Thursday, August 26, 2010

Thank you Phil Cullen

Phil Cullen
is a highly respected Australian educator. Now retired he was once the Director General of Primary Education Queensland. He continues to show an interest in educational matters and expresses concern about approaches he feels go against teacher professionalism - in particular national testing moves.

His website is worth visit.

Extracts from Bruce Hammonds: TOWARDS A 21stC SCHOOL FOR ALL LEARNER
{Teachers Today magazine,NZ, July 2010} ….with interruptions from an Australian commentator in italics.

Bruce Hammonds is a New Zealand education consultant, author of “Quality Teaching and Learning.”

The NZ government’s response to schools’ failure and poor teaching is to implement National Standards aka Naplan in Australia and NCLB in the US, strategies that look back to the past for inspiration. This ‘rear-vision thinking’ is too simple and diverts attention.

Time for a public conversation.

The biggest concern is that there seems to be “…no urgency for change…in schools…where disengaged students are reaching frightening proportions”. The standards agenda is “… rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic to get a better view. The confusion around national standards actually makes ensuring all students achieve success difficult by distorting teacher energy, narrowing their teaching and making it difficult for teachers to focus on developing inquiry based learning.”

A Vision for New Zealand.

”We could do worse than follow the lead of Singapore with its ‘Thinking Schools, Thinking Nation’ motto. According to the Ministry of Education ‘thinking schools will be learning organisations in every sense, constantly challenging assumptions, and seeking better ways of doing things through participation, creativity and innovation…the spirit of learning should accompany our students even after they leave school… A Learning Nation envisions a national culture and social environment that promotes lifelong learning in our people.’ Singapore’s Education Minister explains that the big adjustment for teachers is the way we educate our young to develop a willingness to keep learning, and an ability to experiment, innovate, and take risks.” [If only Australia’s Minister for Education had visited Singapore in 2008, instead of New York!!]

"Our schools could achieve such a vision if all their energies were focussed on implementing the current New Zealand Curriculum rather the standards".

The same is true for Australia.

"Schools need to focus their collective energies on developing environments in which students and teachers’ creativity, in-depth understanding and thinking can flourish.”

Personalised learning.

“We need teachers with the in-depth understanding able to help children to learn on their own, or as our currently side-lined NZ Curriculum says, to be their ‘own seekers, users and creators."

"Daniel Pink, in his latest book Drive: the Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us”, writes “the drive to do something because it is interesting, challenging, and absorbing – is essential for high levels of creativity. And, quoting research by Deci and Ryan on the self-determination theory, he writes, “We have three psychological needs – competence, autonomy, and relatedness. When these are satisfied, we’re motivated, productive and happy… [and] if there is anything fundamental about our nature, it’s the capacity for interest. Some things facilitate it. Some things undermine it.” [ Australia’s passion for a blanket testing regime certainly ‘undermines’ it]

Pink’s three conditions for success.

"The three conditions required for the motivation of all learners are : Autonomy – the provision of authentic choice; Mastery – the desire to get better; and Purpose – which provides the context for the next two. … The most powerful energiser of all is purpose – as seen through the eyes of learners.”

Having a winning mind-set.

According to Carol Dweck [Stanford Uni.]: “People hold one of two views of their own intelligence. There are those who believe they are born talented [or dumb] and others believe in effort and practice. Those with a ‘fixed mindset’ give up and …those with a ‘growth mindset’ do not interpret mistakes as failing but merely as a means of improving".

"Perkins [Making Learning Whole] outlines seven research based principles of teaching that can transform education, one of which is that students need to practice the ‘hard bits’ so as to achieve mastery in whatever they are attempting.”

The School As The Home of the Mind.

Art Costa’s powerful metaphor is well known to New Zealand schools and are similar to Guy Claxton’s ideas of ‘learning power’ and his reference to ‘the mind as a muscle’ which grows with exercise… ideas which underpin the key assumptions of the NZ curriculum…The intentions of Costa, Claxton and the Key Competencies of the New Zealand Curriculum are all about cultivating thinking dispositions. Costa calls them ‘habits of the mind’; and Claxton ‘learning power’. Guy Claxton of England visits NZ occasionally". He has visited Australia, but Joel Klein with his hard-data system, became Ms Gillard’s favourite.

Inquiry learning.

"Student thinking and purposeful teacher interaction cannot develop in a vacuum. Learning needs meaningful contexts…Gardner’s multiple intelligence theory encourages teachers to explore chosen content through a variety of ways – through the arts, the sciences, mathematics, language, music, and physical activity. Integrated learning is natural to the very young [who are not aware of subject divisions] and teenagers today explore the world through technological media crossing subject boundaries with casual disregard. Secondary schools remain locked into compartmentalised and fragmented learning with their genesis is a past industrial era while their students experience and interconnected evolutionary real world".

The Big Picture.

