Monday, March 31, 2008

Teaching with passion

It is all about, 'building relationships, fostering creativity and standing up for students' Johnathon Kozol

Passionate teachers do not care about curriculums or school 'targets', they only care about developing each students growing sense of self identity and worth.

Passionate teaching, according to Johnathon Kozol is about, 'establishing a chemistry between the children and ourselves'. This 'chemistry' is far more important than whatever knowledge teachers think worth imparting. 'Entrap them first in fascination,' he continues,'entrap them in a sense of merriment and hopeful expectation.'

Johnathon Kozol has been writing about creative education since the 1960s. He is a sharp critic of the 'status quo' and a longtime critic of the accountability driven culture that currently pervades and distorts western education systems. He also dismisses the 'reliance on so called 'experts' dispensing professional development, and 'scripted curricula, from the outside.'

It is not as bad in our own country but all is not well.

The 'new' New Zealand Curriculum now provides an opportunity for teachers to become central players in developing a creative education system if only they weren't so exhausted from complying to the endless debilitating demands imposed on them the past decades. Today teachers are under so much pressure to perform to outside expectations to find the time to really focus on the creative needs of their students.

Kozol's advice is, that if you are going to inject some, 'healthy irreverent merriment... you have to deliver the goods some have to have high expectations of them'.

Going against the grain is not easy , requiring great courage, but creative teachers can win immunity by helping their students achieve well beyond any ones expectation, including the students.

Creative education and personalised learning go hand in hand and Kozol suggests that teachers need , 'a big dose of mischievous irrelevance if (they) want to survive with their soul intact'.

Teachers, he writes, need to pay attention to both the joy and rigour involved in high achievement and, to appreciate this, they need to observe enlightened creative teachers in action. Only such first hand observation will expose them to the possibilities of a better way to teach.

Creative teaching is 'tough love' teaching, and is well summed up in a quote by Dan Rather a US broadcaster, 'The dream begins with a teacher who believes in you, who tugs and pushes you to the next plateau, sometimes poking you with a sharp stick called the truth'.

Too soft teachers are often reluctant to challenge the learners for fear of pushing too hard. The truly creative teacher establishes rapport and senses unspoken needs, all the time respecting learners autonomy. The true teacher acts as a catalyst, asks probing questions, observes and listens ,allowing students time for to gather their thoughts, and, in the process, making students aware of possible choices they need to make.

Students learn to trust teacher who give them appropriate stress, pain, or practice, when needed, and resent those teachers who push them for their own ends, or don't push them enough.

'Too soft a teachers' reinforce the learners natural wish to retreat and stay safe. Teachers need to learn when to, leave students to struggle and when to assist. Risk-taking, and trusting one intuition, brings its own rewards. These are attributes students will need in the 21stC.

Teaching, in this respect, is more an art than a science.

As the poet Apollinaire put it,

'Come to the edge, he said.
They said: We are afraid,
Come to the edge, he said,
They came.
He pushed them...and they flew.'

Those who love us well push us when we are ready to fly.

Thursday, March 27, 2008

Exploring the real world

Students who have been 'taught' to observe, draw and reflect are able to produce work of personal excellence.(Year six)

'Those who contemplate the beauty of the earth find reserves of strength that will endure as long as life lasts.' Rachel Carson author of 'The Silent Spring' a book that sparked the need for environmental protection.

If we wish to develop citizens who have an understanding of the need for sustainability then we ought to see as basic the need to help students respond to and interpret the world around them.

That this exploration leads into environmental studies, creative writing, language and artistic development is an added bonus but to take full advantage of such experiences students need to be 'taught' appropriate skills and attitudes.

Drawing is one such basic skill but unfortunately after about the age of 7 or 8 many children have developed the belief that they can't draw. Before this age children will cheerfully draw anything asked of them.

To overcome this 'can't do' attitude teachers need to give structured support to refuel children's curiosity by encouraging slower observation ( 'look- draw- look -draw'). If a stuffed pheasant, such things as, feather patterns, beak and eyes, legs and then, with the chosen medium, experimenting how to represent them.

Such intense observational drawing ( with associated growing skill in the chosen medium) ought not to result in a perfect realisation. Every student needs to capture their own personal interpretation of the pheasant - and each students piece of work needs to be valued and not judged by demeaning realist criteria.

In such an intense reflective process as drawing students will be thinking of many things and a sensitive teachers can, at a later time, develop such thoughts into study questions and poetic writing.

Ideally teachers might have introduced this bird study with a display to attract the students attention. Jerome Bruner wisely said that , 'intellectual temptation is the canny art of the teacher'. Such a display , spreading to the walls, will have added to it students questions, research, poetic language, and creative art work.

