Tuesday, April 25, 2006


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This is an Australian artists expression of ANZAC Day ( Ken Done) about those who left Australia and New Zealnd to fight and die on foreign soil.

When teachers return to school tomorrow it would be a great opportunity to discuss with their classes what they think ANZAC Day means and then to help them clarify their ideas. The casuality figures themselves will leave a deep impression. Students could research with key questions ( using resources the school has and articles from the paper) about Gallipoli and WWW1 and WWW2. They might like to write thoughts about how they might feel if faced with the possibility of death in a foreign country. Using visual resources as inspiration, they could do black and white line drawings.

A small display could feature on the class wall illustrated by poppies and crosses and their thought poems. At the very least a page should be dedicated to ANZAC in their topic books.

Monday, April 24, 2006


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The other side of ANZAC Day are the effects war had on those left at home.

Students might like to imagine what it would like to say farewell to tkeir loved ones that they might never see again?

What did those at home do to help the war effort and keep the country running?

How would it feel not to be able to hear from those who went away for long periods?

And worse still what it would be like to hear their loved ones had been lost in battle?

Students might think about why, when the men returned, they spoke little of their experiences?

And how would small communities throughout New Zealand be different because of the loss of so many in the war? What were the effects for young chidren who would never see ther tather again?

The answers to these questions might easily be made into a thought poem and shared at an assembly or with student's parents.

Sunday, April 23, 2006

The 'Right Stuff'.

  Posted by Picasa With ANZAC Day tomorrow I thought it an idea to think about the 'right stuff' required for courageous teachers if they are to transform our education system – or just to make their current school better.

There is no doubt that it is the qualities of the teacher that makes the difference as to the degree students gain success at school. Of course it goes without saying that the collective power of the teachers can only be fully capitalized on if the conditions are ‘right’ and they are all aligned behind a shared vision of teaching and learning.

All these condition are automatic in times of war but in peaceful times this sense of urgency is replaced by the conservative power of the ‘status quo’. Leadership is thus vital to inspire a worthwhile sense of an alternative future to focus all actions.

So leaders need to be on the lookout for staff with the ‘right stuff’.

Teachers who:

1. Have a passionate belief that all students with appropriate help and time can learn
2 Who can articulate their learning beliefs and are open to new ideas.
3 Can imagine a better learning environment and can see the problems of current reality clearly.
4 Take initiative as a default mode rather than being passive or reactive
5 Make and keep commitments when agreements are made.
6 Cooperate with others.
7 Are accountable for their decisions.
8 Try out new ideas and learn from their mistakes
9 Are curious about new ideas and have sense of imagination.
10 Have integrity and make judgments ethically
11 Have the character and courage to stand up to those who let down the team

Not a bad list.

It is interesting to state them negatively and see how many apply to your staff. With all these in place there is every chance you school will become a 'learning community' well able to win the 'battle' against the so called 'achievement tail'.

A More Informed Vision of Education for the 21stC

  Posted by Picasa The draft of the, yet to be released NZ Curriculum, has moved a long way from the ‘mile wide and an inch deep’ almost incomprehensible curriculums based on strands, levels and countless learning objectives, all originally to be taught , assessed and recorded.

While the new document, in its draft form anyway, does provide considerable freedom to school and teachers, it doesn’t really face up to the real issues facing our school system - namely the gap in ‘mindsets’ between primary and secondary teaching and teachers.

This hidden issue results in many students failing to survive the transition beween such different organisations and, for such students, it must be like visiting an unfriendly foreign country – or the way secondary schools are structured, several foreign countries.

There is an urgent need for a debate about what are the differences, why they have arisen and what might be done to solve the problems. Some writers have the issue called the issue the ‘half finished revolution’ referring to the idea that humane and progressive ideas have transformed education for the early years but have not yet had any effect of the more traditionally entrenched secondary schools.

It is the age old issue of progressive ‘child centred’ versus traditional ‘transmission ‘subject centred’ teaching. Creativity and joy of learning versus discipline and rigor, or self indulgent ‘softness’ versus 'minimum security prisons', depending on ones point of view.

What we need to do is to move past these 'either/ or' positions and develop shared beliefs that combine the best of both worlds – 'A More Informed Vision for the 21stC'. This is preferable to half baked calls solve all problems by a simplistic focus on literacy and numeracy - a modern version of 'back to basics'.

Such a synthesis would retain the spontaneity and absorption of the ‘child centred’ approach (the more acceptable word these days is ‘personalization’) and add the rigor and depth of secondary teaching so learners can penetrate their learning experiences deeply.

