Saturday, September 27, 2008

Joyful Learning

Children enjoying a science experiment.Marina Bay School

I was sent an article recently by Steven Wolk, from the Educational Leadership magazine, that should be compulsory reading for all teachers.

Wolk introduces his article by saying, 'joyful learning can flourish in your school if you give joy a chance'.

John Dewey, in 1936, wrote that 'to what avail if students absorb prescribed amounts of information.... if in the process the individual loses his own soul'. More recently, in 1984, John Goodland in his book 'A Place called School' after surveying high schools, wrote that he found an 'extraordinary sameness' and that 'boredom was a disease of endemic proportions, ' he asked, ,why are schools not places of joy?'

Even our 'new', progressive, NZ Curriculum dropped out of its final copy that schools should develop 'a love of learning', present in an earlier draft.

Although written for an American audience Wolk's ideas are relevant to us in NZ. Schools, he writes, should 'be joyful places where the minds of young children are wide open to the wonders of learning and the fascinating complexities of life'.

Wolk provides ideas for teachers to action to avoid the destructive powers that Dewey mentioned. Wolk writes,'what happens in schools has a deep and lasting effect on the mindsets that children develop towards life long learning.'

It gets back, Wolk writes, to the purpose of learning. What dispositions, he asks , do we want to cultivate? 'Is joy mentioned in any list'?

Wolk does not equate joy with simply having fun seeing it as being gained as the result of doing something personally satisfying.

Wolk outlines eleven essentials to put more joy into learning.

1 Find Pleasure in learning. With pleasurable learning we don't mind possible difficulties invoved in any in learning; we tend to see them as a natural part of learning, so we are far more open to taking risks. Schools need to tap into what children enjoy learning about and also make all school learning more enjoyable.

2 Give Students Choice. How much choice ( or 'ownership') do students have about their learning? Students can be given choices during the school day. Students can be given choice in their studies, the questions they want to explore, and how they wish to express their ideas. Schooling ought to inspire children to ask questions able to design their own tasks.

3 Let Students Create Things. People like to make stuff. Creating something original gives us a tremendous sense of agency and pride. As well, creating things gives us an appreciation of the creative process in action.

4 Show off Students Work. Our schools, and classrooms, should be brimming with wonderful, original student work. Classrooms should 'speak' to visitors.

5 Take Time to Tinker. We all learn by fooling around. Student's imaginative ideas , their intuitive leaps of imagination, should be encouraged. All too often our schools are too planned, leaving no room for spontaneity. We need to free teachers to take risks, experiment, to play with the art of pedagogy, and to feel the joy that comes from such on open approach to teaching.

6 Make school Places Inviting. All spaces, inside and outside of schools, need to be seen as learning spaces.

7 Get Outside. More of the school day should be outside. Fresh air and a sunny day can do miracles for the human spirit. Children need to have their sensory awareness expanded.To sit under a tree to read, draw, think, or talk. Much of our science could directly include the outdoors. Ecosystems are all around.

8 Read Good Books. Make sharing good literature an important feature of all classrooms. Give students time to share their own stories. All study topics have themes which provide opportunities to introduce good literature.

9 More Physical Education and Arts. In America many students have no art, music, and drama and little time for PE. For many students these are the areas that many children have strengths in and gain joy from.

10 Transform Assessment. Assessment is a pert of life and students need to see it as an important part of the learning process. We should make more use of immediate feedback, narrative assessment, self assessment, portfolios of authentic work, presentations, exhibitions and performances.

11 Have Fun Together. Teachers need to take a break from the seriousness of the school day and have some fun together. Anything that tears down the walls that often get built inside schools and builds more caring relationships is to be encouraged

Wolk concludes by referring back to John Dewey quote and says that schools can sap our souls is just as true for teachers as it is for students

If principals can help teachers find joy in their work
, and help their teachers strive to 'own their own teaching' the teachers can enter their rooms every morning enthusiastic to help their students experience joy in their learning.

Friday, September 26, 2008

Myths of Inqury Based Classrooms

Students, as a part of an intensive bird study, undertake detailed observational study based on a 'stuffed' pheasant.

Canadian educator Sharon Friesen outlines myths of inquiry based classrooms in Canada in her video presentation.

Her ideas about how 'knowledge is created' are worth sharing.

