Thursday, October 25, 2007

Negotiating the Curriculum

Learning is a process to deepen personal understanding or skill. This is best achieved with the assistance of a learning 'mentor'. Such a 'mentor' negotiates learning with the learner, aways leaving the 'power' to learn with the learner.

In the book 'Negotiating the Curriculum' 82, Edited by Garth Boomer, ( reprinted 92) four steps are suggested to negotiate a study with students applicable for any level of schooling. Essentially it is an inquiry model that emphasizes valuing the 'voice' of students in the their own learning. It is very much in line with the 'co- constructivist' teaching philosophy

The four steps outlined below are premised that the study has not yet been widely accepted by the students. In this situation the teacher and the learners should ask four questions and together negotiate the answers. This is essentially about power sharing leaving the agency for learning in the hands of the students.

So concerning any topic.

1 What do we know already?
(Or where are we now and what don't we need to learn or be taught about?)

The very act of asking what we know tends to expose what we don't know and so raises questions to be answered. Often one question will lead to another. This approach develop student's ownership and collective understanding.

2 What do we want and need to find out?
(Or what are our questions, what don't we know, and what are our problems?)

At this stage students can list things they already know and things the want to find out about. Students can provide the best answer to their own questions and pool their ideas. By the use of this process a set of key or powerful questions will develop - these are best kept to three or four so as to focus the students studies. Other questions can be studied by groups or by individuals if time allows. There may also be some things that the teacher may need to ensure are covered - students will accept that sometimes learning has to accommodate such curriculum 'restraints' or requirements.

3 How will we go about finding out?
(Or where will we look, what experiments and inquiries will we make, what will we need, what information and resources are available, who will do what, and what should be the order of things?)

The students will by now know what is to be done and why. From the ideas generated tasks need to be devised and assigned for all to complete, individually or individually. These tasks should be displayed on the whiteboard and resources gathered. It is a good idea to develop some sort of group rotation programme ( as seen in many reading programmes) so as to make use of limited resources and to allow the teacher space to move around and assist as necessary. As students sort out their draft idea the teacher needs to be able to challenge their ideas to ensure students gain deeper understandings. Assistance may also need to be given to help students present their findings.

4 How will we know, and show, that we've found out when we have finished?
( Or what are out our findings, what have we learnt, whom will we show and for whom are we doing the work, and where to next?)

Students through such negotiations will have in their minds what it is they are to achieve ( criteria may well have been 'negotiated' to allow students to continually assess their progress). During steps two and three the audience for the research will have been defined and ideas to make a wall display ( or web pages) to celebrate learning discussed. A good idea to have a parents evening to share completed work and this could involve a range of creative activities . ICT media will naturally be included.

The questions represent a logical approach to tackling a problem in nay area of the curriculum. The scientific method is - problem, clarification, hypothesis, test, conclusion - is embraced within them. In a sense all students are at best scientists - seekers of understanding, problem solvers, people who need to satisfy their curiosity about things they want to know about.

The four questions outline a basic approach but with experience students will become skilled in negotiating a range of activities for the class to consider. If negotiation , or inquiry learning, is a new experience for the students the teacher may need to step in and make suggestions but only as a last resort.

One way or another after the the four questions have been negotiated the students will clear about what is expected and will be clear about, what they are to do, why, how, and how the work is to be shared, assessed and evaluated.

With experience students will become expert in planning and undertaking all aspects of any study and teachers role will increasingly be one of ensuring students are gaining in depth understanding and gaining in 'learning how to learn' skills.

The earlier such independent skills are developed through negotiated learning the better.

With such experiences students will become 'seekers, users and creators' of their own knowledge as is suggested by the New Zealand Curriculum

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

How to engage students - advice from the experts!

Students in in family groups from years 1 to 8 engaged in 'seeking, using and creating' knowledge about Antarctic exploration that they have been fully involved in planning and completing.

Engaging students at the year 7 to 10 year age groups seems to be a growing challenge worldwide as non 'academic' students are finding their learning boring or irrelevant.

