Monday, May 20, 2013

New Zealand's Got Talent? The role of schools in talent development

It has been a wet weekend and by chance I have watched parts of talent shows on TV. What impressed me were the individuals that, until they begin their presentation, are often discounted by judges and viewers. One young man had a debilitating lisp which disappeared as he began to sing.
Contestants are judged by what they can demonstrate.

This ought to be the basis for education. Imagine schools premised on the development of gifts and talents of all students rather than assessing them on their ‘success’ in standardised tests and then only in a narrow range of subjects.
Creativity is not in the forefront of teacher’s minds. The arts seem to have reduced to formulaic illustration or decoration rather than the ultimate form of personalised expression.

Sir Ken Robinson, a leading authority on creativity and innovation, believes that finding one’s passion changes everything. Although widely admired his advice is not translated into action by schools still focusing their programmes on achieving in literacy and numeracy. As a result many young people leave school unsure of their talents – worse still many feel alienated.
This is not to demean literacy and numeracy but for teachers to ‘reframe’ them in the service of authentic student inquiry learning.  Placing personalised student inquiry learning central would make a real difference but few schools do this.
It is easy to see where schools place their importance by the hierarchy of subjects and the time allotted – the arts at the rear. Add in standardised testing and this results in very narrow view of intelligence and an overvaluing of particular sorts of abilities and stifling of others.
In recent decades politician have had far too much influence for ideological reasons – much of it to provide data ( in literacy and numeracy) to allow, so called, parent choice, competition through league tables and, in many countries, the privatisation of education as seen in the Charter School movement; the provision of standardised tests in now big business.
Schools seem unable to provide the real alternative – to rethink the purpose of education for the 21st Century, to really value the diverse nature of human talents, and to celebrate the diversity of their students. Ironically New Zealand teachers can access the ideas of Elwyn Richardson who provided the genesis of a solution in the 1960s in his recently re-published book by the NZCER ‘In the Early World.’

There are inspiring models of creative education to draw inspiration from. Sir Ken is impressed with the Reggio Emilia schools of Milan established in the 60s.  The Emilia schools are true community schools where the curriculum is child directed and teachers take their lessons where student’s interests dictate. The curriculum is built around projects in which students make discoveries from a variety of perspectives. The teachers consider themselves as co- researchers learning alongside their students. Many older New Zealand teachers will recognise such a holistic approach.
There are still schools, where there is courageous leadership, that continue to base their curriculum on the provision of exciting experiential experiences that naturally integrate literacy and numeracy and encourage collaboration between teachers to access a range of disciplines.  Innovative Brazilian businessman Ricardo Semler has establishes his Lumiar Schools along similar lines.  I know of New Zealand schools that make use of American middle school educator James Beane’s concept of developing curriculums around student generated questions.
Chinese born American educator Yong Zhao  believes that American education is at  a crossroads. He worries about the increasing standardisation of education believing that this approach will be disastrous to the future of America – particularly as China is doing its best to develop creativity in its own system.  He believes that America needs a ‘citizenry of creative individuals with a wide range of talents to sustain its tradition of innovation’.
One idea Zhao shares in his book ‘Catching Up or Leading the Way’ is to build on school talent shows – school assembly performances in the New Zealand situation.  I envisage New Zealand schools building curriculums around integrating science and maths fair projects, and art performances, as part of an on-going years programme.
Yong Zhao believes that such activities recognize a broad range of talents, they teach children to respect each other, to take initiative and responsibility, to appreciate that they all have different talents and to provide opportunities to discover new talents.  Such presentations, exhibitions and demonstrations encourage students to face consequences of their choices and actions; facing public audiences of their parents and families does take courage. Add in the range of sporting and extra curricula activities (both of which need to be mainstreamed into the curriculum) and schools would be transformed.
Most of all, writes Yong Zhao, such ‘activities sends a strong message to the community… that our schools value different talents, that their children are talented in different ways’. ’Lastly, he writes, ‘the activity helps all the children to be proud of their strengths rather than focusing on their weaknesses’.
 Most schools now accept Howard Gardner’s idea of multiple intelligences independent of each other. Gardner writes ‘that we are born to be good at something but poor at others. As a result, each of us has a unique talent profile.
As long as school focus on the importance of academic learning, concentrating on literacy and numeracy, schools discriminate against other talents.
Expanding the definition of success means how we measure success – success that cannot be measured through standardised testing. Indicators of success would need to include student products, teacher observations, and classroom and school wide performances.
Schools Young Zhao writes, need to be held ‘accountable for providing the best educational environments for all students’ rather than ‘holding schools accountable for raising test scores’. He writes, ‘we need to hold schools accountable for ensuring all students have the same high quality educational opportunities’
We don’thear our current Minister talking about the personalisation of learning, ‘the drive to tailor education to individual need, interest and aptitude so as to fulfil every young person’s potential’….’ Giving every single child the chance to be the best they can be, whatever their talent of background’

Schools who wish to focus on discovering and cultivating the strengths of each individual child instead of focusing on proving and remedying their ‘deficiencies’  as measured by questionable standards need to ask some pertinent questions ( from Riane Eisler 2000):
1.     Are each child’s intelligences and capabilities treated as unique gifts to be nurtured and developed?
2.     Do students have a real stake in their education so that their innate enthusiasm is not dampened?
3.     Do teachers act primarily as lesson-dispensers and controllers, or as mentors and facilitators?
4.     Does the curriculum not only effectively teach students basic skills as the three Rs of reading writing, and arithmetic but also model the life-skills they need to be competent and caring citizens?
5.     Is the structure of the school, classroom one of top down authoritarianism or is a more democratic one?
6.      Do students, teachers, and other staff participate in school decision making and rule setting?
Seems like good questions?
 Does New Zealand have talent? Or are we leaving it to chance? The latter I think.

Time for schools to step up.


Anonymous said...

Couldn't agree more but I fear that school principals haven't the insight to see that they are part of the problem - they direct schools as they taught. Talent development is beyond them. They are compliant rather than creative

Mac Stevenson said...

This is what the MOE think of creativity Bruce.… Read and despair.

Bruce Hammonds said...

Hi Mac

Mentioning creativity and the Ministry in the same sentence is an oxymoron. How can they support both National Standards and the NZC. They are but puppets on political strings!

Anon - I fear you are right. Principals suffer from being too compliant - they have to look after their school's reputation before creativity. Hard to do both..