Wednesday, January 24, 2007

Developing student 'ownership' in their learning.

'Pathways to Participation' by Harry Shier. Full article in Middle School Review Issue2 November 2006
Harry Shier has worked in Nicaragua for the last five years.Prior to this he worked for 25 years in the formal education system in England. His ideas were originally published 2000 in a respected journal called 'Children and Society '. In this article for MSR he revisits his ideas about developing student ownership in their own learning.
We ought to be thankful for the editor, of the recently published Middle School Review MSR, for tracking down and inviting Harry Shier to contribute to the second edition of their magazine.
Shier believes that young people must be listened to and supported to express their views and that their views ought to be taken into account in all decisions that effect them.
To assist in this Shier has developed his three levels of 'Pathways to Participation' format.
Shier's views are in contrast to most teachers everywhere who, he says , 'give a high priority to maintaining authority', by which he means, 'control over their students'. This is the reason why, he says, 'schools rarely have been in the forefront to promote children and young peoples participation in decision making.' Many teachers have, what he calls , a stereotypical teachers 'mindset' that says, 'the children are here in school like it or not, and it is my job to make them learn.My success is measured in terms of how much I can make them learn - by any means necessary.' In an achievement orientated world this will sound familiar to most teachers.
In contrast the teachers 'mindset', he says, ought to be, 'The children are here because they want to learn...My job is to recognise their desire to learn, and work with them to facilitate their learning to the best of my ability.' 'It is important for teachers to recognise it is not the teaching that's important, it's the learning'. And the learning is students' learning not learning imposed by teachers.
Shier asks if this second scenario is inevitable, ' or is it possible to change it; to give back to the learner the ownership of his or her learning process, and make the teacher-student relationship a functional partnership in which both work together to facilitate, guide and enrich this process?'
Shier believes it is possible to give young people more say in their own education and that this will lead to, 'improvements in both the atmosphere and the learning environment of the school and that positive educational outcomes will follow.'
Shier's Pathway to Participation provides a practical means for teachers to identify the and enhance the level of young children's participation. It allows adults to ask: Where do we stand? Where do we want to get to? What do we need to do to get there? There are five level of participation going from, children are listened to, to children share power and responsibility for decision making. Each level has three stages of commitment. The full diagram is available in the MSR magazine.
The three levels are called : 'openings', 'opportunities' and 'obligations'. The first asks, 'are you ready?' The second asks are you using the ideas? The final ( after a consensus by the staff) establishes an obligation or agreed policy. At this final stage all teachers are expected to operate in this way. It becomes, 'the way we do things we do things around here, i.e. part of the school culture'.
At each level a simple question is asked at the 'opening' stage, the answer gives the teachers present position, or practice, and easily identifies the next step (the 'opportunity').The final (the 'obligation') locks the practice in.
In reality, Shier writes, 'teachers are more likely to deny students developmentally appropriate degrees of responsibility rather than force responsibility on them'. As with any innovation the process and the outcomes should be monitored so that adjustments can be made.
Shier is convinced, and I agree with him, 'that it is almost always beneficial to increase the level of student participation, provided the people are prepared for change, ( and it is vital that students are also prepared for change) and the changes well planned and implemented.'
Innovative businesses have long realised the potential of empowering their workers. It is time that schools realised this power of participation as well
Harry Shiers site:

Middle School Magazine - is the Minister confused?

