Sunday, April 29, 2012

Why do so many students fail to achieve at school?

School is irrelevant for too many students. The age of knowledge transmission is over - students need to be helped to 'seek, use and create their own knowledge' ( NZ Curriculum 2007)

In her '70's book, Children’s Minds, Margaret Donaldson asks, ‘whether the school experience is advantageous for our children - as good as we can make it?

 ‘We are faced’, she writes, ‘with something of a puzzle.  In the first years at school, all appears to go very well.  The children seem eager, lively, and happy.  There is commonly an atmosphere of spontaneity in which they are encouraged to explore and create…. However, by the time the children reach adolescence, we are forced to recognise that the promise of early years frequently remains unfulfilled.  Large numbers leave schools with a bitter taste of failure in them, not having mastered moderately well those basic skills which society demands…’  The  problem then is to consider how something that begins so well can often end so badly.

Little has changed since Donaldson wrote this, but the clearly wrong remedy is the current imposition of arbitrary standards on schools.  The real solution is not to blame teachers by imposing narrow accountability measures but to take advantage of the way young people spontaneously learn.  Teachers must respect the learning process that begins from birth and create conditions to amplify these innate learning dispositions.  At best schools should be careful not to destroy young children’s curiosity and should make meaning lie at the heart of all learning.

With this in mind, it is time for educators to consider learning from the child’s perspective, to challenge some widely-held beliefs about learning and what a revision of them implies.

When children come to school it is widely recognised that there is a wide gap between those who are well-prepared and those who are less soThe question is how to close this ‘achievement gap’ exaggerated by the home circumstances between the rich and the poor - created by the market forces ideology of past decades.  As a result of increasing poverty, an increasing number of young children need more support than others to make a decent start, to become actively involved and regain their desire to learn.

It is essential for educators to believe that all students are born with a fundamental human urge to make sense of their world.  Encouraging these learning dispositions, rather than recording achievement in limited arbitrary standards, must be the focus for learning for students of all ages.  The teacher’s role in sustaining children’s desire to learn is vital.  If teachers keep in their mind  the premise of all children being capable of being competent, self determining, responsible beings then the risk of rejection of schooling is diminished.   Less fortunate students will need help, but this must be given with a light touch and respect for each learner’s individuality.

A standards approach, in contrast, simply escalates the winning and losing culture; identifing low performing schools most always in disadvantaged socio-economic areas, which can be ‘fixed’ by external interventions.  Overseas efforts to reduce inequalities through a standards and testing approach has often lead to burdensome and counterproductive compliance requirements and micro-management that stifles innovative teaching with little real, lasting impact.

A recent book, The Scientist in the Crib (Gopnik, Metzoff and Kuhl) the authors write, ‘One has to ask what happens to the innate learning power for many children?  If we are all born to discover the secrets of the universe, why are so many children lose this love of learning; this infinite capacity to wonder and  to examine and explore?

If children are seen as born to learn, the challenge for teachers, at all levels, is to create the conditions to ensure that this desire to make sense of their experiences is not lost. 

Educationalist Jerome Bruner has wisely written that teaching is the, ‘canny art of intellectual temptation’.  Tempting children to learn redefines the role of the teacher and is the very opposite to the technocratic, standardised teaching that schools  currently are required to implement.

None of the above will be new to creative teachers or those who teach in early education centres.  In the ‘70’s educational critic John Holt answered the question how he would change schools in his book The Underachieving School by saying, ‘It would be to let every child be the planner, director and assessor of his own education, to allow and encourage him, with the experience and guidance of more experienced and expert people, and as much help as he asked for, to decide what he has to learn, when he has to learn it, how he is to learn it, and how well he is learning it.’  Today modern technology has provided students with this very environment.  Holt’s response is implicit in the philosophy of the now sidelined 2007 New Zealand Curriculum which states that students should be ‘seekers, users and creators of their own knowledge’.

