Sunday, May 31, 2009

Quotes from Frank Smith and John Taylor Gatto

John Taylor Gatto is the author of 'A Different Kind Of Teacher'. Frank Smith's book is called 'an Insult To Intelligence'

From Frank Smith:
'The time bomb in every classroom is that students learn exactly what they are taught.'

From John Gatto:

' School teachers aren't allowed to do what they think best for each child. Harnessed to a collective regime, they give up thinking seriously about students as one-of - a -kind individuals regardless of what they may wish were true.'

And Gatto of standardized testing says:

' What standardized testing actually measure is the tractability of the student, and this they do quite accurately.Is it of value to know who is docile and who is not? You tell me.'

Smith says:

' I discovered the brutally simple motivation behind the development and imposition of all systematic programmes and tests - a lack of trust that teachers can teach and children can't learn'.

Gatto writing about 'Kafka type' rituals of high schools that;

'Enforce sensory deprivation on classes of children held in featureless rooms...sort children into rigid categories by the use of fantastic measures such as age grading, or standardized test scores...train children to drop what they are occupied with and move as a body from room to room at the sound of a bell, buzzer horn or claxton...keep children under constant surveillance, depriving them of private time and space...Forbid children their own discoveries, pretending to possess some vital secret to which children must surrender their active learning time to acquire... ideas are broken into fragments called subjects, subjects into units, units into sequences, lessons into homework, and all these prefabricated pieces make a classroom teacher proof.'

Frank Smith continues:

'The myth is that learning can be guaranteed if instruction is delivered systematically one small piece at a time, with frequent tests to ensure that students and teachers stay on task'.

Back to Gatto:

'A substantial amount of testimony exists from highly regarded scientists that scientific discovery is negatively related to the procedures of school science classes.

And Smith:

'Children learn what makes sense to them; they learn through the sense of things they want to understand.'

They are 'informavores who eat up knowledge'.

'We underestimate our brains and our intelligence.Formal education has become such a complicated, self conscious, and over regulated activity that learning is widely regarded as something difficult the brain would rather not do...We are all capable of huge unsuspected learning accomplished without effort.'

John Gatto:

' Each of us has a design problem to solve: to create from the raw material around us the curriculum for a good life. It isn't easy, and it isn't the same for ant two people.'

'The priorities of our curriculum are daydreaming, natural and social sciences, self discipline, respect of self and others, and making mistakes.'

And after asking students Frank writes they want:

' Above all, more work which allowed themselves to think for themselves, to experiment, to engage in first hand observation.'

'Learning' Smith writes, 'is never divorced from feelings.'

The learners manifesto Smith writes is:

'The brain is always learning.
Learning does not require coercion.
Learning must be meaningful. Learning is individual.
Learning is collaborative.
The consequences of worthwhile learning is obvious.
Learning involves feeling.
Learning must be free of risk.'

'We need to shift the focus of learning from simply teaching them the process by which educated people pursue the right answers'

And a final thought from George Bernard Shaw:

'What we want to see is the child in pursuit of knowledge,and not knowledge in pursuit of the child.'

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

This thing called reading

Years ago Frank Smith was very popular with those who believed in holistic or experience based learning. A quick look at his book reassures me that his ideas make as much sense as ever.

I never really get involved with reading or literacy but it seems the 'default mode' for most primary teachers.

When you visit primary classrooms you become aware that the great part of the school day centres around literacy and numeracy. For all this emphasis reading still seem to be a problem for some students it ever was.

And to keep teachers on the straight and narrow there are those who see salvation in phonics waiting in the wings to distort the process even more. Schools have been deluged with 'best practice' ideas about how to run their literacy programmes.

And to make things even worse( or more serious) are the proliferation of reading tests to assess where students 'are at' all resulting in gathering and graphing data. Teacher are busy providing 'formative assessment and providing appropriate feedback.

Reading the most recent literacy book produced by the Ministry and it is enough for me to give up . As a result of all this 'expert' help teachers develop group system to ensure students are provided opportunities to learn to read. When I visit classrooms I observe what the groups, who are not with the teacher, are doing - most of it seem of doubtful value to me.