This is the second edition of MRS ( Middle School Review); a new educational magazine focused on celebrating the special character of early adolescent students.
Edited by Pat Nolan, a long time supporter of Middle School education, this new magazine is a welcome addition to the educational debate in New Zealand. It is also great to see an educational magazine with a sharp sense of visual design.
I look forward to seeing their next edition as it is to address topics directly related to the 2006 Draft Curriculum but edition two is well worth a read.
There is no doubt that there is a real need to focus on students in the 'middle years', however they are defined, as a growing lack of engagement of students , particularly in years 8 to 10, is a world wide concern. Some have called middle schools the 'muddle in the middle' not certain if they are an extension of a primary approach to teaching or the subject specialism of secondary schools - a sort of educational 'no mans land'!
The aim of the magazine is to provide a forum to, 'challenge conventional wisdom' and share best practice to develop young people to become 'active and responsible persons' able to construct new knowledge, solve complex problems, and integrate concepts and ideas across disciplines and subjects. The ideas of, 'active, inquiry, experiential and process orientated pedagogy and co-constructed curricula', although well suited to the middle school level, would seem to me to be an extension of primary 'best practice' and a challenge to the fragmented specialist secondary approach, as does the tenant of the 2006 Curriculum draft.
The fragmented, subjected centred uncoordinated demands of secondary schools are seen, by contributor James Beane, as a reason why so many students 'lose their way both educationally and socially'. Beane writes that middle school teachers, 'should work collaboratively in teams to create a coherent curriculum' to engage students and that such a curriculum should be, 'integrated around themes that are meaningful for early adolescents'.
Developing such a 'progressive and student centred' approach for this age group, Beane writes, even though the case for this approach is well established, has not been easy. He writes it is all to open to uninformed criticism, meeting resistance by 'upper middle class parents and professionals, whose children have been favoured by such structures' ( ability streaming and specialist teaching).
With this in mind it was interesting to read an article by Minister of Education Steve Maharey. Most of his article talked about, 'transforming' our system, 'to tailor learning to individual students and to meeting their needs, not the other way round' , about a 'personalisation of learning' agenda to 'replace the current 'production line model of schooling' where, he says, 'either students fit the the system or else they fail to achieve'.
After encouraging middle schools to consider how, 'the curriculum must proceed from the primary years', he outlines the importance of : ' the ability to learn' and keep learning'; the need to 'assisting young adolescents to explore real issues issues and concerns in-depth'; 'effective teaching practices such as interdisciplinary teaming of teachers'; and 'integrative teaching programmes that link knowledge , skills and understandings across subject boundaries' he makes comment about the development of stand alone middle schools for Year 7 to 10 students as a positive option.
Of all things he writes that such schools 'may well take the on a predominantly secondary orientation, as they prepare students for the transition to senior schooling and NCEA.' Such schools, he continues , 'may need to work very much like a secondary school in their third and fourth years, with specialised teaching ...rather than being an extension of an intermediate school.'
Is this confused thinking or placating the political pressure of traditional secondary schools and conservative parents (voters)?
These thoughts seem a contradiction to earlier statements in his article. Then, to further confuse the issue, he concludes by recommending approaches remarkably like those of the magazine. The Minister's thoughts seem to refute, 'the need for a common mindset for about how best to teach and support young adolescents' ( Haque 2006 NZQUA Chief Executive)
The magazine includes an editorial response to a comment by the president of the PPTA who was critical of the need for middle schools which. When I read her comments it seemed like a simple case of 'turf protection' and totally ignored the growing problems secondary schools are having to 'engage' students they were never designed for
Lets hope the editor challenges the Minister to clear up the confusion he seems to have created.
I look forward to the next edition.
Other Middle school magazines:

Tuesday, January 23, 2007

Developing our identity in the 21st

The world is changing dramatically and, as we begin the new millennium, maybe it is time for us as a nation, as communities and as individuals, to reflect on where we have come from, where we are now, and what we might become. And possibly, more importantly, who exactly are the 'we'?

All countries 'invent' myths which effect how they see or imagine things to be. How these myths are created are worth thinking about.

Not withstanding that Polynesian navigators reached our shores centuries ago until recently 'our' history seems to begin with European discovery. Tasman arrived and left in 1642 and it was left to James Cook in 1769 to spread the idea in England of this 'new land'.

The first settlers brought with them the myth of a paradise in the south pacific. Reality developed new insights of heroic settlers taming the land and New Zealand as an outpost of the British Empire. Ideals of egalitarianism were a strong element that developed in these times. The struggle struggle to tame the land eventually led to conflict with the Maori who increasingly were becoming at risk economically and culturally by European immigration.

Eventually as the bush was cleared New Zealand became big farm to supplying the 'motherland' with wool , cheese, butter and, with refrigeration in 1882, meat. It was 'God's Own Country' and there were times of great prosperity. Myths of rural values of effort, community spirit and identity with the land were developed, but home was still thought of as home counties.

In all this there was a neglect of Maori culture. It was a euro centric world - and a masculine one as well. Last century strengthened New Zealand identity through the heroics of Gallipoli, WWW1, and WWW2. The depression of the 30s led to the development of the welfare state and the emergence to the 'cradle to the grave myth'.

New Zealand was not immune to challenge, liberation and creativity of the 60s. As Bob Dylan sang, 'Times, they are a changing.'

With the growth of the European Common Market , New Zealand was 'cut off' and forced to develop an independent nationality.

While European New Zealanders suffered an identity crisis, with the loss of British ties, there was a Renaissance in Maori culture and new settlers from the Pacific and elsewhere began to claim their place in an emerging twentieth century New Zealand.

Recently 'we' have just emerged out of a 'Market Forces' myth. A myth based on extreme self interest to rid 'us' of the 'welfarism of the nanny state'. Like all myths it held the seeds of its own destruction; the so called 'level playing field' created more losers than winners.

With the advent of modern information technology time and space has now been compressed. Forces of globalisation are ironically creating a need to develop greater national and regional identity. New Zealand's survival is no longer guaranteed.

So who are 'we' to be in the 21stC? Or, rather, who could 'we' become? Should we just leave this to chance, politicians or the media? What might be the myths, values and beliefs about ourselves that we could all 'buy into'.

What we need is a national conversation to bring to the surface ideas that will help us thrive as a country in the 21stC. We have strong imagery to build on.