In contrast, those who determine the direction of education in New Zealand have decided to take schools down a standardised pathway and do not appreciate that all learners make sense of the world in a personal way.  They do not recognise that there can no standardised 'off the shelf' solution to equip students for future challenges - rather we need to tap the intelligence and creativity of all our citizens.

Holt makes the point that, ‘almost every child, on the first day he sets foot in a school building is smarter, more curious, less afraid of what he does not know, better at finding and figuring out things, more confident, more resourceful, resolute and independent than will ever happen again in his schooling’.

It is the amplification of these innate learning dispositions that schools need to protect and amplify, rather than be distracted by obsessive testing of students in a narrow range of traditional skills.  Hard as they may be to measure, these are the dispositions that ultimately count if students are to become life long learners.

Teachers should appreciate that the most powerful form of motivation stems from a child’s sense of purpose and mastery of self-chosen tasks. Tapping student’s interests and ‘tempting’ them with new ones becomes the teachers challenge.  As Jerome Bruner writes, ‘we get good at what we get good at’.  From the student’s concerns and questions curriculums ‘emerge’ - the approach followed so successfully by the early education Emilio Reggio approach and past and present creative teachers.

Children, being innately curious, are tempted by new experiences that lead naturally into exploring relevant aspects of adult disciplines.  Insightful teachers are skilled at linking student inquiries into curriculum requirements and naturally integrate literacy and numeracy expectations in realistic contexts.  ‘Learnacy’, Guy Claxton writes in his book What’s the Point of School, ‘is more important than literacy or numeracy’What is unquestionably required is for students to be encouraged to investigate deeply into what attracts their attention, to do fewer things well, to persevere through difficulties and confusion, and in the process gain as complete an understanding as their age allows.  Teachers’ task is to help their students focus on chosen tasks, cultivate their skills of perception and observation and, to challenge their thinking.

For students to feel free enough to express their thoughts, teachers must provide a safe learning environment where students learn through enlightened trial and error - as do adult scientists.  Teachers, who create such inquiry-based learning communities, follow educationalist John Dewey’s maxim that ‘children are people they grow into tomorrow as they live today’.  For students who arrive in class with negative learning attitudes due to difficult home circumstances, teachers must provide tempting learning experiences to compensate.  Personalising learning, not standardising teaching, is the answer.

It is a sad commentary that currently teaching is dominated by a standards approach and an corresponding accountability culture

The wisdom  of creative teachers has been all but obliterated by the flood of ‘expert’ advice’ delivered by those with little experience of the reality of  classroom practice.  

There seems little understanding that every classroom comes with a dynamic range of very different individualsTeaching that respects and celebrates the thinking and reality of a diversity of students is the ultimate act of creativity -  creativity that is easily dulled by both school and Ministry compliance requirements.  

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

The need to celebrate NZ's educational success.

School ought to be a place to amplify the  innate learning dispositions  of their students and to develop their gifts and talents  - not a place to be sorted and standardized by political ideology.

Biased politicians have done a good job in convincing the public that our school system is failing  our students but isn't it is time teachers began to fight back? The trouble is confronting a populist   government, Ministry minions, and paid " best practice" contract deliverers of the official message, is not an easy task. Most schools seem to be content to getting on doing what others expect of them. This is a shame.

Rather than negative politicians endless repeating that one in five students are failing in our primary schools, without recourse to linking this with poverty and difficult home backgrounds, teachers need to celebrate the positive aspects of our school system

In last weeks Sunday Times Gordon Dryden did just this writing that the answer is not relying on standardized  measurable approaches and performance pay - failed concepts from the business world -   but in 'celebrating the incredible achievements of New Zealand's best primary schools'. In his experience , 'they lead the world in interactive technology as the catalyst to reinvent chalk and talk teaching.'

The government's approach , recently expressed by the new Treasury Secretary,  Dryden writes,  'is completely the opposite to how Finland the world's best performing school and early childhood system - is achieving its results'.