"Schooling ought to be seen as central to the development of New Zealand as a ‘cutting edge’ society. Enough is now known about teaching and learning that no student need fail. The current NZ Minister’s emphasis on compliance [Hello, Julia] through national standards is characteristic of yesterday’s assembly-line thinking rather than looking towards the unknown challenges of the future. The real literacies of tomorrow entails the ability for students to be their own navigators able to thrive in unpredictable situations supported and guided by the positive dispositions they have hopefully gained through their educational experience".

This is not a summary. It quotes extracts from a catching article that is printed in NZ journal, Teaching Today.

While schooling and Australia’s real future has remained a non-issue during present electioneering, it seems alive and well across the ditch

Monday, August 23, 2010

Inquiry is the basis of all education

Students, as part of a bush study, observe the flowers on a nikau palm tree.The students in this particular class were real experts in native plants , ecology and native plant propagation. Such intense inquiry leads not only to science understanding and environmental awareness put also observational art , imaginative art and poetic language work.

The 'new' New Zealand Curriculum (07) is all about students 'using creative, critical and meta cognitive process to make sense of their information, experiences and ideas' - in simple language inquiry learning. The curriculum asks of teachers to ensure all students leave 'confident life long learners'... 'competent thinkers and problem solvers who actively seek, use and create their own knowledge'. Perhaps the opposite is true - teachers do not have to develop such attributes, this is the natural way they learn, their innate 'default mode' until it is 'flipped' by school experiences!

If schools were to centre learning around student inquiry then they would be dramatically changed - and, in particular, how time is used. Today,in almost all classroom literacy and numeracy take up all the 'prime time' , and then, all too often, divorced from whatever inquiry is being done. In an inquiry based classroom all education would centre around inquiry and literacy and numeracy would be integrated into current studies or, at least, developing skills and content comprehension necessary for deep understanding.

To key to inquiry learning is to develop challenging studies and, where possible, studies that arise from the students' interests and concerns. No matter how they are introduced they need to be negotiated with the students so as to develop a sense of ownership and shared purpose. As the curriculum says, students to be able to research and 'reflect on their own learning, draw on their personal knowledge and intuitions, ask questions and challenge the basis of their assumptions and perceptions'. If only!

The best teachers, in my experience, are those who inspire memories in their students of studies; teachers who engage their students in great inquiry studies. Such teachers do 'fewer things well' so as to dig deeply into whatever is being studied. All too often what is seen are 'cut and paste' projects courtesy of one click from 'google'- learners who 'scan' rather than 'dig'. And little evidence is to be seen of transference of literacy and numeracy skills.

Only when done in depth will inquiry ever be taken seriously. It is imperative that that educators, who believe in students being helped to construct their own meanings around their questions, work hard to ensure their students learn to a high personal standard.

All too often schools seem keen to talk about this or that model of inquiry as if it is simply a process - however if nothing worthwhile results then such thinking is superficial and real learning is at risk.

The standards set for current inquiries are too low. When one reads what students produce there is little student 'voice' to be seen; information presented is simply paraphrased rather than critically interpreted. All too often what is missing the importance of relevance, meaning, and sufficient evidence of understanding.

All too often the use of technology is equally as shallow and all too often a distraction - a good example are 'glitzy' but shallow Power Points! The full transformational power of technology is yet to be realized.

Powerful inquiry studies inspire students because of the learning that takes place in the process as well as culminating exhibitions, displays and demonstrations. one vital clue to such studies are the maths, technology and science fair exhibits - which could become models for year long learning. The same would apply to artistic exhibits and performances as well.

In the future students with inquiry and creative skills will be in demand. Such 'key competencies', or 'learning power' are developed by means of involvement in such intense studies or projects. The future will require students who can think through 'messy' problems, write, make, build, imagine, compose, films, and produce all sorts of content.

Teachers need to take inquiry studies seriously and create opportunities for their students to develop their gifts and talents and learning competencies. Authentic assessment should focus on what students can do and this is best determined when students are asked to apply what they have learnt to new experiences or situations.

In the future, as one school mission states for their students, 'by our actions we are known.

The best inquiry studies endure, if they are personally meaningful; if they contribute to the future careers and interests of the students.

Saturday, August 21, 2010

Reflections on diary thoughts; the artistry of teachers.: Bruce Hammonds teacher

This painting arose because the student concerned wanted to make a painting of an experiment from the class science study on sounds. It features the experiment where bell like sounds from the swinging spoons reach the ears.It is also a an excellent painting showing a great use of paint.

As I was reading and then writing about the thoughts in my diary of my first months teaching I recognised the same challenges that face creative teachers today.

My experience in the classroom -which lasted three years - was my attempt to put into practice the beliefs about teaching and learning I had come to believe in and which I had helped other teachers implement as part of my role as an adviser.

Today we need to return to valuing the ideas of creative teachers and to capture and spread their ideas to other teachers and hopefully for courageous principals to develop schools around 'new' visions of teaching and learning.