We are a country at the edge of the world. One thinker believes we could be at the 'cutting edge' of creativity, the 'learning edge' , a country that values the talents and creativity of all citizens.

We could build on and celebrate our cultural diversity as a real strength as shown in teams such as the All Blacks and in the arts.

We could decide to lead the world in sustainability and build on our image as a clean green country - an image that is somewhat undeserved.

If we were to move in these directions things would have to change.

We might have to think of developing new versions of democracy that places empowerment at the lowest levels; we might have to totally re imagine our education system so as to develop the talents of all students; we might have to value the various cultures that now live in in New Zealand; and we might have to take seriously moves to improve and sustain our environment.

We have great opportunities ahead but they will only be realised if we set about develop a new identity of ourselves and our country as a 'attractive' creative society.

In the meantime most of our organisations and institutions are still struggling in structures with their genesis in past euro centric industrial, or agricultural, myths.

How will others see us in the future? It is over to all of us!

Wednesday, January 17, 2007

Put a bit of Zen in your life or teaching!

Learning to enjoy what is around you.
Educating the senses
We live in a world of haste, stress, and instant everything that filters out many of our daily sensations. The twentieth century has been the most visually stimulated the world has ever known and this stimulation will no doubt continue to increase. This has resulted in people who look but do not see and in turn miss out in appreciating the wonders the world presents to them.
Holidays are a time to recharge our batteries, to take the time to just enjoy our experience for their own sake and, in the process, develop our depleted sensory capabilities.
It was interesting to read that even at business conferences members were asked to take the time before breakfast ( the conference is set in a wilderness areas) to go outdoors and find a suitable place to sit alone for an hour or so and to reflect on what they can see and what it makes them think about. Members were asked to choose whatever aspect of nature that appeals to them - a tree, a stream, stones, waves, seagulls. All they were asked to do was to engage in a 'internal dialogue' with whatever was chosen and then to jot a few thoughts to share with others.
To our modern minds, conditioned by scientific rationalism, this might seem to many as a waste of time but throughout history experiences of spending time alone in the wilderness has proved insight to 'wise' individuals.
The secret to gaining such insight is to focus totally on the aspect of the experience you have chosen so as to become more sensually aware of it and to allow for connections and thoughts to emerge. It is important to just let impressions enter the mind naturally through the senses as we are all conditioned by our previous experiences.
By sitting quietly a deeper consciousness develops and our imagination allows us to develop ideas we might never have been aware that we were possible of thinking. To capture such insights making a few notes or drawing assists - a digital camera is ideal to capture aspects that attract your attention.
Most people who experience such focused observation report an intensity of feeling , of a sense of time standing still.
To be 'mindful' of the environment it is useful to focus on the various senses; creative teachers have aways made use of such sensory 'education' . Focus on what you can see - not so much things but qualities such as, moments, shapes, forms,textures, and colours; and think of metaphors or phrases that try to capture poetically what you are thinking.
Seeing is simply a matter of keeping your mind and attention open long enough to observe what is around you. Such focusing turns your mind away from other things that all to often pre occupy us. Shut your eyes and listen to sounds far away and close up. Feel with your hands - and, on holiday, bare feet. Smells , it seems, are powerful means to tie experiences to our minds.
Such activities are valuable not only just for their own sake, as an antidote to our normal busy distracted lives, but they are also the sources of individual creativity.
Many creative ideas have been developed by people who have practiced such sensory reflection and observation - Leonardo da Vinci comes to mind.
Give thought about how you can tap into your students experiences when you return back to your class. Your students' experiences are too important to be ignored but, worse still, if we don't focus on acknowledging them these sensory facilities and associated creativity will be lost to them. Creativity is the process by which new unique patterns are conceived and expressed. Any one can be creative but only if an openness to experiences is valued.
So use the holidays to to tone down your rationale minds and let some new ideas enter. And keep applying the lessons learnt in your day today work or wherever you are. It will make a world of difference. And when stressed find time to be alone in nature - sitting, walking , fishing, unwinding. Maybe by doing this you will feel less stressed and even think of new ideas but, most importantly, you might become aware of the need to protect and celebrate our environment.

Tuesday, January 16, 2007

Education is about identity.

Painting by artist Peter Siddell

A few years ago I listened to a radio discussion about what makes a 'kiwi' (a New Zealand identity).

One of the contributors told a story to make his point.He said he had a cousin who drove a tourist bus mainly taking Americans around. As he passed a pa site ( Maori fortification) he said to the tourists that his ancestor beat the British there, as they passed a second site he said another ancestor beat the British there as well - this went on all morning until finally an American tourist said, 'Say man, did the British ever beat the Maori?'.The bus driver replied quickly, 'Not while I'm driving the bus!'.

The listeners were left to make up their own interpretation but it was clear it was about the bus drivers pride in his own culture and as a story teller. And of course the message that whoever tells the story 'owns' the history. So it was all about identity and sense of personal voice. These are two things that are not often thought about in our school system busy 'teaching' students lots of things they often don't want to know about and in the process ignoring the students own experiences and culture.

