Thursday, August 28, 2008

Saving our Chidren from Nature Deficit Disorder

Visiting principals from Gisborne exploring the bush environment being established in the grounds of Spotswood Primary school New Plymouth.

There are those who are bringing to our attention that our children are becoming the first generation without a meaningful contact with the natural world. One such writer is Richard Louv author of 'Last Child in the Woods'.

Within the space of a few decades, Louv writes, the way children understand and experience nature has changed radically. Children today are aware of global threats to the environment but their physical intimacy with nature, he says, is fading.

There was a time when young children roamed free, exploring their immediate environment without fear but things have changed. Today, Louv writes, children can tell you all about the Amazon rain forest but little about their immediate environment. This would be true in our own country. Few children these days can recognise native plants, local bird life, or common garden plants.

There are those who suggest that an association with the natural environment is linked is positive mental, physical and spiritual health. Louv writes that we need to strengthen the bond between our young and nature and that, by doing so, this will lead to the development of positive attitudes towards conserving the natural environment.

Exploring nature is an ideal antidote to spending too much time 'plugged' into virtual worlds. Unlike television nature does not steal time it amplifies it, providing sensory experiences that children can interpret in their own way. Nature inspires creativity and poetic responses. Children whose curiosity is captured are in a position to develop lifelong interests. Once such things were a feature of New Zealand classrooms of earlier times.

Louv writes that when he was young exploring the natural world was his Ritalin. 'Nature', he writes. calmed me, focused me,and yet excited me.' This lack of experience of the natural world leads to, what he calls, 'nature deficit disorder' and, he believes, contributes to the growing problem of 'attention deficit disorder'. 'Nature deficit disorder' he describes as the human costs of alienation from nature, the diminished use of the senses, and attention difficulties.

There is a great need to reawaken or inspire children's awareness of their natural world. It seems that this 'back to nature' movement is finding some purchase in our education system. Innovative schools need to tap into this growing trend and begin exploring their immediate environment as if through the eyes of scientists, artists, historians etc and, in the process, develop in their students a strong sense of place and a growing protective attitude to the natural world.

Louv wonders how much richness of life has been traded for a daily immersion in indirect technological experience? A visit to many classrooms shows how the 'primary experience' of sensing, touching and feeling has been neglected leading to an inability of students to experience their world directly. Young children are equipped to experience their world through their senses but, to do so, they need continual encouragemnt. Through such sensory experiences new ideas and new words arise for them to communicate and think with. These 'internal thoughts' make the ideal first books for beginning readers. This is another idea that creative teachers once made use of when classrooms featured a strong language experience approach. Today, all too often, literacy has been separated from such personal and sensory experience. Schools need to introduce more direct sensory experience to heighten their students powers of observation and to compensate for a distracting 'Internet addiction'.

The power of nature to inspire creativity has been long known. Most of our schools have an untapped resource 'just outside their window' but, to take advantage of such opportunities, teachers need to develop their own nature awareness ability. Every day, to the observant, provides some small starting point for a discussion or observation.

With the growing fear of parents to let their chiden play in outdoors unsupervised schools have an added responsibility to developed nature awareness in the young. The freedom of a 10 year old in 1990s in England is now comparable to a 7 year old in the 60s.

Another issue is that all too often schools fill their students minds with environmental disasters ( 'saving the whales and rain forests') while at the same time ignoring ecological studies linked to their own environment. This results in, what one writer calls, ecophobia. Those who grow up wanting to protect their environment have been taught to love nature from an early age not through exposure to 'virtual nature'. Passion does not arise from a videotape!

Experiential education needs to become a priority once again in our schools and, unlike technological education, it comes at lesser cost. As Rachel Carson wrote in the 60s, 'If a child is to keep alive his inborn sense of wonder' he or she, 'needs the companionship of at least one adult who can share it, rediscovering with him the joy, excitement, and mystery of the world we live in.' By this means such adults let nature enter children's imagination providing material for creativity and personal expression.

Experiential education provides opportunities for the development of studies that access all forms of knowledge.

Schools are beginning move in this direction with 'eco' schools, developing natural environments in school grounds, propagation of native plants, and reintroduction of school gardens. Many schools are developing in-depth ecological studies that once we feature in schools before the introduction of standardised curricula. Such school are re-learning the necessity of 'doing fewer thing well' rather than current 'cut and paste' projects.

