Wednesday, August 31, 2016

What the modern world has forgotten about children and teaching. and solutions to ensure all students learn

A powerful read about Western WEIRD Education

Modern Western learning and teaching based on 'collecting data on human learning  of children's behaviour in school is like collecting data on killer whales based on their behaviour at Sea World.'
WEIRD killer whales

The full article was written for the Washington Post by Valerie Strauss August 20th and was based on research by Carol Black a filmmaker who has been deeply involved in the unschooling and alternative education movements

Carol's writing posted on her blog provides insight why modern schooling fails so many students.

Carol's blog was motivated in response to an educational consultant's  view that 'spontaneous reading happens for a few kids. The vast majority need ...explicit instruction in phonics' A view based on 'research' and 'data'.  This edict got under Carol's skin,  'It is possible to be bad at phonics even if you already know how to read. Many such "scientific " pronouncements  emanate from the educational establishment. The 'tone of cool authority carries a clear message to the rest of us: we know how children learn.You don't'.'

Real learning or school learning.

The point Carol is making is that it is not the 'science of how people learn'- it is the 'science of what happens to people at school'. She has come to the conclusion that 'today people do not even know what children are actually like. Thy only know what children are like at school'.And she makes the point that schools results 'are mixed at best'.

Learning before schools

She comments that  before schools were established people learnt to read in a variety of ways. They learnt to read because when people really want a skill, it goes viral, you can't stop it. In other words 'they could read for all the same reasons we can now use computers.We don't know about
Natural learning
how to use computers because we learnt it at school but  because we wanted to learn and were free to learn it in whatever way worked best for us'.
This effectiveness is a 'characteristic of human being'.

At school however if you haven't learnt to read before school you are not free to learn in this way. At school your learning will be planned, controlled and monitored and measured by 'experts'. according to the 'best possible data'  If  your learning style doesn't fit, you will be 'remediated, scrutinized, stigmatized, tested, and ultimately diagnosed and labelled'. Think back to how you learnt to use a computer- do you even remember how/ 'You just learnt it, right?'

Embedded learning

As humans children originally learnt 'by being embedded in adult activities, surrounded by older and younger children and grandparents, immersed in the natural world, free to move and play ...and where they are able to observe, imitate and then participate in adult work as they became developmentally ready.' In such an environment 'nuanced skills can be acquired in ways that appear almost effortless'.

Learning from indigenous cultures

Carols refers to several indigenous cultures that 'know you wait to give a child a task until you see that she is ready for it' and that 'if a child tries something and then backs away , you leave them alone because he will be back to try again later'; 'that you learn better from from story than lecture; from hands on experience than direct instruction; that children learn best by emulating older children, not being taught by adults'.

But in schools we don't know such things any more. We test, ability group and enforce current formulaic 'best practice'.

Unnatural learning at school

Carol writes 'we have radically altered our own evolved species behaviour by segregating children artificially in same age peer groups instead of mixed aged communities, by compelling them to be indoors and sedentary for most of the day, by asking them to learn from text based artificial materials instead of real world activities, by dictating arbitrary timetables for learning rather than following the unfolding of a child's developmental readiness.' She compares this with animals being left in zoo.

'Commonsense', she writes, ' should tell us that this will have complex and unpredictable results' and continues saying while many children seem able to function in this artificial environment an significant number cannot and that , as a result, many normal  bright healthy children  are labelled as failures in ways that damage them for life. and for those who cannot adapt are 'diagnosed as brain disordered and drugged'.

WEIRD research

Carol makes reference to researchers from the University of British Columbia who in 2010 challenged the way that  broad generalizations  about human nature and behaviour  have been based on a narrow cultural subset of humanity - what the researchers called 'the Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, Democratic societies - WEIRD for short.. 

WEIRD has become "normal"

 These  WEIRD  societies  were not representative  of the variation of human populations  but they  pertain 'to the type of education that we think of as "normal"; an education that has a preference for competition over cooperation; self promotion over humility;  analytical over holistic thinking; for individual rather than collective success; for direct rather than indirect instruction;  and
Doesn't suit me!
for for hierarchical rather than egalitarian conception of status. 'We control and direct and measure our children's learning in excruciating detail' in other words 'what we take as a "normal" learning environment is not at all normal.

Learning from ADHD students

'Traits that would be valued in the larger American society - energy, creativity, Independence - will get you into trouble in the classroom' and for many children these traits lead to disruptive behaviour and alienation. This, Carol reflects, applies to many children diagnosed with ADHD who like to do things with their hands, who crave real work and who dislike being sedentary. 'Such students like to focus on things that interest them, that spark their curiosity, that drive them to tinker and explore'.
Hekia is WEIRD

Experts in our WEIRD  society tell us these children are disabled; they have poor impulse control; they lack organisational skills; they are oppositional; they are 'problems" in our classrooms

In societies such as the Maori in New Zealand traditionally would observe the young to observe and value the attributes of their yog. The adults role in such societies is 'support this process, not to shape it'.

