Thursday, July 28, 2011

What does the future hold for schools in New Zealand?

Guest blogger Allan Alach

Bruce has very generously allowed me to write another guest blog, for which I am very grateful. I’ll start off by reiterating the obvious:

Of course children need to develop high levels of competence in literacy and mathematics. No argument.  Equally valid is the need to develop each child’s full potential, a case that Bruce articulates so well. The issue is the conflict between these.

As we move into the second half of this year, we are now waiting to see what the Ministry of Education will do about schools who have stuck to their principles of putting children first, refusing to submit a ‘compliant’ charter.  We can expect MOE officials at local offices to increase pressures on BOTs, to try to create a rift between BOTs and principals, or by stressing ‘this is the law’.

That will undoubtedly do the trick with some wavering BOTs, who are caught in the dilemma between doing the right thing for children, and being law abiding citizens.

What will follow? My crystal ball indicates two possible paths.

The National Party will be very mindful of the coming election. Confronting non-compliant schools head on runs the big risk of wide media coverage of all the issues revolving around the standards, and this comes with a big electoral risk attached.

Therefore one outcome could be that the posturing, arm twisting and threats of doom and retribution will continue, but not go any further until after the election. Should National be returned to office, fasten your seat belts.

Another possibility is that the government will use the distraction of the Rugby World Cup as the time to ‘lean’ on schools. 

Are we winning this fight? Will the government admit it has got this all wrong? Is this a good Tui ad?

Sorry, people, this battle has a long way to go and logic, research, educational principles, and the large numbers of experts against standards count for nothing.

Let’s unpick a few things here to illustrate this.

One of these is the recent announcement, published on July 19, of the appointment of the new Secretary for Education.  Our new ‘boss’ will be Lesley Longstone, from England, who “is experienced in developing and implementing policy and strategies and in introducing and implementing legislation.  She has successfully managed change in large service delivery organisations in challenging circumstances.”

Hmm... references to the New Zealand Curriculum? 21st century education? Inquiry learning? Knowledge of pedagogy? Teacher inquiry? 

Want to know more? Here’s the link to the State Services Commission. It seems pretty transparent to me what her job will be.  For more on this, read Derek Wenmoth’s blog.

As an attempt to prove she is ‘listening’, the Minister has established what Kelvin Smythe calls an “Orwellian-type advisory group” called  the “National Standards Sector Advisory Group” or NSSAG. The fact that this group doesn’t include the educators, academics, and education sector groups concerned about the impact of standards is apparently not important.

Orwellian’ is right - set up a group that will dutifully do what it is told and define the language accordingly. ‘Newspeak’ by any chance? A member of the NSSAG is one Brian Hincho, who apparently represents intermediates and middle schools. Heard of him before? Thought not. That, people, is the education sector’s voice on this group. Fills you with confidence?

As part of the latest NSSAG report, Hincho produced a paper “So Why Are Principals Opposed to National Standards?” From its title, and from a cursory reading, one may think that Hincho is actually reflecting principal voice, and I’ve heard senior colleagues refer to it in this way.

For a devastating critique of Hincho’s paper, read what Kelvin Smythe has written. For full impact, follow the sequence Kelvin suggests:
So why are French people opposed to Vichy France collaboration? (Kelvin’s satirical take of Hincho’s article).

Still think that Hincho is speaking on our behalf?

Continuing the theme I’ve developed in previous postings, we also need to lift our heads to see what is happening overseas, as it is clear that many of the government’s educational policies are being imported. Australia is the first place we should look.

The NAPLAN programme was introduced there in spite of the protests of the education sector, whose objections followed a similar line to those being expressed here. However the political ideology over ruled the educationalists.

For indepth analysis of the Australian education sector, I recommend you follow Phil Cullen. Phil is an ex-Director General of Education in Queensland, whose education focus is very child centred, and his website is extremely comprehensive.

Phil also writes a very powerful email newsletter/blog, called “The Treehorn Express” that comments on current issues in Australian and worldwide education. Add this to your PLN. It doesn’t take much reading to realise that he could very well be writing about current trends in New Zealand.  Aren’t coincidences amazing things? 

In Phil’s latest ‘Treehorn Express’, he refers to the ‘consultant’, Joel Klein, who advised then Education Minister Julia Gillard, about the best system to use for the NAPLAN test programme. Remember that, especially if you come across a video of a discussion between Klein and Sir Ken Robinson, which has been highlighted on Twitter.

In order to get a grasp of what is most likely behind the educational developments in Australia and New Zealand, we need to head off to the USA.

One fall out of the disintegration of the Murdoch regime has been the evidence that the Murdoch business empire has/had big plans to add education to their portfolio, as detailed here, and here, and here.

Klein’s role is outlined in this article in The New York Times;
“Though Mr. Klein did not see eye to eye with Mr. Murdoch on many political issues, they agreed on a core set of education principles: that charter schools needed to expand; poor instructors should be weeded out; and the power of the teachers union must be curtailed.

Blogger Joe Bower (always worth following) also comments on Joel Klein in this post, where he starts with this quote from Klein:
"The more we have multiple measures the risk is we dilute the power of accountability."

Think about what that really says.

 Phil Cullen is also on Murdoch’s case: “Digital Giants About to Take Over Schools” which includes this section:
“Education is, as Rupert Murdoch described it in a speech to the G8 in May 2011, ‘the last frontier’ – a vast market waiting to be invaded, conquered and financially exploited by News of the World and other companies.”

Get the message?

While Murdoch’s troubles in England may bring an end to this, there are other big sharks in the US water.

