Wednesday, January 06, 2016

Education - a new year - a time to reflect

Mount Taranaki reflected in mountain lake

It is a long time since I posted a blog.

The last was to share a new book written about pioneer educationalist Elwyn Richardson.. Elwyn developed his creative teaching philosophy in the 1950s a time not noted for innovative ideas but changes were in the air following World War Two.

Elwyn's book is worth a read as it represents the importance of valuing the views of classroom teachers - more relevant than ever in today's increasingly standardised teaching environment.

Educationalist John Dewey once commented that it is all too easy to forget to take advantage of  retiring experienced teachers . Sharing creative classroom teachers' ideas , past and present, is what this blog is all about - and it is, as mentioned, more important than ever as top down solutions are imposed on schools.

So ,before I lose the habit of blogging, I thought I would contribute a few personal  reflections I have had over the holidays.

I have   been reflecting on the need to continue with the blog as my own teaching experiences fade into the distance.  At heart I believe it is important for everyone to have something worthwhile to contribute and, as one gets older , more important than ever to still feel relevant. Learning is a lifelong
 adventure and I am always impressed with my older friends who continue to learn and be involved in worthwhile things. In particular I admire the small group of retired educationalists who continue to fight for a creative education system - one that values the voice and experience of teachers and students  rather than distant 'experts' or, worse still, populist politicians.

So blogging is my way to express my own thoughts and hopefully be of some use to those who read the blog.  I believe it is important to provide an outsiders point of view because it is all too easy for busy teachers to come to accept as 'normal' current expectations.

 I like the idea of being a 'critical friend' whose role is to ask questions; to ask does it have to be this way; and , what would happen if we tried new ways of doing things? Sometimes it seems that many teachers, overwhelmed with imposed requirements, find it a lot easier not to face up to alternatives to current practice or to  simply take on board imposed directions without question. It is always easier to 'go along to get along'! Unfortunately  this results in many teachers  becoming oblivious to alternatives. I have always liked the phrase that 'fish are the last to discover water'. It seems it is all too easy to become blind to the obvious.
Avoid 'silo' thinking

Teachers at all levels are trapped in 'silo thinking'  more so at the secondary level with fragmented subject thinking but primary teachers an't see past the unquestioned use of ability grouping.

At the end of last term the current local principals always invite retired principals to join them for breakfast. At this breakfast a newly appointed secondary principal talked to us. His appointment ( coming from the business world) had been a bit controversial and he was keen share with us his views and to emphasize that most of his 'business'  experience had been with non profit organisations. He made the point that schools like his have to ensure that they have the responsibility to ensure all students leave positive about  and equipped for their  future lives. Schools he said should  not just to focus and celebrate those who go on to university. He also thought that students working with multi disciplinary teams of teachers worth trying.
Out of the box thinking

Mind you I am well aware that catering for all students rather than just the 'academic' is the current directive from the Ministry

I left the breakfast feeling his appointment was a positive move. Maybe too many current principals have been captured by the status quo and appointments outside of teaching may provide fresh thinking?

At this breakfast meeting it was  enlightening to be told by the chairperson   that some of the innovative ideas being currently considered had been implemented by some of us older  members years ago and were only now being revisited! Consider, for example, the 'new' idea of Modern Learning Environment (MLEs) which simply are a return to the the open plan schools of the 70/80s. They will only be successful if underpinned by a strong student centred educational philosophy, positive relationships between all involved and well informed and skilled teachers..

While holidaying in Melbourne during December I met a young Australian  secondary school teachers who told me that she had resigned from her position working for the Victorian Education Department.  Her role had been to help teachers implement the Australian testing system ( NAPLAN) but  as she felt uncomfortable assisting teachers implemente a system she didn't believe in she had to resign.  She felt that her job was to make teachers conform. I would've like to have learnt more.

