Wednesday, August 31, 2005

All students can be critical thinkers

Turning on the brain - or turning it off? Posted by Picasa

The key to learning at any age is the presentation of a problem to solve. If the learners accept the challenge then learning is 'on'.

Seems simple enough so why don’t schools give up on their preplanned curriculums and base all learning on rich problems, or projects? Are they frightened their students won’t learn enough (they don’t now) ; or that they won’t be able to measure what it is they are supposed to learn ( today they measure only the obvious – important thing like the joy of learning are just too hard it seems); or they frightened of losing control ( imagine students following their own interests individually or in groups); or are they just too busy trying to cope with all the demands placed on them by those distant from the reality of their classrooms? The worst case scenario would be that they have given up thinking about such things and just want to get on with doing a bad job well!

And why is that, when this rich learning is seen, it is in the primary classrooms where student’s individuality and learning styles is valued? In the secondary schools learning has been fragmented into incomprehension by teachers whose own specialty has been created by this very fragmentation - making them blind to what is really required. Instead they blame their student’s behavior, culture, or anything but their own teaching, and the very schools they work in.

Until they give up on this 'deficit thinking' they will never solve their students growing disengagements, failure or alienation.

When they wake up from their industrial age nightmare the will see there are plenty of good ideas out there to introduce to 'turn' all their students 'on' again.

All of these ideas can loosely be lumped under what can be called ‘inquiry approaches’ – ‘action learning’,’ projects based learning’, whatever. And such teachers will see that schools are almost the last organization to make full use of them in an integrated way. Even two year olds use this approach!!

One approach I have discovered on the web is the ‘Critical Skills Programme’. This is a practical model to develop vitally important skills and dispositions that all learners require. The model originated in the USA in 1981 and is widely used in UK schools. Nothing in the model will surprise creative teachers.

The CPS experiential learning cycle is at the heart of a critical skills classroom which:

• Engages students in a collaborative complex problem solving situation that relates to the real world
• Promotes assessment for learning by encouraging students to reflect on their learning
• Caters for different Learning Styles and Multiple Intelligences.
• And promotes better understanding of content by enabling students to construct individual meaning from their experiences.

A key aspect is the design and use of challenges which are open ended problem solving activities which enable pupils to:

• Develop understanding through performance
• Demonstrate their skills and attitudes
• Attend to the processes of learning and social interaction
• See the ‘big picture’ that makes the work worth doing.

The programme was originally started by asking what skills and dispositions would be vitally important for students have by the time they leave school? Followed by what would a classroom look like that gave conscious and purposeful attention to these skills and dispositions?

I guess the questions could be based on the so called ‘new’ Key Competencies’ that our Ministry policy analysts have adapted from a recent OECD paper to replace their earlier failing standardized curriculums, but that is another story!

The CPS covers the role of the teacher as: a mediator, coach and supporter, and outlines how students would be expected to: work to actively solve problems, reflect on what they have learnt, use negotiated criteria, and display or demonstrate what they have learnt.

The programme also gives guidance about how to ‘cover’ specific learning targets that schools have to comply with.

The primary teaching approach is through thoughtfully designed and related ‘Challenges’. Developing such collaborative challenges is the key to the programme.

If applied across the school a collaborative learning community would be developed where students self esteem, motivation and engagement are maximized.

Now none of this would be surprising to most teachers of young students – but it would be an exciting challenge for those who teach the older students.

I guess people ‘out there’ might have similar models to share?

Monday, August 29, 2005

Schools for learning!

Vital dispositions - curiosity and skeptism! Posted by Picasa

As Robert Fried says, in his excellent book 'The Passionate Learner', ‘Every child is a passionate learner. Children come into the world with a desire to learn that is as natural as the desire to eat move and be loved, their hunger for knowledge, for skills, for feelings of mastery are as strong as any other appetite…..They learn an amazing variety of things in the years before they enter school.

And he continues, ‘we are less likely to see this same passion when we look at kids at school…the passionate learning of their early years begins to decline, often with permanent results.’

Nothing, he says, conspires to deny these children but something gets in the way and as a result learning is slowly turned into a low energy, task orientated compliance activity, lacking the earlier intensity, enthusiasm and joyfulness.

Creative teachers are the key to recapturing this enthusiasm for learning. They are disposed to value the creativity and individuality of their students and they are ever on the alert for student’s interests, or ideas, that they can build on. And, from experience, they know the kind of experiences to introduce that appeal to their students. As Jerome Bruner wrote, such teachers are, ‘aware of the canny art of intellectual temptation.’ It is the things that don’t make sense, amuse, or confuse, that creates the desire to learn.

We need to consider the kind of attributes our students will need to thrive in what will be an unpredictable but potentially exciting future? Once we have thought about this then we need to consider what would classrooms be like if were to give conscious attention to such dispositions?

If we were to re-imagine our schools we would need to come up with something dramatically different from our current ‘egg box’ secondary schools with their genesis in the factory mentality of the 19th C?

Students learn best when they are engaged with real problems that attract their imagination, or conflict with what they currently believe – situations that challenge them to ‘construct’ new meanings and to produce new ideas. Implementing these simple ideas would transform schools we know them.

The challenge for teachers is to create such positive learning environments so that all students become involved in meaningful learning.

Imagine schools dedicated to involving students in real life projects from day one that are ‘rich’ in scientific, mathematical, language and expressive possibilities.

The first thing you would have to give up, according to Seymour Papert renowned expert on children’s learning and computers, is the current idea of curriculum. As another educationalist, Peter Ellyard from Australia has said, ‘we need a just in time curriculum rather than a just in case one’.

And, as part of this idea of a prescribed curriculum, the idea of separate subjects also needs to be ‘re-imagined’ as this fragmentation is a product of past industrial age thinking. Real learning is not fragmented. The future demands learners who can see connections between learning areas - the very attributes that two year old demonstrate everyday. Such an ‘emergent’ curriculum, based on student's question and concerns would need to be linked, by innovative teacher, to the ‘big ideas’ that underpin the requirements of being an informed future orientated citizen.

Literacy, one of the foundation skills of all learning, would be easily integrated into such real life learning. Mathematics however, says Papert, himself a mathematician, needs to be reinvented. Mathematics, he writes, started off as a way of solving real problems but that over time has developed into abstract ‘pure’ maths. He believes we need to reverse the order of things and develop projects that that requires maths to solved.

By exploring such rich integrated experiences students Papert Seymour believes students will develop a sense of themselves as learners able to call upon appropriate content as required. They will see learning as valuable and that setting your own goals and working towards them is vital. A new word ‘learnacy’ may be the most important literary of all. It is the obvious antidote to the current problem of 'disengaged' students.

The biggest challenge of all, for teachers who have long been exposed to a traditional model of transmitting knowledge, even under the guise of discovery methods, or teaching the old stuff in a more constructivist way, would be for them to work alongside their students 'co-constructing' meaning.

There is no need for the passion for learning to be lost. We now know enough now that no child need fail – but only if we changed out ‘our’ minds ( and schools) first.

Time again, it seems, to observe our two year olds in action and figure out how to keep their wonderful curiosity and skepticism alive; far better than looking for inspiration from distant curriculum ‘experts’ with their mind firmly fixed in the last century.

Back to the real basics!

Learners can only construct their own meaning  Posted by Picasa

The whole point of teaching primary science is to help children make better sense of their world and to develop effective ways to go on doing it.’ This is a quote from Fred Biddulph introducing the Sunshine Primary Science Programme ‘Investigating Our World’ (an excellent series of students and teachers books).

If you were to leave out the reference to ‘primary science’ it applies to all learning at any stage and creative teachers of any era would find little to argue with it.