Collectively they are known as ALEC (American Legislative Exchange Council) whose members include the big players in the USA business world, such as the Koch Companies Public Sector, AT&T, Wal-Mart Stores, Pfizer Inc., Coca-Cola Co., ExxonMobil Corp., State Farm Insurance Co., PhRMA, Altria Group (formerly Philip Morris), Kraft Foods, Reynolds American and others. Many of these players, by the way, are also behind the Kahn Academy (as is Bill Gates) and TED talks. Now there’s food for thought.

So what is the relevance to New Zealand education? Here is a page discussing ALEC’s policy on education. 

As an illustration, here are two sections.
“Certifying individuals with no education background as teachers, a move that would weaken the quality of education, that fails to recognize there is more to teaching than knowledge of a subject, and that would undermine the role and competitiveness of professional teachers.”

Links to NZ? Yep. The idea of six week training for graduates has already been proposed by the Minister.

What about this one?
“Creating a scheme to deem public schools "educationally bankrupt" to rationalize giving taxpayer dollars to almost completely unregulated private schools, rather than addressing any problems.”

See where standards and league tables fit in?

How much power does ALEC have in influencing US policy? Are you aware that recently Barack Obama organised a major meeting to discuss US education ‘reform’? Are you aware that this meeting was attended by many of the significant business leaders in the USA? How many educational experts were invited? (Answers to be written on a postage stamp using a 5 cm paint brush.) What does that tell you?

As an aside, you may find it enlightening to read ALEC’s other policies. I’ll leave it to you to draw your own conclusions.

Does New Zealand have its own version of ALEC? I suggest, yes, we do, and they call themselves the Business Roundtable. Over the years we know that they’ve brought their carefully selected education ‘experts’ here to promote their view of schooling. We also know that Milton Friedman, the patron “saint” of Roger Douglas, Ruth Richardson, Don Brash,  Roger Kerr (Business Roundtable), and the New Zealand Treasury,  promoted privatisation of the public school system. Is there an agenda? What do you think?

As Paulo Freire has pointed out in Pedagogy of the Oppressed,
“Education either functions as an instrument which is used to facilitate integration of the younger generation into the logic of the present system and bring about conformity or it becomes the practice of freedom, the means by which men and women deal critically and creatively with reality and discover how to participate in the transformation of their world.” 

Which of these options applies to present government policy?

The battle line must be drawn now.

 Here’s US educator Will Richardson’s frustration about the situation there, which equally applies to New Zealand:
“If you’re a public school educator in the U.S. right now, how can you not be angry? How can you not be doing something, even if it is just a profanity laced Tweet? The profession is being trampled. Politicians and businessmen with no background in education are driving reform. And our students are stuck in a system that still thinks it’s the 19th Century. By any standard, including the tests, our kids are not being well served, especially those who live in poverty. As a community, we’re in a fight, whether we like it or not, yet we seem more inclined to figure out Google+ than to make our voices heard to the policy makers who seem to have no desire to figure out what’s best for our children and care more about their re-election campaigns.  I mean really…what’s it going to take?”


I’ll leave the final word to Phil Cullen:

Please help our school children to regain the freedom to learn.
Things will get worse.

Thanks to Bruce for allowing me to use this forum. Thanks also to Michael Fawcett (Twitter @teachernz or here on Google Plus) for flicking interesting websites my way.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

What should a parent expect from a teacher in the 21stC?

This an extract from a blog by Steve Wheeler Professor of Technology  University of Plymouth UK Steve is presenting in NZ later in the year.An excellent blog.

To read the full blog from Steve wheeler.

What should a parent expect from a teacher in the 21st Century?

This is actually quite an interesting question and if we had had time to answer it, I would have said something along these lines:

The question acknowledges the direct interest parents have over their children's education, and reminds teachers of the need to keep parents informed of their children's progress. As a parent of three children who have now all left school (where has the time gone?), I know that I was always interested in what my kids had been getting up to in school, and what they had learnt. But I was also interested in the methods the teachers had employed to help my kids learn. That may have been because I am a teacher educator myself, and I have a professional interest. How many other parents who are non-educators actually think about the methods and tools teachers are using? Also, beyond the fact that the teachers of their children are qualified educators and have been police-checked, how much do parents want to know about teachers or the methods they use? What should parents expect of teachers in the 21st Century?

Apart from the surge in technology use, and the new skills teachers need to adopt, implement and harness new digital media and tools (a subject for another blogpost), I would argue that little has changed in our expectations of good educators.

In this post I'm not going to dwell on digital skills. Instead I'm going to focus on three essential things teachers need to practice, and without which children would be poorer.

The first thing parents should expect from teachers is their ability to inspire children to learn. This is vitally important. Yes, it helps that teachers are experts in their own subject areas, and it yes, it is important that teachers are organised and can maintain some kind of discipline in the classroom, but I would like to argue that the ability to inspire is more important that all of these. All teachers should aspire to be an inspirational catalyst for learning. Enthusiasm for learning, a passion for their subject and the ability to get kids excited about something new is vitally important in the shaping of young minds. You can't teach enthusiasm or passion, but it can certainly be infectious.

Another allied skill we should expect from teachers is an ability to understand the child's perspective. Good teachers have the ability to place themselves in the position of the child, and ask themselves, how would I have felt in that situation? This is the basis of good pedagogy, and was referred to by Jean Piaget as 'decentering'. Many of us, as we grow older, tend to forget the experiences we had when we were in school. Intuitive teachers understand what kids experience and know how to maximise those experiences. They know how to tap into the sense of wonder a child has when she sees something new for the first time. They recognise the importance of the need to touch or taste, to directly feel and relish a new experience and the desire to question, to experiment and to ask 'what if...?' These are manifestations of childhood all teachers should remember. Good teachers recognise that children need this kind of experimental space to learn.