Let's get one thing straight New Zealand performs impressively in OECD PISA testing. PISA's four year achievements show country by country comparisons.In  the four surveys since 2000  the four leaders are Finland with  543; South Korea ( 532); Canada ( 531); New Zealand (526); and Australia ( 523). And Dryden writes, 'Finland  became the global leader  doing the opposite to what Treasury now recommends'. In Finland teaching is valued and teachers highly qualified and paid, and nearly all classrooms have three teachers, one charged with personalizing tuition.

As an aside the United States and the UK are well back in the PISA listings - and the UK is where our highly paid Secretary of Treasury and Secretary of Education come from! The blind following the blind!

The government, following biased ideological research, believe in the myth that standardized measurable approaches are the sole key to economic growth. 'Try telling that to Silicon Valley leaders,' Dryden continues. '  where  non-standardized innovation has become Americas finest gift'.....'Or Peter Jackson and his multi - talented team '. 'Everyone', Dryden says, 'has the  potential talent to succeed - but in different ways'.

An opinion piece in a recent Auckland Herald  wrote, 'Education is  is where politics rule and facts come second.But it is , notoriously, where instant solutions always fail.

The dirty secret of education is, as an academic once put it, is middle class advantage and working class failure. Exceptional kids will always break the pattern.but the pattern remains.

Why that is, and how we fix it are the central unsolved mysterious'.

Act's solution, backed by National, is more choice and competition. In its devotion to these strikingly middle class values, Act looks nothing so much as the comfortable Victorian ladies who visited slums in an attested to teach the poor manners and a work ethic and how to become bourgeois. It would be laughable if it wasn't so offensive.'

'What is being contested', according to Massey University's John Clark ( NZ Principal Magazine March 2012), '  is the claim that the National Standards in reading, writing and mathematics will close the gap to any significant extent. Despite the Minister's deeply held political convictions they will, there are a number of compelling reasons that they will not.'

' The causes of the achievement gap, in large part lie well beyond the four walls of the classroom and the gates of the school. Even if there are some school based causes they pale into insignificance compared to the far more powerful out-of-school forces which have such an overwhelming effect on children's lives'.

Schools face a stark choice writes David Stewart in the latest Education Aotearoa, saying 'Principals, along with their boards and staff, have the broad choice of basing their plans .. between a focus which gives absolute priority to currently mandated practices, such as National Standards - or basing their school development initiatives around proven whole-of-child philosophies incorporating aspects such as empathy, fairness, acceptance of competing viewpoints, trust and social responsibility alongside the 3Rs'

He continues, 'This second view would emphasize teaching over testing, collaboration over competition, and give high value to a continuing  whole- of- school development of teacher judgment. Compliance of mandated structures would , of course, be woven into such a model.'

Delivering on both agendas will not be an easy task but at all costs schools must not sell out on the educationl philosophies that earned them such a high place on PISA testing - a position gained well before the technocratic reforms of  Tomorrow's Schools

It is time for some real leadership in our schools to combat imposed ideological approach of our current private enterprise government.

Thursday, April 12, 2012

A ‘new’ fair creative New Zealand for all – or National’s ‘brighter future’ for the wealthy.

Time for 'new' thinking?

A few thoughts about future directions.

David Shearer, leader of the opposition, recently outlined his vision for a ‘new’ New Zealand saying it was time to challenge assumptions about all aspects of life that we take for granted.

It was a start but it needs to move beyond rhetoric.

The big question is what sort of country do we want to seen as?  England of the South Pacific – but better, fairer and more egalitarian? These were the thoughts of early colonists escaping a class society of the very rich and very poor.

At the turn of the last century New Zealand was seen as leading the world in liberal causes - the first country to give woman the vote. After the great depression, when conservative thinking was unable to solve the difficulties that had emerged, new thinking emerged represented by a reforming Labour Government and, once again, New Zealand led the way in developing a society that gave a fair deal to all citizens with its welfare reforms.