I am reminded of a UK commentator who said that the, 'evil twins of literacy and numeracy have gobbled up the entire curriculum'. Certainly in systems that nationally test their students this is further exaggerated and, as a result, in those countries teachers teach to the tests, and all too often, the arts and sciences etc are simply pushed out for lack of time.

And still children fail.

Sir Ken Robinson, an expert on creativity, has written that we are 'mining our children heads for two commodities, literacy and numeracy and, in the process, not realising the various gifts and talents that are being overlooked. Robinson believes that creativity is as important as literacy and numeracy. Another UK expert Guy Claxton writes that 'learnacy' ( the desire to learn) is more important than literacy and numeracy.

As for the most recent Ministry book on literacy teaching I was surprised that no reference is made to Frank Smith.Even more surprising there is no reference to Sylvia Ashton Warner and Elwyn Richardson both pioneers in getting young children to write and read naturally. Their approach was to tap the imagery of the children themselves as the basis for writing and reading. This language arts/experience approach was once a feature of New Zealand classroom but it seems to have been replaced by 'formulaic' 'best practice' teaching. The real need to tap the voices of the children, and to develop vocabulary through sensory experiences, is no longer common. Before the word must come the experience.

I think this lack of meaningful experiences is part of the problem and this brings me back to Frank Smith.

Frank Smith believes it is not difficult to make reading impossible. For children reading must be meaningful to attract them. What is being read must make sense to them or they won't bother and it seems some don't

The key to reading and writing lies in students seeing them as a valuable tools available to them to study what they are really interested in. What is required is for teachers to negotiate stimulating programmes that really engage their students. To do this they need to tap into the thought and personal experiences their children have. It is their stories that really count. Teachers also need to tap the interests and concerns students have and as well make use of first hand experience both inside the classroom and outdoors.

To learn like this require reading ,writing ,thinking and in turn learning.

Young children are born to learn.They are innately wired with the curiosity to want to learn and reading is just another form of learning.

Frank Smith believes that children do not need to be taught to read instead teachers need to create the conditions for them to want to. If reading is active process, that respects their ideas and worlds, they will want to join the reading club.

It is the same for learning anything

This Friday I present at a reading conference!

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Inquiry based learning -an approach to personalised learning.

A student doing a observational drawing as part of her current inquiry study. There was a time when inquiry based learning was central to all that happened in the primary school day and other areas, such as literacy, were used to develop both the skills required to research and also to contribute appropriate content. The blog below is based on an UK article sent to me by David Hood and, although it is written about secondary students, it applies to all age groups. There is no doubt that it is in year 7 to 10 that school need to dramatically rethink their programmes if they wish to engage their students.

A summary of a paper sent to me by NZ educator David Hood written by Ruth Deakin Crick (2008) Graduate School of Education, University of Bristol, makes inspiring reading.

Although it doesn't refer to the writings of John Dewey, the work of American James Beane, or the Project Based Learning as shared on the Edutopia Website, it expresses similar ideas. The few innovative primary teachers, who still apply inquiry to all they do, will also recognise the ideas expressed.

The paper describes and explores the key elements of an approach to personalised learning which is rooted in student experience and choice. learning shaped by the learner's interests which is rooted by their curiosity and purpose. The approach to pedagogy described takes seriously the 'self hood' of the learner while at the same time not abandoning the rigor of specialist knowledge in the various subject fields.

This very much the position taken by John Dewey and recent writers and one I also hold personally.

Worldwide there has been a growing interest in developing competency based curriculums . Our own New Zealand Curriculum is a good example and may well lead the field as it places a strong emphasis on all students developing identified 'key competencies' as a result of their learning. These competencies develop essential values, dispositions and attitudes of effective life long learners. Others, like UK educator Guy Claxton, ( not mentioned) call such competencies 'learning power'.

Others write about 'dimensions of learning' ( Deakin Crick 2007) identifying seven dimensions of 'learning power':

1 Changing and Learning - a sense of oneself who changes over time
2 Critical Curiosity - a need to 'get beneath the surface'.
3 Meaning Making - seeing that learning 'matters to me' and seeing connections.
4 Creativity - risk taking - playfulness, imagination and intuition.
5 Interdependence - learning with and from others.
6 Strategic Awareness - awareness of ones thoughts feelings and actions.
7 Resilience - orientation to persevere.

Many teacher will recognise such attributes.