Exploring the visual environment ought not be left to chance particularly in this age of virtual reality. Through exploration of everyday things , all too often taken for granted, students will become aware of the language of visual exploration. Once this visual awareness is realised there is a wealth of natural and man made possibilities to explore in every school environment: buildings, bikes, plants, trees, gates, cars, kinds of sky and clouds, rain....

There is no need to go far and, armed with digital cameras, visual ideas can be bought back to the class for further explore and interpret.

Teachers need to keep a 'weather eye' for possibilities for students to explore and objects can be bought for home as well.

There are all sorts of ways to develop this environmental and visual awareness. Students can lie down, shut their eyes, stand on things to get a different view, and each of the senses can be explored separately.

Themes such as patterns, shapes, decoration, reflections, life cycles, can be explored, along with such things as, life in long grass, patches of bush, parks, car parks, stones, shells, fossils, historical artifacts, historical buildings, marae, local small businesses ( bike shops), backs of shops... each school can draw up their own list.

The key to it all is to focus the students on an area of interest, to provide experiences and resources to encourage first hand experiences in depth, and then , by working alongside the learner, to help students produce personal interpretations using whatever medium has been chosen.

Simple stuff but, when done well, amazing. It is about doing fewer things well.

And it all for free - the curriculum is to be found in within the students curiosity and the immediate environment. Best of all it takes advantage of the natural way students learn. Such an approach helps students make sense of their environment and their experiences.

Using such an approach the student is centre of his, or her, own learning
rather than imposed 'unrealistic' curriculums.

This approach does, however, depend on the enthusiasm of each teacher and the relationship between the 'teacher' ( 'co-explorer') and the learner.

It was the 'progressive approach' before overwhelmed by imposed Ministry curriculums - well up until now it seems.

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Simple but Deep

Observation, a simple but absorbing experience leading into wondering and imagining; the basis of all learning.

The teachers I have worked the most with over the years believe strongly in the primacy of observation. A common conviction is the belief in first hand experience as the root of all learning.

There is a real need for direct experience of the real world as a starting point for as much class activity in science, social sciences,language and art, as is possible. It is all too easy in this age of instant ready made images to forget about the importance of real life observation.

Students need to be taught to observe more carefully to record faithfully what they see but, for this to happen, teachers themselves need to aware of the often overlooked beauty and small scale drama of the immediate world.

By educating students senses, encouraging them to notice shapes, textures, patterns , movements and colours, students develop an appreciation of and identity with their environment. They also develop, in the process, the language to express what they see and think. Before the word must come the experience - and if students are entering school with language deficiency it might well be this paucity of sensory experience that is the cause.

All too often this sensory appreciation loses its edge as children grow their attention being diverted to the divorced world of virtual pre- digested reality. One writer has said that, 'humanity has persistently been weaving a cocoon about itself...denying itself primary experience'.Technology: 'the knack of of so arranging the world that we don't have to experience it'.

Sensory deprivation, it has been shown, sets in when there is not enough sensory stimulation. Many children only experience their environment from the window of a fast moving car. Quietly observing the world by walking and wondering is almost a lost art.

With a sensitive teacher help students an be taught to slow down enough to notice the small easily overlooked immediate world. Such students will begin to take personal delight in experiencing such things as a: rain filled gutters, rain on windows, the first frost, monarch butterflies, mossy stones, shells, and dandelion seed heads. All these become available as the fundamental resources for further study back in class and will remain with children as special memories of childhood.

Such an approach was once common in classrooms.

The teachers I have worked with have placed the importance of observation central to their programmes. They deliberately teach the students to look carefully so so to really see what they are looking at. By deliberately 'slowing the pace' of student's work, not only does in-depth observational art result but, also, space is created for the teacher to come alongside the child to provide support and guidance. And, as students draw, thoughts and questions will arise which can be recorded to become the basis of quality research work, creative language, and imaginative art.

In such classrooms quality observational art, descriptive writing, and researched questions is seen along with poetic thoughts and highly imaginative creative art work.

Students educated in such rooms display an absorption and powers of observation that are truly scientific, sadly missing in too many classrooms today that have been pressurized by the rush to 'deliver' imposed curriculums.

Observation feeds curiosity, visual education and the imagination.

It is fundamental to all learning.

More schools should get back to such basics.

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Still a need for Bruce's POV?

'If the 'new' New Zealand curriculum is so good maybe it's time to fade away?'

I happened to go to the funeral of a well respected liberal educator, in his late 80s, the other day. It was more celebration of his life as members of his family shared his beliefs, sang songs he enjoyed, showed some of his photography, and read one or two of his poems.

Afterwards I had the opportunity to read his autobiography and was particularity fascinated by the growth of his educational ideals that he outlined.