By the end of the 70s winds of change were in the air and worldwide governments broke away from the political consensus that had developed since WW2. Voices were spreading the message that the ‘socialist’ state philosophies ('nanny states') had run their course and new vitality was required – the introduction of free market ideology in the US and the UK led to its introduction in New Zealand – ironically by a Labour Government – ‘Rogernomics’ had arrived.

And this philosophy is still in place and being pursued with a renewed enthusiasm by the National Government with its asset sales and public/private enterprises in areas such as prisons and schooling.

David Shearer needs to outline a real alternative to this individualistic capitalism and move New Zealand back to valuing the common good; to create a New Zealand where all people feel part of, and are able to contribute, to rather than just the extreme rich.

The growing gap between rich and poor, making solidarity and a sense of community more difficult, cannot continue without unfortunate consequences resulting.  The time has come for some new thinking. While the few rich lives of luxury the burden is falling on the bottom ranks of taxpayers. New Zealand is moving back to the rich poor divide of the Victorian Era early colonists sailed 12000 miles to escape from. Now they escape to Australia.

New Zealand is now one of the most unequal countries in the OECD backed up by some of the worst social statistics of any country. We are no longer ‘Godzone’.  It is now common for our politician to talk of an ‘underclass’ without accepting their part in its development – or taking responsibility for the school ‘achievement tail’ by simply blaming teachers. People it seems are almost accepting of such an underclass as a natural situation – part of the price ‘we’ have to pay.

This  inequality needs to be considered alongside  the findings of the book ‘The Spirit Level’ which links inequality to higher crime, ill health and a range of negative social issues. Northern European countries, where well-being of all people is achieved by paying tax as a price for civilization, needs to be studied – Finland in education for example.

It is now time for politicians to debate again the need for the just distribution of income and wealth that has been lost since the 1970s. It is time to fight for democratic rights of all people to feel part of New Zealand - and not just for the extreme rich, the corporate society, to have all the advantages – the very situation the early colonists sought to escape from. The rich now live in a world of their own making – one that excludes the less fortunate who have to pay for shrinking services they once received of as a benefit of living in this country.

The quality of life for the vast majority has been hollowed out by the policies of the last few decades. The shared sense of community has all but gone – revived only by the brief but exciting Rugby World Cup – a modern day version of the Roman Circus. One can only imagine the consequences if we had lost!

We do need a ‘new’ New Zealand for all not just a ‘brighter future’ for the rich.

I think we are talking about culture.  Culture can amplify or limit our potentials. Not all cultures are equal. What sort of culture, or society, do we want to become? At the moment an individualistic inspirational ‘market forces’ thinking has become our default culture.

A ‘new’ New Zealand culture needs to keep the best of the virtues and values of the past and down play selfish individualistic beliefs that are distorting our current culture. We need to work towards develops greater social cohesion and sense of shared community.  We are not as relentlessly self centred as we have been encouraged to be; we also have a need to work with and help others.  Selfish individualism will end up by destroying the best in us.

First we need to appreciate what it is we want to replace. ‘Neo conservative’ market forces beliefs are all about liberating the individual to be entrepreneurial, to create the wealth that would ‘trickle down’ to assist all. The welfare society had to be replaced to allow this release of energy  based on the primacy of private property and influence over state ‘straightjackets’.

And at the time it seemed ‘there was no alternative’ (TINA).

What eventuated were businesses being freed from regulations to create enterprises to be judged by share market value not contribution to society. Businesses themselves became commodities to be bought and stripped. Financial deals became more important than manufacturing something. Executive became overpaid and increasingly unethical.

Competition was seen to be the key not cooperation and collaboration

Collective state organisations were sold off and privatized – railways, post offices and now power companies again.

Minimal regulation allowed financial organisations and banks to loan money unwisely. Private debt soared.