Inquiry learning and personalisation is a means to achieve such life long learning dispositions. Such a realisation will mean schools shifting away from an 'industrial mechanical metaphor of education towards a complex organic and participatory metaphor of learning.' Such an approach needs to value and build each students experiences.

Such a participatory approach (Heron ad Reason 96) includes four ways of learning:

1 Experiential Learning - is about direct encounter and experience
2 Presentational learning -way of expressing learning in range of media
3 Propositional learning - know through arguing, description, or theories
4 Practical Knowing - 'how to' competence

Unlike what passes for much inquiry learning the above emphasises the importance of real experience.

Personalisation is another agenda that many teachers will have heard of. Personalisation means putting the the learners experience at the 'heart of everything we do'. Our own New Zealand curriculum expresses this when it gives school the flexibility to develop curriculums to suit the needs of their students

Inquiry learning and personalisation reflect the demands of the information age which has changed forever the way human experience their world.

In her paper Deakin Crick talks of the risk of students not getting their knowledge first hand but mediated through technology, pre-formatted, selected and edited-a world of virtual experience.Deakin Crick writes that, 'the less we work things out for ourselves the less we are required to get back in touch with the world we live in'... 'Increasingly we are losing our sense of where we we belong in the world'.

As well she says we are in danger of losing our capacity to make sense of that world. Old subject teaching approaches are outdated. Knowledge doesn't fit together in 'subjects' any more but the answer isn't leaving the 'fitting together' to the 'mercy of software developers'.

Survival she writes, 'requires not just information but know how; the ability to relate and harness information to identify and purpose what is known in new contexts. In the context of the New Zealand Curriculum to 'seek, use and create their own knowledge.' The emphasis is on each individual - the personalisation of learning.

Deakin Crick writes 'Who I am' is a function of 'what I know', why I learn? and 'how I can communicate it.' The 'know how' student's need in a world information is the 'ability to relate and harness information to identify and purpose what is known in new contexts'.

The implication of all this is that too many students are still taught to behave as passive recipients or consumers of education rather than developing the confidence to become active agents in their own learning. This is still the case not withstanding decades of educational reform. Schools are based on a conception of young people 'as dependent and incapable' of making up their own minds even in many so called child centred Junior classrooms. In such rooms the rel world of the children does not feature.

Deakin Crick writes that we cant go on for ever fragmenting knowledge or letting learning be dominated by technology. We need to focus on helping all students know who they are. We need to protect at all costs our learners sense of agency and identity.

To develop a personalised pedagogy we must 'attend to the person who is learning' and help then develop a positive narrative, or story, about their own lives.

To achieve this the challenge is for teachers to 'ensure the learner narrates a unique and personalised pathway through the curriculum in a manner that strengthens her identity and sense of self as a self learner as well as enabling her to acquire the knowledge and formal qualifications she needs.

It is about learning as a journey of 'participation and acquisition' unique to each learner.

Using the metaphor of a journey Deakin Crick outlines four stations in a learning journey:

1 The first is the learning self - the individuals own particular identity, gifts, relationship, stories and aspirations.
2 The second are the individuals personal qualities, values, attitudes and dispositions for learning( perhaps the 'key competencies').
3 The third is acquiring publicly assessed knowledge.
4 Fourth - is the achievement of publicly assessed competence.

The first two are personal and unique to the student and rests with them. They are all to do with the personal power to learn -sometimes called 'learning power'. It is these that are all too often bi-passed in the requirements to ensure students achieve imposed standards.

Deaken Crick outlines eight steps in a personalized learning journey ( inquiry learning steps). The learner begins the journey with his or her own experience or interests. This requires a movement away from pre-packaged or a teacher determined curriculum both of which predetermine what is taught but, at the same time, students need to acquire disciplined knowledge from the various learning areas.

The eight steps are are sequential but iterative starting from the initial interest and then moving, with teacher assistance, into an increasingly complex series of learning capabilities and depth of content.

1 First: Choosing and deciding. What is wanted is topic,question, or topic that fascinates the learner. Careful prompting by the teacher may be needed to ensure the personal interest is strong and authentic.

2 Second: Observing and describing. The students record observations or descriptions about their chosen item and their reasons for choosing it.

3 Third. Wondering/Interrogating. Students ask open questions about their chosen area of learning. This begins the process of inquiry and investigation. Present answers ( or 'prior ideas') may be recorded.

