Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Quality teaching and learning. Looking back; lessons about learning gained from teachers and students I have worked with over the decades.

A More Informed Vision

I was recently asked what lessons I had learnt over the years – as a result this blog - A More Informed Vision

For over five decades I have had the privilege of working with primary teachers as an adviser both in science and art, as a teacher, a school principal and as an independent educational adviser until 2011. Since the 1970s I have expressed  what I called A More Informed Vision (MIV) – a vision combining the best of primary student centred ‘learning how to learn’ approach with the more traditional  secondary school values of effort, perseverance and depth of content – a best of both world approach avoiding the counterproductive either/or argument.

Early influences

 In my first decade I was inspired by the writings of pioneer creative teacher ElwynRichardson, local teachers who were developing similar integrated curriculums, the work of art advisers who were led by their director Gordon Tovey, and the developmental language experience teaching of junior school . During this time teachers moved away from fragmented subject teaching to integrating learning areas around themes, topics,  or studies. Behind such developments was the leadership of Dr Beeby the then director of Education. My last influence were the child centred English primary schools which I taught in in 1969. This decade was an exciting time to be a teacher. During  the 1970/80s, as an adviser, I  worked with a group of local Taranaki teachers to implement them – in particular Bill Guild, John Cunningham and Robin Clegg, all now well retired, but the ideas they helped develop live on.
Elwyn Richardson

Now it seems to me the insights gained through such experience is all but lost as school programmes are more determined  by those distant from the reality of the classroom – in particular the imposition of National Standards which are  causing an inevitable narrowing of the curriculum and the spread of formulaic teaching ( so called ‘best practices’). League tables and performance appraisals, if the government is returned, are on the horizon. Then all will be lost.

A belief all can learn

The teachers I worked with all believed, given the right environment, relevant tasks (to the learner), sensitive help and time, every student can learn. Every student can be, as it states in the all but side-lined 2007 New Zealand Curriculum, their own ‘seekers, uses and creators of their own knowledge’.

It is as simple and as hard as that.

Unfortunately far too many students lose their innate (default) mode of learning as they move through the school system. It is not that are not learning they are learning the wrong things, gaining power through disruption and counterproductive behaviour. Worse still many students enter schooling unable to take advantage of opportunities due to difficult home circumstances. By secondary schooling far too many
students have all but given up and for such students school is an incredible waste of time.
This need not be the case but to remedy the situation schools need to be transformed as well expressed by Sir Ken Robinson in hispopular video presentations. He, of course, is not alone but those who define educational direction seem determined to ignore such voices.

Importance of relationships.

The key to progress is the importance of the establishment of respectful relationship between learner and teacher/mentor/adviser. A long retired local educational adviser, Howard Wilson (one of my ‘gifted’ mentors) used to say ‘teaching is not so difficult; all you need is thirty plus kids, good relationships and to do worthwhile things.’ Others talk of redefining the ‘3Rs’ as relevance, relationship and rigor.

If all students are held to the highest personal standard and given the appropriate help to achieve their personal best all can achieve quality results – when this is achieved, even with learners who have never experienced success then behaviour problems dissipate in the process. To ensure all students experience such success became important to all teachers I worked with.

Developing talernts
What I believe doesn’t work is sorting, grouping, streaming and grading students all of which, it seems, is on the rise due to National Standards.  Instead of standardising learning, in the process creating ‘winners and losers’ what is required is a personalising of the learning process so as to build on and extend the gifts and passions of all students.

I have learnt that it is possible to develop positive learning habits in all students but only if teachers change their minds about teaching first. Recent writing by Art Costa (‘Habits of Mind’) and Guy Claxton (‘powerful learning’) provide teachers with ideas to develop such life-long learning dispositions. A recent book ‘Mindsets’ written by Carol Dweck is a must – her research shows that if students think their ability is ‘fixed’ (born ‘smart’ or ‘dumb’) then their learning is limited but if they see their ability as able to ‘grow’ through  effort, or as other writers have written ‘grit’, then their learning ability is unlimited. Understanding the effects of such mind-sets has real educational power.