Parents should also expect teachers to give creative freedom to children. Although teachers are hard pressed for time, the very best know the importance of play and can create playful learning spaces. Children have great imagination, but until it is given the opportunity to be expressed outwardly, it is difficult to share or celebrate. The best teachers do not always insist on the 'right answer' or the correct way to do something. They don't dismiss children who offer outlandish ideas or alternative suggestions. Sure, children needs some facts and rules, but they also need to be able to question those facts and find out what happens if someone does break those rules. Children should be free to make mistakes without fear of punishment, and should be able to express themselves creatively and explore their world in safety

Sunday, July 24, 2011

Education is about developing unique individuals - learning how to live.

A couple of quotes sent to me as comments - worth sharing

Debra's blog page provide these excellent quotes:

Once I read a proverb:

'Life is a school. Why not try taking the curriculum?'

Debra is influenced by the  great writer and thinker, John Gatto Taylor:

 'Whatever an education is, it should make you a unique individual, not a conformist; it should furnish you with an original spirit with which to tackle the big challenges; it should allow you to find values which will be your road map through life; it should make you spiritually rich, a person who loves whatever you are doing, wherever you are, whomever you are with; it should teach you what is important, how to live and how to die.'

This quote, from an Oliver Sacks book, provided by Alan, is worth a thought:
'… some predisposition or potential is built in genetically but requires stimulation, practice, environmental richness and nourishment if it is to develop fully. Natural selection may bring about the initial disposition, but experience and experiential selection are needed to bring our cognitive and perceptual capacities to their full realisation.'

Saturday, July 23, 2011

Under-Imagined and Over Taught

The two artists Mondrian and Pollock represent two sides of learning. Mondrian represents formality and precision and Pollock imagination freedom and spontaneity. To me the best teaching comes from having a foot in both camps - but moving forward into the realms of imagination. Unfortunately schools are being pressured to stay firmly in the 'over taught' approach to learning just when we desperately need imagination and creativity.

I have to be honest I picked up the heading 'Under Imagined and Over Taught'  from an American blogger but it fits the bill for education in New Zealand as well.

Education in the West has become obsessed with the measurement of achievement.

Achievement in what can be easily measured  and in areas that put conservative pressures on schools to narrow their curriculum and to use 'best prctices' as defined by the state.

The standards movement, so loved by politicians to close the 'achievemnt gap', is all part of this need to assure progress in the designated areas - literacy and numeracy of course.

All this pressure on schools, which by their nature are innately conservative - and more so as you go up the school system, transforms the purpose of education. The approach to education changes dramatically from early education to secondary schooling. Choice , creativity and imagination are slowly drained from the students as they are sorted out by their ability in literacy and numeracy.

The American blogger wrote . 'We seem to have become a culture obsessed with programming our kids for success through instruction rather than acknowledging that real learning is mostly about exploration and discovery.' Referring to an an article in the Science Daily called 'Don't Show, Don't Tell? Direct Instruction Can Thwart Independent Exploration' which looks at research on the earliest periods of human development, showing that instruction applied to play and learning among young children. The results of the study  shows that in many cases instruction limits imagination and time spent on self discovery...' Explicit instruction makes children less likely to engage in spontaneous exploration and discovery.... thereby discouraging independent discovery'.

My visits to schools show me that the formulaic teaching, which all schools seem to use - WALTS, intentional teaching and predetermined criteria are resulting in destroying students idiosyncratic 'voices' and crushing imagination. In areas such as art. there is a clone like sameness in too many rooms - consistency has overwhelmed imagination and creativity.

No one is suggesting that students ought not too receive assistance but any help should  be given lightly and only when students have exhausted  their own ideas. Any any suggestions ought to be phrased ' you could do', rather  than, 'this is how you do it'.  'Scaffoding' assistance  is a useful concept but all too often 'scaffolds' become permanent features!

What students need at all levels is an enriched curriculum based on self discovery  - a curriculum  full of activities to attract their curiosity and to extend their imaginations.

The teacher's role is to ensure students are equipped with the learning habits and strategies to ensure they  achieve in depth understandings of whatever content they are studying. To do this all students need to be able to make use of literacy and numeracy in authentic contexts.

Focusing on closing the  achievement gap , a gap created by the widening gap between the rich and poor, is diverting teachers from a real solution ( other than solving the  poverty issue) by  giving all students programmes that value  students talents, gifts,  creativity and  imagination.

With such programmes in place students will develop positive learning attitudes  and, such positiveness,  will be reflected in improving the achievemnt data that the politicians (and many principals) so love.

Monday, July 18, 2011

An overwhelming creative experience

Astronauts entering the space shuttle: Zero Gravity theme.

I was invited to visit Opunake Primary School to see the culminating display of their current topic 'Zero Gravity'-  open to parents and the public the last two days of the term.

To make a change from suffering from the  endless wet days we had been having I decided to take up the offer. I knew more or less what to expect as I had visited several other end of term culminating displays. To add to the fun I decided to ask an old friend of mine to come just for the ride which is about 45 minutes from where I live. I didn't tell my friend we were going to visit a school. I didn't think it would be much of an enticement and when we pulled up at the school he said he would be happy to sit in the car until I had completed my visit.

I insisted he accompany me and to say that it was a mind changing experience for my friend would not be far from the truth.

Opunake school is a very special school. However, before the appointment of the current principal Lorraine, things were less than wonderful. Opunake is a decile four school with a forty percent Maori role and, at at the time of Lorraine's appointment, had little parental support and the staff somewhat demoralised.

Although I am a fan of individual creative teachers, believing they hold the power to develop ideas that can change schools, this power is magnified if a school is led by a creative principal

What makes the school special are the educational changes Lorraine has introduced to develop a more positive  inclusive learning community at the school. The changes are based around a collaborative approach to teaching combined with the use of a range of innovative teaching strategies.

