Thursday, December 04, 2014

It's a creative culture that counts - time schools and teachers created such a learning culture

At this time of the year teachers are busy writing their reports and placing their students in the various National Standards level - above, at, or below. Schools in turn will be compiling data to 'prove' that their students have gained in achievement against the standards over the year.

Current assessment a waste of time!
The trouble is  is that the standards are neither national or standard. Schools and teachers make use of a range of tests and  then add to the mix their 'TOJ's ( teacher objective judgments). That the standards sort students by their achievement in literacy and numeracy, bi-passing many students whose areas of interests are in other areas of the curriculum, is quietly ignored. At the secondary level schools have to achieve Ministry of Education targets  in NCEA which places the emphasis on  getting students over the hurdles.

Developing the  diverse gifts and talents of many students is lost in such procedures and is not helped by the inevitable narrowing of the curriculum by teaching to the standards. The only saving grace is that, so far,  we do not have standardized national tests and with them comparative  league tables which have been put in place in the US, the UK and Australia.

There are a number of voices that share my concern about National Standards. Ironically introduced to ensure  success for the 'one in five students failing'   they themselves are failing far more students by the neglect of other areas of learning other than literacy and numeracy. Ignored in the process is the obvious fact that most of the so called failing students are to be found in low decile schools- the  unintended ( one would hope) consequences of government policies that have created the inequality gap in our country.

I feel sorry for all the teachers and schools  who seem to have no choice but to comply with such nonsense.

An excellent book
In contrast if we look at our most successful innovators we find that many of them have gained their success in spite of school.

A recent book by Tony Wagner did exactly this in the United States. He was looking for common factors that such innovators shared. Firstly he found that schools were not a strong contributor to such individuals development.  Most, however, were lucky enough to have had a mentor ( some, but not all, were teachers) who encouraged their area of interest. The second factor was that they enjoyed collaborative work with like minded students in their areas of interest and, finally, they had parents who gave them both encouragement to follow their interests and allowed them plenty of time to play around with their ideas - or just to play.

Pink Floyd and school
Wagner writes that kindergartens offer the best model for later schooling. Create the environment, it seems, and they will learn. It is a creative  culture not  obsessive testing and formulaic teaching that is the answer - culture counts. As Pink Floyd sang, 'teacher leave that kid alone - we don't need your mind control'.

Creative teachers, and parents have always known this.  New
Elwyn Richardson
Zealand pioneer creative teacher Elwyn Richardson created, in his small rural school, a  'community of scientists and artists' busy exploring and expressing their ideas. Today teachers, in the current hyper assessment and surveillance culture, have a hard time to achieve such positive learning cultures.

Innovative adults, if the right environment is provided, gain a positive learning identity though achieving what motivates them. Success is its own reward;  their risk taking mentality allows them to continually learn through enlightened trial and error.

Schools could be transformed  to become similar creative environments  but to do so will mean that teachers will have to change the way they teach. Teachers  need to challenge such things as: the focus on literacy and numeracy ( and to 're-frame them as foundation skills'); do away with corrosive ability grouping and streaming; the obsession with narrow accountability data; and develop a relevant ( to the learners) integrated and collaborative curriculum.

 One thing New Zealand Schools could well do is to dust off the 2007 New Zealand Curriculum and place it centre stage ; to develop a personalized learning environment to replace the increasingly  standardized one.

I like the idea of imaging schools as multidimensional  science/ creative arts/technology workshops  continually creating an endless and diverse  range of exhibitions,  performances, demonstrations and displays as is now best seen at science , art and technology fairs. Successful exhibits at such fairs require both design and inquiry skills to be in place. In a school setting finished work could be added to each child's  electronic  portfolios for all to see; in the process taking care of assessment. Teachers would obviously have a creative role in such environments and would work best in diverse teams able to focus on understanding every students' strengths and talents ;educational talent scouts!

Many innovative school already do this - but they are the exceptions. There are ideas available how to transform even  the most resistant of all organisations - the secondary school; schools from year 7 to 13 . As well there are no shortage of encouraging books to inspire action.

What we require are environments where students are given apprenticeships in learning that  to develop powerful life long
learning habits through the activities they undertake. They would also through  the encouragement they get from each other  and from their transformed teachers. Human brains are  programmed through evolution to absorb what is around them -  for better or worse. Culture is, and always has been, the key.

Through the positive learning opportunities innovative teachers place in front of them, students learn to create a world of personal significance and appropriate learning behaviors ; simply by being part of a exciting environment.  Educationalist Jerome Bruner wrote, decades ago, that, 'teaching is the canny art of intellectual temptation,' and added, 'people get good at what they get good at'. Brains are hardwired to learn  through curiosity, excitement and fascination.

Culture counts; teachers need to work replace the current sterile audit culture with a truly creative one. 

When students have the opportunity to develop their interests they are then in a position to pick up on what attracts their attention - what is personally relevant to them.They are, in sense, primed to learn. As one of Tony Wagner's innovators said, 'they know how to learn by themselves', or, in the words of the 2007 New Zealand Curriculum, they are able to 'seek, use and create their own knowledge.' Students in an ideal learning environment  are  continually
 shaping their minds and  amplifying their imagination. Unfortunately this enlightened view of learning is light years away from the current audit and surveillance culture which limits both teachers and students. By working with others students are able to call on the knowledge of their fellow learners. In such environments ideas become communal with learners building on the ideas of others  - a default mode of learning process one hard-wired  from birth but  unfortunately all too easily crushed at school.

This is open ended learning - where students, as artists and scientists, discover as they go along. What students learn  then informs their future choices. Who they are, and who they will
become is woven out of their learning experiences

It is obvious  currently we  are not developing  all our students as future innovators - which was the theme of Tony Wagner's book. If we want to develop New Zealand as an innovative country then the only place to start is in our schools.

So far schools are failing in this responsibility losing wisdom in the pursuit in mere cleverness. No wonder, when their interests and views are ignored,  that many students simply disengage, or worse  leave wounded or alienated

As John Dewey wrote a century ago, 'education is not a preparation for life'.... 'they grow into tomorrow as they live today.' It is the culture that counts not the endless measuring of irrelevant teacher pre-determined objectives.


Anonymous said...

Just heard an interview on National Radio where the guest ( who had just won some science award from the PM) made the point that students were not being excited by their experience of science at school. The reason she gave was the right answer test culture which gave the wrong impression of what science is all about.

In the term of your blog the wrong culture?

Bruce Hammonds said...

I also heard the interview and had the same thoughts.

The other day I heard the President of the PPTA ( the secondary teachers' union) saying that the pressure for schools to achieve imposed percentages of passes in NCEA was narrowing the teaching in an attempt to look good.

No wonder kids get the wrong message about learning.