas I noted were:

Get the caretaker to leave the grass unmown and then to cut trails through the grass -perhaps some 'crop circles'. Later the grass can be mown but, until them, children will love exporing the sensuous nature of playing in long grass.

At one centre road painters were painting in lines for car parking.Robin took advantage of this situation to get them to paint in stars down the path to the entrance of the centre. This made a change for the painter from straight lines!

Lots of centres/schools have bare concrete walls and these Robin transform into 'living walls' by attaching manuka or pungas and then pushing into the gaps bromliads or other suitable plants. Pongas bring their own native living plants.

Children, Robin observed, love corners to meet and talk with friends and such places ought to built into playgrounds. One idea that impressed me ws planting two lines of willow branches ( not the weeping kind) and then , when grown, bent over and woven together making a 'living hut' to sit in or crawl through. Native diveracating plants could be established and, when mature tunnels, could be cut through them. I like the idea of establishing 'magic' circles' of lance woods to gather under.

Water is all too often missing in playgrounds. Robin illustrated ways in which small concrete streams could be developed ( water supplied by hand worked bilge pumps) where children an make dams, have boat races, block up, and generally mess about in. See the illustration above,a major stream construction from Europe. Some streams could be temporary projects - perhaps on hot days.

The use of driftwood , for schools handy to the coast or rivers, provides lots of weird shapes for children to exercise their imaginations.

Play huts were illustrated with coloured perspex windows ( Robin can supply such things) and roofs can have brush wired down and covered with potting mix and planted with barley to make 'living roofs'.

Entrances ways can be transformed into sharks mouths by painting or adding such thing As giraffes. Great playgrounds evolve as required.

Simple styles can be built to climb over. Large bamboo is invaluable. It can be placed in pre-cut holes in barriers for children to be used any way they wish.

I did like the idea of having fireplaces disguised as kilns to be used for lighting fires. A permit could be gained from the Fire Brigade for the afternoon to experiment with lighting and cooking.

Another great idea was to bring along tents for the day to make temporary tent learning centres. Another 'cheap as chips' idea.

And there are all sorts of things to grow. Robin suggested buying a simple carport , roofing and walling it with see through roofing to make a greenhouse or a place to play in.

Robin's ideas were endless and the ideas he planted in members heads are sure to make a real difference.

Throughout his presentation he emphasised that teachers need to involve their students and their communities in the design and construction of playgrounds to develop ownership and empowerment. His work on Matakana Island was an excellent example of his philosophy.

All in all great fun - and he also works with teachers playing the ukulele! See the website he shares with his wife Toni for all sorts of ideas that they can help you with.

And they produce a very worthwhile magazine to subscribe to as well.

It seems they have energy and enthusiasm to burn!

Play grounds do not have to be as sterile as they all too often are. Not if Robin has his way.

Sunday, July 04, 2010

Schools as Communties of Practice: Learning Communities

This rural innovative school spent considerable time in dialogue to work out a set of agreed teaching beliefs to implement it's vision of being a creative school. Such beliefs are of little use unless all teachers hold themselves accountable to what they have agreed to and are prepared reflect on their individual and collective achievements and then to acquire new skills as required.This is the essence of a learning community. Mind you the 'office' signpost could be replaced with the schools vision!

In this fast changing age schooling can no longer be seen as preparation for a future job - the ability to learn is the job! Something John Dewey wrote about early last century- the best preparation for the future is to live well today.

With this in mind the obsession with the current government to insist on all students being assessed and graded against doubtful standards is completely wrong as it diverts teachers from focusing on negotiating authentic learning challenges for their students.

If students are to to be able to develop their gifts and talents and become active 'seekers, users and creators of their own knowledge' then this ought to be the focus for schools not the standards. Student need to be equipped with positive attitudes and key competencies ( 'habits of mind' or 'learning power') so as to become their own navigators able to seek information, evaluate it, make sense of it, and to be able to collaborate with their peers.

The question is what would this mean for teachers? As with their teachers students need to be learning from skilled colleagues and experts in the field, modeling for their students the very qualities they would want their students to acquire. Teachers and students together make up a 'learning community' - or a 'community of shared practice'.

To achieve such a 'community of practice' teachers need to share explicit habits of learning and teaching. All too often though basic teaching belief are taken for granted and all too often teachers, once they enter their classrooms work as individuals - often disconnected from their fellow teachers. Innovative schools have worked hard developing shared beliefs as one way to ensure this isolationism is broken down.

Fragmentation seems an innate feature of our schooling system making it hard to develop a coherent body of shared knowledge of teaching within the school. All too often practices ( e.g time allowances for subjects) are implemented as the way they have aways been done - an often unquestioned 'default mode'

It is time to change this situation and to focus on the kind of teaching that will equip students for future challenges; the kind of teaching implicit in the new New Zealand Curriculum but not in the backward looking standards.

What is required by an innovative government is to develop the collaborative capacity of schools and teachers - one that links the demands of future work with the fabric of the schools. A collaborative system that is premised own continual evolution as required.

Six ideas to assist such a development are:

1 For schools to spent time developing a common vision of how students learn and how their collective capabilities can be aligned to meet their needs. These needs should not be determined by politicians imposing simplistic solutions.

2 Team members should hold themselves collectively responsible for each others mutual success.

3 Success for students should be based on authentic assessment of what students can do, demonstrate or exhibit .
Teachers need to be skilled at providing real time feedback to their students.

4 Teachers need to be open for feedback on their own teaching effectiveness.
If teaching beliefs have been defined then self reference and appraisals against such beliefs ought to be part and parcel of being a teacher at the school.

5 Successful learning teams need to function in stable settings.Successful teams need space and time to work.

6 Successful teamwork must be supported by a school leadership style that supports, trusts and empowers members to make decisions with the agreed school beliefs. Support given to teams must be balanced with appropriate positive pressure and expectations all focused on assisting the specific learning needs of the students.

Developing the learning capacity of schools by developing networks of communities of practice is a better concept than pushing conservative educational standards on schools.

In community of shared practice members pursue common interests and help each other do so. And as they work they solve problem together so their learning habits and attitudes rub off on each other. New members watch carefully to how the more established members talk, respond and deal with challenges just as children do when they want to join someones 'gang'.

The context one teaches in really matters. It is how we all learn. Creating such a positive community is the number one role of the leader.

To ensure students feel part of this community means schools have to develop programmes that build on students interests in a collaborative way. Teachers need to develop this sense of community in their classrooms by placing an emphasis on learning rather than teaching. All involved must feel they are able to 'seek, use and create their own knowledge'. Learners must be encouraged, through a collaborative inquiry approach, to be responsible for their own learning.

Learning communities, or communities of practice, are constantly evolving to solve whatever problem emerge.

This is the kind of world our students are entering.