Not so 'new' in reality as there have been precursors who had pioneered such approaches from way back in the 50s in NZ ( see Elwyn Richardson's book 'In The Early World") and teachers who courageously developed similar ideas through out the world right back to the days of John Dewey .For myself I was heavily influenced by the English Junior schools of the 60s and the US Open Education movements of the 70s. This was a time, before 'Tomorrows Schools' when creative teachers were valued, if not fully encouraged.

Since '86 distant curriculum experts, technocrats, assessment 'freaks' and politicians have held the upper hand. We need to return to valuing the artistry of creative teachers and to share their ideas.

So if I were to return to the classroom ( perish the thought) I would face the same situation as I did all those years ago. To be honest it is worse today as our schools are full of 'managerialism', and 'scientific' management procedures - none of which represent science - science, according to Professor Brian Cox Adviser to the UK Government, who says, that 'science is about being comfortable with the unknown'.

True creative teaching is about exploring the unknown not confirming the present. Being creative is the default mode of humans until 'flipped' by school experiences.

A look at the days programme in any school will show that traditional subjects still eat up most of the school day and that inquiry, or creative,learning is almost an afterthought. Assessment processes confirm this bias and Nation Standards will simply add to the problem. The reverse ought to be true. Experiential learning, inquiry, creativity, and personalised learning ought to be the default mode of learning.

So what are the attributes of a creative teacher - the beliefs I tried to implement during my teaching experience I have been reflecting about?

For one thing creative teachers respect the real world of the young people they 'teach' - they take their feelings, ideas, queries, theories, and lives seriously. They listen to young people and believe that, given the appropriate learning environment they all can learn in their own way

They believe that the power of learning ought to be shared with their students - they try their best to create their classrooms as democratic inquiry communities by negotiating learning, activities assessment criteria with their students.

They appreciate the diversity of their students and avoid a 'one size fits all' mentality - or a 'four groups fit all'. They believe in personalising any assistance according to need.

They want their students to being involved in 'digging deeply' into significant learning experiences rather than working through pre-planned progressions in subject areas.

They believe in personal excellence. They want all their students to be able to show growth and for all students to demonstrate their 'voice' and creativity in all they create. They believe strongly that all students can achieve personal excellence.

They see any Learning experience as: a chance to develop deep personal understandings; as an opportunity to tap individual student's' gifts and talents ;and to develop the dispositions ( or 'learning power') to be able to continue learning. True learning can only be seen ( or assessed) when the ideas are transferred to a new situation.

They see the curriculum as emerging from: the interests and concerns of their children; or arising from the local environment; or 'negotiated'; or introduced through, what Jerome Bruner calls, 'the canny art of intellectual temptation'. But however inquiry is introduced it needs to done deeply and well. Students' finished products, (and the room environment) need to demonstrate continual growth in intellectual understanding and aesthetic awareness.

Achieving such a personalised, inquiry based, creative programme in the future will require considerable courage. The 'new' New Zealand Curriculum demands a fresh look at how we organise our schools and classrooms - it is just not about 'rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic to get a better view' which most most school seem to be doing.

A clue is see how much time is given to literacy and numeracy
, or at least, to see how much such areas have been 're framed' to serve the needs of student inquiry and creativity.

If we want our students to develop their personal set of gifts and talents, and to develop the competencies to become 'seekers, users and creators of their own knowledge' as expressed in the NZC, then schools really need to be transformed. Schools need to leave the world of prescribed academic subjects and mass education processes and enter the world of personalised and creative learning.This is the world where their students are heading and where many already live today. It is no wonder that so many students currently fail today in schools not suited to them and no surprise to see which student are currently the 'winners'.

In the future all students need to leave schools as 'confident life long learners'.

The spark of hope is that such an education has been achieved in the past (even if in individual classrooms) and that there are still teachers and schools today who believe strongly in such a transformational vision.

Such teachers have the responsibility to continue their efforts - often against the odds. Creativity is never easy but aways exciting

Sunday, August 15, 2010

It is all about relationships. Bruce Hammonds teacher

Only when students feel trust and have confidence in their teachers can they openly share their thoughts. Teaching is all about respect and relationship and to develop such things students need to feel their questions, thoughts and experiences are valued. Two things get in the way of this – teachers who see their role of ‘teaching’ children what 'they' think they need and predetermined curriculums that ignore the experiences of each learner.

Today curriculum, assessment, and ‘experts’ from outside the classroom are kings. During my teaching the curriculum ‘emerged’ or at least involved the students – if they weren’t interested it was difficult. Thankfully children are innately curious and are easily engaged. As Jerome Bruner has written, ‘teaching is the canny art of intellectual temptation’.

My first term was a learning experience and one of often regrets about my decision but by the end of the term sensible patterns had emerged. I had decided to ignore the ‘normal’ four ability grouped reading programme and the similar approach for maths. Reading was almost fully integrated with the current study using resource material I collected. Children were busy imagining a journey on one of the first ship as part of the colonial study. Maths data about passengers, ages, occupations, death rates, tonnage, distances, routes, etc were also involved. I targeted poor reader to hear them daily and always had some basic mathematical computation activities on the blackboards. I also made use of their own writing as basic reading material draw attention to such things as word attack and letter-word sound relationship.

