Saturday, December 31, 2011

Elwyn Richardson: NewZealand's pioneer creative teacher.

Take 15 minutes to view this U -Tube video of Elwyn's work and pass it on to others.

I was reading in an art book I was given for Christmas about all the influences that had contributed to the development to the artists personal style.

Everybody has people who have contributed to the beliefs they currently hold and I got to thinking who had made the greatest contribution to my own views about education.

In one way I was was rather privileged because most of my time in teaching, since the 60s, has been as an itinerant specialist teacher, first in nature study, later as an adviser in science and for a short time an art adviser. I say privileged because the various advisory roles enabled me to come across number of teachers whose approach to teaching and learning stood out from other teachers.

I have aways believed that the best professional development is to be gained by observing other teachers - particularly those who have the ability to draw the best out of their students. Teachers have a  profound respect for the advice from those who do the real work.Unfortunately, in recent decades, 'experts' from outside the classroom have become the sources of 'official'  knowledge and this has led to a reduction in the importance of those creative teachers. This is is a shame.

In my early years the most innovative teachers I was lucky to visit were principals of small rural schools.Bigger urban school were very traditional places in those days.  There isn't much point in mentioning names as all have long since retired but they, I realised later, were aware of the creative ideas that were in the air, in all areas of life, after the World War Two. In New Zealand progressive child centred ideas were being encouraged under the guidance of Dr Beeby the then Director of Education.

During the sixties I became involved with local art advisers ( who were under the guidance of National Art Director Gordon Tovey. With Gordon's encouragement the art advisers involved teachers to explore integrated  or related art studies.  With most classrooms having every part of the day timetables this was a revolutionary approach and suited those teachers in multi-age small schools who had the freedom to experiment.  Unfortunately such advisers, in a range of fields , are now history and  leaving an important inspirational gap that has never been filled.

Also during this time I became aware of the UK Junior Nuffield Science approach and worked with a number of local teachers to implement such ideas. This approach encouraged open ended inquiries based on children question making use of the immediate environment. This  dovetailed nicely with the ecological approaches that were being encouraged by nature study and later science advisers.

It was during this time I learnt about the exciting work of Elwyn Richardson  in his small school in the far North written up in his book 'In The Early World'.

Another important influence to my beliefs came from my visit to the UK to learn more about Nuffield Science and English child centred learning. The most important aspect was working in a very progressive school King Farm School Gravesend Kent.

Returning to New Zealand I worked with a small group of Taranaki teachers to develop what came to be known as the Taranaki Environmental Education Approach (the environment referred to the importance of stimulating classroom environments and making use of the rich local environment). This group combined ideas from the related art approaches,   English progressive teaching and the ideas of Elwyn Richardson ( who we had made contact with).

At this point my ideas about teaching and learning had become clear. Going teaching for a few years in the 70s  enabled me to put them into practice as did being a principal in the late 80s.

Since then lots of ideas from a range of educationalists have added to the mix.

Unfortunately sine 1986 the winds of change worldwide have sent school off in another direction towards standardised education -an approach that undermines the very creativity and diversity that New Zealand educators had gained world wide respect for

It is time for  schools to return to believing in the importance of creative teachers as the source of lasting changeTeachers will need to work together ( they now have the technology to do so) to articulate a set of beliefs for the new century - one thing that they could do is get behind the  almost side tracked 2007  New Zealand National Curriculum.

Elwyn remains as an inspiration of what can be achieved if we want to develop the talents and gifts of all students

Thursday, December 29, 2011

Extreme views on Education -I think not!

In a comment to my  Christmas blog Mr and Mrs Symonds , formally of Auckland and now living in Sydney, wrote that it was 'because of people like you we have taken our children to be educated in Australia'.  'Your views on education', they wrote, 'are extreme' and 'out of touch with what parents want of a modern education system'.

They began their comment by saying they were 'glad I was going from New Zealand education' and concluded with the phrase 'weird and creepy' - I presume they were referring to themselves? And I have no idea who they  include in the 'people like you' comment nor what they define as a 'modern education system' that parents like them want.

Below is a comment from a New Zealand teacher now working  in Australia. Is this the  'modern system' that parents like the Symonds want? It certainly reflects the agenda of the current government in New Zealand.

'We are right into national testing over here. There is now national testing of all year 3, 5, 7, and 9 students. It just used to be in the other states. Victoria used to be told that we were lagging behind the other states but now, low and behold, after national teaching we are one of the top states. We also have online testing in Numeracy and Maths with the results going to the Department. This is done 3x a year. Our reports are also put directly into the Department. Accountability is everything, don't worry about the teaching. We are told that it does not matter where the students start our job is to get them up to national average and they are trying to bring in performance based pay as well. Also pay incentives for expert teachers and principals to work in disadvantaged areas.’

Sounds very Eastern European to me - something Joseph Stalin would have been proud of or right-wing political American thinkers today. Hardly modern.

Here is what one American educationalist has written ( Glickman 2006)

Today, measuring the accomplishments of students, teachers, and schools by standardised test scores and handing out rewards and punishments for reaching or failing to reach state and federal standards has become commonplace.

In such a climate, we typically err too much on the side of avoiding failure by relying on externally approved " research based" programmes, teaching methods, and assessments that are officially prompted by state and federal governments ( through their agencies).