We want to develop students with an informed human vision – students who develop an involvement in and commitment to developing a better word. This would be in contrast with a growing sense of alienation that we see signs of in early secondary schools and an unhealthy sense of self centred individualism generally.

The main theme we need to be concerned with is developing in each learners sense of responsible autonomy to help them fashion their own lives through making significant choices . This can only be achieved by students experiencing democracy in action through active involvement in ‘rich teal and relevant’ issues.

If the super- ordinate purpose of education is to optimize learner’s capacity to conduct their own learning and to eventually become their own teachers this can only be achieved by working with other students and teachers (now ‘learning advisers’)and by being involved with real tasks. Both process of learning, and selective adult diagnostic feedback, and the 'product' are vitally important.

This takes the debate well away from ‘fuzzy’ primary or ‘deadening’ secondary subject teaching both of which fail too many students. The teachers role is vital to help students over ‘learning bumps’ and to help them develop the resilience to sustain absorption and to achieve well beyond their expectations; in the process, giving students the confidence to try even harder. Relationships between ‘advisers’ and learners are vital if experiences are to be transformed into true understanding.

It is the artistry of the teachers and their understanding of subject matter that are the real issues if students are to be helped to capitalize on their inbuilt need to make meaning.

Learning is never about simple transmission; what students bring to any learning experience, and their individual differences, needs to be valued. Appropriate interventions ( sometimes formal often incidental) are of supreme importance to ensure all students become autonomous learners, thinking their own thoughts, developing their particular set of talents and gifts, and able to make full use of their powers of self expression.

A ‘more informed vision’ would require radical transformation of our schools - particularly secondary schools where student disengagement is growing. There is an urgent need to redesign and enrich the entire learning environment, both culture and structure, if we are to develop 'learning organistionss'to help each student develop their rights - a positive learning identity.

When governments, teachers and schools face up to the need to develop such a ‘more informed vision’, and then have the courage to put it into practice, then the, so called ‘achievement gap’, will disappear.

Visit our site for ideas to assist.

Friday, April 21, 2006

So what has changed?

  Posted by Picasa I have just been trying to sort out all the notes I have collected over the years when I came some across some discussion notes I wrote for a school inspection when I was a leader of a year 5 and 6 teaching team in 1978!

They were also written to clarify my own philosophy at the time and to share with the other teachers in the team. After reading them I realized that ones basic philosophy changes little.

The notes began by saying that education is about developing the full potential of all students – not just in literacy and numeracy. The emphasis was on teaching a basic inquiry approach and to value each learner’s particular interests and talents. As well there was a strong emphasis on developing an appreciation of their natural environment and the importance of the creative arts. Attitudes of children toward learning were to be seen as vital; personal attributes more important than numbers and scores.

The number one task was to develop students with healthy self concepts as learners, able to work happily with each other. Our skills in helping children do the best they can are the key to helping difficult children and that we should be thankful for even the smallest sign of growth.

To do this we had to develop a personalized programme and help all children at their own level of need believing that all learners like to feel competent and will thrive on success – or doing something well.

A reality we had to face up to was to achieve this with thirty plus children, many of whom already had developed negative attitudes to many aspects of schooling.

To achieve our aims we needed to present programmes that provided security as well as being flexible enough to provide students with choices and what ever we do our children should know what is expected of them. Our morning would be structured around the more traditional areas and the afternoon around class studies but we would do our best to ensure that the children could see the links between them. Class blackboards need to make clear the tasks we want children to undertake.

Some points we were to keep in mind were:

1. To make use of the children’s own experiences and feelings as the basis of as much work as possible – particularly in personal language and art. During the year we would give plenty of opportunity for students to select their own areas of study as well as providing choices in current studies.

2. Student would keep personal books to write and illustrate focused stories based on their ‘felt experiences’ arising from their own lives. These books would be a important means to show growth in quality throughout the year.

3. The main motivation for class studies would relate to the immediate environment – local history, Maori history, natural science, geology, architecture. Other topics would be chosen from social studies to provide an insight into cultures past and present.

4. Such studies would allow us to teach observational and inquiry skills – formulating problems, gathering information and presenting findings. In addition studies would provide motivation for creative expression in language and art.

5. Students will keep topic books to record idea and thought about their studies and also summaries of main ideas of each study. Most studies will be recorded on individual booklets or charts. These books will also illustrate growth in student thinking and presentation.

