Friday, September 24, 2010

'How to be an Explorer of the World'

Now for something really different!!!

If anybody out there is creative, or would like to be ( after all we were all born creative until schools got hold of us) this is the book for you or your students. Actually if anybody out there is a scientist, or would like to be, ( after all we were all born to be scientists until schools got hold of us) this is the book for you, or your students.Or if you would just like to see more, notice more or make life more interesting this is the book for you ( because this is what we were born to do).

To me this book supplies what is missing in our increasingly focused literacy and numeracy classrooms. Any half creative teacher would find it packed full of great ideas and not a learning objective, WALT or success criteria in sight.

How to be an Explorer of the World by Keri Smith.
ISBN 978-0-399-53460-7 ( us $14 95)

Now and again along comes a book that surprises. How to be an Explorer is one of them.

The book even comes with a warning.

'To whoever has just picked up this book if you find you are unable to use your imagination, you should put this book back immediately.It is not for you. In this book you will be repeatedly asked to...suspend your disbelief, complete tasks that make you feel a bit strange, look at the world in ways that make you think differently, conduct experiments on a regular basis, and see the inanimate objects as alive.'

This 200 page 'book' is full of interesting ideas to use with your class - or just for yourself.

The book is all about observing, collecting, analyzing , comparing and noticing patterns.

Kids love collecting - everything, the author writes, is interesting. People who collect things do similar work to the work of ethnographers who document the particular culture through field research.

The book is packed full of wonderful practical ( and simple) ideas to help the readers document and observe their world - and to take notes and to record what is seen.

This is the essence of education and amazingly it encompass literacy and numeracy but only as part of exploring. This is as it should be. Only schools distract learners from their real world.

The book is full of prompts as assignments to help you become an explorer. And you can start from where you are currently sitting and then spread out to wherever you go. Your curriculum is whatever you notice -whatever emerges. This is something creative teacher have aways known but now almost impossible in our soulless, measurable, accountable, and increasingly formulaic and standardized system of education.

Everyones house is full of collections of objects to start with. Start by looking at them closely and why they appeal to you. The book then takes you into exploring their immediate environment through the senses (another lost art in out literacy focused schools).

Random experiences are there to be savoured and every experience is personal and unrepeatable - this is true personalised learning. Teacher could take the class on a daily weekly walk ( just a few minutes) to notice what is their to be noticed or to see something in particular. And from his oral language will lead to writing and reading - and in that order. Before the word comes the experience.

The book is all about the genesis of the creative and scientific process - or about taking advantage of what all children were born with until 'flipped' by often abstract school experiences.

A class using this book would become a museum of children's collections an art gallery of their expression, and a scientists lab of their experiments.

There are just so many great things in this book to enhance children's perception. Digital cameras would be invaluable along with drawing skills that slow thinking down enough to really see things to wonder about. As Jules Verne says 'look with all your eyes' and, I would add, with all your senses and with your imagination - something young children have in spades. 'Sometimes a tree can tell you more than can be read in a book', writes Carl Jung.

This is non-linear learning, the opposite to much of traditional schooling. It is, as Paul Klee wrote long ago, ' taking your mind for a walk' -actually he said 'taking a line' but it much the same thing. You never know where you will end up. Possibly the most important lesson in this highly unpredictable life we all lead. There is an activity included in the book called 'how to wander aimlessly'.

And the book contain all sorts of ideas to transform everyday experiences through art and the imagination.

The book comes complete with lots of ways to record fieldwork and to document what has been observed and noticed.

But remember this book comes with a warning! If you mind had been habituated by teaching maybe this book is not for you - or maybe it is just the book to learn to see like a child explorer again.

It is simply a fun book -all written by hand!

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

National Standards lay waste to creativity. Wise words from Kelvin Smythe!

Creative New Zealand teachers should listen and pass on Kelvin's words to all. Visit his site and join up for his regular postings -and join upper right to get my blogs. It is important to see through the smog of Ministry dogma and appreciate the sad reality the Ministry taking New Zealand education.

The following is a slightly edited version of Kelvin's posting.Visit his site to read it in full.

Kelvin writes

'We all know that the technicalities of national standards are irreconcilably flawed, but are we sufficiently focused on national standards as a concept being irreconcilably flawed?

National standards are irreconcilably flawed as a concept because they set up narrowed versions of literacy and numeracy as proxies for the curriculum, resulting in a lack of time and attention to the broader curriculum, laying it waste. This means children who are having no problems with literacy and numeracy, for no good reason, have an impoverished education; while children having problems with literacy and numeracy, for good reason, but doomed means, have an impoverished education as well.

The big issue of national standards is not that they don’t work for literacy and numeracy but that they harm the education of all children by working against the wider curriculum in the process of not working for literacy and numeracy either.

This effect on the wider curriculum is the number one issue for children and teachers, and the most potent one for getting the message across to the public about national standards.

Let’s get the technical issues about national standards out of the way first. This web site has continually made the point that national standards cannot be defined and that in the absence of this definition, formal assessment tools function will come to act as de facto definitions. National standards cannot be defined because in any definition there is always at least one idea that requires further definition.

It needs to be made clear that if the discussion was about school standards, it wouldn’t matter if there was some imprecision in the definitions because it would simply be an agreed goal towards which a school was working, but national standards are a very different thing.

I sometimes hear teachers say their school is doing national standards. Rubbish – no school is doing national standards.

