Friday, November 29, 2013

Educational Readings - the importance of the arts, beyond testing, inquiry, and personalising learning

By Allan Alach


I welcome suggested articles, so if you come across a gem, email it to me at

This week’s homework!

Master of many trades: Our age reveres the specialist but humans are natural polymaths, at our best when we turn our minds to many things.

Not strictly educational, but, then again, isn’t this what education should be focussing on, rather than GERM? Shouldn’t the focus of education be on guiding all children to become polymaths?

‘An intriguing study funded by the Dana foundation and summarised by Dr Michael Gazzaniga of the University of California, Santa Barbara, suggests that studying the performing arts — dance, music and acting — actually improves one's ability to learn anything else. Collating several studies, the researchers found that performing arts generated much higher levels of motivation than other subjects.’

Do You have the Personality To Be an Inquiry-Based Teacher?

‘So far, the challenges of transforming education into a system capable of inspiring students to become skillful, creative, knowledgeable problem-solvers fall into familiar territory: What types of curriculum, standards, skills, strategies, and adaptations to classroom teaching methods will be necessary to do this? But it’s likely these will prove to be secondary questions. As education crosses the divide between a transmission model and an inquiry model, a more pressing issue will be apparent: How do we identify, attract, nurture, and train teachers who have an “inquiry-friendly” personality?’

9 reasons why I am NOT a Social Constructivist

Right, here’s your dose of learning theory for this week. Do you agree? Disagree? Why?

Kelvin Smythe comments, ‘Social constructivism may not be that great as a teaching and learning theory, but to dismiss it as having a negligible effect on the learning valued by a society is silly.’

‘Educators nod sagely at the mention of ‘social constructivism’ confirming the current orthodoxy in learning theory. To be honest, I’m not even sure that social constructivism is an actual theory, in the sense that it’s verified, studied, understood and used as a deep, theoretical platform for action.’
I am with Kelvin - Bruce

Pearson 'Education' -- Who Are These People? (via Donna Yates Mace - USA)

This article looks at Pearson Group’s fingers in the USA education pie, but be assured, people, they will be coming to your country (if not already there). You were wondering why education has become a battlefield?

According to a recent article on Reuters, an international news service based in Great Britain, "investors of all stripes are beginning to sense big profit potential in public education. The K-12 market is tantalizingly huge: The U.S. spends more than $500 billion a year to educate kids from ages five through 18. The entire education sector, including college and mid-career training, represents nearly 9 percent of U.S. gross domestic product, more than the energy or technology sectors."

Test the World: The coming global testing boondoggle (via Donna Yates Mace - USA)

Frightening stuff, unless you have shares in Pearson Group...

“[W]e do not yet know the full scale of the crisis because measurement of learning achievement is limited in many countries, and hence difficult to assess at the international level. A global data gap on learning outcomes is holding back progress on education quality.”

International test scores: Getting the data straight

Valerie Strauss:

‘Here is a third post in a debate on The Answer Sheet about international test scores and whether they tell us anything important about the U.S. public
education system. The conversation began with a post I wrote last week titled “The fetishization of international test scores” which looked to the upcoming release of 2012 PISA test scores on Dec. 3 and said we place too much attention on these scores.’

A Student Explains What's Wrong With Our School System And Why We Mistrust Teachers. Nails It.

‘This kid (Eh ??? Young adult...)  nails the problem with Common Core in a new way, claiming that we're ruining the way we teach and learn. It's keeping teachers from doing what they're so good at and students from being real human learners.’

Beyond tests: How to foster imagination in students

Another excellent article from USA educator Marion Brady.

Those paying attention know that the high-stakes testing craze has pushed hundreds of thousands of kids out of school, trivialized learning, radically limited teacher ability to adapt to learner differences, and  ended many physical education, art, and music programs.’

Are schools squandering their teachers' talent?
We must stop squirreling away our teachers' talent. It's time to invest in it like other high performing nations do, say Andy Hargreaves and Michael Fullan.

Written about England but equally applicable elsewhere. This is a MUST READ.

