Monday, August 31, 2009

Kowhais too good to miss!

This is just a reminder for New Zealand teachers to ensure their students develop an awareness and understanding of the kowhai which is in full flower at present -although there seems a lots of individuality variety regarding flowering of kowhai.

What do students know about the kowhai? Are they able to identify a kowahi?

Visit a kowhai tree. While there students could record ideas to develop into a three line poem ( a simple version of a haiku). What are their thoughts about the flowers? the trunks and branches, and finally the petals lying on the ground.

If teachers pick a few flowers students, back in class, can be encouraged to complete observational drawings of a flower
. From this questions might emerge for students to research. Teach the 'secret' to drawing is to look carefully , then draw,and continue doping this until finished.

For science (and maths) carefully pull a flower apart to count how many petals their are. Help the students recognise the stamens ( the male part of the flower) and the stamen ( or female part -which grows into the pod). What are proper names for parts of a flower?

What is the scientific name for Kowhai? Why do plants have scientific names?
What other plants are in the same family ( think of plants with similar flowers which grow into pods)

What native bird is often found in the kowahi? What are they doing?

Answers to their research, there drawings and diagrams of the flower, could be developed into a research chart or displayed as part of a wall display.

For maths, other than recording the number of petals and stamens, tie a piece of wool to a flower that has shed all its petals and then record the growth of the pod. Students will be surprised at the speed of the growth of the pod.

If there are last season's pods to be gathered collect them and group then into tens and get group to count the number of seeds in pod ( percentages)

Soak plants in water and try to grow some seedling kowhais.

A great 'mini sudy' -whitebait.

A creative teacher should be aways on the alert for interesting things to introduce to his or her class. What do your students know about whitebait?

The whitebait season is with us once again. What do your children know about whitebait?

It would be great if you could acquire a few whitebait to keep in the class aquarium to study.If not access pictures of whitebait from the Internet of from reference books and make use of for research.

Whitebait make an interesting 'mini study'. Such a study could be part of the literacy programme and an opportunity to introduce research reading and writing to the class. A small research booklet could result and include observational drawing and diagrams.

First ask your students what they know about whitebait ( their 'prior ideas') and from this what questions about whitebait they can think of to research. Teachers could interact with their students to add question children might not think of - or wait because as the study progresses ( and students read up on whitebait) further questions will emerge.

Some questions might be:

Why do they have seasons ( introducing the idea of sustainability)?
What are whitebait? Children will discover there are several native species that collectively are called whitebait.

What is the life cycle of whitebait?

How do you catch them?
How do you cook them?

Some interesting maths could be developed around the cost of whitebait? How much do they cost each. Maybe the teacher could buy 200 grams so as to estimate how many in a kilogram!

Their answers to their questions could be drafted out and good copies placed in their study books or a small display could be mounted on the classroom wall.

In earlier days teachers would have called this a single animal study.There are possibly articles in school journals for students to refer to?

Time for a Transformational vision?

Lovelock writes that the environmental problems facing humankind are of the same seriousness of that facing Great Britain 1939!

It is at the ‘edge’ that all new learning occurs but it is not always a comfortable place to be. New ideas, in any area of life, are by their nature unsettling and to those in power can even be seen as heretical. Mind you, nothing wrong with heresy –all it means is having an alternative point of view.

I think now is the time for a bit of courageous heresy as the current government is determined to impose National Standards in schools no matter the professional opposition and even though NZ currently does well in International literacy and numeracy testing. The government is well aware that National Standards have a wonderful populist appeal, along with crushing boy racers cars and locking people up in prison. Interestingly NZ is currently second internationally to the USA for incarcerating prisoners – and we even have 20% more per head of population in prison than our neighbours the Australians. The government believes there is a connection between literacy, numeracy and imprisonment – this may be true but it is just too simplistic.

The implementation of National Standards will move NZ school away from the creative future that our ‘new New Zealand Curriculum was heading towards and will lead us back into the restrictive ‘Three Rs’ mentality of Victorian times. This reactionary shift, along with bulging prisons, will be the legacy of our current conservative government.

No one is arguing against literacy and numeracy although, if you listen to media commentators and newspaper editors, you would think no one teaches reading and maths these days. If anything the true is the opposite – literacy and numeracy in many schools have all but ‘gobbled up the entire curriculum’.

