Saturday, December 22, 2007

Anita Roddick on education

I was recently sent an article which included a quote by Anita Roddick, founder of the Body Shop. As I result I 'googled' her site and enjoyed reading a variety of articles expressing her ideas to make the world a fairer place..

Anite Roddick is a unashamed activist. Her site states,'Get informed.Get outraged Get inspired.Get active.'

Now in her early sixties she believes the older you are the more radical you can become.

Her 'entrepreneurialship', she says, is a result of her dysfunction. An entrepreneurs dream is almost a kind of madness.The difference, she says, between a crazy person and the delinquent mind of the entrepreneur is that the latter can convince others to share in the vision. Entrepreneurs act on what they see,think and feel. Entrepreneurs are often loners, vagabonds and troublemakers. Success is simply a matter, she says, 'of surrounding ourselves with those open minded and clever souls who can take our insanity and put it to good use'.

Back to the quote about learning.

Education ought to about giving all students the freedom of thought, judgement, feeling and imagination they need to develop their talents and take control of their lives as much as possible.

Anita's quote is as follows:

'Let's help children to develop the habits of freedom.To encourage them to celebrate who and what they are.

Let's stop teaching children to fear change and protect the status quo. Let's teach them to inquire and debate.To ask questions until they hear answers.And the way to do it is to change the ways of traditional schooling.

Our education system does its best to ignore and suppress the creative spirit of children. It teaches them to listen unquestioningly to authority. It insists that education is to get a job.What's left out is sensitivity to others, non- violent behaviour, respect, intuition, imagination, and a sense of awe and wonderment.'

Education, according to Anita, is about getting a life rather than just getting a living.

Anita's site.

Where, or who, are our education entrepreneurs?

Friday, December 21, 2007

Let them take Ritalin!

Learning better through chemicals?

Recently I have come across research by Dr Leonard Sax's about the difference between the development of boys and girls brains and that the current education approach favours girls.

If we accept that all children have differing learning styles and intelligences then gender must must be part of the mix. Dr Sax believes the answer to boy's failure are boys only schools but equally the answer could be to transform schools into personalized learning environments - fitting the curriculum to individual learners rather than the other way around. 'One size fits all', fits nobody.

Dr Sax is however critical of the overuse of Ritalin to solve boys learning ( usually behaviour) problems. One in eight students in the US are prescribed Ritalin!

His thoughts on the subject are interesting.

Ritalin is a stimulant in the same class as 'speed' and is according to Sax becoming the greatest drug problem in the USA. Speed has an immediate effect but Ritalin is slow to be absorbed. Ritalin has been prescribed for forty years and its use is increasing dramatically. To appreciate this, Sax says you have to understand the something about hyperactivity disorder, or ADHD.

He writes, 'as long as there have been children, there have been children who misbehave, those who don't listen, who can't sit still, who don't follow instructions, no matter how many times you tell them.' All sorts of names have been assigned to such children as ADD, and ADHD and ODD ( oppositional defiance disorder!). The typical ADD/ADHD child is bored, easily distracted and not performing up to potential. Observing in some classes these would seem appropriate responses!

The rapid increase of behaviour requiring Ritalin Sax puts down to two causes.

The first is television and use of computers.

Today's young generation, in contrast to children of the 70s, spend more time indoors - having fun indoors has multiplied. The dynamic rapidly changing world of TV has lessened the ability to concentrate. Children now spend six hours every day staring at some sort of screen and this has coincided with the rising use of Ritalin. Being sent to your room is no longer a punishment - today's room link children, through the Internet, with the wide world. Play , if it can be called that, is often solitary. Being in touch with the natural world through the senses is very limited. Some call this NDD or nature deficit disorder!

The second issue causing the growth in Ritalin is the obsession of school with testing. Standardized 'high stakes' testing is a growth industry in the USA. Testing, or focusing on narrow academic 'targets' has the effect of narrowing the curriculum. An 'academic' curriculum has never suited more active practical children ( which includes lots of boys) and any narrowing of the curriculum results in the growth of learning and, in turn, behaviour problems.