1 Some teachers see no place for the teacher.This results in a lack of engagement by teachers and can be seen as a form of abdication. I can't see this as a problem in New Zealand where teachers, all too often, have been encouraged to apply intrusive 'best practices' teaching. Thankfully it is mostly restricted to literacy and numeracy teaching.

2 Teachers who do not learn alongside their students do not give their students timely feedback. Once again not such a problem in New Zealand where teachers over 'coaching' all too often results in quality work lacking in any individuality or real creativity!

3 Teachers do not act on student misconceptions. In new Zealand this would not apply in the literacy and numeracy programmes but applies in the, all too often, 'lightweight' content studies students undertake.

4 Teacher act as just facilitators. This role is not enough to ensure deep understanding in content areas. Teachers need to act as guides, coaches, advisers, co-learners, mentors, co- inquirers.

5 Teachers who feel they don't have to have in depth knowledge themselves as inquiry is about 'how to learn' not content. Teachers need to know both process and knowledge if their students are to develop in depth understandings. This is an issue in many New Zealand classrooms in content areas as science and social studies.

6 Students can learn by themselves. This myth is an abdication of teacher responsibility and is a form of abandonment.It is akin to handing the asylum over to the inmates. Hardly an issue in New Zealand literacy and numeracy programmes.

7 Teachers believe all student's answers are equally valid. This is obviously not so and teachers need to challenge and expand students ideas and theories. Once again this only applies in New Zealand to 'shallow' content studies.

Freisen is writing about Canadian teachers and from a position that develop a spirit of inquiry is central to all learning. Students need to be helped to create, through inquiry, their own knowledge so as to develop in depth understandings.

Inquiry teaching needs to be cultivated if we are to develop students able to thrive a unpredictable, but potentially exciting, 21stC.

Inquiry as a disposition

Students at Opunake Primary School dig deeply into life in Captain Scott's Antarctic hut as part of their in depth inquiry learning project about Antarctica.

The following blog is taken from a video presentation given by Canadian Sharon Friesen. Well worth spending five minutes to listen for yourself.

The biggest myth, Canadian educator Sharon Freisen says, is that inquiry is not just something you do, it is a disposition that underpins all teaching. Inquiry is a vital means of ensuring students develop deep understanding of what they study. Far too much of what is called inquiry, Sharon says, is shallow teaching.

This is certainly the case of much of what I see when I visit New Zealand classrooms. Unfortunately in our classrooms all too often there is simply not the time left after literacy and numeracy demands are taken care of. An inquiry disposition needs to be central to all learning.

Inquiry, Sharon outlines, involves a number of processes.

It is about students and teachers bringing their experiences to the learning situation.

The it is adding information to the mix

From this creating knowledge.

All in order to develop deep understanding.

This fits well with the New Zealand Curriculum of seeing students as 'seekers, users and creators of their own knowledge'. I would add to this phrase 'and their own judges'. It also links to the thinking of the creative New Zealand teachers of the 60s and 70s, before the imposition of standardized curriculums and accountability pressures.

Inquiry learning, Sharon continues, is about teaching and learning for deep understanding.It is knowledge, learner, and assessment centred teaching. In many New Zealand classrooms, if inquiry teaching is to be seen, it all too often centres around 'how to learn' processes and seems to downplay an appreciation of valuing deep understanding. Both, of course, are required.

Sharon makes the point that having an 'inquiry disposition' applies as much to teachers as the students. It is all about 'keeping the spirit of inquiry awake'.Teachers, she says, need to challenge themselves as well as their students. Once again this is in the spirit of the New Zealand Curriculum. Unless teachers model inquiry processes in their actions they cannot cultivate it in their students.

Sharon makes the very important point that you 'need something worthy of inquiry' to engage students. The topics students involve themselves in need to be worthwhile to avoid inquiry becoming 'trivial'.

Sharon reminds us that a time when the spirit of inquiry was fully awake was the Renaissance. At this time of awakening everything was questioned at a fundamental level. We are, she states, exactly at the same point again with the development of new information technology. In the Renaissance the inventions of the telescope, the microscope, the printing press, and navigational tools all inspired a total rethinking.