The approach taken in these books was based on extensive research in a number of countries but, in particular, research funded by the now defunct Department of Education, by the University of Waikato. It seems the powerful ideas developed by this research have almost been all but forgotten as a result of structural reforms of Tomorrow’s Schools followed closely by the imposition of almost incoherent curriculum and accountability expectations.

Lets hope, now the Ministry has recognized their imposed curriculums design are part of the problem, that the focus on students as their own ‘meaning makers’ returns to centre stage.

The Waikato research was known as the Learning in Science Project (or LISP for short) and it affirmed what many creative teachers had known intuitively – that students can’t be told what to learn; they have to construct their own personal meaning for themselves.

Of course his makes planning learning objectives that all students will achieve more than a little problematic! And it requires far more than the current emphasis on focusing on thinking strategies.

Both the process of learning and the acquisition of in depth knowledge, or understanding, go hand in hand. As Elwyn Richardson, a New Zealand pioneer teacher of the late 50s wrote, 'any learning without content is learning at risk’. The ‘LISP approach’ (or constructivist learning, or interactive teaching) extends the developmental ideas of Piaget (where children learn through their own activity) and builds in a more positive mediating role for the teacher. This more positive role makes use of the ideas of ‘co-constructivism’ of Lev Vygotsky who wrote that students learn through social interaction as well as experience. Vygotsky wrote that, ‘what a child learns with help today she can do by herself tomorrow’. Constructivism is also in line with the philosophy behind the Reading Recovery programme.

In practical terms classroom teachers can use the approach across the curriculum. Rather than telling, or leading students to the correct preplanned answer, the approach asks teachers to first value student’s questions and their prior views or current knowledge. It also gives an opportunity for teachers to learn along with their students relieving them of the need to know everything in advance (as the ‘curriculum experts’ ask of them).

This is in line with how all new knowledge is developed as any beginning learner moves from 'novice' to 'expert'. In some situations students will actually know more than their teachers and wise teachers will take advantage of such expertise. Often what is discovered will surprise both learners and teachers.

The approach develops in students an awareness of the disciplined approach of the scientist. Teachers, of course, need to expose students to ‘scientific knowledge’ but this will only be accepted by learners if it makes sense to them. At the very least they will have appreciated that there are alternative views. Most importantly this approach allows students (and their teachers) to retain their integrity as learners.

Essentially the approach asks teachers to:

1. Negotiate a learning challenge with the students.

2. Record the initial questions the students want to find out about ( deeper questions may emerge as students become involved).

3. Explore the current answers that students have to their own questions; what are their currents theories or prior ideas. This is vital to later assess growth in understanding against. These can be recorded individually, by groups, or as a class.

4. Negotiate a range of research activities to answer selected questions – and also how the students are going to record or present their findings. This will naturally integrate use of ICT. Ensure students are recording their own interpretations no matter how tentative. The teacher’s role as a challenger of student’s ideas, a co investigator, and as a supporter, is vital at this stage.

5. At the conclusion students need to assess how much their prior ideas (theories) have changed or what important new ideas they have learnt. It is also useful to discuss question students still need to consider if they had more time.

Throughout this process the teacher will be evaluating what new skills students will need and what misconceptions need to be clarified – remembering students ought not to be asked to accept what they cannot understand.

The whole process can be displayed, with an appropriate challenging heading (as a provocation or question) key questions, processes and criteria, on the classroom display areas.

Classrooms ought to celebrate both the students thinking and research and also inform the visitors about the learning process.

It would be great if teachers were to 'rediscover' this powerful teaching and learning approach and it would also be great if students could articulate in their own words how it is they learn.

If this were to be done then all the ‘higher order thinking skills’ would be most useful - but thinking without in depth content places real learning at risk.

Thursday, August 25, 2005

Focus on student creativity

Research by a 10 year old in the 1970s! Posted by Picasa

Above is a piece of work completed by a ten year old. The student was lucky enough to be taught by a gifted teacher whose philosophy was challenge his students to do the best work they could, and in the process, to develop in all students their own identity as self motivated learners.

The piece of work was done in the late 60s and 70s at a time when most classrooms reflected the traditional teacher dominated classrooms that were the norm in the 1950s/60s.

This dramatic change in teaching philosophy that this piece of work represents was led by individual creative teachers supported mainly by departmental art advisers who appreciated the value of creativity in education.

They were exciting times and heralded the biggest changes that had ever happened in primary education to this day. I was lucky enough to be a part of such a revolution and the amazing thing was that all the teachers involved believed in their own professionalism for inspiration and courage. They learnt collegially from each other.

Recently I had the occasion to visit every classroom in a half dozen school and I left the experience somewhat depressed. Rather than in-depth and individualistic quality art, language and research, being a feature, the rooms seem to celebrate imposed ideas from distant 'experts' and their local 'evangelists'.

Walls that should've celebrated student thinking and creativity were covered with ‘de Bonos hats’, diagrams of Gardner’s Multiple Intelligences, Art Costa's Intelligent Behaviours lists, Graphic Oranisers , endless teacher written out ‘learning intentions’ and Blooms’ taxonomy. And of course we now have learning competencies not to mention values.

'Higher Order Thinking', and the importance of process, have sure caught on. The trouble is, when you mentally remove all this impressive material, there is not the quality work to be seen – and even if there were there wouldn’t be the space! Higher order thinking for 'thin learning'!

The best place for all this valuable information might be best recorded is an student learning strategies book?

The teacher, who helped the student achieve the quality study on Sioux Indians in the 70 illustrated above, knew nothing of Multiple Intelligences, but his students explored all studies in an integrated approach using a range of viewpoints. He knew nothing of ‘learning styles’ but he worked with students as individuals noting their strengths and weaknesses and helped them accordingly. He knew nothing about Intelligent Behaviors, or Bloom’s question levels, but he worked alongside learners to ensure their question required deep thinking and their answers reflected thoughtful and personal responses. And, of course, he would have simply called 'learning competencies' learning 'how to learn'. Had he known about all these exciting discoveries he would have been thrilled to have had his personal philosophy affirmed, and he would have used their ideas, but he would not have celebrated the process they articulated so blatantly.

All these 'experts', reflected in the classrooms I visited, have equally confirmed my own philosophy, but they should be seen as a means to an end. Students, as Gardner himself would say, need to be able to demonstrate, display, or perform, what it is they now can do with real depth, expertise and understanding.

Process and product are both important but for the learner the challenge is to develop new ideas or learning beyond what they had previously been able to do. The true test of their learning is, as all the ‘experts’ above would say, is if they can articulate the process and use this learning independently in another setting.

Creativity, or learning, is both a process and a product; and whatever is produced is the launching pad for the next page, piece of work, poem, art or research project. The true test of learning is always the ‘next time’.

But all is not lost.

Today I visited every classroom at Highlands Intermediate School in my home town. All the classrooms are worthy modern versions of the classrooms I visited in the 1970s and 80s. The principal, Eric Shaw, as he walked me around the school expressed the view that all the Higher Order Thinking ideas were important to him but only as they are used in the service of teachers to ensuring students can achieve quality work.

I left reassured.

Education is about ensuring the passion to learn, which is each learner’s birthright, is kept alive and it is a worry when we currently have a problem of ‘disengaged’ learners.

I was more inspired by the work of the teachers at Highlands than the eye catching but diverting wall displays of de Bono’s hats! Education is about celebrating student creativity and not the process, no matter how valuable, as elaborated by distant experts.

I don’t know if anyone out there shares my concerns but if we are not careful we might begin to celebrate the process and forget about the substance.

Wednesday, August 24, 2005

Some 'cool' thinking!

A leading country! Posted by Picasa

Finland is a leading example of successful competitive society that also provides social services to all its citizens at an affordable price. Other rich countries like the USA obviously are not as clever where the gap between the rich and the poor is widening and all indicators of an equitable country are spiraling down. Possibly more people in jail per head of population than any other county.