Buys Sax's writes, are not well suited to a diet of reading writing and arithmetic. Such students need the diversion of art, music, environmental and physical activities. I would add all children grow in a personalized creative learning environment. The 'pushing' down of inappropriate academic expectations to kindergartens is making the situation worse for boys while limiting the creativity all students. Children who can't cope are prime suspects for a dose of Ritalin ; 80% of all students who are given Ritalin are boys.

Ritalin might solve the symptom but in the process take attention away from the real problem - inappropriate learning opportunities. Ritalin is all too easy. Dysfunctional schools are the real issue not boy's failure. Many of today's creative and highly active adults would , if they were in today's schools, be placed on Ritalin! Schools have never known what to do with nonacademic students, particularly boys; in the past they simply left as soon as they could to get ajob.

In the US Ritalin has increased 4000% in twenty years. There are few studies of the long term effect of its use. Teenager in the US ask for Ritalin to get them through their exams- the have become psychologically dependent on it.

Most countries have lower use rate of Ritalin than the US but its use is spreading particularly in countries introducing standardized teaching regimes.

In Germany there is a growing counter movement to to establish kindergartens ( Waldkindergartens - 'forest kindergartens') outdoors focusing on sensory development, environmental experiences and field trips. I would add lots of opportunities fr play and creative activities.

For all their use of standardized testing and teaching American students still lag behind other countries on academic achievement.

Ritalin usage is not the answer it only disguises the underlying problem. Developing more active single sex schools for boys would, it seem to me, to be in the same category.

What is required is for education to get away from an aobsesion with an acdemic tradional education for all students ( the'one size fits all' model) and to develop a diverse range of developmentally appropriate learning experiences suited to the age nad needs of the students.

Easy solutiions are never the right ones it seems.

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

The difference between boys and girls?

Do boys and girls learn differently? This is a question not often asked about teaching and learning. Maybe it is time to give the issue some thought?

While presenting to a local group of secondary principal the ideas of Dr Leonard Saxs came up. Just recently he was talking on national radio about his ideas about learning differences between boys and girls and, in particular, the need for single sex schools to ensure boys realize their potential.

I can see his research being eagerly grabbed by principals and parents who believe in the more traditional single sex secondary schools.

There is no doubt too many boys are failing in our schools , and from an early age. With this in mind the ideas of Dr Sax need to be examined even if one does not believe in segregated education.

Up until now it has been assumed any differences were cultural and that co-educational schools were the appropriate approach to help all students. Co-education was made the legal approach in American in 1964 to avoid discrimination by any means including gender. Differences were then believed culturally derived or socially constructed. There were no innate differences.

Today new research on the brain throws such ideas into doubt.

If boys and girls do learn differently, in what they like to read, how they study, and how they learn, then some major rethinking is required. Reverting to single sex schools doesn't seem, to me, to be the only option which is Dr Sax's position.

The answer could well lie in 'customizing', or 'personalising', learning to suit each learner whether boy or girl, or any learner with any particular spacial need.

Research is now saying sex does matter and that there are immutable differences between boys and girls- that there are genetic differences between the sexes. Girls brains develop faster for starters, even before birth. The brain of a six year old boy looks like the brain of four year old girl - men evidently don't catch up until they are in their thirties! Emotional development is different in boys and girls brains- it is more evolved in girls. With their rapid brain development girls acquire language skills more readily. Boys, forced to read too early, begin to fail. Girls are currently getting better grades than boys in all areas, including maths.

As well girls thrive in collaborative learning situations and boys are more motivated by competitive environments with clearly defined winners and losers.Different reading preferences of girls and boys are well known.

