Thursday, February 19, 2015

Keeping alive the spirit of John Dewey -enuf of Henry Ford!

The student centred ideas of John Dewey have, it seems ,all  but been lost in the country of his birth - the USA, except for the few schools who still follow a progressive view of education. 

(Follow this link to check out Dewey's beliefs about education)

Maybe it is time to return to Dewey to  if we are to escape the domination of those outside schooling who currently determine education. In New Zealand the imposition of National Standards is a case in point along with the move to obsessive testing and data to compare schools..

All more to do with Henry Ford
Develop talents of all

Ability grouping, streaming and a narrow focus on literacy and numeracy are  all part of the problem no matter how friendly and colourful primary classrooms are.

Finding a student centred school is difficult in  New Zealand - ironic as  a few decades ago  primary education was well on the way to being a world leader.  Even the Modern Learning Environments ( MLE) -   a reincarnation of the open plan schools of the 70s are more about architectural features and wireless environments than pedagogy. 'Temples of vacuity' as Kelvin Smythe calls them. ICT is being seen as the ultimate 'silver bullet' but as one writer summed up the situation 'pedagogy before i-pads'.

The above begs the question what is a student centred philosophy - or holistic learning as some refer to it?

Purpose or pedagogy first

Schools who follow the Emilia Reggio approach will know but this approach is limited to early education centres. Schools that follow James Beane's  democratic education ideas ( mainly middle schools ) will also have a good idea. Or secondary schools that are utilizing the ideas of the the Big Picture Company.

Sadly you will find student centred learning  most often used by teachers working with students who have given up on formal traditional schooling. And of course home-schoolers.  Such people have realized the transformation power of tapping students interests.

 John Holt, a leading progressive educator of the 60/70s ,finally gave up on schools ever changing but his early books are still as relevant as ever. Sir Ken Robinson is leading the charge to transform schools today as are people like Guy Claxton whose book 'What's the Point of School' sums up the situation.  New Zealand educator  David Hood's book is even more blunt 'Our Secondary Schools Don't Work Anymore'.

There are no shortage of ideas and educators to inspire transformation but schools are slow to face up to the challenges of the 21st C . The most inspirational book is In the Early World' written in the 60s by pioneer New Zealand educator Elwyn Richardson who saw his classroom as a 'community of scientists and artists' exploring the environment  and issues that concerned them.
Elwyn Richardson

And today we have the move towards personalized learning  an antidote to the  industrial aged standardized learning that  has infected our schooling. A phrase that covers tailor made student centred learning  but so far I do not know of a school that makes this central to all they do.

So like John Holt I am on the verge of giving up on schools ever changing. Maybe modern information technology will make schools obsolete - that is unless they change.

John Dewey believed that the need to learn, to make sense of ones experience, was the inborn innate way humans learn - until they reach formal schooling. One of his key phrases was that 'children are people, they grow into tomorrow only as they live today'. Culture counts - for better or worse.

To create a learning culture teachers need to provide the widest range of experiences for students to respond to. This does not leave determining learning over to the students ( this was a failure of early progressive movements).  The teachers is still possibly the most important influence in any learning environment.  Jerome Bruner ( a  recent follower of Dewey ) has written 'teaching is the canny art of intellectual temptation'.   Another source of ideas is David Perkins

Another tenant of progressive learning is that teachers should look carefully at the individual child as he/she is, and not as they would like him, or her, to be, or as they think he/she should be at a certain age.
Value student's ideas
Teachers need to value the ideas, questions and concerns students bring with them  and not impose their planned curriculum on them. 

Valuing student voice and identity as learners are central.

Learning through experience is an active process. Students bring with them their prior ideas, questions and naive theories and teachers need to be aware of these. In this respect young learners are true scientists working at the 'edge of their competence' ( Bruner).  Students are constantly reaching out for understanding of what interests them and in the process their ideas change.If teachers ignore student ideas, or push them to far, students 'turn off' learning. Far too easily done.

We had in New Zealand some of the best research is this approach to learning  - the Learning in  Science Project based on constructivist learning. The work of Lev Vygotsky introduced the idea of co-contructivism - his phrase 'what a learner can do with help today he can do by himself tomorrow' emphasizing the role of teachers and others in the learning process.