I was determined not to be seen as failing in these basic areas –other areas I was fussy about was handwriting and spelling particularly in finished work.
Such activities reassured students and their parents. By the end of the tern all students books showed real improvement which I happily shared with visiting parents.

But the main thing in the class was the range of investigative studies and the importance of the expressive arts both well displayed around the room for all to see.

I noted in my diary that ‘ I am certain that ability grouping over the years had reinforced attitudes of failure in many students particularly in maths, spelling and reading’ and, also noted, ‘that this is ironic as most teachers concentrate their efforts on such an approach to teaching’. I was determined to develop positive attitudes toward such areas.

I also developed for myself ‘a crash course in maths enough to comprehend and criticize what presently passes for maths ‘ which I felt only catered for the middle and high ability students. I decided to try to change students’ minds to what maths by making it fun and realistic and by integrating where possible. I found lots of excellent maths activities to assist me and the class and enjoyed our ‘new’ approach to maths. We called such maths ‘real’ maths and basic maths ‘practice’ maths.

The programme evolved and started with personal writing (and reading) followed by half the class on maths tasks the others on language tasks. This block also included whole class writing practice – usually poems or information that contributed to current studies. The afternoon the class worked in four study groups based rotating each day. One group with the teacher involved in a discussion, or an experiment, or learning a skill, one group working on their research, some doing another activity and another completing related art. Details of task were kept on the blackboard for students to refer to and so they could work independently. All these afternoon tasks (and many morning tasks) were all focused on presenting work to display or put in their books. Eventually each student took over a section in filing cabinet to develop their own learning folders to share with their parents.

Personal writing was an important part of the day. I noted that, ‘traditional subject teaching had done an efficient job of subverting children’s real interests and ignoring their feelings’. Poetic writing was developed through their narrative writing and by making use of incidental seasonal activities. One day two mynah birds fighting over a female outside the window took the class away from their maths to try to comprehend what was going on. Such ‘teachable moments’ were a regular feature of the room.

My diary notes that days do not away work out as planned but this is how it should be but class structures were important even if to move away from at times Children (and teachers) do need benign structures to keep them on task –and some children need more structure than others until they take responsibility for their own learning.

One thing of interest in my diary was my summing up of the abilities and attitudes of the girls and boys. On the main the girls had fewer problems and were good workers while quite a number of the boys exhibited failing attitudes and often poor behaviour. Maybe, I thought at the time, primary schools programmes seem to suit the girls? Certainly the boys took up more of my time. Another feature I noted was how much the home circumstances made such a difference to students learning – hardly an original observation but important none the less. Some homes reinforce school values, others seem neutral and others are counterproductive.

My diary finishes about the end of the term but I have few thoughts to add on reflection. I continued teaching for two more years before reluctantly returning to my advisory role.

Saturday, August 14, 2010

Coming together: Bruce Hammonds teacher

By the end of the year students had the skill to complete lino cuts of real quality - this one features a bird and Mount Taranaki. Completing such quality work will long be remembered by the children who complete them.

As I read through my diary entries there is a sense of things coming together without ever finally realizing a set daily programme as with my fellow teachers. Enough structure for both me and the thirty-eight children to positively get on with things and enough time to take advantage of ‘teachable moments’. It seems that I had avoided the over regulated approach of teachers of the time (ability grouping in reading and maths and a current study in the afternoon) and established a more learner centred environment.

The programme centred on valuing each learners personal interests (where possible) thoughts and feelings and the key to the programme was the current class study and in some times multiple studies
. Building up each learner’s sense of self and to strengthen their intrinsic interests to get them to see it was their responsibility to learn and mine to assist them.

The class became a flexible mix of class themes and personalized learning and, building on my own area of expertise, based for regular small visits out into the immediate environment to take advantage of seasonal changes or things of interest. And most of the major studies involved field trips further afield as well.

A few ideas underpinned any success – ideas I had helped other teachers implement when I was an adviser. Making use of the environment for poetic language and art and for studies is one. A phrase we used a lot was 'slowing the pace’ so both teachers and students had the time to complete work of quality. Another was to ‘do fewer things well’ to avoid students always wanting to be first finished. Along with the teachers I had previously worked with students were helped to present their work so as to show continual qualitative improvements in their bookwork and study reports. Doing ones ‘personal best’ was another key phrase with children being expected to demonstrate ‘how this piece of work is is better than their previous effort and how might they improve it’.

One book became important to the children and was called their Personal Best book. This book arose because many children always wanted to share their stories with me every morning. I encouraged children to focus on a specific aspect and to really write how they felt about the experience. These pieces of writing were to be less than a page to focus on quality rather than length. This powerful form of writing satisfied many ‘non writer’ who could see the power in telling a good story. One piece of writing was crafted out each week and listed in the personal book – I helped those in difficulty slowly get worthwhile results. Such writing celebrated their personal, lives and identity. The secret to quality writing was to develop a classroom where children felt safe enough to express their personal thoughts.