And things are not much better in New Zealand; a country that was once a world leader in equity and fairness.

In Finland all citizens have an equal shot at life, liberty and happiness and it seems the Finns are proud of their egalitarian tradition – one we have replaced by a winner takes all philosophy. Finland has no private schools, no closed communities where the rich can cut themselves off from reality.

Key to their success is a word, ‘talkoot’ that means roughly ‘doing work together’ in contrast to our self centred individualistic approach. They recognize that they are ‘all in the same boat’ while we seem dedicated to divisive politics.

The Finnish education system is the best in the world but our tame policy advisers can see no further than the failed polices of the UK and the US.

The Finns have no demeaning league tables and their national curriculum is more a guide. The only national exams are at 18 - their students are not tested at 11, 14, 16, 17 and 18 as in the UK. All the Finns do is have annual sample tests to gauge standards as we do in NZ. At least one of our political parties wants to introduce national testing and teacher performance pay! In the US testing and political interference has all but killed school initiative.

Schools in Finland are autonomous and teachers are trusted and, as a result, teaching quality is high across all schools - and they have no ‘achievement tail’ as we do. This is course is helped by less cultural variation than in New Zealand but their results are, non the less, impressive.

One reason for their schools success is that there is strong support for education and politicians do not feel the need to ‘slag off’ teachers for poor standards. That our primary teachers are still recognized worldwide for their creativity is more inspite of the system than because of it – indeed imposed compliance requirements have all but killed off the joy of teaching for many teachers!

Less ‘top down’ compliance and more school and community involvement would be a lesson for us. This at least is beginning after years of enforced competition. And we need to really value our teachers by training them well and trusting their professionalism and judgment. Our teachers are paying the price for being in a high accountable and low trust environment. Too many strategy plans, prescribed outcomes, performance indicators and targets to be sent to the Ministry, let alone the deadening effect of the Education Review Office.

Lets decide what we want as a country, define some basic perimeters, and trust schools, working alongside their communities, to get on with the job. We need school willing to try out things and continually improve by keeping and sharing what works.

This is too simple for our desk bound technocrats planning away in their Ivory Towers.

We could learn a lot from Finland – and in the process possibly rediscover what we already new.

Missing: A Vision for our country!

Rod Orams - words of wisdom. Posted by Picasa

What is the vision for our country?

Although it is election time very few politicians seem to be concerned about the importance of having a shared vision for our country – they are of course focused on tax promises and winning elections. While one party blatantly appeals to individual selfishness and the other does at least focus more on the common good, what is missing is any consideration of the ‘bigger picture’ of where we are going. Nor are we being informed about the particular problems all countries have to face up to as we enter a post industrial era. Missing is a dialogue with all citizens about such issues, and possible future scenarios, that are the basis of a democracy.

What are the issues and opportunities New Zealand faces? There are, says business commentator Rod Orams, ‘big dynamics out there reshaping the world economy’, he asks, do the politicians ‘have any idea what we need to do to survive the threats and capitalize on the opportunities?’

The past has belonged to a certain kind of mind – the 'number crunchers' and linear thinkers – computer, or accountant like, qualities. The future, according to Daniel Pink in his book ‘A Whole New Mind’, belongs to a very different kind of people – creators, those with empathy, those who can recognize patterns and see connections between things, and, most of all, people who are their own meaning makers.

Orams, and others, point out that the ‘white collar’ knowledge workers are increasingly living in India and other low wage countries while technology is eliminating or automating certain kinds of work. China, in particular, is now able to produce in abundance manufacturing goods that make high wage Western countries like New Zealand vulnerable. As India and China ‘grow’ they will develop their own middle class who will become, in the very near future, their own inbuilt markets.

So, if some countries can do it cheaper, and computers can do it faster, what is it we need to do in New Zealand to stay ‘ahead of the wave’ and thrive in the future? More than lowering taxes I would think! And how will this relate to our education system? These are the questions we ought to be facing!

Orams warns of us, ‘that on our current trajectory we will trash our environment over the next couple of decades, making New Zealand a less desirable place to visit or grow things.’

He continues, ‘all we need to do is value what we have – our creativity, innovation, culture and environment – figure out how to turn these into unique services and products and learn how to sell them to the world.’

Only a few vanguard companies are doing this – the remainder, he says, if they don’t change, will drag the country down with them. What is required is imagination and ingenuity not simplistic tax cuts.

Innovative companies are doing just this, tapping into ‘kiwi’ creativity and risk taking and developing cultures that encourage workers to show initiative and to be continually inventive.

This certainly is not being reflected in our inflexible technocratic education system with its focus on preplanned measurable outcomes and set achievement targets.
We will need to create, or offer qualities, that are beyond just ‘high tech’. Information age skills will not be enough – we need to value empathy (nursing is a growing field), inventiveness, environmental sustainability, and to ensure our education system ‘produces’ students who have the future mindsets to take advantage of whatever opportunities come their way. It will be a ‘high tech high touch world’.

If the future depends on individual creativity and a sense of common destiny then schools will have to change dramatically. They will need to move away from the mass education vision of the last century and transform themselves into personalizing of learning by creating environments that develop the full potential and talents of all students.

To achieve a positive future scenario Orams believes we will need vision and leadership from our politicians. We need more than slogans and bribes and the bland ‘one dimensional’, managerialism and materialism that have infected us these past decades. To move beyond such a narrow self interest we need to create a national sense of purpose, or vision, that we all can see a role in; not just the wealthy few. And it is important that this sense of vision and empowerment should reach down to every one of us and not controlled by distant technocrats on our behalf. Elections ought not a time for selfish self interest but rather time for a national conversation about what kind of country we want to become, and what we all can do to contribute to realizing our shared destiny.

Education is an important means to achieve this.

If we were to 'revision' our country schools and teachers would have to change their mindsets as well. As in the business world, there are innovative schools and creative teachers we can learn from.

New minds are need to develop an innovative and inclusive country

It is, as Orams concludes, ‘a big ask’.

Thursday, August 18, 2005

From compliance to creativity!

'Top down' planning! Posted by Picasa

‘Things, they are a changing’, and fast!

The techno logical curriculums of the early 90s are now being seen for what they are, hallucinations of experts working away in their ivory towers. They are finally crumbling and coming to an end.

Anyway, all they ever were was a rehash of the earlier failed behavioral objectives of the last century, repackaged as part of an accountability movement, brought in on the back of the now equally struggling market forces ideology. Efficiency, testing and measurement were, it seemed, all that was to be needed to ensure all students achieved like good little educational consumers. And of course competition.

It was as if some updated Victorian white Anglo God had said, ‘I know, I have a good idea. In the beginning, before Tomorrows Schools, there was only woolly thinking, so let’s divide the world into seven Learning Areas, each with four Strands, nine Levels, and countless trivial Learning Objectives, and give them to the teachers. And then we’ll send down auditors (ERO) to see it will be done! And all will be well.’

And anyway, said the economists, the ‘experts’ and their 'castrati', there is no alternative (TINA). Those who warned schools of the dangers ahead were, as heretics, were sent into the wilderness. Some started e-zines to keep the lost ideas alive! And anyway, schools were too busy conforming, complying and competing, to even notice the dangers, and ‘delivered’ the curriculum and checked off all the objectives. But all was not well.

Of course, as it was an impossible task, all felt inadequate, but teachers kept this to them selves, preferring to pretend that the Emperor has a full set of curriculum clothes. Some schools, to save themselves, took on board tracking sheets ( a totally pointless task) for teachers to tick of objectives covered, and again, for a while, all was well.