I learnt from my reading that after the depression of the 30s a New Education Fellowship Conference was held in New Zealand; the discussion that it invoked influenced educators of the time. This evolved into the ideas of Dr Beeby the Director of Education, appointed by the transformational first Labour Government. After World War Two progressive idea were in the air if not in the schools but, at least, there were innovative teachers beginning to develop more creative approaches to learning. Approaches that valued the individuality of each student and the importance of developing each learners unique creativity. Today we would call it personalisation.

Reading the autobiography it is clear that the ideals, now being expressed in the 'new' New Zealand Curriculum, are hardly new!

That the ideas spread so slowly is testament to the conservative nature of the education system.

The establishment of specialist advisers it seems was an important way to encourage teachers to develop new ideas - in particular the art advisers who were selected because of their potential to develop creativity. Being exposed to the value of creative art and language inspired the writer of the autobiography. Add to this the revolutionary ideas of the 60s and, by the 70s, innovative teachers were making their marks felt.

But traditional approaches were still the 'name of the game' well into the 70s, especially in bigger urban schools. Creativity though was emerging in small rural schools.

Taranaki became a well known in the 70s for creative education

This creativity was centred around a small group of teachers that I had the opportunity to work with as an science adviser. In the eighties I continued to work with a limited number of schools who developed a school wide approach to creative teaching.

It was during these times that Taranaki gained its well known reputation for creative education.

Then we had to suffer the imposition of curriculum based on strands, levels and countless learning objectives that put all the hard earned creativity at risk. It was all about standardisation, accountability and, eventually, a return to a 'Victorian' three Rs literacy and numeracy curriculum.

So now we have the 'new' New Zealand Curriculum; a curriculum that, although welcome, is hardly 'new' - more 'back to the future'.

It is as if the curriculum imposition of the 90s have been forgotten in this rush of Ministry 'revisionism'. The Ministry seems to be giving the liberal impression that it is all a natural progression, sidestepping responsibility for the confusion and teacher stress and burnout that their previous efforts created.

The phrases I do like is the idea that students should be their own, 'seekers, users and creators of knowledge' , and that there is a need to do 'fewer thing well'. These were ideas that I read in the autobiography I mentioned earlier.

You need a long memory to see that all is not new.

So is there still a need for the point of view I hold?

I am certain there is as school now 'clamber' to implement the 'new' curriculum without any understanding of what it means to be creative. Shallow creativity is all too easy to implement and is alive and well in our school where evidence of students 'clone like criteria based creativity' is all too evident.

What creative school needs to do, as always, is to:

1 Value the idiosyncratic gifts, talents, voice and identity of each individual student and to see this as a more important priority than literacy and numeracy - these ought to be seen as 'foundation skills,'

2 To develop 'emergent' curriculum based around students interests, concerns and immediate environment. Such an approach leads to a a naturally integrated approach. Class studies ( or 'rich topics') becomes the source of the intellectual energy for the class by tapping into the innate curiosity of all students.

3 To do 'fewer things well' and to value, not only the inquiry process, but also quality of the creative product, or depth of individual student thinking. The room environment should celebrate the questions, theories, and creative language and art, of the students. The 'new' New Zealand Curriculum values this as personal excellence - hardly a new value. Displaying student work is as much aesthetics as it is celebratory and informative - it is the third teacher and main 'message system' of the school.

Assisting students develop aesthetic design skills to present their work with individual flair and creativity is also important and ought to be seen in every page in all students book work.

4 The role of the teacher needs to be one of coming alongside the learner assisting students to do their own learning -another idea expressed in the autobiography I read. The teachers I admire gain their greatest satisfaction when their students surprise them ( and themselves) by the quality of their thinking and creativity.

5 If the above is the 'artistry' of teaching then developing classroom organisational patterns that 'allow' such work is the 'craft' of teaching. This requirement has been with teachers from the first days teachers attempted to 'personalise' their teaching and move away from standardized approaches such as lecturing, ability grouping or streaming.

When I see such elements ,which it seems have been a part of creative mindsets from the beginning, in all classrooms then, maybe, it is time to give it all away.

But, as I said, education is a conservative system.

Until then I will continue to add my 'point of view' to the continuing debate.

Thursday, March 20, 2008

Inspiration from the classroom.

We should look to our creative teachers, past and present, for inspiration - not distant experts.

There is not much that is 'new' in our 'new' New Zealand Curriculum but none the less it is a welcome shift from the Ministry's past technocratic thinking. A couple of phrases are particularly welcome by creative teachers. One , that students should be, 'active seekers, users and creators of ( their own) knowledge', and the suggestion to work with, 'fewer contexts in greater depth'.

To find the 'new' curriculum in action teachers need to seek out those creative teachers, who largely ignored previous 'official' advice, to see examples of teachers who are themselves 'seekers, users and creators of their own knowledge'.

