Tuesday, November 30, 2004

Yet another report on failing students!

A damming report about failing students is the lead article in our local paper. Evidently an increasing number of Taranaki students are leaving schools with no qualifications.

The report, it states, is an effort to reverse the disturbing trends and to encourage the region to develop a world class education system. This picks up on the challenge of educational philosopher Peter Drucker who has written that no country as yet has developed a twenty-first century education system.

Well, I have read the report and I am none the wiser about real solutions although I do have a better appreciation of the disturbing figures. Taranaki, it seems has the third highest regional rate of students with nothing to show for their time at school. 20% leave with no qualifications and Maori students have a much worse percentage. The truth is that the failure rate is too high right throughout New Zealand.

You would think this would generate real sense of urgency to change the education provided to these students at our secondary schools. I interpret the figures as indicating a dysfunctional education system for a growing number of students.

The report is more concerned about tracking such students and considering what to do for them once they leave the schools. As important as these issues are they represent an ambulance at the bottom of the cliff.

What is required is for schools to ask a few pertinent questions.

Which students are failing? The report answers this.
Why are they failing? What are the needs of these students?
What needs of learners are not being met for these students?
What do schools need to do to make learning attractive? How can learning be made more relevant? How can schools tap the talents these students have
Do schools need to invent some new structures and organizations to cater for these students?

‘It is’, said the report chairperson, ‘all about future proofing. Where we are now is not where we want to be in the future.’

Fine words! Now we need some twenty-first educational thinking to drag our secondary schools into the twenty-first century! Peter Drucker writes that every organization has to be prepared to abandon everything and that of all organizations schools have to change the most!

What about setting up a regional seminar of all involved to explore some new ideas? I would be happy to make a contribution.

Monday, November 29, 2004

Schools working collaboratively, the new trend!

The ideology underpinning the educational changes of the last decades has encouraged ‘stand alone’ competitive schools busy ‘proving how good they are!’

In a ‘knowledge age’ (where knowledge is the new capital) this is counterproductive for both the professional development of teachers and students. As well, this isolationism (or ‘me first’ schools), is creating problems for many students as they transfer between schools. The number of student’s not ‘surviving’ school transitions, particularly between year 8 and 9, is now a Ministry priority.

What is required to solve this disconnectedness is for schools and teachers to become involved in a professional dialogue so they can come to some agreement of what is meant by quality teaching and learning. And from dialogue to develop some form of pedagogical framework that can unify teaching between all schools

Today, not only is there little collaboration between schools at the same level, but there is a pedagogical difference in teaching beliefs between the primary and secondary levels. What is needed is to develop beliefs that can integrate teaching across this divide, beliefs that combine the best of child centred primary with the more teacher, subject centred, secondary approach.

This ‘more informed vision’ underpins the philosophy of our website www.leading-learning.co.nz . Such a ‘learning centred’ philosophy is based around providing personalized learning to all students by: engaging students in real life experiences, valuing students questions and prior ideas, challenging students to construct their own knowledge, teaching ‘how to learn’ strategies and integrating learning areas, a need for personal effort, doing fewer thing well, and the importance of rigor, effort, practice and discipline. Naturally there would also have to be an agreement of what ‘foundation skills’ would need to be in place at each point of transfer.

There are lessons to be learnt in this mix for both primary and secondary teachers.

At the secondary level it would mean teachers working in teams with groups of students in some form of thematic integrated studies.

At the primary level, ensuring foundation skills were in place, identifying student’s talents and guaranteeing a positive attitude towards learning

Learners, their parents and their teacher(s) all need to be involved in negotiating individual student educational learning plans and teacher’s, and students need to be held accountable for what they agree to undertake. Each student needs to build up his or her own learning portfolio.

An agreed teaching framework, while developing consistency, must also encourage individual, school, teacher and student creativity.

The framework must be built on the belief that all students can learn given the appropriate help, task and time. All students should leave, whatever level of school, with their talents developed and their joy of learning intact. To implement such beliefs will require an understanding by schools of what attributes both a powerful learner and teacher must have. To succeed many schools and teachers will have to change the way they teach, and all teachers be given the opportunities to expand their teaching repertoire.

There is nothing radical in the above suggestions but if implemented would not only solve the problematic transition concerns but also have the power to transform schools into true learning and sharing organizations. The personalized approach would also assist those students who currently leave with little to show for their schooling.

Sunday, November 28, 2004

Research: Computers make learning worse?

A recent European Study, involving tens of thousands of students in 31 countries, organized by the OECD in 2004, reached the conclusion that students who use computers a lot, have worse maths and reading scores.

The belief that there is an educational benefit in ICT has underpinned a huge investment by schools and governments in computers.

The poor scores may tell more about the tests than the technology. A bit like medieval scribes complaining about handwriting skills after the introduction of the printing press. I wonder if they were testing 21stC literacy’s?

Still it is worth thinking about. Recently Prince Charles said, ‘I simply do not believe that a passion for a subject or a skill, combined with inspiring teaching, can be replaced by computer driven modules.’

With the risk of being accused of being a Luddite, there is some truth to the Prince’s comments. Mind you the luddites were not against 18th C technology – their worry was the inappropriate use of the technology as seen in the factories of the day. They were eventually proved right.

There is no doubt that computers currently suffer from ‘over promise and under delivery’. In the hands of sympathetic teachers they demonstrate excellent results but, unless teachers are given proper support, they can divert teacher time and energy, particularly when they ‘crash’. Equally, talented teachers without computers can also produce excellent learning results. Computers are, as they say, a tool, but they are a powerful one in the right hands. In some situations computers crowd out more effective teaching methods and hinder student creativity.

When I visit schools I always look to see how many computers are in use and what exactly they are being used for. Often I am, like Price Charles, less than impressed.

It seems it is another case of, it’s not what you have but how you use it!

Saturday, November 27, 2004

The teacher as a creative coach,

In the last year or so the Minister of Education (NZ) has been expressing the idea that it is the quality of the individual teacher that is the most important factor in a child’s learning.

You would have thought this was painfully obvious but it is none the less welcome.

There seems to be two ways to improve teaching quality. One is to research what ‘best practice’ is and then to ensure that all teachers put this into action. I guess this would be the ‘top down’ technocratic approach. The second way is for those in power to create the conditions, and to provide resources, for teacher creativity to ‘emerge’. This second way, although messier, is a more ‘organic’ approach and one that encourages teachers and schools to take ownership and responsibity for their own development. A good idea would be to identify creative teachers / schools and to have them to work together to share their ideas. To achieve this would require a ‘high trust’ environment.

I guess it requires both but whatever the sense of agency must always be with the teacher and the learner.

There is nothing new in the realization of the power of the teacher coach. And as well we already know how to do it. The good coaches of athletes do it as do the good mentors in the business world and the teachers of artists. And so have creative teachers.

All these people do their best to uncover or extend the talents of those they work with.

They lead their students to achieve things that often surprise the learners themselves and in the process create ongoing motivation and excitement. In the process they teach the importance of rigor, discipline and the need for practice and persistence. Personal effort and practice, to achieve a student selected goal, is a neglected area in many schools.

They do this by building on their student’s strengths, diagnosing problems to overcome, giving focused feedback and support, and ideas for learners to consider. This is a ‘novice / master’ relationship and one where, with time, the talented novice may outdo the master in performance. Achievement is addictive. Learning is its own reward.

