Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Re -integrating language teaching with reality

In an inquiry based classroom every aspect of language teaching could well relate to the current study - reading to develop understanding, writing thoughts , descriptions and theories, and lots of oral language, drama , poetry. This was once the case in many schools until literacy become so dominant and largely divorced from the rest of the curriculum.

The need to express ideas is an evolutionary ability which made posible a wide range of diverse and creative human cultures.

It is this need to comprehend and express meaning that should underpin all language experiences in classrooms. Over the past decades the language experience approach, once a feature of New Zealand classrooms, has been reduced to formulaic literacy approaches. International tests have shown that literacy levels have not improved and that there is a 'tail' of low achieving students who are losing this vital means of being successful in our schools. Successful students bring with the 'cultural capital' to take advantage of current technical and measurable approaches. This situation will be worsened with the imposition of Literacy Standards and targets.

The answer may be to return to a language experience approach based on the belief that language development can only be gained when students are placed in meaningful contexts that recognise the reality of the students lives or cultures.

I believe we are now failing the very children we set out to help and in the process we are ignoring the linguistic prior learning experiences of such children.

Learning must begin with a thought provoking curriculum - one that recognises the lived reality of all students. Students need to offered the chance to use powerful forms of talk and writing in meaningful contexts leading to meaningful reading.

The children's own lives, their cultures, the sensory experiences gained exploring their immediate environment, and challenging class studies based on their own questions, need to provide the required meaningful contexts.

These approaches are restricted with the current politically inspired literacy approaches with their focus on reading.

Communication occurs naturally when students are involved in stimulating experiences. 'Curiosity is at the heart of all learning' as it says in the revised New Zealand Curriculum; we want all students to become 'seekers, users,and creators of their own knowledge'.

The teachers role ,as Jerome Bruner has written , 'is the canny art of intellectual temptation'. Teachers need to establish their classrooms as communities of scientists and artists exploring whatever captures their attention. And to do this all aspects of learning need to be integrated. Instead we are still focusing on a isolated curriculum centred approach. Even innovative schools I visit sadly keep literacy and numeracy separate from their inquiry programme.

Worst of all current 'best practice' approaches, and Education Office Review pressure, and even internal school bureaucracy are an attack on the autonomy of teachers. Conformity or consistency is being valued over teacher enterprise and creativity. Current approaches ignore the power of transformational experiences that give students 'feeling for' whatever they are learning. Current approaches all too often disassociate literacy and language from the real lives of children.

To really develop integrated approaches we need to celebrate the artistry and creativity of teachers not just the ideas of contracted advisers most of who may never applied what they are 'delivering'. Principals need to create the conditions for teacher leaders to feel safe to develop more creative ways of teaching that respects the learning identities of all the children they teach. Approaches that see students as producers rather than reproducers; approaches that result in rooms full of examples of the diversity of children's 'voices' and creativity as seen through their written language, inquiry research and their art.

Teachers need to be responsible for negotiating with their students a unique curriculum that is sensitive to their needs. For many students ( those lumped into the 'achievement tail') recognising and building on their culture and their lived experiences are important. Pioneer New Zealand teachers such as Elwyn Richardson and Sylvia Ashton Warner knew this as did many language arts teachers up until the technocratic curriculum imposed during the late 80s sidelined them. Paulo Freire, long ago, worked with illiterate peasants in Brazil and taught them to read and write by being interested in their thoughts. As they gained confidence in sharing their ideas he helped them write down key words and phrases. From these words the peasants learnt to read and write and gained liberating power in the process. All in eight weeks. An intensive language arts programme based on real purpose!! Not unfamiliar to approaches used by creative teachers such as Elwyn and Sylvia.

If we are to develop the language capability of all students we need to re-integrate literacy with our inquiry programmes. The inquiry topics should be the source of the creative energy of the classrooms. As part of this 'reframing' it is also time to rename the literacy time the language art block.

We now need to celebrate diversity in our classrooms and help all students achieve their personal best in all they do. We need to move away from the one dimensional classrooms that result from the current conformist undemocratic 'best practice' approaches. We need to 'scaffold' our help to children with care. Both teachers and students need freedom to learn in their own ways. Knowing the rules and criteria ought not constrain individuality and creativity.

Current approaches are marginalizing our students imagination; their individual ways of seeing and interpreting their experiences. By tapping into the real world of children, by valuing their thoughts, ideas and questions students could achieve so much more - beyond what can be easily measured or achieved.

Through developing their language capability children will become more powerful as individuals and learners. Through positive language experiences students develop a powerful positive sense of self; a sense of new possibilities for themselves. Education ought to be about chances for students to find out who theyare is and who they might be.

Learners currently placed in the 'achievement tail' need to be given the power to escape such a restrictive definition by experiencing equally powerful classroom cultures that build on their own cultures and experiences.

It is time to re-integrate language with the total classroom programme so all students can become 'seekers, users and creators of their own knowledge'.


Anonymous said...

A serious but very important blog Bruce. Something to think about over the holidays.You are certainly right about conformist 'best practices' taking over. When did we replace the student centred language arts with the technocratic literacy time?

Alison said...

Yes, we ARE going to fail the very children who most need help. By imposing irrelevant formulaic practices we are doing education an absolute disservice.

Bruce Hammonds said...

It does seem strange but formulaic current literacy approaches ignores the lived reality of the very children the Ministry wants to save. They shouLd look to the ideas of Ashton Warner, Paolo Freire and the almost lost NZ language arts approach.

It will get worse when all the literacy 'Nazis' are appointed to ensure their technocratic 'best practices' are in place - supported by the survelliance pressures of ERO.