The spirit of inquiry is at centre stage again. It is important that schools do not trivialize this challenge. What is required , she says,is major transformational shift. Inquiry must permeate all aspects of our teaching and learning if students are to understand themselves and their world.

The end product of an inquiry should not only result in deep understanding but in new questions to explore. Inquiry is a continual disposition to question everything. It is about going deeply into what is to be learnt. To be truly engaged, Sharon concludes, is 'hard fun'.

Sharon's challenge aligns well with the spirit of our 'new' New Zealand Curriculum.

All we need now are for our schools to become 'communities of inquiry'.

Friday, September 19, 2008

Guy Claxton- 'Learning Power'

If you want to read a book that may change your mind about teaching and learning - or confirm intuitive thoughts you have always had, get yourself a copy of this book. I note I bought my copy in 2001 and my copy is almost falling apart with re-reading and underlining. I also note that he has a new book out called 'What's the Point of School'? published 2008. I am hooked - I must get a copy.

On the cover of Guy Claxton's book there is a quote from actor John Cleese, 'Just occasionally I get the feeling that somebody has said something important.

I have to agree.

I have never met Guy Claxton but once when I was working in a school in Hastings(NZ) the principal went off to a seminar to hear him speak. On return he passed on to me the 'messages' that he picked up.

Since then I have done my best to read everything he has written .I now have three of his books, each one challenging my thinking further than the previous. First I read 'Wise- Up', then 'Hair Brain Tortoise Mind' and most challenging of all, for me, 'The Wayward Mind'. I would recommend 'Wise-Up' or do a search of for his articles on 'google'. Maybe his latest book might sum up his present ideas about teaching and learning and be the one to get?

For those, who do their best to keep up with the ideas that 'trickle down' from the Ministry, they will recognise many of Claxton's ideas. He is evidently on their list of approved thinkers but this is not surprising for his thoughts align well with the direction of the 'new' New Zealand Curriculum. Claxton's ideas make a great antidote to all the standardized curriculums that the Ministry was previously in favour of and insisting that schools comply with. Thankfully, for creative teachers and schools, the Ministry 'experts' have changed their minds.

Claxton is to return to New Zealand in November to run seminars and work with lucky schools and the Ministry.

Claxton is a believer that to thrive in the future students need to develop their 'learning power', or as we so often hear these days their 'learning capacity'. The NZC calls these future dispositions the 'key competencies'. Art Costa, in his writings, calls these future dispositions 'habits of mind'. Some us will be more familiar with the phrase 'learning how to learn' as against focusing only on content.

Claxton outlines in 'Wise-Up' his four 'Rs'; resilience, resourcefulness, reflection and reciprocity.

He also believes that Western thinking has focused too much on logical rational thinking ( which he calls 'fast', or 'hair brained', in his second book).This kind of linear thinking, he writes, is useful for solving problem to which there is an obvious answer. Unfortunately for most of the real problems facing individuals and nations such thinking is inadequate. Instead he believes in the power of reflection ,or meditation, of letting the mind have time to come up with its own answers. To solve such problem his advice is to 'prime' the mind and then to stop thinking and let answers just 'come to mind'. Go fishing, he suggest and who knows what you will start thinking about. The creative process is at best messy. This , he says, is how many of the important ideas have come to many of our great thinkers and creative individuals. In fact all of us. This 'slow-thinking' he calls our 'tortoise-mind'.

This 'slow thinking' is the realm of the unconscious and has been neglected by Western thought. Through exposure, and through the myths and stories we share, ideas seep into our unconscious and becomes available as and when required. The history of how we have seen the unconscious since the beginning of history is the theme of his book 'The Wayward Mind'.

Claxton believes that 'young people need to mull and drift as well purposefully problem solve, and therefor believes flexibility, adaptability, resourcefulness and creativity to be the qualities through which we can become truly educated. The key to being a life long learner is to have the confidence to 'know what to so when you don't know what to do'. One of his saying, that is now a,favourite of mine, is that, ''learnacy' is more important than literacy and numeracy'.

I do like the sound of his most recent book,'What's the Point of School'

Friday, September 12, 2008

Does maths deserve its time

Even Einstein worried that modern schooling had the potential to destroy the joy of learning. What is about maths that makes it worth keeping in our curriculum? Why are so many students 'turned off' mathematics? Are we using maths time wisely?

