Thursday, November 29, 2012

Re-imaging education; lessons from Galileo and Brazil.

Education stands at a crossroad caught in the lights of market forces ideology which blinds all but a few to beginnings of a new era some call the Second Renaissance – a new creative era.
The freedom to learn.
In his 1980 essay ’The World of Tomorrow and the Person of Tomorrow’ psychologist Carl Rogers contemplated the kind of people that would usher in the new era as people with the capacity to understand , bring about and take part in a paradigm shift.
It surely is over to educationalists to take a positive part in fleshing out Rogers' vision? The problem is that schools are constrained by reactionary compliance requirements that emphasize an emphasis on literacy and numeracy that are being reinforced by arbitrary National Standards and comparative ‘league tables’. Unfortunately this emphasis has side-lined the positive future emphasis of the 2007 New Zealand National Curriculum which focussed on the bigger picture of developing the competencies in all students of being lifelong learners – learners able to ‘seek, use and create their own knowledge’.
The current government is undervaluing such competencies and this must change. It will be over to ‘persons of tomorrow’ to take the lead. It will not be easy but the current all-powerful corporate competitive market forces model will not solve problems beyond their comprehension.
There is no shortage of thinkers to show the way although those who become involved will have to ‘make their own paths’. Contrary to Mark Twain’s advice that ‘you can’t play an uncertain trumpet’ future thinkers will have to learn to play an uncertain trumpet.
Galileo is forced to recant.
There is a parallel to the beginnings of the first renaissance. At this time the Catholic Church defined the beliefs that were to be seen as the unquestioned truth.  The first to question the church faced the inquisition, were tortured and then burnt alive at the stake. This torture was seen not as punishment but as a means to bring the truth to the surface.
They may have painful beginnings but paradigm shifts have a life of their own.  Galileo, working in the liberal court of the powerful Medici family in Florence, challenged the views of the church by writing his dialogues about the observations that the earth went around the sun and not vice versa. He also paid the price and after torture recanted – the church even refused him a proper funeral.
What we need now is to value positive deviants to confront the narrow measurement 'truth' as defined by the current government through their agencies – the Ministry, The Education Review Office and contracted officials. Literacy and numeracy do not lie at the centre of a student’s education what is required is to create theconditions to develop the gifts and talents of all students, to develop thecompetencies to become positive future learners – competencies that naturally encompass literacy and numeracy.
Even Michael Fullan, long an ally of top down literacy numeracy reform, seems to have seen the light and recanted now believing that innovative educational progress depends on identifying and sharing the work of ‘deviant teachers’. To value the input of creative teachers and share their ideas do this requires the establishment of a new educational environment.
It is not easy to go against a system that was designed for past industrial age conditions that required mass education focusing on the ‘three Rs’; a system that used standardised approaches, based on measurement to sort out students for their predetermined place in life.
Standardised learning making a comeback!!
A visit to any school, except for early education centres, will show how old thinking permeates how the school is run and structured. In most schools, as one commentator has said, ‘it is as if literacy and numeracy have gobbled up the whole curriculum’.  Increasingly what is to be tested will become the default curriculum and diversity and creativity is all but being crushed. Standardisation of teaching sorting students by ability is, unintentionally or otherwise, devaluing the very competencies and the individual creativity the future requires.
Standardisation, conforming to imposed beliefs, and teaching to the tests leads us back to the past. The future is about valuing creativity, diversity and requires personalising learning.

Personalising learning - talent development.
David Hargreaves and several others have pointed out that institutional change comes in two forms .The first is change that does not depart far from existing practices. This gradual change he calls reformation . This is where schools are placed today.

The second form of change is more a paradigm shift and departs considerably from existing practices can be called ‘transformational’.

While our Ministry, following direction from the government, is pushing schools into the test oriented environment of the UK, the US and Australia there are those who warn that such a narrow curriculum will destroy the possiblity of a creative economy.