Introducing focused illustrations in all their books also helped quieten the frenzy of the room. To achieve worthwhile illustrations we studied the different way artists illustrated school journals and came to the conclusion that good illustrations focus on a specific event and have a sense of action about them. We also studied journal poems in language time for the same reason and used extracts for writing practice in our language books. Finally even our maths book, featuring mostly interesting maths studies (such as maths patterns) featured illustration were possible.

This focus on doing things well provided lots of children’s work to display on the walls. Developing stimulating and celebrative room environments was another feature of the rooms of teachers I had previously worked with. Such displays always had challenging captions along with student work. Critics at the time called us the ‘pretty classroom brigade!’ Every new study was introduced by a teacher display which was then added to with finished pieces of children’s work. I taught the students simple design layout skills to help them improve their presentation. At the centre of all activity was the spirit of student inquiry – a belief that students learn best when involved in meaningful tasks is the key to real engagement and success.

Back to my diary which I might add concluded after a few months when it seemed I had managed to develop a ‘programme’ that satisfied all involved – from then on , if memory serves me right we tinkered around making minor changes until the year completed.

Most of the notes written showed the various topics undertaken. Major studies appeared to run for about four or five weeks interspersed with all sorts of, what we came to call, ‘mini studies’ or ‘one day wonders’. These ‘emergent’ studies were mostly completed in the language block. Major studies I noted at the time were based a study of Wild Flowers followed by a Museum visit centred on Colonial Times which led to an extensive integrated unit based on colonial architecture and looking at our own houses. At the same time the rooms featured the history of number and writing, patterns in maths and mini studies covering seasonal visits, a study of geckos (I had at the time a pet green nautilus elegans), monarchs and one student’s pet mice.

The success of the work undertaken was directly related to the range of inquiry, art language and presentation skills the children had been taught in those hectic early weeks and the sense of order and structure that had evolved.

My diary indicted that slowly I was getting on top of things and beginning to really enjoy the class. And, it seems, I was no longer as exhausted! Parents who visited to see their children were expressing interests in what we were trying to do. Quality inquiry work, language and the range of art on display did impress them.

Friday, August 13, 2010

Fragile Beginnings: Bruce Hammonds teacher.

A school I visited in Soho way back in 1980 ten Years after teaching in the UK! To this day some of the schools I visited during my first visit still remain as an inspirational to me.Unfortunately things have changed in the UK but now there are now those who want to return to the best of those more creative days. Unfortunately they are now living with standards and league tables!

Decisions all too often have to be made without real knowledge of consequences. Deciding to go teaching after years of advising was such a decision but once made there can be no turning back.

My memories of my first few weeks teaching were one of continual rearranging of my programme to find something that seemed to work. My strongest memories however are of being very tired. After a day at school I needed rest to recapture my energy. I hadn’t imagined how tired I would be. Of course this wasn’t helped by my desire not to implement the traditional daily programme that wa expected of me.

There was an important lesson in this for me. Being an adviser is one thing – being a teacher another! When you aren’t certain what it is you have to do to get through a day. Keeping all students involved and doing worthwhile things, is tiring. And still today those who happily pass out advice as if it is just a matter of putting into practice who haven’t learnt this lesson. It seems the further one is away from the classroom the easier it all seems.

With this in mind my first sensible entry in my diary was entered almost a month after I entered the classroom. Until then I just made notes trying to capture my confusion. All sorts of small decisions I had to seemed major achievements. I wrote, at the time, ‘teaching is an established occupation, procedures, practices have become almost traditional…including expectations that the children bring to the class.’ Ignoring current expectations of other teachers and the students themselves would make my task harder

The Teachers Only Day, I wrote, ‘seemed like the peace before the storm. Student records cards only really show children’s achievement in basic subjects and many showed clearly a record of a number of years of lack of success.

On the first day I feel more anxiety and apprehension than the students – they have had new teachers before. Only one or two more perceptive can identify my insecurity and possibly the shallowness of my programme. But those first days, I noted, were ‘the beginning of my being able to identify the children as real people with individuality and considerable differences.’

By the time the week was up I noted that many children have good working habits but it is becoming apparent that it is difficult to keep the attention of the class as a whole. Their writing based on an ‘important holiday experience’ shows a stereotypical presentation and a lack of ability to express their personal thoughts.

Using an idea I picked up in the UK I introduced a four group pattern that rotated during the day. One group completing personal writing, an art group working on patterns ( part of my maths theme), a topic group observing and drawing wild flowers and grasses - the study I started the year with. Within this structure I introduced class lesson on handwriting, some basic maths (patterns in times tables). Adding in library, swimming and spots and assembles enough structure was developed to get through the day. All the times I was doing my best to assess what each individual was capable of academically and socially.