WEIRD school  limit children's learning

In the WEIRD school situation, 'if you can't read at seven you are going to be stigmatized and humiliated and made incredibly anxious in ways that are going to interferes with your ability to learn.'.  Carol refers to her own daughter who had not learnt to
Anxious learners
read at seven but six months later she was reading Harry Potter independently.How did this happen, she doesn't really know? And states 'this is an important point; you don't know. I don't know.Nobody really knows. The cognitive processes which underline literacy are complex beyond our wildest imagination; and scientific understanding of them is in its early infancy.' This pattern in learning is not uncommon.

Be critical of educational "experts"
Poutama - stairway to learning

'What should concern us even more is what these "experts" are claiming to know more about the cognitive process of reading than they actually know.

'As any Maori mother knows  children do not learn in a straight upward line but in a stair step pattern. They leap forward then plateau for a while , then leap forward again.' 'You have to be there , providing warmth and stability, providing tools and resources, answering question, telling stories, having meaningful adult conversations and doing meaningful adult work in their presence,But when they soar, its on their own wings'.

Any Cree parent knows you can tell when a child is ready for something because he will ask questions bout it. You can't control the timing of this, and there is no reason to.'

 Normal ranges of learning.

Even in WEIRD societies everybody knows there is a normal range of several months during which a child will say her first words or take her first steps. There is no basis that children will reach any major milestone at a uniform age. As children move through the life cycle the normal range of variation increases dramatically and yet we have created a  compulsory  institution that sets achievement targets that schools must ensure their students achieve..

Who likes to be scrutinized and measured?
Destroying differences

Another point Carol makes is that 'young kids don't want to be watched all the time. They don't want to be scrutinized and measured . They often don't want to be praised or encouraged. They have a remarkable sense of dignity and autonomy, and they often defend it fiercely. They want their learning to be their own,'

The power of a stimulating environment

Children in rich stimulating environments learn to read. 'The point is that they learnt to read the way we learnt to use computers; flexibly, idiosyncratically, each in their own way and at whatever time and pace worked best for him.When kids are allowed to begin reading when they are interested and ready ... develop between the age four to ten'. Interestingly in the successful Finnish schools system they do not start direct instruction in reading until age seven.

Individual differences

 'Why do some children read later than others?Again we don't know.But many late readers  have high levels of interest in the mechanical, musical, spatial, mathematical, or digital realms. Many are gifted in the performing arts or athletics'. Einstein, for example  did not speak until the age of three, some children simply develop their skills in a different order. In other words it is not a big deal.Unless you make it a big deal.'. If you push a child a read when he is not ready, you can do a lot of damage very fast

ADHD students - a  diverse set of learners
Value different talents

'Children's resistance takes many forms, inattention, irritability, disruption, withdrawal, restlessness, forgetting, in fact all the "symptoms"  of ADHD are the behaviours of a child who is actively or passively resisting adult control. Once you start  to generate this resistance to learning, if you don't back away quickly, it can solidify into something very disabling.. If you press a child hard to do something she is really developmentally unable to do....the psychological shutdown that occurs is catastrophic. Let me repeat this: when you ask a child to do something she simply developmentally can not do, you create a profound belief that (a) I hate this (b) I can't do this (c) I will never be able to do this, and (d) There is something wrong with me'.

As a result in doing this 'you create a subclass of children so bewildered, so anxious, whose....development and organisation are so severely disrupted that you have no way of knowing what they would have been like if you had not done this to them.'. 

National Standards do not exist in nature they are created 'scientifically" and imposed by fiat 'creating disabilities in kids who would have been fine if allowed to read on their own developmental schedule'. 

Value the uniqueness of our children

'Because guess what? If there is one thing that the data proves, it's that our children are all different' and 'lo an behold research is beginning to show that dyslectics are smarter in some ways than the readers. Did we really have to wait for science to discover this? Could we not just look into our children's bright eyes and know that most of them bring something unique and special to the world? Do we have to line them up and compare them and find a predicable percentage of them to be "deficient" and even "disabled"'. The vast percent of people estimated to be dyslectic are perfectly healthy normal people who simply have different talents - 'no more disabled by their particular way of learning than a concert pianist is disabled by not being a good hockey player'. These children's brains are organised differently and when we interfere we are robbing these children of an opportunity to build organically on their many strengths - lateral thinking, intuition, imagination and creativity.  They are not 'broken'  in need of being "fixed".