What we lose in the process is imagination.Failure cannot go unchallenged, but what we have today is our own failure to imagine new possibilities and the worth of what has already worked well*. There is no tragedy in reaching for the stars and falling short; the greatest tragedy in never reaching at all.'


Anyway the below are the 'extreme views' on learning I have been sharing (and will continue to do so) over the years.  I will leave it over to anyone who reads the blog to decide if they are  'weird and creepy' or 'not what parents want for a modern education'.

It is important to appreciate that students are  entering a new age of creativity ; an  era of knowledge creation - where the ability to continue learning, to  develop new ideas, even when confused, will be an important attribute.

I believe that a modern education system ought to focus on developing the talents and gifts of all students and not to judge their success on their test scores only in literacy and numeracy.

I believe that students future success depends on the power of their personal motivation realised :through making choices; achieving mastery; and in the process developing a powerful sense of personal autonomy. As part of gaining success students need to value personal effort and focused practice. These ideas are ignored by standardised testing. Effort and practice sound old fashioned but if neglected little learning will stick.

I believe that learning ought to based on helping students answer questions that engage them in realistic studies; studies that  call on whatever learning areas are necessary to solve the problem. And students also need to appreciate the power of collaborating with others by working in teams.

I believe that the role of the teachers is that of a creative learning coach who follow the advice of educationalist Jerome Bruner who said. 'teaching is the  canny art of intellectual temptation'. Teachers should help students construct their own learning  - and learning should be personalised to suit each learner.

I believe that teachers should ensure all  the various strategies and skills are in place ( including literacy and numeracy)  so students have every chance of success. This includes integrating modern information technology.

To achieve quality learning it is important for students to dig deeply into any learning challenge - to do fewer things well so as to develop the importance of personal excellence.

Can't see what is not 'modern' or is 'weird' in the above.

Saturday, December 24, 2011

Merry Christmas to All!

Our family father Christmas manufacturing last minute gifts for our 2010 Christmas - another bloody cheeseboard! Only joking Graeme

It is the night before Christmas and it's a beautiful still hot night

After some last minute shopping I spent the day out at my good friends Sarah and Wayne's drinking wine, eating, and enjoying conversation - now sun burnt and tired! Fished up having coffee at the beach and a restful meal with some old friends.

Tomorrow I am having family around for drinks in the morning before going off to eat more food and drink more wine with one branch of our extended family. The weather promises to be superb - the only downer is news of more earthquakes in Christchurch. It doesn't seem fair !

2012 is a 'tipping point' for me - to use an in phrase.

The last few years I have had my house painted and it is now fit for the 21stC. At the same time I have developed my hectare of swamp and bush into a garden of sorts by building bridges and walkways so that it is all now assessable. It is more a nature trail than a garden but my piece of bush ( thanks to owners of the land in the 1930s) has almost every native tree you an think of - including a half dozen 80 year old kauris. While in England I visited Charles Darwin's house ( I am a great fan of Charles Darwin) and he had a walk he used to stroll around thinking up his ideas - I have made a similar walk but not so many ideas!

So the garden has become a new obsession for me.

Towards the end of the year my brother  ( Father Christmas above) and I had a small art exhibition in our home town of Waverley in the local library - a fitting place since our mother was a mainstay of the library in her time. I have to admit my contributions were painted in the 1960s but it has motivated me to take up painting again - in the new year!

After a highly successful birthday party last January I gave a keynote presentation at an Inspired Impact Conference in Palmerston North to over 1400 people. They didn't really come to hear me - the main attraction was creativity guru Sir Ken Robinson. Actually he didn't show because of illnesses but gave his presentation via a satellite link - even took questions from the floor. Brilliant but wasted on our current government and Ministry who seem hell bent on destroying all that is good in primary education.

I saw my keynote as my final performance in education; with the current directions of the government it is no longer a place to be talking about personalising learning or creativity. So that one past obsession out of the way. I even got a big bin a chucked out two cubic metres of educational notes - a mental clean out of sorts. I kept some good bits of course - just in case. And now I have a lot tidier house - for me!

Perhaps the highlight of my year  was visiting old friends in England  ( they had come out to New Zealand for 'our' party - I  have a twin brother.The party was his idea and I am pleased he bullied me into having one. I taught with my English friends in 1969 and 'we' have kept in touch. We all went out for a pub meal with our old headteacher who is now 94!

I have other very important things on my mind but they haven't been sorted yet.

I intend to keep reading and blogging but I am going to wind up the website I started with my friend Wayne a long time ago. I am planning to capture some of the material and use it as blogs so not all will be lost. And , if asked, I will continue to contribute to the Education Today magazine edited by Doug Hislop. Looking back our best fun articles were: New Zealand's 'top schools' ( schools from the far north geographically in New Zealand!) and the articles written after our educational odyssey around  the East Coast.

So Merry Christmas to everyone.

I hope some of my blogs have been of use to you and I hope there are younger people around to take up the fight for creative education while I get on and explore new territory.

Watch this space!

Friday, December 23, 2011

A message from Australia

I think it is worth sharing the below posting by Australian educator Phil Cullen ( Phil used to be Director Primary Education Queensland ) .Thankfully he hasn't lost his belief in creative education. Australia has moved further along the downhill  accountability track than New Zealand but we are rushing to catch up - a race to the bottom!

To access Phil's site click here.

On Wednesday, 21 December, the ASIDE blog commented upon the TIME magazine choice of The Protestor as the person of the year. ‘Frustrations felt by millions nationally and internationally reached breaking point ... in teachers as well.’

