Monday, April 25, 2011

Guest Post by Allan Alach - a 'must read' and share with others blog

My principal friend Allan sent me an e-mail that was so on the mark that I asked him to extend it into a blog. To my mind it is a piece of writing all teachers and schools should read -and then pass it on to as many other people as is possible.

Schools have two choices. To go along with the populist anti educational agenda of the current government, or to decide what is worth fighting for. A good decision to make on Anzac Day or Easter

So many schools seem to have given in just to get along - swallowing unthinkingly the superficiality of 'educational Easter Eggs'. Worse still many have become 'poster schools' for the Minister - and, in line with Easter, 'educational Judas Sheep'.

Loved your latest blog post, Bruce "Authentic Inquiry Learning - the focus for all classwork."

I wish there was a magic wand to get this message into all schools and into all teachers' heads around the country, and beyond them, our politicians. Sadly I fear we are losing the battle, bit by bit. The rot set in during the 1990s and seems to be spreading, in spite of the best intentions of the New Zealand Curriculum. I guess it hasn't helped having 'standards' imposed upon schools to meet yet to be announced political agendas. I used the quote marks, deliberately as labelling these vague statements as 'standards' is an oxymoron of the highest degree. Setting 'standards' aside, why are schools and teachers not taking advantage of the NZC?

It appears that there is a pervasive need for control of children's work in the classrooms. I was going to use the words pedagogy and learning, but to my mind, what we are seeing, and having imposed upon us, is not pedagogy, and has little to do with learning either.

Like you, I am at a loss why WALT is so predominant in classrooms, along with learning intentions and success criteria. This concept of telling children what they are going to learn, before even starting the learning experience, is illogical as well as pedagogically unsound. Trying to blend WALTs and LOs, into an authentic inquiry learning classroom, sounds to me like a definition of insanity - doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results. How can children genuinely be able to inquire and manage their own learning, when the use of WALTs and the like predetermine what they will learn and do?

I believe that politicians and schools and teachers need to feel in control of the learning programme is an underlying factor. Taking hands off the learning reins is somewhat daunting as it flirts with the potential loss of control of what children are learning and doing. This begs the question though, of whose learning are we talking about? The technocrats would have us believe that the teacher is responsible for learning, hence the need to structural teaching sequences, which leads inevitably back to testing and 'standards'.

This logic of this approach goes down a one way street, which is that a child's failure to learn must be the fault of the teacher in the first instance, and underpinning that, of the school. Going further down this street, this then leads to mechanisms that target teachers, and schools as it must their fault that a child fails to learn. Name and shame these schools? Let's set up league tables. That will make them lift their game. Maybe teachers of children who fail to learn are bad teachers and should be dismissed? What about their principals? Maybe its the school's fault so let's close it. USA here we come.

Less pessimistically, I believe that the great majority of teachers do hear your message about establishing authentic inquiry learning classrooms, but as to putting it into action, that's another story. There are many factors that I think make it difficult for these teachers, who have to juggle national and school requirements as well as providing a great learning environment. Schools and teachers are overwhelmed by never ending demands to change/implement new curricula, assessment routines, reporting systems and so on. These pressures tend to make teachers inherently conservative and reluctant to take risks, and who can blame them? Unfortunately, this can lead to teachers moaning and grumbling about work load, and resistant to change: "Please don't rock the boat because we're too busy".

Busy doing what, I wonder?

For a while now, I've been wondering why teachers are required ( or choose) to do running records on all children, especially older children. Most of these children are competent readers anyway, so why use a diagnostic, time consuming reading assessment on them? Fine for children whose reading is causing concern, although running records are primarily a test of oral reading, and as such are only indicative of what might be happening. As for using them as summative tools, why?

Where did this come from? Is this the best use of a teacher's valuable time? Wouldn't spending that time and energy on children's learning be far more productive? A similar argument can be made for the amount of teacher time and effort swallowed up by numeracy assessment.

The present 'standards' focus, which is merely a repacking of the 'back to basics' movement of twenty or so years ago, and which in itself was a repackaging of the 3Rs, inevitably leads to more and more teacher time being spent on 'assessing' and categorising learners, and correspondingly less time on fostering learning.