At the end of each year students are asked to think about what concern they have and they would like to study.  This idea is based on the writings of American Middle School educator James Beane. Students contribute their ideas and from  their ideas common themes are  decided upon for the next years studies. Interestingly enough the students ideas easily cover normal curriculum requirements.

Once the theme has been decided upon a provocative title is decided upon and then the theme is explored for the term, or longer. Themes I have observed have covered 'Harry Potter' ( mainly maths and science)  'Are You my Mummy' ( Egypt), 'Shackleton', 'Space', 'The local Environment' - I can't remember the exact  more interesting titles.

The current thee was called ' Zero Gravity' - about space exploration.The photo  above does not do the study justice.

The  theme follows along the following process.

The teachers plan an interesting introductory experience to motivate a range of study  questions from the students which become the basis for the study.  For the Egyptian study the teachers put on a shadow play which involved  teachers acting as priests preparing body for the mummification  process. This was authentic enough for a year one student to tell his mum that the teachers cut up a year eight students but that it was OK because the young learner concerned said he had seen the 'victum' later in the library!

Following the introductory experience the  teachers plan activities for students, arranged in family groups, to be involved with.Older students are 'trained' to assist younger children. For the current study eighteen science experiments were planned - providing more physical science than most primary students experience in a year. This involves afternoons for the first week or two.

Literacy and numeracy programmes cover the mornings  no doubt content from current themes is involved.

The 'end on mind' is to prepare exhibits for the end of term display.These displays transform a room ( once two classrooms) into what can be best expressed as a school version of Te Papa. Once the displays are in place it is impossible to recognise the rooms as classrooms.

Following the family grouped experiences teachers, in their individual classrooms and teams, plan out their exhibits for the  display room and undertake  research about the theme. The school uses an inquiry approach across the school and a range of thinking skills but, as important as the process is, the whole point is to develop the end of term display/experience.

Back to our school visit.

Visitors enter the room through a Ground Zero Entrance Gate and are welcomed by an episode of Star Trek to add to the ambiance. Once over a a raised foiled covered entrance way the main room is entered.The entire space floor and ceiling is covered with black plastic.No outside light enters - light come from spotlights,computers and digital projector screens.  Visitors are confronted with large models of spaceships, moon buggies, alien tea parties, science experiments, white coated astronauts and a robot that has moving arms ( powered by students who take turns). Metres of tin foil has been used contrasted with white painted rockets, space shuttles, and moon buggies. And, as you get used to the experience, there are an endless range of childrens' research, art and language to admire.

To add to the excitement students are guiding their appreciative parents around and, while we were there, the local kindergarten was visiting. One can only imagine what they were thinking.

The next day I returned with a retired teacher who was, in my opinion, one of the most creative teachers of his time.I also invited a scientist ( who had been an adviser to the nearby Maui plant) who now writes science features for the local paper.

They too were impressed.

Opunake is a special school.

Monday, July 11, 2011

Sharing the wisdom of creative teachers - the agenda for the future.

Quote from Goethe.

Last week I attended a farewell for an excellent teacher.

All the principals who had been involved with the teacher's career, since she had returned to teaching after raising her family, were invited to her current school  be part of the celebration.

We were all asked to say a few words. The teacher concerned had returned to teaching when I was principal in the 90s. My comments centred around the thought that in our profession we do not really value, or take advantage, of such excellent teachers and that it is a shame that their wisdom is not able to be captured and shared with others.

Learning from other teachers, both within and between schools, is the most powerful form of professional development. Every teacher respects and appreciates the reality that any such advice is based in contrast to many current  advisers who , more often than not ,  give advice about things they have never put into practice.

That school leadership has not taken advantage  expertise between schools has meant that wisdom and an opportunity for teacher leadership  has been lost.

In my experience all the lasting innovations have been developed by , or in collaboration with, classroom teachers - particularly those few who are really gifted or creative.

In reply the teacher concerned thanked all who spoke and the support of all on the current school staff.

I was impressed with her thanks to me for helping her develop her teaching philosophy when she returned to teaching - particularly the idea of doing fewer things well, providing students with whatever help they need and expecting quality work from all students. Simple stuff but it makes all the difference. She even commented on the challenging staff meetings we used to have!

I had only been a principal for few years before the teacher concerned won her position at the school. Previously I  had been an art adviser, and prior to that, a science adviser. Hardly a typical background but during my previous experience I had learnt a lot from all my classroom visits and was the ideas gained from such experiences that I introduced into the school.

Visiting classrooms in the 1960s, helping teachers with their natural history programmes ( and later science generally), I soon began to appreciate teachers whose classrooms stood out as particularly exciting environments. In those early days such teachers were more often that not teaching principals of rural schools - teachers who had escaped from formality of the  more traditional  bigger town schools.

Such teachers took advantage of the ideas 'in the air' at the times.It was the 60s and schools were changing dramatically. Language experience  teaching, centres of interests, integrated programmes and related arts. The rigid timetables of the fifties were  breaking down with this emphasis on child-centred learning.

As an adviser I was able to observe some of the first integrated studies to be developed centred around science and social studies. In my advisory  position I was able to assist teachers with integrated studies  based around ecological community studies - seashore, bush and river life. Today ,I guess, It would be called inquiry learning. It was learning in depth and, as well, students expressed their ideas in language, art and drama. The local advisers worked together to develop and share innovative between teachers and the local inspectors made use of such teachers for professional development. The art and craft advisers, in particular, led the way with integrated related arts courses -and in rural  school principals they found their greatest supporters.

Added to the mix of ideas were idea about integrated learning coming out of the UK and ,after spending a year teaching in very creative school, I returned to work with a group of local teachers in the 1970s.