Working practices favoured the employers and trade unions were demonized. Job security was lost and part time work became the norm for many – or unemployment.

Tax cuts favoured the rich – tax shifted to the poor to support the rich. Tax was seen as the state stealing from us rather than the price we pay for civilization.

In schools, and other organizations, under the guise of efficiency and choice, a culture of performance and comparison developed creating ‘winners and losers’ on doubtful data.

All this created a culture of greed and ‘me first’ – an obsession with winning.

The ‘trickle down’ theory is now a myth. Real wages fell and mums and dads had to both work to keep up with the rampant consumerism required by the market forces ideology. Materialist values (along with debt) became central to our identity – supported by a flood of advertising.

Working together for the common good has been downplayed – if only because people have little spare time.

So it seems David Shearer has a lot to do if he is to present an alternative vision to give us all something to buy into.

But the time is right as free market beliefs are losing their gloss. The dark side of a National’s selfish ‘aspirational’ society’ is showing its cracks. A society of few winner and growing losers is worrying. The wellbeing of the many must be placed ahead of the wealthy few. The promised ‘level playing field’ was another failed myth. Do we want to return to the Victorian class society again?

There must more to purpose in life that to get ahead at the cost of others.  There is a growing sympathy for those who lack the opportunity and social capital of the rich to make a full contribution to tap into. The ‘aspirational’ middle income families have not realized the riches they were promised.

An understanding that education is the key to developing a caring, tolerant society – and an education premised on realizing the gifts and talents of all students not just the academic students from acceptable backgrounds is vital. We need an education that is ‘personalized’ not ‘standardized’; one based on collaboration and sharing not narrow school comparison on doubtful data. We need a strong emphasis on ensuring all children are given every opportunity in the first years of their lives.

A new culture must balance the energy of entrepreneurial individuals and organisations with respect for the common good.

Infrastructure need to be developed to encourage the creative and innovative to develop sustainable and high touch industries

The tired state public service must be revived (or re-established) with only one goal to create conditions for all citizens to be respected and to grow. Free market philosophers were right - the welfare state had become encased in red tape but an enlightened public bureaucracy is still necessary to protect citizens from the ravages of the rich. The world left to the whim of the corporate ‘wizards’ has come to an end with the 2008 financial crisis when social welfare had to be provided to bail them out.

We need to create healthy communities based on caring, creativity, relationship and connections.

Maybe it is even time to re-look at the balance between local and central government? Provincial government lost impetus when communications improved in New Zealand and also because the resources of provinces was unfair. Market forces ideology believes in small government and increased private enterprise. Perhaps it all needs looking at. We need more local self determination  by pushing decision making down to the lowest levels within agree national guidelines. Maybe more integrated regional government which integrates (to a degree at least) fragmented services such as health, education, welfare, fire services, police and other central state agencies.  This is in opposition of current moves by central government to restrict local government to essential services only. Of course all this would require the tax base to be shared. It would certainly liven up local politics!

What a reforming opposition/government should consider is creating a three horizon vision (1) an ideal but too difficult to achieve now vision (2)   a second horizon of possible vision ideas that could work and lead to an ideal with time, and (3) actions that are possible now – also leading to a changed future. Without an ideal horizon immediate actions are too heavily influenced by the stultifying power of the present.

What David Shearer should be articulating is a new form of ‘caring capitalism’ that ‘allows all boats to float on a rising tide’.  Free market ‘selfish’ capitalism has had its turn, at least, like cod liver oil, it cleaned out the system!

A good start might be to set up a non political (or mixed political) group of respected citizens to develop a range of future scenarios outlining the consequences and costs of each and then to become involved in series of national conversations about New Zealand’s’ future. The late Sir Paul Callaghan would have made an idea leader of such a group.

Political parties could then take a stand on the scenarios they would want to implement.

It is time to renew our culture once again.