National standards, by definition, are about high stakes’ assessment (meaning individual and school reputation, and career aspirations, are at stake), involving national moderation procedures and external checking. The ministry and review office will be all over schools. It will be a Disneyland for the bureaucracies. When you are doing them you will know – you will be feeling the pressure in relation to the decile you are – an intense, unpleasant pressure. And always in these circumstances ‘distortions’ occur. Wow! That decile 1 down the road has done amazingly well. What’s going on there? Yes, what is going on down there?

Then there is Overall Teacher Judgement (OTJ).

In New Zealand, as a selling point that our national standards are somehow different from national standards that have occurred elsewhere, OTJ has been introduced. What a merry dance leading nowhere that is going to take us.

National standards will not be real national standards for about five years. The time in between will just be play time.

Let us go back to national standards and follow the lead from there to establish the real national standards. Clearly those bland statements called the national standards aren’t the real national standards; they are general statements lacking any semblance of precision. So national standards are not the real national standards. Those non-national standards’ national standards point to the curriculum levels. But those curriculum levels were not designed to be national standards; they were designed as general levels for a curriculum. This is demonstrated by the curriculum levels requiring a large number of achievement objectives to explain them. But these achievement objectives were not designed to be national standards either; they were designed as indicators for the curriculum levels. The achievement objectives are too numerous and too lacking in scope to be the national standards. The same can be said for the progressions that have been produced, and which have no formal recognition, anyway.

So far, no luck with finding the real national standards.

We are now left with the standardised assessment tools and the press-ganged assessment tools, and OTJ. Ostensibly the standardised and the press-ganged assessment tools are there to place children at particular curriculum levels, but seeing curriculum levels are not real national standards, that is not possible.

The standardised assessment tools (PAT and the semi-standardised asTTle), and the press-ganged assessment tools, however, are producing numbers which are putting children in categories. What are those categories? Are those categories the real national standards? My answer is yes. What, then, are national standards? National standards are the categories that assessment tools are putting children in. Yes – but what are national standards? They aren’t anything you can define in words; they are the numbers allocated to children by the assessment tools. They can’t be defined in words, because the assessment tools whether already established, or press-ganged, perform their function by producing their numbers. Anyway, as has already been suggested, national standards cannot be defined.

The already established standardised assessment tools can be turned to producing numbers for national standards because they are normed to some degree – well normed in the case of PAT; and marginally well (and for the later years) in the case of the sprawling, wayward, and fitfully insightful asTTle. The press-ganged assessment tools weren’t designed for national standards; they were forced into service to produce numbers in relation to levels, which, as already discussed, do not work for national standards.

The end result will be that the press-ganged assessment tools will be sidelined, and we will be left, believe it or not, with PAT and asTTLe. All that kerfuffle and we are back with PAT and to some extent asTTle. This will, of course, take a few years to shake down, but that is what will happen.

What about OTJ?

When national standards are fully moderated and externally checked in, say, five years, very little differentiation will be allowed between assessment tool numbers and OTJ. Schools will have to justify any significant differentiation and that will put a real crimp on that manoeuvre. To allow significant differentiation would be to concede that the assessment tools were faulty; and, above all, make the moderation process incapable of moderation.

With New Zealand national standards we have national standards which aren’t national standards; curriculum levels which weren’t designed for national standards; achievement objectives that were designed for the curriculum levels not national standards and, anyway, as achievement objectives aren’t suitable for national standards; and OTJ which, when national standards become high stakes and real national standards, will be seen as antithetical to the nature of national standards.

I want to stress that real national standards won’t happen for about five years, up until then we will be playing at national standards. The settling in period will really be a phony period for suckering schools. After that there will be a winding down to PAT and to some extent asTTle as defining national standards by whatever numbers they produce and wherever the national standards’ bar is placed.

And the irreconcilable flaws, well – there are no defined national standards or any other words that define them (levels and the like); all the press-ganged assessment tools don’t and can’t work for national standards; OTJ can’t be accommodated in national standards; leaving aside asTTle, only PAT works for national standards, but it is already working for standards, it is already moderated, it is already standardised, and OTJ is already used to put the results into context and perspective. Why would we want to stuff up that old faithful by forcing it into a task it wasn’t designed for?

Indeed, why would we want to stuff up our children, teachers, schools and system by having national standards?

How did this gigantic stuff up come about?

Well it came about because our used car salesman wanted a stunt as a substitute for an education policy; the ministry said Oh no! It has been a disaster every other place it has been used, we’ll try and give it some credibility; but national standards can’t be given credibility, they only 'work' if they are imposed arbitrarily because, as an education idea, they are irreconcilably flawed; and in trying to give them some credibility, we have, ladies and gentlemen, this gigantic stuff up, Aotearoa-style.

If certain assessment tools are going to define national standards by the numbers they produce, as they will, we might as well go straight to national testing. It is probably the more honest thing to do. Then we can see our future more clearly: a devastated wider curriculum; and a child-time of children being prepared for tests. We will see our future in how it is reported from America; how it was reported from England by Robin Alexander in the monumental The Cambridge Primary Review.

Behold the wasteland.

We will, also, see quite clearly what monumental ….. we are making of ourselves'.

And I am totally behind Kelvin.