Thoughtful schools need to argue that literacy and numeracy need to be seen as ‘foundation skills’ necessary to allow all students to realize their gifts and talents and, in the process, their confidence to become ‘lifelong learners’. If schools are to be judged solely by their scores in literacy and numeracy (this is the spectre of ‘league tables’) this will divert teacher’s time and energy and narrow the curriculum. The argument ought to be that the real need for schools is to develop exciting and challenging programmes to tap into and amplify every student’s talents and for this to include literacy and numeracy. To judge achievement solely on reading and maths will be to demean many otherwise creative students. Do parents, if they were well informed, want this? Don’t they want schools to capture their children’s imagination and individual creativity? Have we asked them?

To develop innovative programmes, and to resist the temptation to narrow their curriculum, teachers will need courageous leadership from their principals and their collective organizations.

The alternative to inevitability of narrowing the curriculum is to put faith in the developing of exciting, authentic programmes to tap into and amplify all students’ innate desire to learn. There is no shortage of research to back up such a creative personalized approach to learning. New Zealand has been always well served by creative teachers, past and present, to provide inspiration for schools to follow. Research shows students engaged in such programmes do well on standardized testing. Powerful learners, driven by a need to explore challenging areas of interest in depth, become powerful readers as they ‘see the point’ of learning to read and do maths. In contrast the Ministry apologists, presenting the government’s position as part of their ‘consultation’ process, have little research to back up their hollow words and overseas examples fail to impress. This is simply populist politics determining policy.

To develop creative schools will require intellectual courage (or heresy) by principals and teachers. Without courageous leadership the vision of the ‘new’ New Zealand Curriculum, of developing all students as ‘confident creative life long learners’, is at risk. It is important for all to appreciate that the ‘new’ curriculum does not neglect literacy and numeracy but it does requires such learning to be achieved through meaningful contexts.

I recently read an enlightening paper by Andy Hargreaves called ‘The Fourth Way of Change: Towards an Age of Inspiration and Sustainability 2009’. Hargreaves’ paper is not only just ‘from the edge’ it also provides a ‘helicopter view’ of the past few decades to put things into perspective

His paper outlines the development of the ‘First Way’ – the creativity and freedom of the 60s remembered by some as the ‘golden age of education.’ Success or failure in those days depended on the ‘lottery’ of creative teachers and principals. As economic conditions worsened in the 70 and 80s a ‘market forces’ ideology was imposed on schools based on competition and choice resulting in standardized curriculums with their strands, levels, and the ‘measurable’ objectives, we are now leaving. This ‘Second Way’, with its almost incoherent curriculums, was found wanting in practice and ‘morphed’ into the ‘Third Way’ of the last few years with its more focused ‘targets’ and Ministry formulaic ‘best practice’ contracts. As a result of the ‘second and third ways’ there has been an erosion of professionalism with principals becoming more managers than leaders, and teachers more technicians following prescribed ‘best practices’. Education has been well and truly captured by a corrosive surveillance and accountability culture. Schools have learnt to be complaint rather than creative.

The current government’s National Standards, with their requirements to pass on data to the Ministry, is throwback to this controlling agenda of the ‘Third Way’. Schools, it would seem, have exchanged a ‘nanny state’ for an ‘Orwellian ‘big brother’ environment. The relentless emphasis on standardized testing in literacy and numeracy is an agenda which taps into the uniformed general public’s desire to return to the nostalgia of past certainties.

Hargreaves ‘Fourth Way’ is a ‘view from the edge’. He is calling for schools to be more innovative and creative. To succeed, he writes, will require the articulation of an inspiring and moral and sustainable purpose for education rather than a narrow literacy and numeracy one. To achieve this, Hargreaves believes, it is necessary to have a ‘Great Public Debate’ about the future of education in, say, 2020. This transformational approach, rather than compliance to the governments top down imposed standards, is the future schools and their communities should fight for. Hargreaves suggests the need for networks of like-minded schools, and the development of partnerships with parents and students, to work together and to share ideas; tapping the expertise that lies within school communities.

I am with Hargreaves. We need to develop a new coalition between the wider community and the schools. Education needs to be seen as the responsibity of all – not just to be determined by the short term vision of politicians and for the ‘achievement tail’ to be solved by schools alone.

Hargreaves sees creative teachers as the ‘ultimate arbiters of change’ and the key to his ‘Fourth Way’. ‘The classroom door’, he writes, should be seen as a ‘golden gateway’ rather than a ‘drawbridge’. Our new curriculum is such a ‘golden gateway’ but will only be realized if teachers have the courage to stay with it. Unfortunately the imposition of the National Standards has the potential to encourage the opposite – for teachers and schools to ‘pull the drawbridge’ up for their own survival and, in the process, narrowing the ‘rich’ educational opportunities our students deserve.