The obvious answer would seem to be to ask the experts themselves - the students!

This is what was done by the innovative Australian project 'Negotiating the Curriculum' of the early 80s edited by Garth Boomer.The book is now unfortunately out of print but it was a wonderful source of practical ideas to involve (or engage) students in their own learning from juniors to senior classes. Just found the book was reprinted in 1992

The question is, if we want all students to develop their learning power, under what conditions do students learn most effectively? Do they all learn the same way? And, a pertinent question for teachers is, how would they fare as a learner in their own class?

And, if we want students to learn independently, how come we see so few students' questions in our classrooms? Their is no doubt that students need to know how they learn as part of their education - it may well be the most important thing they learn. My guess is that few students, or their teachers, can articulate their learning theory?

When students were asked, 'how they learn best' ( loosely defined as coming to new understandings) their answers are shown to exhibit a remarkable consistency.

Their answers are listed under aspects of the learning process.

1 Engagement. We learn best when we intend to learn, when we become personally involved and interested in the learning we are to do. Our learning should be purposeful - our purposes not the teachers! We need to know what we are to do and why and how we are to do it, but we do like our intentions to 'mesh' with the teachers so that, as much as is possible, we are all thinking along the same lines. Our intention to learn becomes engaged when we become curious or puzzled by things we are to learn. It matters to us that we solve our puzzlement and find satisfactory solutions to our own problems.

2 Exploration. We need it acknowledge that we are all not equal in experience in what we know and can do so we need learning experiences personalised as much as possible to cater for our differences in starting points, needs and interests. We like the teacher to open up a range of options to give us some choices in our learning.
We need to be helped to inquire in ways that suit our needs and to learn through trial and error, and by finding out, rather than being told by the teacher. We need to be involved actively in real learning experiences and not be passive receivers. We understand best when we do things ourselves and arrive at new knowledge through our own discovery.

We need to work and relate with other learners and our teacher. We like working individually, in groups, and as a whole class but small groups is our preferred option because it allows us to learn together, and from each other, as we go along. We like to use each other as sounding boards and as an audience for our ideas. We feel most secure working in groups.

We need help from our teachers, but not dominance by them.We want a supporter, a facilitator, not a dictator. We need to take risks as we struggle for new understandings but will only take those risks in a supportive environment - one in which we are both challenged and encouraged to stretch our thinking. We don't like being frightened of being wrong and like it when teachers help us through any difficulties.

Besides this supportive role we want the teacher to be available to work with us when we need help. We don't want to be bored or confused by the teacher telling things to the class when we already know what is being explained or are hopelessly lost because don't know enough to understand. Anyway in the whole class situations all too often we can't ask real questions or talk things through and we need to do those things.

3 Reflection. At the need of the learning experience we want to feel we have achieved something worthwhile to us. We need to come up with products that mean something important to us and that will please the audience we are preparing for. We don't doing things for no reason at all. We like to share what we have found and the sharing is a way to show others how well we have learnt.

We need to think about what we have done and how we could do it better next time. Out of such reflection new questions, challenges, and ideas will arise that we can use to continue our learning.

Seems like some good ideas to solve the problem of lack of engagement?

Be interesting to ask your own students?

And how would you really enjoy being in your own class?

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Where are we going?

If you don't know where you want to go any direction is OK...or is it?

It has been a wet day so I have been thinking?

Next year is election year and hopefully we will have some alternative visions of our country to consider. Or will it all be about who gives us the biggest tax cuts while we all put our heads into the sand avoiding the mounting social issues that have arisen since the introduction of the now discredited market forces ideology.

It is all too easy to focus on what materialistic 'goodies' we want ( but often do not need) and to ignore in the process the plight of the less fortunate, blaming them for their inadequacies.

The trouble is that if our 'winner and loser' society is not arrested we will develop a serious 'underclass' that will impinge dramatically on those who enjoy a more insulated comfortable life.