We need new thinking, old communal  values, new perceptions and new priorities – a culture of responsibility for others and our environment.

We need to create a vision of New Zealand as a country that liberates the gifts and talents of all citizens in a fair, caring, creative and tolerant society

It’s time for a creative, ‘caring’ capitalism to return to New Zealand.

Just  thoughts.

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Standardization of America and democratic Finland.

The cartoon sums up what is happening in education!

I  was sent links to a couple of interesting links recently by my friend Allan.

The first was written by veteran American educator Marion Brady who writes for the Washington Post and printed in the Florida Today.

Brady writes about the current test based education reform movement  saying that the  so-called education reforms is being put in place by business leaders and politicians who believe that current system had become soft and lax and that educators weren't motivated to do their best - what was needed was discipline, rigor, tighten the screws, clamp down.

Rigor in the American scene is cutting recess and replace with instruction. Cut the frills., cut art, cut music, cut everything except reading and math.And then turn the school day into a reading and maths drill and reading and math exercises , and get those scores up.

Brady writes that Linda Darling Hammond who was Obama's primary education adviser was seen as unacceptable to corporate interests because she didn't buy into the assumption that what was needed was rigor. As corporate interests wanted someone to sort out the unions. As a result non educators ate now responsible for setting polices - educators are excluded from the debate.

He says that any country that teaches it's kids only what standardized scored tests can measure is doomed.It puts a cap on education, a cap on intellectual performance that is far too low.

The only alternative if for teacher evaluation , because he says, teachers see kids every day, all day. They hear the dialogue, they can evaluate the intellectual processes that are taking place as kids try to solve problems and figure out answers to difficult questions.

Unfortunately, he says,  the general public have been convinced this is not acceptable.

And we are busy following the Americans and the English!!!

The second link came from the Guardian and compared the English International scores with Finland.

Finland seems the country of choice at the moment so it was interesting to see the English take on the subject.

In 2009 the UK's policy directors suffered a significant blow. The  OECD International PISA tests ranked UK well down the international league tables in reading maths and science scoring 25th in reading, 28th in maths and 16th  in science. ( New Zealand by the way places in the top 5 for such tests). To confuse the issue te UK is ranked 8th in the table for educational spending per pupil but had a 23rd position average overall.!!

Only one Western country has excelled in PISA ratings consistently over the years - Finland. Their sustained success has for many years prompted educationalists to consider how they have achieved this.

The reasons for Finland's success is complex but a number of interdependent complementary factors are involved including teaching is a prestigious career- teachers are highly trained paid and respected.

Teachers assessment are used to by schools to monitor progress and these are not graded, scored or compared; but instructed are descriptive and util zed in a formative manner to inform feedback and assessment for learning.Ironically the Finnish curriculum is far less 'academic' than you would expect  and the Finnish students do the least number of class hours per week in the developed world. Study's in Finland it no exams until the age of 17-19.

Great emphasis is placed on pupil and teacher trust and well being.Outdoor, practical learning opportunities and healthy related physical activity sessions are a regular feature in the curriculum; helping to maintain a healthy body and mind.

Finnish schools receive full autonomy, with head teachers and teachers experience considerable independence when developing their own individual curricula: suited to their settings. Combinations of alternative pedagogic approaches, rather than mrer instructional methods are utilized by the teachers. The pedagogical freedoms experienced facilitates greater creativity, pro-activity and innovation. ( The premise of the now sidelined 2007 New Zealand National Curriculum!!)

Finland's Minister of Educations philosophy has been to trust the professionals. The Finnish system prides itself on positively evolving with pupil's needs and interests at heart.  Professional Learning Communities are integral to the  sharing and spreading of good practices.

All students receive a free education from when the start school at seven until they complete university studies - receiving schools meals and resources on the way.