The ‘Fourth Way’, based on teachers and their communities creating teaching and learning programmes, offers a creative alternative and a real opportunity for the expression of professional leadership. This is in direct in contrast to the demeaning current depressing scenario of compliance.

Such a transformational vision is definitely a powerful view from ‘the edge’ but, as Einstein wrote, ‘Unthinking respect for authority is the greatest enemy of truth.’

Are school leaders, and their communities, up to the challenge

Monday, August 17, 2009

Two great books

Two books worth having on the teachers shelf.One for principals and teachers- the other for teachers and principals.

'Teaching the Best Practice Way' by Harvey Daniels and Marilyn Bizar ( Stenhouse Publishing 2005)is a very practical book and it's approach very much in line with the New Zealand Curriculum. The authors present seven basic teaching structures that make classrooms more active, experiential, collaborative, democratic , and cognitive.Each chapter begins by describing one key method and follows up with practical classroom examples from early childhood to high school.

The key methods they explain are not new and creative teachers will recognise them all. This book is and updated version and in this edition the authors have placed Reading as Thinking first believing that it is the key to achieving integrated learning. 'Reframing' reading to contribute to inquiry learning is a vital emphasis - introducing content, exploring 'prior' ideas and teaching information and research skills.

Other chapters cover Representing to Learn - ways of expressing what students have discovered; Small Group Activities; Classroom Workshop model; the need for Authentic Experiences; Reflective Assessment and finally Integrative Units.

All together a very practical book for teachers who want to place inquiry central to their programmes.

The second book 'Powerful Learning' by Linda Darling Hammond and others ( published Jossey Bass 08) explores the research about what we know about teaching for understanding. It covers much the same territory as the book above ( project based learning, interdisciplinary learning, performance based assessment and co-operative learning) but focuses on the importance of an inquiry approach in three major subject areas - reading and literacy, mathematics, and science.

This book, while it also has practical examples to share, focuses on the research backing up active inquiry approaches. It begins with describing the principles of effective teaching:

1 The need to value students' prior knowledge.
2 the need to help students organise and use knowledge ( the NZ Curriculum's 'seek, use and create knowledge')
3 And that students learn best if understand how they learn and how to how to manage their own learning ( this align to the 'key competencies of the NZC).

The first chapter extensively describes the research about how to teach for inquiry learning to support 21stC skills. It covers range of well known inquiry approaches.

The second chapter describes in detail the kind of literacy teaching that supports inquiry learning that lead to in depth understanding. The chapters on mathematics and science likewise. The final chapter focuses on research about how to create schools to teach for understanding.

Both the books are an antidote for much of the shallow inquiry teaching seen in our schools. All too often classrooms seems to feature walls covered with various thinking skill processes and models.Some call this 'Higher Order Thinking'(HOT). All too often , however, it is all process and no in-depth content understanding.'Higher Order Thinking for thin learning'.

Real inquiry must be based on students being involved in exploring real content which naturally requires an inquiry process ( inquiry competencies are the shadow of real learning).

Involving information literacy and active mathematics and science into the equation is vital if schools are to become true communities of inquiry.

Very few schools are.

These are two book that would put some serious learning into inquiry pr grammes.

Saturday, August 15, 2009

Oruaiti - the genesis of creative teaching.

I am off next week to present to the North Auckland Principal's Conference and it seems appropriate to give thought about the innovative creative teaching that emerged out of a small Northland rural school Oruaiti. The school's principal was Elwyn Richardson New Zealand's premier pioneer creative teacher.

I will be within a short car drive from Oruaiti school next week. It is an opportunity for me to reflect on the writings of 1950s pioneer creative teacher and principal Elwyn Richardson. Elwyn's ideas have been a life long inspiration to me and are exactly what New Zealand teachers need to give thought to if they want to value creative teaching.

In the forward to Elwyn’s publication 'In The Early World' John Melser writes that the book, ‘gives a vivid picture of a school full of vitality in the pursuit of values deeply rooted in the children’s lives and capable of serving them lifelong’. ‘Oruaiti School’, Melser continues, ‘functioned as a community of artists and scientists who turned a frank and searching gaze on all that came within their gambit. Curiosity and emotional force led them to explore the natural world and the world of their feelings…..Studies and activities grew out of what preceded them. New techniques were discovered and skills practiced as each achievement set new standards.’

From such environmental inquiries Elwyn’s students learnt answers, Melser writes, to the question ‘who am I? They gained respect for their and others achievements, taking great pride in their craftsmanship or artistry.’ It was a form of disciplined personalized learning set in a ‘community of artists and scientists.’ Elwyn’s work was based on an awareness of the natural world involving careful scientific observation and a demand for personal and excellence of their ideas in whatever medium used.