I've deliberately avoided using 'teaching' here. We teachers have been indoctrinated that kids need to be taught. That's not new, obviously, but it does fly in the face of educationalists going all the way back to John Dewey in the early years of the 20th century. Here we are, a century later, and Dewey's message is still overlooked. Why? There's a substantial amount of direct and indirect evidence that the bulk of children's learning isn't the result of 'teaching', or 'schooling' for that matter. Ivan Illich made this clear in the 1970s. Closer to home, Elwyn Richardson, nearly sixty years ago, provided very rich examples of children learning through environmental experiences

Richardson's pupils wrote very imaginative and expressive prose and poetry, without any need to be taught the formulaic processes and rules that are current, such how to write in different 'genres' such as procedures, narrative, reports and so on. Why 'teach' children how to write in such a formal way? Do children need to know how to write 'procedures' anyway? I'd rather they master the art of expressive and imaginative writing.

If learning how to write 'procedures' is desirable, why not pick the right time/place and incorporate this as part of a study, e.g. after developing, planting and maintaining a little garden, write that up as a set of procedures. That would then make this a useful tool, used in context, not something to be taught and ticked off. The same goes for all the other so-called 'genres' of writing.

I maintain that children who've mastered the art of writing will have little difficulty adapting this art to all kinds of requirements, with the bonus that their writing will be interesting to read as well as practical. Teaching writing like this equates, in my mind, to paint by numbers paintings. Well done, the results may look like art, but will never be art.It also can be likened to the traditional teaching of mathematics, where children learned the tools but rarely learned how to use these in 'real' life.

Reflecting on this, it seems to me that the educational world (here and overseas) is being split between those who focus on pedagogy, the whole child, and their educational needs for the 21st century, and the technocrats who try to break learning down into measurable bites. It doesn't take much more reflection to see which academics in New Zealand are pushing the measurable bites barrow, and how governments are using this for their own ends. Recently I read, and took exception to, the phrase 'value added' on a political blog. What exactly does 'value' mean when used in this context? What does 'value' mean in any context?

Underpinning this is the debate over the purpose of education. Is education a public good, in which case all citizens should be provided with the opportunities to develop all their potential abilities? Or is education a means to training people for the workforce, in which case citizens need skills based learning programmes?

Like you, I see dark clouds of doom gathering on the horizon, and we may be heading for a 'ragnarok' of our own, the last battle to protect what is so precious about New Zealand's primary school education. The introduction of 'Academy Schools' in England, and "Charter Schools' in USA, provides us with an insight into what we could be facing.

We have one very powerful weapon in our armoury. All schools must demonstrate the full wonder and excitement of 'authentic inquiry learning' programmes, to really establish the contrast between what is and what could be.

It's up to us

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Authentic Inquiry Learning - the focus for all classwork.

It was great to see a display to introduce a new study, and later for students to add to, during their inquiry/study/research into the times of early whaler Dicky Barrett. The group of teachers I worked with in earlier times aways introduced new studies with similar displays. To be honest it was an idea I picked from creative teachers when teaching in England decades ago.Sadly both in NZ and the UK such ideas have become less common.

Visiting classrooms these days often makes me feel sad to think of how much has been lost as schools turn themselves into testing and assessment organisations.

Teachers now seem obsessed with planning tasks for their students to do rather than co-constructing learning alongside their students -at the same time keeping in mind the 'big ideas' they want their students to gain from any study and the dispositions ( 'key competencies') or 'habits of mind' required to ensure they become 'life long learners'. It ought to be all about ensuring all students become 'seekers, users and creators of their own knowledge' as it says in the now sidelined 2007 New Zealand Curriculum.

When I visit a room I look for three aspects of the environment.

The physical environment which I like to imagine as a combined workshop, studio,art gallery, museum, media centre and library. I like the vision of classrooms being communities of scientists and artists exploring issues that interest them ( whether introduced as a part of the school programme or arising out of their own interests). I mentally remove anything from the walls that has not been created by the students themselves and I particularly look for language, art and research work that illustrates students thinking and personal 'voice'. Part of the physical environment are negotiated clear expectations for the days work.