My view is that if schools continue in their traditional mode then single sex schools may well be an answer but not the right one. One has to ask what competencies will students need in the future to thrive. Maybe the boys will have to learn new future attributes if they are to thrive . In the meantime there are enough competitive organisations, sports and occupations to absorb them - but not forever. Ritalin seems to be another solution- one that does nor face up to the real cause of boys behaviour. Single sex schools are at best a temporary solution and will only be under real threat when traditional secondary schools ( with their genesis in a past industrial age) transform themselves into 'learning communities' dedicated to creating the conditions to develop the gifts, talents and passions of all learners.

Will secondary schools be up to the challenge?

Monday, December 10, 2007

Learner centred education

If you want to access a summary of student centred research about teaching and learning download the American Psychological Association's Learner Centred Framework.

Word wide people are arguing for a new approach to learning and schooling, one that includes emerging electronic learning technologies, to better prepare students for a fast changing and complex world.

Secondary schools seem resistant to such voices.

It is a moot point whether schools will have to be 'learner centred' to make use of such emerging technologies or whether such technologies will force schools to change to become learner centred.

A bold new view of education is needed. One that focuses on the needs of learners and the best available knowledge about how humans learn. Getting this knowledge into schools is the problem.

Education is a dynamic process of moving a learner ( of any age) from a novice to an expert. The challenge, as educators, is create learning experiences that capitalize on the richness , creativity and complexity of human learning.

Being learner centred means placing the learner at the centre of the process and, as such, needs to take into account each learners background, experiences, perspectives, talents, interests, capacities and needs. Such a 'personalized' approach is a long way from the thinking that underpinned the development of our current standardized school system.

Research underlying learner centred education confirms that learning is non linear, recursive, continuous, complex, relational and natural in humans.This is contrary to what you hear from many ( mainly secondary) school teachers and is in conflict with our current failure rate of about 20%.

Research supports that learning is enhanced in contexts where learners have supportive relationships with teachers, have a sense of ownership and control over the learning process, and can learn from, and with, each other in safe and trusting learning environments. Prescribed content is no longer the foundation of learning rather rich context and creating an opportunity for learners to make meaning are more relevant

Content needs to be customized to meet learners needs and this demands a new role for teacher as learning advisers and/or co-creators with their students. 'Just in time' learning needs to replace 'just in case' and 'anywhere anytime' describe future learning environments.

We now know enough about teaching and learning to transform our schools. Emerging technology and the creative aspirations of students will place demands on schools for such changes.

Exciting times ahead.

Sunday, December 09, 2007

Edutopia - interview with Alvin Toffler

This is a wonderful site ( established by George Lucas of 'Stars wars' fame) to gain practical ideas for problem baaed learning integrating technology.

Forty years ago Alvin Toffler and his wife Heidi set the world alight with the publication of their book Future Shock. The Tofflers have a deep belief in the power of a transformed education system to shape the hearts and minds of future youth.

In answer the question about the most pressing need in education today Toffler replied, 'Shut down the education system!Adding that he was roughly quoting Microsoft's Bill Gates.

Toffler believes we should start from the ground up rather than trying to change the present system. He believes that there are countless creative teachers but that they are operating in a system designed to produce industrial workers.

He comments that our present compulsory system is only about a 100 years old and when it was introduced many parents did not want their children to go to school - they needed them to work. After a big debate, and following rural people flooding the industrialised cities, business leaders wanted workers with 'industrial discipline'. Things like working to the clock and bell so as to be able to work on the assembly line. It was not necessary for such workers to think but to do what was prescribed.Secondary schools reflect this image to this day. Toffler believes our current schools are, 'stealing the students' futures. He asks, why is everything 'massified' rather than personalised in our system? New technologies make customisation and the necessary diversity possible.

Toffler says while businesses are changing at a 100 miles an hour schools are only changing at 10 miles an hour. Schools still use methods of teaching at the secondary level that have not changed in hundred years. Teachers from a century ago could walk into a secondary classroom and get busy. The read and remember and listen and remember style of teaching is an old paradigm. Up until now modern information technology has not been fully used to transform learning approaches.