Talent is not just something we should hope our teachers have and feel lucky when they do. It is something we have to find, invest in, build, and circulate, very deliberately, if we are going to get great returns from it. Approaching talent development in this way is what we call investment in professional capital. The professional capital of teachers cannot be squandered recklessly for short-term gains. Nor should it be squirreled away in individual schools and classrooms so no one else can have access to it. But this is exactly what too many people are doing – especially people in policy.’

Are We in an Age of Collective Learning? (via Tony Gurr)

As William Gibson said “The future is already here – it’s just not evenly distributed.” So are we heading to a world of connected learning, network thinking, and networked libraries? ‘

This week’s contributions from Bruce Hammonds:

3 Strategies to Promote Independent Thinking in Classrooms

‘....the classroom should become an incubator for growing students' attentional capacity. Instruction should be organized in intriguing yet challenging ways to foster attention. Teachers can utilize three strategies to cultivate improved focus: sequencing instruction, recovery from mistakes, and setting goals.’

Balancing the art and science of education

‘As we continue to fight to keep the arts in education, it is time to realize that the real fight is keeping the art in education. When I first started teaching many years ago, teaching was primarily seen as an art — an innate ability to use creative skill and imagination to communicate and build relationships that facilitate learning. The curriculum guide was a small gray book covering all subjects. Now, teaching is seen primarily as a science.’

Promoting a growth mindset for all students

‘What if we gave a test and everyone passed? That should be the goal! If that happened, however, instead of celebrating that success, policymakers likely would have the test-makers create harder tests. The reason is pretty clear: standardized tests primarily are for controlling education, not educating students.’

From Bruce’s ‘Oldies but Goodies’ blogs from the past.

The Da Vinci Formula

‘What we need are some better ideas. In a Fast Company e-zine a number of creative individuals were asked to say where they thought new ideas came from. I thought it worth sharing some of their ideas as businesses have given up on improvement; they appreciate we are living in a world that requires new thinking!

Standardisation or creativity; McDonalds or Weta Workshops?

The pattern is quite universal - declare a crisis, impose standards in a big hurry to avoid debate, then impose measures to ensure compliance with the standards, declare the results of the measures unsatisfactory, blame the teachers and the schools for poor performance, label critics whiners and wimps for using poverty and endemic unemployment as crutches for their own failures.’

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

The transformative Power of Interest : Annie Murphy Paul - Dan Pink and Carol Dweck

Annie Murphy Paul

‘If there is just one message I could share with parents, educators, and managers, it would be about the transformative power of interest.’ Annie Murphy Paul

The development of every student’s unique set of talents and gifts is the challenge for a 21stC of education and so far few schools have yet to appreciate this challenge. For schools a focus on developing students interests would seem not a serious enough task – hardly up there with the traditional learning disciplines or, the latest regression, the fetish with literacy and numeracy but they needn't be in conflict. Traditional learning areas will always be required for students to achieve in depth purposeful learning.

The biggest issue in education is lack of engagement of a number of learners – particularly the non-academic. The big challenge for many schools is to find ways to engage learners so they can leave equipped to face up whatever challenges an uncertain future presents them.

Jerome Bruner

Educationalist Jerome Bruner has written that ‘teaching is the canny art of intellectual temptation'  adding that ‘people get good at what they get good at.

Other educationalists have written that learning is the default mode of humans at birth – schools should do nothing to harm or distort this natural process. That something that starts so well should end up as turned off should worry all involved in schooling.
Daniel Pink
Daniel Pink, in his enlightening book ‘Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us, quotes psychologist Edward Deci : ‘Human beings have an “inherent tendency”  to seek out novelty and challenges, to extend and exercise their capacities to explore, and to learn. This drive to learn, writes Pink, is fragile and needs the right environment to survive.

It couldn’t be clearer than that.

Pink continues, ‘For  artist, scientists, inventors, schoolchildren and the rest of, intrinsic motivation - the drive to do something because it is interesting, challenging, and absorbing – is essential for high level creativity’. If there is anything fundamental about human nature, it’s the capacity for interest. Some things facilitate it. Some things undermine it. . Something politicians, principals, teachers and parents need to urgently consider.