Yong Zhao, a respected American educationalist, has research to show while American students might not score highly in International ‘league tables’ they score the highest in confidence, creativity and innovation. Yong points out that Americans still develop the most patents, the most Nobel Prizes and that the Chinese education system will never produce a Lady Gaga or a Steve Jobs!
 Lady Gaga:Not possible in a standardised system
All about democracy and trust.
A recent Guardian article features the development of Lumiar Schools in Brazil, founded in 2003 by Ricardo Semler a radical businessman who had previously turned his huge family firm over to its workers. Semler believes that students learn best when they have a say in what they are learning. Students choose to involve themselves in project based learning through which students pick up life skills by osmosis. Semler was encouraged by University of Chicago statistics that showed that 94% of what is learnt at school is never used in later life. ‘We are trying to prove that by giving kids freedom,’ says Semler, ‘ they will end up better educated…that they can have a much better existence and be more prepared for life if we don’t teach them the stupid things that traditional schools do’. Having satisfied himself that his adult workers thrive on responsibility he set out to show children would react the same way. Semler,  a Harvard graduate, says that for children ‘learning is what they do best. We kill it for them…everything we do is a learning experience. Our assumptions about human beings –  is that they are basically honest and interested and ready for gratifying work –were not wrong…we have the same assumptions about schools and what we’ve seen so far corroborates what we thought’.
Many early education centres make use of the similar ideas of the Italian Emilio Reggio approach and the American ‘Big Picture Company’ extends a similar philosophy for secondary students.
Such developments are the work of creative deviants and are spread by the strength of their ideas. We need to return to an environment that trusts teachers and allows for ‘deviant teachers’ to ‘emerge’. New Zealand has always had such creative individuals, Elwyn Richardson the most notable, but in recent times teachers have been captured by approved ideas spread by contractual advisers. The Ministry and the Education Review Office (and sadly some school principals) have much in common with the Catholic Church and the Inquisition of Galileo’s time!
An ERO team!
Jay Allard, one of Microsoft’s vice – presidents, was right on the mark when he said in Business Week (Dec 2006) ‘the only way to change the world is to imagine it different than the way it is today. Apply too much wisdom and knowledge that got us here, and you end up where you started. Take a fresh look from a new perspective and get a new result.’
Galileo knew this!
Human beings, Lumiar thinkers believe, are capable of defining their own life project. Ones life’s project specifies what one wants to do with one’s life. Babies are born with an incredible capacity to learn. That is what makes education possible but schools have to be transformed in line with this principle.
Learning is not something given to students through predetermined teaching - it is being able to do something you couldn’t do before. It is an active doing approach – something achieved by individuals making feely a conscious decisions to accomplish something, not by themselves but by interacting and collaborating with their teachers and other students.
On one hand there is depth of content understanding to gain and at the same time the schools needs to ensure all students develop the competencies to learn. Students will leave with their unique content learning but all need to be equipped with competencies to learn. This is the essence of personalised learning.
Students learn while doing things – they involve themselves in projects in which they see as important. Educationalist Jerome Bruner has written the ‘teaching is the canny art of intellectual temptation’. Students learn, as do scientists and artists, by enlightened trial and error – helped sensitively by adults.
It is important to appreciate that not all learning is fun. What it does mean is that, as Guy Claxton has written, children need to see the point of learning, that it is something they want to achieve, reach for or do. With this in mind students will involve themselves in difficult, even painful, learning tasks. Anyone who has seen a student learning to ride a bike, swim, or skateboard, or play a musical instrument cannot but conclude that children are capable of incredible learning feats that are difficult and hard.
Contrary to the current focus on intentional teaching project based learning can lead individual students to explore unplanned content to their advantage. In this respect students are learning like artists – new ideas unfolding as opportunities arise. Every study undertaken provides opportunities for students to follow up their areas of interest – to personalize their learning while at the same time working with others as required.
Current assessment is constrained by learning objectives and criteria and increasingly by an emphasis on summative National Standards in literacy and numeracy. With personalised learning, or project based learning, assessment is seen by the depth of understanding and creativity of the students, by what they can do, demonstrate, exhibit or store in their portfolios.  Constant feedback and assessment is part of the teacher’s role.
Like Galileo we need to imagine new ways to interpret the world and break free of politically imposed dictates.
Schools need to re-imagine to respect the freedom to learn that is innate in all students, to value and build on their own set of interests and passions and to expose them to experiences that will challenge their imaginations.
It is time for ‘deviant teachers’ to stand up for their beliefs, better still whole schools and best of all networks of schools.
At least it is no longer the practice to burn people at the stake for challenging outdated authorities – at any level of the system.

The future depends on such people. Roger's 'tomorrow people'


Anonymous said...

Wow - great thoughts!

Scott Whitfield said...

Anti-Catholics often cite the Galileo case as an example of the Church refusing to abandon outdated or incorrect teaching, and clinging to a "tradition." They fail to realize that the judges who presided over Galileo’s case were not the only people who held to a geocentric view of the universe. It was the received view among scientists at the time.

Centuries earlier, Aristotle had refuted heliocentricity, and by Galileo’s time, nearly every major thinker subscribed to a geocentric view. Copernicus refrained from publishing his heliocentric theory for some time, not out of fear of censure from the Church, but out of fear of ridicule from his colleagues.

Many people wrongly believe Galileo proved heliocentricity. He could not answer the strongest argument against it, which had been made nearly two thousand years earlier by Aristotle: If heliocentrism were true, then there would be observable parallax shifts in the stars’ positions as the earth moved in its orbit around the sun. However, given the technology of Galileo’s time, no such shifts in their positions could be observed. It would require more sensitive measuring equipment than was available in Galileo’s day to document the existence of these shifts, given the stars’ great distance. Until then, the available evidence suggested that the stars were fixed in their positions relative to the earth, and, thus, that the earth and the stars were not moving in space—only the sun, moon, and planets were.

Thus Galileo did not prove the theory by the Aristotelian standards of science in his day. In his Letter to the Grand Duchess Christina and other documents, Galileo claimed that the Copernican theory had the "sensible demonstrations" needed according to Aristotelian science, but most knew that such demonstrations were not yet forthcoming. Most astronomers in that day were not convinced of the great distance of the stars that the Copernican theory required to account for the absence of observable parallax shifts. This is one of the main reasons why the respected astronomer Tycho Brahe refused to adopt Copernicus fully.

Galileo could have safely proposed heliocentricity as a theory or a method to more simply account for the planets’ motions. His problem arose when he stopped proposing it as a scientific theory and began proclaiming it as truth, though there was no conclusive proof of it at the time. Even so, Galileo would not have been in so much trouble if he had chosen to stay within the realm of science and out of the realm of theology. But, despite his friends’ warnings, he insisted on moving the debate onto theological grounds.

Bruce Hammonds said...

Thanks Scott - but I was only using Galileo as an analogy to illustrate one needs courage to stand up to authority