As those in the Ivory Towers heard the cries of pain they quickly modified the curriculum ( following, as usual, a similar idea from overseas) and ‘revised’ the curriculum requirements, placing greater emphasis on Literacy and Numeracy and said, ‘have fun with the rest’. This too, seemed a good idea at the time, but lots of creative areas were ‘gobbled up by the evil twins of literacy and numeracy’. And anyway, there were now ‘targets’ to aim for; as usual another idea copied from overseas.

This, however, was only a temporary cure so the curriculums were taken away to be ‘stock- taked’. And then, all of a sudden, it was discovered by the ‘wise ones’ in their Research Towers that it was actually the teacher’s skill that was the real factor in student achievement, and not the curriculums. In the distance the heretics celebrated.

Such heretics voices had become more acceptable. They had amused teachers with tales, saying such things as: ‘the curriculums were stuffed, in both senses of the word’; that they were ‘obese and full of unhealthy fat’; some said, ‘it was death by strands’; while other called it ‘the KFC curriculum – can I have one strand, two level and some objectives to take away please!’

These tales began to spread and those in the Ivory Towers said, ‘forget the objectives just cover the big ideas’. And an idea, from the olden days, ‘learning how to learn’, was repackaged and delivered as ‘key competencies’ to show how wise they still were. There was even talk of ‘collapsing the curriculum’, which was a bit late, as it had virtually disappeared in creative schools anyway.

And, sadly, some teachers were heard to be thanking the 'wise ones' for saving them from the same 'wise ones' earlier advice; such is the power of a compliance mindset.

But a few realized that they had been fooled and began to appreciate the words of the heretics such as: ‘do fewer things well’; 'value students voices’; ‘forget achievement, go for love of learning’; ‘quality rather than quantity’; 'personalize learning'; ‘integrate learning’; ‘work along side the child to co-create knowledge’; ‘uncover and amplify student talents’; and ‘judge success of students by what they can do or demonstrate’. And, they remembered, they already knew of this wisdom, for it was once their own, and they began to caste out the endless clear folders they thought would save them, and began to focus on teaching and learning again. And they felt happy at last.

A new agenda began to develop, starting from individual creative teachers, and spreading contagiously as if a benign virus. Out went the, ‘top down’ linear thinking; the endless ticking that had bedeviled them; the obsession with evidence based and data driven teaching, so loved by the technocrats with time on their hands; slowly out went the low trust audit culture of dependency; and the ideas spread. For they were good.

New ideas are now in the air and, where they fall on fertile ground, they grow, change and spread. All they need are the right conditions – courage and leadership.

As now, as we now leave the cold ‘information age’ (all the knowledge workers live in India!), we enter a new exciting era. A new vision of creativity and imagination is ahead of us. There are new worlds to be explored by those happy to leave the tracks formed by old habits. There are new words to inspire future educators like: 'passion and love of learning'; about 'the need to help learners see patterns and connections, to integrate learning'; about 'the power of trust and relationships'; about 'deep learning and mindfulness'; about 'valuing aesthetics, design and artistry in all things'; about 'caring for the heart and spirit of people'; about 'compassion and empathy'; about 'learning through story and metaphor'; and most of all 'about joyfulness, play, and laughter'.

It is no longer to be all about measurable achievement; it is to be about what it is to be fully human. And it is good.

And when it happens all will be well in the world again.

Wednesday, August 17, 2005

Education for the student's future or for our past?

No nothing experts killing learning! Posted by Picasa

It never fails to depress me what ‘experts’ consider to be education.

The most encouraging national system of education I have read about lately was Finland ( see previous blog) but now it is back to reality!

Few countries, according to business guru Peter Drucker, have as yet designed an education system for the 21stC. Finland must be considered as one county that has. And few schools, according to educationalist Michael Fullan, ironically, can be called ‘Learning Organizations’. I do know, however, that there are many schools worldwide that are well on the way to becoming learning organizations based on shared values and beliefs, but that these are exceptions rather than the rule. Even in the most unlikely schools, creative teachers exist, struggling to develop the passions, talents and dreams of their students.

It is to these schools, and creative teachers, that we need to look to for future possibilities and not to the politicians with there vested interests, tame experts, and fear of losing power!

A small country like New Zealand has a a great chance to develop a creative education system if it had the wit, the imagination and the intelligence to do so at the top. But to do this it would need to get rid of the constraints that currently diminish such a possibility. By tapping into ideas from such countries as Finland, by listening to creative teachers and schools , by inviting real educationists to visit , and most of all by having a real conversation with all communities about what they want for all their children, it could be done. There is plenty of wisdom to be tapped and it sure is not limited to those who skulk around the corridors of power.

New Zealand has a well earned reputation for its primary education, even though at election time, conservative politicians can’t wait to blame every society fault on schools. Yet again we hear the failing ideas of, ‘back to basics’, national testing and teacher performance pay as solutions. The countries that we currently follow mindlessly have already tried such things and they can’t even get into the OECD tables themselves!

Pressure to succeed to achieve narrow achievement targets are destroying teacher initiative in the UK and have long destroyed whatever there was in the USA ( except for important non government exceptions). And such soul destroying innovations are slowly doing the same in New Zealand.

We have the best primary teachers in the world. We should celebrate this and tap into and share their wisdom. Once, when I was working in an International school (really an American school), I was struck by a comment by one of the US teachers (with a PhD in Curriculum Design) about a NZ teacher teaching in the class next door. He couldn’t get over how she could do such marvelous work with her students when she didn’t seem to follow the learning objectives of the curriculum guides. New Zealand primary teachers were regarded with genuine awe; they still retained their spontaneity and initiative, valued students 'voices' not the 'dead hand' of the curriculum experts.

Today I received the latest book from the ASCD. A quick glance (an example of ‘thin slicing’) saved me from bothering to read it all. It was an attempt by the writers to help classroom teachers (more 'technicians') to make best use of the standardized curriculums that they all follow in the 'land of the free'!

The American system is firmly locked into an industrial – efficiency model of teaching that relates to ideas introduced in the early years of the 20th C. The ASCD book was another attempt to make this standards system successful – a way to ensure that the ideas devised from afar are applied with efficiency. Talk about making a bad system better; kind of up-dating an inefficient factory model to a technocratic age. George Orwell would have been proud, as would've Ronald McDonald! No room for spontaneity, individuality (of students and teachers) creativity, imagination and alternative points of view. It all seemed a bit like Russia in the 50s. And all this, as we enter an age of speed, choice, unpredictability and creativity – where an individual’s talent and initiative will be a countries number one capital.

While in Finland the ghost of John Dewey would be thrilled.

Meanwhile in New Zealand at the edge of the world (some would say 'the edge of great possibility') we tinker along 'rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic'. The conservative opposition party, in particular, is getting us ready to return to a Victorian Age!

Across the Tasman the agenda of the past is rolling out as an example to avoid (or for some vote hungry politicians to follow). Their Federal Minister, like some educational dinosaur pining for the past, wants all schools to be tested against national benchmarks in Literacy and Numeracy and for results to be published and even posted outside the schools on billboards. Whatever happened to the ‘clever country’ vision?

This follows the failed ideas introduced in the UK and is exactly what the those in Finland have deliberately avoided because they felt such moves, distort teaching, eats up teaching time, narrows the curriculum, destroys collegiality between schools and sharing of ideas, and fails to focus on the attributes and disposition students will need to thrive in the 21stC. Most of all such 'top down technocratic dogma' destroys the professional judgment and creativity of teachers and their communities to design education to suit their own students. All this ‘back to basics’ conformity pushed on schools in the name of the buzzword of ‘accountability’ – but for what - the uncreative country? Education has been turned into a form of competetive consumerism with students being tested on very narrow criteria – very little to do with entrepreneurship! Mind you most entrepreneurs didn’t do well at school.

We all know what happens to people under pressure to perform!

Finland sound better every day!

Tuesday, August 16, 2005

Top of the learning class!