Our schools in New Zealand, with their past reputation for environmental education, are well placed to once again take the lead and, in the process, reconnect children with their natural world.

Monday, August 25, 2008

The balance between consistency and creativity.

A group of Gisborne principals posing with a statue of Peter Snell in Opunake during their Taranaki tour to observe local 'best practices'.

For three days the Gisborne principals visited selected schools in Taranaki. Their task was to look for each schools 'cc' rating: consistency and conversely creativity across classrooms. Consistency because this indicates shared language of expectations and creativity, for without celebrating each teacher and child's creativity, it all can become mediocre.

The balance between the two is vital.

I also wanted them to keep an eye out for examples of children's 'voice' in personal writing, research writing and in response to environmental experiences. All too often the students creativity has been sacrificed by too much focused teaching or intentional teaching, exemplars and criteria. One way to solve this would be to have an overriding criteria that each piece of work work child does ought to reflect his, or her, own unique style.

A very important issue was how much the current content study contributes to the 'energy' of the class. Unfortunately 'inquiry' learning has little time given to it due to literacy and numeracy 'gobbling up' most of the available learning time. One solution would be to develop content information research and writing in the language block, and the same applies to ICT. Evidence of in depth inquiry learning was a little thin in many classrooms.

Old fashioned as it may sound I wanted the visitors to see student book (and chart) work as evidence of learning and to appreciate that such books are actually 'portfolios' that show continual quality improvement ( 'kaizen'). It was good to see schools teaching students design 'scaffolds' to assist their students but, once again, care needs to be taken that they do not end up looking all the same.

Learning 'how to learn' , for students to be able to involve themselves in in depth inquiry learning, able to 'seek, use and create' their own knowledge, ought to be a real feature in a 21stC classroom. Time seems to be the issue. It is by means of such studies that students develop the 'key competencies' they will need in the future. Such studies also open pathways for students to develop their unique talents and interests. As A S Neil wisely wrote, 'true interests are the life form of the whole personality.'

The key to such studies is to 'fewer thing well' and 'in depth' and to value individual differences. If this is done then quality work will be be found.

The visiting teachers saw examples of all the above. It is important that quality products are seen as equally important as quality process. Students need to see, demonstrate, and exhibit worthwhile results for their activity.

A real feature of most room were clear task boards for literacy and numeracy and school, class and individual goals. What was missing were similar group planning grids for the current study. Once again this is possibly a time issue? Students do need to know what ,when , why and how - and some idea of what quality 'looks like' in all they do. Many classes observed start and finish the day with reflective periods which is a useful idea to develop security and continuity.

What stood out in most of the rooms we visited were classroom environments that both celebrated student's thinking, art and language; displayed in a way that informed visitors exactly what the classes were involved in. The classrooms, in this respect, can be seen as the 'third teacher' and a major 'message' system for demonstrating what the school stands for. A number of rooms had quality learning tables featuring students personal best work.

One thing that couldn't be photographed was the positive caring and respectful relationship between all students and their teachers but it could be felt. What could be seen was the result of high expectations for all students and the importance of doing fewer things well.

Quality teaching isn't 'brain surgery'!

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Inquiry learning - so what is new?

A better heading for this poster is: 'Thought is caught here; learning is contagious'.

I have always liked Art Costa's title for one of his books, 'A Home for the Mind'. Costa sees schools as a places to develop thoughtful students.

Inquiry learning seems to be the in thing at the moment as school come to terms with the 'new' New Zealand Curriculum. There seems no shortage of 'experts' available to supply the answers but is it all so difficult? Inquiry is what students are born to do. The 'new' curriculum says, 'intellectual curiosity is at the heart' of learning. and asks teachers to encourage 'students (to) reflect on their own learning, draw on personal knowledge, ask questions and challenge' their assumptions and perceptions'.

Rather than introducing inquiry learning into our classrooms the question is why do so many students lose this natural desire to learn ;what has dulled their intense curiosity to find out about things that attract their attention? Two things come to mind:teachers too busy teaching students what they think ( 'the curriculum') their students should know and too much time eaten up by literacy and numeracy demands, both, all too often, divorced from the student's personal reality.