Too many principals are becoming overt or subtle apologists for the Standards; 'We are already doing them'. They are too busy pretending all is well, or there is no real problem, to see the wood for the trees and, in the process, leading schools into the right-wing politics of blame. It is all about how to factory farm those pigs. It is all about a McDonald's approach to education. It is a thin view of educational excellence. Those in high decile schools ought not to fool their parents it is good for them because they will win by default. Low decile school will scramble to show results but will always fail in such a un-level playing field. The real problem to failing students lies outside the school gates. One solution is creative teaching that develops the gifts and talents of all students.

We need more dissidents

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

The rebirth of education - a real Renaissance

The invention, sometime around 1445, by Gutenberg of the printing press enabled books to be printed and contributed to the first Renaissance. The spread of books changed the face and conditions of things all over the world.The number of books produced in the fifty years following Gutenberg equalled the number produced by European scribes during the preceding 1000 years. By this means ideas were set free and a literacy culture challenged the prior religious oral culture, beginning the development of the scientific mind - the first Renaissance ( the rebirth)

I have also read the Renaissance was helped by rats. The great plague wiped out rich and poor in Europe, a third of the population, providing the impetus for new thinking as old systems of faith were seen as inadequate.

If the power of the printing press changed our world dramatically then the new communication technologies will even be more dramatic and even more mind changing. The old oral cultures and religious beliefs continued up until this day but the world was changed forever. The world, until now, revolved around rational linear book orientated thinkers. The world of schools.

There are some who say we are now entering a new age -'A Creative Age', or a 'Second Renaissance'. I am with them. Our current institutions, shaped by Industrial Age thinking, are no longer able to cope - they are all well past their 'use by date'. We now need new minds for the new millennium. New minds will be shaped by the new communication mediums - where ideas can from anyone, anywhere, any time. An age of inter connectivity and creativity - a new Renaissance.

It seems to me that if we are to revitalize our schools so as to engage all our students, and ultimately save our planet, it will require the death of education and its rebirth.

An educational Renaissance.

Our schools are not just in need of improvement. They are well and truly unable to engage all the students who enter their traditional gates. Schools, particularly secondary schools, were never designed to cope with all students. Our schools had their origins in an industrial mentality producing biddable workers for the mass production factories. The Three Rs ( the National Standards) filled the student's day. Mass or 'standardized' education.

What is now needed is a bold new planetary vision for the future - a sustainable ecological vision, a future based on tapping the creativity of all citizens .

We particularly need a powerful new vision for New Zealand; one that is more inspiring than ‘catching up with Australia.’

If we want to be recognised as a creative and innovative country, a country at the leading edge of change, then the most important asset we have is the talent and creativity of our citizens. Once such a vision has been defined then schools can follow the lead or better still be seen as leaders.

We could do worse than follow the lead of Singapore with their 'Thinking Schools Thinking Nation' motto. According to its Ministry of Education ‘thinking schools will be learning organisations in every sense, constantly challenging assumptions, and seeking better ways of doing things through participation, creativity and innovation….the spirit of learning should accompany our students even after they leave school…A Learning Nation envisions a national culture and social environment that promotes lifelong learning in our people.’

Singapore’s Education Minister explains that the big adjustment for their teachers is in the way ‘we educate our young to develop in them a willingness to keep learning, and an ability to experiment, innovate, and take risks’. Unfortunately these ideas that seem foreign to our own Minister.

New Zealand schools, if transformed, could make a significant contribution to developing our country’s capacity for creativity, imagination, and innovation
. To achieve such qualities we need our education system to focus on developing the diverse creativity of all students, not just the academic students as at present.

In the meantime , like Nero, our Minister fiddles with delivering National Standards - some sort of educational castor oil.

If we do not want to suppress the creative genius of our students then we need to transform how we imagine our schools.

We need to move beyond current problem solving reforms. The future requires our schools to ensure all students leave ‘confident, connected life long learners’ as our revised curriculum asks . We need all students leaving school with courageous self images and positive learning identities with their gifts and talents developed.

Schooling as we know will have to change dramatically. Nurturing a deep engagement in the learning process will require teachers to challenge often unquestioned assumptions and structures. We now know enough to do this but only if we change our own minds first.

If we are to break through the limits imposed by the industrial age and reach towards what some are calling an Age of Ideas, or a Second Renaissance, then we need to explore new ideas.

Teachers need to stand back and take a fresh look at taken for granted assumptions. Without this ability they risk remaining locked in the habitual.

Whatever evolves needs to be built on the foundation of a solid pedagogy which reaches well beyond current formulaic ‘best practices’. We need to replace our teacher , assessment and curriculum dominated system with one premised on personalising learning. We need to move from idea that had their genesis in the first Renaissance to the emerging ideas of the Second. We are all entering an evolutionary ecological interconnected world.

Choices will have to be made. Courage will be required.

Thankfully there are plenty of inspirational ideas to call on.Ideas that many creative teachers have been working away 'underground' for decades. And thankfully there a number of schools are already well on the way.

All that is needed is the courage for other schools to leave their comfortable well trodden paths. The future demands we all make our own paths and if we do to leave tracks for others to follow. This is the spirit of the 'Creative Era' or the 'Second Renaissance'.

It is all about developing new minds for a new millennium.

Friday, September 17, 2010

Tom Sawyer -educator ( and Goldilocks)

I like Mark Twain. A great observer of people and a great story teller. He once described leadership like being the captain of a Mississippi paddle wheel steamer who had to to know every bed in the river, every sandbar, and every snag every twenty four hours!