6. A very important idea will be to ‘slow down the pace’ of students work as too many children rush and spoil their work and, in the process, gain little sense of achievement and pride. To do this we need to help then extend and elaborate whatever they are doing and to teach students basic presentation skills. We want our children to realize that a job worth doing is worth doing well.

7. Skills will be important but they must be taught in realistic situations as and when children need them. As teacher we should be on the alert for opportunities to help students gain appropriate skills.

As for the so called ‘basic skills’ reading was to be seen as reading – for fun or to gather information. We need to create situations where children want or need to read and help those who have difficulty. Children’s own writing is to be seen an excellent way to help students who are having difficulty helping them appreciate the link between experience, writing and reading.

Our language programme will be catered for as part of our studies but we need to develop language skills (in realistic ways) so students can use them in their study work. Regular handwriting is still important develop attractive work and to teach layout skills and spelling will be related to words required in personal writing or current study.

Mathematic is an area many children develop poor attitudes about. We will do everything we can to introduce maths as an exciting area of study in its own right and integrate maths into out current studies as we see opportunities. It is important that we ensure all students have a good recall of basic number facts but this will be best achieved if children learn to see maths as a form of language with its’ own patterns and beauty.

All our classroom activities will focus on developing high personal standards in all our children and to help them take responsibity, through making choices, for their own growth. Our expectations and helping skill are vital. We want all our students to learn to take pride in what they do.

As a result of our approach our room environments will feature the studies we are involved in and celebrate the depth of thinking and creativity of all our students. We need to take real care in displaying our students work as this will be seen as a sign of respect for the efforts of our students.

Don’t think I would change much today?

Wednesday, April 19, 2006

The beginnings of creative teaching.

  Posted by Picasa The Northern Maori Project

Long forgotten by all but the oldest of teachers was a wonderful experiment undertaken in the 1950s, in the far North, by a group of Maori schools directed by Art Advisers under the leadership of the then National Art Adviser Gordon Tovey.

It was as attempt to use the inspiration of the children immediate environment and inner thoughts to help the children create works of personal expression that would illustrate the power of student creativity.

Considering the traditional school environment of the era it was amazing experiment and whose effects spread, with time, through all primary classes in New Zealand. Today it would be equivalent to transforming a secondary school into a personalized learning environment ensuring all students were able to develop their creativity in a collaborative setting!

The project had five main aims in seeking ways through which creative activities, motivated through child imagination, could be used. The aims seem just as relevant today.

1. To foster personal and individual achievement, pride in, and confidence from tangible and rewarding accomplishment.

2. To learn to work with others so as to ensure satisfying collective statements.

3. To come to know and understand the environment, and through imaginative expression, become a responsive and organic part of it.

4. To come to understand the need to continually seek mastery over tools, techniques and grammatical devices, and to value these as a vital essential parts of expression.

5. Through the above to foster self reliance based on firmly based attitudes and abilities so as to enable the recurring challenges of change to be met as an inevitable and acceptable part of growth.

They seem just as worthy today.

Through such activity the students began to experience the unifying strength, purpose, and satisfaction of collective identity. While strongly individualistic, the teachers and students came to honour and meet the needs of communal efforts.

As a result behavior problems disappeared as energies were concentrated on worthwhile tasks and in helping others and as well every other aspect of schoolwork improved.

The idea of tapping into student’s strengths and talents, making use of the immediate environment, to help all student produce work of quality, and to ensure both students and schools worked together are as relevant today as ever.

The big challenge today would be to attempt such a creative approach at the secondary level as this is where behaviour and disengagement of learning is a real problem.

Monday, April 17, 2006

Observation and imagination

  Posted by PicasaObservation has been an important feature of the classrooms of the creative teachers I have worked with over the years.

An awareness of the environment is a basic evolutionary trait of all humans. Learning about patterns of behavior, cycles, rhythms and seasons was once important to survival. Today, in this brave new fast world of cyberspace, this understanding has gone, and our relationship to our environment with it.

An understanding and appreciation of the environment is more important today for all sorts of reasons.

Students who are taught to observe the intimate world of their immediate environment not only see more, and have more to wonder and talk about but, in the process, develop a wider vocabulary and ask more questions. From this wealth of sensory experiences arises the source for talking, drawing and early writing.

As children experience their natural world, with a sensitive adult or teacher, they make full use of their senses – each demanding of the learner different ways of experiencing and interpreting what they notice. And all contribute to the learner developing an emotional connection with the world around them.