Too often in school teachers focus on what students cannot do, or what the system expects them to be able to do, on their perceived weaknesses producing in the process mediocrity and compliant students who have no love of learning.

Rather than obsessing about the ‘achievement gap’ in literacy and numeracy it might be better to focus on the exploring the talents and lived experiences of these students, build on their strengths, and in the process create a need for literary and numeracy to be used. More importantly the students would learn the process of how to learn – to become the life long learners that has to be the goal for the 21stC. We need to invent a new word for this ‘learnacy!’

To achieve this schools need to focus on one student at a time and this would mean, not only recognizing the importance of the teacher, but also to transform schools so that this power can be fully realized.

Friday, November 26, 2004

Simple advice to improve your school.

Peter Drucker, the business philosopher's, advice is simple and powerful, identify the things that are working well in your organization, school or classroom, and concentrate on these.

Then look for things that do not work or have never worked, or the things that have outlived their usefulness, or are just a waste of time and energy. Ask all involved what is getting in their way and wasting lots of valuable time for little result. Stop doing these things.

Then focus on the half successes, the half failures; the things that have been partly successful. Try to determine what precisely has been unsuccessful and decide is it worth fixing up otherwise stop doing it.

As I visit schools I am often appalled by the elaborate systems that have been invented (usually by those no longer in the classroom) which divert busy teachers from their core work – helping students learn!

It might be a great idea to set up a group of people to look at all school documents to see which ones are never, or rarely, used and ones that waste valuable time. As one wise principal once told me, ‘Teachers have two valuable assets their time and energy, waste this on bullshit and the quality of teaching suffers.’

Then reduce all remaining documents, where possible, to one or two sides of an A4 piece of paper. As de Bono says, ‘Simplicity focuses attention, complexity causes confusion.’

To decide what is important, spend time will all involved determining exactly what the mission, purpose or vision is for your school. Then spend time thinking about the values that you want underpin your vision and then define your basic teaching beliefs.

One this is done, ensure the knowledge that relates to the vision, held in the heads of everyone, is shared with all. Then hold everyone to the agreed expectations.

Follow this advice, continually improve, and you have a ‘learning organization’.

But to begin this process you have to jettison all the things that aren’t working. Great organizations are run by clarity of purpose and minimum of paper.

Wednesday, November 24, 2004

Let's stop pretending the Emperor has all the clothes!

I have just read the Secretary of Education’s report given to some international conference about educational change introduced since Tomorrows Schools. All in all, it seems, it kind of worked out as planned, with a few hitches here and there, but we are on the right path towards all students achieving. Could have fooled me!

Anyway, he says, it is much better than what happened before under the old centralized department. I am not sure if everyone would agree with him; we lost as much as we gained! Educationalists were replaced by technocrats.

For all the rhetoric what has really changed in our classrooms? Sure the NZCEA is better than the old pass / fail School Certificate but, in reality, secondary school structures and teachers ‘mindsets’ have changed little. They still look like nineteenth century factories to me; currently failing far too many students who don’t fit into the traditional mold! As for primary schools, where there is innovative teaching going (and there is), it is in spite of all the incoherent curriculums, confusing assessment demands and the ever changing Ministry compliance requirements.

There was no mention in the Secretary’s report of all the exhausted and burnt-out teachers that have tried their best to make sense of the ever changing demands imposed on schools by the Wellington technocrats. Things at least are getting better now! The curriculum is away been ‘fixed up’. Integration of learning areas is all on again. The importance of the teacher has now been recognized. Why these painfully obvious realizations have taken so long to reach Wellington is beyond me, particularly as they were common knowledge amongst creative teachers long before Tomorrows Schools. And now, after the excesses of competition, the value of schools collaborating is now being seen as a good thing!

It is all a bit back to the future!

So now we are through site based management and stand alone schools and into teaching and learning! The Ministry is now into ‘key competencies’ - new words for ideas expressed by John Dewey and other progressive educators’ last century!

What we really need is for the Ministry to stop calling the tune and to begin a national conversation about the purpose of education in a ‘knowledge age’, and only then, to see how schools need to be changed to achieve the citizens the future will need.

Looking at school provision now, fragmented, isolated, and with de- professionalized teachers, what we need is a real transformation. Secondary schools may never survive – built as they were around a factory mentality with their geneses in an Industrial Age!

Behind the carefully chosen rhetoric of the education secretary lies the reality. It reminds me of the following quote by R D Laing. I think many teachers feel like this quote – particularly the ones that have done their best to comply with all the bureaucratic nonsense of the last decade or so! Trying to cope with a rain of badly thought out changes ( all with unintended consequences) has led to what one writer calls, ‘ a corrosion of character’, a disability resulting from people trying guess what is wanted and how to do it and not listening to their own voices!

‘There is something I don’t know that I am supposed to know. I don’t know what it is I don’t know, and yet I am supposed to know. And I feel I look stupid if I seem both not to know and not know what it is I don’t know. Therefore I pretend to know it. This is nerve wracking since I don’t know what I must pretend to know. Therefore, I pretend to know everything.

Let’s stop pretending! The Emperor has no clothes.

If we are wise we will make certain our voice and our beliefs are heard in any future changes! As Michael Fullan says ‘Central Governments always get it wrong.’

And we need to stop pretending those distant from reality have cornered the market in educational ideas. All the best ideas always come from the edge! Let’s talk to each other and our communities – together we can create a variety of answers.

Wasn’t that the premise of Tomorrows Schools?

Tuesday, November 23, 2004

Secondary schools blind to a crisis?

Our secondary schools are in crisis but no one seems to notice!

Yet another National Radio debate has focused on school failures. Evidently 38% of 13 to 15 year olds leave school without gaining school qualifications, and this figure is growing, and 10% have their parent’s permission to leave schools to attend alternative providers.

For all this we still seem to focus on the students and their parents and only, at best, tentatively suggesting schools themselves might need to change.

Only Celia Lashlie (an ex prison manager and now social commentator) can see that the problem is far bigger than simply focusing on the students themselves. We are, she reminds us, facing up to students who come from third generation unemployed parents and that these parents, and their children, see schools as a negative emotional environment; a place of shame and embarrassment. Unlike students, who come with the appropriate ‘social capital’ and expectations, these students see little sense of purpose, feel no sense of hope, connection or relationship with schools. There are, it seems, no positive pathways for them at school. Too many of them , she says, by making a thirty second bad decision, instead enter a pathway that leads them to gangs, alcohol , drugs , sex and prison.

A school principal of a large low decile school, on the same programme, believes that schools do their best to assist ‘savable’ students but admitted if students make the wrong choices they are beyond their capabilities. A positive alternative are the outside providers, who he says, are more informal, flexible and relevant.

I would have thought that the qualities mentioned above would offer clues to schools to transform themselves and for the Ministry to assist them.

The obligatory Ministry of Education Policy Analyst on the programme, when questioned about who tracks the students, who seem to be lost to schools and in between the various alternative providers, said they do their best to ‘track’ them down and return them to where they are supposed to be. In most case back to where they feel alienated!

The Policy Analyst’s solutions are predictable and unimaginative; better transitions between schools and the workforce; better pastoral care; and of course better literacy and numeracy. No mention of developing new educational structures. All a bit like re arranging the deck chairs on the Titanic.