4 Fourth. Discovering/Storying
. the questioning leads to a sense of narrative around the chosen study and the unfolding of new learning. In this process the student is becoming the author of their own learning story or journey.

5 Fifth.Navigating/Mapping. The students begin to turn their 'ad hoc' learning into new concepts and knowledge. This is making meaning - expanding the students 'knowledge maps' and connecting with prior knowledge.

6 Spanning/Connecting. With informed guidance and support from the teacher, the students widening 'map' of of knowledge can be related to existing scientific, historical, mathematical knowledge.

7 Seventh: Interacting/Incorporating. Students arrive at the interface between their personal inquiry and the specialist requirements of the curriculum, course, or examination. The process allows the learner to encounter specialist knowledge in a way that makes sense to them.

8 Eighth and last. Reconciling/Validating. Students forge links between what they know and subject, course, or accrediting requirements. This may take the form of a portfolio, a presentation, exhibition, or a written essay, making explicit both processes and outcomes of the inquiry. By doing this a pathway is made between personal subjective knowledge and established knowledge. This is the time to reflect on what has been learnt, the process of gaining new learning, and about where it might lead to.

In this process the teachers 'scaffold' learning, thinking skills and capabilities, and assist with resources. The author of the article likens the 'journey process' to an archaeological dig as students gain layers of new meaning. Teachers act as tutors and mentors prompting , supporting, and reassuring when students run into difficulties( which are integral to the journey metaphor). All this done honouring the students responsibly for being in charge of their own learning.

Ultimately the competencies the students gain is as important as knowledge itself.

At the heart of such process are two core values: that of attending to the person who is learning as unique individual and that of empowering the individual to move towards the world they live in and to fulfil their particular potential.

This is a process of knowledge being co-constructed with the learners,demanding a wide range of competencies, with high levels of teamwork and feedback.The rewards are found in terms of personalisation, that is, a pedagogy which takes the person who is learning as seriously as the learning outcomes. It is anchored in personal interest rather than didactic intent.

Learning choice and agency of this sort, the author writes, requires three conditions:

1 The learner needs to know their own mind.
2 Learners need to be supported in their choices by people they trust and respect and who uphold their intentionality.
3 That choice making is understood as risk taking undertaken within a framework that feels safe.

Personalisation and inquiry learning requires a new way of thinking about teaching and learning. To undertake such a process a school would require, courageous leadership, respectful relationships, an ability to challenge traditional organisations and assessment practices, and an ability to live with uncertainty - an attribute required for any future learning.

Monday, May 11, 2009

Living at the Creative Edge: School transformation

I recently read an American article outlining the transformation of an Australian middle school and thought the ideas worth sharing. The Australian school was selected as one being successful in a very difficult socio-economic situation. To me it provides insight into how education could evolve if only it could escape the conservatism academic pull of the past. The school motto ( vision) is 'Living on the Edge'. The school believes the 'edge is only the beginning' and that everybody involved needs to aim to be 'the best we can be'.

Education is difficult in disadvantaged situations where it is pretty obvious that the old ways are not working so it was great to read about a school that seems to be beating the odds. The approaches they have developed provide guidance for all schools but particularly middle and secondary schools.

And it is not that the ideas are even claimed to be new - the school involved just had both the leadership and the courage to put them into practice. Their approach is in opposition to the market driven imposed reforms of the past decades that have enhanced the advantages of the already privileged and failed to solve the growing problem of disengaged and alienated students.

The school concerned has 'reinvented' teaching and in the process transformed the educational opportunities for all their students.

It is the belief of the school involved that student disengagement cannot simply be blamed on out of school disadvantages ( deficit theory) and that the school environment has has strong effect on children's participation and sense of belonging. The school concerned decided not to focus on the 'relentless scrutiny of failure' and to go beyond 'blame the victim' approaches which lead to cycles of hopelessness and despair and, instead, accentuate 'evidence of promise', things going well, leading towards hope and optimism

A recent OECD Report (2003) states that the worldwide disaffection from school is not limited to a small minority (about 15%/20%) and that virtually all schools have problems associated with disaffection.