It a lack of these basic sensory experiences that is delivering to our school children with limited language abilities and the answer to this deprivation is equally obvious. It is not early literacy through books that is required but immersion in rich sensory experiences with a caring adult ever ready to point out things of interest and to listen to children’s responses. For the children, who have lost this ability to notice, they will need sensitive teaching.

Young children are naturally poetic and metaphoric but, if this is lost, it needs to be ‘recovered’. Children’s writing about their environment, and their own personal experiences, ought to be the basis of literacy programmes. From children’s own writing, introduced in tandem with books written for children, a powerful literacy programme evolves. Creative teachers know this.

Perhaps more important, to develop involvement and curiosity, is the simple art of drawing. In the minds of too many teachers drawing is a minor art compared to reading but creative teachers appreciate that, not only that the experience comes before the word, but drawing is a vital way of capturing this experience in a tangible form. All that is required is to encourage children to look hard and to draw what they see. An added advantage of drawing, if taught well, is that it allows teachers to ‘slow the pace’ of their student’s work so as to develop a sense of personal excellence and, as well, provides time for teachers to interact and assist. Far too many of our students think that ‘first finished is best’ and as a result, if not countered, much of what is produced is ‘thin’ learning.

One students have enriched their perception they are the in a position to develop their ideas imaginatively moving from carefully observed butterflies to the magic of imaginative interpretations. Rather than conforming to imposed criteria every piece of work should reflect the individual who created it.

From such simple environmental beginnings a rich world of student creativity emerges and, as a bi - product, basic skills of literacy, as well as science and art, are put in place. A curriculum ‘emerges’ from students questions.

The best ‘evidence’ of creative teaching can be seen by examples of student thoughts drawings and art, and in their answer to questions they have researched as part of the process. The entire room will both inform and celebrate students ‘voice’ and creativity.

The most important observation for any visitor to see will be the atmosphere of joy and excitement and by the way the students ‘see’ themselves as ‘in charge’ of their own learning.

This is in contrast to the harried atmosphere of teachers who are trying to implement ideas imposed from a distance, trying to prove achievement with ‘evidence based teaching’, exemplars and preplanned teaching intentions; all as worthy as they are can obstruct real student creativity. They all need to be used with care by teachers; by trying to implement and document such distractions too seriously they may be losing the excitement and power of being creative teachers.

Give me team of aligned creative teachers any day – I would have faith in their professionalism to keep the thrill of learning alive – the only ‘target’ that finally counts.

Drawing process
Developing awareness

The Creative World

  Posted by Picasa While working recently with teachers I shared with them some of the influences that had created my own particular ‘point of view', or ‘stance’, about teaching. I then asked them to reflect and share their own ‘stories’. Without exception the main influences in ther teaching were other people they had been associated with over the years. I guess we call such people our mentors?

‘Stance’ is the most important thing a teacher has. It is what you stand for. Without ‘stance’ you could fall for anything.

I the early 60s I took part in a course run by the late Gordon Tovey, who was then the National Adviser of Art and Craft This course transformed my concept of teaching and learning. It was in today’s jargon a ‘rich experience’.

During this course we explored the immediate environment, responded to myths and legends, selected classical music and expressed our ideas through drawing, painting, dance, movement and creative language. This was to be the beginning of what came to be called integrated or related art studies. Pioneer teachers in the 50s, such as Elwyn Richardson, had previously led the way.

During infrequent reflective periods, and through ongoing conversations, Gordon elaborated the philosophy behind the course which was one of a series held throughout New Zealand. In reality the activities made the point for him.

Gordon explained that schools too often worked too formally and in the process excluded the imaginative worlds of the learner. Gordon believed strongly in tapping into the creative and poetic powers of inherent in all students while at the same time not discounting more formal traditional approaches. At this time schooling focused largely on an unimaginative approach to reading and maths with other curriculum areas each having their own assigned timetabled time. It was largely a verbal instructional way of learning.

Traditional teaching, Gordon believed, favoured those with verbal and logical capabilities while those with equally strong abilities, personal and collective, were ignored. In many ways the problem persists to this day.

Gordon called these neglected areas the 'creative world' of the learner. He introduced the ideas of philosopher Karl Popper who said there were three worlds:

1 The objective verbal world of things
2 The second world of the inner self
3 The third world of created meanings – the works of creation themselves.

The first world is the verbal word, the second the inner world of thinking; a means of processing ideas; methods by means of which meaning is revealed.

The third is the world of artifacts, or ‘treasures,’ that any civilization leaves behind and were, Gordon believed, to be seen in completed children’s creative expressions.