Personalisation of learning would seem to provide the answer but it seems to mean different things to different people.To some it seem like just working with students as individuals to get them to learn what is being prescribed. For others, and this includes myself, it is placing the learners needs as central and doing everything to assist the students develop their own particular set of gifts and talents so as to develop their own unique learning identity.

'A classroom if it is to be truly successful must value and respect the ideas , viewpoints and interests of it's students' writes author Bill Clarkson in his book 'Unique Perspectives'. He continues, 'When students are genuinely engaged in their learning and pursuing things that interest them the way they respond to and express their learning will be unique.' He writes, 'What is at stake is crucial to the extent that it may determine whether or not the learner will be able to develop as an independent and creative thinking individual in control of their own identity and chosen path in life.'

This personalization is not what I see when I visit even the best of primary classes. All to often students are happily involved in developing ideas ( these days called 'intentions') given to them by their teachers ( to be assessed as 'achieved') rather than focusing on their own interpretations.

In a classroom really focused on developing each students learning identity I would expect to read personal writing around student self chosen themes - honest writing based on their experiences making full use of their sensory impressions and feelings. Instead I see writing tailored to fit into pre set criteria - and achieving the criteria seems more important than the power of the story itself! I would expect to see a range of observational and expressive art reflecting the individual style of each student - instead I see 'quality' art which all looks the same - once again restricted by pre set criteria and 'over teaching'. When it comes to student studies the same thing applies. Missing are studies 'emerging' from the students concerns and interests and, even in class studies, their questions, prior ideas, their particular points of views, their contributions to planning, presenting and evaluating their own ideas, are missing.

'Children', Bill Clarkson writes, can only be, 'expected to develop a strong sense of place, or real appreciation of where they live', if they are, ' able to investigate and learn about their neighbourhood, it's history, and natural environment'.

He writes, 'this requires a genuine desire to know and what a child thinks and why', and he says, the teachers role is, 'help children develop, clarify, modify and extend their ideas'. The interface between the students and teachers, he says, can be called an 'interactive dialogue'.

It seems if we really want personalized learning we will have to start listening to students stories and create an environment to allow students to express their real 'voice' and questions. At stake , Bill concludes his book , 'is development of the child as an independent, creative, thinking individual.'

There is nothing wrong with being a bus driver but one wonders what the driver could have been if he had experienced an education that valued him for who he might become that trying to make him into who he could never be by denying his culture and 'voice' in his own education?

If any one is interested in Bill's book I have a few copies available( $20 posted) Email me at Full of practical examples of personal and investigatory writing.

There are lots of ideas about personal writing and interactive teaching on my site

Sunday, January 14, 2007

Crossing the Ideological divide

Combining structured basic skills and integrated learning approaches at the Middle School lower Secondary rather than either/or.

The organisational structures determined by traditional subject specialism, where teachers 'deliver' learning to students, is seen by many 'innovative' educators as the issue that limits the educational potential of many students.

The trouble is that the alternative of integrated cross- curricular problem based education, where students are 'advised' by team of teachers who work collaboratively to 'design' learning experiences, is just too big a leap for many schools to make.

To add support to the status quo, even if the teachers were willing to innovate, conservative parents support traditional secondary schooling . As a result school are loath to experiment for fear of losing this parental or community support. As well many schools lack the leadership to introduce more innovative practices even if they had staff who are willing to try.

Where schools have made such a shift it is usually when new schools have been established with leadership and a hand picked staff all aligned behind a clearly thought out philosophy. Such schools have the added advantage of not having to confront conservative traditions and, as well, have specially designed building suitable for new approaches.

So it is not easy to make such changes even though too many students lack 'engagement' in their education in years 9 and 10 age groups. The transitions from full primary or middle schools to the more specialist and fragmented teaching of a secondary school is a difficult one, particularity for the 'non academic' learner.

As a result secondary schools are left in an 'either/or' position. Either stick with traditional approaches and please the conservative elements in the community ( and let students do the best they can) or develop new approaches that might result in losing parental support ( and students).

One idea that might help solve this dilemma, combining the best of innovation and traditionalism, has been tried successfully in a couple of High Schools in the USA. This dual approach provides a solution worth considering for schools with year 7 to 10 students

In these schools students spent time in ability grouped classes to ensure agreed 'foundation skills' are in place and, as well, spend blocks of time working with groups of multi skilled teachers working depth on integrated problem based learning; developing in the process 'future learning attributes' or 'key competencies'.

Teachers with skills in the 'foundation skills', however they are defined by the school, can be assigned to teach ( or lead) in this area, working with groups determined by need, while the more progressive, or creative teachers, will be happier 'teaching' in the extended integrated block timetable.