The task is to build on the individual students way of learning in the process providing them with further option in future situations.

Problem solving

Progressive education is about learning through practical problem solving, essentially using scientific thinking or ,in today's terms, inquiry, or problem based  learning. Scientific thinking however is not as straight forward as is often thought  - it is more 'enlightened trial an error'. True learners/scientists are excited about not knowing - it is this that drives them to explore further.

Observing is a essential element in learning. Encouraging students to closely observe what is happening, in any learning area, is all too often overlooked. Students are all too often encouraged to rush through learning and not given time to notice what is really happening; they look but do not see. Slowing the pace of work to encourage a reflective mindset pays off.

In any learning situation it is the student's questions that are most significant and as students dig into what has attracted them their questions deepen.  Teachers need to learn the follow the the lines
What questions and concern do student's have
of inquiry arising out of student's questions helping students refine their idea and work out ways to solve their problems;'learning conversation'. Some call this an 'emergent' curriculum

At this point even the friendliest primary schools fall short with their current obsession on formulaic predetermined  teaching intentions -WALTS, successes criteria and the like let alone their use of ability grouping and their focus on literacy and numeracy at the expense of other equally important areas of learning..

As students become involved in their inquiry studies they will want to express  and share their ideas providing further opportunities for teacher to assist and suggest . Ideas can be expressed scientifically and also , if appropriate, creatively. - another area for teachers to introduce ideas and media for  students to choose  from. By such means students develop informative displays, demonstrations and exhibitions, and  in the process build up  portfolios of their achievements providing teachers ( and themselves) the best means to assess their progress.

In such an approach  literacy  and numeracy are integrated as required. Such areas are still as important as ever but need to be 'reframed' so as to contribute to inquiry studies - or become inquiry studies in themselves. They need to be seen ( along with modern information technology) as
An opportunity
'foundation skills'  - a means to an end.

The range of experiences covered will ( with teachers expertise) cover the strands of a modern curriculum. Every experience will provide opportunities to introduce a range of relevant curriculum areas and will also provide opportunities for students to makes use of, or develop, individual talents.

The New Zealand Curriculum provides inspiration for such progressive approaches with its emphasis on developing students as 'life long learners' able to 'seek, use and create their own knowledge' and  with the need for students to develop the attitudes and competencies  necessary to be able to thrive  in the challenges  ahead of them.

Unfortunately  this curriculum has been somewhat sidelined by the pressure to introduce National Standards, a growing emphasis on standardized assessment, and the traditional emphasis on literacy and numeracy above real inquiry.  At the secondary level assessment requirements and fragmented subject teaching provide a real challenge for teachers.

That their are still educators doing their best, against overwhelming odds, shows all is not lost.

To sum up;

Schools need to be seen as providing learning opportunities/experiences to challenge  ('attract')students

Students learn best through solving  open ended practical problems appreciating that the problems of greatest significance are those the
How many ways can you explore abridge
learners 'own'
. Learning how to learn - an innate need - is the ultimate result of positive learning. It is important to do fewer things well to encourage in depth learning.

As far as knowledge is concerned  students will call on traditional subject areas as required - and also modern information technology. Literacy and numeracy need to be 'reframed' so as to contribute to in depth learning

Students as part of their exploration have a need to communicate their finding both scientifically and creatively. This provides the best way to assess progress.

The teachers role is to: create a learning culture ( a culture of inquiry); to provide 'tempting' experiences; to build on
what students bring with them; and  do everything to assist individual students gain the skills to achieve personal success.

Teachers need to create  conditions for all students to engage in productive learning and as part of this to  negotiate benign organisational structures to contribute to a positive learning culture. 

The move  from traditional or formal situations needs to be seen as an organic process - one that gains success through the success of students. How to 'tempt' students, particularly those that hove been 'turned off' learning, will become a key challenge for educators at all levels. Making changes gradually but with keeping 'the end in mind' will be good advice.

Teaching in such a learning environment will be more of an art than the science ( unless it is 'enlightened trial and error') as it is often portrayed. 

The approach schools currently use to develop exhibits for Science, Maths and Technology fairs provide some inspiration, as do the various sports and art performances that most school are involved in.

Personalisation of learning may yet be on the horizon; John Dewey's philosophy might  yet replace Henry Ford standardization

Let's hope so.

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