The solution is for schools to create all their classrooms as 'communities of inquiry' and that sustaining this culture comes above all else, including literacy.

If this were the case then the focus of all teaching would shift to the valuing every child's personal world and their individual responses to negotiated class, or group, experiences. This is the essence of 'personalised learning'.

The current trend of leading all students through a number of steps, or processes, of inquiry ( as is often suggested) is as unrealistic as it is contrary to the way real researchers work. Even if the goal is clear at the beginning ( for scientists as well as students) as the study progresses it needs to be open to new developments. New question will arise and new developments will occur that need to be considered. True problem solving could be called 'enlightened trial and error'. Teachers need to take advantage of learning opportunities as they arise and will need a 'prepared mind' so as be able to take advantage of whatever arises. Teaching such an environment is a form of 'artistry' and teachers need to practice,'the canny art of intellectual temptation' (Jerome Bruner).

In such an environment a curriculum 'emerges' or evolves and continuously 'mutates'. Whatever is studied needs to be researched deeply and ideas that eventuate need to reflect thoughtful responses by the students. It is important to do 'fewer thing well' to achieve such in depth thinking.

John Dewey developed a model for a good thinker early last century. He believed that conscious models of thinking could be taught through example but that later the work is taken over by the unconscious mind. This is very much in line with modern brain thinking. He believed that an approach to thinking could be applied to a range of situation but all situations have specific skills.

Dewey wrote that all thinking begins with a state of doubt about what to do or what to believe. All thinking, he wrote, has its genesis in uncertainty when an individual is confronted with a problem.Thinking is, he writes, a search for meaning.

When the problem arises we usually have goals in mind but when doubt arises we may find new goals.Implicit in each goal is a question we want to answer.

We then set about for a search for possibilities or possible answers. Each possibility will have its own strengths, the value of which will depend on our personal perspective. We will have to make choices.

We then set about searching for evidence relative the choices we have made. We use any evidence to revise our choices and may need revise our plans and to make new choices.

When we decide the goal has been reached we take appropriate action. Our minds will have been changed in the process.

Dewey reminds us that there are three search processes: the search for goals; the search for possibilities; and the search for evidence.

If schools were to really value student inquiry, and it seems few really do, then what would be observed would be positive changes in student behaviour ( 'key competencies') and rooms full of students' questions, action plans ( research) and examples of their enhanced understanding.

In such communities of inquiry 'thought is caught' and the school truly becomes 'a home for the mind'.

Monday, August 11, 2008

Teachers learning from teachers

Teachers from Puketaha School visiting schools in Taranaki -an opportunity for seeing new possibilities and affirming their own teaching.

It is aways interesting to observe teachers as they visit other classrooms. The four teachers involved in this particular visit are part of very innovative school team and were thus well placed to appreciate the value of what they would be seeing.

There is no doubt in my mind that 'focused' visits to other schools are a very valuable means of professional development. Being involved in the discussion following the visits, and listening to the in-depth thinking and future planning that the visits motivated, confirmed the value of such experiences.

Such visits are time consuming and ought not to be taken lightly. Having a guide, or a particular purpose, to focus observations make such visits all the more worthwhile. And back at school ideas gained should be integrated into school programmes.

The point I wanted the teachers to observe during the visits was the importance of the class study to supply the 'energy' for the inquiry work of the class. This is in contrast to the current emphasis where literacy and numeracy are the most important elements - the remainder of the day left over to cover all other areas of the curriculum. This is not to say that literacy and numeracy are not important, they are, but they should be seen as 'foundation skills' required to allow in depth thinking in the total curriculum. As educationalist Guy Claxton writes 'learnacy' is more important that literacy and numeracy. Education is about progressively developing each students innate talents and 'learning power'.

The schools visited illustrated this point well but, even in such schools, far too much time is 'eaten up' by literacy and numeracy programmes. The 'Victorian three Rs' curriculum is still alive and well in this age of inquiry learning . This is ironic as the 'new' New Zealand Curriculum, with its emphasis on key competencies, is asking schools to develop students as 'innovative' and 'creative' - active 'seekers, users and creators' of their own knowledge.