The creative work undertaken by such teachers became well known nationally as the Taranaki Environmental Approach. As a group we also discovered the ideas of pioneer creative teacher Elwyn Richardson through his book 'In The Early World'. For a few years I returned to the classroom to see if I could put ideas I had gained into action. Then, after a brief time back as science adviser I became an art adviser and then a principal.

It was the ideas gained from my experiences, working with and observing teachers, that I wanted to introduce as a principal.

The phrase 'Environmental Education' has since morphed into 'Quality Learning'. The term 'environmental approach' had originally meant placing importance of the total environment created ( today called culture), making use of the immediate environment for much of the schoolwork, and the quality of classroom displays and recorded work.

This brings me back to the ideas learnt and shared by the leaving teacher.

An overriding belief was that our student's can achieve far more than we currently expect.

A key idea I introduced when a principal was that integrated inquiry studies should provide most of the inspiration and energy for the days programme -everything should be introduced as a problem to be solved and that in the process we should value children's question and prior ideas. The inquiry model to be used was the Learning In Science Project model which required teachers to value and expand  children'sknowledge. Our rich local environment was to be our most valuable resource - and observational skills an important element.

Our role is to develop the gifts and talents of all students through exposure to a wide range of studies and means of expression.

Children's ideas should be celebrated in all subject areas and in particular we need to celebrate the children's personal experiences through language and art to develop, in all children, a positive sense of self; to celebrate their 'voice'.

Reading and maths should be planned to provide skills needed for inquiry studies as much as possible.

As teachers we need to 'slow the pace' of children's work to ensure they achieve quality work; to do 'fewer things well'.

To achieve quality all appropriate skills need to be taught ( often during the language block).This particularly applied to all written work where teachers and students ought to be able to show continual quality improvement in thought and presentation.

Expectations, tasks, and group work, need to be negotiated and clearly defined on blackboards to allow teachers to work as 'creative coaches' with selected students and for students to be able to work independently.

Room environments to feature well displayed finished work with appropriate headings to inform visitors.

All these idea were gained from ,and by working with, classroom teachers supported by local advisers.

Today the opposite is all but true.'Best practices' are imposed on schools by contracted advisers. Compliance and conformity are valued more than creativity; technique and process above in depth personal knowledge and creativity Standardisation is being asked for rather than personalisation.

Time for teachers to claim back centre stage to transform schools.

The 2007 National Curriculum provides inspiration with its vision of 'connected, confident life long learners'  - learners able to 'seek, use and create their own knowledge'. The current emphasis on testing,  achievement data, and standards in literacy and numeracy are reactionary steps back to the fifties - along with ability grouping and streaming.

We can't afford to lose the wisdom of our creative or retiring teachers.

But the battle now is to go beyond quality into creativity led by a  new group of creative teachers; and the key is to tap into the creative teachers between schools

Saturday, July 09, 2011

Focussing on developing student's passions

Room environment from from the 70s! When creative teachers were rare but valued.

Here we are in 2011 still trying to solve the problem of failing or reluctant learners. The Minister and her tame officials are busy spreading the word that one in five children are failing - the so called 'achievement tail'. In the process they are giving the impression that our school system is failing and that the obvious answer is to introduce National Standards.

A few things ought to be clarified before New Zealand heads down the same failing solutions as the UK, the USA and Australia. Standards are not a new idea - once all classes were called standards and students sat tests to pass up to the next standard. In the UK, in the early years of the 20th century, teachers were even paid by results. In New Zealand, up until the 1950s, students were held back in the early years to give then extra assistance. The unintended consequences of such 'solutions' was a narrowing of the curriculum ( 'teaching to the tests') and, as well, students did not show any improvements - in fact their attitudes to being held back was less than positive.

And yet this is the solution the Ministry is pushing on to schools.This solution is political and populist answer that ignores deeper problems - that of the effects of poverty that limits the school success of students, the mono cultural bias of education and the limiting view of intelligences.

The debilitating effects of such a traditional approach  came to an end in the decades after World War Two as more democratic  liberating ideas were in the air - reaching its zenith in the 60s. Isolated teachers began to explore more creative ways of teaching based on engaging students in meaningful activities leading to self responsibility. It is now hard to believe that a simplistic transmission approach to teaching  once reached right down to infant classes.  The appropriate metaphor  for a school in those days  is one of a a factory - complete with waste products. One older teacher remembers unscrewing of the desks from the floor and class numbers up to the 60s! Students sat in rows , two to a desk. Knowledge came from the teacher.

The answer to failing students requires fresh thinking. Mass education and standardisation need to be replaced with a more  personalised approach  - one that values the individuality and uniqueness of every student and new roles for both teacher and students as co-learners. Subject centred teaching needs to replaced with learner centred education.

Pioneer creative teachers have been been using such approaches for decades but in recent times their insights have been ignored as a more managerial approach has been imposed on schools by the Ministry. Standardized tests and compliance, leading to a surveillance culture, has been preferred to encouraging creativity and innovation at the school level. This is ironic because New Zealand was once a world leader, at the primary level, in such a holistic and creative education. The Standards agenda  could well be the last straw unless teachers fight back.

The only real answer to the dilemma of failing students is to place the focus of schooling on the development of the gifts and talents - the variety of passions and interests that inspire intensive learning - in all students.

This requires students digging deeply into areas that have attracted their interests using all the  traditional disciplines to learn.This is  in contrast to assessing students against subject areas  - worse still, with the  standards agenda,  limited to literacy and numeracy. A passionate  education  is premised on developing students gifts and talents; it is an education  that values what students bring to their learning; one that values their particular cultures;  and one that values student's prior ideas, questions and theories.

What would happen if teachers spent their energy  helping students find out what attracts their attention no matter how fleeting the interest.With time students will become passionate about certain areas of learning and this could well lead to  them spending their lives pursuing ideas that appeal to them. Achieving dreams and personal goals are what motives successful learners.