When a work has been created, in any area of learning, it stands apart from the creator and others can delight in the creativity on display. The creator feels great satisfaction and pride and the 'spur' to continue with further explorations.

For the creator they provides clues for their further growth and are seen as important milestones of their progress but, most of all, they provide children with a sense of mastery and pride of achievement.

These artifacts are completed meanings and are not to be seen as wall decoration. For creative teachers these idiosyncratic creations represent the pinnacle of their teaching. They are tangible reflection of the creative power of their students. Without this sense of power no real learning is possible.

This aesthetic approach to learning is a far cry from what passes as creativity in many classrooms today.

The so ‘called achievement gap’ ( which focuses on the 'first world’) would be solved by an education that focuses on ensuring each individual learner is able to create satisfying ‘artifacts’ in any area of learning. This ‘holistic’approach learning is preferable to the fragmented, overly process oriented, criteria based learning that is all too common today. Poor old Vincent van Gogh wouldn’t have lasted long in our current art classes!

The Ministy thankfully has moved away from it's technocratic standardized curriculum (with all their defined standards, levels and learning objectives) but they still have along way to go to create conditions to allow true student and teacher creativity to flower.

'Their' new Curriculum Document, arriving soon, provides the 'seeds' to encourage freedom and flexibility in 'our' schools. In a way it 'back to the future! Creative teachers need to take advantage of this opportunity. It even mentions a need to develop 'love of learning'.

I wonder which school will be brave enough to make'love of learning' their only ‘target’ for the school?

Such schools would be recognized by the wonderful things the students have created or can do; by the artifacts, the products, of the ‘civilization’ they have together created. This of course would include the students themselves. The technocratic phrase ‘achievement gap’ would now be forgotten as all students would have their talents recognized and valued.

Tovey, in one of his writings, said that such an education would fulfill Einstein’s dictum that the role of schools is not to produce scholars but human beings. Human beings armed with the discipline that they have gained through their own creativity able to resist the ‘soft kiss of permissiveness’.

Sunday, April 16, 2006

Creativity: process or product?

  Posted by Picasa What’s often missing when I visit classrooms are the ‘voices’ and personal creativity of the students.

In my mind education is relatively simple – to value the questions, concerns and queries that the students have about their lives and experiences and then to help them express their thoughts, ideas, current understandings as deeply as possible. As part of this process, the teacher’s role is to assist students to learn more, to complete research, and to express their idea through the expressive arts.

And, from all this focused purposeful activity, basic literacy and numeracy skills will be required, as well as providing rich areas to explore in their own right.

All too often what the classroom reflects are student’s responses to teacher’s requests and questions. Currently teachers seem obsessed with talking about criteria and exemplars and ensuring students are able to articulate why they are doing any activity; students who are able to self assess their progress and set new goals. Teachers 'teach' using ‘intentional teaching’ (in ‘student friendly’ language naturally) and assist by providing ‘feedback’ and ‘feed-forward’.

As well , many teachers, clambering on board the higher order thinking bandwagon, cover their walls with overlarge charts explaining de Bono’s hats, Costa’s ‘intelligent behaviors’, Bloom’s taxonomy ( in student language) and endless graphic organizers. These are best keep in student ‘How to Learn’ books?

As a result we now see the process orientated classroom. Technique, or skills teaching, has almost completely destroyed any sense of individual student’s creativity or ‘product’.

It has been ‘higher order thinking’ for ‘thin’ learning.

Such teachers , suffering from an overdose of pedagogy, do not understand that the point of the creative process is for each student to produce a piece of work ( research, poetry, art or dance) that represents the best a learner can do; a piece of work or performance to be proud of. We are what we create to a degree.

They do not understand that to develop such creative work thy need to do 'fewer things well' to allow their students to 'dig deeply' into any experience and then to express what they discover with individual creativity.

And if they were do this then ‘their’ rooms would reflect the individuality of their students.

You would see evidence of the latest ‘open ended’ study, or ‘rich topic’, the class was researching including: their focused ‘key’ questions, their prior ideas, and their ongoing research. And what is on display would be aesthetically presented - both the individual students work and the whole display. And, although the students would have been ‘taught’ graphic skills, each students work would reflect each individual’s style. All too often they look as if they were the work of clones.

Creative language on display would be, insightful personal stories, response to environmental experiences or part of the current study. What would be valued in every piece would be each learners ‘voice’, or writing ‘power’, not a dull composition reflecting an imposed set of criteria based on displayed exemplars.