All classes contain a mixture of ability level pupils, with most classes containing two or more teachers who focus on those needing additional support. Many teachers also stay with a single class for many years, moving with them through the school. Many primary and secondary schools are combined avoiding unsettling transitions allowing a consistent ethos and common language to pervade. Study's address teachers by their Christian names , do not wear uniforms and are encouraged to relax in their surrounding.

The Finnish system is built on the idea that 'less can be more' and could appear counter intuitive to other countries in which standards an effectiveness are measured in standardization data.

It is worth remembering the Finland is a homogeneous society and lacks the corrosive competitive ethos of many Western countries but also that Finland ended WW2 exhausted after fighting Russia to a standstill and has developed economically since then by challenging outworn assumptions in education along with other areas.

New Zealand business oriented politicians and  policy makes are taking down the path being followed by the United States and England ( and Australia). Recently the Leader of the Opposition suggest Finley was a country we could do well to emulate.

With 4 million people, a high GDP and high well being, Finland is worth the attention.

Those with longer memories  will appreciate that the student centred  approach Finland has developed was at the heart of  the New Zealand Education system until the market led forces of  educational reforms of the 1980s.

In the meantime we blindly follow failed approaches of the USA and the UK - the new Secretary of Education comes to us from England having never been a teacher.

Time to take a new path - or to return to successes of the past - success that gave up our high rating on PISA tests!

Saturday, April 07, 2012

Political ideology trumps educational philosophy

The church used the inquisition to ensure heretics toed the line. Sounds familiar?
Society today is being directed by the financial wizards of corporate greed and few school voices are brave enough to stand up for what they know is best for their students.

Even the  Secretary of the Treasury  Gabriel Makhouf is using his position to support the corporate ideals  of the current government  to push stronger for  the current ideological influences. That the ideology  of  the market know  best and the importance of competition and self interest led to the state bail outs of American Banks and once powerful capitalist businesses ( too big to let fail!) and the string of failed finance businesses in New Zealand hasn't dented their enthusiasm. Somehow ethics and corporate  needs/greed just don't mix!

Two agendas are competing to influence the future directions of schools (and society); the business world’s standardization agenda based around school competition and the humanistic personalized learning approach best exemplified by the 2007 New Zealand Curriculum.

Currently schools are scrambling to comply with the narrow demands scientific management being pushed on schools by what American educator Diane Ravitch, once a supporter of standardized testing, calls the ‘Master (and Mistresses) of the universe types’. ‘Such corporate executives’, she writes, ‘seem to believe schools can achieve miracles by relying on competition, deregulation and management by data’ Through such approaches schools ‘ can inspire societies less fortunate to aspire to similar success - no poverty excuses allowed’.

To such corporate reformers, who are detached from the reality of schooling and indifferent to important influences of family and poverty, the problem lies with poor teaching. It is worth reflecting that in countries that have imposed such a market based approach it has resulted in a narrowing of the curriculum, teaching to the tests and the ignoring of the need to tap into students’ dreams, interests, passion and talents. To make things worse the countries that follow such an approach, such as the UK and the US, are well down in international ‘league tables’.  Diane Ravitch admits ‘I was wrong. Testing has been a disaster and has done nothing to change the conditions that cause those gaps’. Ravitch also reminds us that the strategies they want to impose are ‘similar to the ones that helped produce the economic crash of 2008’.

 Professor  Linda Darling Hammond , former adviser to Barrack Obama, extends the debate writing, ' the profession of teaching and our system of public education are under siege from another wave of scientific managers, who have forgotten that education is about opening minds to inquiry and imagination....that teaching is about enabling children to make sense of their experience, to use knowledge for their own ends, and to learn to learn, rather than spend their childhoods...feeding the voracious data banks that govern ever more decisions from the bowels of the bureaucracy.'

Such scientific management she says provides mandates that 'would "choke a horse" and 'threaten to replace the opportunities for teachable moments that expert teachers know how to create with their students'.

