Thursday, February 12, 2015

Primary school complacency and Secondary school confusion.

I am often asked if I am still involved in education and my answer is not really but still like reading about it and writing blogs about things that attract my interests.

A follow up question is who reads your blog and my answer is I have no idea - I write to express my own belief in  student centred ideas about learning; ideas that seem increasingly under attack by 'market forces' politicians who seem intent on measuring, testing and comparing schools.

 I write for the New Zealand situation but over half the visits to my site come from international sources. Now and then I meet a teacher socially, or in the supermarket, who thanks me for sharing creative teaching ideas. And of course a number of people write supportive comments (and  about 700 get the blog sent to them by e-mail).

But when it all boils down I write for the fun of it and to keep alive the spirit of creative education as expressed best by John Dewey at the turn of the 20th C

For all that I am not sure if many primary or secondary agree with me.

My experience, in recent years, with primary schools is that they have, due to political pressure, become more traditional  with their programmes concentrating on literacy and numeracy.  As one commentator has said 'it is as if literacy and numeracy gobbled up the entire curriculum.' Reminds me of the majority of the classrooms of the 1950s and 60s. They present happy friendly environments but  from an early age they set about dividing students into demeaning ability grouping in literacy and numeracy - hardly student centred. Worse still some primary schools have moved into setting across classrooms in maths. School always have good reasons for such decisions.

I believe that unquestioned use of ability grouping  ( plus the narrowing of the curriculum resulting from the imposition of the reactionary National Standards) is the major block towards developing a more personalized approach to learning.

Several researchers have written about the negative consequences of ability grouping.And there are the examples of Finnish and Asian school systems who only use heterogeneous grouping and get better results

As for secondary schools , after recently reading Bali Haque's book ( 'Changing our Secondary Schools')  I  feel sympathy for the schools and their  teachers  trying to cope with the potentially
 transformational demands of the NCEA .Bali was previously  a school principal and deputy chief executive at NZQA.  There is also the pressure  for secondary schools  to develop a 21stC  learning environment in structures with their genesis in a past age. David  Hood book's title, 'Our Secondary Schools Don't Work Anymore' sums up my own position. Another book worth reading, with ideas to transform secondary education, is Catching the Knowledge Wave by Jane Gilbert

I plan to write a blog to share Bali's ideas in a future blog. His book is well worth reading, as is David Hoods.

Both sectors are  also under pressure from a growing imposed  surveillance and audit culture that is the antithesis of creativity, innovative thinking and personalization of learning.

So for primary schools the need is to create a learning environment that focuses on developing the talents and gifts of all students.

This is not to ignore the obvious importance of literacy and numeracy but to 're-frame' these  basic areas as 'foundation skills'  ( along with modern information technology) to ensure all students have the learning 'competencies' to a 'seek, use and create their own knowledge' as the New Zealand Curriculum states.

For secondary schools it means moving away from compartmentalized subject centred teaching, and streaming by ability,  so as  to introduce authentic  integrated learning contexts.
 Such authentic contexts would call upon the diverse specialist skills  and cultural backgrounds of secondary teachers as well as offering personalized assistance for students with special needs in literacy and numeracy  - and in  other areas needing assistance

I guess that sums up my position.

Primary schools reflect complacency about their demeaning use of ability grouping and the associated  distortion of their programmes neglecting  in the process the personal interests of their students.

In our secondary schools  confusion reigns with the difficulty of facing up to the need to make them truly inclusive student centred 21stC learning environments.

Complacency and confusion. 

Hope lies with creative teachers doing their best to introduce innovative ideas.

If my blog helps in anyway that's great - if not no matter.


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Melissa said...

I so agree, my family and I have just moved to Australia and I'm homeschooling my two boys as I am just so tired of my boys hating school and me getting frustrated with their teachers assessment centred approach. Here the state schools are just as bad if not worse :(

Bruce Hammonds said...

Thanks Melissa

I fear that the teach to the test nonsense is far worse and with it 'shonky' school comparison than it is in New Zealand.

Check out my blog on John Holt ( great quotes) a few blogs back - he was a reformer but now widely recognized as a supporter of home schooling. He gave up on educational reform a long time ago.

I still hold out hope in NZ

Anonymous said...

Do you know of any schools that have given up on ability grouping? I think you are right - ability grouping in literacy and numeracy is stronger than ever due to the growing influence of National Standards. As a result real in depth inquiry learning is hard to find.

I will be interested to read your take on Bali Haque's book. Secondary schools have a long way to become student centred or personalized.

Bruce Hammonds said...

To be honest I don't know of any schools that have moved away from the use of ability grouping- I never used them myself as a teacher but had trouble convincing teachers, when a principal, to not use them - at least teachers placed the focus on in depth inquiry topics and integrated their literacy and numeracy best they could. My brief look at a few classrooms end of last year didn't impress me - but I don't get to see many classrooms these days.

I agree about secondary schools. This is where the biggest changes will need to happen - they could start by developing integrated contextual studies for their year 9 and 10 students. This was something Bali wrote about.