One such teacher was Bill Clarkson. His book called 'Unique Perspectives' is an inspirational account about how to develop students 'voice in writing and content studies. His work in turn was inspired by earlier creative teachers; this is the way real ideas are spread in education.

A creative classroom, according to Bill, must value and respect the ideas, viewpoints and interests of the students.

Such a classroom requires that students are, 'genuinely engaged in their learning and pursuing things that are of interest or of importance to them', and if this is the case, 'the way they respond to and express their ideas will be unique'.

What is crucial, Bill believes, is that the learner develops as, 'an independent and creative thinking individuals in control of their own identity and their chosen path in life'. The 'life blood' of such an individual, 'is the strength of the child's voice'.

To achieve this requires an environment that,'taps into the children's natural curiosity about the world', an environment that contains, 'opportunities for experiencing all the different ways of learning; first hand experience, observing,drawing, thinking, talking, listening, reading, calculating and investigating'.

'All dialogue between the teachers and the child in the context of any kind of writing must be sensitive to the child's purpose or voice'. Bill's book is full of examples of both poetic and research writing that reflect student's voice' and creativity, along with art and photographs.

'It is also important that topics selected by the teachers are flexible enough to allow individual interpretation and direction'. Even in a shared experience that is narrower, such as a class observing a kingfisher diving for food, it still remains important that a teacher does not have too much influence on the control of the writing '(or drawing); it is important that children write not to please the teacher but to, 'develop original and honest thought'. It is also important for children to, 'be given time think through and interpret', before they express their ideas.

Quality work, in any area, takes time and thought. If a thing is worth doing it is worth doing well.

Bill believes strongly in students exploring the immediate environment;'Students from an early age are fascinated and naturally curious about the world outside'. Students , Bill writes, 'cannot be expected to develop a strong sense of place, or real appreciation of where they live, if they are not given the opportunity to explore their immediate and local environment.They should know about the significance of the the old buildings, pa sites, or monuments down the road, and be able to investigate the significant aspects of the natural environment such as a nearby patch of bush'.

To do so teachers , 'need to be seriously involved in teaching the students the skills and attitudes needed to permit focused and intensive' study. Students need to understand the purpose of any study and be able to make use of their senses to 'experience with vividness and freshness'.

Bill strongly believes in teachers coming alongside the learner to really listen to what they think and and have to say: 'From the teachers point of view this requires a genuine desire to know what a child thinks and why', to, 'help children develop, clarify, modify and extend their ideas' , and to help them explore,'ways to communicate these ideas honestly and effectively'.

Such honest 'interactive dialogue' requires that students and teacher trust and respect each other. Such a dialogue creates an environment that frees and challenges children to confidently do their thinking out loud and then for the teacher to sensitively and respectfully respond to their perceived learning needs.'

The students in Bill's classroom not only produced work reflecting personal 'voice' and in depth thinking but it was always presented in ways that reflected its importance. The walls of the classroom clearly showed student creativity and thinking, based on current topics, and student book and research work illustrated an emphasis on personal excellence and 'pride of achievement'. Procedures were introduced to assist students but students were always encouraged to 'personalise' their work as necessary. Final products represent a, 'labour of love and the tangible reward', of a job well done. The way teachers display children's work is, 'a direct message to students about how much the teacher values or respects their work.'

Bill concludes his book with the argument that, 'there is a definite need to promote more personalised and responsive strategies in teaching', and that the , 'strength of ( student) voice, sincerity and genuine quality is at stake'.

Teachers who do not have a copy of this book are missing a great example of a teacher who was able to engage the minds and hearts of his students; a teacher who was able to inspire even the most reluctant students to value their own identity, 'voice' and creativity.

Teachers who really believe that their students ought to be , 'seekers, users, and creators' , of their own learning would find the book both inspirational and practical.

Contact me( if you would like a copy.

Sunday, March 16, 2008

Asterix theory of talent development

Asterix, a Gosginny and Udeno cartoon about a defiant tribe of Gauls resisting the might of the Roman Empire.

Over the centuries the view about which counts for more, heredity or nurture, has concerned thinkers. Whatever view is held makes a great difference to the assumptions underpinning society and, in particular, education. A view of the mind as a 'blank slate' places the emphasis on the environment, or nurture, while an emphasis on nature places the emphasis on the genetic heredity of the individual.

In recent book, 'Nature Via Nurture' by Matt Ridley, both, he writes, contribute to whoever we are to become; the emphasis is on 'nature via nurture' . The book is a great read but I was attracted by his thoughts about how the environment young people grow up in effects the development of each persons unique talents.

Children do not see themselves as apprentice adults, he writes, but rather they try to be as good as they can be whatever their age. What they want to do is to find a niche within their group of peers, conforming to expectations on one hand, while at the same time differentiating themselves on the other. Developing this balance is a continuing universal challenge for us all.