What is the Kiwi Dream for the 21stC?

Are we losing track of our egalitarian heritage? Do we no longer believe in giving all people a fair go? Is the current philosophy of self interest to become the driving force of our future society? Is the economy always to be placed above valuing the emotional and spiritual needs of all our people?

Perhaps it is time to hold a mirror up to ourselves and to face up to reality?

The question our leaders ought to be asking us is what sort of country do we want to become, or do we put blind faith in our so called 'leaders' in solving 'our' problems? Are there new ways to re-imagine democracy, using modern technology, to engage all citizens in the 21stC? Do we need to think about how to develop a sense of community to replace the emphasis personal need or greed?

Do we , as a nation, have the imagination and the passion to think of possible future scenarios? Should our politicians set up a group of respected partisan citizens to start a 'conversation' about future possibilities? If politicians are lacking in 'wisdom' perhaps it is to be found in the collective good sense of the people? All that is needed is the process to 'collect' such wisdom.

Do we need to look back into our past to see that New Zealand has had a strong history of leading the world in humanitarian and democratic advances - most often in response to times of great depressions. Would this give us some insight about our future?

We were once seen as world leaders in areas of social conscience - do we need to begin such a process again? Certainly the emphasis a market forces efficiency ideology of the past decades has developed little to admire except for the salaries paid to those who have benefited.

Do we even have a desire for a shared future or is the current divided society of 'winners and losers' to be our future - if so we will be sowing the seeds of problems that will effect us all whether we like it or not.

Is it time to value other than those who have accumulated wealth? Do we need to equally celebrate achievement in the arts, or those who have dedicated their lives to helping those in need , as well as those who are successful in the sports world?

If we want our country to become known as both a creative and a humanitarian society we better start now. We have proud examples from the past to celebrate and build on.

We have a choice to either lead or to follow - to determine our own mutual destiny or be controlled by forces thought to be beyond our control?

All we need is the wit and imagination to take the time to do a bit of thinking - to ask question rather than searching for answers to problems that are beyond our current thinking and structures to solve?

Time to walk the dog?

Saturday, October 13, 2007

Tapping the wisdom of people.

A process to tap the wisdom of crowds - and get away from depending on 'experts'.

It is important, when introducing change into any organisation, to ensure all involved feel 'ownership' of whatever changes are to be implemented. Without agreed 'ownership' change doesn't happen, unless those involved are forced to comply. In such situations change is at best half hearted.

In reality change is often imposed pushed on an organisation by 'leaders' who either haven't the time to involve everyone, or believe that such an involvement isn't worth the time and effort, or, worse still, because those in charge know best.

James Surowiecki in his book 'Wisdom of Crowds' writes that it is only by tapping the 'wisdom of crowds' that real change is possible.

This of course is counter intuitive to what we all have been led to believe. Over the past century the rise of the specialist 'expert' has led us to believe that such people know better. It is hard to believe that crowds know better than such highly informed people.

Of course it is not just a matter of listening to the collective voice of a crowd. We all know crowds can be easily swayed by those with the loudest voice or the most power. A good example of collective wisdom is that shown by the jury process where a group of citizens listen to the voices of, often contradictory, experts and then use their common sense.

Surowiecki says there are three important conditions to be in place to ensure wisdom is to be gained from groups. If the conditions are followed group decisions are better than those provided by an expert, or even a group of experts.

1 The best group decisions come from the most diverse groups ( experts all know the same things).

2 Every person in the group must have an opportunity to have a say ( all too often those with the loudest voices or most power have all the say).

3 There has to be a process in place to aggregate the ideas of the group.

I have been involved with school that made use of such a process and i was impressed.

The process was called '10-4 voting' as goes as follows.

Each group needs a 'facilitator' to ensure the process is followed and a 'recorder' to number and list ideas of members ( both take part in the process as well).

A task is given to the group
e.g. How can we engage our disengaged learners?