And the most impressive aspect of a creative classroom would be examples from the creative arts. All the art work on display would celebrate student’s individuality rather than, once again, have that 'clone like' look of being interfered too much by a teacher following some criteria about art.

It is not that the various thinking skills, intentional teaching, criteria and exemplars are a bad thing but used excessively, or exclusively, they become techniques that destroy creativity.

All a teacher has to do is to come alongside the learners and to gently provide assistance without restricting students own learning power. Teaching is a delicate act, an artistic endeavor, and the proof of any teachers skill will always be seen in the variety and creativity of the students ‘products’: demonstrated or performed, in their book work, or on display. Most of all by the attitudes of students towards their own learning.

The teachers as an artist is simple idea but one requiring great skill and sensitivity.

Techniques, or process skills, are important but only if they contribute to the individual creativity of the learner.

A ‘criteria’ to assess your classroom!

Saturday, April 15, 2006

Lets focus on developing the talents of all students.

  Posted by Picasa Can you name the individuals and the eight intelligences they represent? All the intelligences are represented in our schools but few are identified and nurtured.

We now know enough about how students learn to be able to develop the talents of all students but we have a ‘knowing and action gap’.

You would have thought breaching this gap so as to develop the talents of all students would be the number one priority of ‘our’ Ministry of Education?

Not so it seems.

I have just had a chance to take a quick look at the Ministry of Education’s current document about their new organizational plan to improve themselves. It seems, according to the Education Secretary, that the Ministry is full of passionate people but unfortunately no one seems to know of this because of the way they are organized. To make things worse their feedback says the Ministry is difficult to communicate with and that different parts act without knowing what the others are doing. Most of all, it seems, that few people know what they stand for.

To solve these dilemmas they are ‘regrouping’ with the intention of everyone being able to know what they are all doing and saying. And the focus behind this endeavor is to be able to deliver ‘evidence’ that the ‘achievement gap’, their negative vision, has been bridged.

All sounds like 'rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic' to me.

The real need in our country in the 21stC is to develop the creative capital of every young person in our education system; students need to be knowledge creators not consumers.

Without demeaning literacy and numeracy (which is how the ‘gap’ in educational achievement is measured) there ought to be a more inspirational focus for all involved in education to focus on.

What is missing in the learners included in this so called ‘achievement tail’ is a desire to learn. So called 'failing' students have lost the ‘spark’ to learn; their inborn curiosity to make sense of their experiences is dulled; the sense that they are in control of their own learning is lost. These are the real gaps!

Wouldn’t it be great if ‘our’ Ministry of Education lead the charge to develop the talents of all students and not to get bogged down in measurable literacy and numeracy targets? Such a focus is just too simplistic in such a complex interrelated world.

Rather than changing their ‘shape’ they ought to be focusing on how to create the conditions to encourage the schools to develop the talents of all their students.

Talents and creativity are ‘habits’ that can be encouraged or discouraged. You can’t ‘force feed’ creativity but you can create environments that inspire it. The Ministry needs to appreciate that students enter ‘our’ school system curious; open to ideas and a faith in their own ability to learn.

What happens to the creative and talented? Too many students begin to feel the school system is not for them and they retreat into their own minds or express their unhappiness through ‘bad’ behavior.

As students move through ‘our’ system they go from a relatively ‘student centered’ environment to an archaic fragmented subject centred secondary system. In the process they receive an ‘education’ that is the antitheses of experiences suited to the development of student engagement and creativity.

And, ironically, the Ministry’s current emphasis on ‘evidence based teaching’ and ‘measurable outcomes’ are part of the problem, creating a risk averse compliance culture that effects all levels of teaching.

Much that currently passes for education is schooling for a past industrial era and very little focuses on helping all students tap into their dreams, passions and talents. If we want to be a successful future country we need to develop in all students an identity as self motivated life long learners. Even our ‘successful’ students are too often ‘maimed’ by the process and are left to themselves to develop their real talents.

I do agree with the Secretary of Education that the current ‘status quo’ is no place to be but if we want to encourage creativity in our schools, and in turn all our students, he needs to lead the charge to ‘re-imagine ’ schools.

This means more than ‘rearranging the deck chairs’ and trying to sort out the ‘achievement gap’ it means thinking about the true purposes of education in the 21stC.

Until then too many students will leave without their talents developed.

School will have failed them. It is the school system that is dysfunctional not the learners.

Bridging the ‘gap’ between what we know about learning and the sad reality for too many students is the challenge.

Friday, April 07, 2006

Winners and losers at school.

