Monday, July 30, 2007

One of my favourite schools.

It was hard to select four pictures to make up a collage for Spotswood - wonderful work is displayed in all rooms. Spotswood was selected to feature on breakfast TV education programme hosted by Bernice Mene a few years ago The excellent work featured continues. Her advice was to find a school like Spotswood near you to visit.

Good advice.

Over the years I have had the good fortune to work with some great schools.I have aways believed that only by visiting real schools, to see creative teachers in action, can you really appreciate ideas that may be of use to you in your own situation. It is all to easy for distant 'experts' to talk about what might be.

The culture at Spotswood, developed over at least a couple of decades, has been led by a number of creative principals - all of whom share a belief that it only happens in classrooms and that creative teachers are the key to school success.

The last decade has seen the school formulate a set of six 'core values', or 'threads' which are worth sharing. Unremarkable in many respects but internalised by teachers, and used as the basis for all their choices, it has become very powerful. Seen in action they illustrate the school vision of quality teaching and learning.

All teachers can articulate the six core beliefs that, when applied, create the consistency of the work that characterizes the school. At the same time the school promotes individual teacher creativity,encourages new ideas and provides opportunity for such ideas to be shared.

The driving force of the school is all about that by continuous improvement, teamwork ,and by working smarter, they can always do better.

Visitors to the school quickly gain an impression of the strong culture of consistency and quality, and shared pride, that bind the school together.

The six core beliefs, or 'threads', are:

(It is important to appreciate that quality learning and behavior results from the interaction of all six points.)

1 Developing self discipline and responsibility in students for their own learning and behaviour - summed up in the phrase, 'Are you making the best choice you can'? usually followed by, 'What will you do next time'? Consistency across the school is the key factor. This is an approach based on 'choices' not rules and is aimed at developing the language of reflection. The emphasis is on acknowledging appropriate behaviours and by teachers being proactive - teaching children the skills of working and playing well together.

2 Focused teaching. The key to 'focused teaching' is 'slowing the pace of work' allowing teachers to identify key teaching points. Far too much work is spoiled in schools by students rushing their work ( often to be first finished) and by teachers trying to cover far too much. 'Fewer things dome well' is part of the 'Spotswood way'. Visitors will recognise these ideas as 'formative' assessment, 'intentional teaching' and focused 'feedback'. The day begins and ends with a reflective period focusing on the days goals,learning successes and ideas for the next day.

3 'A 1' Standards. Originally teachers felt that there was a lack of consistency in behavioural expectations and book work standards across the school. To remedy this a whole school policy on standards was developed so that as the learner moves through the school basic class organisations ( e.g group work/reflective beginnings and end of days), group tasks defined on blackboards, marking work and displaying work, all stay the same. All rooms have a 'quality work area' to display work of 'A1' standard. Classroom displays are a feature of all rooms, each with suitable headings, key questions and processes defined as necessary.

The school philosophy is that 'you get what you expect' and that teacher modelling is vital. The above might sound 'old fashioned' but, when in place, it allows both students and teachers to develop individual creativity.

4 Goal setting. The school sees goal setting as critical to behaviour and learning. Goals are seen on blackboards, wall displays and as part of the daily focus. There are three types of goals -individual, class and school wide. Goals are reflected on on a daily basis. Classroom wall displays outline goals in thematic studies, written language, mathematics and handwriting.

Benchmark expectations are set in curriculum areas, particularly literacy and numeracy, and become the focus for individual planning and assessment.

5 Scaffolding. This is the most recent addition to the list. All work is approached with the premise that quality work takes time and that work started should be finished.Teachers scaffold help by modeling each step of the process until students can work independently when it is then expected that they will add their own creativity to the process.

Scaffolding applies to demonstrate ways to research key questions , how to use the Internet, how to present work ( idea have been established for each level), and book layout.

Aesthetic design elements are taken as seriously as the quality of student thinking. All student books( seen as portfolios') are taken home each term and are shared with parent at interview times to show progress.

6 Teamwork
Teamwork is the essential component to achieve continuous school improvement. 'Together everyone achieves more' is taken seriously. All teachers are seen as 'leaders' and all are helped and trusted to do the job. Teachers are divided in three teaching teams and as well as belonging to curriculum teams.

Once a term a 'walk and show' staff meeting is held where teachers visit each others rooms to see what is new. This is felt important to break down 'classroom walls', to develop consistency, to admire individual teacher and student creativity, and to promote sharing.

Spotswood is a school that celebrates classroom teaching. The application of the six 'core beliefs' are the 'glue' that hold them together.It is a school that empowers both teachers and students to continue their learning journeys

It is based on the philosophy that 'schools are about people not paper'.

Spotswood fully appreciates that the success of their school depends on the quality of the relationship between pupils, staff, parents and the wider community.

It is always a privilege to visit such a school.

Search one out in your area - it is the only way to learn!

Saturday, July 28, 2007

An opportunity to renew a shared sense of Vision

'There is something wrong with our current system - our students just don't seem to be engaging with the way things are.'! 'Time for a real rethink'?

The Ministry has just sent out, to all schools, a booklet with suggestions to help schools get ready to implement the 'new' New Zealand Curriculum.