After a couple of weeks I wasn’t entirely happy with what had been achieved but at least the capable children were enjoying their experiences but too many other were ‘going though the motions’ or simply didn’t have the skills I expected they would have.

At this time I began to consider introducing ability groups in reading and maths as was (and still is) the traditional pattern. I resisted the temptation (it would have been easier) as I believed (and still do) that ability grouping hadn’t solved the problem of those children who seemed to be failing. I did, as a compromise introduce language and maths blocks in the morning but children worked in heterogeneous groups with me doing my best to assist children individually.

I felt considerable pressure re the maths programme as I resisted making use of the current maths textbooks. I was determined to develop in all children a positive attitude towards maths and introduced a history of number study which captured their attention particularly as it involved lots of graphic work which we displayed on the walls. I also introduced maths into graphing, measuring and classifying the wild flowers we were studying. In language, as part of getting children to value writing we made a study of writing from the earliest days.

In the afternoon time groups were developed to complete a range of activities based on the current study. Some of the groups were completing the work based on drafts undertaken in the morning – observational writing, wild plant maths while one group completed press prints bases on their drawings of plants.

By the end of the first month the class had settled down to a reasonable pattern of work and children book work ( personal wring, language, maths , and studies0 ) all showed real improvement compared with the work they had undertaken in the first few days.

The room by now had started to reflect the kind of work I had in mind. There were displays of the history of maths and writing, wild flower study work, personal language and press prints. And all work was framed and well displayed illustrating to the children the pride I had in their work. Along with library areas, and displays the room was starting to look like a learning community.

And I wasn’t quite so tired. And the principal and parents seemed a little less concerned. Perhaps the worst was over and the best was yet to come.

Friday, August 06, 2010

Diary of a teacher. Bruce Hammonds teacher

Sharon, a gifted writer and artist, begins her personal experience book with a portrait of her teacher in 1976. I still meet up with Sharon regularly -she now has her own children at a local primary school.

Developing a student centred inquiry classroom


During a recent cleanout I came across of a diary I wrote when I began my teaching career in New Zealand in 1976 although I had previously taught in the UK in the late 60s.

Nothing unusual about this but for me it was a major shift in my career since 1961 I had been an adviser in school science and my ‘teaching’ had been limited to assisting teachers in my province with their science programmes. This entailed taking classes on environmental studies of the bush, streams, the mountain, the rocky shore and the immediate locality as well as helping them with physical science topics.

During this time I was lucky enough to be able to visit the classrooms of innovative teachers, mostly in smaller rural schools, who were developing integrated programmes to replace lessons take at set times. Also at this time, along with a number of local teachers, I had become aware of the UK Nuffield Junior Science approach where classrooms followed up more than one open ended studies at any one time. We were also aware of ‘child centred’ primary schools in the UK (the ‘Plowden approach’) and also the ‘open education’ classrooms from the US. Perhaps, though, the biggest influence on ‘our’ teaching was the work of Elwyn Richardson through his book ‘In the Early World’. Elwyn’s work was associated with the related arts approach encouraged by the art advisers of the day and many local teachers implemented similar programmes.

They were exciting times.

Following my year teaching in a progressive primary school in 1969 I was determined to introduce similar ideas in local selected schools. This was to be the beginning of what was to be called the ‘Taranaki Environmental Approach’ – largely based on students exploring their immediate environment through an integrated approach.

After the success of teachers involved I was keen to teach in classroom to try things out for myself. As mentioned this was to be a major shift as I had (except for one year in the UK) never been a classroom teacher. With this in mind I was determined to keep a diary of my experience and it is this diary I now wish to return to for a number of reasons.

First to put into practice ideas I happy shared with others. All adviser should be prepared to put into action ideas they think others should action. To this day this is very important as it is all too easy to tell others what to do but, unless the advisers have practical experience, their ideas will always have an element of disbelief about them.

Secondly, after reading my diary, it is important to share what might now be called ‘personalized learning’ where real student inquiries underpin the class programme.

Thirdly, to draw attention to the difficulty and confusion involved in introducing any major shift in the teaching/learning approach. Any real classroom change involves uncertainty and second thoughts and, if this is not acknowledged, teachers who find new programmes difficult are all too likely to blame themselves. It is too easy for successful teacher to romanticize their experiences (glossing over their difficulties) or to suggest it is simply a matter of following some basic procedures and all will be well. It is even more problematic when advisers are ‘delivering’ ‘best practice’ ideas that they have never implemented themselves; a situation which is all too often the case today. This lack of recognition of the emotional pressures involved and the doubts that surface when introducing new ideas leads to most of these ideas not being sustained. People who introduce new ideas into schools have forgotten that teachers learn best from their fellow teachers and not from distant experts often far removed from the reality of the classroom. The recognition of the expertise that lies within the teaching profession is a vital antidote to all the advice ‘delivered’ from outside the school no matter how well researched and packaged.
It is important in this new millennium that teacher expertise be recognized as integral to any lasting change.

