Monday, June 29, 2009

National Standards - patching the Titanic!!!

The difficult times we are going through are not the time for timid or reactionary thinking - now is the time for new ideas, structures and transformational ways of thinking. If all we do is bail out failing structures nothing really will change. The Titanic sinking marked the beginning of the end for sea liners but they were finished off when big planes took over.

I was recently sent an article about the US Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan, making one of his top priorities national standards to replace the hodgepodge of benchmark testing of the various states.And this on top of the failing No Child Left Behind testing! He wants better tests to replace the current bad ones!

More recently I listened to Sir Ken Robinson, a international expert in creativity in education and business, say that, although he was enthusiastic about President Obama's presidency, he was becoming worried that all that had happened so far were quick fix answers propping up the very organisations that had so dramatically failed.

Duncan's response in education is in the same category. Insisting on standardisation when times ask for innovation and creativity to solve the inherent problems of a failing education system developed for a past industrial era.

Research from the US and UK suggests that such polices have failed to lead to significant improvements - the National Literacy Strategy in the UK has had almost no impact on literacy levels and worse still is turning kids enjoyment of reading off! It is what happens in classrooms that is the key and by imposing standards on teachers will erode any teacher goodwill. There is evidence, as well as common sense, that shows that it is the students who receive the most intellectually demanding programmes who posited greater gains on standardised tests. All too often, however, teachers simply teach to the tests, narrow the curriculum and limit their student's creativity in the process. These unintended corrupting consequences are called by some 'collateral' damage and threaten the very purpose of education

Only innovation and creativity,as Sir Ken says, will solve the problem that face us; and schools he believes ought to seen as the places to foster this creativity.

With all this in mind it was great to read an open letter to President Obama written by Herbert Kohl. Kohl writes that he was pleased that the president said of his book '36 Children' that it provided him with 'tremendous hope' and that the book had had a 'big impact' on him.

Kohl wrote the book in 1965 when working with disadvantaged black students - students whom others had given up on. Kohl's aim was to provide a classroom to let the ' student's creativity and intelligence speak for itself. He also wanted to show how it was important 'to provide an interesting and complex curriculum that integrated the arts and science, and utilized the students own culture and experience to inspire learning.'

Kohl writes, saying that 'we have come along way from that time in the 60s and now the mantra is high expectations and standards. Yet will all that zeal to produce measurable learning outcomes we have lost sight of the essential motivations to learn'. Kohl writes students tell him they are now learning 'how to do good on the tests.'

He says to the president, 'It is hard to understand how educators can claim that they are creating high standards when the substance and content of learning is reduced to getting answers on tests'. 'in the panic over teaching', he continues, ' getting students to perform well on reading tests, educators have lost sight of the fact that reading is a tool, an instrument that is used for pleasure, and for the acquisition of knowledge and information about the way the world works.'

Reading, Kohl writes, develops 'through interaction with a knowledgeable, active teacher- through dialogue, and critical analysis.It develops through imaginative writing and research.'An emphasis on teaching towards standards', Kohl writes, 'naturally leads to boredom and alienation from school based learning.' 'This disengagement is often stigmatized by attention deficit disorder.'

'This impoverishment of learning is reinforced', Kohl writes, ' by cutting programmes in the arts.The free play of the imagination, which is so crucial for problem solving, is discouraged in a basics programme lacking in substantial artistic and human content.'

'Add to this the elimination of physical education..and it is no wonder American students are lethargic when it comes to ideas and actions.

'It is possible to maintain high standards for all children, to help students to speak thoughtfully, think through problems, and create imaginative representations of the world as it is and as it could be, without forcing them through a regime for high-stakes testing.Attention has to be paid to the richness of the curriculum itself and time has to be allocated to thoughtful exploration and experimentation.It is easy to ignore content when the sole focus is on test scores.'

Kohl concludes his letter to the president by saying, 'Your administration has the opportunity set the tone, aspirations, and philosophical and moral grounds for reform that develops the intelligence, creativity, and social and personal sensitivity of students. I still hold the hope you mentioned you took away from '36 Children' but I sometimes despair about how we are wasting the current opportunity to create truly effective schools where student's welcome the wonderful learning we as adults should feel privileged to provide them'.

Kohl finishes his letter by saying to President Obama that 'he would welcome the opportunity to discuss these and other educational issues with you.

Sincerely, Herbert Kohl.'

Good stuff!!!

The sentiments expressed by Kohl are well beyond the grasp of our current Minister of Education! She is not willing to,listen. Let's hope President Obama is.

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