If students are present I try to ascertain the emotional environment; the quality of the relationship between the teacher and the learners and between the learners themselves. Only when students feel safe, and trust their teachers, are they able to express themselves fully.

The third aspect is the quality of the content being studied by the students.
in classrooms I admire the current inquiry study provides the creative energy for students to base almost all their learning around. And in 'my' classrooms literacy and numeracy, while important, are seen as 'foundation skills' and, much as is possible, integrated into the current inquiry .

The last point is a key issue. These days I see teachers spending almost all their energy planning self contained literacy and numeracy programmes leaving little time for in depth inquiry and personal expression. Almost all the assessment emphasis is focused on these two areas and, as as a result, important learning in other content and expressive areas is being neglected.

Add to this a current obsession with formulaic 'best practice' teaching ( teaching intentions , WALTS, criteria)much of the work seen is 'thin' and lacks real research, personal 'voice' and creative diversity that ought to be seen. A subtle form of standardisation is now a feature of most rooms and this will be further exaggerated by the current imposition of National Standards. These 'standards' will simply add to the current school standards, or benchmarks, in literacy and numeracy already in place.

It is time teachers to begin to appreciate the point of being literate and numerate as abilities for students to make sense of and to express their experiences. And the best way to do this is to realise such basic skills is by using then in realistic contexts. Many creative people have learnt such basic skills with out attending schools and many in spite of it. Most school failure is the result of students not seeing the point of such skills.Ironically current 'heavy' disconnected teaching of such skills results in failure.

Learning is aways about engagement and doing fewer things well. Teachers need to appreciate that learning is the default mode of all students - hardwired at birth and available until dissipated by counter productive experiences including schooling.

Teachers need to place inquiry central to all their 'teaching' and to appreciate learning only 'sticks' if it makes sense to their students. It seems we are expert of 'turning off' the desire to learn by lacking the ability to 'turn students on'.

Real in depth inquiry, requiring appropriate skills, is the key to learning at all stages. And these skills are best learned as required ( 'just in time') and not provided to realize the school's agenda - or 'just in case teaching'.

It is time to put literacy and literacy advisers, and teachers who seem to focus on literacy in an unhealthy way, and an obsession with testing, to one side and get on with real teaching - or rather create the conditions for students to learn for themselves - it is what they were born to do.

Such people have done enough unintentional damage.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

On the road again!

Last year I traveled with Doug Hislop the editor of Education Today to visit New Zealand's 'top schools'. Before the edition was published we were often asked how did we decide on the 'top schools'? Pretty simple really - we travelled as far North as we could to Cape Reinga and Spirits Bay and visited the top four schools geographically! It was a long and insightful trip and the resulting article was well received. As a result we decided to visit the isolated schools along the East Coast from past Opotiki to Tolaga Bay. What we found provided more than enough for a whole magazine.

All last week we visited as many schools as we could traversing the Te Whanau a Apanui and Ngati Porou Iwi areas.

It is aways interesting 'cold calling' on schools and no more so than in visiting the isolated schools that dot the coastline from Opotiki to Gisborne. I think we visited over eighteen schools and our intention is for all the schools we visited to provide their own thoughts about any issue they feel inclined to. Our job will be to tie then all together to develop a coherent article.

The schools we visited were naturally a little wary of unannounced visitors and we were also confused with photo copier salesmen and architects! Our approach was to show them our previous article on our Northland visit and then to ask them would they like to contribute their own thoughts for a similar article. We also made it clear we were an independent magazine and did not go along with the 'top down Wellington' approach to learning and that we were strongly biased towards community based schools - schools that worked out their own destiny within agreed guidelines. When the schools saw that we were supportive then the hospitality was as you would expect.

We both hadn't visited the area since the 1980s. Earlier in the 70s ( straight from working in the UK) I was involved with Maori Art Advisers who were working on carving for Te Kaha Marae. Doug had been teaching in Gisborne -and surfing so he also had contacts to explore. Last year I held a couple of courses in Whakatane and during our trip I appreciated, when visiting Te Kura Raukokore, how far teachers in such areas travel to attend courses.