The most important realisation we all gained was the centrality of inquiry studies to provide the energy to integrate many aspects of the curriculum. True inquiry studies/projects/challenges need to be open ended enoughto allow the personal interests of students to be encouraged or taken advantageof. Today there is a lot written about inquiry/project based learning but the vital thing is for students to, as the 2007New Zealand Curriculum states, to be ‘seekers, users and creators of their own knowledge’. Teachers in this process have a vital role to:  provide resources, to value students’ prior
A sidelined curriulum
ideas, to point students in the right direction, to ensure all the appropriate skills are in place and most of all to challenge students understanding.

For the teachers I worked with the morning language (literacy) and mathematics (numeracy) blocks provide the opportunity to introduce such skills as required. Important research for us all in the 80s was the Waikato University School of Education’s Learning In Science Approach (LISP). Essentially this required teachers placing their students in an engaging or provocative situations to gain their questions (and from these their prior ideas/understandings) and then to help them experiment/research to gain the best answers they can concluding with an exhibition, display or assembly/parent presentation This approach is often called guided discovery or constructivist learning - really co-constructivist learning with students and teachers learning together. Such an ‘emergent’ approach makes current pre-planning of knowledge to be gained problematic.

Need to value students ideas
Teachers I worked with, even they stuck to ability grouping, did their best to integrate language and mathematical learning in realistic situations. My advice to teachers today is to ‘reframe’ their literacy and numeracy programmes to contribute skills and knowledge to the current inquiry study (ies).  Obviously not all language/mathematical tasks directly contribute to the afternoon studies – many will be stand-alone inquiry studies in their own right.

Although in my own teaching I refused to use ability grouping I did use grouping with students working in four rotating collaborative groups in language and maths times with one day to finish tasks. The inquiry programme we also arranged in collaborative groups. Studies usually lasted three to five weeks with the first week introducing tasks through shared experiences, the second ( and often a third) defined group work,  and  during the final week students worked independently to complete tasks. As with the language/mathematics block teachers worked with identified groups or individuals (to challenge their thinking and to provide personalised help) while other groups worked independently. To ensure such
Jerrome Bruner
independence all tasks were defined on the white board/blackboard
. Defined tasks were a mix of individual assignments and group tasks. By Term three students had enough skill and responsibly to complete work of quality. Such teachers put into practice the words of Jerome Bruner that teaching is ‘the canny art of intellectual temptation’. Teachers, where possible, introduced all studies (including maths and language studies) by means of ‘tempting’ displays. The learning environments developed were a subtle mix of a workshop, an art studio/ museum and a science laboratory with the room environment reflecting well displayed quality work.

The need to do fewer things well.

A key idea we all held was to do ‘fewer things well’ – to ‘uncover rather than cover’. Through involvement in rich generative content, as well as producing quality work (by students being taught to ‘seek, use and create their own knowledge’) students also acquired learning how to learn skills; we all believed product and process were equally important. Over the year teachers ensured students were introduced to content drawn from, or integrating strands, from across the learning areas.  A particular emphasis was the exploration of the immediate man-made and natural environment.

A vital appreciation we all had was the need for every student, particularly those who had had little experience of success, to complete work of personal quality. We felt the need to celebrate the
Creativity - edge of Chaos
smallest success for learners recovering from previous poor experiences at home and at school. Such teachers understood educationalists Jerome Bruner’s simple advice, ‘people get good at what they get good at’.
 This required providing those in need with appropriate feedback and ‘scaffolding’. Such personalised assistance we saw as the artistry of a teacher – the ability to provide help but to still leave the agency for learning with the learner resulting in work expressing the diversity of the learners.

Slowing the pace of work.

Developing such a creative learning environment takes time. One important phrase we all used was ‘to slow the pace of work’. Too many students arrive in our classes thinking that ‘first finished is best’ and spoil many good starts by rushing their work.

Teachers I have worked with have developed a range of ways to slow the pace of their students and in the process gaining the time to help students in need.

Observation age 10
The use of a range of art processes in one way to slow the pace of work so as to develop a sense of quality and pride through creative achievement – it takes time to develop an idea to a realisation.  Pace of work was equally slowed through a process to develop a quality piece of writing.  Learning to value personal experience was a valuable activity – student personal experience books, and their study books, were excellent ways to demonstrate growth of quality writing and presentation from February to December. Another means to slow the pace was observational drawing – an activity that contributes to art as well as science studies. So many students we found see but don’t look. Such observational and associated sensory awareness also contributes to the development of language as well as providing time for questions and ideas to emerge.