The idea is for schools to work with their communities to help them 'develop/and/or revise ( their) schools vision, principles and values.'

All in all it is hardly an inspiring document.

It would be more powerful if a strong case had been made that we really need to think hard about why we need bring our schools into the 21st Century and, in particular, to look closely at the assumptions about learning underpin our current school system system.

What is missing is a sense of urgency!

If this sense of urgency is not developed then , after all is said and done, little will actually change.

The vision that schooling has been premised on, for over a hundred years, is based on the dream of mass education for all students - over the decades the years of compulsory education has risen to 16. Unfortunately schools were never designed to educate all students and, as a result, for far too many students the dream of mass education has become more a nightmare. The thinking was that a few students would need to be sorted out into an academic 'professional' stream while the rest would only need basic skills ( and obedience) to go to work in the industrial age factories is now well past its 'use by date'.

Look closely at the structures still to be found in our secondary schools in particular. The hierarchy of control, bells, timetables, students in aged batches ( many still streamed )and students receiving their learning in 50 minute bites from separate subject teachers and you see 'schools as factories'. The 'academic' students mind find it rewarding but for far too many students with a creative or practical bent, or from a different culture, it is all imposed irrelevance. Add to all this conformity mind numbing assessment procedures and the mechanistic thinking of a factory is all too obvious.

We need new metaphors for education for a new age. An age some are calling 'The Age of Creativity', or the 'Second Renaissance'. It is as if the linear age of the book has been replaced by the multi media information age where education (learning) can happen any where, anytime, from anybody. Schools need to re-imagined and transformed into 'personalised learning communities'.

If this dramatic change from an industrial to a creative era is not considered all the suggested consultation ideas mentioned in the booklet will make little difference. At best incremental changes might happen but this is akin to 'fiddling while Rome burns', or 'shifting the deckchairs on the Titanic! We are now in a similar time to when 'flat earth' thinking was being challenged by 'round earth' ideas - but this time the changes are even more mind changing. A new consciousness is being developed by those who are pushing the barriers to current thinking - and schools should be leading the way rather than clinging to past ideas.

The idea of different future is of course mentioned in the booklet but without any sense of real urgency. Our success as a nation depends on new thinking led by a new vision of education that ensures all the various talents of all students are developed. Terms like 'life long learning' , 'students reaching their potential', and 'competencies for learning', will mean little unless the urgency for transformational change is faced up to.

The trouble is the 'new' New Zealand Curriculum itself does not face up to the real urgency for dramatic change. Key competencies ( itself a mechanistic rem) are seen to be the key to the future rather than educational transformation and a focus on creativity and talent development

Thinking about the frightening, but potentially exciting, changes the future holds is the first step. There are 'shifts' happening out in the wide world that that need to be comprehended before any new vision, or direction, can be thought about.

The introduction of the concept of 'personalised learning', not mentioned in the NZC, if to be achieved will require real changes in mindsets and educational structures. And most importantly courageous leadership to challenge the power of the 'status quo' - our 'one size fits all' system. The importance of developing the creativity and talents of all students needs to give the priority they deserve.

In the booklet it mentions that what happens in education profoundly influences the lives of individuals and the health of whole communities for decades to come. Some would say that our current system has limited the potentialities of to many students.

How to create school as learning communities able to develop the talents and gifts of all students ought to lead the discussions about school visions, along with how can the school get access to the innovative idea of real teachers and, most of all, being open to question everything and to make continual changes.

Unless the dramatic world wide trends currently creating waves of changes and a sense of urgency are appreciated we will just get more of the same; 'old wine in new bottles.

Real vision means having the courage to work towards creating a unimaginable new world not patching up the old.

The Ministry seems reluctant to face up to the need to criticize traditional secondary schools who, with their industrial aged thinking, hold strongly to a past world for their own selfish benefits, and who also block any innovation that might make a difference.

The booklet has an excellent quote from Tom Sergiovanni who says visions cannot be mandated by bureaucratic authority they must be 'forged' as a result of people trying to reach for a higher moral level of understanding and sense of meaning.

This organic evolving search is the basis of all learning.

Only real visionaries can create a future continually emerging world.

Sunday, July 22, 2007

Time to be unreasonable?

Many years ago, at a Principal's Conference, I heard Australian educator Hedley Beare say to principals that to survive they would have to become 'customised Indiana Jones's' - happily 'cutting through red tape' but to be basically moral. Good advice but not taken by most principals.

From my observation the principals who make the biggest difference in their schools have taken the advice of Australian educator Hedley Beare and become a 'customised Indiana Jones'. They do the imposed compliance requirements badly and then get on to focus on the important things. To try and do everything is stressful, demeaning and, worse still, destructive to teacher and student creativity. Trying to 'double guess' continually being revised Ministry requirements creates, what one writer calls, a 'corrosion of character'. This is not helped by impending Education Review visits which create an unhealthy reactionary 'anticipatory dread' - easily seen by an outbreak of clear folders.