When asked what he would do he would want to hear of lots of new ideas not the same old solutions
. He would want teachers to not be constrained by imposed expectations and impossible bureaucratic rules. Currently, he believes, 'we are holding millions of students prisoners every week' trying to achieve narrow achievement outputs.

School, he says, should be more real life. Students who have interests ought to be able to tap into people in the community and learn from with people who are passionate and excited about the same things.

Everything about school ought to be questioned.Why should schools be compulsory? When should they be open? Who could be teachers? Why are students kept in age groups? Schools today are too focused on being custodial and not enough on personalising learning. Schools ought to be integrated with their communities to be able to take advantage of community skills.

While admitting his views are utopian the main thing is to get out of your head the ways schools are structured now. Teachers parents, people outside education, should get together to rethink the shape of education. Diversity ought to be the theme not an obsession with industrialized standardization.

The biggest wall to knock down , Toffler believes, is the attitude of teachers
. Too many of them have been locked into the system and are afraid ( Toffler called this 'future shock') to change and move towards the technology that their students use out of school naturally.

Such a conversation with everyone involved,Toffler believes, would be healthy for any country to do.

Search the edutopia site and join up to receive their newsletter.

Great professional development.

Our schools are dysfunctional

A book for holiday reflection.

A friend of mine just recently returned from a study trip abroad and mentioned to me that the book he had been advised to get hold of was 'The Best Schools' by Thomas Armstrong( available ascd organisation. See a summary of the book on our site.

I remember I already had the book so naturally I reread it to refresh my memory. And I was pleased I did - the real reason, according to the author, for so many students failing is is not the students' fault but the dysfunctional 'academic' educational system that has evolved.

I agree totally with Armstrong, well known for his previous publications on Multiple Intelligences.

And he is not alone.You can add to his 'voice' people such as Alvin Toffler, Tom Peters, Bill Gates, Sir Ken Robinson, Tony Buzan ...the list goes on. The only support for the status quo comes from the dead hand of tradition, those who currently gain from the system, and the conservatism of teachers!

In the meantime over 20% of all students continue to fail leaving alienated and often angry

Armstrong's message is that schools are currently dominated, by what he calls, an 'academic' discourse ( or way of thinking) which has nothing to do with what we know as effective pedagogy.

Armstrong is calling for the return to what he calls an a 'developmental' discourse ( 'personalised learning'); an approach to teaching that enables all students to realize their individual strengths and abilities.

The idea that each age group of students have particular developmental needs that underpinned teaching was once well known - if only at the early educational levels. Even the recently published New Zealand Curriculum all but ignores such developmental differences.

The academic discourse , with its emphasis on testing and narrow accountability targets, totally ignores such thinkers as Piaget, Dewey and Gardner, along with what we now know about human mind works. As such this discourse is restricting the full development of all our students - not just those who currently fail.

The developmental discourse asks educators to to pay close attention to the differences that exists in the physical, mental and emotional differences of our students and to value the creativity of all students

Armstrong defines four level of education -each with an appropriate metaphor to base teaching around. These are far more potent than the arbitrary levels of our current, so called, 'seamless' curriculum.

For young children the appropriate metaphor is one of play so as to provide opportunities for the dramatically forming brain to make connections. At this level young children's brains cannot differentiate between the real and the imaginative. Armstrong is very critical of the 'high pressure' academic discourse curriculum that is being imposed on such minds - calling such institutions 'kinder factories'. In the best early schools curriculum 'emerge' spontaneously out of children's interests.

At the primary levels( from age six or seven) brains re able to increasingly differentiate between fact and fantasy and students at this age are busy 'learning about how the world works'. Children at this age have curious minds for teachers to tap into. The current obsession with narrow 'academic' literacy and numeracy may well be counterproductive. There is a wonderful world out there to explore and an abundance of creative approaches to utilize.

Puberty is an age of turmoil, one Armstrong writes, 'is all accelerator and no brakes', is about 'social, emotional and meta cognitive learning. Armstrong makes strong case for specialist middle schools to help students develop growing control their impulsivity. Students at this age have been developed by evolution for 'breeding' and the development of identity - programmes need to be appropriately challenging, creative and diverting, to allow all students to gain success and a sense of self worth.