Anthropologists believe that ancestral human being reared their young in groups; their natural habitat being a mixed age creche. This is believed is a more natural habit than the more recent and much admired isolated nuclear family.

In early, or pre- industrial, cultures young children found themselves searching for appropriate roles in relation to their peers. Peer pressure ought not to be seen as a negative influence, as it often is, as it has a major effect on student behaviour and can be utilized positively. This search for identity amongst ones peers still underpins student behaviour in modern classrooms and, as such, it is one that we ,as teachers, ought to be more aware of.

Examining any young group, in the past, out of school, in families, or in the classroom, and you will see, says Ridley, 'a tough, a wit, a brain, a leader, a beauty'.'Each child soon realizes what he or she is good at and what he or she is bad at- compared with the others in the group. He then trains for for that role and not for others, acting in character, developing still further the talent he has and neglecting the talent he lacks. The tough get tougher, the wit gets funnier, and so on. By specialising in the role he has chosen, he becomes what he is good at.'

An awareness of this role differentiation occurs about the age of eight - before this age all young children believe they are artists, after eight certain 'artistic' individuals are nominated by their peers.

It would seem important, if this is the case, that children are given every opportunity to develop, amplify, or discover what talents they might be good at and to encourage more positive roles, if a learning disposition is to be nurtured. Small differences can be magnified by habit and acceptance. The teacher's role ought to be to develop a positive and challenging learning environment that continually widens the students' horizons, building on their innate propensities.

Ridley calls this the Asterisk theory of human personality. In the well known cartoon, about a Gaul village resisting the Roman Empire, there is a very neatly drawn set of roles.

The village comprises of a strong man ( Obelix), a chief ( Vitalstatisitix), a druid ( Gestafix), a bard ( Cacophenix), a blacksmith ( Fulliautomix), a fishmonger( Unhygenix) and a man with bright ideas ( Asterix). The harmony of the vilage owees something to the fact that each man respects the others talents - with the exception of Cacophonix, the bard whose songs are universally dreaded.

No human being is rich in all talents in the same way but all have potential talents to develop as has been explored by Howard Gardner in his theory of multiple intelligences.

All viable communities, including schools, and individual classrooms, thrive because of the respect of each others talents and a willingness to share and help each other; this trust and cooperation is to each others mutual benefit.

The trouble , according to Ridley, is that modern industrial society people are assigned jobs without respect for talent. Not surprising, since in school developed in an industrial era, one size had to fit all.

'Personalised learning' is an antidote to such a wasteful but efficient mass system.

We need, as in early human cultures, to take advantage of each persons natural talent as and reinforce nature with nurture ( by providing opportunity and focused practice), so each persons innate talent becomes a self fulfilling prophecy.

Given the right conditions we all get good at what we get good at- and avoid what we don't do so well. Children, when they experience success, in whatever area, have their appetite sharpened for that thing.

Any ability, from making music to playing golf, is a mixture of nature and nurture. Often all that is need is a slight aptitude and an appetite for endless practice. The skill of a mentor, or coach, makes a big difference to gaining success. Such success gains the respect of others - more so if the expertise is utilised for the common good .

Lessons in all this for creative schools and teachers?. Our society is full of, 'round pegs in square holes'.

Thursday, March 13, 2008


If you want to gain insight into project based learning then take a look at this Edutopia article and then visit site to see if you can find a series of wonderful small videos based on real life investigations at all levels of the school.

This is the George Lucas ( of Star Wars fame) educational site which features real life cross curricular learning integrating information technology.

Wherever you end up on the site it will be well worth the effort.

While you're there join up for the Edutopia free newsletter.

Edutopia is all about inquiry learning where students become, 'seekers, users and creators of their own knowledge' that the 'new' New Zealand Curriculum is all about.

For more about Project Based Learning and even more.

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

A wider view of Literacy

After exploring, students 'prior ideas' and questions about ANZAC Day, class discussions, and researching articles and pictures, students drafted out, and wrote up, their own thoughts. The challenge included appropriately illustrating the topic. A range of skills ( 'literacies') need to be in place to complete such a task.

The 'new' New Zealand Curriculum asks schools to develop: 'Students who are competent thinkers and problem solvers (who) actively seek, use and create knowledge.They reflect on their own learning, draw on personal knowledge and intuition, ask questions, and challenge the basis of assumptions and perceptions.'

In the future this what classroom, and student research, should reflect at all levels.

To do this it is important for students to be motivated by 'real life', meaningful challenges from across the curriculum that make use of whatever Learning Areas( disciplines) are required.

It would seem obvious that literacy ( and where possible numeracy) programmes should be integrated with current class studies. Students need, the curriculum says, to be able to , 'critically interrogate texts', and to, 'receive, process and present ideas or information'.