Sounds like being teacher. Intuition is more important than out of date river charts. Thinking on your feet, making instant decision, is the mark of a good teacher not following lesson plans mindlessly.

If you are reading this be great if you were to pass on the blog to other creative people who might be interested and get then to receive the blog, as posted, by e-mail.See box above right.

Getting students involved in learning because they want to - because it makes sense to them - is the art of the teacher. The great things is that students are born with an innate desire to learn, to explore, to experiment with things, as long as it is meaningful or fun. All too often school is none of these things. Educationalist Jerome Bruner once wrote that the ' canny art of the teacher is one of intellectual temptation'. You can't drag a horse to water but you can sure make certain the horse is thirsty. If kids want to do something they see as important they will work really hard and even practice.

Remember the story about how Tom Sawyer got his friends to whitewash his Aunt Polly's fence. Tom, knowing the universal human weakness towards jealously and competitiveness, jumped to the task of painting the fence with great enthusiasm and delight. Soon his friends were asking if they could help but Tom refused saying they might not do it right. Eventually after considerable pleading and begging from his friends Tom gives in but pleaded with them to be careful. But not before his friend Ben gives him his apple as a reward! He then gives them the brush and bucket while he rested in the shade keeping a careful eye on them.

In this situation he turned hard work in play.

Daniel Pink writes about the fence incident saying Tom turned a dreary task by pretending the grim task was a captivating source of fantastic privilege. Pink writes that Twain extracts a key motivational principle namely that 'Work consists of whatever a body is obliged to do and that play consists of whatever a body is not obliged to do. Intrinsic motivation (learning as its own reward) increases performance and creativity. Pink calls this the 'Sawyer Effect'.

I have seen students, in creative teachers classes, becoming involved in fun challenging activities that were really maths, or science or reading. There are such a lot of interesting science, technology and maths activities that teachers can use to 'tempt' students -and, if somehow, it is the students who suggest the activity like Tom's friends they are trapped doing it for the fun of it. Tom's role as a teacher is done.

While I am at it remember Goldilocks and the three bears? This story illustrates the need for learning to be not too hot, not too cold, but just right. Goldilocks discovered what Vygotsky was to call the Zone of Proximal Development (ZPD) - that students will have go at meaningful task that is just within their reach.

Pink , writing about the Goldilocks's effect writes that when task exceed their capabilities the result is anxiety.When the task falls short of their capabilities the result is boredom. When the match is just right you get what Csikszentmihalyi calls 'flow' - and it is 'glorious'. Transformational or attitude changing. 'Flow' tasks provide powerful learning experiences as they inhabit the zone of living on the knife edge between chaos and disorder.

And I bet many teachers feel the same anxiety and even boredom as they as asked to 'deliver' and 'cover' curriculum tasks that they know don't make sense to them or their students! The savvy of Tom Sawyer and Goldilocks tasks provide an answer. Purpose and fun combined with mastery or feelings of success.

I bet a lot of so called failing or struggling kids feel anxiety in our schools as they are asked to do things the can't see the point of in and bright kids are all too often bored. If teachers don't get the match right teacher are asking for trouble.

Teaching is about understanding human nature and students need for fun, mastery, and power, or as Daniel Pink writes in his book Drive, autonomy, mastery and purpose. He writes that students ' default' drive to learn is 'flipped' by experiences at school where students come to see learning as something done to them.

As soon as this happens learning stops and teaching becomes hard. But if learning is about real and relevant tasks ( not too cold or hot) then teaching is lot easier. Teachers can rest up like Tom to reflect on how they can and assist students who need help to achieve mastery in what they want to do.

It's called going with the grain!

Thursday, September 16, 2010

There is just time for a Kowhai Study before the holidays

When I visit schools I often see teachers involved in ten week inquiry studies which seem all process and little real content. Good inquiry studies should result students uncovering some real in-depth content. With the holidays coming up there is just time for a 'mini study' based on one of New Zealand's iconic plants - the Kowhai. How much do your students know about this amazing tree? How much do they look at a kowhai and see very little except yellow flowers. In one week of a focused in-depth inquiry a lot can be learned. Through poetic language and the expressive arts children's creativity can also also be celebrated.

Creative teachers should always be on the lookout for ideas to introduce their students to.

This time of the year it almost impossible to ignore the kowhai which is now in full flower.

The kowhai is an ideal integrated study that can involve many areas of the curriculum.

So if there is a kowhai near you this is the time to take your class out to take a close look at a native tree that we often take for granted. And as well, if you are lucky, you might also see that other native icon the tui.

Introduce the tree by bringing in few flowers for students to observe closely. Using a pencil or biro and a small piece of paper encourage students to draw what they see carefully; when finished their drawing can be coloured in with coloured pencils. There is an important learning lesson to be gained in the process. Students need to take the time and regularly look at what they are drawing. This seems obvious advice but all too often children look once and then draw from what they thought they saw. Close observation is a learnt skill – ‘slowing the pace of work’ is important if students are to gain a quality result.

After drawings ask the students what questions came to mind. Drawings, questions, and later their researched answers, can be part of a growing kowhais display.

Visit the tree and sit quietly by it. Get the students to think of a phrase that describes the flowers, another about the trunks and branches and a third about the fallen flowers on the ground. These can be drafted up into simple three line haiku poems to add to the display. Some children will need a little help to learn to value their own ‘voice.