It is worth thinking about why so many students lose their sense of wonder and desire to explore -attributes that are innate at birth - the human default way of learning.Consider the number of questions very young children ask and why this vital learning behaviour is lost during the school years.

Sir Ken Robinson, an expert on creativity has spend years speaking around the world about how we as a society beat the joy of learning out of our students and that b the time they reach high school the vast majority of them are standardized in thinking and in the way they seek answer to teacher's questions. His point is that we are destroying the very skills modern business desperately needs. 'Creativity' , he says, is as important as literacy and numearcy'.

Only few students are able to break out of the creativity killing cycle imposed on them by standardized teaching,  just at a time , Sir Ken writes, we as a culture value highly those that are creative and who pursue their passions as their vocations. And it is not only students who  lose their creative abilities - so do teachers who have to comply to uncreative requirements. Both student and teacher passions are left at the doorways of classrooms. For many students they are pursued out of school hours - school has become irrelevant.

New thinking is required . We need both teachers and students with 'new minds for a new millenium' - for what some call the Second Renaissance ' or the 'Age of Creativity'.

It is a simple truth that people of all ages get better at what they are good at and not by having their noses rubbed in what they are not able to do - feature of the current standards.

And the role of a creative teacher is demanding one involving considerable artistry.  Educationalist Jerome Bruner has written that , 'the canny art of the teacher is one of intellectual tempation'. All children are curious -and their curiosity is used by 'canny' teachers, to their advantage, to negotiate learning challenges with their students.

So what we want is not more  standardisation but  an educational transformation.

We already have the 2007 New Zealand to give schools the courage to act. This curriculum asks of schools to develop 'connected , confident life- long learners' able to, 'seek, use and create their own knowledge'. The teachers role is not to push knowledge into students heads but to pull ideas out and to celebrate their student's thinking and creativity The curriculum ask of teacher to develop positive learning identities for all students - not just the literate, numerate or academic important these may be.

There are a range of gifts and talents to develop. We need to give students back the power to learn they were born with and to create our classrooms as learning communities - students who live and act as scientists, artist, mathematicians, researchers, readers, painter, writers ...whatever it is they feel the need to apply their effort wholeheartedly in.

A creative eduction is a personalised approach that gives students more control,choice and responsibility. Teachers, to achieve this, will have to be knowledgeable about the range of curriculum area, or know where to go to get assistance. Unlike in earlier days knowledge is freely available through the Internet  but students will still need to be helped to interrogate and interpret it.

There is plenty of evidence that teachers and students can become creative passionate learners again.

The status quo is failing, the standardized past is not the answer, only a real transformation will solve the problem of failing students.  John Dewey wrote last century that the teachers role was , 'to keep alive the sacred spark of wonder; to fan the flame that already glows.The problem is to protect the spirit of inquiry, to keep it from becoming blase from over-excitement,wooden from routine, fossilised through dogmatic instruction, or dissipated by random exercise upon trivial things.'

Trivial standards or creativity and passion. A choice between the future or the past.

No choice!

Friday, July 08, 2011

Signs of a creative classroom

Deborah French's classroom

One thing seems obvious to me, after several decades visiting primary classrooms, is that real innovation only comes from creative teachers and not from imposed programmes. Unfortunately,  all too often, creative teachers are the last ones to be listened to in this era of school consistency and formulaic 'best practices'. It seem we are moving towards a standardised approach to learning at the very time when we need to value (and protect) our creative teachers and their creative students.

Creativity, of course, is a word  thrown around to describe much of the work students currently do. But true creativity is marked by originality and  idiosyncrasy and all too often is in opposition to what is expected. And creativity is not to be limited to the arts - it applies to all aspects of human activity.

For creativity to survive requires a school culture that values creativity.  Such schools are hard to find in these times of intrusive compliance.This does not mean every teacher doing whatever they like but rather for all teachers to be working within agreed beliefs. To develop a real creative learning culture requires considerable ongoing dialogue about the purpose of  an education for an evolving and creative world. To achieve such an environment is a balancing act for school leadership -the aim is for 'consistent creativity'. A number of important issues might need to be carefully defined and implemented while at the same time leaving plenty of room for teacher initiative and innovation. Creativity often works best within some form of constraint. Total freedom often leads to chaos and disorder;  creativity in any field requires considerable focused discipline.

The trouble is, in all too many schools, creativity is sacrificed to consistency and imposed requirements resulting in the heavy surveillance culture schools feel they need to impose. Schools have become test crazy valuing such testing above the insights of teachers. Testing narrows the learning while  in contrast teacher insight can take into account a number of variables. In this respect 'test crazy'  schools are already well on the way to National Standards - their only argument, it seems, is the worry about school comparisons through 'league tables'.

And associated with these compliance requirements, particularly the emphasis on literacy and numeracy, is a move for schools to reinforce traditional structures and expectations which are antithetical to creativity.

With this in mind it is easy to see a school that lacks creativity and vice versa.

Uncreative schools unconsciously  look back to the past for their direction. Such schools have let their literacy and numeracy programmes become the default curriculum.  A close look at such programmes will show if these two important 'foundation skills'  have become self contained areas taking up most of the available time. In contrast in  a creative school these areas have been 'reframed' and linked to skills required for current  inquiry studies. A further step back to industrial aged thinking is to have these areas streamed off into ability groups and, even worse still, taught by other teachers.

Creative teachers find no trouble in linking their language arts times ( a preferable term to literacy) with the current inquiry study/ies although integrating maths is more problematic.  Teachers need to give thought to the point of much of the maths that is currently taught and consider doing fewer things well. One writer ( Seymour Papert) has said that, 'all science and maths in schools should be applied not pure'. Maths thinking in most schools is determined by thinking from a past era .Thankfully The New Zealand Curriculum (07) has a more enlightened view of maths . With  'new maths minds'  teachers can introduce realistic contexts for their maths. Less maths, in realistic contexts, would be good advice and would result in maths being far more creative.