1 Sitting in a circle go around the group , each person contributing an idea ( or saying pass). The leader has to be firm to ensure there is no cross discussion or clarification.This is important. It will be hard for some members

2 The recorder numbers and lists each suggestion.

3 Keep going around the group until there are no more suggestions or the agreed time has run out.

4 On completion the 'leader' asks if anyone wants to ask anybody for clarification about any suggestion but only the person who provided the idea can respond.

5 The 'leader',if necessary, can ask that if there are suggestions that look the same if they can be combined. Only those who contributed the idea consider combining. If no agreement leave both ideas on the list.

6 Each person then has 10 votes. They can only use 4 in the first round. Votes can be placed against any of the suggestions ( they can put all four on one idea if they want). Complete the second round of four votes and finally the final two.

7 At the completion certain issues will have 'emerged' that then become the basis of professional development 'action plans' to explore solutions.

At the school I observed using this process all teachers had previously provided ideas that they thought needed to be faced up to to develop their school as one where all students were to be given the opportunity to succeed.

To really work, Surowiecki says, someone has to 'champion' the process and to to ensure that the 'wisdom' that has 'emerged' is capitalised on.

Tapping the wisdom of crowds challenges some our deeply held assumptions about leadership , power and authority. Done properly collective judgements, he believes, can be 'wiser' and more lasting than those imposed by 'experts'.

Challenging assumption that underlie traditional model of decision making is not easy but it is 'smart'. As Surowiecki concludes his book saying that he is cautiously hopeful that that such group decisions will allow us, 'to begin to trust individual leaders less and ourselves more'.

Well worth a try if we really believe in democracy.

Thursday, October 11, 2007

Put the 'experts' back in front of a class!

Dear....... , I am sorry to tell you but you have lost your job due to a glut of 'experts' - please report to the classroom to take up real work on Monday!

Expertise increases, it seems, by distance in time or place from the reality of the classrooms.

It is amazing how much 'wisdom' is gained overnight by people appointed to advisory positions. Equally amazing is how classroom teachers automatically presume such 'advisers' must know what they're talking about just because they have been given a title. More depressing is the ease which teachers demean their own experience and bow down to these 'so called experts'.

It is not to say such advisers do not have knowledge to share but all too often their 'wisdom' evaporates as they become purveyors of 'best practice' ideas to impose on teachers.

It is time for teachers to appreciate it is they who really understand the demands and challenges of teaching. There are no 'right answers', no 'one size fits all' solutions, available to solve any ones problem. That every teacher, and all students are idiosyncratic, and, as well, all schools have their own particular cultures and circumstances is a often forgotten understating by distant planners.

Creative teachers have always known this.

Unfortunately over the years 'experts' have done their best to impose solution onto schools by means of complicated curriculum statements and constraining accountability systems. There was a time when such technocrats even openly talked about 'teacher proofed' curriculums!

So lets put all the experts back into classrooms.

Give such 'experts' the challenge of engaging and developing the gifts and talents of all students. At least let them teach for a year and see what they can do.

Now as a bit of a 'expert' myself what would I do if I were to be placed back in a classroom and told to get on with it

This has happened to me once before in my career and it was a real learning curve. My own advice, that I had previously thought possible, I found I had no time to put into practice! All sorts of demands, let alone the diversity of learning needs of the students, just got in the way. After several months I managed to raise my head above the water and start to cope well and, eventually, to really enjoy the challenge.

The experience 'taught' me a lot.

I now appreciate the emotional demands placed on teachers simply accommodating the individual needs of the students - let alone teaching anything.

I now respect any teacher who stays in front of a class day by day, week by week. Each teacher is a 'world expert' on his, or her, own class.

I learnt that keeping the joy of learning alive in every student is the real challenge and nothing must get in the way of this.

I learnt it is better to do 'fewer things well' than to try and comply to all the impossible curriculum demands, and to work with individual students to see each learner 'feels' pride gained through success and in turn recognition as a person.