Learning from the best Posted by Picasa

Politicians love reports that place their county at the top of the class and this is no more so than education. No matter how you look at it (depending on the political party concerned) New Zealand has always done well in international tests. If there is a problem in New Zealand it with what is called our long achievement tail – and the answer to this in New Zealand is to focus on basics, formal teaching and testing.

With this in mind it was interesting read that the country that comes top in the world (in reading and science) in the latest OECD testing is Finland. New Zealand came fifth and eighth respectively. The countries 'our' Ministry policy analysts seem to follow, the UK and the US (with their literacy and numeracy obsessions), were not in the top sixteen (which is as far the tables went).

So it would seem we would be well advised to study what it is the Finnish do

Teachers who believe in a creative way of teaching will be reassured.

Students from an early age set their own goals and determine the speed of their learning depending on their needs. Students learning styles are valued and, during the school day, they work in mixed ablity groups at a variety of tasks that they themselves have negotiated. Formal teaching is uncommon. Students at all ages, helped by their parents and teachers, establish individual learning plans and set their own goals. Those who need special help receive it and, if they want to progress faster, they can do so.

This is personalized learning in practice.

The OECD test results indicate the Finns do better at educating, not only their less gifted, but they also significantly reduce the differences between boys and girls. They do, it has to be admitted, have the advantage of having a reasonably homogenous society.

So what is it the the Finn’s do right? Interestingly their students do not start formal schooling until they are seven and, as well,they spend no more than thirty hours a week (including homework) on schoolwork. More importantly they do not rely on aggressive testing, nor an emphasis on 'back to basics', or tougher discipline; and problems that beleaguer other countries such as, bullying, drug use, disrespect and school failure, are rare.

Al this has occurred since the mid seventies when the Finns overhauled their, then more traditional, system so their students would thrive in a new knowledge–based society. At this point schools shifted to a more ‘student centred’ approach giving more power to teachers and more attention to students individual needs. National exams were abolished and finally, in 1994, school administration was radically decentralized and freedom given to schools to set their own educational priorities.

Something lke this almost happened in New Zealand but.....

Finnish teachers are well trained and respected and enjoy a high degree of autonomy. They are free to use whatever classroom methods they like, with curriculums they have devised. Once hired teachers are not subject to regular inspection, nor are they expected to waste time on excessive paper work!

Standardized testing is shunned, with the belief that they take up valuable learning time, and penalize students who want to figure things out their own way. Standardized teaching, they believe, results in teachers teaching to the tests, and narrowing the curriculum in the process.

Students are taught to evaluate themselves, right from preschool, to help them take greater responsibity for their own work. Students are encouraged to think about what didn’t go well and then to consider what they need to do to accomplish their tasks - comparing their progress to their previous personal best.

Students work both independently and cooperatively. They are encouraged to learn by seeking out their own information and to value their own thinking. Students of all abilities benefit from working together with the stronger students helping the weaker students, while teacher circulate around, listening for problems, helping and giving encouragement as appropriate. Students are also encouraged to learn from their mistakes in an environment that is careful not to embarrass learners. Slower learners are given intense support but, rather than remedial help being seen as failure, the Finns treat it as an opportunity for students to improve. Students, with special learning needs, receive individualized programmes that focus on self set achievable goals. Disruptive students are extremely rare. Teachers work on the premise that if students are not succeeding teachers need to look hard at their teaching.

The Finnish system offers its students the promise of patience, tolerance, trust in teachers and learners, and a self critical commitment to excellence. Finnish schools are flexible, easygoing and inclusive. Students reflect responsibity because they are not exposed to imposed arbitrary authority and value the freedom to learn.

This would be revolutionary to the traditionalists but would be confirmation for a lot of teachers in New Zealand.

If only we had the courage to transform our schools along similar lines rather than the current timid obsession with tinkering with our dysfunctional system.

Friday, August 12, 2005

Creating a passion for learning

Robert Fried -educator Posted by Picasa

There is a chapter in Robert Fried’s excellent book, ‘The Game of School’, which I really like. It is called ‘Being curious, feeling powerful, and telling the world what you know.’

I liked it because it draws a connection between human evolution and a curiosity, or passion, to learn.

Fried writes about the connection between the sorry state of education today that has resulted from our not learning the lessons of our evolutionary history.

Evolutionary learning depends on an intense curiosity of the natural world driven by the irrepressible urge of explorers, scientists and artists to shape and express what they have discovered.

And this curiosity is the birthright of all students.

The trouble is our schools are not well suited to nurture the complex drives of student curiosity, sensory awareness and talkativeness. The ways schools have been constructed inhibit, or confine, these hereditary instincts and instead we sit them down and tell them a lot of stuff we think is important.

We need to develop student’s capacity for curiosity and sensory awareness from the youngest age and tap into it throughout schooling. Rachel Carson, one of the earliest environmentalists (author of The Silent Spring’) writing for her nephew, called this the ‘learning spirit’. She asked that, ‘each child in the world be (given) a sense of wonder so indestructible that it would last throughout life, as an unfailing antidote against the boredom and disenchantments of later years, the sterile preoccupation with the things that are artificial, the alienation from the sources of our strength.’.

Schools need to re-imagine themselves so as to tap into is the power of children’s ideas. All students, at any age, are capable of generating powerful ideas, and worldwide it has been shown that these ideas are not luxuries gained at the expense of the 3 Rs but instead enhance them. So the answer to our problems is not more of what has not worked but a new conception of education – or rather a rediscovery of important educational ideals by those who have the power to change things at all levels. Teachers should be leaders in this transformation rather than complying with failing ideas.

Fried also quotes from Deborah Meier’s book ‘The Power of Their Ideas’. ‘ All students’, she says, ‘ should be seen as inventors of their own theories, critics of other people ideas, analyzers of evidence, and makers of their own personal marks on this most complex world.’

This is the image that should drive all education.

Instead of ‘delivering’ curriculums and imposing constraining assessment regime, and in the process making the role of the teacher more difficult, it would be great if we were instead to develop schools that built on and amplified the strengths the students bring with them. This is particularly relevant as we currently are having problems ‘engaging’ a growing number of students in the learning ‘we’ provide them.

The answer is obvious.

Let’s return to the real basics – allowing students, with our help, make sense of the questions and concerns they have and help them work cooperatively to solve problems and, in the process, develop whatever inborn talents they have.

The Da Vinci Formula

Leonardo:The ideas man of all time? Posted by Picasa

There is a big gap between improvement and transformation – between making things more effective and creativity. Ever since the educational transformation that resulted from a toxic mix of market forces, accountability and choice of the late 1980s the Ministry have been forever patching up the model they imposed. They have ‘revised’ NAGS, ‘stock-taked’ their Learning Areas, placed more emphasis on teaching and learning, tried to sort out their NCEA , encouraged schools to work collegially, and now they are now ‘collapsing’ the curriculum. I am not sure what the latter means yet.

Talk about 'spin' – or shifting the deck chairs on the Titanic!

And schools and principals are welcoming all the changes. All a bit ironic since they are thanking the Ministry for saving them from Ministry imposed ideas – and all the ‘new ideas’ are not new at all. All a bit back to the future. Even Learning Competencies’ is only an ugly phrase for ‘learning how to learn’.

What we need are some better ideas. In a Fast Company e-zine a number of creative individuals were asked to say where they thought new ideas came from. I thought it worth sharing some of their ideas as businesses have given up on improvement; they appreciate we are living in a world that requires new thinking!

The Nike designer, Tinker Hatfield, said creativity was a two step process that starts with listening to the needs of a user, like Michael Jordan, and then everyone works together to create a road map to design the shoes.

So what, I wonder, are the needs as expressed by our students?