“To top it off, we have a growing number of disgruntled youth, who drop out of an education system that sees them as a number and fails to see the ensuing impact on society as a whole...Conformity and measurement are being used to define students, yet we constantly talk about differentiation, multiple learning styles, and the whole child....This leads us to ask the question, how many teachers will ‘dropout’ from conformity and measurement?”

“Just think how much more we could engage students if we were not so close to the edge of the cliff.”

There were protests everywhere in 2011 about the branding of schools with numbers. This week, also [Monday, 19 December] 1046 New York principals signed a petition opposing the linking of their own evaluation [ A score out of 100] with the results of their students’ testing scores. Such number branding is coming down here.

On July 30, you will remember how the many thousands of teachers marched on the White House chanting “No Testing. No Testing. 1-2-3”. They were supported by famous people – film stars, professors, legislators. Major cities around the country conducted their own protests at the time. No change yet, however. The school-bashing ideology is very strong. Teachers are very compliant.

Protests, however, are growing in size and number. Protestors now Occupy. It’s all coming to a town near you in Australia, for sure, if political parties don’t start caring for kids. There is a limit to the patience of parents and teachers down-under and up-over.

On January 7, 2012 the United Opt-out National in the U.S. is encouraging everybody to send a card or letter to their educational superordinates and legislators [our Minister for Education and Federal Minister for Education in our case] telling them ‘to end standardized testing.’ Check this out on With determined organisation and parent support, this movement could become world wide. Although schools in the southern hemisphere are closed, we parents and grand-parents can still have our say. Post offices aren’t closed.

Why be an Australia ( or a Kiwi) who has trouble grasping the significance of these movements?

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Read this and be scared!!

 Read Kelvin Smythe's latest posting.

"It is unusual for networkonnet to post articles from other sources, but this article was too relevant to pass over. Academies or charter schools are what that imported Longstone person, our new secretary, was brought in to impose.

Read and be very afraid"

No choice but to become an academy?

Schools around the country are facing enforced conversion to academy status – against the wishes of parents, staff and governors

Warwick Mansell, Monday 19 December 2011 20.00 GMT
Article history

On a sunny winter's afternoon, Downhills primary school looks like an advert for the inclusive possibilities of inner-city, multi-ethnic education.

Children of different races are running around together in the playground; inside the walls are covered with colourful artwork. The head, Leslie Church, talks about one of the school's strengths: giving each child in this deprived area of north London – just a few hundred yards from the starting point of August's riots – access to free violin, cello or guitar lessons in year 4.

The school, which has been through difficulties in the last year despite the overwhelmingly happy exterior, might in other times be cheering itself with news in September from inspectors that it is improving.

Instead, this 463-pupil institution in Tottenham is now seemingly on the front line of a struggle for the future of England's primary schools.

Downhills is facing being forced by Michael Gove, the education secretary, to become a privately sponsored academy, despite fierce opposition from parents, the governing body and staff.

Last Thursday, David Lammy, the local MP, who was a pupil here, accused Gove of an "undemocratic and aggressive" act, which threatened to erase 100 years of local democratic control at the school, founded in the late 19th century, at a stroke.

Lammy is now collecting signatures for a petition to present to the House of Commons against the plans, while the school is exploring its legal options.

Yet Downhills, which is in this position because the government says its English and maths test results are not good enough, is not alone.

Hundreds of primary schools seem to be facing the threat of mandatory conversion to academies under external sponsorship, with Downhills a high-profile test of the new and seemingly unfettered ability of the education secretary to enforce his vision of a new model of governance, even when all those closely connected to this school say they do not want it. Critics say Gove is simply forcing through an agenda of privatisation, in a trend with implications for many, if not all, of England's schools.

Although Downhills draws in some middle-class families attracted to its inclusive, creative ethos, it also has a very challenging intake. Some 46% of its children are eligible for free school meals, while for 73%, their first language is not English. Downhills is also said to have a large population of Gypsy Roma children, who nationally have the lowest results of any ethnic group.

When Ofsted visited in January, 92% of parents returning questionnaires agreed with the statement "I am happy with my child's experience at this school".

Despite this, since that inspection Downhills has been on a "notice to improve" from the inspectorate because of its test results. These had one particularly bad year in 2009, when only 40% of pupils achieved the expected level in English and maths.

In September, however, when inspectors returned, they reported that Downhills was improving. Schools are usually given 12 to 18 months to turn themselves around under this Ofsted process.

But now the school faces a different future. Downhills is particularly vulnerable because Gove has powers, under an act he hastened through parliament last year, to force into academy status any school that is said by Ofsted to need "special measures" or that has a notice to improve.

Academies are schools set up under a private contract between Gove and a sponsor: usually either another school or a privately run, though currently non-profit-making, academy chain.

Gove's officials and Haringey, the local authority, have been in discussions since July. Letters between the two show the Department for Education pushing for 10 of the borough's primaries to convert to sponsored academies.

Downhills' position became clear after a meeting two weeks ago between governors and two DfE representatives, including Jacky Griffin, a former council education director now working as a consultant. Education Guardian has heard a recording of the meeting.

Griffin told the group: "What I'd particularly like to focus on today is whether the course of action of becoming a sponsored academy is one that you would like to take with us … or whether we have to take back the message that that's not what you want to do, and see what happens as a consequence of that."