Elwyn’s role in achieving personal and artistic excellence was a delicate and encouraging one, always humbly ready to learn from the children. Elwyn has written elsewhere that ‘the children were his teachers as much as he was theirs’. The results were certainly not the standardization of product that one sees today; the result of over teaching. Believing in high standards to Elwyn each new creative product mattered as much as the process.

Elwyn, along with all the other creative teachers I have had the privilege of working with, responded to all children’s efforts and achievements with sincere interest and pride. His book is a testament to his love of children’s ideas and imagery and, the respect he gave their work, respect that was returned in kind to Elwyn. Elwyn gave his students Melser writes, ‘an opportunity to reach their full heights as artists, as craftsmen, as scientists, and as students’ in a ‘community of mutual respect’.

As mentioned It is this vision of creative teaching that has inspired me and one reinforced by the all the creative teachers I have seen over the years.

His ideas are to be found in his inspirational book ‘In the Early World’ first published by the NZCER in 1964 (reprinted 1994).

Monday, August 10, 2009

Heresy:learning doesn't have to centre around the curriculum.

One of the best 'emerging' lessons I have seen happened when one of the year one students showed his teacher his orange which was just beginning to decay with mould.This set off an interest in such things and for a while the classroom looked like it was the centre for rotting fruits and vegetables. A spectacular pumpkin took centre place. Students did regular drawing of the orange to follow the process.Digital cameras would have been useful.

Our new curriculum says that 'intellectual curiosity' is the source of all learning. If this is the case then the role of the teacher is, as Jerome Bruner wrote, to practice the 'canny art of intellectual temptation.'

Children are born with a disposition to learn. In the early year they are the closest thing to a pure scientist we have. Unfortunately only a few adults manage to leave formal schooling with this passionate sense of curiosity intact - individuals who are happy to work at the edge of their competence, pushing themselves into unknown areas that have captured their attention. For too many students, such a passion to know, has been blunted or ignored by teachers busy with their curriculum plans. And, all to often, such questioning students are a plain nuisance - their teachers claiming they do not 'pay attention' ( to them) .After all who wants kids to keep asking questions all day?

Well I do. I believe it is possible, if schools really were learning centred, to develop a powerful curriculum that arises, or emerges, out of students curiosity and, all the more so, if teacher set out to develop environments to capture students' attention.

It boils down to a lack of trust in our students or perhaps a feeling that as adults we ( as defined by distant experts) know what is best for them to learn.

I am not saying that I believe children would simply learn by themselves. I take Bruner's idea of 'intellectual temptation' seriously and believe teachers should develop learning situation to encourage their students to explore all the learning areas, or disciplines, and in the process 'learn how to learn'. I envisage (and have seen) classrooms full of displays, artifacts, and technology that few children could resist the temptation of involving themselves. The traditional skills of literacy and numeracy would still be vital to ensure all studnts are able to, as it says in the curriculum, 'seek, use and create their own knowledge'.

An intuitive teacher can easily encourage students, through by the provision of such temptations, to involve themselves. Then, by coming alongside the students, discover their questions, prior ideas and current explanations ( theories). In such classrooms any number of exploration might be taking place, some by individuals but more often by groups of students. Interests are contagious and students do like working together.

The teachers role would be to ensure students develop the habit of learning in depth by 'doing fewer things well'. By this means a depth of understanding would be gained as well as an appreciation of the social and personal competencies required to work together. Students would need to be helped with time and resource management so as to share the equipment and other resources.

This integrated project based, or inquiry learning, approach provides relevance, reality and rigor to learning too often missing in our schools. To be done well the 'artistry' and sensitivity of the teacher is central. Such teachers need to value the questions, ideas, research and creations of their students.

It is the students' questions ( helped by a bit of Bruner's 'canny intellectual temptation') that provide the real curriculum.

All this is entirely possible but only if the right conditions are in place. Trusting students can only succeed if teachers are also trusted. There are a number of educationalists, from John Dewey to James Beane, who write supporting such an approach but more importantly it has been successful with creative teachers over the decades.

This is not an easy way of teaching but it is creative and fun and echoes the natural way students learn.
Any success would need be judged not only by what teachers and students create together but most of all by the attitudes towards learning, and each other,shown by the students. A walk around such a classroom ( or better still a whole school) would soon indicate the success or other wise of such an approach.

I would bet on it.

Friday, August 07, 2009

Developing a creative mindset

After a visit to a patch of bush year 3/4 students re-imagined, with teacher help, ideas to develop into paintings. No one painting looked alike even though they all had the same theme - paint a big tree with vines, nikau palms, tree ferns etc. The teacher concerned focused on ensuring all students developed their own interpretations.