Pink is convinced that it is our basic nature to be curious. He asks, ‘have you ever seen a sixth- month- old or a one-year-old who’s not curious and self-directed. I haven’t. That’s how we come out of the box. If at age fourteen or forty three, were passive and inert, that’s not because it is our nature. It’s because something has flipped our default settings.’

Developing a positive growth mind-set, according to psychologist Carol Dweck depends on our beliefs about ourselves and our abilities – how we interpret our experiences. With a growth mind-set, one that values effort, perseverance, passion, and what some call ‘grit’- learning is forever. Children are born with a growth mind-set, then – at some point in their lives – they don’t. At this point they join the so called ‘achievement tail’ – created by adults who ought to be creating the conditions to avoid this situation.

It wasn’t Pink’s book that set me thinking about the demeaning of the power of interest it was a blog, recently sent to me , written by Annie Murphy Paul, that resonated with my own thoughts.

In her blog she shares research about the science of interest, what interest is , how it develops, what makes things interesting,  and how we can cultivate it in ourselves and in others. Such researchers are finding that interest helps us think more clearly, understand more deeply, and remember more accurately. Interest has the power to transform struggling performers (our so called achievement tail), and to lift high achievers to a new level.

So what is interest?
Paul Silva

Interest is a predisposition to engage repeatedly with particular ideas, events over time. Paul Silva of University of North Carolina writes that ‘interest pulls us to the new, edgy, the exotic’. Interest he says ‘diversifies experiences’ and also focuses experience’. In a world too full of information, interests usefully narrow our choices: they lead us to pay attention to this not that.

Being interested in something provides a positive feeling of being energised and invigorated, captivated and enthralled- it , writes Annie Murphy Paul  ‘effectively turbocharges our thinking. When we are interested in what we are learning, we pay closer attention; we process the information more efficiently; we employ more effective learning strategies, such as engaging in critical thinking, making connections between old and new knowledge, and attending to deep structure instead of surface features. When we’re interested in a task, we work harder and persist longer, bringing more of our self-regulatory skills into play.’

With such obvious advantages it is difficult to understand why schooling doesn’t pay more attention to tapping into or developing student interests.

The finding of a seven year study by Judith Harackiewicz of the University of Wisconsin found ‘that interest is a more powerful predictor of future success than prior achievement or demographic variables’.  Murphy writes that ‘scientists have shown that passionate interests can even allow people to overcome academic difficulties or perceptual disabilities’. This is something that creative teachers have always known ‘Studies of prominent academics and Nobel Laureates who struggled with dyslexia’, writes Murphy, ‘found that they were able to persist in their efforts to read because they were motivated to explore an early and ardent interest’.
John Dewey

Such findings present a challenge to teachers and parents to promote interest. Murphy quotes John Dewey who wrote that interests operate by a process of “catch” and “hold”. First the individual’s interest must be captured, and then it must be maintained. Catching is about seizing attention and stimulating the imagination (Bruner’s ‘canny temptation’) .This can be done by making use of interests students bring with them ( all too often neglected by teachers) and by exposing students to a wide variety of topics – it is here that the various learning areas provide possibilities. Obviously different people find different things interesting- one reason to provide learners with a range of subject matter, in the hope something will resonate. This relates well to the multiple intelligences research of Howard Gardner.

Paul Silva’s research has shown that interesting things share a number of characteristics – material must be novel, complex and comprehensible. For teachers this means introducing students (or themselves) to something of interest, making sure things are not too hard nor too easy (Vygotsky’s ‘zone of proximal development’ – ZPD), so all students feel they able to comprehend and master challenges: as Bruner has written ‘this is the canny art’ of teaching.

Teachers can help comprehension by providing appropriate information maybe about a poem or, in the case of abstract art helping students interpret the work, the meaning of the title, the thoughts the artist had in mind and information about the artist and the context in which it was created.

Teachers also need to make sure students have sufficient background knowledge to stimulate interest and avoid confusion. The more we know about a domain the more interesting it gets. Silva’s research shows  that as new ideas are confronted this leads to a conflict with the learners ‘prior ideas’ which motivated the learner’s need to resolve the conflict, and we do so by learning more. ‘A virtuous circle is thus initiated: more learning leads to more questions, which in turn leads to more learning. Parents and educators can encourage the development of students’ interests by actively eliciting these queries, what researchers call “curiosity questions”’. Jerome Bruner states the obvious ‘we get good at what we get good at”.