Such an emphasis would require the negotiation ( to ensure 'ownership') with students to introduce 'rich' learning experiences to challenge their thinking. Although the 'process' of learning is important, if learning is successful, then the students ought to be able to produce quality finished thoughtful work - both creative and scientific. Such studies were a feature of the classes we visited not withstanding the lack of time to focus on such important areas.

Quality student presentation of students ideas, both in students bookwork ('portfolios') and on the classroom walls in the rooms were another feature of the rooms we visited. Room environments need to celebrate student creativity and thinking as well as informing class visitors. Some rooms we visited were simply inspirational. Quality work is seen when teachers do 'fewer topics well' and really encourage students to think , or better still reflect, hard about what the are inquiring into. The room environment needs to be seen as the 'third teacher' ( the second being the activities students engage in) reflecting the 'messages' that the school thinks is important.

I would've liked to have seen a greater use of the immediate environments a resource ( even just to capture seasonal events) and also a greater emphasis on valuing students 'voice' and creativity generally. I am often disappointed by the lack of originality in student art and language which seems far too teacher ( or 'criteria') dominated. It is aways a mystery to me as to why teachers develop purposeful group timetables for literacy and numeracy but do not continue this approach into the content areas. Maybe it is this time thing again?

A few other things I liked:

Examples of powerful language experience writing ( usually as a result of an environmental visits) in a few junior classes. For students, with less than wonderful language ability, this is vital. It once was a feature of New Zealand junior rooms.

Student book work that shows 'continual quality improvement' ( the 'kaizen' of the Japanese) and believe that these are the best form of student 'portfolio'.

A range of content students which features students achieving three or so focused outcomes - a piece of research based around a few key questions, a piece of creative language, and a piece of expressive art. Research and information ideally should be taught during the literacy block as well as relevant maths to gain more time for studies.

The positive role of the teacher in providing feedback, design scaffolds, and most all all really valuing helping each student express their own idiosyncratic point of view. The development of an 'emergent' curriculum evolving out of student interests and concerns might be a future development -another lost idea? If 'key competencies' are so important this would make sense.

The visits provided lots of intense discussion amongst the visiting teachers. The most powerful conversations were motivated by a school which is developing collaborative and inquiry learning across the whole school.In this school students of all ages work together to create a powerful end of term parent exhibition.

It will be interesting to see what ideas the visitors gained will be added to the visiting schools already impressive approach.

All in all a powerful learning experience - there is nothing to compare to teachers learning of other teachers.

Wednesday, August 06, 2008

Do we really believe in creativity?

Art work created by a students in the class of New Zealand's most creative teacher Elwyn Richardson in the 1950s. Elwyn's school was centred on helping students realize their various talents through environmental studies, the arts, creative and descriptive language. His 'curriculum' 'emerged' out of the felt experiences of the students themselves. Time to return to such teaching? Elwyn's inspirational book 'In the early World' is still available today from the NZCER.

Developing students creativity is the real challenge of the 'new' New Zealand Curriculum.

The curriculum presents a vision of a future learner as being 'confident' and 'creative', as 'active seekers, users, and creators of knowledge'. A vision that requires learners to have their 'talents recognised and affirmed'; where 'intellectual curiosity is at the heart' of learning; with students who 'are able to reflect on their own learning processes and to learn how to learn'. Students, the 'new' curriculum states, will be involved in 'making meaning and creating meaning' in all areas of the curriculum.

Creative students, the curiculum states, will need to develop the 'resilience' and 'confidence to take risks' as they 'learn to use their imagination' to 'generate multiple interpretations'. Schools in turn are encouraged to develop creative curriculums 'in response to the particular needs, interests, and talents' of their students.

A great vision but are schools up to it?

If we want to develop confident creative students then we first need to develop confident create teachers. Developing this capacity must be the ultimate role of the principal and, in turn, those who work within the Ministry.

The trouble is that both teachers and principals have been progressively moved into the background over the past two decades and the Ministry is more known for requiring compliance rather than creativity.

Developing system wide creativity will require courage at all levels.

So what is creativity? It certainly isn't obsessive planning, goal setting , teaching intentions or pre-determined criteria - all these 'best practices' 'deliver' conformity and mediocrity.

Creative people have the confidence to trust their intuitions and hunches, to switch between conscious thinking and tapping unconscious thoughts. Young children are more adept at thinking creativity, able to make interesting connections, than adults because their frontal lobes ( the area of conscious thinking' and judgement) is less developed.