My own belief is that if teachers in any school were to develop process to tap into the 'wisdom' that all collectively hold their ideas would be as viable as those 'delivered' by the various experts. Certainly they would be a lot more 'doable'.

What we now meed are experts skilled in helping teachers uncover what they already know but have often have not had the time to share and make explicit.

When these ideas have been developed into a set of shared beliefs that they all would be prepared to be held accountable to then we would begin to make real progress.

Best of all teachers would feel they had done it themselves - that they are the real experts after all.

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Nobody remembers a nation for its readers

Is our obsession with reading causing unintended consequences - poor writers?

No one would disagree that learning to read is a vital skill but people will make their mark through writing or other forms of creating not just by being a reader. Reading is not everything that counts - being able to express thoughts through speech and writing is equally important.

The first thing Alexei Leonov , the Soviet cosmonaut did,after his world first historic walk in space miles above the Earth, was to sit down and write about it, 'I wrote down everything I saw, so as to not forget something later'. the human statement from US space explorers reduces to , 'golly!'

In our classes if you ask students to write about an important experience they have had you would be surprised ( or maybe not) of how little they can write let alone the lack of enthusiasm they show for such a task.

The uneven push for reading has distorted students learning and has 'warped' reading away from writing when they are complimentary forms of interpersonal communication.

This ought not to be the case - it is entirely a school problem.

Young children achieve 'mans' most impressive language skill by being exposed to an environment which naturally encourages them to talk, building on their innate desire to make meaning and to communicate. From this talk emerged a need to their record ideas at first with art and then writing. Unlike talk, such expression saves our thoughts making them available to be read by others. According to business philosopher Peter Drucker, 'the ability to express oneself is perhaps the most important of all the skills a man can possess'.

We need to get reading and writing into perspective. Before any words arise in the mind comes the experience. Such experience is a mix of emotions and learning through sensory impressions resulting from something that has attracted the child's curiosity. Educating children's senses is a vital aspect of the writing process

Children begin to write well before school even if it is at first incomprehensible, even to the early authors. Soon certain powerful words become memorable ( their own name ) and easily recognised. This is the beginning of their written vocabulary. The young child, not hindered by adult perceptions of correctness, happily write all sorts of things, often imitating those around them. Through such experiences they see thinking, talking, writing and reading as part of a interconnected process.

The trouble is we do not 'teach' the power of writing to the degree we obsess over reading. Writing is part of the active expressive side of being human - reading reflective passive side. If writing were taken more seriously children would learn to notice more, be encouraged to think more deeply and precisely, and to see value in writing.

Creative teachers, in the past, valued students own stories as the basis of reading. They did this by first 'scribing' their thoughts, valuing what they had to say and, by asking perceptive questions to encourage deeper thoughts. They valued students' thoughts about the secrets and feelings in their minds, their thoughts about environmental experiences, about special class events, and about their ideas in other subjects such as science. Teachers helped students focus on the important things, to express what they noticed, what they were thinking, and how they felt at the time. By this process students saw themselves as writers with important things to say. Reading of other stories ( of their fellow students and adult authors) was a natural extension. By being exposed to range of genres and patterns of writing, such as myths and small thought poems ( simple haiku), students developed a range of ways of expressing their thoughts and, most of all, began to appreciate the power of language.

During such a process teachers pointed out important ideas about spelling, letter sound relationships and word families without distracting them from the main point of telling a story. Spelling originally meant to cast a spell with words not to obsess over correctness.

Teachers need to become sensitive to their students thoughts and ensure that they protect each students individuality. They will need to develop the skills of dialogue to develop the authentic relationships to be trusted by their student. If teachers can develop such trusting relationships they will have access to valuable insights, thoughts , understandings, ambitions and goals of their students.

In such an environment of respect children will develop a positive sense of self and a valuing of their individuality and uniqueness.

Through writing students will develop habits of observation and clear communication which will be valuable to them in whatever they do. To be firmly established it must begin as son as students enter school. If this were to happen students would be able to state and write opinions, to observe carefully and to reflect on their experiences.

