Sunday, August 21, 2011

The power of visiting other schools

A display of work from Woodleigh School New Plymouth. Room environments are  important  'evidence' of what is held to be important by the school or teacher. Room environments send out powerful 'messages' to students and class visitors.

Last week I accompanied group of rural principals from out of the province  visit a selection of local schools worthy of observation. Schools were limited to ones I am familiar with and all were involved in inquiry learning to greater or lesser degree. None were totally inquiry focused schools with inquiry as their number one priority - this is difficult in today's environment.

It is my belief that focused school visits ( hence the need for a guide) are the most powerful means to gain professional development and, in particular, to gain insights in to what other schools/teachers feel important. This is all the more necessary as schools are increasingly under pressure to distort their teaching programmes by the need to respond to the reactionary and politically inspired introduction of National Standards.

What visitors gain depends on what they individually  bring to the situations visited. If ideas gained are to be made best use of then there needs to be focused action plans, assisted by an  independent 'outsider',  to implement ideas seen in their own schools and, at an agreed point, to evaluate progress.

I have to admit not being an entirely biased guideAs a result of my own experience I am influenced by an approach to teaching and learning that is somewhat in conflict with some of the idea currently being imposed or being implemented in schools.

My own agenda is:

To place in depth student inquiry studies central to all learning and for such inquiries not only to focus on the inquiry process but also to develop  in-depth understandings. Inquiries need to challenge and extend students' prior views. The most important phrase in the 2007 New Zealand Curriculum is for students to 'seek , use and create their own knowledge'.

To 'reframe ' literacy and, to a lesser degree numeracy, to ensure all the skills students require to undertake in-depth inquiry are in place.

Students need all the skills in place to 'seek and use' information. As for mathematics it needs to be based on real life or relevant inquiries to develop real 'feel' for mathematics.In my opinion the key to maths  is to do less maths and what is done to be done in depth. Conventional teaching places literacy and numeracy as the most important areas of learning and this will be further reinforced by National Standards.

 Literacy and numeracy  need to be seen as 'foundation skills' vitally important to be in place so as to allow students to complete their inquiry studies. I am also opposed to ability grouping and 'streaming' of such learning areas. I cannot see the latter suggestions being taken up by  teachers

To value the individual creativity, 'voice' and imagination of all students and in the process identify and extend every student's unique gifts and talents - every student's needs their own Individual Learning Programme.

With this in mind it would be interesting to learn what ideas individual visitors gained, what idea they saw that conflicted with their current ideas and what they intend to action on return to their own schools?

The challenge for teachers visiting inquiry based classrooms that value in depth understandings and student creativity, is to  begin with 'the  end in mind' by considering classroom displays, students' book work,  and students' competencies requiredand then to to consider all the various skills  that would need to be in place for students to develop and take responsibility for their own quality work  - both process and content.

Inquiry displays to have key questions , processes, and quality examples of finished work including research , language  and art - both descriptive, or observational, and creative.

Teachers should do their best to base their studies on students' questions and concern and to negotiate with their students  inquiry and learning tasks and also criteria for evaluating their achievements.

Students to have observational drawing and descriptive writing skills in place   in particular how to write 'research writing';  the writing up of experiments or activities; and  how to acknowledge sources of their information. Such skill teaching ought to be the focus of   'reframed' literacy and numeracy programmes.

Displays and student book work ought to illustrate studnts' prior ideas -answers ( theories) to their first questions;  learning can be evaluated by the degree students have extended their ideas.

Students need to be taught design /presentation skills so as to present their work in pleasing ways. If such 'scaffolds' , 'wizards' or guides are developed students need to be encouraged to make use of their own creativity.  Many students have never been taught how to layout their work. Best models are exhibits for Science or Maths fairs. Visual language skills need to be included in literacy programmes.

To achieve quality in depth  work students need to be placed in safe secure organisational patterns. Such patterns are best seen in the  literacy  and numeracy blocks but the group task idea needs to be extended to the afternoon inquiry studies. Few school do this.

In inquiry classrooms information technology ( ICT) is best integrated as a natural part of inquiry studies. New technology skills  could be introduced as a part of the literacy programme.

Other important aspects of a creative inquiry based  classroom.

Personalised writing about students' own lives. Student's able to focus on a small event in their lives and to write thoughtfully about it. Personal writing is the best way to ensure each child's voice is acknowledged. Such writing could be part of the literacy programme - with one piece completed , with an equally focused illustration, each week. Such writing could be an important part of any early reading programme.

Last thoughts:

Do fewer things well.

Slow the pace of students work.

Ensure students have skills and time to complete work

Value student's perseverance, effort or 'grit'.

Do the 'messages' of your classroom reflect and celebrate your students creativity .

Related blogs

Classroom displays

Quality student work

Student work

Observation skills

Personal writing


Allan Alach said...

All well and good but will we be able to PROVE children are learning if we don't have national's standards? We need to "RAISE ACHIEVEMENT" to develop workers who will do what they are told and who don't think. Also how will we measure teacher effectiveness in such an environment?
(Tongue very firmly in cheek here…)


You ain't the only, but just about, one, Allan.

Why are the CFI forums off-line?

I know why.

My blog knows why.

Damien Riley said...

I absolutely agree. Visiting other schools is paramount to accomplished teaching. It's also a great idea for new ones.