Good advice for any school leader would be to take Hedley Beare's advice and do what they think is important. If they aren't sure they should ask their teachers, their students or their parents what they think is important. All the 'wisdom' is not situated in Wellington, held within endless imposed contracts, or by 'experts living in their distant insulated 'ivory towers'. Once they have worked out their collective shared beliefs about what is important then they should just do it, and then to continually improve by a process of enlightened trial and error! This is the only 'strategy' that will ever work.

The paradox is that by doing what is expected, by being 'normal', or reasonable , by complying, means that principals then settle for ordinary results. Real creative success means taking the risk to step outside one's comfort zone and to be different.

This 'risk taking' mindset may be uncomfortable because we all have been 'trained', particularly at school, to do as we are told. The pressures to accept the conventional norms of the 'status quo' are powerful - as is is said, 'to get along you have to go along'! To make things worse eduction is, by nature, a conservative environment. It ought not to be. Education is all about developing in students the attitudes and skills for them to thrive in what will be an unpredictable and fast moving future.

Education, in contrast, is changing too slowly - and any future movements are all too often countered by reactionary pressures to move back to the past. It is time for courageous leadership - for innovative risk takers who dare to think differently. We need educational leaders who have the courage to work with their communities, their teachers, and their pupils to negotiate unique approaches. To do this they will need the skill to tap the wisdom innate in all involved to develop a shared sense of direction, or vision,and an agreement about values and shared belief about teaching and learning, and then to get everybody 'on board', or as they say, ' roughly pointed west'.

The paradox is that by being different school leaders, if they hold their nerve, will become recognised in the future as leaders. History is full of people whose ideas , although ridiculed, or ignored at the time, are now part of how what we think as 'normal'.

Such leaders appreciate that success comes from following what the school collectively believes rather that complying to Ministry 'audit culture' constraints, or trying to gain the security of being 'approved' by Education Review officers.

Innovative schools develop the conditions to value and develop the talents and gifts of all their students ( by 'personalising' learning) and not by restricting themselves to the limiting vision of succeeding at achievement targets.

Such innovative schools are open to ideas from any source that will help them achieve their vision and happily network with like minds - or anybody with ideas that might help. Such ideas are not accepted uncritically but are adapted to suit the situation

Innovative schools are flexible and agile, not only open to ideas but, most importunately of all, open to change and experimentation. Such schools believe in 'enlightened trial and error', continually reflecting on their actions, seeing themselves as 'learning communities'.

Real success will never come from 'compliance it can only be achieved by being different, by taking risks, by being creative, by being 'customised Indiana Jones'.

If school principals really want to add their collective 'voice' and wisdom to the educational debate, and in turn to the direction we must take as a creative and innovative country, we need more Indiana Jones type leaders.

Time to cut through the red tape and face the real challenge of the future!

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

21stC learners ( Mark Prensky)

Mark Prensky 21stC educator

I have just read a great summary of an address Mark Prensky gave to the recent NZPPF April 2007 Leading Edge Conference. You can read the full account in the Education Today Magazine (Issue 3 Term 2 2007)

Mark asks three questions: Who are our students? How do we engage them? How do we continue to engage them?

And he means engaging them not by doing things for them but engaging them in real conversations about what they need to learn and how they will do this. Our students, he says, are not the ones our system was designed for. They are digital 'natives' - unlike most of their teachers who are digital 'immigrants'.

Too many students, they have told him, are bored. They feel teachers don't listen to them, and they don't respect them what they can do. And too often bored kids get labelled ADD.Prensky believes that attention deficit is a natural reaction to irrelevant teaching.

Students want to live in the 21st C not to adapt to the past - they want to be taught in 21stC ways. They like, he writes, 'group work, and the projects and the case studies and the activities and the discussions. What they don't want is lectures.'

We have to involve our students in everything we do
and this is in conflict with the traditional top down ( teachers know best) ways our schools have been designed. Education just can't be dropped on kids - they have to want to learn.

Young people have recently transformed the music industry. Education is next as students can learn what they want on line. We just can't hand students the content, we have to help them invent it - 'bottom up' learning. This approach develops capabilities from the ground up as students search out, and expand on, ideas using their technology.

Engaging students is an issue in schools word wide
. We will have to recognise their 'voice', their concerns, their talents and their technology.

Prensky divides students into three groups.The first come to school wanting to learn. We need to engage them more. Then there are 'play school' students who need to get credentials but only do the minimum to get them. We need to engage them more. Finally there are the ever growing disengaged turned off learners.

Teachers are too focused on 'delivering' their past curriculums and not focused enough on their students future. Things have changed but not schools. Once students came to school to have their experiences broadened - to 'see the light' - now it is the teachers who are 'in the dark'.

Our students are connected to the world but they're still kids. The still need adults to to help them make sense of it all ; to help them interpret what they find.

If we want to keep the 'light of learning' on at school we need to involve our students in everything we do. Schools now have serious rivals for learning! We all want students to become independent highly motivated learners. Outside of school this already is happening as kids work with their peers, using their technology, to find out what they want to know or to be able to do.

Currently schools exist to give students credentials -almost all about the past. Prensky states that possibly no more than 20% is relevant to the students future. It is inescapable and all too often boring; for many students real learning begins after school.