'These new scientific to rank and sort students, teachers, and our schools - rewarding those at the top and punishing those at the bottom, something high achieving countries don't do but often forbid'.

'And the new scientific managers cleverly construct systems that solve the problems of the poor by blaming the teachers and schools that seek to serve them, calling the deepening levels of severe poverty an  " excuse"

...this is the equivalent of deciding that if the banks are failing, we should fire the tellers’.

Tuesday, April 03, 2012

Getting back to important things!

My attic studio. A good friend designed IT for me in the 1980s - in use at last. The painting on right  of  a stream , vines and bush is my attempt to revive an earlier effort. Top left is a new painting of Paritutu volcanic plug - heavily influenced by Dick Frizzell. Below is a bird image and out of sight a figure composition and the beginnings of a portrait of a very important woman in my life. I have no idea how any (except the bush painting) will turn out - a metaphor for life.

After years/decades of being distracted by educational issues I have decided to return to having go at painting. In the mid sixties I completed a series of paintings but since then I have only dabbled, mostly unsuccessfully.

Anyway the time now seems right as I have lost interest in school visiting because most of what I see doesn't impress me that much what with the emphasis and time being spent on literacy and numeracy to the exclusions of other equally important learning areas. Inquiry learning I see lacks the real depth I used to admire in classrooms that placed inquiry central and most of the art these  days is formulaic and conformist - more illustration than creative art. This is a shame because inquiry  and creative expression are the  basis of all learning and obviously is inclusive of various forms  of literacy and authentic aspects of numercay.

Most of all the absence of a wide range of creative arts means students are missing out some important lessons in life - lessons I am now experiencing as I begin to become involved in painting. First there is the issue of inspiration to create something personal, and then there is the even more difficult job of mastering the various techniques involved - which can only be acquired as the work progresses.

The most important lesson learnt from any creative activity is that realizing a piece of art is an evolving and sometimes messy process where each stroke of paint creates a new decision about what to do next. In this respect completing a piece of art is a metaphor for life itself -  which more often than not  unfolds in unplanned and unexpected ways.

This creative - or learning process -  made me think of an American  Junior school teacher Marion Diamond. Diamond writes with insight gained from experience  about the importance of 'unknowablity' in art with five year old -and how it is important to take advantage of whatever evolves - a form of constant decision making. And, at the end of the process ( which is not aways easy to determine) , the feelings of great satisfaction that any creator gets. And to complicate things even more the thoughts that will have arisen that will lead to further acts of creativity.

This is what Marion had to say: 'A critical component of art an acceptance of the unknowability of the end product....I have had to learn that mistakes are not only inevitable but necessary and useful, and that dealing with them - untangling some knot- takes us somewhere unexpected.'

Once again this is  in contrast with all the 'intentional teaching' now seen as 'best practice' in our schools resulting in a conformity of product devoid of personality. And as well the importance of art as a form of expression is demeaned.

'Teaching art has to do with the difference between trusting children and believing you must teach them everything about a subject or they won't know'. This brings in the role of the teacher. Julie writes that teachers must leave space for their work - children must make the decisions, do the thinking, use their imagination, and take responsibility for their own work.

Teachers must be careful not to impose their ideas on students. Julie writes that teacher's role is subtle. Explorations can be guided, parameters set but still open enough 'to permit each child's experience and unique preferences to inform' their work.

'The aim is help children to develop their abilities, to see, design, use colour, to help them extend their visual vocabularies, to help them gain clarity and conviction, while making something that is authentically theirs'.

'I aways put the children's expressiveness first.Art activities were valued because the class environment was rich in art, part of all content areas, they illustrated poems, drew the classroom animals and plants, printed with the leaves we'd collected in the park, and made collages to illustrate children's information about the animals they were studying. They used maths material to make elaborate and beautiful patterns'.

 Couldn't have expressed the importance of creativity better myself.

And already I know the feelings of frustration and achievement beyond anything that can be measured.