The American article suggests that all countries ought to be encouraging and studying successful schools that are experimenting with ways of reinventing themselves. This is certainly preferable to trying to solve the problem with such failing simplistic strategies as imposing National Standards.

The school involved, as stated, was situated in an area of high poverty, low income and unemployment with all the associated problems. Teachers in the school were 'living on the edge' as they attempted to ameliorate the the resulting distressing effects.Teachers in similar situations will know the feeling.

Now back to the school.

Visitors entering are all greeted by a personalised warm welcome - an introduction to the importance of relationships in the school.

The school is divided into three open learning areas ( years 1 and 2; years 3-5; and years 6-9).

In the 6-9 group 88 students and 4 adults make up the learning team. Each day starts with 'talking circle' time where students discuss their personal programmes( called 'self initiated learning').'Talking circles' start all sitting on the floor with a student chairperson and follow agreed rules. Attendance is taken and notes made of decisions. This is an attempt to involve students in controlling their own learning and a way to model respectful behaviour.

Learning plan are negotiated with learners.For example a group of boys want to explore their interest in fishing.To go ahead they have to draw up a concept map to outline learning possibilities, the resources they need, and where they hope to get their information from. Students are also expected to say where their study fits into the official curriculum of which they have a copy. Teachers help them define areas of study and identify important aspects from the various subject areas. Some of the areas identified include: fish anatomy and physiology, feeding habits, habitats, fishing grounds and predators. They also plan fish dissection which will involve acquiring necessary books and dissection equipment.

They then decide who is to do what and when and plan for their excursion which needs to be justified ( the school, bus only takes 8 students). The boys are used to all this planing and and move into action immediately.

This plan , although it starts with students interest, covers in depth the learning expected for students of this age.

What is going on is radically different than most schools. Missing is any notion of a conventional classroom and the teachers have almost become invisible. The adults in this environment are seen as resource people. Walls and corridors are missing and instead spaces have been created furnished with tables chairs and carpets. The environment exhibit students competed work, and colourful posters talk up important messages for students about rigor, expectations, possibilities and commitment to learning - words like 'courage', , 'teamwork', 'commitment' and 'challenge' are to be seen including the school motto , 'Live to the Edge and be the Best You Can'.

These are the sentiments to be found in the schools guiding principles and values.

Respect Responsibility.Honesty. Integrity.
Equity.Caring. Fairness.
Personal excellence. Commitment. Persistence.

In the year 6-9 learning area there is a large whiteboard with 30-40names on it indicting where students not present are were currently working, another indication of trust.

The principal has been the key to the development of the school beliefs but it has been a long journey. It was been important to get the students to admit when they don't know something so teachers can help them tailor a learning plan. Respectful relationships were crucial and the year starts with student and teacher team building activities where there is no formal teaching. At this bonding time students are asked, 'What enhances your learning and what distracts from it?' The major concern identified was lack of power. Also uncovered were issues they wanted to learn more about.

The principal felt she had two choices one to change things slowly the other total immersion in new ideas. The latter was course the school took. Three team were set up , a student team, a staff team, and a community team, to discuss how to enhance learning. One of the first things the school did was to audit the out of school decision students were already making; that they were applying 'key competencies' to achieve. The school also asked 'How many authentic decisions do students make in school?' This uncovered students were making important decisions out of school but not in school itself. If the core business of the school was to help students learn this had to be addressed. The same process was undertaken with the Management Committee. All this assisted the school community and students to think better of themselves.

The principal, at the request of staff, modeled student initiated learning by negotiating a study with students in classes to doubting teachers. Teachers were then encouraged to negotiate their own studies assisting developing individual learning plans with their students. Gradually the teachers took the ideas on board and eventually everybody began to dabble with it.

As kids were given more input students became more engaged and gradually a school wide student initiated curriculum developed.

The key was to extend student interests along the lines of the fishing example mentioned earlier
. Students also had to appreciate that they had to learn to cover official content expectations which were shared with them. Any special assistance students needed to achieve their plans were provided in small groups rather than to the whole class and to achieve this teachers have to interact with students to monitor and assist students. Teachers now enjoy working with students achieve their exciting projects. An integrated programme evolved as students interests crossed traditional subject barriers.