As work of quality develops the teachers celebrate students’ achievements, processes, and finished work, by carefully arranged displays.  Such displays featured provocative headings, key questions, and often, prior as well as researched ideas. A visit to rooms following such an approach shows the importance the teachers give to their students’ ideas.

The artistry of the teacher

What I have observed in all the  creative teachers I have  worked with over the decades is that they are always in motion, working with students, singly, in small groups; briefly addressing the class as a whole, inviting , explaining, explaining, gently correcting, and sincerely affirming. As Elwyn Richardson has written ‘I learnt as much from my students as they learnt from me’.

Learning from the students

The ideas above reflect the teachers’ artistry but creative teachers also learn as much from the behaviours of their students as from each other. A few students come to my mind all now in their forties!

Roger, Phillip and Grant were active boys with poor ability in literacy and numeracy but all have done well in life by tapping their innate skills. For these students, school, particularly secondary school was more
Phillip's lino cut
endured than appreciated.
From my own experience such boys, with a history of non-learning, needed at least eighteen months to recover their confidence indicating the importance of ‘family grouping’. At least they escaped the demeaning labelling of National Standards will suffer under in the future. Grants mother recently told me he still remembers the piece of writing I helped him with about killing pigs.

At the other extreme was Charlotte, who never applied herself to spelling, times tables or bothered with neat writing (much to the displeasure of her accountant father), but was a wonderful poet, dancer and empathetic to others needs.   Now wife of a New Zealand Ambassador she is a well-recognised artist. She recently wrote to me to say her art career was motivated by my teaching and that now her dad is proud of her achievements!

A couple of boys, Geoff and Roger, traveled overseas. On their return their parents said jokingly they were sick of my name – at every experience the boys told their parents ‘Mr Hammonds would like this!’ We all influence our students in ways we can’t imagine as we all often discover at school reunions.

One young lady Tracey entered my crowded class of 38 at midterm. I was too busy with our current class study to pay much attention to her. I sat her with a powerful group of high achieving girls - Jane, Sharon and Jan. After three weeks the principal informed me Tracey’s parents were visiting to talk about her reading progress. After a short panic, and my first ever running record, I worked out she was reading about
From observation to imagination
her chronological age – the other girls were several years ahead of their age. Before I could explain to Tracey’s parents they told me how pleased they were with my reading programme (almost non-existent) and that Tracey now really enjoyed school. I was somewhat confused but later discovered the other girls, who liked Tracey, realised she was well behind them in reading and, while in the library, picked out books for her that they had read years before and helped her progress ! There is a lesson in this story?  The best teachers are often other students. Tracey, now a teacher, said she knew I didn’t have the programme her parents imagined I had when I visited her school! I had to agree.

A couple of very bright girls Jane and Megan (who would score highly on National Standards!) were coasting and I had to tell their parents they ought to be working harder. The parents were somewhat confused but, with time, appreciated that I was right.

Classrooms as learning communities

The best classrooms are true learning communities of scientist and artists, something we all learnt from Elwyn Richardson all those years ago. All students have different passions, gifts, needs or
Room environments
talents to tap into. And all involved can learn off each other

Cultures count for better or worse. We have moved from cultures of collegiality and sharing to one where schools are being encouraged to compete with each other – a trend that will be amplified by school comparisons based on narrow achievement data.

The past creative cultures  are now at risk in the current standardised conservative surveillance culture teachers have to comply to.

It will be a difficult future challengefor teachers to keep the creative spirit alive unless a new political climateis created. Such a climate last originated out the hopelessness of the 1930s depression, the destruction of WW2 and, eventually, resulted in the social transformation of the sixties. This is when we all entered the teaching profession. Looking back our generation of teachers lived in the best of times.

There are some that are predicting we are entering a new age of creativity –  a second renaissance this time on the back of modern information technology rather than the invention of the printing press. It would be a shame if our education system, through political interference, is facing the wrong century.


Anonymous said...

Thanks for sharing ideas over the years - I hope that such creativity is not to be stifled by the moves to standardise education of the current government.

Bruce Hammonds said...

I have always enjoyed sharing but , if there is no change in government I will call it a day! I have had my turn - it will be over to others.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for sharing your last PowerPoint - excellent. Let's hope that we have a change in government!! And I hope there are others continuing the great work you and your colleagues have provided.