  Posted by Picasa Our Sunday paper had an article about why some students do well at school. Forgetting for the moment that many secondary schools are not suited for many students, until they change, success in them is still important.

The Competent Children study, now in it’s thirteenth year, led by the NZ Council for Educational Research’s Dr Cathy Wylie, ‘breaks new ground in solving the mystery of why some kids do better than others.’

The research givers a big tick to the middle class parents obsession for providing their children out of school experiences – music, dance and sports etc. The research shows that children with diverse and challenging out-of-school experiences are building important qualities such as perseverance and self management. ‘What you do out of school is really important to how you approach school and the kind of knowledge that you’re bringing in’, Wylie says. ‘These activities involve persistence, and they have goals. It’s about firing on all cylinders.’

The warning in the research is about students who do little but immerse themselves in electronic gaming. These children, it seems are heading for trouble, academically and socially. Such activities are not a worry if children have other interests as well.

Children at 14 are beginning to become divided into two groups, those that look like they will do well in life, and those that will not. Two thirds of them are engaged in school and the others find the experiences less than engaging. There are a lot of reasons for student’s success at school: parental expectations and support, early childhood education, exposure to reading at home. These of course are more likely in affluent middle class homes.

Unfortunately for many students without such experiences school must be like going into another world.

The research found that at fourteen the 'all rounders', taking part in the arts and sports activities, were also doing well in their learning and in their social and communication skills.

What the research is saying is that it is important for kids to have experiences that get them to use language, or that challenge them, so they don’t just take their own world for granted. ‘They are trying to master something’, Wylie says. Such kids were ‘topping up communication abilities, curiosity, self management and social skills.’

At the other extreme were the children who said either that electronic games were their main interest or that they had no interest, or spent too long watching TV; about a quarter of the students. Such students were more likely to not to enjoy reading and to be at risk of disengagement from school. The time to worry is when electronic gaming becomes all-absorbing - when there is nothing else.

Parents need to provide rich experiences for children and this not need to be expensive options. Taking children tramping or fishing, going for a walk, or giving children responsibity around the home, or encouraging a hobby, a sport, and drama – anything that challenges children and encourages them to articulate their thoughts, to enter into conversations, and develop social and other skills.

‘Boredom is the big sign if my kid is monosyllabic and I can’t see anything deeply intriguing them, there is something not right’, says Dr Wylie.

‘Unfortunately there are homes where you realize there is very little use of language going on’ and she continues, ‘those kids are so disadvantaged’. Learning how to have conversations with children, reading to them, and to encourage children’s interests are a start but it is hard to compete with the electronic universe of monsters, heroes and villains and exciting computer games.

Changing such habits will not be easy.

Wylie said, ‘the research raised questions about how to enrich the lives of students from children of the poorest backgrounds. If their homes did not provide enough enrichment maybe society should.’ She suggested decile 1 and 2 schools be given resources to offer extra activities, such as drama productions or music lessons.

Schools would welcome this as Wylie’s research found children of low decile schools much less engaged and less confident and often such students disrupt others who are ready to learn.

It is not as simple as saying teachers should have higher expectations . In these schools teaching and learning was a lot harder as students in such school are easily bored and easily distracted ;and they enter with less motivation and without adequate literacy and numeracy skills. And as the work got harder they struggled Wylie says.

The strongest message to come form the research, Wylie said, was that no child was preordained to turn out one way or the other. ‘That gives parents and teachers ground for hope- and also continuing responsibility.’

It would be great if schools were to place all their efforts towards building a learning environment that exposed all their students to a range of creative and physical activities.If this were done the teachers role would be to tap into, and amplify, the interests and passions of all students, and to do this in concert with the parents and the wider community.

To engage all students schools would have to change dramatically – particularly those catering for students at the age of 14!

Sunday, April 02, 2006

Ways of exploring a bridge

  Posted by Picasa There is a lot of talk these about the importance of ‘higher order thinking’ and ‘inquiry learning’; that process is more important than product, but this can’t be true? Real learning needs something to process and inquire about; real learning needs to be driven by learner’s passion of a need to know or to express personal responses about. It is this drive to make meaning, and to express it in an in-depth way, that schools need to protect and value above all else.

Many classrooms have diagrams about ‘multiple intelligences’ on display and try to integrate them into the studies they do with their children. This is a valuable idea but unless students produce in depth research or focused artistic expression about what they are exploring it adds little. Even in schools that profess to use ‘thinking skills’ and ‘multiple intelligences’ etc they still focus most of their efforts on literacy and numeracy, or only two of the ‘intelligences’.