I am no expert in mathematics. I retain within me negative attitudes towards the subject gained from my schooling that stay with me to this day. There must be countless other adults who have similar feelings about school maths.

For all this the place of mathematics is rarely questioned.

As we enter the 21stC schools ought to be reflecting about the attributes and disposition that they want all students to gain from their school experiences. This surely is what is being asked with the introduction of the 'new' New Zealand Curriculum?

All learning experiences need to be judged as to how they contribute to the overall vision of education that each school is being asked to define for itself to suit the needs and talents of their students.

All too often, however, how time is assigned to various subject areas remains unquestioned. Long after the Industrial Age has past, with its need for an elite of clerical workers, the Victorian 'three Rs' still remain central to learning. For those who failed in those days there were plenty of low skilled jobs available. This situation no longer exits. All students now need to gain success from their schooling.

Future students face an ever changing unpredictable complex world that will require new sets of attitudes - or key competencies as defined in the NZC.

As educationalist Guy CLaxton writes 'learnacy' ( or 'learning power') will be more important than traditional literacy and numeracy.

Looking around schools little has really changed. Literacy and numeracy still rule supreme and little time is left to introduce a range of rich learning experiences needed to provide contexts to develop future 'learning power'.

It seems only an outsider can see that the Emperor has no clothes because those in the system have no inclination to challenge the assumptions about how time is apportioned nor the the 'messages' that such an uneven approach gives to their students.

Mathematics ( leaving literacy aside ) seems to have claimed an unassailable place, as of right, in the daily timetable. But, according to Guy Claxton, 'its warrant is under scrutiny'. As the core purpose of education is being contested, he writes, 'powerful new models of teaching and learning are being proposed, and mathematics is in need of a new rational'.

He provides three challenges about the place of mathematics.

First it is not clear that much of mathematics is as directly useful as it has traditionally claimed to be. Many people, he writes, lead happy and successful lives with only basic maths. Research indicates that many people learn what they need through experience or need ( to play darts in the pub). Other research shows that children with a 'playful exploratory approach' to maths develop confidence in the future to involve themselves in more abstract maths later in life. If students are 'turned off' maths them they withdraw from future maths experiences.It seems many students, when faced up to a maths problem, give themselves a few seconds and then give up.

The message for teachers is to find ways to make maths fun and to teach maths in rich meaningful contexts. Less maths done well may mean deeper lasting understanding; much of what is currently taught is soon forgotten if not used regularly in meaningful situations.

Perhaps doing fewer things well would be a valuable idea as would, integrating maths in other areas of learning and defining what aspects of maths ought to be in place at any level, if positive attitudes are to be retained. If teachers focus on introducing fun exploratory maths then time can be reduced and used for other neglected learning areas such as science ? Seymour Papert , the computer educationalist, believes all maths( and science) should be applied.

A good idea is to make it clear when they are doing 'practice maths' and when they are doing real maths - applying it in real situations so they understand what maths is.

The second point Claxton makes is that their is no evidence to the claim that maths provides valuable generic training of the mind ( an argument once used for Latin). To achieve 'transfer' teachers have to highlight where and why maths is used in other problem solving situations.

The third point made is that there is no reason that maths should retain its central role in the school day. The worldview that sees mathematics as so central to learning is archaic.

Teachers need to be alert to see the maths potential in any learning experience including exploring the maths potential of the natural and man made environment.

The best maths, or any learning, is 'just in time' learning, rather 'than just in case', where the need to learn the maths required to solve a worthwhile task is obvious. During such learning students are able to construct their own meanings making what is learnt 'stick' in their brains available for future use; it seems it is a matter of 'use it or lose it'.

In such a classroom the boundaries between the traditional 'disciplines' becomes increasingly permeable. Mathematics becomes a valuable learning tool to solve problems.

According to Claxton, the the fixation of intelligence with literacy and numeracy has been shattered beyond repair. 'Learnacy', the desire to continue learning, is the real issue.

The important issue is to develop the positive appropriate habits of mind - the key competencies of the NZC. It is such attributes that schools should be focusing on achieving. To achieve such a vision will mean 'disrupting' current ways of assigning time to such areas such as mathematics.