This was followed by a letter four days later from Lord Hill, schools minister, who said that Gove was "minded" to make an academy order – forcing academy status on Downhills – and to use powers granted to the government under Labour to appoint a new governing body.

He said the school had been "below the [KS2 results] floor standard" for five years, even though Downhills' latest figures, published three days after the letter was sent, see it just above floor target – with 61% of children reaching expected levels in English and maths – and faring better than the national average with disadvantaged children.

But Hill asked the governors to write back by 13 January setting out how they would pass a resolution to become an academy, "with a named sponsor agreed with the DfE". Griffin said the school was expected to become an academy in September.

The process was "brutal", says one source at the school. Church himself says he was in tears on first learning of the school's fate; governors were also said to be sobbing following Hill's letter. Gove, it is said, has never visited the school.

Other schools are in Downhills' position. In June it was revealed that 377 civil servants are working on promoting and implementing the academies policy, at a cost of £4.3m. Officials working for Gove and Liz Sidwell, the schools commissioner, have been touring England in recent weeks talking to local authorities and governing bodies about how schools with low Sats results must become academies by September.

Haringey is one of nine local authorities where these officials have been pushing hardest for more sponsored primary academies. The others are: Kent, Birmingham, Essex, Lancashire, Northamptonshire, Leeds, Bristol and Durham.

In Haringey alone, at least three other schools have been given an ultimatum: agree to sponsored academy status by mid-January, or we will force it on you.

The National Association of Head Teachers says that, nationally, at least 200 primaries with low results – lower than Downhills' – are already being moved towards sponsored academy status. But the final number is likely to be much larger; the NAHT says most authorities are coming under pressure in some way, in both primary and secondary sectors.

One head of a secondary school that is in the process of converting to a sponsored academy says: "A senior local authority official came to see me a few months ago. He said: 'Are you thinking of becoming an academy? Because you need to. The DfE are looking at your results. You will become a converter [sponsored] academy.' We were given no option."

Christine Blower, general secretary of the National Union of Teachers, says: "This is a major political attack on state education. This is not schools opting for academy status; this is the government forcing schools away from local authority influence into the arms of external sponsors. It is hugely undemocratic.

"It is the forced privatisation of our schools. People have not woken up to what is happening to our education system."

Back at Downhills, what most enrages parents queuing up to speak to Education Guardian is the lack of say anyone connected to the school seems to have in its future. Several say they chose the school because of that creative, happy ethos and how wrong it was that this could change, if a sponsor came in, with a different, possibly more narrowly results-focused, approach.

Elsa Dechaux, a research scientist whose son Oscar, four, is in reception at the school, says: "I visited all the schools around here, and this is the one I chose, because of the teachers' enthusiasm. I want my children to be happy to learn. I don't want them to be little robots, doing only English and maths."

Sarah Williams, a musician with children aged eight and 10 at Downhills, says: "I only moved them here in September, specifically because I love it here; they don't just teach to the test.

"I thought the Conservative party was supposed to give parents choices. I have made my democratic choice, and now it is being taken away from me."

James Redwood, whose four-year-old son, Arthur, is in reception, says: "I'm a composer, and I visit a lot of schools. This is a fantastic, happy place. It is the end of state education if they can do what they are doing to a place like this."

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Advice for 2009!!!!!

From a NZ teacher teaching in Melbourne – is this is what is in the future for us? Not so much the ‘nanny state’ but the ‘big brother’ state!

‘We are right into national testing over here. There is now national testing of all year 3, 5, 7, and 9 students. It just used to be in the other states. Victoria used to be told that we were lagging behind the other states but now, low and behold, after national teaching we are one of the top states. We also have online testing in Numeracy and Maths with the results going to the Department. This is done 3x a year. Our reports are also put directly into the Department. Accountability is everything, don't worry about the teaching. We are told that it does not matter where the students start our job is to get them up to national average and they are trying to bring in performance based pay as well. Also pay incentives for expert teachers and principals to work in disadvantaged areas.’

Read what Kelvin Smythe is on to - urgent

My good friend Paul Tegg recently send the below out to a number of schools he works with. I had forgotten I had written it and thought it worth repeating -even if to see what 'we' didn't achieve!

On more positive note an emphasis for 2009?

Developing Schools as ‘Communities of Inquiry’.

Challenge for 2009: To make the ‘Inquiry’ disposition central to all learning

The ‘new’ New Zealand Curriculum is all about students being: creative energetic and enterprising’ able to ‘make sense of their information, experiences and ideas’ so as to become ‘ confident , connected and actively involved life long learners.’

It asks schools to develop students who ‘are competent thinkers and problem solvers who actively seek, use, and create knowledge’. This involves giving students more choice and responsibility over their learning leading to a more ‘personalized’ approach.

The NZC is asking schools to develop an inquiry approach to all learning; to develop schools as ‘communities of inquiry’. An inquiry approach is about engaging students in difficult questions and issues that are meaningful to them. It is about placing ‘learnacy’ above literacy and numeracy.

This would be a major change of focus for schools. (And one few schiools took)

The need is to present learning contexts to challenge students (‘rich topics’) to be able to research and ‘reflect on their own learning, draw on personal knowledge and intuitions, ask questions and challenge the basis of assumptions and perceptions.’