None of this is to distract from the importance of reading but more to ask for a greater emphasis to be placed on the importance of writing in the learning process. Writing, unlike reading, values students' own stories and leads into the enjoyment of stories written by others.

The writing habit develops a way of attending to reality. It develops an acute sense of awareness and accurate identification of ideas. School failure is more than poor reading - those who cannot write may be more at risk?

Reading opens the doors to other worlds but writing opens the doors to the students own minds.

Reading cannot be the end all of learning. Reading is only one of the keys to success. The keys to school success should also be the spoken, performed, drawn ,and written products.

Nobody remembers a nation for its readers!

Tuesday, October 09, 2007

The creative process

The creative process is a metaphor for life -easier to understand after the event. Then it all seems so simple - a child could do it!

I was asked the other day if I could think of a book on the creative process,off hand I couldn't, but I have been thinking about the issue since.

I am one of those who believe we are entering what some call 'A Second Renaissance', or 'An Age Of Creativity', so understanding the conditions that set the imagination free is an important one. For those involved in teaching it is a real challenge as there is much about our current system that is contrary to the spirit of creativity.

Today too many teachers still work individually limiting exposure to others' ideas in the process. In secondary schools specialist teaching limits important cross fertilisation of ideas ( all new idea originate between the borders of disciplines). The current obsession with planning, predetermined intentions, criteria, exemplars and outcomes limit creative possibilities; all too often creativity is sacrificed for mediocrity.

Equally an obsession with traditional 'three Rs' in primary schools ensures there is little real awareness of the powerful learning power that true creativity provides for students who might otherwise fail at their teachers' predetermined activities. At the secondary level creativity is to be found in the art room and to the artistic performances schools put on to impress their parents. As Tom Peters, the American business 'guru' says, 'You couldn't have designed High Schools better to destroy student creativity than if you had tried!'

So there is a real need to develop an understanding of the creative process, whether in science, art, or any area of human endeavour. Creativity requires students who are happy to explore areas that they only have partial ideas about rather than meekly follow the 'thinking trails' laid down by others. Creativity requires students who are curious - who seek out questions rather than accepting, or proving others, answers; students who retain a healthy skepticism about what they are expected to learn.

The metaphor of an 'original' artist is a good model.

The 'conventional' artist paints a canvas knowing what she ( or her teacher) wants to paint and keeps this intention ( and teacher's criteria) firmly in mind. In the worst case it is 'paint by numbers'.

The 'original' artist commences with a deeply felt but undefined goal in mind and keeps modifying the picture in response to unexpected colours and shapes emerging on the canvas and ends up with a finished work that probably will not resemble anything she started our with ( Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi in his book Flow)'.

Mihaly continues that, 'if the artist is responsive to her inner feelings, knows what she likes and does not like, and pays attention to what is happening on the canvas, a good painting is bound to emerge. On the other hand if she holds on to a preconceived notion of what painting should look like, without responding to possibilities suggested by the forms developing before her, the painting will be trite.'

Trite sums up a lots of the learning one sees in schools where student are not exploring topics of interest in depth and therefore not gaining real understanding in the process.

We all have preconceived notions of what we want but all too often we never become aware of other possibilities and thus limit our creativity. We need to be like the creative artist and be on the alert for possibilities to develop new ideas in any area of learning. We need to encourage students to be open minded prepared to discover as they go along, to keep what works, using feedback and their own criteria of excellence, and aways to consider 'next time'.

Living a creative life is to continually forge new understandings that work better than past practices

The teacher's role is to value student creativity and to establish the conditions to encourage students to take the learning risks required to try out new things. Such a teacher has to walk a fine line, providing assistance and feedback with care, because all too often students will end up only developing ideas that the teacher thinks are appropriate.

All students need to be helped to take responsibility for 'creating' themselves to develop whatever gifts, talents and passions they have within them.

schools full of such creative teachers and students.

The first country to develop such schools will lead the exciting journey into the 21st Century.

We have a long way to go!

