Thursday, February 26, 2009

Interactive teaching- the Learning in Science Project (LISP)

If we really believe students 'construct' their own 'meanings' from any experience then teachers need to value the 'prior ideas' , questions and theories their students have. Only then can they set about to challenge and help students clarify what they know and can do. Some of the best research in this process was completed in NZ in the 80s by researchers at Waikato University but has been, more or less, ignored by those in authority since.

In the 80s, as a science adviser, I was involved in the development of the Learning in Science Project (LISP). It had evolved when a university physics professor became worried that the knowledge he thought his students ought to have been taught seemed to be missing in his classes. He found that it had been 'taught' , but that the students had been taught in way that their 'prior ideas' had not been changed in the process, or that they did not have the confidence to use what they 'knew' in practical situations. Some call this 'fragile' learning and it exists throughout the curriculum.

The basic findings were that children bring to any science lesson ( or any lesson in any subject) meaning that interfere with their acceptance of 'scientists' or teachers views.

Out of the research an inquiry model for teaching was developed; a model that can be applied across all learning.

It is a concern that, as teachers are being encouraged to focus on developing learning how to learn 'key competencies', that the importance of deep understanding of content is being ignored. A focus on competences only is resulting in 'thin learning'. I have seen evidence of such poor teaching where students, after completing a bush, study learnt little about the bush - the teachers more concerned with the 'key competencies' being gained.

The same concern is seen where teachers seem keener to show that they are using a range of thinking skills without any real gains in actually developing deep thinking, or understanding, about content.

This problem is not helped by an over emphasis on literacy and numeracy ( divorced from the afternoon inquiry programme) leaving little time for exploring the other learning areas.

Unless teachers know what their students think and why they think that way, teachers have little chance of making any impact with their teaching.

An 'interactive' approach allows teachers to work alongside their students to help them co- construct better learning. Such an approach gives time for teachers to develop their own understanding of content and not be seen as the font of all knowledge. Both teachers and learners are involved in the inquiry process resulting in 'constructing', or creating deeper understanding.

Our 'new' curriculum states that learners should 'seek ,use and create their own knowledge'. An interactive approach enables this to be achieved and, in the process, naturally develops the life long 'key competencies'.

Briefly the interactive inquiry model asks teachers;

1 Place students in an interesting situation ( in any learning area) that stimulates them to ask questions.

2 Record students question and gain insight into the students prior ideas.

3 Help students select suitable questions for them to research. With experience students could work in groups researching different questions. This will require clearly defined group tasks.

4 Students undertake their research.
To do this requires a number of skills to be in place: how to do an experiment and write it up; how to 'seek, use and create' information; skills of information technology; and design and presentation of their ideas. All these need to be part of well thought out literacy( and numeracy) programme. Teachers, during this research, need to interact with students, provide resources, to challenge their ideas, and to help them stay focused on their tasks.

6 Students report, demonstrate, exhibit, or display their findings and reflect on how their understanding, knowledge and skills ( including 'key competencies') have changed. Hopefully such conclusions will result in further questions to explore illustrating the tentativeness of all learning.

To be honest there is little evidence that such an approach is common in our schools
. 'Cut and paste' is still the common fare of student 'researchers'.

An interactive approach will remedy such poor learning.

Saturday, February 21, 2009

Notes for developing a creative school

As we escape from the conformity of the previous curriculum teachers, and schools, have the opportunity to develop some new thinking and to create school more suited to the demands of a new creative era? Or will they?

I have the task next week to outline some ideas to a school staff about how to develop a creative school where all the gifts and talents of all students are valued. A school where all students leave 'confident, connected, life long learner - all able to 'seek, use and create their own knowledge'.

I thought I would share my 'emerging' thoughts; a work in progress.

The last big change in education happened in the period between the 1950s and 1970s. During this time straight rows, with the teacher all powerful at the front, was replaced by the discovery of the individual and group teaching. Little has really changed since then. In secondary schools the 'transmission model' still continues even though it is obviously failing. So far modern technology has not yet dramatically changed the teaching patterns established in the 60s.

Is developing really creative school possible?

What would it mean for teachers and students? consider the changes that happened in the 1960s.

What would have to change?