When at the tree think about how you could measure the height, the ‘drip line’ ( the distance from the trunk to the outer branches) the circumference and, back in class, pull apart a flower and count the petals, the stigma and the stamens ( after you have sorted them out yourself!). Work out the function of the stamens and the stigma.

Collect up a 100 kowhai pods if available from last years flowers and in group remove the seeds noting how many seeds in each pod – leading to developing ideas about percentages.

Try germinating some seeds. Soak some for few days, burn a few pods and recover seeds, carefully chip a few seeds, and plant some just as they are. Plant 10 of each and work out percentages that germinate.

When flowers eventually lose all the petals and stamens tie a piece of cotton to the remaining stamens and measure growth over a week or so. Graph the results. You will be surprised.

If possible introduce children to other leguminous plant flowers (beans, peas, etc) and help them understand that plants are classified by their flowers and not their shape.

As the study processes students could research up information about the Maori and scientific names and whatever else they can research.

A concluding activity could be doing a larger drawing of a tui feeding on a kowhai (you will need some photos of tuis to refer to). Use pastels to colour in.

The ideas above are only suggestions but indicate all sorts of possibilities for students to use during other environmental studies.

In the process of such simple study you will have developed your children’s awareness and knowledge, used ‘real’ maths, and extended their vocabularies.

After such an experience keep your eyes open for other environmental or seasonal possibilities to introduce to your students

Thursday, September 09, 2010

National Standards for Dogs?

All dogs have evolved from wolves and this process has been effected by deliberate breeding. Dogs are now as diverse as humans. Would it be possible to develop standards to assess them? Would you choose speed or strength, trainability or native intelligence, suitable as pets or hunters. Whatever you choose will narrow the options and breeders will breed to the qualities chosen. No use for dogs but OK for our kids.

This blog comes from Phil Cullen the ex Director General of Primary Education Queensland who is strongly against this technocratic standardized testing idea. Visit his site to read what he has to say.

Phil got the blog from American educator Marion Brady who is also against standardisation.Visit his site if you are curious.

So thanks Phil and Marion.

The Wonderful Diversity of Dogs

Driving the country roads of Scotland, Ireland and Wales, I have sometimes been lucky enough to be blocked by sheep being moved from one pasture to another.

I say 'lucky' because it allows me to watch an impressive performance by a dog -- usually a Border Collie.

What a show! A single, mid-sized dog herding two or three hundred sheep, keeping them moving in the right direction, rounding up strays, knowing how to intimidate but not cause panic, funneling them all through a gate, and obviously enjoying the challenge.

Why a Border Collie? Why not an Akita or Xoloitzcuintli or another of about 400 breeds listed on the Internet?

Because, among the people for whom herding sheep is serious business, there is general agreement that Border Collies are better at doing what needs to be done than any other dog. They have 'the knack.'

That knack is so important that those who care most about Border Collies even oppose their being entered in dog shows. That, they say, would lead to the Border Collie being bred to look good, and looking good isn't the point. Brains, innate ability, performance -- that's the point.

Other breeds are no less impressive in other ways. If you're lost in a snowstorm in the Alps, you don't need a Border Collie. You need a big, strong dog with a really good nose, lots of fur, wide feet that don't sink too deeply into snow, and an unerring sense of direction for returning with help. You need a Saint Bernard.

If varmints are sneaking into your hen house, killing your chickens, and escaping down holes in a nearby field, you don't need a Border Collie or a Saint Bernard, you need a Fox Terrier.

It isn't that many different breeds can't be taught to herd, lead high-altitude rescue efforts, or kill foxes. They can. It's just that teaching all dogs to do things which one particular breed can do better than any other doesn't make much sense.

We accept the reasonableness of that argument for dogs. We reject it for kids.

The non-educators now running the education show say American kids are lagging ever-farther behind in science and math, and that the consequences of that for America's economic well-being could be catastrophic.

So, what is this rich, advantaged country of ours doing to try to beat out the competition?

Mainly, we put in place the No Child Left Behind program, now replaced by Race to the Top and the Common Core State Standards Initiative. If that fact makes you optimistic about the future of education in America, think again about dogs.

There are all kinds of things they can do besides herd, rescue, and engage foxes. They can sniff luggage for bombs. Chase felons. Stand guard duty. Retrieve downed game birds. Guide the blind. Detect certain diseases. Locate earthquake survivors. Entertain audiences. Play nice with little kids. Go for help if Little Nell falls down a well.

So, with No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top as models, let's set performance standards for these and all other canine capabilities and train all dogs to meet them. All 400 breeds. All skills. Leave No Dog Behind!

Two-hundred-pound Mastiffs may have a little trouble with the chase-the-fox-down-the-hole standard, and Chihuahuas will probably have difficulty with the tackle-the-felon-and-pin-him-to-the-ground standard. But, hey, no excuses! Standards are standards! Leave No Dog Behind.

Think there's something wrong with a same-standards-and-tests-for-everybody approach to educating? Think a math whiz shouldn't be held back just because he can't write a good five-paragraph essay? Think a gifted writer shouldn't be refused a diploma because she can't solve a quadratic equation? Think a promising trumpet player shouldn't be kept out of the school orchestra or pushed out on the street because he can't remember the date of the Boxer Rebellion?

If you think there's something fundamentally, dangerously wrong with an educational reform effort that's actually designed to standardize, designed to ignore human variation, designed to penalize individual differences, designed to produce a generation of clones, photocopy this column.