Standardised less creative classrooms feature 'intentionl teaching' ,  formulaic 'best practices', heavily defined group work in literacy and numeracy, WALTS,  predetermined criteria and learning objectives. None of these in themselves are bad things but taken to extremes they are all creativity killers. Inquiry programmes seem  to be seen as 'add-ons' and feature process more than deep content. And work displayed on the walls and in book all looks the same - even the art work!

So what would you see in a creative classroom ( in my opinion of course)?

Creative  classrooms need to be seen as communities of inquiry  where students  act as scientists and artists ( and historians, poets mathematicians etc) inquiring into whatever has attracted their attention. Students' range of inquiries would be the first thing to be seen when entering the room. Literacy programmes would relate to such studies (and reflect students 'voice') and ,where possible, so would much of the maths.What maths to be seen would feature maths investigations.

Both students and teachers would be continually assessing their progress and be considering making new choices on the basis their reflections. Attitudes , or 'feeling for'  the various learning areas, would be in the forefront of teachers minds not just recording sterile achievement. Assessment would largely be seen in the work of the students compared to  their previous accomplishments. Creative teachers can show evidence for improvement.

Creative teachers take to heart the phrase from the New Zealand Curriculum  that their students  need to be able to, 'seek, use, and create their own knowledge'. Creative teachers value each students' identity and do their best to focus on developing the talents and gifts of all their students along with ensuring that all students retain the innate learning attributes they were born with. Such teachers understand the importance of relationships and work alongside their students to help them  value their lives, thoughts and views through language and the arts. The work on display celebrates the diversity and 'voice'  of all  students and the quality of their thoughts. And the room environments are continuatully changing as a range of inquiries are completed.

Creative classrooms are personalised learning environments - traditional classrooms are still stuck in the standardised 'one size fits all' approach with its genesis in   a ,now faltering industrial, era.

 Everyone sees the point of school in a creative classroom.

A creative classroom is one where helping students develop their own ideas is more important than achieving what a teacher , or outside agency,has determined they should know.

A creative schools is one where leaders have created the conditions for both teachers and students to be creative learners - within those teaching beliefs  that they have come to believe in.

Creative classrooms are far and few  between but they hold the genesis for a creative future.

Creative schools are rare and endangered.

Sunday, July 03, 2011

Guest Post by Allan Alach on the 'bigger picture' behind standards!

Traditional way of solving a problem - but what do you really know about National's Standards?

As the furore over the MOE imposed July 1st charter deadline passes, we need to be mindful that there’s a much bigger picture and not be distracted by the debate over competence in the ‘basics.” Of course all children need to ‘achieve’ in these. No dispute. Engaging in debates at this level obscures the need to lift our heads to see where the game is heading.

Regular readers of this blog will know that Bruce has been very passionate and articulate in attacking national standards. This week’s guest blog from Phil Cullen in Australia expressed very similar concerns about the situation in Australia. Are these similarities just coincidental? What about the similarities between government policies here and in England and the USA? Coincidence also?

Read what Lester Flockton writes in the latest New Zealand Principal magazine:

“Is it a coincidence that the ‘bold’ new frontline strategy being ‘rolled out’ has very strong resemblances to the strategy advocated by the UK-based McKinsey & Co., and particularly its chief strategist Sir Michael Barber - one time adviser to Tony Blair? We know for a FACT that the strategy for system improvement hasn’t succeeded in remedying their tail of underachievement. So why, in all sensibility, would we want to follow such a model here?”

Why indeed? Very good question, Lester.

I do wonder whether the full extent of the probable agenda is understood by the majority of principals, teachers and parents in New Zealand schools, even though there is no shortage of information, nationally and internationally, that points the way. Why are people seemingly blase about this? “She’ll be right, mate”

The government has been and still is being extremely clever with the introduction of the standards. This process has very neatly drawn attention away from their longer term agenda, with all the focus at the moment being on that 1st July charter deadline.

The New Zealand Curriculum (remember this?) has, as one of its themes, the development of inquiry learning. So, in the spirit of the New Zealand Curriculum, let’s look at the whole national standards situation, using our inquiry learning skills.

Reflect on these:

       Why is the government ignoring the very wide range of national and international educational experts who are articulating the need for an educational system that will meet the needs of the 21st century? 
       Why is it that standards based systems have been introduced into the ‘Anglo-Saxon’ countries (England, Australia, USA, Canada and New Zealand)? Why is the rhetoric to justify this very similar in each country, and especially so in USA states with a Republican Governor? What do American parents think? Parents Across America
       Why do non-educators, especially politicians and business people (Bill Gates), profess to be experts in education and know all the answers?
       How come thecommon core standardsin the USA are similar to our national standards?   Concerns about core standards. Why are we playing the ‘me too’ game in introducing standards, to the incredulity of experts such as Andy Hargreaves?
       Why is everything being based on the scores in the PISA tests, when there are increasing numbers of experts, such as Stephen Heppell in the UK ( and Diane Ravitch in USA ( pointing out the flaws in these? How valid are the rankings when Shanghai is listed as number one? Just Shanghai? What about the rest of China?
       Why is the emphasis being placed on the PISA test, to the exclusion of other data? Who defined the PISA test as the key indicator of educational performance? What does Ravitch say?
           The lesson of PISA is this: Neither of the world's highest-performing nations do what our "reformers" want to do. How long will it take before our political leaders begin to listen to educators? How long will it take before they realize that their strategies have not worked anywhere? How long will it be before they stop inflicting their bad ideas on our schools, our students, our teachers, and American education?”
          Indeed.     Lots more here
       Why is the McKinsey report “How the world's most improved school systems keep getting better?being used to justify school reform? Who engaged them to be the experts?