Testing isn't learning
I attended  ( as a guest) a Ministry social function in December and  briefly was critical of current education, particularly secondary education. In my opinion, I said too many students still leave alienated from learning.  This was refuted by those whose job is to assist schools develop pathways to employment. Thought it best to focus on small talk! Maybe this was an example of rhetoric not matching reality? Something I would like to learn more about - maybe things are changing?

I was  also interested to read about a local entrepreneur who had just opened a new hotel in town. In an article about the opening  the developer said that he had found school irrelevant but that he had still done well. My thought was that he obviously had the skills and attitude to get on with
Schools don't suit all brains
life's challenges. Maybe this is a clue for those who want to transform our current education system?

I recently had an interesting conversation with a young teacher on holiday from a position in an international school. International schools follow an American curriculum which does not allow the intellectual freedom she was used to when teaching in NZ.I have had considerable experience presenting at international school conferences and appreciated her situation. It would be shame if we were to go any further down the standardised  test orientated American approach.
Passion, effort and skill

My most recent thought comes from watching artists at the local stone carving symposium held on our cities  coastal walkway. I really admire the passion the artists show and the range of skills required to complete such a difficult task. It will take the artists several days of hard dusty work to complete one piece.

When people do what they love they are prepared to put in the hard work required. I also reflected that with practice artists over the years get better at what they do. Reminds me of educationalist Jerome Bruner saying, many years ago,  that 'people get good at what they get good at'.

I had the thought that if schools spent more time identifying and amplifying the innate talents of their students and then set up opportunities for every student to work towards achieving their potential then all students would leave ready for whatever the future holds for them. Such a personalisation of learning would change the roles both both teachers and students.

This personalised creative approach to learning  was the philosophy that Elwyn Richardson implemented in his small rural school in the 1950s and what has driven all my work since I became aware of such teachers as Elwyn all those years ago. Elwyn saw his students as 'a community of artists and scientists exploring their environment'.

Once you think about the requirements for a 21stC education the answers seem obvious.
This means we need to transform schools




Josie Holford said...

Thank you Bruce. As always a wonderful and renewing read. Keep reflecting, keep writing, keep sharing. Please!

Anonymous said...

Thank you for keeping up this important conversation. I enjoy reading your ideas, links and words of caution. It is important, as you say for outsiders like you who know where we've been before in education and what we've lost, to keep reminding us that personalising education is what we pioneered.
Joy Cowley wrote an article in response to the introduction of National Standards a few years ago.
She said that where-ever she traveled to give lectures or writing courses, people asked her why it is that such a small country as New Zealand produces some-one at the top of almost every human endeavour. For years she said she would brush this aside as she wasn't sure if it was true. However when the question kept being asked, she decided to look into it and found it to be more true than she had at first thought. She believes that the answer lies in our education system which fosters creativity and individualised learning and she expressed her concern at the introduction of National Standards. I keep that article with Joy's photo on my desk to keep me honest.
Tolstoy said that the trick in life is to learn to flow with the river. So far I have managed to survive and keep my integrity as a teacher who believes in helping my students to find their own pathways and creative powers. I have done this by shunning management roles which would require me to "sing the ministry song" Lester Flockton's words. I rework the old ideas in new environments, eg I use my " Mantle of the Expert" techniques from my drama days with Dorothy Heathcote, to empower those children with digital expertise so that they become class experts and teach us all. Inquiry learning has never gone away and the digital era has given it new life. It is possible to scaffold learners to inquire about questions they are passionate about when there are such diverse resources available. I am frequently blown away by the work my year 5/6 students produce.
My past learning has served me well. I was lucky enough to be have been taught by people like Don Holdaway and Allan Trussel-Cullen and to have been given the freedom in my training to pursue my talents in drama and writing.
Unfortunately the training of many of the young teachers now, has not prepared them so well to be responsive to diverse needs and to teach creatively. But there are some who come from careers they've found unsatisfying and who bring their fire and passion and talents to their newly chosen path. I love to work with those younger teachers. Together we have much to offer.
Keep up your good work and know that even when we don't respond, your words hearten us on many a Sunday evening when we wonder if we can endure.
Kia Kaha