Value cultural differences

Sadly, Carol writes, 'indigenous children are tested and all too often found to be less intelligent and more learning"disabled" than urban white children which is a 'deeply disturbing phenomena which turns up among traditional rural people all over the world'. This results not so much as an 'achievement gap but more a cultural or 'opportunity gap'.

The knowledge such students  bring with them is ignored. Many school based tests, including IQ tests, ' are more a measure of modernization - of a large scale shift in industrial societies from concrete to abstract thinking; from holistic to analytic thinking, from contextualized thinking to deconstructed linear thinking'.. Modern  education is based on the narrowly focused mechanistic  analytic part of the brain and  not aligned with  more broadly focused , holistic , relationship part of the brain.

 'Modern education has become dangerously unbalanced in the direction of a kind of cold, abstracted, mechanical analysis at the expense of a more interconnected, compassionate, holistic understanding of the world.'

Diversity exists for a reason.

'Human diversity exists for a reason; our differences are our genius- and the conscience- of our species.It is no wonder that indigenous holistic thinkers are the ones who have been consistently reminding us of our appropriate place in the ecological systems of life as our narrowly focused technocratic society veers wildly between conservation and wholesale destruction of the planet. It's no accident that dyslexic holistic thinkers are often our artists, our inventors, our dreamers, our rebels.' 

'Cognitive imperialism'

The trouble is according to research is 'there is a tendency of one powerful group to claim authority to define its own cognitive traits as normal and desirable and all other ways of thinking, learning, and understanding as deficits and disabilities; she calls this "cognitive imperialism". It's the cognitive equivalent of racism... and it leads to one way thinking of learning of being in the world is destined to overwhelm and replace all others.' This brings up back to the appreciation that 'there is nothing "scientific"  about the effort to decide on the One Best Evidence Based Method for teaching reading to all children'. 

Learn from the wisdom of indigenous cultures.

One indigenous culture knows that 'you don't  have force children to learn, you just give them the tools and let them play'. Any Cree grandmother knows 'if you see a child doing something incorrectly, you don't shame them by overly pointing it out, you just quietly, without fanfare, demonstrate the right way to do it'. 'Sometimes a child will sometimes learn more from your silence than from your speech'.

Learn from pioneer creative holistic teachers

Slowly, falteringly, science is rediscovering some of this.

I would also add that creative teachers who believe in a holistic creative education have long known one more so than New Zealand pioneer creative teacher Elwyn Richardson. His book, recently republished by the NZCER is still as relevant as ever.

So, while we wait for science to rediscover  all this, what are we to do with this child, this completely unique constellation of human gifts and brilliances ?'.

'We still need wisdom, not data, to raise good children'. ' Talk to  gifted scientists, writers, artists, entrepreneurs.You will find they learnt as indigenous children learns 'though observation, experimentation, immersion, freedom, participation, through real play and work, through the kind of free activity where the distinction between work and play disappears. Talk to a really good auto mechanic, carpenter, farmer,  fiddle player, web designer, film editor, songwriter, photographer, chef and you will find they learn ed the same way'.

Be like the fish who discovers water.
Last to discover water

Educational researchers  are just beginning to appreciate this wisdom. 'Like  proverbial  fish  who has yet to discover water, most are still limited by the WEIRD set of assumptions that confine their range of inquiry and haven't yet realized that the element they live in not the entire world.; they haven't seen that they are circling inside the glass wall of of a fishbowl of their own creation; and that there is universe of possibilities for learning that they have never dreamed of,'

Begin now 

'We can begin  rediscovering it now. Experiment. Observe, Listen.Explore the thousand other ways of learning that exist all over the planet.Read the data and then set it aside.Watch your child's eyes what makes them go dull and dead., what makes them brighten, quicken, glow with light.That's where learning lies'

A world to explore 


Ann@College Reine Marie said...

On point! Good instruction is good instruction, regardless of students' racial, ethnic, or socioeconomic backgrounds. To a large extent, good teaching—teaching that is engaging, relevant, multicultural, and appealing to a variety of modalities and learning styles—works well with all children.

Bruce Hammonds said...

Agree. Trouble is that the WEIRD attributes still underpin our education system. Not as much however as in the USA. This is reflected in the lack of success of Maori and Pasifica and in their desire for their own culturally appropriate schools.

Izuna armstrong said...

Thanks bruce , this exactly my opinion, the school will destroy the creativity of our child and like you said in an precedent article customized learning is the solution

Bruce Hammonds said...

Ironically I am as enthusiastic as ever about education but not so much schooling. Schooling seems to suit academic learners but even then such students are limited by the narrowness of their schooling.