Students learn, or are engaged, according to Prensky, through game play, accessing the Internet and by having their learning personalised for them by going on line to study courses that attract them.

The answer is to involve students in their own learning at school. Teachers need to appreciate the use of technology that their students use . Students need to use such tools to search and research ideas. Research skills still need teaching. Students can make broadcasts, videos, take photos and interview people with their phones and share and publish their work based around topics that excite them. Teachers need to do what they have aways done - help students develop appropriate contexts, evaluate their work and help their students develop a sense of personal quality. Students need to be seen as 'seekers, users and creators' as expressed in the NZCF.

The big issue ,according to Prensky, is respect.Respect for students technology and ideas. Our students, he says, recognise technology as the new literacy and see most of their teachers as illiterate.

Mark finished his presentation talking about change. In comparison to our own lives change is going to escalate, led by technological innovations. Mark talks about many of us preferring to walk backwards into the future rather than to face the future. All our students know is change and, for them, it is empowering. A quote he used was, 'fear change and it will destroy you, embrace it and it will reward you.'

The key is to understand our students, not as we want them to be but as they really are, and as they are going to be. We need to generate engagement by conversing with them and to help them identify and do their own learning and to make use of their tools wisely. Students love giving advice and want to be listened to.

It won't be easy but it will be worth it. And the students will thank us when we succeed.

Saturday, July 14, 2007

50 years since Dr Seuss published 'The Cat in the Hat' !

Page from 'Oh The Places You'll Go!'

It is 50 years since Dr Seuss published his creative children's' book 'The Cat in the Hat'.

Theodor Seuss Geisel was born in 1904 the son of German immigrants. His mother Henrietta soothed her children to sleep by 'chanting' rhymes remembered from her own childhood. Ted, as he was known, credited his mother for his ability to create the rhymes for which he became so well known.

Born in a town called Springfield Massachusetts his memory of the town, surroundings and people can be seen in many of the images in his books. It must be a co-incidence that the Simpson family also live in a town called Springfield?

Ted left Springfield as teenager to attend college and became editor in chief of the college magazine. His tenure as editor ended prematurely when he, and his friends, were caught throwing a drinking party - illegal in times of prohibition! He continued to contribute to the magazine under the pseudonym 'Seuss'.

To please his father Ted went on to Oxford University in England. His academic studies bored him and he decided to tour Europe instead. Oxford, however, provided him with the opportunity to meet his fist wife Helen. One wonders what he would have observed in pre war Europe.

He returned to the United States and began a career as a cartoonist and working with advertising campaigns. As World War Two approached Ted's focus shifted and he began publishing a weekly political cartoon. During the war he was introduced to the art of animation and developed a series of animated training films based on a trainee called Private Snoofu. A sign of things to come?

He worked after the war contributing successfully to a number of well known magazines; his illustrations receiving great reviews. He wrote his first book at this time and it required a great deal of persistence on his behalf - it was rejected 27 times before being published!

'The Cat in the Hat' was the defining book in Ted's career and was developed with the constraints he could only use 225 new vocabulary words. As they say, the rest is history.Few children,and adults, would not have heard of, and enjoyed, Dr Seuss's ( as he became known) sense of humor and creativity.

After the death of his first wife in 1967 he married an old friend, At the time of his own death in September 24 1991 he had written and illustrated 44 children's books and over 200 million copies of his book were sold.

One of his books, 'The Lorax', is now studied at one university in New Zealand as part of their Environmental Science course.

I speak for the trees for the trees have no tongues.

Unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot.
Nothing is going to get better.
It's not

I am sure students of all ages could gain much by discussing some of the ideas Dr Seuss included in his books.

One book in particular I like is called 'Hooray for Diffendoofer Day'. It was about teaching and Dr Seuss didn't think teachers would like it. It was eventually published after his death. Two rhymes from it are;

They are miserable in Flobbertown
They dress in just one style
They sing one song
They never dance
They march in single file.

The illustration shows unhappy students marching away from a gloomy dreary school on a hill. In contrast, to this version of traditional education, he writes his own preference, a joyous ode to individuality and creativity, showing on one page a happy colourful teacher cartwheeling in the classroom.

Of all the teachers in our school
I like Miss Bonkers best
Our teachers are all different
But she's the different-er
Than the rest,
Miss Bonkers
Teaches everything!

Some other quotes from his books to consider:

Be who you are and say what you feel because those who mind don't matter and those who matter don't mind.

Sometimes the questions are complicated and the answers simple

The more you read the more things you will know.
The more you learn the more places you'll go.

Today was good. Today was fun. Tomorrow is another one.

Adults are just obsolete children and the hell with them. Personal writing)

I like nonsense, it wakes me up the brain cells. Fantasy is a necessary ingredient in living.It's a way of looking at life through the wrong end of a telescope.Which is what I do.And that enables you to laugh at life's realities. ( Personal writing)

Young cat, if you keep your eyes open enough,
Oh, the stuff you would learn!
The most wonderful stuff!