If you think it's stupid to require every kid to read the same books, think the same thoughts, parrot the same answers, make several photocopies. And in the margin at the top of each, write, in longhand, something like, "Please explain why the standards and accountability fad isn’t a criminal waste of brains," or, "Why are you trashing America's hope for the future?" or just, "Does this make sense?"

Send the copies to your senators and representatives before they sell their vote to the publishing and testing corporations intent on getting an ever-bigger slice of that half-trillion dollars a year America spends on educating.

Tuesday, September 07, 2010

Kelvin Smythe John Hatties nemesis!

Education is at turning point. National Standards takes us back to the past. The revised curriculum the future. Schools however can't have it both ways. Compromise is almost as bad as compliance. Kelvin Smythe has a steady eye on the future. John Hattie seems confused - busy hedging his bets.

The following, is an abridged e-mail sent out by Kelvin and sums up a long posting of his .Read the full posting for yourself.

'This posting', Kelvin writes, 'addresses the question of how an academic of such intelligence and status can be so superficial, can be, just when it matters, so unimaginative, have such fantastic blind spots, promote opposing ideas with such credibility.

'I have been very gratified at the exceptional number of people who clicked on to this posting. I know it was long, in many ways inappropriately long for busy teachers and principals. In that respect, I apologise.

In the case of Hattie, I really wanted to work out for myself how he advanced his pedagogical case. He is an immensely powerful academic, not only for what he is, but also for what he represents; understand him and his pedagogy and you understand the future of New Zealand education.

After a quick reading Hattie’s article I knew that he started off with saying we had a glorious past (but not explained), and that while he started off with apparent scepticism about National Standards, he quickly moved into full support (but not explained), on the grounds that he had the answers to avoiding the significant problems that had occurred in other implementations.

I also knew that by the end of the article he was a million miles from coming up with the answers. I was also aware that there were areas of education activity and education research he avoided the best he could (for instance, the influence of socio-economic factors on learning, also the parts of learning that are difficult to measure, the purposes of NS).

In the course of the writing I came up with a lot of gems. The best in my opinion was when he was discussing Alexander’s UK research (which recommended doing away with NS) – very adroitly Hattie shifts from discussing NS to discussing the apple pie of high standards. (He was trying, it seems, to appropriate Alexander’s recommendations against NS to his NS.) Also, he seemingly agreed with Alexander’s criticism of national tests – SATS – but two paragraphs later, in his conclusion, he praised their architect and recommended we follow SATS’ implementation as a model.

Probably the most concerning gem was the way Hattie started off a paragraph extolling the importance of teacher voice in policy matters, but ended by suggesting that teacher organisations were unfit for the purpose and other arrangements were needed. I have great fears for the future of our teacher organisations.

Hatties ‘Horizons and Whirlpools’ article is replete with sudden, complete, and blithe shifts like these.

I see a not too distant future when teacher organisations are sidelined, principals are government servants, and the curriculum narrowed to a pinpoint'.

At least Kelvin can envision a future horizon but the choice still lies with schools. Will they be sucked into Hattie' whirlpool? Or will they have the courage to value their own professionalism?

Will the real John Hattie stand up.

John Hattie - the holder of the Holy Grail or a Poison Chalice? It does appear that John Hattie seems to be running with the hares and hunting with the hounds? Kelvin Smythe is keeping a clear humanistic eye on him on behalf of creative teachers.

Hattie and Tolley at it again writes Kelvin

Kelvin's article has been slightly abridged - read his full statement on his website.

'The heading for this posting does not mean I believe that Hattie and Tolley are personally close or in regular communication, but it does mean they share a community of interest in pushing the arguments they do
. Tolley has developed a visceral contempt for teachers as a result of their energetic opposition to national standards; and Hattie has become frustrated with teachers as they indicate an increasing apprehension of his overarching plan to bind teachers and children into sets of rules, standardisations, and controls administered by experts – in other words academics or those controlled by academics.

In the Sunday Star-Times (August 29, 2010), in response to a beat-up front page story about ‘criminals in our classrooms’ there is the following quote: ‘education expert John Hattie wants professionals to monitor teachers, who he says are “allowed to do almost anything” ’ Tolley, of course, evinces concern about the so-called situation and promises an enquiry. They are both at it again.

There is no doubt that Hattie along with Tolley are becoming increasingly isolated from teachers and worried about how their education strategies are being resisted. This has prompted both of them to move to undermine teacher organisations, to weaken genuine teacher representation, and to centralise, bureaucratise, and expertise the administration of education.

Hattie’s response in this week’s Sunday Star-Times, his use of praise of teachers as a cover for inserting policies which undermine them, the illogic of his ideas, the fantastic internal contradictions, the lack of explanation, the lack of imagination, the narrow view of education, his claims to have the answers (clearly misplaced), and the gathering in of the reins of power to authorities and academics of his type.

Just because I have placed Hattie under intense scrutiny for over two years now does not mean I have any particular antagonism to him personally.

In America, Hattie would be a dime-a-dozen academic, just another one of those academics who, with politicians and education administrators, dominate the narrowing education philosophy of that sadly confused country. (I acknowledge, however, that in pure energy he does stand out from that benighted academic crowd.) In New Zealand, though, ‘He is an immensely powerful academic, not only for what he is, but also for what he represents; understand him and his pedagogy and you understand the future of New Zealand education.’