Dorothy Leonard, Professor of Business at the Harvard Business School, believes there are four ways to encourage creativity : creative organisations expose themselves to a wide range of perspectives and she recommends organizations hire opposites who won’t agree but will spark ideas; organizations need to create diverse teams with different ways of seeing; they need to invite people in from alien cultures; and they need to visit alien cultures themselves.

They certainly don’t wait to be told by last century’s experts! And if primary schools want to visit an alien culture they should visit the local high school and vice versa!

David Kelly, from Ideo Development Palo Alto, believes that ‘enlightened trial and error beats the planning of flawless intellect. 'In other words, we fail faster to succeed sooner.’ He says, ‘it is much easier to bog down in elaborate planning exercises…but this is a prescription for failure. Learn to let go…the more you experiment, the more you learn, and the more you create.’

Pretty hard in our risk averse compliance culture!

Bill Flannagan, an Editorial Director New York, contributed that ‘Hemmingway once said there are no failures of talent, only failures of character People who are consistently creative can face the blank sheet of paper even when they don’t feel like it.’

Laurie Dunnavant, from 3M, could be thinking of a 21stC school when he wrote, ‘You can’t force feed creativity. But you can create an environment that encourages it…..we (cant) urge people to think outside the box without giving them the tools to climb out.’

This is the model that the Ministry ought to creating – building a culture of trust, innovation and creativity. Helping ideas emerge and spread.

Steve McCallion, of ZIBA Design, says you just, ‘can’t be creative just by trying to be creative. You need a deep understanding of the problem you are trying to solve.’

We need to be creative about disengaged students. All we are doing now is tinkering while students fall through the cracks – currently about 15% leave with nothing to show for their time! Schools as they are currently structured cannot solve the problem! You can't get tomorrows students from yesterdays schools.

Suzanne Merritt Senior Creatologist of Insight Out says, ‘There is no creativity without authenticity – a core sense of purpose that drives your creative endeavors’. To make that sense of purpose explicit she suggests four questions: What am I here to create? ; What are my talents, abilities and resources? ; What might I have to let go to create what I want? ; What real need in the world will be met by what I create?

Good question for anyone. She recommends you start with the personal because without intrinsic motivation you will never survive the ups and downs of the creative process. Then, she says, to look at everything with fresh eyes. You will be amazed by what you see.

Just to look at the life a secondary student for a day might develop some amazing ideas!

Clar Evans, of Hallmark, mentioned ‘creativity is the art of bringing intangible ideas to productive life. It requires absolute persistence. It also requires a generosity of spirit to include others in the action’. She thinks of creativity as ‘civilized tenacity.’ ‘You have to defend your ideas, educate colleagues and recruit allies. You also have to be willing to rethink and revise.’

Mihaly Czikszentmihalyi ( Educator) said that Dr Ashley Montagu once wrote that, ‘Your goal in life should be to die young- as late as possible’ Mihayli said that the most creative people he knew live life by that maxim. They are curious, engaged, and innocent as children .They keep asking questions, wrestling with interesting problems, looking at the world with ever changing lens.

They refuse to do anything they don’t want to do. That doesn’t mean they never do unpleasant tasks but they manage to transform those tasks into something that comes closer to their interests.

Many teachers and principals know exactly what he is taking about!

Theresa Brelsford, of the US Patent Office, an unlikely place to find creativity, set about designing an environment where people were free to express their ideas and creativity is exactly what they got. Rather than imposing a top down change programme the Patent Office allowed a number of people to go off two days a week for several months. This allowed people to lose their inhibitions and resulted in a radical design of the patent process.

We need lots of local school trying out new ways to engage the students that concern us so much. Good ideas will emerge!

David Hardy, of the Institute for Learning ( Bank of Montreal), writes that the key to creativity is clarity and suggests that the problem should first be written as question to be posed to those involved, and reminds us that if we don’t knew where we are going any road will get you there.

What are the current problems that face education – the system (or lack it) must be the most important one. How can we create a 21stC education system that develops the creativity and talents of all students and teachers? That would be a questuion to start!

Monday, August 08, 2005

The importance of imagination

Early imagination Posted by Picasa

Imagination is a word that doesn’t feature strongly in official documents – they seem to prefer words like innovation and flexibility. But developing imagination at any level is vital if we are to develop creative individuals and a creative society.

A guest on National Radio said that while Descartes wrote ‘I think, therefore I am’, he should have said, 'I imagine, therefore I am’.

Imagination is a unique human ability that allows us to plan ahead, to create alternatives, to invent things and, in the process, imagine ourselves as seekers of new ideas.

Such an identity should be the right of all students but too often their learning is limited to what we already know rather than what together we can imagine.

Imagination works best in tandem with a passion because when a passion to know takes over imagination runs free. There is nothing objective about passion and imagination but, on later refection, new ideas can be developed and if necessary proved. Even Einstein worked in this way,imagining things and then later getting on with the proof. For artists it is the way they work.

All this is foreign of course to technocrats and planners!

Imagination allows us to reshape and transform our immediate experience and even to move into the realm of pure fantasy. Often it is not even possible to define outcomes – another worry for those locked in a planning mentality. But imagination is needed to interpret any experience, to read, and to communicate with those who are different from us. We need it in our conversations to imagine what others are thinking or to consider what other might do next.

Imagination was first recorded by our ancestors in their dark caves – as it is used by the very youngest children today who are finding ways to express their imagination. All too often in our classrooms students need to imagine is severely restricted by teachers whose own imagination is limited by imposed demands to plan and to prove what they are teaching.

It is imagination that allows us to develop a sense of others and how to interpret their feelings – it is this faculty that those who experience autism have most trouble with. Imagination develops in students a positive future vocabulary with students using such phrases as ‘it might be’, ‘it could be’, I wonder what will happen if?’; it allows students to imagine future scenarios by means of mental rehearsals.

Imagination is the key for our future evolution if we are to discover better possibilities for our existence. Schools are the ideal places to develop this imaginative mindset. Einstein, long ago, worried that modern education would kill the gift of curiosity and imagination. He would be more worried today with the recent current standardized curriculums.

We need to consider carefully how to develop the imagination of our students.

Saturday, August 06, 2005

'Blink'; The power of not thinking!

Malcolm Gladwell :'Don't think - blink' Posted by Picasa

There has been a lot written about the importance of higher order thinking (HOT); of solving problems by rationality. There are others that feel this ‘Western’ desire to solve problems rationally needs to balanced by a more ‘reflective’ style of thinking – more Zen and less zest!

Now we have a new concept ‘thin slicing’ or the power of ‘snap’ judgments. Malcolm Gladwell in his new book ‘Blink’ outlines this ‘power of thinking without thinking’.

Gladwell writes that in a ‘blink’ we can, by drawing on our stored memory of experience, make very accurate decisions. In some case we can’t say why we ‘feel’ it to be right but it is. For people, with hard earned expertise in any field, can make sophisticated judgments in a flash and be overwhelmingly right.

For example a quick look around a person’s home, library, music and personal belongings, will provide more accurate information about a candidate than a formal interview. For an expert a glance in classroom is enough to assess if the teacher is creative or whatever you are looking for. Patients 'thin slice' their doctors and vice versa and the same applies between teacher and student. Allowing more time rarely alters the first impression. Experts in any field just know and often can’t explain what they know. Firemen, wine tasters, tennis players and policemen all have to make decisions without thinking!

Out ability to ‘thin slice’ can get hijacked by unconscious prejudice. Policemen teachers and students can fall into this trap. Racism affects many of us even if we feel we are not biased and good looks, or surface features, can fool us as well – in situations like this Gladwell believes we should analyze our hidden assumptions to consider why we made the wrong decision and keep it mind for next time.

Experts in any field can take in an amazing amount of information without even being aware of it. If however teachers are asked to consider their intentions for every lesson, and record evidence about teaching acts, this 'slow planning' will destroy their intuitive skill. They will, in the process,lose valuable insights, becoming poorer teachers in the process.