As we travelled along the coastline not only did we appreciate the magnificent scenery but we also began to appreciate that there were some important stories to share about education that would be worth telling. That distant Ministry technocrats could ever appreciate the circumstances of the schools we visited is a faint hope -and for such people to provide 'answers' impossible. The schools we visited ,although all catering for Maori students, were all as different as they were similar.The idea that National Standards will provide the 'answer' to their students' achievement is simply an idea with no real relevance. Indeed such imposed standardisation, we both believe, will distort the type of education that best fits the potential of the students we observed.

Schools we visited were all reaching out, to a greater or lesser degree, to develop a holistic integrated education that is more in line with the learning of earlier pre European days. In this respect they could provide models for mainstream school to develop true connected learning communities.

What we learnt was: the strong belief for students to learn about the history of the people of each area; the need to appreciate the immediate environment; the importance to develop a positive sense of identity in every student; to value students 'voice'; and the welcoming and making use of local expertise.

One thought we had was that if only the earlier 'Native School', whose role was to help Maori students be assimilated into European culture , had evolved to value the language and culture of the students themselves. This is now the vision of the schools we visited. As a result of earlier misguided central government policy there is a missing generation of people who have lost the use of the own language. It was inspiring to meet up with one eighty year old kuia who was helping young students learn te reo.

In the schools we visited learning was a total experience , one that connected schools with their own communities.

The journey of the schools to reach the horizons they had set for themselves was on the way. For some it has not been easy and it was obvious progress had been hard won. And it was equally obvious that future success would come from the schools themselves and that growth would need to focus on each school helping themselves and not by a one size fits all solution. That has been tried and has failed.

From what we saw local expertise is there to assist those in need, it just might need to be supported in some way.

We are keen to return.
Ka kite ano

Kia kaha

Friday, April 08, 2011

Creative education - the only alternative to current formulaic teaching

My well worn copy of Elwyn Richardson's inspirational book.Every creative teacher should acquire one -available from NZCER $22. Excellent value - it won't show how to do it but it will show you what can be done if you focus on valuing your students 'voice', lives and discoveries, and are prepared to work along side your students rather than 'teaching' them. As Elwyn writes 'they were my teachers as I was theirs, and the basis of our relationship was sincerity, without which, I am convinced , there can be no creative education'.

In my copy of the book I found the below article. I thought it worth sharing and have only slightly adapted it.It was first sent out in the 1970s to local schools by the Art and Craft Branch - in the days when advisers were advisers not Ministry delivery boys!

Thoughts about creative teaching.

Making things is an important and necessary phase of primary education. Further more it is natural for children It arouses and stimulates immediate and enlarging interests. The whole child pours into the effort and surrenders completely to the task. Teachers rarely see this sustained concentration in other areas of the curriculum.

The willing involvement of the learner is only the beginning of what is gained by such intense application. By making things important abilities are developed:

the ability to imagine
to feel
to summon the inventive mind to create
to discover the confidence to overcome obstacles
and to achieve, under helpful guidance, a piece of finished work that gives pleasure to the learner.

The creative process of making things is practice in what is man's chief accomplishment: the prolonged control of mind and body in making something that is considered worthy of his peer group.

The greater variety of materials with which the children have experience, the greater is their confidence of their ability to express ideas.

Children have two languages, the one they use and the more adult vocabulary which they understand but do not normally apply. However, as teachers talk to them about work that absorbs their complete attention, they quickly find the need for using a more mature speech. They may come to this in time but by making things, but with competent and friendly guidance their language growth speeds up. Developing skills in using such words, as they explain or inquire, becomes a necessity. In such a learning environment children move naturally into a swift acceptance of more mature language use.

A maturity of bearing comes to the student through such activities. The things the teacher has to offer have been around all the time but teachers help students really see them and learn to use them. This is the teacher's job but the teachers reward comes not entirely from skills that appear but from the gradual transformation of child-like, and even childish, behaviour into something finer - the control of thoughtless impulses and the quiet persistence that learners achieve as they work towards achieving well conceived goals.

In every school activity there are things to make. For example children involved in a colonial history study might learn about the importance of candles as one of the main sources of light. Out of this appreciation they learn how to make candles, make them, and later try them out in a dark room. In this way they can imaginatively enter, or gain a feeling for, the experience of the settlers they are studying. Their in-depth research might lead them to writing original songs, diaries, making water wheels, windmills and, by so doing, recapture something of the experience of those early settlers.