Students need both to 'make meaning' of ideas or information as well as 'creating their own meanings' from such information.

A close read of many current student research presentations would show that this is not being achieved. There is little of the tentative , 'I think', 'it could be', 'this suggests'; phrases that show students own 'voice', rather than 'cutting and pasting'.

Students need to be taught stages in research writing following their investigations. They need to be able to focus their research on a few key questions, and to take notes about ideas they feel relevant to their queries. They also need to be shown a organisational format to assist them present their ideas - essentially, their study question, possibly their current thinking or 'prior ideas',their research, and data and finally conclusions and references

They also need to be taught a range of design and presentation formats suitable for the students ages. If a booklet is to be produced of their findings, each page needs to be thought through carefully, including any illustrations and graphical data.

Such design skills are best taught by means of student exercise books which offers a means for each students to observe their growth, both in presentation and content.

That teaching such information gathering and interpreting skills are important is reflected by a recent Nationwide survey that showed that the current workforce is lacking in such skills. The lack of interpretive literacy and numeracy skills suggest a greater emphasis on the applied use of them in the school system. And the earlier the better.

Literacy and numeracy are integral to ensuring students are their own users, seekers, and creators' and to create schools as 'communities of inquiry'; tapping the intellectually curiosity of students.

And developing exciting student studies is the key to achieving this. The 'new' curriculum wisely suggests that students need to do 'fewer thing well' so as to develop this, all to often missing,in-depth thinking.

I look forward to seeing this depth of thought being a feature in classrooms I visit.

Monday, March 10, 2008

A new personal focus

I started this blog to express my opinions about the faulty thinking that underpinned the previous New Zealand Curriculum and to share creative alternatives.

The previous curriculum, with all its: Learning Areas , strands, levels, and countless learning objectives, was 'a mile wide and an inch deep'. It was, from the beginning, an incoherent and impossible ask. I was surprised that so many schools even tried to implement it but, I guess, they has no choice but to comply . Some principals, it has to be said, seemed to enjoyed the managerial emphasis!

Creative schools, of course, 'colonized' it to suit themselves. This is as it should be but it has been wasted decades as far as creative education has been concerned. It is to the credit of those schools that have persevered with innovative ideas in such a time of compliance, conformity , top down control and imposed ideas.

But it hasn't been easy for creative teachers or principals in such a risk averse environment.

The 'new' New Zealand Curriculum, combined with a personalised learning agenda, provides a great opportunity to return to a more creative education.

So now I see my self appointed role as one of encouraging schools to take advantage of the new opportunities.

The trouble is that too many school have 'accepted' the previous curriculum as their 'default' position and, in particular, the development of an emphasis on a 'Victorian' literacy and numeracy curriculum. This was encouraged by a Ministry insistence on 'target setting' in these areas.

Nothing wrong with literacy and numeracy but they are, at best, 'foundation skills' required to be in place to allow students to engage in activities that have the power to develop their gifts and talents. 'Learnacy' is more important than literacy and numeracy; or the 'key competencies', in the jargon of the new curriculum.

Literacy and numeracy will never be enough to equip students for the future. For schools to spend well over half their time on these areas is to put their students futures at risk.

The future will be driven by a creative imperative and will citizens with a passion to learn things in line with their innate talents, as well as a desire to continue learning forever.

Recognising, developing and, and amplifying these talents, is the role of future orientated 'learning advisers'.This is something creative teachers have aways known -'to see things in the seed, that is genius' ( Lao Tzu).

Our 'new' curriculum re-surfaces ideas lost in the past technocratic, industrial age, 'top down' decades. A positive learning identity, based on personal strengths, now needs to be the right of all students.

Our 'new' curriculum asks teachers to see their students as, 'active seekers, users and creators of their own knowledge'.It asks for this a to be developed by engaging students in real life integrated learning contexts. And these, it states, need both the time to develop a depth of understanding , and a need to do fewer things well. Future students will need not just 'foundation skills' , a depth of knowledge and understanding, as well as the life long 'key competencies'.

This is sadly lacking in the schools I visit. Other than literacy and numeracy the remainder of the curriculum is, all too often, reduced to shallow studies that only give a colourful surface impression to visitors.

Future schools need to become 'communities of inquiry' where all learners are continually challenged to expand their fields of learning. There ought to be more questions than answers, and what answers there are, are ought to reflect the tentativeness of new learning, not mere 'cutting and pasting'.

My own background as adviser has given me an appreciation of the various passions that motivates the various advisers; my experience as science adviser has helped me appreciate the power of interest in learning and the importance of valuing student's own thinking; and as an art adviser I have learnt the importance of the creative process (as 'messy' as it often is) as well as the importance of completing any creative task, as well as one can, so as to gain the necessary pride of achievement to continue learning.