The two approaches need to work together. Those in the 'foundation skill' area need to ensure that students master the 'agreed' research, literacy, numeracy skills , ICT and study skills required to take advantage of the thematic learning. Those in the thematic area will need to have a range of skills to contribute to assist students develop their particular talents and gifts.

This dual approach of 'innovative traditionalism' crosses the ideological divide that all too often separates primary and secondary teachers and, if implemented, would develop the professional understanding of both groups.

Subject knowledge of specialist teachers would be needed more than ever to develop integrated projects while those with greater pedagogical expertise will be needed to help 'designing' tasks with students to ensure all students are 'engaged'. Teachers from both areas would need to collaborate within and across areas to determine which skills need to be in place and which students need particular assistance to take advantage of the more student centred learning.

If schools were to embark along this journey the teaching philosophy and beliefs of the school need to be well thought out and the parents informed of the advantages of such a dual approach.

As confidence grow, and increased collaboration develops, the conflict between traditional and innovative learning would fall away to the advantage of the learners, the teachers and the success of the school.

The best thing is that we now know enough how to do this, the pedagogy required is not new, all schools need to do is to develop the structures to allow it to happen.

Friday, January 12, 2007

Engaging students - the art of the teacher.

This teacher of 10 /11 year olds has no trouble engaging her students - in this picture students are sharing their personal writing.
Engaging students is not so much of a problem in junior classes but there seem to be an issue with students in their early secondary years.
Much of this dis-engagement can be put down to antiquated school structures and associated fragmented specialist teaching but I came across an article ( ascd Leadership Magazine Sept 2004 Vol 62 Number 1 ) which provided some real insight into the problem.
The author's research was based on 130 days 'shadowing' students in Californian High Schools. The writer wanted to know' 'what is going on in students hearts and head as they experience school' and , ' what characterizes classrooms .....where students become wholly engaged and energized, finding genuine meaning'. The writer wanted to, 'detect links between what teachers do and what young people take in'.
These are important questions as nothing deflates a teacher more than bored students.
'Classrooms', the writer says, 'are powerful places. They can be dynamic settings that launch dreams and delight minds, or arid places that diminish hope and deplete energy.' The students 'shadowed' experienced them as both but generally described their school experience as listless and tedious. Earlier research by John Goodland (84) confirms this stating, 'boredom is a disease of epidemic proportions'. Csikszentmihalyi (84) found that when students are bored, ' concentration is difficult; they feel self conscious and strongly wish they were something else'.
School is more than 'wishing you were at the beach'. Stern( 75) defines it as 'weariness brought on by tedious iteration or dullness.
Students he found experience time in several different ways.
Slow time - time as monotonous,predictable, routine and dull. One student expressed it as, 'being in a car with your parents on a long road trip without a CD player'. When students experience 'slow time' they invent ways to occupy themselves or drift off into daydreams.
Lost time - a more intense form when time unfolds without students being able to describe or articulate what has happened.Students passively waiting for the class to end.
Fake time - aware that some teachers monitor their engagement students tactfully position themselves to appear attentive. What one writer calls 'doing school', or going through the motions, to appear as if they are learning.Many students use this time to craftily do other tasks while monitoring the teacher.
Worry time - high school students evidently spend a lot of time worry about non school matters etc that distract then and drain their attention to what is happening in class.
Play time - some students are able to look involved but without really involving themselves in learning. A lot of group work falls into this category.
One wonders who is actually engaged in any one classroom and how many of students are playing what Robert Fried calls, 'the game of school'. The same could be said for many staff meetings!
The final category - engaged time. This represents when students are deeply immersed in learning. The author of the article , in his 'shadowing' role observed students 'roused to life, animated with feelings and ideas'. High School students experienced these moments as, 'provocative, enchanting, memorable, and enjoyable'. At such moments time , the students report, goes fast.
The writer, after days of 'shadowing' believes such moments ,'represent the triumphs of teaching', and believes they happen , 'because the teachers made critical pedagogic decisions...and cultivated a powerful classroom ethos'.
After observing these 'potent' episodes the author noted one commonality, 'these teaches fought fiercely to hold their students attention'. These teachers , he continues, 'appear to recognise that teenagers are unabashed and savvy consumers of many things....Teen intuitively grasp that the inalienable taste for things fast, jazzy, and loud.' Another writer, Moses (2000), writes. 'global teens have been brought up to experience and expect sensory stimulation', and, 'have a low threshold for boredom'.
While schools remain locked into a linear transmission book world young people have been exposed to multi media experiences and are used to creating their own learning.
Schools will have to change to engage such students with their minds 'shaped' in the 21stC .
Successful teachers were observed to practice , 'anti boredom pedagogy' , and were relentlessly attuned to the 'attention-scape' of their classrooms.
Some 'anti boredom' practices:
Varying classroom pace , alternating faced paced questioning and periods of quiet journaling time. Teachers also broke routines to get students attention by introducing video footage, bringing in visitors, and field trips.
Developing a need for students to create. Students were most vital when creating or thinking about something new. It is important to involve them in planning projects and allowing them to express their originality. Students 'tune in' when they feel ownership over ideas and when they feel they are in a safe place to share their ideas. Students have a yearning to be listened to and to have their insights taken seriously.
Introducing your personal presence. Energy and passion matter. The writer observed that when people yawn others soon follow. 'Energised expressive teachers foster energized learning; sedentary, monotonous teachers sabotage attention'. The point is made however that personal presence needs to be authentic. Teachers who 'connect' share personal stories, conveyed their passions, and express emotion and vulnerability. Students said about such teachers that they were 'real persons'.
Students respected teachers who shared the 'own love affair with learning' and when teachers showed a passion for what they taught and who shared what they were currently learning with their students - the students 'might roll their eyes' but rarely meant it.
Know your students as people. The students observed wanted their teachers to know them as people.They wanted their teachers to understand their experiences, interests, aspirations, needs , fears, and idiosyncrasies; their feelings known, understood and apprecited.
The successful teachers observed genuinely enjoyed young people. 'They were kid-savvy and created opportunities to get to know their students beyond the classroom....teachers used this knowledge of the personal to create bridges between their students and course content'.
Connect content to teen questionings. The teenagers 'shadowed' were seen as on journey to figure out who they are, where they belong and to discover what talents and potential they might have. Successful teachers used virtually any subject matter to open up meaningful conversations about such big ideas.
Wining the hears and mind of students is a challenge all teachers must become involved in no matter what level or subject taught. When students 'hearts and minds' are engaged they can then discover genuine meaning and value in their school experiences.
Classrooms, as the author of the article writes, are powerful places to amplify, rather than diminish, students hopes, energy and dreams.
We need to learn off those teachers who have learnt the trick of engaging their students.
All schools have them.