Finally, after reading my diary notes, I believe the ideas that ‘we’ developed in ‘our’ classroom in those days contribute to the directions now being espoused by the ‘new’ New Zealand Curriculum. Like the NZC we believed that all students should develop the capacities to become ‘confident life long learner’ …’able to seek use and create their own knowledge’ and to have all their gifts and talents recognized; that all children have the opportunity develop positive learning identities.

The best thing is that we now know far more about how children learn today and, if we put them into practice, no student need fail.

Next blog. Did I make the wrong decision – uncertain beginnings?

Wednesday, August 04, 2010

Inquiry Learning and Teaching as Inquiry

Many years ago I was involved with a class that studied a local redoubt built by British troops during the land wars in Taranaki. This was motivated by visiting a archaeological dig on the site of the redoubt and led into researching the redoubt and the exciting life of Pakeha Maori Kimbel Bent. A real example of student inquiry.

There seems some confusion about 'inquiry learning' and 'teaching as inquiry'.Both are included in the 'new' New Zealand Curriculum.

Teaching as Inquiry is where teachers inquire into their own practice to improve the quality of their teaching so as to benefit their students.

Teaching as Inquiry is to be seen as an ongoing process and is based on reflecting on evidence of success or otherwise of the teachers teaching. The model is outlined in the New Zealand Curriculum.

Teachers need to consider what issues are important and worth focusing their time on. This could well arise through self appraisal or a school review against agreed teaching teaching beliefs or practices. Or it might arise from a new idea read about or observed elsewhere.

Teachers then set up an an Inquiry or Action Plan to investigate the chosen practice. They then act as students to 'seek, use, and create their own knowledge'. This means trying out the ideas in their class for a suitable time to gain evidence of success.

When appropriate teachers then reflect on what happened, why it happened, and what might happen next? Ideas could then be shared with other teachers and, with school agreement, be included in the schools approach to teaching and learning.

Teaching as Inquiry is an ongoing evolutionary way of improving teaching. Teachers, along with their students, are becoming involved in continually extending their knowledge base.

Inquiry Learning is a process where students 'construct' their own learning ( with their teachers guidance) in an authentic context. As such it is a form of student Action Learning, Problem Based Learning, Inter Disciplinary Learning, or Project Learning. Such approaches are not new but all too often are done superficially resulting in shallow learning. Unless students are equipped with all the necessary skills to undertake such learning they are not worth undertaking. Ideally the literacy and numeracy times need to 're framed' so as to contribute both skills and content.

In classrooms that follow such an approach ( and they are not all that common) inquiry is the central feature of the day programme.

A class inquiry requires examining a real issue and naturally integrates a number of learning areas - topics however will mainly come from science, technology or social sciences but starting points can arise from any area.

Whatever is chosen must be studied in depth and result in clearly identified outcomes.The best models for inquiry learning is seen in exhibits for science,maths or technology fairs, and such learning ought to be year long feature in classrooms as well. The classroom walls would reflect current inquiry topics - students' questions, the tasks, the findings, and associated expressive work.

Obviously what is chosen could also be part of a Teaching as Inquiry task as well.

Teachers need to negotiate a compelling topic or challenge and with students consider what quality outcomes might result from the study. It is good advice to do 'fewer things well' so as to develop both in depth understanding of chosen content as well as research and inquiry skills ( and this ought to involve using the literacy and numeracy blocks to develop).

Once the topic is chosen then students' question (and their 'prior ideas' ) need to be identified. Then students need to undertake research their questions, undertake experiments, activities; for this this they will need adequate resources and equipment.

After the learning activities are complete students need to plan for a culminating event, display , or exhibition.

Evaluation of learning is covered throughout the process as teachers and learners interact. At the conclusion of the study students need to evaluate the success of their work and what needs to be learnt to use in their next study.

The best assessment of inquiry learning is when students undertake an independent study . This is best done in Term Four after students have been introduced to the various skills in previous studies and through the literacy block. Such an individual study will point out how well students have used inquiry and communication skills and, for the teacher, what areas students need to focus on for the next study.

A number of inquiry model are included under the various Learning but all cover the same basis process.

Teaching as Inquiry and student Inquiry learning ought to be the main features of a modern classroom.

Monday, August 02, 2010

Learning as a transformational experience

I was lucky enough to visit this classroom to see this young artist see her print for the first time. A moment of transformation and personal pride that will leave a positive and lasting image in her mind forever. This is the essence of transformational learning ; an experience that literally changes ones mind. Many students have acquired less than positive images of many areas of learning because this attitudinal or emotional aspect of learning has been neglected. Too much emphasis has been placed on objectively measuring achievement and not enough in valuing studnts attitudes towards areas of learning.

Children go to school. What they learn and how they learn depends upon what we believe and feel about children. Teachers beliefs make schools what they are. What they know and feel determines their daily actions.

And nothing introduced into classrooms can be successful unless teachers feel the suggested changes are worthwhile. Politician, or leaders in any organisation, who forget this will live to regret their actions.