Everybody ought to get a feel for mathematics and have the necessary skills and attitudes to make use of maths as necessary. No one is arguing that maths needs to replaced just redefined to suit the 21stC. Many mathematical topics are themselves ideal means to develop future dispositions as well as being embedded into other learning are problems.

Thankfully there have always been educationalists who have seen mathematics as creative and aesthetic and practical to provide resources and guidance. As well there are many creative teachers who have aways seem maths as both a creative learning area in its own sake and who integrate it creativity in the learning problem that provide the learning 'energy' of their classrooms.

Maths in this sense is creativity in action.

Tuesday, September 09, 2008

Powerful processes or in depth learning - or both?

Developing 'learning capacity' or developing students interests, talents, passions and dreams - or both?

A few things have been worrying me of late.

One is this emphasis on 'learning capacity' ( as seen by key competencies) as the central purpose of education . Another is the sidelining of in depth knowledge and the neglect of developing students talents and passions and the last is, what has really changed in primary classrooms to develop this learning capacity? Currently literacy and numeracy 'gobble up' most of the learning time. Is it all just rhetoric?

Learning, Mary Chamberlain from the Ministry says, has been strengthened in the New Zealand Curriculum through the inclusion of the key competencies and by an emphasis on pedagogy. She asks what is it that makes us want to learn? Her answer is if we feel have competencies and a positive disposition, it is these things that influence who we become.

Do they?

Is how students learn just as important as what they learn? Reading Mary's talk it seems the former but my experience of interesting people it is what they know and can do that singles them out. Obviously it is both.

Mary sees the competencies as 'the enablers' but I question is what what drives students to want to learn, and in the process develop these 'enablers'.

Students, Mary says, need to know you believe in their ability to learn and that you will support their dreams and encourage them to value effort and practice. No one would disagree with the above. I would just put more emphasis on the dream bit.

My worry is that the new emphasis on learning capacities and competencies is encouraging teachers to neglect in depth content. I see too many shallow studies where all that can be observed is an emphasis on learning capacities students have developed resulting in 'fragile' learning.

I do agree with Mary that plastering classroom walls with 'mind maps' and 'thinking hats' etc is not the answer, although, unlike Mary, I would not include Gardner's multiple intelligences because they are at the heart of what drives learners to learn.

To achieve in depth learning, Mary says, students need to be able to set goals, persist, work with others and look for links with other learning areas. Nothing new in any of that.

Quoting Margaret Carr ( University of Waikato) Mary continues that for a student successful learning is also a matter of inclination, of confidence, of knowing what is appropriate, and believing you have right to be curious to ask questions.

The right to be curious and to ask questions is, for me, the key to all learning.

Curiosity is an evolutionary drive as is the need to continually learn about whatever attracts the learner's attention. Curiosity is at the heart of all disciplined learning and leads into idiosyncratic talent development, or specialisation, and a growth of in depth of 'know how'. As A S Neil wrote , 'true interest is the life force of the whole personality'.

Competencies are obviously important but the development of lifelong deep interests are as important.

A few changes of emphasis in Mary's talk and I would have few arguments. Students obviously pick up learning habits from those around them who talk about their own learning. Fair enough but they are also inspired by seeing talented people demonstrate their skills. Students do need to be surrounded by adults who model and articulate competencies but are more impressed when such people demonstrate admirable talents that appeal to them.

Teachers need to focus on creating learning situation that inspire learners, that tap into their curiosity as well as focusing on developing learning capacities. I guess I am making a case not to lose the power that is gained from achieving ones personal best in an area that is meaningful to the learner as a compensation for an unbalanced approach to process. As Elwyn Richardson, one of New Zealand's pioneer educators wrote, ' a study without content is a study at risk'.

How the content is learnt is the issue and this is where a co-constructivist pedagogy comes into play; teachers rightfully being seen, as Mary says, as 'learning coaches' who are able to subtly 'scaffold learning' through feedback and focused assistance. Process and content knowledge are both vital. In my argument the coach does needs to know, his or her, content if fragile learning is to be avoided. A good 'coach' Mary says uses a 'split screen approach', an idea attributed to Guy Claxton, where the teacher teaches content/concept development with one part of the screen and strengthens learning capacity with the other. This is a valuable metaphor.

It is obvious that Mary has been influenced by the writings of Guy Claxton who has written that simply achieving does not make better learners. To be a competent learner students need the disposition to support their own continual learning and this is where the competencies come into the equation. Being a self learner, equipped with strategies, is vital.