Along with relationship and empowering students raising expectation was vitally important as many of the students were accustomed to failing. Students attitudes changed dramatically as they began to see their learning as relevant to them, and they began to want to come to school.The students also appreciated the new role of their teachers as learning facilitators, teaching them how to learn, how to research, how to present their findings, rather than keeping them in order. Students dislike the lack of individuality of 'normal ' high schools and appreciate moves toward personalising the curriculum and the emphasis on achievement. the biggest problem the students identify is that students don't fail school , traditional schooling fails students; in traditional schools teachers are right and students wrong.

After five years all in the school are success orientated and innovation and creativity are highly valued by students teachers and the community; a sense of pride has evolved in this once failing school. The starting point was challenging the low expectations the students had of themselves which in turn was reinforced by their teachers and parents. Changing the entrenched teacher directed, content orientated view about teaching, was a real issue. Adults now 'steer' student learning acting as informed and supportive guides enlarging students areas of interests and relating them to the curriculum.

The process is far from complete but there has been a paradigm shift as student ownership of their own learning has become the norm. The locus of control in the learner, and the emphasis on relationships, has dramatically effected behaviour as students now see the consequences of not learning. Student voice, power sharing, decision making, learning how to negotiate learning, how to making best use of time,and the need to achieve their best work.

There is now a passion for learning that pervades the whole community. This is a school that is facing up to challenges that seem impossible, or simply ignored, by most schools. Underpinning this school is the moral courage needed to make a difference

All this in a school that was seen as underachieving!

If we are to avoid the 'race against catastrophe' and face up to the alarming evidence of disengagement and alienation of students, of schools not working for a growing number of their pupils, then we need to search and share the ideas of 'grassroots' schools that are making a difference.

We need schools that treat students as real people who need to feel a belonging to their schools and who feel that their interests and talents are recognised; schools that fire up the imagination of all their students.

Until this happens many students will make the decision not to go along with what is being offered.

The school referred to still has a long way to go and there is still a high level of tentativeness as they explore their way into the future but at least parents, students, and teachers are working together. With this in mind they have a good deal of assurance about where they are going as they jointly construct their own pathway into the future based on constantly reflecting on their experience of trying something.

It all began with a leap of faith.

Fostering creativity and how to squash it!

Creativity is all about having the freedom to explore ideas without judgement until whatever is being thought about crystallizes into something that satisfies the artist or scientist - or a student at school. All too often this vital 'messing around' is ignored as teachers apply their 'intentions', success criteria, WALTS or 'best practices' and in the process demean unplanned imagination. Sameness is a word that describes much of the work seen in schools. The illustration are visual ideas about birds Braque was exploring before beginning his painting.

We seem , with the future introduction of National Standards, to be heading back to imposing greater standardisation on our schools. Ironic, as we are entering what some are calling an 'Age of Creativity' or even the 'Second Renaissance.'

Our Government seems determined to ignore the advice of such people as Sir Ken Robinson, an international expert in creativity, who says that creativity is just as important as literacy or numeracy ( the two areas National Standards will make teachers focus on). 'Google' him to watch his short but powerful video clip. Another educationalist being ignored is Guy Claxton who believes we should focus on ensuring all students gain 'learning power', what our NZC calls the 'key competencies'. Claxton's quote is that 'learnacy is more important than literacy and numeracy.' By 'learnacy' he means keeping alive the desire to learn and make meaning innate in all children until schooling gets in the way.

Creative NZ teachers, past and present, get little recognition by those who make the decisions.

I have recently read that there are three sorts of creativity - three ways of generating new ideas.

They are combinational, exploratory and transformational.

In combinational creativity new ideas are formed by combining two or more familiar ideas in unfamiliar ways - I guess Gutenberg combining the wine press with printing would a combinational creativity. Integrated learning would obviously encourage such innovative connections.

In exploratory creativity ideas are tweaked, pushed towards their limits but overall what results recognisable - think of impressionistic paintings. Or , if a creative classroom, various interpretations of a tree.

Transformational creativity is the most surprising of the three because its ideas appear not only to be expected but impossible. Perhaps the first abstract paintings would fit into this category?

None of these three ways of creativity is random.And none of them based on ignorance. These facts can help teachers who want to foster creativity.

The first type requires a rich source of diverse ideas plus a readiness to play around with them. Besides introducing a wide range of themes, topics, and environmental experiences students need to be encouraged to interpret their ideas in personal ways. This is in conflict with the deterministic approaches so common in our schools today.