An idea that was around well before the idea of 'multiple intelligences' emerged was to encourage children to explore and interpret their environment using a number of frameworks or viewpoints; the more frameworks, or ways of seeing, the bigger their ‘net’ to capture experiences.

For students to interpret their experiences in such a range of ways teachers need to have similar diverse, yet integrated, ‘mindsets’. Unfortunately how we ‘see’ is shaped by our previous experiences and if our minds are closed to diverse interpretations wonderful opportunities to learn are missing. This is the case for many teachers through no fault of their own.

Take for example the experience of exploring a bridge; most schools have a bridge nearby they could visit.

A bridge can be interpreted in many ways. It can be perceived as structure appealing to the architect, scientist, engineer, or mathematician and, as a result, become the inspiration for a great science unit resulting in lot of measuring and modeling to test strength of shapes. For an artist however the lines, colour, shapes and patterns might appeal. For those with a poetic ‘mindset’ all sorts of thoughts might be inspired - the bridge itself could be seen as a metaphor about crossing over into something new. Years ago I observed a sensitive teacher spend thirty minutes or more letting young children just explore a swing bridge through their senses and emotions. Back in class these five year olds were full of thoughts to express in talk, drama, writing and art. No doubt those with musical or drama background would find some way to express their ideas about a bridge in their own way. And of course a local bridge provides an entry point for students to research famous bridges around the world and historian will know of stories to share – Horatio at the bridge comes to mind from my own school days.

Each way of seeing and interpreting has its own particular set of skills to employ. Each person will have particular strengths that will make certain aspects appeal to them. This is as it should be. To appreciate that there are a range of ways to interpret and express any experience is a valuable insight all students need to gain if they are to really appreciate the wonders of their world.

The true value of any experience involves depth of thought and expression. If such an approach results in a range of mediocre products then it would be a shame for it is the quality of the thinking and the quality of whatever is created that is the key to developing lasting attitudes toward learning. It comes down to ‘doing a few things really well’ because whatever is produced is a reflection of the learners worth in their own minds as well as in the minds of an observer.

It takes a creative teacher to understand the power of such learning.

Developing real literacy : Margaret Mahy

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I once read an article by Mem Fox, an Australian children’s author, who was talking about the phonics versus whole language debate. She said that those arguing were missing the point. The key to a child learning to read was the relationship between the learner and the helper. If positive respectful relationships were in place then of course she would go with a whole language approach.

To my way of thinking the key to develop powerful readers is to begin with each learners own experiences and identity and, through these, to help each learner develop a sense of ‘voice’ and of themselves as learners.

All learning is about developing a sense of personal competence and power but all too often technical process of being able to read is seen as an end in itself.

And it is just not good enough to acknowledge a students experience, or to simply provide experiences to write about, just to get them to write something for them to later read. If they are ever to really appreciate the power of story telling, or reading to learn something, then they must tell their own stories and learn about things they are interested in.

Margaret Mahy, one of New Zealand’s most accomplished children’s writers, in her biography written by Tessa Duder, says we are not changed by experiences as common wisdom has it. What changes us are the stories we tell about our experiences. ‘Unless we have formed our lives into story, structured it with words, we can’t contemplate the meaning of our lived experience’ This is done by turning the raw material of our life into stories, and in the process, ‘it can be creatively transformed and given meaning’.

Teachers by valuing this approach can help all their students, develop a sense of self, realize the power of story telling and develop ‘real’ material for the individual student, and their classmates, to read.

The best way into reading is to tap the emotions, the sensory impressions and the insights that emerge from the experiences, real or remembered, of each individual learner. From these powerful stories can be written, or scribed, to become the basis of first reading .When students read other books written for them they will be able to comprehend that they too are authors – authors of their own lives.

Many parents write out, or share orally, such real or imagined stories of their children well before the students come to school – appreciating such activities are more valuable than resorting to flash cards and phonics.

Student centred teachers, if they really value personalized learning, ought to have rooms full of students' stories, questions and ideas. Struggling readers need sensitive adults who after lots of talking and sharing can scribe out, or help students write out, their own stories to read. If this were to be done the emphasis needs to be on developing the students identity as writers and not just to get then to read something; artistic expression could be part of the process.

Teachers need to see their students as professional 'meaning makers' with lots of exciting stories and ideas to share and to develop their classroom into learning communities. Kids would then grow into reading, and all other areas of learning, as a natural process of self discovery.