Wednesday, January 10, 2007

Sharing teacher 'magic'

The most important resource of all - sharing the 'know how' of creative teachers.
While innovative businesses are recognising that creative and talented individuals are the key to their success ( even survival) schools remain dominated by those who believe in imposed curricula and systems of assessment.
It is as if educator John Dewey ( and his modern day followers) had moved into the business world taking with him his 'learning community' ideas and the recognition of the importance of students interests and Henry Ford had found a new home for his 'mass production' ideas in schools.
In a 'creative era', where ideas are the new 'capital', businesses have had no choice if they wanted to survive. Innovative businesses are now increasingly based around individuals, working in projects teams, continually developing new ideas in environments that encourage risk taking.
You would think that it would be obvious that schools would've been 're-imagined' as places to discover and amplify whatever talents every student has to ensure that their graduates would be in a position to contribute to such a creative society. The first country to transform their education system would have a real advantage but, so far, no country has done so. Schools remain much as they were envisioned in the conformist industrial era - an era now well past is 'use by date'.
In a talent based school environment creative teachers would be the key to school wide success. Such teachers bring 'magic' to their classrooms and, if used wisely, would help other teachers to assist all students to develop whatever gifts they may have.
To develop such a school system would require a long overdue major rethink about the purpose of education.
Currently in New Zealand we have a 'new' draft curriculum which, although signaling real change, still hangs on to the contradictory subject specialism of the current failing system. It does however state that students are to be seen as, 'active seekers, users and creators of knowledge', who , 'reflect on their own learning, draw on personal knowledge and intuitions, ask questions, and challenge the basis of assumptions and perceptions.' the curriculum is premised on all students having the 'key competencies' , or capabilities, to thrive in a 'world where continual change is the norm'.
If this were to be realised then we would need every creative teachers we can get to ensure students are able to do just this. This does not demean the importance of traditional content knowledge but, in the future, students must 'use' knowledge to create their own understanding not just to be able to remember it! Teachers would need to work in mull ti skilled teams to assist their students. The future is about teachers 'designing' tasks with students not 'delivering' curriculums.
Imagine a system where every effort is made to recognise and value every students 'voice' and 'identity' and their particular set of gifts and talents. We urgently need such a 'personalised' approach to replace the 'one size fits all' system 'we' are currently trying to prop up.
Time for John Dewey to regain his rightful place in our school system?

Monday, January 08, 2007

Exellent book - very practical

The book 'Methods that Matter' was brought to my attention by its advertisement in a recent ascd newsletter and it motivated me to take it off my shelf and have another read.