Schools need to sort out an inquiry model for students to make use of. This model needs to move beyond the mere gathering of information to the deep construction of thoughtful understandings and, at the same time, develop the ‘key competencies’ or future attributes, or attitudes, or dispositions, required for ‘life long learning’.

Class inquiries ought to provide the ‘energy’ to focus the greater part of the school day and include the teaching of information research and presentation as part of the literacy programme as well as mathematical ideas that maybe required as part of any inquiries. The NZC suggests ‘doing fewer topics in greater depth’.

Such inquiries may feature one Learning Area in particular but will most likely involve aspects (strands) of other learning Areas as well. The curriculum is to be seen as ‘deep’ ‘connected’ and integrated. Teachers may need to plan collaboratively.

Teachers will need to develop focused independent group work in all learning blocks including dedicated inquiry time. Groups, or individuals, may research individual aspects and then to share findings, with a wider audience through exhibitions, publications, demonstrations, performances, information media, or posting on web. Such findings are powerful means of assessing depth of understanding and knowledge of process.

By covering a range of inquiry topics (covering the full range of learning Areas Strands) students will also be given the opportunity to uncover hidden gifts, talents and interests that might become life-long passions, or vocations.

Lack of dedicated inquiry time is an issue so the idea of ‘reframing’ the literacy and numeracy blocks to develop appropriate research skills would seem an obvious answer. This would also include integrating use of ICT

Somehow we never realized shools as 'communities of inquiry' - instead we are getting 'schools of compliance and conformity' -except for Charter Schools who are getting the freedom that all state schools ought to have. We didn't fight hard enough - we didn't really fight at all! We didn't defend the 2007 National Curriculum!! I wouldn't want principals on my side in a battle!

So what is the agenda for schools in 2012 - is there life beyond compliance . Or are we heading to a Medieval Dark Ages in education? Maybe all schools ought to become Charter Schools?

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Where John Key and John Banks get their educational ideas from?

Something amusing for the end of term - or is it?

Watch this u-Tube video clip:

So this is where the National Party gets its standardised ideas ideas from!

And an Ofsted (ERO) Report

And there are lots of others if you have the time!

Urgent : read Kelvin Smythe's latest posting - u-tube clip not so amusing after all!


A new sense of direction for the Labour Party -and New Zealand

Today the New Zealand Labour Party will select a new leader.  This new leader must work with the people to develop a shared sense of direction for our country - one that all feel part of - or at least enough people to win the election in2014. Some how the party has to connect with over a million voters who couldn't be bothered voting - more people than those who actually voted for the winning National Government.

The question is where do we go to next?  To succeed as a nation we need a vision, a destination, a point of view about the future, a direction in which to channel the efforts of the people we work with and for.  Like early explorers there are no maps to assist us as we journey into ‘terra incognito’.

The new leader must begin such a journey and give courage for others to join the adventure.

This is no time for timid thinking.  The future calls for new mindsets that can thrive in a future based on evolutionary and discontinuous change.  To develop such mindsets we first have to let go of the past and rethink unexamined fundamental assumptions.  Most of all we have to give up our desire to control things from the top.  The future will be driven by human imagination and creativity.  As business philosopher Peter Drucker has written, ‘every organisation has to prepare for the abandonment of everything it does.’  Industrial aged bureaucracy is dead.  .

Worldwide, politicians are running out of ideas to cope with the deepening economic, social and environmental crisis looming ahead. 
Problems are deepening in our society, unemployment is rising, institutions are increasingly failing, and national and individual debt is rising, yet there is little dialogue from politicians about possible alternatives for us to consider.

As problems deepen worldwide countries such as New Zealand will be forced to seek out new solutions.  In the future innovation will be driven far more often from bottom up.  That’s how new ideas will increasingly ‘emerge’. 

New ideas will have to emerge through dialogue with the people from the people as current politicians seem  more concerned with short term thinking, popularity polls and retaining power.  As the situations worsens internationally and within New Zealand, new ideas will be required beyond extremes of individualistic market forces capitalism and deadening socialism.

For far too long we have relied on our leaders to solve our problems.  However as recent events show leaders worldwide have little idea of how to thrive in a rapidly changing climate.

It is now time for leaders to widen the pool of ideas and to tap the collective intelligence of all people to contribute to the solution.  Such leaders must take notice of what creative people and creative organisations  are currently doing to see what it is that we could learn from them and to their share their ideas with others.

Leaders need to instigate a series of national conversations about what kind of society we want to be and what we must change to achieve such a vision.  And then there will be a need to consider how all our institutions need to be transformed so they are flexible enough to thrive in such unpredictable times. It would  be valuable if those conversations  made use the power of all forms of information technology that are now an  integral part of our current culture.

Such a series of conversations would develop a greater collective understanding of the problems facing us and begin the process of empowering all to take responsibility for creative action and not, as is the case now, leaving it to ‘experts’ and politicians.  In this new environment the role of politicians, and leaders in any organisation, would be to create the conditions for new ideas to emerge.

Margaret Wheatley, a business philosopher, has written change doesn’t happen from a leader announcing the plan.  Change begins from deep inside a system, when a few people notice something they can no longer tolerate or respond to a dream of what is possible.  We just have to find a few others who care about the same thing….we don’t have to start with plans only with passion.  One only has to think of Martin Luther King or Nelson Mandela.