Creativity is more a 'right brained' activity accepting unfocused ambiguous thoughts, open to ideas that the more logical 'left brain' would ignore. Creative people like poets, and artists and creative scientists, are more open to their experiences. The secret of creativity is to be able to access both left and right brain thinking, to suppress prejudgement until ideas have been developed. At this point is the time to be more judgemental, to sort out ideas to work on. Creative individuals, however, remain open to serendipitous moments at all times. Creative ideas, it seems, 'pop into our heads out of the blue'.

Some of us are just too inhibited. And it seems we learn this aversion to 'risk taking' at an early age.

This 'risk averse' attitude is unconsciously picked up by the 'messages' given to us by our environment including teachers, principals, and students teachers. And of course the Ministry and the Education Review Office.

To be creative teachers (and principals) need to encourage their students to think of lots of ideas ideas, to explore widely, and to uncover interesting connections, giving time for ideas to 'gel', without making judgements. Being creative mean trying things out and keeping what works; an attitude of 'enlightened trial and error'.

All this 'messy thinking' inspirational thinking is in contrast with logical left brain of with its adherence to the well worn safe path of planning.

When ideas move into the elaboration stage of creativity is the time for the brain to behave differently , to be more selective and and purposeful to ensure ideas are actioned.

Creative people know when to dream and when to shape up.

To be creative a school needs a creative principal prepared to allow ideas to emerge and be given fair trial before rushing in to ask for evidence to prove its worth. The same environment is required in the classroom for students.

Such a learning environment requires caring relationships between all involved and lots of 'learning conversations'.

It will require real leadership to provide both the security for teachers to feel free to take learning risks and to negotiate, with all concerned, a clear sense of direction to focus the creativity.

To achieve this the purpose of the school needs to be clear to all involved. Everyone needs to believe in the vision of their school as a place where all students can be helped to become confident and creative learners; where all students can see themselves as their own 'active seekers, users, and creators' of their own learning.

It will require a lot of 'mind changing' to achieve such a vision but it can be , and is, being done, in schools that have the wit and the imagination to trust their own creativity.

Monday, August 04, 2008

The learning brain

What does your class know about their brains? Their theories or 'prior' knowledge. Run off this photo and ask them about what they know and their questions.Then research their questions.

It is said that we are entering the 'age of inner space'; the great challenge for the future is to explore what 'lies between our ears'.

As teachers we ought to at least understand how our brain learns and what exactly is our mind; is it different from our brain? Weighing about 3 pounds, or 1400 grams, it looks like a rubbery convoluted fungus and contains up to 100 billion cells and, strangely, feels no pain. Today the brain is appreciated as an integrated mix of chemical 'soup' and electrical neural 'connections' which absorbs up to 20% of the bodies energy to keep it active. Learning is truly about being 'turned on' to make new connections!

Two excellent books are available for teachers 'The Brain and Mind' by Eric Jensen and 'The Human mind' by Robert Winston. The book that has really impressed me however is the 'Wayward Brain' by Guy Claxton.

Although the structure and how the brain works are interesting to learn about what is more important is to consider how we can create the conditions, or the environment, to ensure we develop all the potential that lies within each individual brain. The brain is now seen as a open system that is continually learning, for better or worse, through continual feedback. And, to make teaching challenging, no two brains are alike.

This growing brain, continually evolving and adapting to experiences is a different metaphor from the 'blank slate' ( Locke's tabula rosa ) mind, or the 'factory brain', or even the 'computer brain', all to be stocked up with knowledge to be learnt and measured.

The metaphors we choose are important - we now need to 'see' the brain as a continually evolving 'learning brain'. A 'learning brain' programmed by evolution to make the best meaning it can, continually changing in response to the challenges 'it' is exposed to.

Although basic 'building blocks' are provided by genes ( 'nature') the full potential of this genetic heredity cannot be fully realised unless the right experiences are provided ( 'nurture'). Interestingly our personality style is established before birth but not our character.

We know know enough about our brains to transform education as we know it if we, as teachers, changed our minds first.