Finally a great message
For students of all ages
You'll see this
On one of Dr Seuss's pages!:

You have brains in your head.
You have feet in your shoes.
You can steer yourself in any direction you choose.
You're on your own.
And you know what you know.
You are the guy who'll decide where to go

Today is your day!
Your mountain is waiting.
Get on your way.

Friday, July 13, 2007

Some heretical thoughts

Heresy - holding an alternative point of view to those in authority. Not usually a good career choice!

I have been having a few heretical thoughts lately which I want to expand on later but, until then, here they are.

1 We need to see literacy (and numeracy) as arising out of children's experiences as a means to make sense of their world.

The current emphasis on literacy and numeracy is distorting the educative process. Before students enter school they have been fully occupied in making sense of what is happening to them. Driven by curiosity they ask questions incessantly. They make full use of their senses in the process - feeling, tasting, touching, smelling and looking. At first they rely on gestures, language and drawing - or making marks. It has been shown that most young children begin to write even before they come to school and can recognise words ( or marks) that have personal meaning to them.

They are natural learners - continually working at the edge of their competence.

Then they arrive at school full of excitement and possibilities. All of a sudden they are taught to read ( as if they might not achieve this naturally in an environment that values reading). Learning to read through their own stories and their reactions to experiences and their own curiosity is not take advantage of. Their voice and identity is not as important as the measurable achievement of learning to read.

As one UK commentator has said ' It is as if the evil twins of literacy and numeracy has gobbled up the entire curriculum'.

Classrooms that ought to reflect the interests , questions, ideas and all sorts of ways of expressing them through the arts, is replaced by 'reading type writing' and 'art' related to reading, or derived from the often low level studies that teachers use to complete what is left of the day.

Once, creative teachers worked with the 'raw material' of their students lives, working with then to transform their ideas into a range of idiosyncratic artistic expression in all forms. Reading and literature was an important part of this creative personalised learning environment, but as a means to an end

Time for a rethink?

2 The current emphasis on accountability and assessment is killing the creativity of teachers and, in turn, their students.

Creativity and risk taking suffers under this heavy 'low trust audit culture' environment which values simplistic measurable achievement. The trouble is the most important things, such as love of learning, resiliency, creativity, and valuing of personal excellence, are not easily measured.

Ideas about self assessment, feedback and formative assessment are valuable ( but hardly new) ideas. They were 'grist for the mill' for creative teachers, even if they didn't use the terms.

Recent articles have shown that most schools, when they set their 'targets', focus almost exclusively on literacy and numeracy! What they ought to be looking at is how many students have been helped to realize their creative talents in whatever field that 'attracts' them. Assessment ought to more about performance than technocratic achievement of predetermined criteria.

And, if we are to really value creativity, we need to be careful how we use assessment - it is all too easy for creativity to be lost in the destructive attempt to measure everything.

If we want to measure something lets measure the quality of the learning culture we establish as teachers to encourage all our learners to keep their love of learning, as 'creators, seekers and users of knowledge', alive.

3 Let's throw away all the curriculum frameworks or at least to see them as guides only.

The Ministry, without really admitting they led schools down the wrong track, at least have walked away from 'their' faulty ideas. The curriculums of the 90s, with their incoherent strands, levels, and countless learning objectives have all but killed the creativity and enthusiasm of to many teachers. Enough of curriculums 'an inch deep and mile wide' - we need to do fewer things well and in depth. And, better still, we need to develop the concept of a curriculum that 'emerges' out of the questions, concerns, and interests of the students themselves. Such an 'emergent' approach would require an interdisciplinary integrated approach. Subject disciplines remain important resource - particularly the 'big ideas' that underpin democratic communities.

The success of such a 'personalised' programme would be seen in the quality of the performances , demonstrations, portfolios and in the depth of understanding and the thinking involved. And of course by the talents of students that have been developed and their passion for continuing learning.

A couple of other things come to mind.

We need to rethink principal-ship
and develop leadership by vision, values (as seen by behaviour) agreed teaching beliefs, with everybody taking a leadership role.The fancy word for this is 'distributed' leadership). As well schools need to work together sharing ideas to the mutual benefit of all - and as well to work with their communities.

Possibly the area we need to give greatest thought to is the need to develop creative cultures in our schools . If the culture is right the rest falls into place. Assessing the learning culture to see if it developing the creativity of teachers and students would be am important task! 'Culture counts' the most of all.

Obviously the whole concept of school ( an outdated term?) needs to the basis of a nation wide conversation - a conversation that involves everybody thinking about future direction would be most heretical of all - tapping the wisdom of the people. Democracy revised!

Any other heretical thoughts out there?

Come to think of it most of the above ideas are not so heretical - it is just that they have all but been lost under the destructive pressure of an imposed managerial compliance culture?

That enough for now.

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Creative schools need 'weak links'!

Seeds ( like ideas) settle and germinate where the conditions are right.

I have been really enjoying reading Steven Carden's book 'New Zealand Unleashed'.

His book challenges the readers to think about where we have come from as a nation and the attributes we will need to develop if we are to be successful in the future. Steven is hopeful of our success but he believes it will depends on what kind of society we become and this, he says, depends on how we view the world.