It is a remarkable book as it is free of jargon , written in friendly accessible style full of practical examples from real classrooms covering all ages. For an American book it is certainly a breath of of fresh air as its contributors are classroom practitioners rather than 'curriculum experts', and for those old enough it will remind them of the UK Junior Nuffield Science books of the 70s which many of found inspirational.
'Methods that Matter' is published by Stenhouse Publishers and its authors are Harvey Daniels and Marilyn Bizar. It has recently been revised and it now has seven structures rather than the original six.
The authors have collected ideas and stories from over two dozen teachers which gives the book both usefulness and credibility.
The book is about 'best practices' defined as a set of seven interlocking practices and each best practice has its own chapter giving practical examples. This is a book about pedagogy that all will find valuable.
The seven practices applicable to all levels are:
Reading-as-thinking - this is the new exciting addition
Integrative Units- emphasizing the holistic interconnected nature of learning
Small group activities - students working in teams sharing expertise.
Representing to learn -emphasizing a range of ways of expressing ideas.
Classroom workshop - develop a workshop environment with students helping each other
Authentic experiences - significant , real life, meaningful learning experiences or problems
Reflective assessment - developing students self monitoring skills.
These six structures are seen as a 'palette' from which teachers and their students can 'paint rich cycles of learning'. Together they provide a rich supportive psychological climate that teachers and students deserve.
Each of the seven key activities gives students real voice and meaningful choices in their learning. Students set achievable goals, reflect on their own progress and express ( represent) their learning through a variety of creative media.
Responsibility, the other side of choice, is also encouraged and students are held accountable to finishing tasks they start, monitoring their own progress as they go - and in the process learning to make better choices next time. Regular conferences ( 'learning conversations') with teachers are part of the process providing feedback and future learning goals.
The creative arts are seen as vitally important to thinking and learning and performances and demonstrations are seen as a authentic way of assessing progress. All this is based on realistic authentic learning experiences or concerns that capture the imagination of the students and need to be resolved. The authors believe in doing fewer things well, in digging deeply in studies chosen, rather than rushing through content as is all too often the case at present.
The book outlines little that is new to creative teachers. John Dewey ( who wrote in the early 1900s) would recognise the seven featured approaches. The ideas restate progressive teaching ideals which the authors believe have been misunderstood, watered down and debased over the decades.
Each of the seven beliefs are first expanded by selected teacher narratives and secondly by step by step explanations which teachers can make use of in their own classrooms not that they can be copied.
The authors believe that for too long teaching has been an isolated profession where teachers work a few spaces apart but feel miles away.
This book is a start in to develop a shared sense of professionalism amongst teachers and one that places teacher creativity at the centre not imposed curriculum or assessment procedures. As such it is a welcome change.

Saturday, January 06, 2007

'Personalized' Learning - the word for 2007

What are the positive values, passions, dreams and interests that drive any one learner - and how can we tap into them, amplify them, provide experiences that will uncover them, so as to develop, for every learner, a full hand of personalised talents?

The twenty first century will depend on such creative individuals. Talent is the new future capital for individuals, organisations or countries if we are to solve the problems we currently face. Are our industrial aged schools up to the challenge- or will they need to transform themselves into creative learning communities?

A UK review, written by the now head of OSTED ( equivalent to New Zealand;s ERO) , sets out 'their' Government's vision for schooling by 2020.

Personalisation is now the 'in thing' and there are a number of well written reports available from the UK Department of Education and Science to refer to. It is all about replacing the 'one size fits all' approach to teaching and learning with one designed to fit the needs of each child.

Personalisation, or as it is referred to in the US as 'differentiation', is something I have written up in my blog earlier. And, guess what, it is now 'the phrase' used by our own Minister of Education who sees it as an extension of the 1936 vision of the first Labour party which was to provide every child, no matter where they lived in New Zealand, with an education best fitted to their needs.

As a result of past ideals we have a 'mass education provision', the content or assessment of which is predetermined by distant experts, for all students up until the age of 16. As this has not proved to be beneficial to all students, and a 'mass nightmare' to some, what is now required is a 'new' approach. Hardly 'new' as it has been the hard earned philosophy of a number of creative teachers, in all countries, for decades. For such teachers it will seem like 'back to the future' or 'doing the sixties all over again but this time better'!

When you read the statements by politician and educational 'experts' you have to wonder if they mean true personalisation, developing for each learner their own individual learning plan, or simply a means to 'con' the learner into learning what the experts have decided. We have been through this 'individualised' learning curriculum before so lets hope not!

To develop true personalised learning lots of things would have to change - most of all the 'mindsets' of, the teachers , the parents and even the students, all of whom have 'learnt' to see education as something people give to others. And how we assess 'learning' would need the biggest revision of all!

Our draft curriculum makes no mention of the word 'personalisation and, although a positive move , it is a transition between content as 'stuff' and content as 'process' ; as a means to do new things.

For me the key phrase in the 'draft' is to be found on the bottom of page 11. The draft sees students as , 'active seekers, users, and creators of knowledge'. Learners who 'reflect on their own learning, draw on their personal knowledge and intuitions, ask questions and challenge the basis of assumptions and perceptions'.

Now this is personalised learning - but, so far, more seen in rhetoric than reality - except for very young children before they reach formal schooling!.

There will be more to come on personalisation - you can count on it!