I believe, however, his support amongst academics is waning, even amongst those of his own type. Hattie would have known of the dismantling of NEMP and it being replaced with a discredited education review office outcomes-type assessment structure. This announcement was a sudden one, taking most academics by surprise. I’m not saying it was Hattie’s idea but it is in line with his philosophy and he would have known about it. No doubt, he has been contacted by his fellow academics and no doubt he would have said something ambiguous in response. Look for something of a falling out there.

I predicted two years ago that it was not Hattie and Auckland University that needed to be watched closest, but Hattie and Cognition (a linking of Hattie and MultiServe) – though I’m not predicting an immediate connection between Cognition and the dismantling of NEMP. It is about time the academics of New Zealand stopped being in thrall, fear, or run-off-their thinking by this academic. Why should most of the criticism to do with Hattie come from a lowly educationist from the provinces.

So that is one part of the Sunday Star-Times’ equation.

Well the other part has had a very bad week. Significant for Tolley was the farcical fallout from a tiff with that frothing school trustees association person, Lorraine Kerr.

Kerr (Dominion, 27 August, 2010) was reported as asking Tolley ‘why she wrongly claimed the association was “extremely supportive” of national standards.’

I know – unbelievable given Kerr’s intransigent stand for national standards – but these are the kinds of success that come if we stick to our knitting and keep purling away.

Yes – it’s Monty Python territory.

Kerr ‘said yesterday that she had “never said” boards were supportive of the policy. Mrs Tolley’s claims about the standing ovation were “an awkward one to answer”. The ovation had been in recognition of her 21 years of service as a school trustee. “Possibly that’s a conversation I need I need to have with the minister.” ’

This cracking in the wall of support from the School Trustees Association is fraught with danger for Tolley. (There will be a kiss and makeup, but significant damage has been wrought.)

But it is Hattie’s response that is most enlightening. After the remark that teachers are ‘allowed to do almost anything’ he is described as a government adviser and then reported as saying that he ‘wants experts to monitor teachers against national standards because the Teachers Council has failed to do so.’

The issue at hand, beat up or not, was professional penalties for teachers with criminal convictions, but here we Hattie distorting it to one of teachers having their curriculum and classroom practice monitored by experts.

What manner of cognitive ability is this academic? The Teachers Council already works to a set of professional standards which provides guidance in the first place for principals and boards of trustees. Does Hattie not realise that we have schools out there, headed by principals and boards of trustees? It is these people who have the primary responsibility for the application of professional criteria.

Schools don’t allow teachers to do anything they want: those who lead them provide guidance, leadership and supervision. The professional standards are an excellent set of criteria for setting out expectations of teachers; they are not minimum standards (whatever they are). We do not need a central committee of experts appointed by the government in association with in academics monitoring schools intruding into what is the responsibility of schools. The Teachers Council has and should have a light supervisory role acting as a backstop. The system is already bureaucratic, impersonal, and ominous enough without the system being run by a non-democratic, unrepresentative, central committee of experts.

Hattie in short order achieves a dizzying illogic. He has just spent a couple of paragraphs saying teachers are ‘allowed to do almost anything’, that we’ve only been interested in minimum standards, and that to improve what he clearly sees as a problem he recommends replacing the present Teachers Council with one of his own making, and that we should change from our present policy of focusing on the minimum ‘to focus on excellence and effective performance’ instead. So far, so bad, but not yet illogical. Then in a bewildering dislocation he finds it possible to say we put ‘too much emphasis on problems’ when our ‘system was amongst the best in the world’. But he has just said that this same system allows teachers ‘to do almost anything’, which he saw as a major problem, and which only focused on the minimum, which he saw as another problem. Go figure.

Hattie has not allowed to penetrate his thinking a recognition that the relationship of teachers with their schools and the central authorities is at the heart of a system, and if we have a system amongst the best in the world, light supervision from the centre with the weight of responsibility borne by schools may be why our system is so good, and the American system he seems so keen to ape, so bad.

It seems that having successfully implemented national standards in New Zealand he now wants to implement something he calls national standards for teachers.

‘If we are going to have a future [My goodness, having just said we have amongst the best education systems in the world, that we focus too much on problems, he now seems to be saying we face complete collapse if we don’t act on his expert advice. This would seem to be the mother of all problems.] … we need to have experts monitoring teachers. What other profession doesn’t have a group of experts in charge?’

‘In charge’ that is a typical Hattie verbal coinage. What does it mean? A central committee of experts in charge. Obviously the education review office doesn’t meet the bill. What does it mean? Is he really meaning academic experts? He must be joking.

Hattie and Tolley are taking New Zealand education down a path well travelled to destination failure. When, in the ‘90s, teaching was separated from evaluation and called assessment, and the outcomes of learning, the artifacts of learning, the paper processes of assessment, became the focus of education, this resulted in power being transferred to education accountants (education review office), quantitative academics, and centralised authorities. Learning was stripped of its classroom time to unfold, its mystery, its natural complexity, its affective and moral components – and a narrowed version of literacy and numeracy became proxies for the curriculum. Experts, academics, and bureaucrats intruded into the relationship between teachers and children, bound as teachers were with learning formulae, high-stakes’ assessment, standards, unambiguous outcomes, extrinsic motivation, instrumentality, rules, restrictions, and codes.

So encompassed have we become with this authoritarian and centralised culture, this culture of certainty, of experts knowing best, that we find it difficult to recognise there is an alternative, an alternative, I suggest, that should start with our understanding of the curriculum, and on that understanding be constructed the way evaluation is carried out, from there the kinds of structures within schools to support that kind of teaching and evaluation, and from there the kinds of structures within the system to support schools.