The truth is that secondary schools were never planned to deal with the less academic or economically deprived students. Schools are not doing a poorer job than in the past. Schools have simply done a poor job all along by ignoring failure in the past ( many students leaving at 15 to get manual work ) but now this can no longer be tolerated. Schools must transform themselves from archaic nineteenth century industrial age ‘factories’, where waste products are part of the process, into twenty first century learning communities where all learn.

If we want all students to be productive then we need to consider new alternatives. We need schools that are committed to developing the whole person: the hand, the eye, the muscle as well as the brain. We need more learning by doing, more relevant real life learning activities and more holding everyone accountable to for student success, including the students themselves.

Schools need to transform themselves to utilize students own learning rhythms, personal interests and talents. We need to expect schools to find the individual real strengths and to challenge them. Each student needs their own negotiated Individual Educational Plan and schools need to work in concert with parents and the wider community to rebuild relationship with the communities that currently reject schools.

When will school people and Ministry officials realize this? They might start by exploring the real life narratives or the ‘voices’ of the students they seem incapable of currently reaching. Perhaps we need to have national conversation about the purpose of education in a new age where without access to learning there is little hope.

The 'evil twins' of Literacy and Numeracy!

An American being interviewed on National Radio commentated that the political pressure to implement literacy and numeracy in his country, by standardized testing, was having unintended consequences. Because of this pressure other important learning areas were being neglected, in particular, he mentioned, science. This he believes is a real concern in a technological age.

But it gets worse!

Equally neglected are the creative and imaginative areas of the arts and the humanities.

Not withstanding the importance of ‘basic skills’ surely they should be seen as a means for students to explore not only science but also their personal talents, passions and dreams. Isn’t this what drives true learning? As we leave the Industrial Age and move into an age of ideas and imagination this emphasis would seem vital? And obvious!

One UK commentator has written that in his country, ‘the evil twins of literacy and numeracy have all but gobbled up the rest of the curriculum.’ Signs of this can be seen in many New Zealand primary schools.

More important than either literacy or numeracy is ‘learnacy’ – the desire to learn. Schools need to place 'learnacy' as their priority and ensure all students, by tapping into their talents learn to see the joy of learning as its own reward.

This would mean re-culturing, or re-imagining, schools. Far easier it seems to focus on simplistic testing of literacy and numeracy. Is assessing the joy of learning too complex for our politicians and school people?

Monday, November 22, 2004

Genius to order?

Last nights TV's 20/20 program featured ideas about how to improve student's genius. It seems we are able to create student genius at will. Not withstanding that the word genius means the 'spirit or joy within each person', and is not a gift limited to a minority, it all seemed too easy.

We were shown an enthusiastic young UK educator whose main message was to have students 'talk up' whatever ability they might have; a sort of 'educational soft sell'; In the process I think I learnt more about the educator's personality. A positive attitude is one thing but we also needed to be shown what these students could actually do in their chosen fields. Actions always speak louder than words. A range of interesting intelligences were illustrated but it seemed strange that there was no mention of the seminal work of Howard Gardner's 'multiple intelligences' in this field.

Then we were shown a North Shore school which is evidently putting these ideas into practice. The message was similar. The impression given by the program was that this thinking emphasis is all very new but anyone with a little understanding would know that developing students 'thinking' has been around since the days of John Dewey and even earlier. This school seemed to rely on students being able to articulate strategies ( a great idea) and talk about their individual brilliance . All too much about self esteem and process. I waited in vain to see concrete examples of what these students could actually do; that is not to say they weren't there to be seen.

Finally we were shown a New Zealand educator singing the praises of multi colored 'mind maps', learning styles, study skills ( which seemed practical), the need to drink water and listening to Mozart. I would be interested to know of how research backs up many of the benefits expressed.

It would have been more worthwhile if the TV presenter had indicated that she had researched the extensive 'teaching thinking' field, and mentioned the research of other educators who have dedicated their lives to helping students learn more efficiently. The TV program was all too superficial.

I have visited numerous classes that profess to make use of a range of 'higher order thinking skills' and listened to equally enthusiastic teachers and principals. I have seen walls covered with mind maps ( in multi colors) venn diagrams, graphic organizers, tree maps, thinking hats, multiple intelligences, intelligent behaviors charts, and problem solving processes, but when I look closer to see what products these thinking strategies have helped students create I am often disappointed. Higher order thinking for too often thin learning; all process and too little product.

Students may be able to talk about learning intentions, their goals and strategies but if what they achieve is not worth the effort why bother? Products ( without process) may have been a fault of traditional teaching but now the fault may have been reversed?

I visit many classrooms that have retained the balance between process ( learning 'how to learn') and quality results. Without real content learning is at risk. In the classrooms I like ( and I guess this is a personal point of view) I look to see finished products that represent qualitative improvement on what is normally seen. I look to see well researched presentations that use a variety of media and technological skills. I look to see if the students have learnt that personal excellence requires not only an awareness of processes but also appreciate the need for perseverance, practice and hard work; and also an appreciation that sometimes instant gratification is not the name of the game. True genius takes time and practice and a strong sense of self belief rather than shallow self esteem. And real self worth comes from doing something really well that you couldn't do before. Every student in a 'thinking class' ought to be able to show you examples of continual improvement in their learning portfolios.

In the classrooms I like, learning is driven by curiosity, student's passions and interests and in depth learning; doing fewer things well. Real learning can be seen by ideas that have been transformed by the students as a result of their thinking. Being 'gifted' in this sense is what children can do. Students in the classrooms I like have learnt that excellence requires perspiration as well as inspiration. They understand the meassage of the great dancer Ana Pavlova who said, 'God gives talent, work transforms it into genius'.

There were valuable ideas to be learnt from the TV program but the trendy, egocentric ideas shown really worry me. There is more to life that students who seem to be saying, 'look at me , see how clever I say I am'?

This might sound a bit old fashioned but teaching thinking deserves better thinking!

Sunday, November 21, 2004

The 'missing link' - 'Teacher Leaders'?

With the introduction of 'Tomorrows Schools', schools were expected to survive as 'stand alone' self managing organizations and encouraged to compete with each other.
The 'market forces' ideology, under pinning the changes, was based on the need for schools to be accountable; successful schools would survive and failing schools close. It was a form of 'social Darwinism'. Parents would choose, helped by the 'name and shame' auditing of the Education Review Office. Luckily we escaped the desire of politicians to establish 'league tables' to make comparisons more efficient.

Before 'Tomorrows Schools' regional Education Boards provided support for schools in trouble and also provided school inspectors and advisers to help. It wasn't perfect, but the assistance is sorely missed. 'Tomorrows Schools' 'threw out the baby with the bath water'!

With 'cracks' showing in the market forces ideology, when applied to social services, the Ministry has recently tried to supply assistance to failing schools. Curriculum contracts were delivered to assist, and many school, keen to be involved, created unintentional 'over load' and 'burnout' for their teachers. To support struggling schools Principals support groups were established and advisers from the College of Educations provided to assist. Failing schools could be easily identified by the number of advisers paid to help - like vultures circling around a dead carcass!

Now is the time to revive teacher professionalism and assist schools to work together. The ministry has already begun this process by providing contracts to encourage clusters of schools to work together. Information Communication Technology clusters have been really successful.