Teachers with a creative mindset, and an appreciation of the importance of students idiosyncratic ideas, encourage creativity. Such teachers should ever be on the alert to recognise connections students have made and point out area students may have missed. One example that comes to mind is noting that Maori art patterns are also mathematical symbols and also have metaphorical or story connections. Teaching subjects in isolated compartments runs against such thinking and impossible if taught be different subject teachers.

To develop exploratory creativity require that students are aware of what styles or rules they are breaking. Such thinking required discipline and knowledge. Students can't be creative by being left to do their own thing without any guidance . Creativity is about playing around with a style, practicing ideas, rather than having no constraints at all.

To achieve mastery of ones chosen area of creativity takes time and application. Once an understanding of current ideas have been gained then students can be encouraged to experiment and break the rules. Maybe this is what is required in our present classrooms with their current emphasis on overdoing consistency?

Assessing transformational creativity, in particular, requires an acceptance by teachers of differences and the putting aside of criteria they normally use to assess student's work. Perhaps adding an extra criteria such as, 'Does my work show my individuality or voice?' or 'have I explored new or unusual ideas?' will help. Simply by valuing student creativity the teacher will create an environment that will ensure students become more creative - more willing to take the risks involved. Accepting 'mistakes' as valuable ways to try out ideas is obviously important.

It is obviously easy to squash creativity. Punishing divergent idea, or even simply ignoring them with crush creativity.Even by overpraising what teachers think is acceptable (as assessed by 'success criteria' will do it. Assessing work before it is finished is another successful way to kill creativity. This does not mean there ought to be no form of criticism - but any criticism or feedback ought to be given sensitively and positive as creative individuals are often fragile.

Last word to Sir Ken Robinson who writes that creativity does not have to be introduced to students, it is a part of their birthright, we just have to ensure we do not kill it off.

Monday, May 04, 2009

Educating Boys...and girls?

Sometimes it seems easier to think about who succeeds at schools than who don't. All too often schooling does not suit boys. This is the thesis of a book, yet to be published, by Massey University Education Lecturer Michael Irwin. My blog is simply an edited extract published in the Sunday Times. It would seem to be a book well worth acquiring. Much of what the extract says reflects what those who have long believed important -an activity/inquiry arts based programme is the basis of productive learning. And such programmes would also suit girls by making them more adventurous? And it makes light of the Governments current push to focus even more on literacy and numeracy with their reactionary National Standards.!

'Boring! It is like a prison.Wish I could get out of here! says Matt a 13 year old boy in a secondary school.Matt, it seems was not finding much of relevance in what was being provided.

It is little wonder the school system fails to meet boy's needs, writes Michael Irwin, when it insists they learn the same way as girls.

Irwin has heard 5 year olds express similar sentiments. when Irwin researched boys perceptions the first word many boys said was "boring". This might refer to parts of the day or the whole process of learning.

Most boys, Irwin found, want to go to school but not to learn. They often just like playtime, or sports, or hanging out with friends. It seems that school and boys are out of sinc with each other.

The majority of boys look forward to starting school.They are enthusiastic about playing and learning things. The sad thing is that as they settle into school and move through their classes this enthusiasm wanes.

Many boys,Irwin says, are set for failure from day one. Boys begin school with literacy skills one or two years behind girls on average. In schools literacy is taught with lots of sitting and listening and teacher modelling of skills. Boys struggle to learn this way. Assisting with language development requires lots of opportunities for boys to talk as they create. Young boys learn best around activities where they can think, talk, explain and expand their vocabulary.They also need older boys or adults to assist with the role modeling of vocabulary and sentence structure, for example,building things at the woodwork bench and talking to an adult about what is happening.Boys need to be able to explain, discuss and have a sufficient oral vocabulary to communicate ideas and opinions fully before they are required to read and write.Pressure is being put on boys from parents and teachers to read and write before they are ready, and this pressure, Irwin believes, is one of the root causes for failure at school.

It sounds very much of the developmental periods and language experience learning of earlier days!