If we accepted that learning, the disposition to inquire and make meaning, and to be creative were inborn how would this change our roles? If these capabilities are inborn how come so many students seem to have lost this natural love of learning? Are schools part of the problem?

There are schools that already believe their role is to provide experiences to amplify ( or 'recover') this natural desire. The Emlio Reggio schools of Milan and the writings of James Beane come to mind. And of course the writing of progressive educators over the ages led by John Dewey.

The research of Piaget and Vygotsky led to the changes in the 50s and the concept of developmental or learner centred education. In NZ pioneer teachers, like Elwyn Richardson, actually developed such creative learning environment. Elwyn's book 'In the Early World' is still available from the NZCER.

New knowledge about how students learn now points to new transformational developments in schooling but so far little has changed.

Imagine a school led by students' questions and concerns; a school seen as a 'community of inquiry' ensuring every student leaves with a positive learning identity.

A school that made full use of their immediate natural and man made environment as a source for 'rich' integrated studies along with pertinent studies of other culture in time and space.

Schools that use student curiosity to develop 'learning power' ( 'key competencies') so that they have the capacity to 'know what to do when they do not know what to do', to quote Piaget.

Such a school would focus on 'doing fewer things well' so learning results in 'deep' understanding and positive attitudes.

Such a school would value the education in students of sensory awareness and value observational skills so as to develop language, students questions and to lead into imaginative expression of their ideas.

Such a school would provide students with a range of 'frameworks' to interpret any experience( covering the Learning Areas or 'multiple intelligences').

Whatever was learnt, or expressed, would be 'done well' with the thought that achieving personal excellence develops positive attitudes and feeling towards learning. All the expressive arts would be given full value and individual interpretations encouraged.

In such an environment modern technology would be integrated, as required, to research, express and share ideas gained.

Such a school would require 'artistry' from teachers to assist learners gain the skills required to achieve personal excellence. 'Teaching', to quote Jerome Bruner, would be 'the canny art of intellectual temptation'.

An inquiry approach would be integrated into all learning - essentially 'enlightened trial and error'; trying things out and keeping what works.

Teachers, with their focus on developing the gifts and talents of all learners would be aware of the 'multiple intelligences' research of Howard Gardner and would appreciate the individual learning style of each learner - 'personalised learning'.

Teachers would make use of a co-constructivist approach , one that values students questions and 'prior' ideas. An approach that challenged student's views and provided learning assistance as and when required. An approach that respected the learning style of each learner.

One big change would have to be made.

Literacy and numeracy blocks would have to be 're framed' so as to place the emphasis on developing the skills and depth of content to be used in the inquiry topic that would now be the centre stage of all learning.

While there would need to be processes in place to assure basic achievement in maths and reading the emphasis is on applying the skills in the service of inquiry learning. this would make both reading and maths more relevant for learners.

As for assessment the 'evidence' would be what the students can do and how they act. The whole school , the grounds, the room environments, student learning journals, the school website, would speak louder than any so called 'learning targets'. There would be visual 'messages' shouting out creativity wherever you looked.

Parents would cue to enrol their children and teachers would line up to involved.

I am sure that many teachers would want to do this? Few enjoy the 'surveillance culture' they are currently exposed to which is killing the joy of teaching let alone learning.

If we want all students to develop all their gifts and talents, to develop positive identities as 'confident life long learners', able to 'seek, use and create their own knowledge', we have little choice.

It is beyond the current system still locked in the 1970s.

The intent of the 'new' New Zealand Curriculum provides with an opportunity to develop such creative schools but only if we have the wit and imagination to take up the challenge.

We will have to wait and see.

Teaching for thinking

Students exploring electricity. To make fullest use of such a 'rich' learning situation teachers need to find out what students 'prior ideas' might be, what questions they have, teach how to record what they are doing, how to discuss what is happening and why, how to write up their findings, provide opportunities to use their 'new' knowledge, and, finally, to reflect how much they have changed their minds. If this is not done learning will be lost. This is learning in depth - or doing 'fewer things well'.

There is a lot of talk about teaching thinking in schools and all sorts of thinking processes are often seen on classroom walls. The trouble is that more than talk and processes are required - there ought to be some real evidence of students thinking to be seen. All too often was is seen is 'higher order thinking for thin learning!'.