The next stage is re establish some form of regional support for schools in geographical areas. Two groups of schools have already done this informally. The ministry needs to assist the development of such groups but to refrain from over controlling them, as 'ownership' is a vital requirement for success. What is required is for the Ministry to create the 'high trust' conditions and support to empower schools to take the initiative. Diversity within national frameworks would need to valued rather than conformity - the real message of Darwinism. Great ideas would spread like benign viruses to other schools and clusters throughout the country. Good ideas, as they emerge, will 'attract' attention - a form of 'divine gossip'. This organic model of change could eventually replace the current 'top down' curriculum model which has been shown to have had little effect.

To work each group needs to appoint a mentor and to gain financial assistance each group would also have to get together to establish an agreed framework of beliefs to work within and be held accountable to. A balance needs to be agreed between group negotiated beliefs and goals and individual school individuality and creativity. A website could be established to share ideas and school needs etc.

The mentors role is to co ordinate actions, help schools identify strengths to share with others and identify particular areas of need. The key would be to release teachers, in identified areas of expertise, for agreed terms, to work with other schools. Such teachers, coming from successful classroom practice, would bring with them expertise and credibility. Such 'teacher leaders', appointed on such a 'revolving door' system, would return to their own schools bringing back with them knowledge to share with their school. As well they will have had the professional leadership recognition of their peers. The role of group mentors would also provide career choices for successful 'leader principals'.

Teacher leaders, mentors and regional support systems - the missing links?

Saturday, November 20, 2004

Figures to think about from Michael Fullan

Michael Fullan's article on our website ( Newsletter no 3 Dec 02) is one of the most popular on our site.

His basic premise is that schools stand at the edge of great democratic possibilities but only if educators have the moral courage to play an inspirational lead role rather than concerning themselves with compliance management.

Unfortunately the latter is too often the case - real leadership is as scarce in education as it is in any other area.

Here are some of Fullan's statements:

Most change is in spite of the system and, at best, real cultural change is a three to five year process. Governments, he says, always get it wrong!

In any change situation 25% is knowing what to do and 75% is the more difficult area of developing processes to combat the 'status quo'. Change is an uncertain balance between stability and excitement.

Effective teachers account for 30% of the variance of student process ( it is amazing how this figure changes from one expert to another, rising up to 60%).Whatever, it is all about having high expectations and a passion for helping students improve.

Real pupil improvement comes from the 'power of three' - having three good teachers in a row.

The 'power of three' also applies for the need for students, parents and teachers to work together. If one is missing success is less than positive.

Schools engage students and parents in a 'six year conversation' ( the time students are in any school will depend on the particular system) with different systems).

The decentralized school experiment in Chicago resulted in the 'rule of three thirds', one third struggled to comply, one third were left behind, and one third engaged in self initiated re -construction.

There are 'two major forces of change in play', both with 'evil twins'.One is the 'top down' curriculum accountability model and the other is the 'bottom up', 'school as a community model'. The first too easily turns into 'name and shame' and the latter into unrealistic 'navel gazing'. Both, Fullan believes, are important but they must team up, but whatever, individual schools must feel in control, feel part of a bigger society transformational model and feel it is 'worth fighting for'.

Worth thinking about?

Friday, November 19, 2004

Creativity is not easy- do schools encourage it?

A lot of teachers and schools talk about creativity as if it is all in place but I wonder if this is the case. Many creative people had a hard time in school.

Creative people have never had it easy in any organization or society. They threaten the 'status quo', stand up to vested interests and defy the crowd. Their ideas are often seen as bizarre and are often ignored or rejected, and in earlier days severely punished. Any person who challenges current assumptions, or points of view, comes into conflict with those who believe that all is well with the world. Conversely ideas accepted without question are rarely creative.

Creative students, unless they have strong wills, soon learn to tow the line. The same applies to teachers and to a lesser degree principals. The more power you have the more you are aligned to the current point of view. Creativity is subversive!

As well creativity, according to Robert Sternberg ( a writer on creativity) requires the balancing of three qualities, the ability to think up new ideas, the ability sort out the best ones, and the ability to sell them and put them into practice, so creativity is not easy.

Progressive societies depend on new ideas but change never comes easily. How can schools help develop student creativity while at the same time seeing that are still seen valuable members of the class learning community?

Tips from Sternberg to help are:

1 Be role model - show you are creative by your actions
2 Encourage students to see themselves as creative.
3 Encourage students to question their assumptions or their answers.
4 Encourage students to value their own questions and choice of ways to research.
5 Help students generate ideas ( without criticism) about any problem.
6 Encourage students to 'cross fertilize' ideas by thinking across curriculum areas
7 Give students time to think about ideas.
8 Assess student's work for creativity and originality.
9 Reward students for creative ideas and products.
10 Encourage sensible risks and to learn from their 'mistakes'.
11 Tolerate ambiguity - let students see that learning is not black and white.
12 Allow mistakes - but ask students to analyze and discuss mistakes.
13 Help students understand that creative thinkers inevitably encounter resistance.
14 Teach students to be responsible for both their success and mistakes.
15 Teach students strategies to self regulate or control their learning.
16 Help student appreciate that success takes time, discipline and hard work.
17 Encourage students to collaborate and share talents and skills.
18 Help creative students see other peoples points of view.
19 Help students see that there are times it pays not to be creative!
20 To unleash creativity help them find what excites them - their passions.
21 Create the classrooms as a creative environment to help ideas flow
22 Help students play to their strengths
23 As a teacher, demonstrate your own creative growth.
24 Encourage other teachers to value student creativity - spread the message!

All in all we need more creativity in our classrooms and less conforming to teacher expectations. Creative teachers have more fun! Creative students are more interesting and funnier! Have more faith that, given rich experiences and a chance to make and create meaning through whatever talents students have, they will learn.

Creativity would be an excellent theme for students to explore. Many of Sternberg's points could make up the content?

Thursday, November 18, 2004

Are principals leaders?

It seems to be the thing these days to see principals as leaders. The claim has been made that schools are 'over managed but under led'. What is the difference between the two, and can all principals really be leaders, and do all need to?

A visionary leader provides those who follow ( who 'volunteer' to go with the leader)a sense of a better place to work towards or a new sense of direction. Such a leader has to have the credibility to encourage ( give heart to ) others to be brave enough to leave the comfort of the status quo. It seems that most people, in any area of life, would rather put up with known difficulties than take the risk of trying something particularly when faced up with the possibility that the new thing might not work.

I think that there are never really very many principals who have to desire to lead their school into such problematic territory? Such leaders need considerable courage and belief in their ideas to venture into the unknown but this might not be so important if we appreciate we can equally be led by shared ideas.

Even if the new destination attractive to followers leaders would have to work hard at relationships, work out some short term goals and hold people accountable to what they have agreed to. This requires leaders with real passion for the new destination so as to be able to share this with others who might not be so clear about what it all might mean.

All leaders need to create high expectations and care about ensuring those who agree to work towards the agreed school vision get all the help and training they need to support all efforts that people make towards the vision. This means giving both specific guidance, coaching and feedback and seeing 'mistakes' as part of the growth process.

This includes having a 'tough-love' attitude to those who do not put into practice what they have agreed to do; they hold people accountable. Weak leaders avoid such painful conversations and in the process lose their authority and credibility.