I am simply making a case to value students interests and potential talents and to help students 'dig deeply' into such areas; to do fewer things really well.

Mary suggests that to develop learning as an active process it is important to look carefully about how time is used in the classroom.

This brings me back to classrooms I observe where the day is almost given over to literacy and numeracy leaving little time to expose students to a wide range of potential interests and ideas. This ought be impossible to justify but it does not seem to concern many principals or the Education Review Office. Or even the Ministry.

Mary shares idea about classroom environments from Claxton and Carr where they talk about 'inviting' and 'potentiating' classrooms. Inviting room make learning attractive but not necessarily 'stretching' while the latter are both appealing and challenging - developing capacity and new content.

Such rooms are aligned to the creative classrooms I have aways believed in. Guy Claxton believes such classrooms develop 'learning power' based on four Rs: Resilience, resourcefulness, reflection and relationships. He has written that 'learnacy' is more important than literacy and numeracy.This is obviously not what school are currently reflecting!

Mary concludes that 'expanding capacity to learn in these ways is a key goal of education' and that 'openness to learning is a key to success'.

I am just reminding people that another vital component is for students to develop their own set of personal interests and talents and to dig as deeply as they can into all they learn about.

I agree with Mary that if the curriculum is successful we will see our kids becoming more confident and more capable in the face of uncertainty and complexity.

I just want talented future orientated citizens as well.

Wednesday, September 03, 2008

Schools for talent development

The New Zealand Curriculum places great emphasis on ensuring all students leave school with the 'key competencies' in place but perhaps the real emphasis ought to be placed on the why students would want to use them - the inspiration to learn.

In the future we will need every kind of 'specialist' mind . Minds that excel in a few things even they may be inadequate at others. Everybody, it is now appreciated, has their own mix of talents and weaknesses. Developing strengths of individual students, and helping them compensate for weaknesses, is the role of education.

Imagine a school where all teachers dedicated to finding out what affinities,talents or gifts each student brings with them and then doing their best to value and amplify them. This has always been the dream of creative teachers throughout the ages. Such an approach would really value student individual differences and would result in the personalisation of learning.

Teachers should celebrate students strengths because such strengths provides students meaning in their lives enabling them to make worthwhile contributions to class life. For the most part adults who are leading worthy live do so by mobilizing their strengths and affinities. Teacher and parents should seek a consonance between a students education and their future career.

Providing experiences that have the potential to uncover and amplify such talents is the task for creative educators. It is not that strengths need to be seen as fixed as they will change and develop with age and experience.

Brains are extremely plastic and everyone learns in an idiosyncratic way .Many children fail to learn because traditional teaching methods are not in 'synch' with their individual needs, or simply ignore the motivating power of using students interests to learn. If students want to achieve something important to them they will often be prepared to learn whatever is necessary.

All too often those children with specialised minds are neglected as they are forced to achieve what their teachers have decided they need to learn. Education suits the well rounded academic learner at the expense of the strangely creative who in later life often prove their teachers wrong.

When students become involved in areas of strength, or personal interest, they are prepared to push themselves far beyond teacher expectations. In such purposeful situations students are often prepared to develop missing skills they once might have rejected. The best way to learn to read well is to read about something you know a lot about or want to learn more about.

Wise teachers will work with students and their parents to discover possible areas of interest. The eight intelligences defined by Howard Gardner make an excellent model to assist identification of areas of interests.

To value students strengths students need to be given time to develop their learning projects. It is important that all students do what they choose to do as well as they can and that they be given help to achieve quality learning according to particular needs.

This does not mean that every students will be following up only their personal set of interests but rather when topics are introduced into the learning environment teachers take advantage of individual students strengths to explore and express ideas. This approach aligns with teamwork in adult learning situations.

If school focus on uncovering student affinities from an early age students will find their education more relevant and will continue to remain life long learners with the possibility of ending up in occupations that match their talents.

By age eight or nine affinities should become obvious to teachers and parents and there is nothing wrong with students digging deeper in to such high personal interests are in consecutive years. This is how anyone with a deep interest progresses. Some children will become well known as school 'experts' in any number of things from spiders to computer use.