With this in mind it is very important for schools to challenge teachers current ( often unquestioned) assumptions and, through dialogue, develop agreed to shared beliefs that all feel that it is vitally important to get behind. This is the point of school visions but few reach this level

All too often individual teachers beliefs are a bi-product of their own school experience and what they unconsciously pick up from those they teach with. Little time is given to reflecting deeply on what they believe or, more importantly, what it is that successful teachers do. Thankfully this sort of sharing and team work is now becoming more common.

On top of all this there are larger societal trends that have the power to dramatically impinge on school practices. In recent decades a 'market forces' business approach has all but replaced the earlier more 'child-centred developmental approach'. Measuring narrow achievement targets has all but replacing the wider responsibilities of education to develop positive well equipped future citizens.

A new societal trend, or paradigm shift, is now upon us but few school seem to have noticed. We are leaving the 'Industrial Age' and moving into what some call an 'Age of Ideas' or 'Age of Creativity'; others call it a 'Second Renaissance'. The first Renaissance was sparked by the power of the printing press - the second is being fueled by more powerful forms of cyber communication.

So it is now time for schools to begin the dialogue about what forms of education will contribute to this evolving society - and the first countries to do so will be the winners in the future.

What we need is a creative or transformation education system that can develop the gifts and learning capacity of all its students. Introducing industrial age 'standards' will just not do and will simply hold back the future success of schools.

The trouble is in our schools , overwhelmed with simply coping with imposed idea and behavioural problems, little time is being given to starting the dialogue. Too many schools just 'go along to get along' and have develop a maintenance or, worse still, a compliance mentality. It is all too easy to comply. Some try to get by by transplanting 'best practices' as 'silver bullets' but whatever creativity is in short supply.

We need to be thinking of new ways to educate our students for an unpredictable future and to recover creative ideas lost as a result decades of imposed technocratic curriculum's and compliance requirements.

Schools need to think deeply about the purpose of education. They need to see their school as contributing to something bigger than lifting narrow targets in literacy and numeracy. They need to consider how they can best contribute to developing a positive vision of New Zealand for the future - or is catching up with Australia all there is?

Things for schools to think about.

There are currently two agendas for change. One is a reform agenda led by politicians, imposing standards on schools; the other is not yet well defined but is a transforming creative agenda that will bring schools into the 21st Century. schools. A conservative versus an evolutionary approach; standardisation versus personalisation.

Somehow schools have to do their best coping with the reactionary 'standards' while at the same time keeping their focus on the tranfrmational issues implicit in the 'new' New Zealand Curriculum and espoused by such thinkers as Sir Ken Robinson, Art Costa and Guy Claxton.

In a transformational, or creative education, student inquiries are placed at the centre of learning with a recognition of students 'voice' and identity being key outcomes.

Few schools have achieved such a curriculum - most are seemingly confused about what direction they ought to be taking. Some are just too busy to notice the world has changed and continue to focus on business as usual! Literacy and numeracy continue to take up all the 'prime time' and inquiry, while talked about a lot, is hard to find. The future demands the 're framing' of literacy and numeracy to service student inquiry. Such things will require dramatic changes in mindsets , or beliefs, for many schools.

We all know the future will provide our students with challenges beyond our imagination and that this will require real change but few have risen to the challenge. Even the use of ICT seems to prop up traditional teaching approaches when it should really be leading transformation.

Schools need to discuss what kind of capabilities, or competencies, or 'habits of mind', their students will need to thrive in the future and then to orientate their programmes towards achieving such dispositions. Through dialogue schools need to develop an image of a future learner to keep in mind when working with their students.

Schools also need to look closely at how they are organised and to consider what needs to change to develop future learners. Dialogue could lead to the development of an image of a 'dream school'.

Schools also need to consider what would it mean to 'personalise' learning to develop in all students a positive and unique learning identity? How could students' 'voice', questions, culture , concerns and interests be accommodated as an integral part of their own learning?

Schools really working at transforming the experiences of all their students need too centre all learning around an agreed inquiry model based on the innate way students learn; a 'default mode' all too often 'flipped' by their school experiences.

To achieve such transformations will require schools to 're frame' their literacy and numeracy programmes to develop all the skills required for students to undertake in-depth inquiry.

And this will lead to looking closely at the role of the teacher in such a powerful inquiry based learning community - seeing their teachers as skilled creative learning coaches.

Finally , after all this dialogue, schools need to define a set of teaching/learning the beliefs that all involved will be held accountable to achieve. From such a series of dialogues a powerful school vision for the future will emerge.

Only when all these 'learning conversations' have been undertaken will will a school be able to deliver the 'confident life long learners', able to 'seek, use and create their own knowledge', as promised by the New Zealand Curriculum .

And only then will our schools be transformed enough to ensure all students leave with their talents and gifts realized, their learning capabilities and their innate spirit to learn alive and well.

The journey has just started.