       Why doesn’t the government acknowledge that according to the PISA data, NZ’s primary school education spending per head is amongst the lowest in the ‘developed world’? On a ‘bang per buck’ model, New Zealand has the best results.
       Why doesn’t the government chose to publicise the 2009 PISA results that has New Zealand statistically near the top of the rankings in every test? Hardly the sign of a failing system? What about this scale, which has New Zealand at the top?

       Why doesn’t the government acknowledge that the countries who have instituted standards based systems are below New Zealand’s ranking on the PISA results?

       Why is the government completely ignoring all the national and international evidence that standards a) don’t work  and b) will be harmful to children? There is well documented research querying the focus on standards and testing, so why press ahead?
       Why is the government disregarding the increasing concern from overseas about the narrowing of the curriculum , the increasing emphasis on the 3Rs (Seymour Papert: “Obsolete Skill Set: The 3 Rs”,) to the detriment of the arts and the creative development of the whole child? Sir Ken Robinson:  A Baffling Detour to the 19th Century

       Why is the government ignoring the evidence that the most successful school system is Finland and that the Finnish approach is the complete opposite to a standards based system? Singapore is moving towards the Finnish model while we are moving the opposite way.
       Why is the government not acknowledging the national and international research about socio-economic effects being the major influence on learning? 

 If the politicians were as concerned as they profess to be about the educational development of NZ children, then surely it would be logical to take note of the evidence and expert opinions?

The only conclusion that can be drawn from this is that any talk about the children’s learning is political rhetoric and that there has to be more to this.

And there is, and it’s not hard to find. The first agenda is naked politics in all its dubious glory. The aim of any political party is to be elected in the first place, and to stay in power for as long as possible.

One not particularly savoury aspect of this is the appeal to the baser instincts of the voters. In the case of education, it is being done through targeting parents’ fears that their children may not make the grade, hence the inaccurate “1 in 5” are failing. Extending this political fear-mongering further, if 1 in 5 children are failing, then that means that significant numbers of schools can be accused of not doing the job. I can hear the political rhetoric already.
 Is your child in a ‘good’ school? How do you know? We will set up league tables to identify ‘good’ and ‘bad’ schools. We will use ‘data’ to identify and reward ‘good’ and to get rid of ‘bad’ teachers.” And so on…

Couldn’t possibly happen?  Just have a look at the USA. What do we find? Attacks on the teacher unions. Teachers losing ‘tenure’ if their test results are not good enough. Value added teacher appraisal. The worst example of all:  The Los Angeles Times published the test history of all teachers over the past five year period, to identify the best/worst teachers.

 Look closer to home - fancy working in Australian schools under their NAPLAN testing regime?  Australian Education Minister Peter Garrett (one time lead singer of rock band Midnight Oil, who sang protest songs about uranium mining and Aboriginal land rights  - figure this change of ideology) is promoting teacher performance pay against NAPLAN test results.

Why do politicians keep promoting performance pay for teachers, even though in practice this is unworkable and also flies in the face of research evidence?  Maybe they should all read Daniel Pink’s book “Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us”? Or what about this research “Giving Teachers Bonuses for Student Achievement Undermines Student Learning, Study Finds

Is there a bigger agenda yet? I believe there is.  Once again, looking at the English and USA examples, we find that ‘failing’ schools are closed, and replaced by Academy and Free  schools in England, and charter schools in the USA - all supposedly to better reflect community wishes.

What happens? Vouchers in some states. Selective enrolment (‘good’ children only please), site based employment (no ‘nasty’ unions) and the opportunities for businesses to use schools as profit making enterprises,   even though research shows that their achievement levels are no better. Strange, that.

If you want to know more (and you really should), follow Diane Ravitch ( who is articulating the anti-testing/anti-standards campaign in the USA. Joe Bower in Canada ( and Warwick Mansell in England ( also have much to contribute. There are many, many others.

And so the trail has led back to New Zealand, starting with national standards that will result in league tables (the Minister has now admitted this) and the identification of “good” schools and ‘poor” schools, who are ‘under-serving’ students.  “Under-serving”? Where did that emotive jargon originate? Why do we buy into all the political jargon? Really - what does ‘raising achievement’ actually mean? Let’s debunk the jargon.

Socio-economic indicators suggest a high correlation between decile rating and achievement against standards. Where does this lead?

Students in higher decile schools are likely to have much more educational ‘space’ to explore a richer curriculum. As the converse is more likely for students in lower decile schools who may struggle to achieve the ‘standard’, this risks increasing the gaps between the “haves’ and ‘have nots’  even further. Read Alfie Kohn: “How school reform damages poor children.” and also this:

We know what it takes to help disadvantaged students do well, and we know what it takes to almost guarantee their failure. We know the reforms our students need—the really hard ones that are politically tough and not always popular. Let’s hope that when all the pretend reforms go away, at least a handful of good schools survive. After the sea change, when the tide goes out, perhaps a few beacons of hope will remain on the beach” (Carol Corbett Burris, the principal of South Side High School in New York.  She was named the 2010 New York State Outstanding Educator by the School Administrators Association of New York State.)

So the question needs to be posed? What is the government’s longer term agenda for New Zealand schooling, especially in light of the clear links to, and following in the footsteps of, developments overseas?

Vouchers? Corporatisation of New Zealand schooling? This would be consistent with other government policies and rhetoric, and so there’s no reason to suppose that education would be an exception.  Maybe we could start with private ownership of the buildings? Oh, that’s already happening...

As the saying goes, “If it looks like a duck, walks like a duck and sounds like a duck, then it’s a duck.”