Wednesday, October 03, 2007

A great site to improve your teaching!

A magnificent display of work from several classes at Opunake Primary School that cooperatively worked together to explore an interdisciplinary and inquiry based project on Life in Ancient Egypt. The study involved research based on key questions, the making of paper and food, pyramid building science, integrated a range of information technology, and involved creative language, art and modelling work.

For schools who are interested in powerful pedagogy there are lots of excellent sites to explore on the Internet. Possibly my favourite site to assist teachers to gain understanding about a range of 'learning centred' teaching approaches is the Concept to Classroom site.

The initial funding for the site was provided by the Disney Learning Partnership and it is an award winning site offering free professional development workshops covering important 'hot topics' topics in education. These can be explored in your own time. All have clips from such people as Howard Gardner who talks about his idea of Multiple Intelligences. Video clips allow you to view actual classrooms if you wish.

All the workshops include some theory, the history of the topic and ideas, both for and against, allowing you to make up your own mind. There are plenty of tips and strategies to help anyone apply ideas to their classrooms.

A number of the workshops would make ideal professional development 'action plans' for individuals, or groups of teachers, to explore.

Four I particularly like are:

Inquiry Based Learning.
Constructivist Teaching
Tapping into Multiple Intelligences
Interdisciplinary Teaching

The other Topics are:

After School Programmes
Assessment Evaluation and Curriculum Redesign
Cooperative and Collaborative learning
Making Family and Community Connections.
Teaching to Academic Standards ( Teaching to learning objectives!)
Web Quests. Why use them -and how.
Why the Net? An Interactive Tool for the Classroom.

To give you an idea of the format the Constructivist Teaching unit covers:

1 What is constructivism - this simply explains the theory.
2 How it differs from traditional idea about teaching
3 What it has to do with your classroom.
4 An expert interview with an author of a well known book on the subject
5 The history of constructivism
6 Some critical perspectives
7 Benefits of constructivism.

For teachers , or principals who want to inform their parents about any of the topics, the site is invaluable to develop into a parent information pamphlet, or better still to simply direct parents to. Innovative schools could link topics on the site to their own website and to add them as links in their school belief systems.

Such ideas would certainly clear up parent misconceptions. Better still, if parents were appreciative of what the school was trying to do, they would become powerful allies - or at the least informed critics. Knowledge is power and is the only way to clarify those with opinions but no substance.

Take my advice - take a look at what is on offer.

Tuesday, October 02, 2007

The Interactive Teaching Model

When confronted with new or ambiguous situations the human brain does its best to make sense of things - to 'construct' the best answer it can. Humans are born to learn and it is a crime that so many of our young people continue to be failed by their schools. What can you see in the image?

The active brain searches for patterns.

In the early eighties exciting research was being undertaken by the Science Education Research Unit of the University of Waikato. As a school science adviser I was lucky enough to be involved in applying the idea gained in schools at the time. Unfortunately the impetus was lost under the confusion created by the curriculum changes following Tomorrow's Schools in 1986. As the Ministry is now leaving behind 'their' imposed curriculums it is time to return the focus to teaching and learning and to revisit the inspirational ideas of the Learning In Science Project ( LISP).

The project originated with Dr Roger Osborne from the Waikato University Physics Department. He was concerned that students did not seem able to apply their knowledge to practical physics requirements. After visiting local secondary schools he became concerned to find, although that they were being 'taught' the appropriate material, their 'prior ideas' about physics concepts were interfering their learning in his classes. Later the project was extended to primary classes to see if the same mis-match existed.

It did. Learners from birth do their best to make sense of any learning situation that attracts their attention but all too often develop misconceptions. At school they 'learn' to provide the 'right' answers while at the same time still holding on to their hidden personal views. If this process of a mismatch between teacher and students' knowledge goes unchallenged then students gain, what some call, 'fragile' learning. It was to these 'prior ideas' that students were reverting to in the practical university physics classes. It is as if the 'scientific' view and the students 'common sense' views were in conflict.