Principals can equally lead by aligning themselves with other schools and work together with others as long as they share the vision. Not every principal wants to, or needs to, be an individualistic leader. Wise principals align themselves behind shared ideas and leadership might well come from outside the school. Groups of schools working together provide supportive leadership for school principals to work within and may provide a more realistic form of leadership at the school level.

The best leadership is the alignment behind agreed shared beliefs. The key to real change is to work between and within schools to develop these beliefs. Schools working collaboratively ( while retaining school individuality) is the real basis for widespread change. In this situation the ideas provide the leadership and the principals role is 'to keep the herd roughly pointed West'! This would be a full time job for each school principal.

This collegial leadership would seem to be a more positive, if less heroic, role but it is certainly more than management. So it seems that there are degrees of leadership depending on the desire to change the 'status quo'.

Wednesday, November 17, 2004

Teachers I like!

I have been visiting primary school classrooms for longer than I care to think so I know what I like! And what I like is where I see students really involved in researching and presenting their ideas using a range of media about studies, topics, projects,that they are totally engrossed in.

I guess that doesn't seem controversial but it not what I usually see. And don't get me wrong, I am not blaming teachers, they conform to current expectations that a focus on literacy and mathematics will solve all problems. I have always loved visiting the teachers who see these 'basics' as 'foundations' to allow their students to engage in their real work of finding out about what they want to learn about; to develop their own mix of talents.

Educators like Seymour Papert ( an expert on computer education) believes students are being turned off learning by an emphasis on separate isolated subjects. A growing number of educators echo this need for students to be involved real life problems. And it is important to appreciate that this emphasis on engaging students in rich , real and relevant problem solving learning experiences is not new, I have observed teachers using this approach for many years.

The introduction of modern technology adds impetus to the need for realistic learning challenges that integrate both traditional and problem solving skills. In classrooms I like I see all around the walls ( and in computer portfolios) quality examples of student thinking: well designed reports, quality related art, sensitive thought writing as well as powerful reports. Such classrooms reflect the real voices of students, their questions and concerns - and their thinking. These classrooms exhibit in depth work and the teachers believe in doing fewer things well. In such classrooms students 'dig deeper' into all they do, sharing their intelligences and learning important future lessons in the process. They also are learning to make connections between otherwise isolated learning areas and, most important of all, are learning to apply their learning skills to whatever challenges that might come their way in the future.

All too often classrooms I visit reflect an obsession with literacy and numeracy all too often divorced from student reality. I also see too many students filling in time with worksheets of little educational validity. One English commentator wrote that the , 'The evil twins of literacy and numeracy are gobbling up the rest of the curriculum.'

My experience shows that there is some truth in this.

Real life experiences that inspire students is the kind of learning that will solve the problems of disengaged students and also, I believe, go a long way towards closing the 'achievement gap' that has pushed teachers into current conformist easily tested or measured programs.

I like classrooms that really reflect true learners at work doing real things well.
Even better, and rarer, are whole schools creating such powerful learning communities.

Educational technology - just a beginning!

A big conference, held by the American School Boards Association October 04, confirms my own view that the best is yet to come with regards to innovative use of technology and that this will only happen when educators embrace a new learning paradigm.

I visit schools now and then where I can see this paradigm in action but they are far and few between. The message from the conference was that simply bringing technology into schools could never be enough, 'making education relevant to his or her world was the bottom line, and for the most tech -savvy generation in history, this would only be possible by stressing learning outcomes that require the use of technology.'

American research shows that students typically spend the bulk of their lives immersed in technology but in high school their high tech exposure drops to 15 minutes. Students, the report says, are showing up in our schools and wonder how relevant they are to their world.

Everybody seems to be huge advocates for the transformational powers of technology but it has to be more than modernizing instruction. Integrating technology itself is felt to be a limiting term as it assumes the current way of doing things is right. New ways are needed - or we need to go back to experience based learning of John Dewey and other progressive thinkers.

Speakers at the conference ( including Ian Jukes a recent speaker in NZ) pleaded with educators to re -evaluate the role of technology in schools and to place the focus on individual student learning, and that the very nature of education must change. Too much emphasis, it was felt by one speakers, is placed on literacy and mathematics while the sciences, humanities and arts were lacking. Art needs to be seen as important because it is the source of much needed creativity. Schools are currently inhibiting student's capacity for original thinking and technology must be used to explore each students range of talents. Technology cannot be seen as an add on . It is , one speaker emphasized, 'a means by which the future will be created.'

Ian Jukes faulted school leaders for failing to understand the bigger picture and technology was still on the periphery and is not transforming education even though the rest of he world has changed. We must, he says, 'focus on achieving outcomes that can't be achieved without the use of present day technology'.

Members were challenged to understand that, even with the most advanced technology, the important thing is to engage students and that this requires a re-think of the provision of learning experiences away from the idea of separate subjects. The challenge is also to inspire the genius in all learners; to encourage student voices and stop doing the things that we did fifty years ago; to stop doing the things that impede learning. Strong words.

I couldn't agree more. Why can't schools learn? I know there are teachers out there who want to. How can they be encouraged? Perhaps we need brand new schools with brand new thinking. Whose responsibility is this? Whatever, school principals ought to be leaders. Or is this too much like asking the fossils to dance - I hope not!

Tuesday, November 16, 2004

The 'Big Picture' - an answer to real learning.

Sometimes you wonder if people share your point of view.

After writing my last 'blog' I came across a great book which asked the same questions but provided real alternatives for middle and secondary schools. I highly recommend 'The Big Picture', a book by Dennis Littky published by the Association of Supervision and Curriculum Development 2004.

I also remember now, that Tom Peters, in his amazing book 'Re -Imagine' wrote that Dennis Littky was one of America's most brilliant educators. The chapter on education in Peters book is damming of current educational provision, saying it was 'designed for an industrial age' and that so far 'all notions of reform merely serves up more of the same.... more uniformity, more testing, more bureaucracy'. All in all, he says, a 'thinly disguised conspiracy to quash creativity.'

School principals need Tom's book so that they can see the future trends that will soon engulf schools.

Dennis's book is a real practical alternative. Drawn on his experience of being involved in innovative ideas in education that go back several decades, it is premised on the core belief that we must start with the experience and needs of each student. His philosophy requires small schools so that every student's learning can grow out of his or her unique needs, interests and passions. It requires families as active participants and values, above all, respectful relationships between all involved to ensure that no student fall between the cracks.

All I can say is that we have the ideas ( and the technology) so what's stopping us? I can find no research that says that big schools that work with streamed students in 40 minute blocks, with isolated subjects are the answer. The opposite is true. Dennis's book turns traditional educational ideas upside down but it will not come as a shock to those who have always held progressive views - more an affirmation.

So there is no doubt that there are people who share my point of view - or should I say 'our' point of view. The 'Big Picture' makes you really think about why there has been so little change in schooling the past decades and it challenges us all to keep doing our best to transform schools. It is a book to re -energize and inspire educators and to encourage us all to start a new conversation about what education and learning ought to be wherever we are

Thanks Dennis ( and Tom).

Monday, November 15, 2004

What's it all about, this education thing?

I sometimes wonder why I am so passionate about education? There must be better things to wonder about or do ? Wouldn't it just be easier to leave it over to the schools? Aren't they dedicated to ensuring all students leave with the joy of learning alive?