At the very least, every year after say year two, students ought to be given the opportunity to research a problem or topic that is of personal interest to them. Such a study would make an ideal way for teachers to assess whatever they count as inquiry learning competencies.

For such personalised projects students would need to plan and discuss how they are going to go about their project and what they hope to learn or find out about. They will need to consider how they intend to present, communicate, or demonstrate their learning. They will need to define their 'key questions' and consider their first steps.They then need to consider what information they will need (and where they will get it from) so as to gain some depth of insight to their chosen task. Finally they need to define who their intended audience will be.

For students to develop quality results teachers will have had to have introduced to the students, in previous class or group studies, all the information processing and expressive techniques for students to choose from.

Tapping into students affinities and talents is something that all teachers can include in their programmes. For other teachers it could well become a way of working that underpins all their teaching.

If this were the case teaching would become an artistic and creative activity a redefining education as we currently envisage it.

Monday, September 01, 2008

Tidy desks vacant minds?

Albert Einstein apparently maintained his desk in stupendous disarray. When it was suggested to him that a cluttered desk equates to a cluttered mind he replied,'And what does a tidy desk signify?'

I was returning from doing some work in one of our major cities when I ran across a principal I used to know in earlier years. He had just returned form the annual New Zealand Principal's Conference. I asked him what did he pick up from it all. He went on to talk about tidying his desk, passing more executive work onto his secretary and getting into the classrooms more. When he saw the look of amazement on my face he changed the subject.

Back home I asked the same question of another principal friend of mine and he went on to say similar things and how it had changed his life as a principal. I couldn't resist pulling his leg and I hurt his feelings. Didn't he already know this? I thought it was common sense? But it seem all over New Zealand principals are now Malachi Pancoast converts.

I had to search 'google' to find out Pancoast's hardly new 'powerful' message. It seems principals worldwide have become locked in their offices managing, or complying, obsessively to everything that goes on in their school with no time left to focus on what Steven Covey many years ago called, 'the main thing'. Covey wrote about the unimportant but urgent taking up time that ought to be spent on the important but not urgent; focusing on learning and teaching rather than fighting fires.

A few years ago a fellow principal asked me how many hours I spent on the job ( this was following a graph showing some principals working every hour God gave them!) and I said I was at the bottom of the graph. He admitted so was he and we both wondered what were the others actually doing? We, of course, agreed we were both effective pricipals!

Back to Pancoast 'enlightening' advice. It was all about reducing principals workloads; to work less but to be more effective. He told the principals that that they had absorbed the secretaries job as well as their own; that they needed to be out in the classrooms as a learning coach for their teachers.

Then came the big stuff.He advised principals to clean out their offices of anything personal and reeducate the secretary to take over work that they had been doing. Get her to handle all mail and paper work, get her to decide who gets to see you, meet with her daily to sort out actions for her to complete.

This was followed up principals re assigning two days to classroom coaching and support, three days in the office and and no work to go home in the evenings or weekends.

This is one book I could have written. Not the neat and sterile office stuff but leaving as much to other as possible so as to focus on being in classrooms. This is how I used to work and was also the case for other creative principals who believed it was all about teaching and learning - not endless clear folders. I was just discussing yesterday with my old secretary how we worked. She thanked me for empowering her.

I take up defence though for messy offices and thinking. Messy is just more effective than neat and tidy when it comes to creativity. Obsession with order is becoming a malady in modern management. Compulsive tidiness has its downsides and although it might suit the left brained 'control freaks' it is counter productive for right brained individuals who thrive in a mess that makes sense to them. Ironically when people tidy up things you often hear them say,'Since I have tidied up I can't find a thing!'

I can't see Pencoast's ideas being much use at a creative environment such as Google Headquarters which is anything but sterile and impersonal. There creative disorder is the name of the game to powerful effect. Google has a lot of 'play' in their system. The talented and trusted individuals who work there are given 20% of their time for their own pursuits. For all this Googles over all aim is the fierce pursuit of creativity, excellence and innovation; the results are anything but a mess.

So my advice is for principals, by all means return your focus to where it always should have been - teaching and learning but don't lose your creative soul in the process.

Remember a pinch of mess is an important ingredient in the creative process. As Einstein is claimed to have said , 'an empty office may only be the sign of an empty mind'.