Expertise and experience improves this ability and the insights gained will be more valuable than the suggestions of academic researchers with their considered ‘best practices’. Gladwell writes that you can focus so much on the processes and procedures that you can lose sight of the task. Collecting endless data or evidence can create the same problem. Such caution ad consideration can kill qualities of creativity and risk taking which always requires working with limited information. Less is more; too much information destroys creative thinking.

‘Snap ‘judgments can be made in ‘snap’ because they are frugal – and this frugality must be protected if we want to avoid being drowned in information.

Expertise in any field is a hard earned gift and must be protected from the imposed mindsets of the distant technocrats who are divorced from the messy immediacy of reality. Only experience and passion can develop the facility of making such informed judgments.

Pressing for too much detail, or planning, or the asking for evidence, can make teachers 'autistic', unable to pick up the fleeting clues that mean so much in a world based on relationships.

This ability to ‘thin slice’ and pick up insight in ‘blink’ is one of the most powerful we posses. Gladwell believes we can all hone this instinctive ability to bring out the best in us and in the process transform our relationships and organizations. School is the obvious place to protect and develop this ability. Unfortunately much of what teachers are currently asked to do run counter to developing such a vital survival skill.

Read his book.

You will never think about thinking the same way again.

Friday, August 05, 2005

The search for best practices - looking in the wrong places?

Authentic learning  Posted by Picasa

There is a lot of talking about pedagogy and ‘best practices’ these days. Alongside this there is world wide emphasis on literacy and numeracy.

In the UK, their much heralded Literacy and Numeacy hours and the pressure of associated ‘targets’ have become, as one commentator has said, ‘ the evil twins that have all but gobbled up the rest of the curriculum’. This imposed pedagogy has not, according to independent researchers, been as successful as the government reports. It seems that imposed solutions can only achieve so much – compliance is a poor way to develop teachers who increasingly feel their professionalism is at risk.

This obsessive focus on literacy and numeracy in New Zealand, if not as predetermined as in the UK, is narrowing the curriculum opportunities being offered to students. Following the UK’s lead a few years ago our Ministry backed away from the idea that all aspects of the curriculum were important and, in their revised National Administration Guidelines, placed emphasis on Literacy and Numeracy and freed school to do what they could with the rest. It seemed at the time a way around the ‘overcrowded curriculum’ but it in effect narrowed the curriculum. What should have happened was for the important aspects from all the Learning Areas to be defined so that important areas of human learning (and student’s talents) were not neglected.

We now have in effect two curriculums – the Victorian imperative of the ‘three Rs’ and the rest. We might, or might not, improve student’s skills in the basic areas, but in the process we may be creating less exiting learning experiences. So far this obsession with literacy and numeracy, targets and testing, and 'evidence based learning', has done little to improve the ‘achievement tail’!

This narrowing of the curriculum is in conflict with what several reports in the UK since the 1970s have shown. These reports have confirmed that it is in the classrooms where teachers provide the widest range of experiences that student’s levels of reading and mathematics occur. It seems that you can’t read or do maths without exciting content. Or it might be that where students are engaged in a wide range of ‘rich topics’ this learning attitude, or ‘learning power’ naturally carries over to literacy and numeracy.

It is this integrated or holistic learning that underpins the teaching of creative teachers in the past and in the present. And this is the area of teacher professionalism that we need to foster, tap into, and ‘spread’ their ideas to other schools.

This is where ‘authentic pedagogy’ and ‘best practices’ are to be found

The future of education depends on innovative principals creating true learning communities so that the creativity of the teachers and students can be realized.

One day the Ministry of Education will understand that creating conditions to allow creativity to flourish is what it is all about

Thursday, August 04, 2005

Talking to learn – the missing basic!

A rich experience to encourage dialogue. Posted by Picasa

In the current worldwide emphasis on literacy and numeracy, pedagogy, and ‘best practices’, the importance of learning through talk has been overlooked; I don’t hear of many schools setting oracy targets to report on?

I guess it seems too obvious but students learn by talking to each other but for this to be productive it needs sensitive encouragement. We are not talking about teacher talking to students – this 'telling' has long been discounted as an effective way of transmitting information even though it still remains possibly the most used teaching strategy. Students learn best through interactive dialogue, through ‘bouncing ideas of each other’ and collectively expanding their ideas. Teachers, who want to assist need to, learn how to listen, how to support student thinking, and where appropriate, how to challenge students to expand their ideas.

Such ‘dialogic teaching’ (as it is called) fits uncomfortably with an emphasis on preplanned learning objectives and the current dogma of ‘intentional’ teaching. How the new buzz phrase of ‘evidence based teaching’ fits in is hard to imagine. Such approaches suggest that the teachers know what students want to learn – this could only apply to the teaching of low level skills or knowledge?

Dialogue works best in open-ended situations and in classrooms where teachers hold a co-constructivist teaching philosophy (a fancy word for teachers and students creating meaning together). All too often the desire of teachers to teach takes over and the conversation becomes one sided and in the process many students get ‘lost’.

In fact a lot of what goes on in many classrooms is neither conversation nor dialogue but more, ‘guess what I am thinking’; and too often it only requires a closed response. In such an environment only the confident or competitive students are keen to contribute – the less confident students withdraw from making an effort. Possibly the best examples of ‘learning conversations’ are to be seen in the shared reading lessons – the 'shared learning' idea could be extended to all areas of the curriculum.

In a dialogue, or a learning conversation, power is equally shared; dialogue is talking to learn around an open question. It can be encouraged by: involving students (or adults) in groups learning together; teaching people to listen to each other, and encouraging students to support and build on each others ideas. Students need to become aware of these strategies. Some will find it very difficult!

Dialogic teaching is essentially about valuing student’s voices. When students feel their ideas are being recognized they develop a learning identity.

When the skills of dialogue are established people make eye contact with each other, they listen attentively, take turns, bounce ideas of each other, cope with dominant contributors and support reticent members. Most of all they engage with what others say rather than voicing their own opinions

At the end of such a session students, or the group, can sum up the main points they have learnt. And, of course, such learners are only to happy to learn off someone who can fill in the gaps

To develop such ‘learning talk’ environments would, in effect, transform the culture of many classrooms; and for that matter many staff meetings! It would certainly change the power relationships and would require a different stance towards students and each other as we learn to develop ideas collectively as well as individually
It would result in teachers learning alongside their students and would create true learning communities

As Elwyn Richardson, a pioneer New Zealand creative teacher said of his teaching, ‘They were my teachers as much as I was theirs and the basis of our relationship was sincerity, without which, I am convinced, there can be no creative education.’

Tuesday, August 02, 2005

Developing a creative community

At the park - oil crayon ( year 5) Posted by Picasa

Art doesn’t seem to rate very highly along side the 'high tech' glamour of all the promises of the ICT revolution. In my mind art remains one of the most important activities students become involved in, dealing, as it does, with personal expression.

A well it provides an ideal opportunity for the teachers to come alongside the students and enter into dialogue, perhaps offering feedback and advice which, if the relationship is honest, the student may wish to ignore. As Elwyn Richardson, author of ‘In The Early World’ once said, ‘the teacher has to be a judge but not too good a judge!’ Central to Elwyn's work was his profound respect for the emerging abilities of his students; he drew out the best in them and developed their natural talents. Students, he believed, taught him as much as he taught them – it was based on respectful relationships.

This simple, but difficult, art should be central to teaching at all ages but it too often gets subverted by those who want to teach people things that they all too often don’t want to know.Following this desire to teach comes testing, assessment and accountability, all destructive to creativity. Creativity is also subverted by imposing criteria and using exemplars – if creativity were only so easy.