All students can be helped to develop their imagination, or creativity, if their teachers think it is important.

There are strategies teachers can use to help develop such creativity.

Creative people, by nature, do not aways leap into the first or most obvious solution; they look around the problem and explore less immediate possibilities. This comes easier for some children but all students can improve their creativity with assistance. Students should be encouraged not to just accept the ordinary answer but to look for something new. They should be encouraged to experiment before committing to action. In the area of art being exposed to adult artists that express the same idea in different ways broadens students outlooks. School journals provide images to refer to. It is important for students to appreciate their art should express their individuality.

Teachers who take too seriously success criteria unfortunately limit such creativity. Van Gogh would find it difficult to survive in some classrooms.

As an example, as a part of an ecological study of a piece of bush, students might undertake a major painting task.

After the bush visit, students can be asked to remember sensory details and then to sketch what they saw. They can first be encouraged to think about the large trees seen ( they may even have digital photos, or drawing done on site, to refer to). They can be encouraged think about the bark patterns, the shapes of climbing and perching plants and then to consider the spaces in between - the tree ferns and nikaus palms, and finally the plants growing on the floor of the forest. All these ideas can be sketched out on a small piece of paper as a draft.

From such a draft an outline for a painting can be drawn out lightly, later to be painted - starting with the large tree and adding details until finished.

Finished pieces of art, as a result of such a process, are the result of observation taken during the visit and remembered back in class and imaginative interpretations. Vivid memories are the basis of future imagination.

When displayed the resulting works of art ought to be as different as the children themselves
.If they all look the same then imagination may have been sacrificed for quality.

What do students learn if all their work looks the same!

Tuesday, August 04, 2009

Teaching and the creative process

To create a clay dinosaur the young artist (age 9)had to have some idea of what she wanted to make before she started and then have the skills to shape the idea in clay and finally to glaze the model.In this last process the young artist had the help of an adult potter who knew about glazes and resulting colours. The result, when it emerged from the kiln, was a moment of real excitement - a transformational experience.

Creativity is a word often heard in classrooms but, all too often, what is called creative is often derivative or , through over teaching, the results for all students much the same. Quality maybe but not creativity.

Creativity is all about making choices and the results should reflect the 'voice' or individuality of the students whether a piece of writing, art, or scientific report.

And although there are steps to be taken most of the important decision are made intuitively as the artist becomes engrossed in the 'flow' of the process.

This is best seen in the process of painting. A conventional artist knows what they want to paint before they start and hold to their original intention until finished. By holding onto preconceived notions, without responding, the painting will lack a sense of creativity.

This is the case with much of the art ones sees in school where teacher work from pre-planned intention or defined criteria.

Original artists , with equal technical skills, start with a deeply felt needs but they are prepared to modify their goal as the painting unfolds in response to the unexpected colours and shapes emerging.The finished work may not even resemble the original intention.

Such an artist is responsive to their inner feelings and know intuitively what they want as the painting 'emerges'.

The appreciation of the importance of making choices, while involved in the process is, in is any area of learning, vitally important if we really value developing students with creative mindsets.

Creative people start with an often vague idea of what they want to accomplish and are prepared to discover as they go along using feedback gained in the process to suggest new developments. To work like this a person must have knowledge of the area involved and the confidence to be able to cope with open ended situations by choosing or discarding the right elements.

Creative leaders and teachers work in the same way.Unfortunately this is all too often in conflict of those who 'manage' schools or who teach in school systems that hold on to the limiting desire to measure a narrow range of standards. Teachers, who teach in such uncreative situations, will resort to 'painting by numbers' or 'teaching to the tests'.

The role for teachers, or leaders, who understand the creative process, is to create the conditions to encourage ideas to 'emerge'.Teachers can help people with idea generation, particularly those who have lost the confidence, to take responsibility for their own actions.

As the process unfolds , by means of 'learning conversations', teachers can help their students focus on the important things
but aways only as much as is needed to keep the 'flow' going. Even encouraging people just to make a start and then to keep what works is valuable. Appreciating the creative process is a messy one is important for both learners and teachers as is the need to encourage the perseverance and 'stickability' to keep going.

Students should be helped to assess their work as it progresses and teachers can introduce idea they 'could' ( not should) think about.

When the creative process is understood all students can develop creativity and classrooms should celebrate and reflect the diversity of ideas and styles of the students.

If anything is done really well, to the point that the results 'surprise' the students, then this feeling of success can literally transform the attitudes of the students themselves.