Gwen Gawith writes about this lack of translation into action, this lack of critical thinking, in the Term 3 08 Good Teacher Magazine, Quoting Ned Nodding she writes ' I consider thinking as the sort of mental activity that uses facts to plan order, and work towards an end, seeks meaning; is self reflective; and uses reason to question claims and make judgements'.

The key is doing. Nodding makes is that thinkers need something to think about. Plan what? Order what? Work toward what end? Just using De Bono thinking hats is not good enough!

All Learning Areas provide contexts for this thinking to be used - maths experiences, examining research in reading, but most of the current inquiry topic. Trouble is there isn't much time for such topics with all the focus on literacy and numeracy. One way to solve this is to 're-frame' the literacy and numeracy blocks so as to contribute to developing thinking related to the current study 'killing two birds with one stone'.

The inquiry topic should be the driving force for much of the school day.

A lot of school have developed inquiry models but such models often neglect to show the value of recognising the messiness and confusion that is a part of any inquiry or creative learning.

The first task is to define the challenge. Students need some experience to attract their curiosity, to provide questions and to surface 'prior ideas'.During this exploratory stage it is valuable to recognise feeling of uncertainty and confusion.

Out of the above will emerge 'key' , 'hook' , or 'fertile' questions to explore. With greater definition of the challenge, and narrowing down things to do, feeling of optimism and clarity emerge ( even if they are often easily lost).

Then the 'thinking begins'
. Students need to be 'helped' to involve themselves in explorations, experiments,and research. To be able to record their thoughts students will need help and this is where the literacy time can be integrated. Information literacy is all too often taught and never used - now is the opportunity. As activities, usually done collaboratively ( and this requires new skills ) are completed and recorded confusion leads to a sense of direction and anticipation of realising answers.

Finally as idea are presented, displayed, demonstrated feelings of satisfaction and pride will be felt. During a reflective time students will realized that they have only scratched the surface and that there is always more to learn. Ideas might have 'emerged' for a new class study or for individual, or group, research. This contributes to them becoming 'life long learners'.

To achieve such learning requires that teachers need to 'teach' the various aspects involved. They need to work with their students, 'thinking out loud', modelling the kind of thought they want their students to be able to use. This includes using graphic organisers, how to take notes and how to record sources of information. Most of all learning to appreciate of the 'messiness' involved in inquiry learning; the 'enlightened process of trial and error'. It is vital, Gwen Gawith, writes for students to learn 'reason with facts' and observations, to be able to ask deep questions, how to break up ideas, how to combine ideas, and how to 'see ' connections with previous learning.

This all gets back, says Gwen, that 'children need to know stuff to think with'; or as Nodding says, 'we are talking about thinking in a learning context'.

Providing 'rich , real ,and relevant' contexts, and digging into them rigorously, is what it is all about, or ought to be. The truth is such deep thinking, based on inquiry, thinking that is intellectually challenging is not often seen. Students need to ground their claims on verifiable evidence and also to go beyond the information given.

More often what is seen is an unquestioning regurgitating of information as children 'cut and paste', with no interpretation, of what they gather from doubtful sources. No 'I think..', or I am still wondering about...' , or 'it might be....' or any other 'markers' of real thinking.

Howard Gardner , Gwen writes, believes that students need more than an information base... they need to master disciplinary thinking'. This, Gwen says, is what John Dewey 'used to bang on about, getting them to think mathematically, historically, geographically.'

Inquiry, or creative teaching, is about disciplining the mind so as to think creativity and critically; to grow children's minds by building on their inborn disposition to 'make meaning' of their world.

Maybe we have to rethink all the fragmented learning areas ( particularly the role of literacy and numeracy) to focus them all on developing this disposition to inquire with growing depth and confidence.

I wait to see such classrooms.

I can remember such classrooms before the days of the imposed curriculums.

Our 'new' curriculum provides an opportunity to develop our classes as centres of inquiry.