We know that optimal learning occurs best when: it is active; when learners are challenged; when their attention is captured; when their ideas and questions are valued (a 'constructivist' learning model); when students feel good ( when positive emotions mediate learning); when they learn with others ( collaborative brains) ; when they get feedback; when they are given time; when their personal mix of talents and learning styles are tapped; when learning is intrinsic ( to develop a love of learning); when teachers and learners have respectful relationships; when plenty of practice is given ( to establish 'groovy' neural connections); and by the experiences of life they are exposed to. Students, it seems, need to be helped to 'make up their own minds'; to retain the innate capacity to be 'life long learners' they were born with.

If schools do not provide these 'personalised' conditions then many students will 'disengage' from school learning, and are. Failing schools will need to change dramatically; the problems of failing schools is how they treat students.

The most important and neglected aspect is the hidden power of the unconscious mind and this is where Guy Claxton comes in.
The important part of the conscious brain is the frontal cortex which allow us to stop and consider before acting, it acts as a brake, or an internal policeman, to dampen down impulsive behaviour. We may not have 'free will' but we all need to develop 'I won't'. These conscious processes are important but are best only half the story.

As an aside autistic individuals are seen as having an over emphasis on male chemistry and thus are poor at relationships, ADDHD individuals having attributes that might be valuable in a hunting situation but problematic in formal schools, and dyslexic individuals as slow processors who get easily confused with the pace of learning. Tourettes Syndrome students have no ability to think before talking and over careful students can 'freeze' facing new learning situations. Savant individuals ( like the character Dustin Hoffman played in the film Rainman) have one strength taken to an extreme while other areas are neglected. This proves that a brain can develop mathematical genius, for example, through its own actions without any teaching. All these differing individuals can be helped if we had a greater understanding of their brains.

The unconscious brain, Claxton writes, has had bad press over the centuries. Conscious reason, in the West in particular, has been given pride of place since the replacement of unquestioned religious beliefs by scientific thinking. As a result the unconscious brain/mind has been largely ignored, or at best useful only for dreaming, for mood swings, for being lost in our thoughts, or, at worst, a place full of Freudian fantasies ( the 'beast in the basement').

It is as if the conscious brain has a hidden mind of its own that wanders off while we are trying to concentrate. This unconscious mind dreams at night - processing the days adventures. It brings things to our conscious mind at the strangest of times; it provides intuitive answers to difficult problems by providing insightful creative connections without conscious thinking, and it allows us to go into 'automatic pilot', lost in the 'flow' of things.

These less obedient qualities are too important to ignore, according to Claxton. Claxton believes we have over emphasized the rational rather than the reflective brain in Western culture. This false division provides conflict for the creative amongst us and those from different cultures and provides a clue as to why so students are failing in our rationally orientated academic schools?

The slower conscious brain is but the tip of the iceberg. The unconscious, according to Claxton, is far more important. The ideas from the subconscious, occurring to us in 'a flash', are absorbed from our culture and the institutions ( such as schools) we live in. As educators we ought to give more thought to the 'messages' our schools are unconsciously giving their students about life and learning. We urgently need to consider the ideas we want our students to absorb and then how can we ensure our actions match up to our intentions?

These unconscious thoughts enable us to 'know what to do when we do not know what to do'( Jean Piaget). It seems 'we know more than we know we know' ( Michael Polanyi). It is in our subconscious where our beliefs, memories and desires are to be found.It is in our subconscious where hunches, intuitions and creativity arise. Unfortunately the creative advantages provided by our subconscious are too often lost by the premature judgement imposed by our overly trained rational 'risk averse' brains and the pressure to prove or plan things before acting.

Creativity arises between the relationship between the two brains. Creative people value the insights offered for free while rational people distrust whatever cannot be observed and measured and inhibit such thinking. Ironically thinking too hard, or articulating what has been learnt, or worrying about imposed criteria, all limit creativity. Too much 'focused', or 'intentional' teaching, pre-determined goals, and linear problem solving, may be creating, via so called 'best practice', the mediocrity we currently see in our classrooms!

The unconscious brain provides answers without stopping to think making 'priming' this 'under-mind' so important. Strong cultures provide this 'priming' through literature, stories , myths and art - weak culture open young people up to ideas provided by the mass media.