Schools can be hostile places for boys not achieving, those boys who don't fit, who are too noisy, active or argumentative. Schools have functioned the same way for many years - a group of teachers around one teacher.There may be more computers, more electronic gear, but children are still required to sit quietly for long periods of the day between four wails. Physical activity has been squeezed into narrow time slots, the arts often not taught at all, outdoor education restricted by processes and regulations. Boys who cannot function in this school environment are often allowed to drift or drop out, as long as they do not disturb the rest of the class.

This restrictive learning environment that Irwin writes about could be seen as the result of the push to have schools focus on achieving narrow achievement targets in literacy and numeracy since the changes of the 198Os! And greater restrictions will result when the Government introduces its National Standards this year!

Irwin continues that we have aways taught reading and writing in our schools but the greater emphasis of recant years has seen a larger block of the school day allocated to these areas to the detriment of science, the arts, social studies, physical education and the arts. Schools argue that if they spend more time on reading and writing the child will improve on these skills but Irwin strongly disagrees and I am with him.

Irwin argues that a good session of physical activity will improve a boy's concentration and attitude towards literacy than a longer spell with a book. Boys generally enjoy science, technology, and at east one aspect of the arts, whether it is music, drama or the visual arts.Educational studies have shown when boys experience success in one areas, such as science or art, there is a carry over effect into other areas of the curriculum. A boy excelling at science is also likely to want to read,even if it is only science literature. In Irwin's opinion this over emphasis on writing and reading is why some boys are underachieving and finding school boring.

Couldn't agree more.

Irwin also believes that boys are being exposed to reading and writing too early. Schools tend to think the earlier you start the sooner the student will acquire the skills. .This sets boys up for early failure when what they are requiring is early year success.Starting boys on literacy skills early does not mean they will learn faster, nor do it better.

Advances in brain research, he says, indicate that even though boys and girls develop along similar trajectories , a girls development in the language areas can be approximately two years ahead of a boys. Before you you can read you need the oral language and experience that are prerequisites to reading and writing. A lot of the make and do activities has gone from the infant and nursery classes and been replaced with sitting, listening and copying type activities.

He is so right about this.Before the word ( reading or writing) comes the experiences gained through the full use of children's senses!

Children form ideas about themselves early. Children know when they are in the bottom group, when they struggle or cannot compete a task. Struggling to read and write words before a boy is ready can result in early failure and a negative attitude towards literacy.

This is the collateral damage written about by Dewey over a 100 years ago.

Children need the opportunity to be actively involved in constructive play and have a very strong language base before being introduced in formal reading and writing. Starting these strategies will not harm boys.For example in Finland children do not start school until they are 7 but their education system produces students who are top in reading, mathematics and science in International tests.

In Finland reading and writing has been integrated strongly into other curriculum areas such as sciences, physical education, history and mathematics. This was also an approach common in creative classrooms in New Zealand before the changes of the 1980s and implicit in the 2007 New Zealand Curriculum ( a curriculum being put at risk by the current political imposition of National Standards.)

Boys, Irwin writes, are being turned off subjects because of the amount of copying, reading, or writing involved. Science was a subject area strongly based on investigation and experimentation.Now there are fewer scientific experiments and more reading and writing.

Boys, Irwin writes, have a natural curiosity ( and I would add so do girls) they love science, they want to experiment and learn. The science being taught today is not so much about experiments, as theories, and it is turning boys off a subject they once enjoyed.

An engaged boy Irwin writes, is a boy learning. We need to challenge a boys thinking by questioning.Questions such as " Why do you think that?" " How do you know?" get the boy to justify.'"What do you think will happen?" questions get him to predict."How did that happen get him to to be able to explain and discuss in full sentences their thinking, solutions and explanations.

These strategies are equally applicable to girls.

Boys, Irwin writes, also enjoy explaining their ideas through pictures and diagrams. Pictures and design are great thinking tools for boys. Once again I would add also the girls.

Irwin concludes by saying that our schools have become too prescribed in their learning and have become very language-laden from top to bottom. He continues, principals and teachers are overburdened with language: too many meetings, reports, memos, and other requirements are taking our teachers away from the core business of teaching.

Language is overburdening the classroom and boys are drowning in blah blah, blah. Our prescription driven, language-laden education is stressing out many of our teachers and resulting in many of our boys failing.

Irwin's book, 'Educating Boys; Helping Kiwi Boys To Succeed At School', would be well worth a full read. And not just about boys education!