Or is it, as Mark Twain said, with considerable insight , 'I never let schooling interfere with my education?'

Are schools the best they can be, or do they need to be 're - imagined' for the twenty-first century? I can think of nothing more worthwhile than to develop schools as places where all students have their passions, interests, dreams and talents enriched. But is this currently the case?

Young people it seems are born with an in-built desire to learn. As some one once said, 'the drive to learn is as strong as the sex drive but it lasts longer', or ought to.

Why is it that so many students lose interest in learning - or is it just that they lose interest in what the school is teaching? Why is it that students who 'fail' at school often become our most innovative citizens? Which students actually do well at school and why? Were schools designed to help all the students who now attend? And why is it that many school successes achieve little after they leave school?

What are the attributes for a successful life - particularly for students entering a changing, exciting and un-predictable world?

What has really changed in our schools - particularly in secondary schools? Are we educating students for our past or their future? Why are people, who want the latest in everything, happy with traditional schools? Has anybody provided real alternatives?

Perhaps it is time to have a conversation about the role of schools in the Twenty -first Century? Most school missions include a statement about realizing the full potential of all students but is this really true?

Up until now reformers have just been fiddling with how to improve our secondary schools. How can we, after we ensure foundation skills are in place, help all students get develop their particular mix of talents. How do students learn? How do we learn? How can we create the conditions for all students to learn?

What is the purpose of schools in this 'brave new world'?

These are the questions that appeal to me. How can we design schools so that all students grow up to have productive lives? It seems too important just to leave to schools - they seem so busy just coping with all the imposed demands. Maybe they are just too busy to change things. As Bob Dylan wrote ( or sang) about schools, 'Some people are the prisoners and some people are the guards!' It must feel like that some times for teachers and students?

Its hard not to want to re-imagine schools? So in the meantime I guess I'll keep on going! Learning is fun!

What do you think?

Can schools be transformed into true learning communities?

Sunday, November 14, 2004

Realizing the power of the computer

I have a friend, a retired teacher, who has recently transformed his way of presenting ideas and information with his Apple Mac and Adobe photo-shop. Now 77, he was always up with the play with technology, being a photographer in the days when you developed your own prints. The other day he said he wished he had the use of computer media technology when he was a teacher and he asked me how teachers were using them. I fear he would be disappointed? His classroom was based on developing the talents and powers of creative expression of all his students.

Another friend, also another excellent retired teacher , was one of the first to introduce computers into his classroom . He integrated it into his classroom without a hitch because he already had a philosophy based on personalized learning and small group work; the computer was in use all day.

Today parents almost require schools to have computer technology but I wonder if they bother to inquire how they are being used, and for how long they stand not being used. My own experience would indicate they would also be disappointed.

This would be in contrast with the 'hype' coming from the Ministry where one gets the impression that they are being widely used as the pinnacle of Twenty-first Century thinking, and a vital part of every teachers repertoire. Certainly a computer or two sit in every room but to what effect?

At the various technology conferences a lot is talked about how technology needs to used in association with changes in pedagogy; the pedagogy my friends had in place years ago. There is no doubt that information technology can be interwoven throughout the curriculum but this requires both teacher time and training - both in short supply.

Sometimes the only people who seem to be benefiting are those who supply the computers; in the classrooms the benefits are more potential than realized. So far little has changed in school organization, or structure, to accommodate the new technology or pedagogy - particularly at the secondary school level. At this level, the metaphor of the Nineteenth century, the 'factory', remains intact.

Computers will not realize their full power until teachers gain a critical understanding of pedagogy and see how schools fall short of proving a Twenty-first Century learning environment. Ironically, the power of technology is being considered to control schools through imposed management systems, rather than to free teacher and student creativity.

Teachers need to see the dilemma they are in and take control of the curriculum, and the Ministry needs to appreciate the power of diversity and creativity, as messy as it might seem to their tidy minds. We need true decentralization, within agreed values, to really unlock the power of the new technology. This requires the Ministry to focus on creating the necessary conditions to release creativity, and then provide the training to develop every schools and teachers capability. Most of all it requires the Ministry to trust teachers and parents do what is best for their own communities.

If this is done then the real goals of education will be realized - the development of the talents of all future citizens so they can contribute to the creation of fair and informed communities.

Imagine schools really making the full use of the creative power of computers. Such schools would assist their students develop the future literacies required to enter a new and unpredicable world. At present we are only tentatively exploring the edge of possibility.

Saturday, November 13, 2004

Computers- over sold and under used as yet?

Computers are the most amazing tool introduced into schools ever - or perhaps since the book!

The written word gained its primacy over the control of knowledge with the invention of the printing press. Being able to print multiple copies meant those on power at the time ( the Catholic Church) could no longer keep control of the information people were allowed to read. Printing spread like wildfire and in the process changed the way we think. No longer relying on gossip, tales and song it became a more linear world. And, in the process, it changed the way we think. As sixties 'guru' Marshall Mc Luhan wrote, 'the medium becomes the message'. Actually I think he said the 'medium becomes the massage' but it means the same thing? In the process manuscript writers ( those who copy)slowly but inevitably went out of business!

Computers take us a lot further. Now information is available anywhere, anytime, by anybody with an internet connection. Our students ( even if we are not) are completely at home in this new multi dimensional media but the power of the linear book still lives on, dominating traditional school structures - particularly our secondary schools; the Twentieth Century equivalent of the monastery. Like the ancient scribes, traditional teachers, transmitting their 'just in case curriculums' will also go out of business! But not just yet it seems.

What is needed is the transformation of our schools into learning communities where students are able to research , with new learning mentors, what they need to learn. The Twenty-first Century curriculum will be a 'just in time one'. A curriculum more based on 'how to learn' rather than what to learn ; and what is to be learnt will be driven by student's passions , talents and practical requirements. This will happen when the true power of the computer is realized and it is entirely possible that this learning revolution will completely bi- pass the traditional schools.

In the meantime schools are spending money acquiring computers and trying to fit them into current thinking and structures like some procrustean bed. No doubt this also happened when the printed books first made their appearance? Information technology is currently being paraded as the answer but no one really wants to change schools as yet. Millions of dollars are spent on them and all too often they sit unused in classrooms or locked up in computer labs. Research shows that it is hard to see what effect it is having on student's learning but why would it, a bit like the scribes complaining that handwriting standards are getting worse! We need new measures as well as new mind-sets.

Trevor Mallard , our pragmatic Minister of Education, seems to place great faith on computers but until school structures are transformed they will remain over sold and under-used.

My guess is that future young people will look at the remains of secondary schools and ask their parents what went on in there? The young people will be amazed as they sit in their cars communicating with the world without a teacher in site.

Friday, November 12, 2004

Bureaucratic 'creep' and curriculum 'drag'!

Tomorrows Schools was all about community control - or so the publicity went. It sounded good at the time but the possibility of local control and creativity was quickly crushed by the imposition of confusing curriculum statements and time wasting assessment requirements.

The paternalistic bureaucracy of a centralized Education Department was replaced by a even more insidious form of bureaucracy - Ministry compliance requirements. These were all the worse because no one really knew what they really meant, even the Ministry, so schools entered a period of trying to 'double guess' what was required and then waiting to see if the official auditors ( the Education Review Office) thought they were acceptable.