But only if we change our own minds (and our fragmented school timetables) first.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Creative teaching

I saw this wonderfully creative piece of art while visiting Hillcrest School. All students had used the same media ( cutting out coloured paper) but every piece was so different but Amy's (age 7) work stood out. The aesthetic feeling gained from achieving such a piece is the best 'evidence' of learning. And of course it is a representation of an important idea to the young artist. A real change from the 'formulaic' art I so often see.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Great art

A piece of art from Hillcrest Normal School illustrating the right amount of teacher guidance and plenty of individual creativity.

Beyond rationality into creativity?

Schools need to escape from the bounded rationality of a failing era and move into more flexible style of learning for a new creative age.

Have we gone too far?

Sunday, February 08, 2009

Discovery Time

Discovery Time is a most valuable book written by two New Zealand educators Brenda Martin and Gay Hay. To acquire this book visit their website. Discovery Time, an activity based programme held once a week, provides an exciting environment in which to strengthen the key competencies and bring fun into children's learning.

Highly recommended

I have visited a number of schools that have introduced 'Discovery Time' but until now have not taken the time to discover what it was all about. All I knew was that the teachers in the schools involved were highly enthusiastic.

Last week, by chance, I became more informed about Discovery time and now have no hesitation in providing my wholehearted support. I was presenting creative teaching and learning ideas at a school in Lower Hutt where one of the authors, Brenda, a Resource Teacher Learning and Behaviour ( RTLB), was attached. The principal assured me that we would have much in common.

At the conclusion of my session the 'author' and I had a discussion during which I was given copy of their book.

Discovery Time was introduced to create a balance between the skills and knowledge demands of curriculum and the activity-based , student-directed focus that many teachers believe in.

One one hand, the authors write, there is large body of research that indicates young children learn best through developmentally appropriate, experience-based student-directed learning, whilst on the other hand there is a demand for measurable, outcome focused, highly structured and teacher directed programmes.

The authors believe that we have tipped too far towards the outcome focused assessment model at the expense of a more holistic experiential learning; that we have become so focused on academic learning that we have neglected important social and emotional needs.

As a result play ( 'the natural way children go about the business of learning') is being neglected and as 'children don't get a chance to test ideas, explore and experiment because they are always meeting imposed adult expectations. As a result young children are not as resilient as they no longer have the time nor the opportunity to try things out, make mistakes, fall flat on their faces and then pick themselves up.

World wide, the authors report, that the emphasis on improving test scores has neglected creativity and innovation.In order to foster creativity children need to be actively involved in wide-ranging experiential learning and able to participate in learning of their own choosing.

In order to redress some of these concerns new curriculum have introduced 'key competencies', 'the things all people need to know and be able to do in order to live meaningfully in, and contribute in , and contribute to, a well functioning society'.

Discovery Time was written in response to this need and is a programme that provides an activity-based student directed environment where students have the to opportunity to explore and develop 'key competencies'.

The authors write that, while their programme is loosely based on 'Developmental' or 'Choosing Time' a strong features of New Zealand junior school classrooms of the 70s and 80s, it provides a greater facilitative role for teachers; a greater emphasis on quality feedback and teacher interaction.

I particularly liked the structure the authors provide for the ninety minute discovery time. The teacher begins by introducing the focus for the day which may target a specific aspect of the key competencies as well as the content involved.

The children then select and participate in the activities during which teachers provide feedback, ask questions and generally encourage students to take learning risks and to expand their thinking.

At the end of the session the class comes together in a 'wrap up' session to share and reflect on what they have learnt.

The implications of each key competencies are clearly explained which I am sure teachers will find valuable.

Teachers are also provided with a planning format which covers the three steps outlined above to assist them make the best use of discovery time. Teachers will also find the assessment suggestions useful along with the extensive lists of possibilities to include in discovery time. Detailed examples of planned units are provided to give even greater guidance.

The theme of the book is that the possibilities are endless.

The philosophy behind discovery time could easily be extended to cover most of the school day and certainly can be used to introduce, or contribute to, more extensive class integrated explorations.

Discovery Time is a good idea, one developed by classroom teachers for classroom teachers. It is an approach that builds on the beliefs of creative New Zealand teachers and I am sure it will spread as teachers tire of the current imposed 'best practice' outcome based measurable programmes.

It is a programme that values the creativity of teachers and that is its real strength.

The book comes with a most valuable CDROM.