Our 'new' curriculum is now in line with my own thinking and with the creative teachers of the past - for those, with long memories, it is, 'back to the future'!

So far, however, I see little evidence that schools have as yet taken the creative opportunities that lie before them.
Sharing creative teachers' ideas is the only way to spread valuable ideas. Our website,this blog,and my booklets, are ways of doing this.

Of course many teachers may feel that they are already achieving the curriculum's intentions - self delusion is one way of avoiding real change.

To confirm reality look around classrooms for evidence of in-depth studies and creative expression . By now school walls, children's study books, and computer portfolios, ought to be showing improving examples of such idiosyncratic thinking .This is the real 'evidence based' teaching. Or is what to be seen formulaic and conformist?

The challenge for primary schools is to see past their literacy and numeracy programmes and to focus on creating the conditions to realise the talents of all their students. And then to assist them in developing their individual competences in ways only just beginning to be imagined.

Secondary schools have the seemingly impossible challenge to transform their entire system so to change from industrial aged academic institution to twenty first century learning communities. Their challenge is to move away from , 'one size fits all', so as to personalise learning opportunities for all their students - or be bi-passed in the process by modern information technology.

The revolution is starting but to gain a foothold in the future but to succed we need to link up with other teachers and other schools so as to take advantage of our shared strengths, and also to give us the courage to really push the boundaries.

Such changes will be hard fought. The 'status quo' has a powerful resistance to change. Developing new ideas is never easy, only exciting.

I look forward to helping as best I can

This is my 'revised' agenda.

Tuesday, March 04, 2008

Time for some choices?

Creativity or conformity?

Time to leave the corrosive age of accountability and enter a new era of creativity.

We need new minds for a new millennium.

Time for courageous leadership.

Around the world their is a rising tide of disquiet about the distorting results of an over emphasis on the time spent on reading and maths and, as a result, the squeezing out of other equally important aspects of education.

The accountability movement hasn't thankfully reached the oppressive levels in New Zealand as it has in America, the United Kingdom ( with its league tables) and even in our close neighbour Australia.

But a look at our primary schools would show that literacy and numeracy have, as one UK commentator says, ' all but gobbled up the rest of the curriculum'.

The fact of this emphasis on literacy and maths targets has been a narrowing of the curriculum and we are paying price for this narrowing. In countries overseas there have been dramatic cuts in such intellectually rich subjects as social studies, the arts, physical education and even science.

Such a distortion has the effect of not valuing and amplifying the various talents of students in the neglected fields. The very talents we desperately need as a country to thrive in the 21stC.

Our 'new' Zealand Curriculum, which states that we want to see our students as , 'seekers, users and creators of their own knowledge', gives us a choice to redress the balance.

Currently New Zealand schools, unlike other countries, select their own achievement targets but for all the choice these are , in the main, restricted to literacy and numeracy. And what get measured gets done and takes up the prime time; other areas get pushed to the margins. The so called 'achievement gap' is restricted to reading and maths - if the only game in town is soccer its tough if you are a hockey player! Our New Zealand Curriculum states that every student can learn - something our system so far has never achieved.

Sometimes it seems it is too difficult to simply find the time to do more exiting programmes.

What really matters ought to be the passions, talents, motivation and aptitudes of our students - their openness and excitement for learning. What our 'new' curriculum calls 'key competencies'.

We need to redress the situation by valuing the 'creative spirit' within every learner.

This is the choice our 'new' curriculum offers us. We no longer have to worry about 'coverage' but we need to 'design ' challenges that that provide all students the opportunity to develop their innate competencies and talents. The curriculum, suggests wisely, that we should do fewer things, to do them in depth, and to integrate, where possible, learning areas.

Seeing each student as an individual and then doing our best to help them to be the best they can be ought to be the new emphasis. Some call this emphasis 'personalised learning' as against, 'one size fits all'.

Such a creative emphasis requires equally creative teachers.

Creating the conditions to encourage teacher creativity is the challenge of leadership at all levels. Relationships and trust need to replace compliance and control.

A creative education, where students work collaboratively, develops in students a capacity for empathy and collaborative work as well as self managing skills.

A creative education provides to all students ( not just the academic), by recognising and developing their talents, a sense of direction and purpose in their lives.

A creative education develops flexible thinking and risk taking in students, important elements in an individuals future success.

Such ideas take us well beyond traditional secondary schools with their academic bias and separate subjects and primary schools that have over emphasized literacy and numeracy.

So there are choices of direction to be made.

Our society is going through a time of dramatic change in every area of life and new thinking will be required if our planet is to remain conducive to human life.

A creative education is, in a way, a spiritual one - one of developing personal meaning in life. It is about emphasizing the important values rather than narrow achievement targets. The future is not just about literacy and numeracy ( so important in an industrial age) but it more about 'learnacy'; the love of learning itself.