It is obvious that to develop students’ interests requires a move away from standardised curricula, where teachers deliver learning to their students, to a more personalised approach.
Protect at all costs

Cognitive scientist Daniel Willingham notes that teachers and parents are often ‘so eager to get to the answer that we do not devote sufficient time to developing the question’. Yet, continues Murphy, ‘it’s the questions that stimulate curiosity before it can get going. Instead of starting with the answer, begin by posing an genuinely interesting question – one that opens an information gap’.

One thing parents and teachers can do is to demonstrate their own passions and personal interests so as to pass on their own enthusiasms to their children/students.  An interesting research study by Benjamin Bloom of over a hundred and twenty adult
Ben. Bloom
gifted individuals in a wide range of fields from maths to sports achievements found that such individuals came from families that were involved in the particular areas. It was also found their schools either ignored their gifts ( unaware of the time they practised before or after school) , some schools made use , or celebrated, such gifts but sadly almost a third were put down because of their difference in ability by their peers. The other interesting finding was that almost all these high achievers had made their decisions to make their interests their career did so before the age of twelve.

When it comes to keeping interests alive Annie Murphy Paul writes, ‘it is about finding deeper meaning and purpose in the exercise of interest.’ This is not achieved by teachers stressing how valuable such learning will be in the future but by helping students’ generate their own connections and discover for themselves the relevance of interest for themselves.

The best thing teachers and parents can do, writes Murphy Paul, ‘is by supporting their feelings of competence and self-sufficiency, helping them to sustain their attention and motivation when they encounter challenging or confusing material. Weaker learners need may need more of this assistance to find and maintain their interests, while stronger learners can be pushed in the direction of increasing autonomy and self-direction. The goal is to cultivate interests that provide us with lasting intellectual stimulation and fulfilment, interests that we pursue over a lifetime with vigour and zest.’

If we want to develop the lifelong learners, the vision of the New Zealand Curriculum then schools need to focus on developing the transformational power of interests – using curriculum areas to a means to this end; to practise Jerome Bruner’s ‘canny art of intellectual temptation’.

So far few schools have shown the wit and intelligence to do just this. The first country to develop the talents and gifts of all its students will win the 21stC

Friday, November 22, 2013

Educational Readings: more subversive ideas

By Allan Alach

I welcome suggested articles, so if you come across a gem, email it to me at

This week’s homework!

The fetishization of international test scores

Yet another excellent posting by Valerie Strauss at the Washington Post.

Standardised testing!
‘First of all, judging just about anything important on the sole basis of test scores is never a good idea. That’s not just me talking; assessment experts say it over and over and over.’

What is developmentally appropriate in learning?

Another gem from Valerie Strauss, featuring an article by Daniel Willingham:

‘In sum, I don’t think developmental psychology is a good guide to what children should learn; it provides some help in thinking about how children learn. The best guide to “what” is what children know now, and where you want their learning to head.’

Genuine vs. sham accountability

I don’t always agree with Grant Wiggins; however here is an exception.

‘Accountability is ‘responsibility for’ and ‘responsiveness to’ results, as the dictionary reminds us. Teachers who are sometimes deemed unwilling by the public to be held accountable are the same educators who serve as athletic coaches and teachers in the performing and vocational arts – where they are happy to be held responsible for performance results, since the tasks are worthy, the scores are valid and (over time) reliable, and the whole system is public and fair.’

Subverting the System: Student and Teacher as Equals

The sad part of this article is that it is presented as a new idea.....

‘So instead, he presented problems for the students to solve: He challenged them to learn about physics by analyzing how children interact with toys and playground equipment, and to learn about the world of design firms by designing a playground for a real group of third-graders.’

Accountability, Privatization, and the Devaluation of the Career Educator

‘During the past 30 years, a variety of political, economic, and social forces have shaped the current landscape of public education, a landscape defined by increasing accountability and privatization. Simultaneously, those same forces have contributed to the devaluation of the "career educator" and have produced a leadership vacuum at the local, state, and national levels.’