For those who feel that ordinary people are not capable of such thinking it is worth noting the words of Thomas Jefferson, who wrote in 1820, ‘if people are not enlightened enough to understand what is required of them the answer is not to dictate solutions but to inform their discretion by education’.

Stephen Carden’s book ‘New Zealand Unleashed’, subtitled ‘the country, it’s future and the people who will get it there’, is worth reading by all those who are serious about the future of our country and who want to become involved in a critical debate about where we are heading. 

Carden writes that ‘the future is coming. The question is: are we ready for it?’  He argues that New Zealand, being small and vulnerable, needs to think about what kind of country we want to become.  The question he asks is important for us all.  He believes that the current uncertain and unpredictable environment we find ourselves in provides a great opportunity for a ‘small agile, flexible nation to excel’.  ‘The idea of setting top down plans and targets,’ he writes, ‘are not helpful and that what is required of leaders is to create the conditions for creativity to occur.’ 

These are the issues that ought to be exercising the minds of those electing a new Labour party leader today.

Friday, December 09, 2011

Something all principals ought to have written to their students' parents

A principal and his website posting to parents

Where are we heading, and what have we lost to get there?

Danny Nicholls is principal of St Patrick’s Catholic School, Taupo. He runs a website intended for the school community and other interested readers. The beliefs and opinion expressed are his personal ones. Danny's blog is a well balanced description of the current environment schools find themselves in - if only more school principals ( or better still groups of principals) had written, or even shared similar newsletters.

One of the big building blocks of any school is curriculum delivery. Here in New Zealand we have a fantastic national curriculum which gives sufficient breadth for schools to develop and deliver really exciting and innovative programmes that meet local needs.

The New Zealand Curriculum has been bedded in over a few years now and replaced the more ‘tick the box’ style approach of the previous document.

In particular, the promotion of Key Competencies was a really exciting move towards developing what we want and most value for our students. This curriculum went through extensive consultation and trial/error periods before being accepted and used. I can recall many hours spent getting to understand the intent of this new curriculum and being very excited about its potential.

Sadly, it looks like we are not going to get the most out of this new curriculum, which has been hailed as a world leader by educational experts. The mood at the moment in New Zealand is one of accountability and narrow test scores which inevitably will mean schools not spending so much time on developing the Arts/Health and PE/Languages, as any gains made in those areas will not be directly reflected in national standards data. That to me is one of the most disappointing aspects of the forced imposition of the standards – not the accountability, because that's important to have, and what ERO do already – but what we have lost along the way.

I think back five years to the support my school received. We were a well performing school who were accepted on to a Health and PE contract. This enabled us to have a specialist teacher/consultant working in the school at regular intervals during the year developing teacher capability and confidence in teaching Health and PE. We also hosted a cluster Arts contract, which meant that the regional Arts adviser would run after school workshops once a term at our place, and teachers from around the region would come for a staff meeting in which they developed new skills in teaching an aspect of the Arts curriculum. I also had access to a Leadership adviser who visited once a term to meet with us to give advice or direction we may have needed and to keep us in the loop of the latest developments out of Massey University which was where we drew most of our PD from.

The landscape has changed dramatically and we work in a tighter economic environment, so there are no more Arts, Health, and PE or Leadership advisory positions available to schools. Any professional development or support offered by the Ministry of Education is solely focused on supporting the goals of national standards and is only accessible to those who can prove that they are failing their students. The message is that if you are doing a good job then you are on your own. At another level the message is also that the national focus is on the tail of achievement not extending the brighter children – there is literally nothing available to assist schools to challenge and extend brighter students.

The model being offered now is ‘contestable’ or ‘targeted’ meaning that schools, as of right, do not have access to advisory support but must either pay for it or prove that they are failing their communities and require external support. I find it sad to receive pamphlets from Waikato and Massey (geographically we are in the middle so get both institution’s mailings) touting for business at ‘competitive’ or ‘tailored’ rates – for services that schools used to receive as of right. Money that should be going on school based resources now needs to be spent on providing teachers with the ongoing professional development they require. I imagine both universities are working in difficult times and am saddened to see what we now have to work with. It is well known that the investment by government in education is significantly less than in other comparable nations – our system does have that ‘run on the smell of an oily rag’ ethos, and always has done – yet internationally our results are well above what could be reasonably expected. Not that you would know it if your only source of information on school performance came from those who really should know better.

We continue to hear about the ‘1 in 5’ are failing school’ from the government – as if this is solely a school failing and there are no other social issues in the mix. What about ‘1 in 5 came to school without breakfast today’, or ‘1 in 5 spend their schooling life bouncing from school to school with no stability or opportunity to cement learning patterns’, or even ‘1 in 5 who take 1 in 5 days off school regularly’ – not so catchy or vote grabbing. Anyone who understands a bell curve knows that there will always be those who do not achieve as well as others in particular areas. That is reality. I am not suggesting for a minute that we should not be concerned about raising achievement for the most vulnerable – we always should be, and I know in my school a disproportionate amount of time, money, energy and resources goes into just that – but where is the conversation about high achievers? Or even the ‘average joe or jill’ – do they get a look in?

Remember that summit/think tank held just after National were elected three years ago, investigating how to promote our nation and make it even better? There was a real focus on innovation and doing things differently. Nurturing the tall poppies to make them really blossom was a sound-bite I can recall. Sadly it seems that optimistic start to National's tenure has all but gone. They’ve governed through a tough patch with global financial problems and two national tragedies, so I don't begrudge them the decisions they've had to make in that sense – I just wish it wasn’t at the expense of our high achieving children.