It is all about connecting people to a larger narrative than their own lives.

Our young people must acquire a 21st century education - one that faces up the reality of our own fragile existance.

But first we, as teachers, must make the right choices.

Monday, March 03, 2008

Losing the art of play

Are young children too busy 'achieving' to play?

Early childhood programmes are being set up in America to 'teach' children to play!

The reasoning behind such programmes is that today's young people are too busy to play ( being taken to endless classes by their ambitious parents). Or, just as bad , according to New Zealander Brian Sutton -Smith ( a world wide expert on children's play and games), is the image of isolated play - of young children sitting alone in front of a screen.

A cultural historian, Howard Chudwell, believes that from 1955 , due to the marketing of toys, children's play became focused on the toys themselves. Toys have replaced imaginative improvised activity as the focus of play. New commercial toys provide restricted scripts 'shrinking the size of children's imaginative space' -and owning such toys becomes all important.

Modern parents are increasingly becoming concerned about safety and prefer their children to 'play' in secure safe environments or classes; add to this middle class parents obsession for their children to succeed and free play is seen as waste of time. Such parents prefer extra work for their children on 'learning fundamentals' so as to get ahead.

Psychologist, Elena Bodrova, has researched children's diminishing capacity for self regulation, 'Today's 5 year olds were acting at the level of 3 year olds 60 years ago, and today's 7 year olds were hardly approaching the level of a 5 year old 60 years ago...the results are very sad'.

In earlier times young children played in groups engaging in free wheeling imaginative play, often being 'supervised' by older children.They were pirates or princesses, heroes and villains. While this play might have looked like time spent doing not much at all it built up all sorts of social and thinking skills. What the 'Tools of the Mind' call 'executive functions' including 'working memory and cognitive functions'. The most important being 'self regulation' - the ability for kids 'to control their emotions and behaviour, resist impulses, and exert self control and discipline.' This also includes resiliency - the ability to bounce back after setbacks that occur naturally while playing.

The lack of this ability to self regulate ones behaviour and demonstrate resiliency is associated with high school dropout rates, drugs and crime rates -'good executive behaviour is a better predictor than a child's IQ'.

The changing nature of play means that today's young children are not developing the executive self regulating behaviour they used to, according to many psychological researchers.

This is the reasoning behind the establishing in America of the 'Tools Of the Mind' programmes.

It seems to me that the cure is almost bad as the problem. Young children are being asked to think about their learning 'intentions' and then to write and draw what they plan to achieve during their programmed play!

I guess it is preferable to early childhood centres that are based on inappropriate age based academic programmes in order to push students to achieve. Some call such centres 'kinder factories' where students are directed to endless literacy and numeracy activities.

In 'mind 'tools' centres children are asked the question of the week and 'play games to develop the missing 'executive ' processes to help children learn to listen and control impulsive behaviours. Not even recces is fun, children are asked, 'What do they want to do, and how do they want to do it?' It is suggested that this lack of self regulation shows up in the growing number of students with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder.

Play has never seemed more like work!

Well planned developmentally appropriate programmes, one would have thought, would be the answer. According to Thomas Armstrong , in his book 'Best Schools', believes that lots of free play is the best form of learning for young children and that such play is in line with early brain development. The idea of structuring every minute of a child's time must be stressful for the teachers involved.

The best kind of play costs nothing and only has one main requirement - imagination. When children play together, improvising, making things up, exploring, playing games, they are developing the all important self regulation behaviours. Such activities naturally involve children in facing up to choices and consequences, and to consider others if they want to have as much fun (learning) as possible.

Adults of course play an important role in establishing the conditions and material to entice students to play ( learn) together and their intervention's, if sensitive, are valuable.

There must be line between the structured play of 'Mindtools' and free play - particularly if young children are missing vital 'executive functions'. Well trained teachers will aways be needed to provide learning experiences and to help the students develop appropriate learning habits.

What is required is for students to become so involved that they learn the advantage of sustained concentration rather than flitting form activity to activity. Ensuring students develop such intelligent behaviours is the task of the teacher but does it need to be formalised to pre-planning everything? All children gain pride from doing things well but, in their hurried lives, they often do not have the encouragement or the time. When children want to do something well then this is the time for a bit of help from an adult.

Many teacher of young children in New Zealand express a worry that their students find it hard to keep on task at school and that children with some form of attention deficit disorder are almost epidemic.

Developmentally appropriate programmes, that stimulate, enrich and encourage 'self regulatory' behaviours ought to be a greater priority than literacy and numeracy before overly structured play becomes the new thing to do in New Zealand.

I am all for more play and creativity - activities that lead to the on uncovering of every learners' talents, gifts and passions.