Finally 'developmental' secondary education should be about 'preparing students to live independently in the real world. High schools, with their almost total academic bias, are in need of dramatic change. Far too many students do not gain the skills of independent learning. As well many highly successful innovators were high school dropouts, none the least Bill Gates, who has stated that high schools are obsolete.Their highly academic curriculum only fuels the discontent of those students for whom it is painfully not suited. Academic high schools currently reflect an 'industrial age mindset'. One based on passivity,obedience, specialization, bells and timetables; as well as isolation from the real world their students are to enter. For too many students it must be nightmare of boredom and irrelevance. Too many students leave school feeling disenfranchised, bored, or alienated by programmes that have no relevance to the needs or interests. Such students have had little opportunity to discover their own unique paths to success. Sadly, because of such depressing educational experiences, some never will.

Armstrong has been compelled to write his book because he believes the pressure of the academic discourse is not only ignoring the developmental needs of students but is continuing the tragedy of cohorts of failing students, which we can ill afford, morally or economically.

The book outlines inappropriate programmes and exemplary practices at each level in the process giving valuable guidance about how to create his 'best schools'. Creative teachers will be reassured by his suggestions.

Those who have high jacked us and led us down the technocratic academic discourse have lot to answer for. It will take courage for schools to return to more appropriate developmental approaches.

Armstrong reminds us of the, 'adventure of learning, the wonder of nature and culture, the richness of human experience,and the delight in acquiring new abilities' , which, he says, have been abandoned or severely curtailed in the drive for accountability, 'benchmarks' , 'targets' and reducing the 'achievement gap'.

Armstrong's book is a must read if we really believe in developing the full potential of all our students and if we want to develop programmes to inspire all students to discover ( or 'recover') their passion to learn.

It was the ideas that underpin the developmental approach that led most of us into teaching in the first place - not an obsession with complying with a focuis on narrow achievement testing.

As I said , ideal holiday reading if we want to ensure all students get fair go.

Monday, December 03, 2007

Celebrating the end of the school year.

A powerful display of student creativity.The end of year is time to reflect on the years achievements of the class and as individuals.

With the school year drawing to a close now is a good time for the students (and the teacher) to reflect on what has been achieved. This is preferable to letting the end of the year become 'fill in' time. As a principal I always encouraged teachers to work right up to the last minute. I had learnt, from experience as a teacher, that working hard is easier than improvising programmes the last week or so

One idea would be to develop a unit of work with the students for them to reflect on the class's and their own achievements. Not only will this bring a sense of closure to the year but it will help the students develop a sense of accomplishment and an affirmation of their years efforts. One theme could be, 'This is what I could do at the beginning of the year and this is what I can do now', or, 'Things I am most proud of this year'.

The class could 'brainstorm' all the activities they have studied throughout the year. It would feature all the exciting content studies that have provided the 'energy' for the years student research and creativity. This in itself will remind the students of what an interesting year they have had.

A display, featuring artifacts from the various studies (and maths and language themes), could be developed with information on the 'big ideas' of each study.

Students could develop their own wall display, or chart, of things ( say. the top six) they have learnt during the year. This could include, not only ideas, but also poems and pieces of art. Digital cameras would be useful to capture visual information. An idea would be to develop a 'My Reflections and Memories of the Year' booklet, or 'Things I have learnt during the year', or 'Things I am most proud of,'or 'Talents I have developed during the year'.

Students might also like to include their thoughts and hopes for the year to come - this might involve questioning older students in the next class to gather 'data'.

One valuable idea ( really an evaluation of the culture the teacher has established) is to ask the students to write, for next years students, 'How to survive in this class', or 'Tips for New Students'. This might include ideas, to the teacher, about how to improve the programme for the next year, and even things that students felt were not useful to them!

A class newsletter to all parents , based on the reflections of the students, would be a great way to finish the year on a positive note.