Well 'primed' creative people are able to put their inhibitions to one side and trust their hunches and intuition. Students are inveterate eave droppers copying what they see going on around them. Students to be 'primed' need to be exposed to a wide range of creative thinking. This requires creative rather than compliant teachers and principals.

We all develop an identity of ourselves as learners for better or worse. As educators we need to focus on encouraging our students to 'be active seekers users and creators' of their own learning. The core of our identity largely lies hidden in our subconscious and is the heart of of who we are. How 'smart' we become depends on the 'stuff' we are surrounded. Our subconscious is continually interpreting and informing our choices. When we are not consciously thinking we are, according to Claxton, at our 'most grooviest'. The conscious mind, he says, may be seen as 'a dashboard for the mind' only able to provide limited information. This is a relationship similar to schools tests which can only ever measure a limited aspect of each students learning capacity.

It is time, writes Claxton, to overturn the reliance on the default rational model of the mind. All intentions arise from the depths of the subconscious if they are allowed to be actioned. 'How can I tell what I think until see what I say', to quote E. M. Forster.

We all have 'invented' ourselves from the experiences we have been exposed to. The more relaxed about who we are the more we are able to absorb new experiences and create new ideas. If we learn unconsciously then, as teachers, we need to be thoughtful about the stories and messages we share with our students.

What we believe as a society and what is accepted as 'right and wrong' needs to be embedded in our students brains/minds to allow them to act automatically. The subconscious, if primed positively, acts as a internal 'moral compass' allowing students to say 'I wont' without thinking. Such students are then in a position to be held accountable for their own actions even when in situations in which they do not know what to do.

Perhaps the thoughts hidden in our powerful 'under- mind', if fully valued, might provide time for reflection thinking and, in turn, provide the 'wisdom' missing in our fast paced information age?

Thinking about the best ways to cultivate thoughtful unconscious brains is a worthy ideal for all educators to consider?

Friday, August 01, 2008

Children as scientists

If children are aways asking questions then ought not our classrooms help them in their search for answers?

I recently came across an extract from an article called 'Children are Scientists' written in 1947 by Herbert Zim.

That we haven't yet created schools based on assisting students research their own questions and concerns just goes to show how much 'our' curriculums, what 'we' think is important for them to learn, has ignored the source of real motivation for students to learn.

No wonder many students become 'disengaged' - they were never 'engaged' in the first place. And to make it worse imposed curriculums now reach down to the very young. The situation is not helped by the pressure felt by parents to make certain their chiden succeed. There is no time for children to explore to satisfy their potentially ever expanding curiosity.

Herbert Zim says:

'That children are scientists is a truth worth repeating with emphasis. That they are also artists, musicians, and social beings we know. But young children particularly are more scientists than they are anything else.

The child starts to become a scientist with those basic reactions that first make him ( and her) aware of cause and effect.

To go further, all normal children possess curiosity about their environment, a quality that is essentially scientific. Children persistent questions,although sometimes motivated by a desire for security, are an outlet for curiosity which expresses itself in activity patterns as well as verbal...

Young children never hesitate to offer an explanation of even complicated phenomena.They may be completely in error but they develop a surprising logic in the hypothesis they set forth...It has been repeatedly suggested that scientists have made their great creative progress because some have been able to preserve and use these very qualities that we see so clearly in the young child.'

Just imagine a class that really values students questions and utilizes them to create an emerging, ever evolving, curriculum. Imagine teachers dedicated to helping their students research answers to their questions appropriate to their developmental level. Such a teacher would ever be on the alert to tap into students' natural curiosity,environmental events, as well as providing potentially stimulating experiences that might capture students' attention.

In such a classroom such creative teachers ( because teaching is in essence a creative act)would interact to help students 'dig deeply' into things that concern them. Such teachers would challenge their students to consider other possibilities always leaving the final choice to the students themselves. A wise teacher knows that students will change their minds when it makes sense to them.

In such classrooms students would be seen as 'scientists, artists, poets, and social beings'. They would see their students, as it is suggested in the 'new' New Zealand Curriculum, as 'active seekers, users and creators of their own knowledge'.

Maybe the time has come for teachers to throw away their curriculums and work along side the students to develop learning around what captures the students curiosity.

Too much teaching simply goes against the grain of the way students naturally learn. It would be easier to go with the flow.