We will become a successful country, he writes, if we are guided by three simple rules; developing the creativity of everyone; absorbing valuable ideas from anywhere ; and being willing to change.

This applies to school as well - particularly if they are to develop the creative talents of all students; something they fail to do at present. To do this, however, schools will have to free themselves from their industrial aged structures and 'mindsets' and transform themselves into agile, flexible, learning communities.

An idea that appealed to me, in Carden's book, was the importance of weak links necessary to develop creative cultures.

Cultures, he writes, are like ecosystems with people being linked together through a range of tangled patterns. Connections, or relationships, between people are important and he writes not all relationships are created equal. There are individuals ( he calls them super connectors) in the human ecosystem that are vitally important - remove them and the impact is soon felt. Such people have good networks, are able bring in new ideas, and also have the personal power to make things happen.

Making things happen is important because any ecosystem is aways in flux, ever evolving, to suit the conditions. With no new ideas organisations are stifled and become fixated on the past. New idea may upset the equilibrium, or certainty, of all involved but they also provide the necessary energy, enthusiasm and excitement. The secret is to have enough stability to allow creativity to occur - the 'edge of chaos' is where it all happens. This is an uncomfortable place for conservative organisations.

The idea of powerful 'super connectors' seems obvious but not so the the idea of the importance of 'weak links'.

Weak links are people you know of through others who are not connected to your close friends or workmates. These random relationship connect us with other networks and their potential, very different, ideas.

Such weak links offer organisations, including schools, the opportunity to gain new ideas to act as creative sparks. The more creative the organisations the more weak links they cultivate -it is all about being open to new ideas. Modern information technology allows the ideas of such people to spread, like a benign virus. Such weak links add the diversity of thinking that have the potential, if acted on, to dramatically change the learning culture. Creative ideas are necessary to break down the worst effects of traditional, conformist, change averse cultures. A diversity of ideas are vital to develop creative communities.

Ironically only strong well connected communities, with positive relationship, are able to take full advantage of such diversity. Diversity, according to Carden, 'is the salt that gives our society real flavour'.

It would seem, to me, that many of our schools need a taste of salt to release the creativity and talent that has been locked up due to the conforming managerial pressures of surviving in a complaint audit culture, for far too long.

I am happy to sprinkle the salt!

Monday, July 09, 2007

Why is change so hard?

One great technique to avoid change!

In 'New Zealand Unleashed' author Steven Carden thesis is that there are three traits that need to be in place for New Zealand to be successful: lots of ideas need to generated ( creativity); the ideas of others need to be absorbed; and thirdly everyone needs to be willing to change.

The same 'recipe' applies also to organisations, such as schools, and individuals.

The willingness to change is the key to it all. Carden introduces his chapter on change with a pertinent quote from George Bernard Shaw, 'Progress is impossible without change; and those who can't change their minds, cannot change anything.'

It is all very well having good ideas but our willingness to change is vital. Change, writes Carden, is not easy. It seems we are hard wired against change and often do every thing we can to avoid it.

It seems we suffer from 'loss aversion' - fear of letting go of the old even if the new promises something better. Even considering changes the new freezes us with indecision like a possum caught in the headlights.

And then there is the endowment effect - meaning we place greater value on things we have.People just don't want to give up what they like. The more we prize what we have the more we are reluctant to try something new.

And as well we are often not sure if the new idea will make us any happier.It is hard to know whether we should stick with the 'status quo' or confront change.

To make things more difficult we are not good at recognising how good we are at coping with changing circumstances. When bad things happen we end up coping with them - we are more adaptable than we often appreciate. The pain of change is often overplayed just as is the imagined pleasure from acquiring something new. Both future pain and pleasure seem to get distorted. Our fertile imagination overplays it's hand!

We also get stuck in our ways due to 'mental models'. Mental model are simplified explanations we hold in our mind to help us interpret events. They act as the 'default' ways we act reducing the complexity in our lives. Unfortunately they can limit us as well - think of those who used to hold the model of the world as flat. We are conditioned to see things in certain ways.

Young peoples mental models are easily changed as they reorganise their thinking due to new experience with little problem. In contrast, to the adaptable young, older people , who have had longer to establish their models, find it harder to 'change their minds'. Older people have more fixed ideas in the brains that need to be revised. This rigidity of thinking can be seen when new scientific theories challenge the earlier beliefs held by some scientists.

Changing mindsets is difficult. The implications for societies ( and of course schools) is important. Stable mental model work well in stable environments but it is increasingly becoming obvious to all that we are now entering an era of complexity, unpredictability and continual change. Adaptability, and the need to thrive on change, will be necessary as we move from a stable industrial to a dynamic creative era.

Another barrier to change is our desire for instant gratification. It seems we are conditioned to enjoy the present than to focus on long term success, perhaps relying on our 'she'll be right' attitude. Tied in with this is the attitude that things will work out in the future - an over optimistic, or complacent, view of life. Or that the concerns expressed don't really apply to us.

'She'll be right', complacency, or over optimism is a dangerous mix, according to Carden. It can easily becomes an excuse for doing nothing and to avoid preparing for the future. Add to this the feeling that there is little we can do about all the depressing issues we hear in the news , resulting in a collective insecurity, anxiety, or helplessness. We, it seems, are suffering from what Alvin Toffler wrote about years ago - 'future shock'.