Centuries ago the Florentine master Cimabue came across a young shepherd boy drawing sheep.He was attracted by the talent for drawing the boy exhibited and he asked the boy if he wanted to be his apprentice. The boy was Giotto. This little story has a lot to do with learning as Giotto in turn befriended other artists who were seminal in the artistic Renaissance. This is how ideas spread.

And why was Giotto drawing sheep? He was drawing sheep because it was part of his everyday experience just as a child today should draw aspects of his or her environment that attract them.

Children begin this need to express themselves (to make their 'marks') from an early age. Their drawings reflect not only what they see but also their ‘stage’ of drawing. They draw what they know rather than what they see, articulating their current knowledge and understanding. They can be helped to look closely and persevere but what they know is what they know and they can’t be rushed to the next stage.

When we rush children to get them to learn what we think they should (according to 'our' curriculums) the trouble begins. Teachers would be better advised not to rush students through any learning situation but rather assist them in getting as much out of any experience as they can; doing fewer things well. Producing art takes time and this time allows for genuine dialogue to happen and through dialogue relationships deepen.

These are the ways to develop creativity: recognize the beginning of talents; let students learn through being part of an artistic community as apprentices; provide plenty of dialogue about whatever interests the child; and help the learners achieve something that genuinely surprises them!

Creating a creative learning community, one which allows all the students talents to flourish, must be the aim of all teachers. Teachers who understand this focus their energy on creating the conditions to encourage students to follow their interests and express what they find out in art, words, or whatever. Creativity is hard to define but basically it is the capacity to make imaginative and original connections in order to provide original solutions.

All people are creative. Life is creative. Mankind has been capturing experiences since the art seen on cave walls. Art is every where and ought not to be hidden away as an isolated subject or art gallery. We need to think about how to make our schools creative environments, to utilize art in its many forms, as a way to give meaning to children’s experiences. People like Elwyn Richardson have shown us the way.

All citizens ought to value their own creativity and admire the talents of others but, for too many, their schooling has cut them off from their own creativity let alone the creativity of, the often isolated, artists.

Education has taken the child world apart. Artist expression and creativity is a way to put life back together again.

Like a child drawing, or Giotto in the field, it is about responding to ones experience. The more people involved in creativity in a community the better.

The arts are all about valuing your own ideas, having a go and to take the risks to express what you experience in your own way. Today we have a wide choice of media to be creative. Increasingly it is creativity and the arts that will mark out twenty-first century communities and countries.

Monday, August 01, 2005

Inspiration and challenges for today

Doctor of Literature (honoris causa) Posted by Picasa

In April of this year, at the age of 80, Elwyn Richardson was given an honorary doctorate by Massey University to recognize his work as ‘one of New Zealand’s most inspiring, innovative and influential teachers whose ideas were ahead of his times'.

His recently republished book ‘In The Early World’ outlines his philosophy of learning and teaching including his respect for the emerging abilities of the children he taught. ‘They are my teachers as I was theirs and the basis of our relationship was sincerity, without which, I am convinced, there can be no creative education’.
At the ceremony Professor Codd said that, ‘It is timely in the 21st century to recapture teaching as an art. In the early World inspires teachers to take risks, to contemplate values and philosophies as central to the teaching – learning process and to adapt prescribed curriculum to the children’s own desire to explore , inquire and create.’

At a more recent graduation ceremony of new teachers at Massey University College of Education, Emeritus Professor Ivan Snook, also made reference to Elwyn’s honorary degree and ideas .Massey University proposes Elwyn as a model of what it is to be a teacher.

'But there are problems,' he said, giving the students a lesson in educational history.

Nearly twenty years ago, a government transformed the whole structure of education in education in New Zealand as well as much else. What changed was the nature of teaching, the nature of learning and, arguably, the very nature of the students you teach. As a result:

Book keeping replaces pastoral care
Testing squeezes out teaching
Skill training replaces education
Competition derives out cooperation
And compliance pushes out creativity
Teachers face increased surveillance by means of standardized curricula, frequent appraisals, and supervision by the education Review Office
Teachers are less and less permitted to think for themselves. They are seen not as professionals but as skilled technicians.
Where they used to help design the curriculum, now they merely ‘deliver’ it.
And the school’s role in promoting social justice is minimized.’

‘The task of education is to develop the minds and hearts of young people by introducing them into the traditions of human thought and feeling painfully gained over the centuries and preserved in the sciences, humanities and arts. Yet under the new regime, you are asked simply to prepare young people to be workers; their future as informed and thoughtful citizens is neglected'

'Not only that, you face a new breed of students: students of the market…who exhibit a high level of materialism and consumption… they see education not as the gentle nurturing of the human spirit, but as a commodity to be bought, used and discarded. This makes your job difficult.’

‘This is in contrast to the idealism of Elwyn Richardson. You are caught between the personal and the political. Wanting to get on with the exciting task of educating your students you are subjected at every turn to political demands which distract you.

‘And this is never ending…as we approach a general election, you will see there is more to come… ‘At the level of the system I see staff engaged in ‘joyless compliance’ carrying out meaningless tasks in order to comply with some managerial dogma. The next step is cynicism. There is nothing sadder than a cynical teacher: cynicism dries up the energy needed to confront energetic young people every day. A better response is the nurturing of critical faculties. Critical thinking cuts through the nonsense which passes for educational wisdom and motivates to find better answers'.

Critical thinking is an attitude that will rub off on your student. To this end Snook suggests:

'Keep up with your professional reading so that you can recognize nonsense when it comes from the principals or ERO officers
• Continue to think. Take nothing for granted especially when it comes from those bent on subverting the educational ideals.
• Work collegially with those teachers who still retain their enthusiasm….
• Form coalitions with parents for they really care about their children. Parents and teachers are natural allies….
• Conform when you have to and resist when you can. In the long run the forces of light may be more powerful than the forces of darkness.’

The ability of people participate in society is dependent on the quality of the education they receive. And this depends not on large bureaucracies, glossy brochures, curriculum documents or flowery mission statements but on the personal qualities of teachers’.

Simple message:

Let Elwyn Richardson be your inspiration.

In The Early World’ published by NZCER

Good bye Henry hello John!

Innovators at the edge! Posted by Picasa

Creative teachers developing curriculum challenges with their students has been part of a long and ongoing ‘tradition’ in New Zealand primary schools since the mid 1950s.

And long before this there were educators writing about the importance of teacher’s and learners working together to create learning communities. John Dewey naturally comes to mind. He developed his ideas in the early nineteenth century but there were many others. Mass education, based as it as on an industrial model, has more to with Henry Ford than John Dewey, and is still the basis of the organization of our secondary schools.

In the late 1930 a New Education Fellowship brought a number of distinguished educators to New Zealand and their ideas influenced the educational policies of the first Labour Government. Perhaps there is time for another such conference of educators?

In the early 60s Elwyn Richardson’s book ‘In The Early World’ was published as were books by Sylvia Ashton Warner. Elwyn’s book, in particular, was an inspiration for many teachers throughout New Zealand.

In our province of Taranaki there were a number of teachers who were inspired by the work of Elwyn. In recent years two books have been printed which illustrate the ideas developed. Pictured above are book by Bill Guild and Robin Clegg – Robin’s book is available from Curriculum Concepts.

Such teachers believed in student creativity and the need for teachers to develop an ‘emergent’ curriculum based on students interests and environment.

School based curriculums have had a long history.

With the World Wide Web and communication media all schools can create their own curriculums to suit their students. The curriculum is now available 'any where anytime – the curriculum has left the building'!

As we enter an ‘Age of Creativity and Imagination’ schools will have no choice but to change dramatically so as to personalize learning to suit the needs of their diverse students.

Throughout New Zealand there are many such schools just doing this.

Move over Henry Ford – John Dewey has arrived at last.