My concern is that post election this narrowing will only get worse. Shonky, unreliable tables comparing schools to one another will begin appearing in newspapers. Schools will begin to be tagged as ‘excellent, ‘failing’ or anywhere in between based on manipulation of data and/or differing assessment practices. Teachers will continue to get bashed in the media despite 95% of them being dedicated, caring and effective professionals. There are a few bad eggs like in any profession yet from what you read in the media (and it will only get worse) it seems all teachers are ineffective. There is already a mini-exodus of school principals as the reality of what we are being charged with overseeing and implementing in our schools begins to take effect. This will only get worse over the next few years. The whispers about how our roles and employment conditions will change post-election will have dire consequences if realized.

National standards on their own will not make a difference to any child’s achievement. Parents who are engaged and work positively with schools already know or can easily find out how their child is doing. The ethos of partnership is eroding and being replaced by one of reporting and suspicion. So much money being invested in a scheme which has little if any benefit to children. And in the meantime a world leading curriculum is abandoned ...

I hope that whether through school/parent pressure, or just common sense, we will see the re-promotion of the NZ Curriculum as our guiding document. This should be the cornerstone of student improvement for our children not a narrow Literacy and Numeracy focus. Those areas are foundational and absolutely at the core of what a school does but we can be so much more than that.

Last night at our teacher meeting we did some preliminary work on our inquiry learning approaches for 2012. That was intended as the posting for today, but clearly I got sidetracked. My biggest concern is that such staff meetings in the current climate may become a luxury as we will need to spend the majority of our time on national standards compliance matters. This isn’t what I want for my children and I know parents in our community don’t want that either.

Unfortunately the debate and decision making on educational direction and policy shifted out of the hands of those actually doing the work some time ago. It is up to us instead to determine what is best at a local level as the national direction is already fixed.

Danny Nicholls


St Patrick's Catholic School, Taupo

Wednesday, December 07, 2011

Whose agenda ought we be following in education?

While  schools are increasingly being constrained by the imposition of National Standards right wing politicians introduce another failing idea from the USA (and the UK) -  Charter Schools' -  which are to be given considerable freedom.

I made use of 'The Most Important Speech' posting - based on Diane Ravitch's for my blog below. The linked blog is well worth a read by all principals and BOTs - as is the PDF file it refers to.

When politicians interfere with educational provision without democratic consultation we are in trouble. All too often such ideas have popular appeal until they are given more thought. Without time to consider implications the ideas develop a life of their own.

These politicians are undermining education for their own political ends. The idea that our schools are failing is a cynically crafted myth by those who want to privatise 'our' schools.

American educational philosopher Horace Mann wisely said, many years ago,  that when partisan politicians introduce their ideas the result is that public education is demeaned as is respect for professional judgement.  Educational consultant Michael Fullan  has written more recently that politicians always get it wrong; he should know because he has wrongly advised politicians in the UK and Canada!

Educational critics start off by stating that schools have let too many children fail -in New Zealand Ruth Richardson, Bill English, John Key, and now, New Zealand's answer to the American Tea party, - John Banks.

Three things are ignored in the lack of debate.

Firstly the troublesome home circumstances created by poverty is ignored. This poverty has been escalated by failing market forces policies which had at their premise the belief that wealth would 'trickle down'. New Zealand is now one of the countries with the widest 'rich/ poor gap' in the Western World. Conservative politicians fail to acknowledge that the so called 'achievement tail' correlates to the 'one in five students' living in poverty and prefer to spread the more simplistic 'schools are failing 'one in five students.' What is ignored is that even before the first day at school there is an achievement gap.

There is a story of two doctors waiting by a river who see a somebody drowning and the rescue the person.Then another drowning body appears and they pull him out, then another , and another. finally one of the doctors runs up stream and the other calls out, 'where are you going?' The running doctor calls back, 'I am going to see why they are falling in!'

Are we looking upstream to see the causes of school failure?

Politicians like John Key and John Banks say that teachers are using poverty as an excuse yet lack of equality and opportunity can't be that simply ignored.

Secondly while choice is trumpeted as the reason for charter schools the public school system is increasingly being constrained by the politicians imposition of standards- another simplistic political idea with appeal until the consequences are thought through. The ideas of standards come to us from the USA and UK where they result in narrowing of the curriculum, league tables and teaching to the tests. Ironically the most successful American Charter schools are those that have the tightest accountability requirements - so much for choice and diversity.

Thirdly New Zealand schools score highly ( in the first four or so) in the International Tests in Literacy , Numeracy  and other curriculum areas. Both the UK and the USA are seen as failing systems in this respect yet they are the countries our politicians want to follow! Politicians are blind to the more liberal approaches of such countries as Finland. Top achieving countries, like Finland, do not test every child every year. And those that do ignore creativity, innovation and imagination.

Both National Standards and Charter Schools, no matter their superficial appeal, are not silver bullets - raising children achievement is not as simple as their proponents think. Such ideas contribute to a poisonous narrative that colours the minds of the public and destabilizes  the reputation of public education and will add to the gap between so called 'winners and loser' schools.

The sad thing in all this is that the enlightened New Zealand Curriculum, the vital role schools play in creating a democracy, and innovative ideas that creative schools are implementing will be ignored .