As for the curriculums, designed to make teaching more accountable and coherent, they themselves proved incomprehensible and then, just as schools finally put together equally incomprehensible Curriculum Delivery Plans, the Ministry realized their mistake and sent then off to be 'stock-taked'! The ticking of endless assessment boxes, once required, are now out - now the message is to ensure the 'big ideas' are covered. The trouble is many schools have not picked up on the new directions and hence suffer from 'curriculum drag'! By the time they catch up there will no doubt be something new to worry about - key competencies it seems are now the in thing!

To make things worse the Ministry is turning into what it set out to replace , a centralized control centre. The old 'slim line' Ministry is growing exponentially with a range of central 'experts' , many of them well removed from the reality of the classroom. At one conference I heard, from an ICT 'guru', how it would be possible ( and desirable) to pass on relevant information about any learner to any school in New Zealand electronically . He seemed thrilled with the idea but I was concerned about who would pick the category of information to be collected? It would be all too easy to limit such information to things that could be too easily measured.

Now the Ministry is suggesting that all schools use the same software to collect such information. This is real return to a 'one size fits all' mentality. Very soon, I bet, we will see schools being asked to use the same diagnostic curriculum tests, or targets, and then we will have National Testing by default; a simplistic idea that appeals to politicians. Teaching to the tests and worrying about competitive 'league tables' are already in place in more conformist countries.

There is no doubt there needs to be things all schools ought to deliver to ensure consistency across the country but this should never be at the expense of creativity. A 21st century education needs conditions to release the creativity of all its schools, teachers and students. A clear vision of a caring innovative country needs to be negotiated, a vision that values the talents of all its citizens. Naturally a few guidelines need to be set but within these schools and communities need to trusted to get on with the job. As well there needs to be a system to ensure schools are doing what they are saying. If we are too survive as a nation we will need all the diversity, creativity and ingenuity we can develop.

We have to be on the alert for signs of encroaching 'bureaucratic creep'!

The choice it seems is consistency and creativity or compliance and control. The tension between consistency and creativity will, as in any organization, supply the energy to create new ideas. 'Bureaucratic creep' and 'curriculum drag' will only hold us back. Both are on the increase!

Thursday, November 11, 2004

Design and graphics - the 'wow' factor!

Many teachers have had little training in design graphics and visual literacy - some may even dismiss the idea as 'window-dressing'. In contrast there are those, with an eye to the future, who see it as a vital skill. This is particularly obvious in the business world where innovative thinkers are well aware of the emotional effect quality design has in the development of any product. Tom Peters ( the business 'guru') call this quality the 'wow effect'.

Teachers who understand the power of visual design give their students a real advantage when they introduce visual ideas to their students and, in the process, create 'wow' learning environments with their students creative products.

Throughout the centuries cultures have been appreciated by the quality of their art -their stories,their paintings and other art forms. Art, and even its lesser appreciated element decoration, determine the quality of all civilizations. On a more mundane level we all appreciate design elements in all aspects of our lives - even down to the wallpaper we choose for our homes.

With this in mind it is important for teachers to help their students enhance their messages in any area of learning by developing an appreciation of the power of design and visual graphics. Carefully chosen design elements possess the power to draw attention to and enhance student's ideas.

Of course it can be overdone, and if what is produced is all decoration and no message, then this just points out the need to develop an understanding of the power and purpose of design. Many teachers, appreciating the need, have developed design 'scaffolds' to assist their students. Such teachers, when the basic ideas have been understood then wisely encourage their students to be creative and innovate with design elements. Such teachers also introduce design and visual 'literacy' ideas into all student book-work and the results are outstanding. Naturally the message must always be the important thing but what is the point if no one bothers to read it.

It is all about the 'wow' effect! Done properly it is a 'win win' situation for all concerned and, in the process, we might be developing some future graphic artists to add value to our civilization.

Wednesday, November 10, 2004

Kids in trouble

Every now and then the issue of young people in our prisons come up for discussion and some one has new solution. Although our unemployment rate is down to our prison numbers continue to rise. Most of the solutions are proposed by 'experts' who want to fix up the individuals rather than look for deeper answers.

Celia Lashlie is one person in New Zealand who, with her prison superintendent experience and common sense, is able to provide a real understanding of the underlying issues. She believes we should listen to the life narratives of the inmates to really appreciate what they have missed out on their childhoods and what they are in need of if they are to survive out of jail. Celia's experience suggests that what is required to help them gain acceptance is a positive sense of connection with others. All too often 'citizens' turn their backs on such people when they leave jail.

If this sense of connection is not provided gangs become the default destination for such young people . The gangs provide friends, a sense of acceptance and belonging, security and some sort of shared identity. Unfortunately few communities or government organizations have been set up to provide positive alternatives and, if so, help is too fragmented to be of real use. Our current society, premised on individual responsibility and 'winners and losers', does not have a strong sense of the 'common good'.

It would be interesting to follow these young people back to see where it all went all wrong and to put any help in place as early as possible. No society can afford to have within it young people who are so disaffected and alienated that they care little for the community they are forced to live in.

It makes common sense to help children as early as possible. There are those who say that such children can be identified as having 'high risks' as early as pre school. Schools, as well, need to look a the role they play in assisting all students become useful citizens - it seems too easy to suspend students and not to look at the culture of the school as a contributing factor.

John Dewey used to hope that schools could be a community better than society and serve as a lever for social change. In fact schools reflect our society closely and to often emphasize many of its worse features.

It is always easier to blame individuals.

Tuesday, November 09, 2004

It's the teachers stupid!

Recently Ministry officials, from the Minister down, have been talking up the importance of the teacher in a child's learning. I guess we should be thankful that such a simple idea has made it's way through the confusion of curriculum, assessment and compliance demands that have exercised their minds the past decades, killing in the process the very teachers that they now applaud.

In New Zealand we can be thankful for the acceptance of this simple idea to the work of John Hattie from Auckland University's School of Education. We now hear claims, ranging from 60 to 40%, that the variance of student achievement is due to the individual teacher, and that the concern now is the differences within a school rather than between schools.

Many parents and creative teachers have always known what research is now telling us. Parents always remember a great teacher, and if they are lucky more than one. They remember a teacher who turned them on to an area of learning they thought beyond them, or a teacher who made them feel worthwhile. No one remembers a good school system, curriculum or textbook.

How to measure a teachers impact is a tricky question but Hattie has confirmed common sense ( which it seems hasn't been so common lately) that it is to do with relationships between the learner and teacher, the importance of having high expectations and having teachers who do whatever it takes to help a student learn.

None of this is to do with the 'magic bullets' that the Ministry has imposed the past decades - complicated curriculums, confusing assessment requirements, performance management systems, strategy plans etc.

Assessment of learning depends on the kind of learner you want to produce. If you want students to achieve on standardized tests it is reasonably easy but if you want them to be able to think in creative ways about solving problems then this is a more difficult task, and changes as well what an effective teachers is.

Although a creative teacher learner relationship depends, to some degree on personal chemistry ( some would say emotional intelligence), you can certainly teach how to organize a class, how to value student voice and interests, how to set goals and how to stick to them and to appreciate the importance of focused feedback. This is all about the 'artistry' of teaching. It is about seeing the teacher as a learning 'coach' always coming alongside the learner to provide positive feed back and feed-forward. This is the essence of a great teacher.