All this can lead to apathy and loss of hope.

There is hope,according to Carden, and it is to do with how we think about our country and its future. How we see the future will determine how we act in the present.

The message of Carden's book is to challenge us all to rediscover hope for a better future. Hope that will energise us to engage in projects we believe will improve our future even if there might be no immediate payoff. Without hope , he says, we are all too easily captured by by whatever is happening in the present.

A vision that things could be better has been the driving force behind all of humanities great achievements throughout the ages.

As individuals and organisations we are able to rise above the present, face the hard choices, and create a world of our own making. Without making tough choices now there will be tougher choices ahead. There are no quick fixes. And can't wait for our politicians to save us, all they can do is to create the condition for creativity to emerge. We need the wit and imagination to it ourselves.

What we need is a national conversation about what kind of country we want to be and for this conversation to provide the inspiration for us all to make the changes in ourselves, our organisations and, in the process, develop our country as a creative innovate, inclusive and caring one.

Wednesday, July 04, 2007

Integrated learning at its best!

Students at Opunake Primary School ( Taranaki) create a replica of Captain Falcon Scott's Antarctic hut to culminate their term's study.
Posted by Picasa

Now and then you come across schools that are simply different.

Opunake Primary is one such school.

Once regarded as 'struggling' it is now seen as a very innovative and creative school that does equally well at ensuring the 'foundations' skills of literacy and numeracy are in place.

If you visit their website you can learn about what makes them tick but to really appreciate what they are doing a visit is vital.

Opunake has developed an Integrated learning approach across the whole school to 'immerse( their students) in authentic based, inquiry based contexts' so as to help students, 'make connections between knowledge, skills ,feelings, values and attitudes.' As well the staff introduce their students to a range of well thought out and applied 'thinking skills' that will see them through their life long learning journey.

Most primary schools will familiar with integrated learning, in some form, as well as being aware of the range of thinking skills available : de Bono thinking hats, Art Costa's 'intelligent behaviours', 'graphic organisers', Blooms taxonomy etc. What is different at Opunake is how well they are implemented and the outstanding results gained by the students, with guidance from their teachers.

The time to visit is the last two days of any term.

This is when all the classes combine their carefully planned aspects to transform a large room ( really two rooms)and nearby corridors into what can only be described as fantastic experience to visit. What visitors will see is a a powerful 'Te Papa' style exhibition of displays, exhibits, working models, large mural, models and art work, based on the theme that the students have been working on during the term. It is almost impossible to see the walls of the rooms as they are covered with black plastic, or foil, and displays lit by focused lighting. Videos and computer presentation run continually , some on to big screens, to show work students have been involved in, including relevant dramatic interpretations. Students are available over the two days and one evening to explain, or demonstrate, to their curious parents and relations who are the guests invited to view the exhibition

The current display features the terms work on Antarctica, one aspect of the environmental theme for the year, called 'Our Fragile Earth'. As part of the display students have recreated the hut built in Antarctica a century ago by explorer Robert Falcon Scott. The replica hut boasts authentic touches like rough hewn timber and kerosene lamps. Other exhibits feature work done by families as homework!

An earlier exhibition based on the school studying Egypt included a large model of a pyramid, mummies, the Sphinx and every aspect of life in ancient Egypt you could think of. Term one this year the theme was disasters, next term the display will be focused on global warming and finally, in Term Four, How the students can make difference.

This is serious fun learning for students, teachers and parents alike.

The process starts by teachers working with family grouped students 'brainstormimg' ideas and concerns about the theme selected
.This is undertaken the term before. The teachers, following student input, then plan activities to develop background knowledge for students to undertake in small mixed class groups - group includes students from year 1 to 8. Co-operative learning skills are obviously a vital aspect. As well, to introduce the terms work and to excite learners, teachers 'perform' a dramtic aspect of the study. For the Egyptian Study the staff performance was mock, but realistic, mummification ceremony!

Following working in the 'mixed' groups ( allowing both students and teachers to work with a range of age groups) teachers then work for the remainder of the time in their own class teams and students also become involved in individual research topics, or activities including, if they wish , family projects. All the work for the end of term exhibition has to be planned carefully to use the available space. Students , in the process, gain experience in contributing to a major presentation.

The school bases much of its thinking on the writings of James Beane integrated learning model. Beane believes in schools as democratic communities where the curriculum is collaboratively developed. He believes that the curriculum should arise out of the questions and issues that students are concerned about and that, when defined, students should then make use of subject disciplines as necessary to ensure students gain in-depth learning.

But it is not the writing of Beane on integrated learning that makes the difference at Opunake. Nor is it the excellent use the school makes of implementing a range of thinking skills. Nor the innovative use of mixed aged groupings.

What makes the difference, in my opinion, is the belief that all students can do quality 'work'
, to achieve their 'personal best' in whatever they do , and for this work to be displayed with the respect it deserves.