The education of Christopher Pyne

This article is about the current Australian Minister of Education, but the points made are relevant all over.

‘Standardised testing.The Minister proposes to strengthen NAPLAN and place it on line. Standardised testing has been a feature of the 'reforms' in the US and its effects have been carefully analysed. At its extreme the tests are justified by advocates as parents' democratic right to know the quality of their child's school. The main argument is that the tests help improve student achievement. Unequivocally they do not! ‘

The butterfly effect’ in schools.

With the complexity of a school environment, teeming with diversity and life, like a veritable rainforest, it is likely you cannot guide the butterflies in any
direction. People in schools: teachers and students, are maddeningly similar. Flying in formation never really occurs as we intend it to, no matter how rigid the top-down leadership. We can but develop and maintain the conditions for our particular ‘butterflies‘ to thrive. This will likely happen from the bottom up – like those small but powerful butterfly wings freely beating their haphazard, seemingly chaotic pattern.

Lectures Didn't Work in 1350—and They Still Don't Work Today

A conversation with David Thornburg about designing a better classroom

‘In his latest book, From the Campfire to the Holodeck: Creating Engaging and Powerful 21st Century Learning Environments, Thornburg outlines four learning models: the traditional “campfire,” or lecture-based design; the “watering hole,” or social learning; the “cave,” a place to quietly reflect; and “life”—where ideas are tested.’

This week’s contributions from Bruce Hammonds:

Henry Pluckrose - creative educator

Another ‘blast from the past’ article by Bruce.

Henry knew that the means to solve the problem of the long tail of underachievement by facing up to underlying poverty of the 'failing' children and the need to develop and share the creative capacity of schools and teachers. He would be keen, as I am, to replace the 'state theory of learning' with an emphasis on sharing the ways we know how children learn; powerful pedagogy rather than recipe and prescription. He would want teachers to move away from mere 'delivery' and compliance and to place more attention to engaging students in realistic contexts.’

Transforming schools through Project Based Learning (PBL) .

Bruce writes:

American educationalist Thom Markham is an enthusiast for Project Based Learning (PBL) and believes that the most important innovation schools can implement is high quality project based learning.He provides seven important design principles for teachers to ensure project based learning is of the highest quality.’

How to Get High-Quality Student Work in PBL

‘Things can appear to be going smoothly — students have been engaged by the project, they’ve been learning content and skills, they’ve been busy and meeting deadlines — but their thinking is not as in-depth and their final products not as polished as they should be. If this is your experience, it’s time to ask yourself some questions.’

Too much, too young: Should schooling start at age 7?

Let's not stifle creativity
This would bring it in line with the overwhelming evidence showing that starting school later is best, and the practice in many countries, such as Sweden and Finland. These countries have better academic achievement and child well-being, despite children not starting school until age 7.’


To Look Closely

Bruce’s comments about this book: ‘The book blurb reminds of us what we were once good at!’

A world to explore .Durer
‘Whether it's a trickling stream, a grassy slope, or an abandoned rail line, the natural world offers teachers a wonderful resource around which to center creative, inquiry-based learning throughout the year. Nobody knows this better than veteran teacher Laurie Rubin. In To Look Closely: Science and Literacy in the Natural World, she demonstrates how nature study can help students become careful, intentional observers of all they see, growing into stronger readers, writers, mathematicians, and scientists in the process.’

Saturday, November 16, 2013

Educational Readings: GERM infection, On Line Learning, The Finnish Way and Indiana Jones!!

By Allan Alach

I welcome suggested articles, so if you come across a gem, email it to me at

This week’s homework!

When You Hear Claims That Policies Are Working, Read The Fine Print

Applicable to all GERM infected countries.

‘There’s a huge middle ground between the highest-quality research and the kind of speculation that often drives our education debate. I’m not saying we always need experiments or highly complex analyses to guide policy decisions (though, in general, these are always preferred and sometimes required). The point, rather, is that we shouldn’t draw conclusions based on evidence that doesn’t support those conclusions.’