Already most primary schools have , for their survival and reputation, have already distorted their programmes to focus on literacy and numeracy - and an obsession with testing -  resulting in students with talents and passion  in other areas  being ignored.

National Standards and Charter Schools ( if they are to be  tied to tight accountability requirements) are no answer. If Charter Schools are to be given given greater flexibility and choice then this also ought to be given to all schools.

There is no argument about the importance of literacy and numeracy but if New Zealand is to become a creative and innovative country then developing every students gifts and talents ought to be the driver for all school change. What is missing by current reformers is the neglect of imagination, creativity and imagination.

For this we need to re-imagine schools completely. We need to move out of  a standardised  'one size fits all'  schooling and move towards personalising education.

Educators understand that children develop in different ways and at different paces and respond differently to different experiences - they cannot be seen as a easily defined product or measured outcome.

What we need is a new narrative for a 21stC education system  one that promotes critical thinking and innovative ideas required for the future.

Creative teachers have always known this.

This ought to be the focus for anyone involved in education.  History will not look kindly on politicians ( and schools) that support such retrogressive ideas. Until this happens how many students will learn to see themselves as failures. How many good teachers will lose hope and leave? Who will want to be a principal in such a managerial, uncreative and technocratic environment?

We have to fight for a different narrative - one that makes sense to parents and the wider community once they have been give the time to consider the faults of the current bunch of self serving conservative politicians.

Friday, December 02, 2011

Let's not lose the point of school now we have 'the standards'!

Just as we need creativity the government imposes standardisation. Not that schools haven't been there before.

I have just discovered, in my tidy up, a copy of Guy Claxton's ' Whats the Point of School - Rediscovering the Heart of Education'. Claxton's book provides inspiration for a real 'step change' in education to cope with the demands of a dynamic new century that is already a decade old.

Our current system fails too many children but the answer is not to go back to the failed standardisation of the past.

The trouble with the standards is that the cure may be worse than the problem as school are pressurised to focus more on more on ensuring students succeed they will neglect more important things such as attitudes and individual students' talents and gifts. It is these qualities that are the heart of a future orientated education. I am reminded of the old saying:  ' when you are up to your backside in alligators it is hard to remember you came to drain the swamp'! It is not that I am against literacy and numeracy it is just that these need to be seen as very important 'foundation skills'  - skills best learnt when students see the point of them.

There is no doubt that Claxton is one of the most important writers of our time. Claxton is one of the UK's foremost thinkers on creativity, learning, and the brain.  All schools should have a copy and make efforts to implement his ideas - somehow, in the present environment in New Zealand, I can't see this happening - quite the opposite.

Claxton begins his book by writing: 'The purpose of education is to prepare young people for the future. Schools should be helping young people develop the capacities they will need to thrive. What they need, and want, is the confidence to talk to strangers, to try things out, to handle tricky situations, to stand up for themselves, to ask for help, to think new thoughts.'

'But, he says, 'they are not getting it'.

'Education' he continues, 'has lost the plot and it urgently needs to recover its core purpose'. Politicians claim to put education at the heart of their concerns but they are wrong if they think imposing regressive standards will do it they are mistaken - they will only act as  intellectual straight jackets. Politicians need, Claxton says, 'the courage to go deeper'.

Albert Einstein wrote that 'education is what remains after one has forgotten everything one has learnt at school' - and Claxton reminds us that Einstein was referring to those lifelong skills and attitudes that mark out a true learner.

The key to develop such qualities are gained by students working in groups researching engaging projects involving skills of collaboration, discussion and attitudes of self organisation. This of course involves in depth content and quality outcomes but it is , Claxton says, 'not the immediate performance so much as the cumulative development that is going on behind the specific tasks' that is more important. It is these attitudes and skills that matter in the long run.They are the core confidences young people need,Claxton calls them 'learning muscles.These are curiosity, courage, investigation, imagination, reasoning, sociability and reflection' .'These , Claxton calls ' qualities of mind'. And all these are are 'perfectly capable of being strengthened and cultivated by education' - but the 'pressure to push up literacy rates' subverts their development. The quest for results undermines student's confidence and contributes to their 'losing their capacity for wonder and critical thinking'.

Claxton quotes John Dewey who wrote: 'How many students for example, were rendered callous to ideas and how many have lost the impetus to learn by the way in which learning was experienced by them?' The new standards come to mind!

In this desire to focus on literacy and numeracy, Claxton writes, 'we  have forgotten the deeper purpose of education.'

'To effect a thorough change' he says, 'we have to start by seeing how bad things are.We have to understand what it is young people really need, what schools are actually providing, and acknowledging the gulf between the two. And then we have to establish, beyond all possible doubt, that the kind of educational reform for more than a hundred years is not going to work'.

Only when this is understood that a different kind of change is both necessary and possible. 'With a little bit of imagination, and a modicum of courage, education can rediscover its heart and soul.'

Claxton wants to inspire teachers to see  students as 'brave and confident explorers, tough enough in spirit,and flexible enough in mind, to pursue their dreams and ambitions.'

So did the New Zealand Curriculum until the government sidetracked it!

'We need a new narrative for education that can engage and inspire chidren'. Lets fire kids up with the deep satisfaction of discovery and exploration. They are born with learning zeal; lets recognise, celebrate and protect it, but also stretch, strengthen and diversify it.'

Schools have , as Claxton says,   'lost the plot'!