The implications for teaching at all levels are immense.

Any form of transmission teaching is suspect ( we all know we forget much of what we were 'taught' after the exam) but equally in discovery, or practical approaches, who knows what the students are really learning? These were the issues that concerned Dr Osborne and his researchers.

If students cannot always learn by transmission, or from their own experience a 'new' model of learning needs to be defined; an 'interactive approach. Hardly new, if Socratic questioning was understood, or the ideas of more modern theorists who believed that learners need to construct their own meanings, but it went against the 'prior ideas', or hidden assumptions, that underpinned much current teaching.

It was soon discovered that students hold on to all sorts of views that make sense to them, no matter how unscientific, but of which the teachers are completely oblivious. It was David Ausubel who wisely said (1968) , 'The most important factor influencing learning is what the learner already knows: ascertain this and teach accordingly'. This was to be good advice. The challenge for teacher was to reduce any disparity but always to leave the learner feeling in control of his , or her, own leaning. As Gibran (1926) expressed it, 'no man can reveal to you ought that which lies half asleep in the dawning of your knowledge'. The idea was that students should 'generate', or 'construct' their own meaning with the assistance of others if possible. One challenging development was an appreciation that students will only 'change their minds' if they see sense no matter what the teacher might insist but that, at least in the process, they will understand that others hold contrary views which could be unsettling.

These ideas apply to all learning areas.

For many primary teachers these idea were liberating as teachers and students could 'co-construct' learning together ( as against teachers having to know everything before hand). For subject teachers it would make sense to value students questions and 'prior ideas' before any further teaching. This 'interactive', or 'constructivist', approach is an ideal mix of process and content; one that places the learner at the centre of the equation. The results of any learning, at school or elsewhere, will only be the best answer at the time.

The teachers role in this process is vital, either as a 'learning guide' or 'adviser', or as a 'co-creator'. Challenging students' current understandings and to see how much they have changed is important, if we are to value in-depth, and lasting, understanding in any area of learning.

The original project produced booklets outlining students' views on a particular topics ( which were remarkably similar worldwide) and suggested activities to challenge student thinking. But even without such focused help the approach is easily applicable in any learning situation.

1 First put students in an interesting situation.

2 Gather students question and concerns about the issue. With experience teacher and students will learn to recognise the 'best' question for students to research ( other questions will 'emerge' as the study progresses). Students, in some cases, can be asked to draw what they know about a topic before they begin e.g symmetry or spiders. This is an excellent way to gain insight into their thinking.

3 Get the students to provide 'answers' to their question to give you insight into their 'prior ideas' and current theories. These can be recorded and displayed under 'What we know before we studied...' The drawing mentioned above will also provide insights into their current understandings.

4 Divide students into research groups to plan how they are going to investigate the question they have chosen ( 'action research'). Students can also work independently. Studnts will need help to develop their 'action plans'. Best results require students to have been taught information gathering skills ( and design presentation skills) beforehand but these will evolve with experience.

5 Students complete their research. The teachers' role is to circulate providing feedback, necessary guidance, and to challenge student thinking. He, or she, may see the need for students as a class, or group, to be given specific help.

6 Students report to other students their finding ( possibly using a range of media). Other students might have the opportunity to comment or ask questions. Through such demonstrations, displays and reflection students will become aware of what they have learnt and how their ideas might have changed. A heading might be added to any wall display, or written up in their study book, called, 'Things we have learnt' and this might include questions 'we' still need to think about.

Teachers will recognise that the approach is a version of inquiry or 'action research' learning
that should underpin all their teaching, valuing and building on the natural curiosity of their students. It is also the basis of Reading Recovery and modern approaches to mathematics and will be nothing new to teachers who value student creativity.

It is a shame that 'constructivist' teaching is not more common in our classrooms.

This is the sort of teaching the future requires of our schools if students are to become, 'active seekers, users and creators' of their own knowledge, as indicted in the 'new' New Zealand Curriculum.