A New Pedagogy is Emerging...And Online Learning is a Key Contributing Factor

What do you think? Looking forward to reading your observations in the comments section! This seems to be aimed at post-secondary, but, if this contention is valid, then it has implications for all levels of education.

‘Recent developments in digital technologies, especially web 2.0 tools such as blogs, wikis and social media, and mobile devices such as phones and tablets, have given the end user, the learner, much more control over access to and the creation and sharing of knowledge. This empowers learners, and innovative instructors are finding ways to leverage this learner control to increase motivation and relevance for learners.’

We need a war on poverty, not teachers (via Dianne Khan)

‘In short, if we were serious about education, then our education discussion wouldn’t be focused on demonizing teachers and coming up with radical schemes to undermine traditional public schools. It would instead be focused on mounting a new war on poverty and thus directly addressing the biggest education problem of all.’

The Finnish Miracle

Here’s a set of slides (PDF format) from Pasi Sahlberg detailing why Finnish schools are working and why GERM doesn’t work. These may be useful for your own presentations.


The Principal: The Most Misunderstood Person in All of Education:

Having spent 20 years in the hot seat, this article resonates with me.

‘The principal is both the administrative director of state educational policy and a building manager, both an advocate for school change and the protector of bureaucratic stability. Authorized to be employer, supervisor, professional figurehead, and inspirational leader, the principal’s core training and identity is as a classroom teacher.’

Why Standards-Based Teaching is a Hopeless Way to Educate Youth

‘The standards-based accountability system of schooling treats students are like androids who come to school to mechanically learn to follow a path established by adults, many of whom have no idea what it is like in a 3rd, 8th, or 12th grade classroom.  Nor do these adults have any idea about the aspirations, creativity, and inventiveness of students in these grades.  Yet, these policy makers have established a system of education that is a meticulous set of performance statements that all students should learn in mathematics, English language arts (The Common Core State Standards), and science (The Next Generation Science Standards).’

This week’s contributions from Bruce Hammonds:

New Slide: Being Responsible for Teaching the Bored

‘If we are going to demand that students learn the huge sets of isolated facts that we jam into state and district curricula, can we really be surprised when teachers struggle to create highly engaged learning spaces that are driven by passion and interest?  More importantly, if we are convinced that learners are more likely to BE engaged when they  are wrestling with concepts that move them on a deeply personal level, can we really be surprised when our students find today's schools boring?’

Wanted: 'Canny Outlaws!

Looking way back, here’s an article Bruce wrote in 2005 that is still relevant.

He was challenging us to have the courage of our convictions and not to meekly accept everything that was being imposed on schools as the gospel truth. His argument was that Indiana Jones was a good model because he was an individual who took short cuts, cut through red tape, but at all times acted morally for the cause of the greater good.’


These 11 Leaders Are Running Education But Have Never Taught

Those who can’t do, teach.

Those who can’t teach, teach others how to teach.

Those who can’t teach others how to teach are educational researchers.

Those who have no understanding of education at all are education ‘reformers.’ 

(Apologies to G.B Shaw)

The End of Education

Bruce’s comment: I came across this article and it resonated so much with my thoughts I have posted it as a blog.

‘Education as a dwelling in the human experience of reality is ending. As with the Roman Empire, it is ending with a whimper, not a bang. The root of the problem is that we have absorbed the socio-economic and intellectual values of our age, an age ruled by business and science. The pragmatic values of business and science have become the values of our educational practices.’


Pink Floyd – ‘teacher leave that child alone’. The difference between education and schooling.

Looking back two days, here’s Bruce’s latest blog posting.

My belief is that if schools focussed on education rather than schooling then we wouldn’t have the so called ‘achievement gap’ that politicians blame schools for.’


Gratitude Can Fuel School Transformation

This approach would surely beat performance pay and other ‘accountability’ measures. Daniel Pink would agree.

One of the most common complaints I hear from teachers, administrators, and staff working in public schools is something along the lines of, "I don't feel appreciated." I'd like to propose that by simply incorporating a range of practices that allow ourselves and others to express gratitude, we might transform our schools. We'd certainly retain more effective educators, build stronger relational trust, and develop a culture that focuses on the positive -- in all adults and all children.’