As John Hattie's research tells us, it is the 'interface between teacher and students that really matters.' He agrees that the number one thing, by a comfortable margin, is feedback. Feedback means providing specific information about tasks, 'specifically each child needs to know where they are going, how they are going and where to next'. He advises parents to check on their children's books to see how much written feedback is learning specific. He continues that what students need is, 'Challenge, challenge, challenge and the skills to learn by making errors.'

Another vital area highlighted by John Hattie's research is the ambiance of the classroom which he states, can make a dramatic difference to appreciating that, 'learning is a good thing, learning is a powerful thing'. A further factor is the need for 'high support and encouragement' from the home. It is important that students see that their parents do care.

It all seems pretty obvious but better late than never! Now what we want is for the Ministry to provide 'high encouragement and support' to recognise the magic of creative teachers and to see it is made full use of. This has not been the case for the past few decades!

Monday, November 08, 2004

Real Literacy Power!

All over the world there is government pressure to improve literacy in schools. Sometimes, as a result of this well intentioned, if reactionary, political pressure, there are unintended consequences. Learning power is sacrificed for literacy achievement.

Reading as a process, rather than reading for meaning or personal expression, becomes the end rather than the means. As well current literacy seems to focus unduly on reading, ignoring, to a greater or lesser degree, oral expression and writing. Schools go for 'quick fix' solutions and programs like 'jolly phonics' and endless black-line masters. They may be useful , if used judicially, but the English language and regional dialects make a mockery of too many words. More often 'experts' decide, using 'best practice' research, that certain activities need to be put into place in all classrooms. While this imposed approach might improve the statistics it has also been shown that the scores, after rising, soon drop off. Something more is needed.

One answer , known by creative teachers for decades, is to value students own 'voice' and to make use of their personal experience as the basis of the language program. Unfortunately as I travel around schools it is this personal voice that is missing.

Teachers who value student's experience use the desire to communicate and express as the basis of thinking, speaking, writing and reading. They encourage children to talk about what they have experienced, or are wondering about, and this becomes the context and the text for learning. Every learner has a wealth of experiences to tap into and creative teachers know how to help students focus on what one New Zealand pioneer ( Elwyn Richardson) called the 'felt experiences'. All students also have a 'hidden' vocabulary of 'powerful words' that have emotional meaning to them - these are the words that each child will easily remember. These words can be used to play word games and develop phonemic understanding - if not overdone!

Teachers who make use of students experiences, interests and passions need to be sensitive and excellent listeners. Children soon pick up when their ideas are being subverted to be turned into a teacher's language program! At an early age parents can encourage this sense of 'voice' and 'identity', and even before children come to school, young children begin to express ideas through their own primal form of writing. Creative teachers believe that, through student's own writing ( in some cases 'scribed' by the teacher) that the idea of other people books come into play. To do this they need to see themselves first as authors in their own right.

I wish I could say I see evidence of such poetic and imaginative writing in the schools I visit. A creative approach helps students create their own 'minds' with the help of the artistry of a sensitive teacher. It is also an approach that applies to all areas of learning and not just the 'literacy hour'. It is about tapping into the desire to learn and explore that all students are born with. If it were pursued throughout a student's schooling we would not have as many students who are currently 'dis-engaged' from learning.

What we need is a return to the real power of literacy - as means to explore the world of reality and imagination. I fear that, as one United Kingdom commentator wrote, that the 'evil twins of literacy and numeracy are gobbling up the rest of the curriculum'.

School who do not understand the true meaning of literacy may win the battle but lose the war. And they will miss out on appreciating the imagination of students who have acquired the power to be their own 'meaning makers'.

Sunday, November 07, 2004

Slow Learning

In 2002 British academic Maurice Holt, Professor Emeritus of Education University of Colorado, called for a worldwide 'slow schools' movement. This was inspired by the 'slow food' movement which started in Italy in 1986 as a protest against the arrival of McDonald's hamburgers in Rome. The 'slow food' movement was a call not to lose the need to sit back and enjoy food, savoring the cuisine, the wine and the conversation. All things seen at risk with the arrival of a 'fast food' mentality.

In the last decades schools have been forced to rush through a technocratic 'fast food' curriculum with endless superficial learning objectives. There is now no time for in depth learning ; the curriculum has become a 'mile wide and an inch deep.' We are now immersed in an education that stresses results at the expense of in depth understanding. Teachers have become obsessed ( and stressed) with measuring all these small bits of learning and in the process real personalized learning has been forgotten. In the process of proving what students have covered teachers complete endless checklists and graphs teachers for school audits!

What we need to do is to take Professors Holt's advice and slow down the pace of work so as to do fewer things well - aiming in the process for in depth understanding and love of learning. These things cannot be rushed nor easily measured but it is vital for students to be exposed to exciting learning challenges and given the time to grasp important and often difficult ideas. Teachers also, need time to observe what students can do and to provide the appropriate assistance and feedback. In the rush to cover everything we have lost the 'artistry' of teaching.

As well, time allows important things like social skills, values and ethical issues to be discussed ( both neglected by the 'fast food' approach to learning).With a 'slow' approach interesting ideas have time to emerge . Not all the important issues of education can be pre- planned and indeed the student's future learning will require them to be able to cope with the unexpected.

Much of the recent changes to cut back curriculum content, according to Professor Holt, is akin to McDonald's providing salads. If we want students to be engaged in learning the answer is to provide exciting learning challenges that demand students use all the skills and prior knowledge they have. This is true education. It will demand a new mind-set from those who determine what our schools should teach.

Good learning like good food takes time .

Saturday, November 06, 2004

A gap in my 'blog'!

I had set myself the task of putting up a 'blog' almost every day but this has not turned out as I had planned. Hopefully it is back to normal now.

Actually I have had a good excuse as I have been away working in two different areas of New Zealand. Two weeks ago I flew down to Dunedin to work with a group of ten rural schools in Otago. It turned out to be a very enjoyable experience. 'Equipped' with a rental car and a map of I was able to visit a range of small schools from coastal Dunedin to Alexandra, Central Otago . In Alexandra I spent a day working in depth with all the teachers involved. Not only was the traveling enlightening so was working with the teachers concerned. I was impressed that, although separated by distance, they were working together sharing each others expertise. I wish more schools would do just this, rather than struggling alone to comprehend the often confusing curriculum and compliance demands passed down from 'on high'.

The following week saw me in Napier following up a previous visit when I had helped two schools develop a simple vision, a set of values and most importantly, a set of agreed teaching beliefs. This was the model I also shared with the schools I worked with in Otago . At the schools I worked in this week , one in Taradale and the other in Havelock North, my task was to see how well they had progressed putting such their vision into action. It is early days yet but I was impressed with what they had achieved. They are well on the way to creating their schools as 'learning communities'.

I returned to my home town of New Plymouth a little exhausted but impressed with the quality of the teachers and the teaching I had observed. It is vital that those in charge of education in this country do all they can to create the conditions to enable teachers to work together to use their considerable creativity to the benefit of their students. For too long they have been on the back foot, trying to play 'catch up' with Ministry of Education demands. Now is the time, while the Ministry seems a little uncertain of what to do next, for teachers and schools to be creative.

I have no doubt , from my experience of the past two weeks , that teachers, given the encouragement, will rise to the challenge.

There is information on how to develop the 'School As A Community' model on my site www.leading-learning.co.nz