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!


Allan Alach said...

Looking at the combined message in your last two postings, and towards the vision of what could/should be, it seems that we're dealing with an ascending series of control issues.

For children to be allowed to flourish in the environment that you depict so well, teachers need to let go, to provide the space for this. Risk taking, in other words. Moving up the scale, teachers need space to flex their wings and to take risks. This then places the onus on their school leaders, who also have to take the risk of freeing teachers, and this in turn requires a farsighted BOT ( a reasonably rare beast, it would seem, going by the standards compliance situation).

BOTs need to be allowed the space and freedom to enable principals and teachers to develop creative schools, and this is not likely to happen in a compliance/accountability culture framed by MOE and governments and enforced by ERO.

Classic loose/tight control - devolution of authority to create the illusion of 'freedom' followed by the establishment of rigorous accountability requirements to ensure that control is maintained.

Review what happened in the early years of "Tomorrow's Schools' - at the same time BOTs were being set up to allow community input, a very comprehensive charter was issued that locked their operations into place, and ERO's focus was on extreme 'ticking the boxes' accountability.

To change schools, we may need to change the whole system.

Jody Hayes said...

I think there is no 'may' about it ... we do need to change the whole system.
Teachers need to be responsible too - not blaming others but doing what they can, whenever they can to provide these risk taking experiences for themselves and the children in their class.

Bruce Hammonds said...

Tranform or become pleasant educational dinosaurs - clever kids will, as they get older, will go elsewhere to do their creating.

Roberta KISTS said...

I am constantly amazed at what MOE and the PTB (powers that be) consider acceptable in NZ.
It seems that what they want to know is control and control means contain original thinking and creativity. We need to keep challenging the norms and ask the questions of the schools and the politicians. When do we help people be better thinking people who can do and think and make things happen with more than number 8 wire and determination