What is also evident, when visiting, is the tremendous pride felt, not only by the students, but also the teachers - and the parents who are awed by the quality of what their children achieve. All this is due, in no small measure, to the dynamic educational leadership and enthusiasm of the principal. But it is a team effort!

The school's vision is 'Taking Learning To New Heights'.

The school has achieved this, but knowing the principal and her team, there will be always new heights to scale.

Sunday, July 01, 2007

Inquiry based learning requires both student and teacher skill

Posted by Picasa
Student research presentation year 7/8. Mathematics theme.

Inquiry, or problem or project based, learning is an ideal approach to teaching and learning but it is not always easy to implement. Several factors have to be taken into consideration if inquiry learning is to become a central method of teaching in your class or school.

The first thing to consider is that teachers will not be able to cover as much content as is 'normal' practice. This is possibly more a concern for secondary school subject specialists. Teachers at all levels need to think that 'less is more', to 'do fewer things well' ; to teach in depth focusing on the important 'big' ideas in any curriculum area.

Then there is a need to consider the expertise of the students.

Teachers will need to think about how much they want students to be involved and how capable their students are.

Good advice is to introduce autonomy in stages depending on the students' experience. For students with basic skills issues it may be necessary to introduce more direct instruction during the project or to design shorter projects. Primary teachers can teach necessary research and presentation skills in the language programme, while secondary teachers will need to develop student expertise in information research etc.

You may also want to select a topic to start with that you are familiar with. Some teachers might want to leave project work until later in the year until their students are taught the necessary skills but, possibly, the best way is to learn the skills in the process. Students might need prior experience in co-operative learning, how to research, and how to present their findings. Until such self management 'competencies' are in place teachers will find their time to taken up 'managing' to teach their students.

For students to gain success in project work teachers need to see their role as a 'learning coach' or adviser helping students 'shape' their projects and to ensure in depth thinking is occurring. Project work failed in the past because it too often degenerated into decorative 'busy work' - or today mindless cutting and pasting from websites or, less than thoughtful, 'glitzy' PowerPoint's.

Many of the above decisions will also depend on the confidence and skills of the teachers concerned. Teachers will have to develop considerable diagnostic skills to observe what students need and then to 'scaffold' help, or provide 'feedback' ( and 'feed-forward'), as required by individuals or groups.

To to gain the time to work alongside students in need ( to help or challenge) consideration needs to be given to classroom management.

Explicit group tasks ( preferably 'negotiated' with the students) provide a means to focus students. A simple daily group rotation timetable provides security and predictability for both teacher and students. Limiting tasks to four groups allows teachers to find time to focus on whoever needs assistance.

Each group could be focused on different aspects of the project: researching 'key' questions ( possibly using the computer); drafting out their research; developing final presentation ( using whatever medium has been chosen) for display or demonstration to class; and possibly some expressive work based on the study. One group could be working with the teacher, who might want to share ideas or challenge student thinking about the 'big ideas' being introduced. Primary teachers already use such a group organisation in their reading and maths programmes. Once students become used to the organisation group work become easier and opportunities for the teacher to interact and assist more focused.

The above covers a number of teacher decision and choices.

Good advice is to, at first, control planning of tasks and organisations and to pass such responsibility over to students as their (and their teachers) skills develop.

Secondary schools, with their tradition of their specialist subject teaching, provide other challenges.

Inquiry, or project based learning, requires that students access knowledge from whatever subject discipline required. Presuming that a school has taken the decision to introduce teacher collaboration and integrated inquiry learning a number of decisions need to be made.

At first a theme (e.g Our Environment) could be selected and each specialist teacher could develop appropriate activities in their subject area classroom. Teachers could at least plan the theme chosen collaboratively sharing expertise and ideas, but it would be all too easy to return to their classrooms and carry on as usual.

A better approach is to access a block of time and for teachers to share the planning of a theme ( e.g Change and Technology) assisting students as required. At first two different subject teachers might combine after selecting a theme that includes content from both disciplines.

Ideally project based learning should allow students to access the knowledge and skills of all teachers and for students. It should also allow students to plan ( with input from their teachers and parents) projects ( individual learning programmes 'IEP') to research and then to demonstrate their understanding in some form of final culmination.

The various units of the New Zealand National Certificate of Education (NCEA) have the flexibility to be integrated into such inquiry projects.

One New Zealand Secondary School has regular three day integrated units which all teacher and students involve themselves in planning and teaching and alternate this with 'normal' programmes. This would seem an ideal way to develop confidence and skill in inquiry learning for both teachers and students?

At the heart of inquiry learning is the the teachers ability to support and assist students to achieve superior products or outcomes. The best model is for teachers to learn alongside their students.

Once teachers gain experience with an inquiry approach to teaching and learning then who knows what exciting developments might 'emerge'. In secondary schools new learning orientated cultures, structures and organisations may need to 'evolve' and in the primary area a new appreciation of the power of personal interest and curiosity might replace an over emphasis on basic skills.

Inquiry, or project based learning, has the potential transform schools as we know them.

So far it is more rhetoric than reality - but the ideas offers an opportunity for creative teachers, and schools, to take centre stage in the educational debate, and to develop schools as a true 21st Century inquiry based 'learning communities'.