From my criticisms of the present pernicious direction of education, by considering the opposite, you can judge some of the characteristics that would constitute the basis for an alternative system. If I had to describe the basis for the curriculum I am suggesting, I would say it was the feeling for approach to mathematics, to science, to reading, to writing, and, of course to social studies. A feeling for based on children being provided with time to gain a grasp of their topic, to explore their topic, to gain sufficient control of the knowledge or ability to develop a feeling for their topic, and eventually to use that knowledge and feeling gained to be creative and imaginative. The topics would be guided by aims not outcomes or objectives and run their course with a light touch.

This feeling for is not to be confused with enthusiasm; a feeling for is of a different plane from children just feeling enthusiastic about their topic. In mathematics, children would have to get into a topic, a real life topic, which drew on their abilities in a contextual way. In language experience, there would be an actual experience, and in science, it would not be a download from the computer. As for evaluation, to evaluate it properly, to stop the evaluation process distorting the teaching and learning, you would have to be there. On such a foundation would I build an education system intended for children and teachers, not academics, politicians, and bureaucrats.

A final word to the Tolleys and Hatties of this world.

An alternative system would not bleat on about excellence, excellence is not something to be aimed for; it is simply and elegantly, an outcome of good teaching, of teaching for wisdom, of what it is to be good, beautiful, and true. I do not recognise those qualities in what Mrs Tolley or Professor Hattie say about education or the way they say it. Nor do I recognise a celebration of variety, indeed, I recognise a stifling uniformity.

We should all be mindful of what Albert Camus wrote about the danger of certainty: ‘Democracy is that system devised and maintained by those who realise they do not know everything.’

The barbarians of certainty have long been within the walls and occupy the citadel, can we work together to expel them?'

Thanks for your insight Kelvin

Thursday, September 02, 2010

Be wary of 'research says', 'best practice' and 'data driven' 'buzz words' writes Dean Fink

I have just had an e-mail from Canadian educationalist Dean Fink to let me know about a website and blog he has recently established. Dean is well known in New Zealand and has been very encouraging about the potential of the New Zealand Curriculum. He would be less impressed now with the new government's imposition of the backward locking National Standards and associated nonsense.

I hope he doesn't mind but the following is an extract from one of his first blogs.

Visit Dean's website.

'Let me outline', writes Dean, 'three words or phrases that agitate my crap detector – “the research says”, “best practice” and “data driven” instruction, leadership or whatever.

Whether you agree or disagree with my analysis, I would like to hear from you about any words or phrases that have hidden meanings or at least attempt to distort the real meaning.

The one that excites me the most is “the research says”. It is a phrase that is right up there with “the Bible says”. In university one of my very clever friends used to quote selected sections of scripture to encourage young woman to do things that they otherwise might not want to do. Of course the young woman saw through his scheme.

The phrase “the research says” is thrown around very loosely at conferences, political meetings, and in more than a few books and journal articles.

I would suggest that as consumers of research we become much more clever and start asking questions like – what research? Who is the author(s)? What is his or her personal stake in the research (for example are they promoting their own money-making scheme)? Has the research met the standard of professional adjudication? And perhaps the most important question, who paid for it? In a climate of publish or perish for academics and diminishing revenue for universities, research grants from foundations, corporations and governments become the life blood of individuals and institutions. We have had many examples of researchers either ignoring negative findings, or pulling their punches in scientific research related to medical or environmental research, it stands to reason then that research funded by organizations with a monetary or political interest in research results will exert some, and I suspect in some cases a lot of pressure to get the ‘right’ answers. If this happens in other fields then I’m sure it happens in education.

My message is not one of distrust, but one of caution – be an informed consumer of educational research, including mine.

“Best practice” falls into the same category.

Who decided something is ‘best’? It assumes we have arrived at nirvana, that the practice can’t get any better. It can be good practice, even great practice in certain contexts, but is the practice appropriate in all settings. Is it equally suited to all children, or is it ‘best’ practice in the hands of all teachers?

I learned about the limitations of ‘best’ practice many years ago. I wrote a curriculum for senior students in history for which I received a great many plaudits from my colleagues and requests to use it. The curriculum worked very well for my students who always attained very high grades on provincial history examinations. I allowed it to be circulated freely to anyone who asked in the belief that it would help the field. After a year of its being handed around, the history inspector for the province thanked me for my generosity, but suggested I be more circumspect in my distribution. He said “you wouldn’t believe how badly it is being butchered by teachers without a strong background in the field.”

The third phrase that really ‘bugs’ me is ‘data driven

Don’t get me wrong data as evidence for decision-making whether it is at a school, classroom, or individual child level is crucial, but the phrase ‘driven’ suggests that we can take human beings out of the equation. In spite of valiant efforts to make education a linear, rational predictable enterprise that technocrats love, we humans keep screwing it up.

Education is inherently non linear, non (not ir) rational and certainly unpredictable. We sometimes don’t know how successful we are for years. My friends Andy Hargreaves and Dennis Shirley have written an excellent piece that I can’t top entitled Data Driven to Distraction. I invite you to read it at

Now it is your turn, I’d early love to hear from you with your educational “weasel” words and phrases or your critique of my suggestions'

Good stuff! Plenty of 'weasel words' in New Zealand these days!