Children by this means practice some of the 'new' kinds of learning- experience -learning- research learning- sharing learning -learning though imagination - and invention and experimentation.This is creative education.

Such learning not only develop language facility but also results in:

the rapid absorption of mature attitudes
strong absorbing interests
the emergence of self initiated ideas
and a final product which provide learners with the confidence to try new things.

Wherever this kind of creative teaching is found it is evident that the teacher's main contribution is their own enthusiasm as co-learners.

Quality learning is not possible without a creative teacher. Through subtle directing the teacher keeps the whole activity going. Teachers show, through honesty and without flattery, their admiration for high personal achievement. They are patient with the slow learners and do not give approval to work that is shoddy. Quite often teachers withhold assistance to children in difficulty when they sense that the learner is working in the right direction sensing and will eventually achieve success through application and persistence.

The teacher's use of language, their confidence in the worth of students efforts ideas make such teachers a positive influencing personality in the classroom. Such teachers are at work all the time but their pupils may never be aware of it.

The spirit of the article above is what has driven me over the years and it is sad to see such creativity being sidelined by imposed by formulaic 'best practice ' teaching, and a 'Victorian' obsession with literacy and numeracy - an obsession that with imposition of National Standard will all but destroy such creative teachers.

I have faith that creative teachers will continue in these dark reactionary times and that creativity will once again be seen as the only way to the future.

Sunday, April 03, 2011

Creative teaching under threat from Ministry Audit Culture: Urgent Action Required - share with creative teachers!

It is dark days for creativity - the progressive reputation earned through the actions of creative primary teachers is now at risk.

Over the past years a demeaning audit culture has been imposed on schools and it is about to get worse. Under such a surveillance culture creativity cannot survive.

Please read what Kelvin Smythe and Lester Flockton have to say. And while you're there join to get his regular postings.

Schools themselves are often part of the problem by establishing their own audit cultures to develop consistent class programmes which, ironically, create anti creative learning environments.

As principals for their own survival , or worse, to look good to outside agencies, develop what some call 'a corrosion of character' - trying to double guess what others expect of them. National Standards are just part of this problem and it is worrying to see schools who believe they can live within them.

It is time schools stood up to the Ministry's educational Nazis - the anti Christs of creativity. We need to fight back against the educational Jesuits that profess to know what is best for young people who believe it is all about setting narrow targets in literacy and numeracy and being able to show positive variance.

This pseudo scientific approach based on linear thinking, efficiency,and predictability is nothing to do with real science which is all abut being comfortable with uncertainty. It more to do with the past, 'rear vision thinking', than an evolutionary future.

Schools need to take sides.Either to implement the sidelined 2007 New Zealand Curriculum or to comply and conform to approaches that are more about politics than education. Principals ought to lead, follow or get out of the way!

Personally I am no longer interested in working with schools that have 'sold out' -even if they have convinced themselves they haven't. A quick look at how they use their time and energy will soon indicate where their priorities are. Literacy and numeracy have , in such schools, become the 'default' curriculum.

Schools are in the same position as the United Kingdom was in 1939 when most people selectively ignored the growing threat of Nazi Germany. Only real leaders able to see the big picture. The times threw up Winston Churchill. We now need out own Winston Churchills in education - better still we need principals able to see behind their clear folders and their own schools' reputations to work together to fight the dark clouds of anti creativity on the horizon - or actually like a virus already in our schools disguised as 'best practices'.

Churchill said in 1939

'Owing to past neglect we are entering upon period of danger .
The age of procrastination,
Of half measures is coming to a close.
In its place we are entering a period of consequences.
We cannot avoid the period we are in.'

We need to confront the controlling and conforming standardisation coming from the Ministry and their contractual advisers.

We owe it to our students to develop all their gifts and talents - to develop all their potential - to ensure they all are the 'confident lifelong learner' the 2007 Curriculum asks of teacher.

We need to see schools , teachers as well as students as their own 'seekers, users and creators of their own knowledge'.

'A time comes when silence is betrayal' Martin Luther King

'Politicians are always wrong' - Michael Fullan.

Read what Kelvin Smythe has to say and share with others.