If you want to know more - click here

Wednesday, January 03, 2007

Time to break old education mindsets

As Mark Twain said, 'It ain't what you don't know that gets you into trouble. It's what you know for sure that just ain't so.'

All too often we are so busy coping with day to day hassles we do not have the time to stop and think if the tasks we do are actually worth doing?

The end of the school year would be an ideal time to become involved in such reflective thought but in reality too many things are happening and there is never time, even if there were the inclination, to do so.

It is not possible to even think about what you don't know if you think for sure that things are fine as they are and, even if you have concerns, it is easier to leave them up to somebody else; after all what difference can any one individual person make! All too often the experience of those who suggest changes find their views scorned by those who are happy to go along unthinkingly with the status quo - or by those who just can't be bothered to make the mental effort to change their minds. And if it involves someone losing personal power or position in any change you can count them out.

Sylvia Ashton Warner , New Zealand's eccentric creative teacher of the 1950's, once wrote, 'You can tell the creative teacher , she or he , is the one lying in the corridor with the arrows in their back fired by their fellow teachers!'

We need to ask ourselves what is it about our schools that still reflects their genesis in an now antiquated industrial age and, even in some areas, an even earlier agrarian era? As for the latter school terms often reflect farming calendars to allow for summer farm work but it is the industrial age, mass production thinking, that most limits our schools: students placed in age batches, tested and grouped, moved to the sound of bells to receive the next transmission of prescribed learning, and to complete the picture there are the 'waste products' - school failures. Industrial aged values still persist in our school - obedience, punctuality, cleanliness, uniformity, control and top down hierarchical authority. The Industrial Age is well past its 'use by date' - and our schools , modeled on similar lines, ought to be as well. We now know so much more about how people learn it is hard to believe we persist with such antiquated structures.

The ironic thing is that while schools remain trapped in this time warp ( and this is mainly secondary schools) the business world has moved into creating themselves into high trust 'learning organisations' valuing creativity, teamwork and the initiative of those involved to take the necessary learning risks to develop new innovations.

What we need to have is a 'big conversation' about what kind of country we want to become and then to create a school system that creates the kinds of people to realize such a vision.

When such leadership from the top I am sure teachers, parents and students could devise system where all students are given the opportunity to develop their interests, passions, talents and dreams. Creativity is the new capital of any future society - and schools could well be the key to developing the talents of all to ensure we, as a society, are well placed to develop the new thinking to take advantage of whatever the future holds.

'Prediction is difficult, particularly when it involves the future', Mark Twain observed but the key to success is to have the entrepreneurial mindsets able to thrive on ambiguity, able to take advantage of the confusion that exists in eras of real transition.

But first we have to really think hard about all we take for granted that , 'just ain't so', before we can transform ourselves, our schools and the world. It has to start somewhere. The holidays are a good time to give it some reflective thought while the mid is still enough to rearrange all those stressed braincells.

As Al Gore challenged us, we have to face up to some 'Inconvenient Truths'.
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Monday, January 01, 2007

One of my favourites - Mark Twain

I have always liked Mark Twain ( I know this was not his real name) particularly for his story telling ability.
In the late 1800s he travelled the world amusing people with his tales with the aid of his magic lantern machine. In such times people paid to be amused and informed by such speakers as Twain.
As a result he has left for us a humorous collection of sayings which I make full use of in my own presentations - and I try to use the power point facilities on my computer in a similar way to his use of the magic lantern. By sitting through some pretty dull presentations, by people using power points who follow the given boring formats, I have worked out they need to be used imaginatively or not at all!
Some of his sayings I make use of are , 'I was born modest but it wore off', which seems to fit me, along with , 'I was born excited and hope to die that way!' (whatever that might mean!). And I like his thought that , ' It took him three weeks to prepare an impromptu speech' - I know exactly what he means.
With reference to leadership he said, 'It is like being the captain of a Mississippi steamboat, you have to know every bend, every mud bank, every snag, every whirlpool, every twenty four hours.' I am not sure if they are his exact words but the message is clear.
Another of his pithy sayings is, 'Education consists mainly of what we have unlearned' and, maybe, he also said that , 'He never let schooling interfere with his education?' I also like, 'Be good and you will be lonesome', and, 'You can't depend on judgement when your imagination is out of focus'.
Prediction is difficult particularly when it involves the future', is Twain's advice for those who feel the need to plan for all eventualities.
Recently I saw a quotes of Twain's used by Al Gore in his film 'An Inconvenient Truth' ( the name of the film coming from a quote by Winston Churchill) .
Gore used Twain's, 'Denial ain't just a river in Egypt' and, possibly the most perceptive thought of all, 'It ain't what you don't know that gets you into trouble. It's what you know for sure that just ain't so.'
Twain's approach is just the opposite of most educational experts - he relies on the power of a good story rather than dull information with no real plot.
His approach suits me just fine.