Saturday, June 6, 2009

Whose learning is it?

This painting, featured on the cover of Elwyn Richardson's wonderful book 'In The Early World', is a good example of expression based of the real life experience of the student involved. Such personal paintings are no longer common in our schools; even personal writing about felt experiences no longer feature. The curriculum of the school now seems to belong to the teacher but this begs the question: whose education is it? Elwyn's inspirational book is still available from the NZCER.

My regular visits to classrooms over the years has brought to my attention that the default mode of most teachers centres around ensuring their students can show evidence of achievement in literacy and numeracy. Nothing wrong with this except that there are other equally important areas that are being neglected in the process.

The important question is to ask what is the purpose of education and once this is identified to keep this in mind during all teacher student interactions?

Our 'new' New Zealand Curriculum vision is the need to ensure all students become confident life long learners. The need to ensure all students gain success is a relatively new idea and is a daunting challenge for schools ; one that has yet to be realized.

The curriculum defines life long future learning dispositions as 'key competencies'.The term 'key competencies' is an unfortunate one as it has a impersonal or technocratic ring about it but the intent is clear enough. It is about ensuring all students retain , or develop, the attributes to cope with whatever challenges they will have to face up to in the future - to become confident and competent 'have a go' learners!

One phrase, found in the thinking competence, is that students need to be seen as 'seekers, users, and creators of their own knowledge' is an important one. Teachers need to reflect on: what skills need to be taught ( in realistic contexts) to ensure students know how to seek knowledge; for students to make use of it in the context of their current understandings; and, most important of all, to be able to use this knowledge in an imaginative and creative way?

This surely is where literacy and numeracy play vital role? Obviously students need to be able to learn to read and count but this ought to be in the service of students making personal meanings of their experiences. Students, as Guy Claxton writes, need to see the point of their learning.

All too often, when visiting rooms, it is not the students questions, 'voice' and ideas that are celebrated but rather 'work' undertaken to develop teachers literacy and numeracy goals. The difference is important. To quote Claxton again 'learnacy' ( the innate desire to learn) is more important than literacy or numeracy.

Claxton has written ,'The classroom should be a place where talk about the process of learning, the nature of oneself as a learner, and ones improvement and intentions for oneself as a learner, is continual and natural, Claxton sees the NZ Curriculum's key competencies as providing 'learning power'.

Really valuing students thoughts requires teachers coming alongside their students to enter into 'learning conversations' - not to pass on our intentions to students but to listen to what they have to say and to assist them consider what they need to do to solve their problems. It would seem that over the past decade or so teachers have become too good at ensuring student creativity is restricted with their overuse use of 'teaching intentions', 'WALTS', 'success criteria' and the like. This bring us back to whose learning is it? Such techniques need to be used sensitively if we really want to value student creativity.

As Elwyn Richardson has written.'What I myself have learned I have mainly my children to thank. They were my teachers as much as I was theirs, and the basis of our relationships was sincerity, without which I am convinced their can be no creative education.' In this comment Elwyn echoes the philosophy of Sylvia Ashton Warner who believes the first reading book should be make from the 'stuff' or imagery within the head of every child. Sylvia wrote: ' From the teacher's end it boils down to whether or not she is a good conversationalist; whether she has the gift or the wisdom to draw out and preserve the other's line of thought'. Both Elwyn and Sylvia worked in the 1950/60s!

Today literacy is almost totally book orientated and student 'voice is hardly to be seen.

To return to the purpose of learning surely the overriding goal is to develop the gifts and talents of all students and to provide them with the means (key competences) to realise them.

To achieve this requires a rich and stimulating learning environment

The first source of learning 'energy' to tap into are the questions and concerns of the students themselves. No matter how trivial they may look to teachers most, if not all, can be built on and, in the process, cover much of what would be included in the teachers programme or the 'official' curriculum. This approach has been developed by American educator James Beane. Certainly the personal lives of the students provide 'rich picking' for personal or poetic writing if teachers encourage students to expand on what Elwyn Richardson calls 'felt moments. Such writing becomes a source of meaningful reading - teachers can scribe young children thoughts out for them and model powerful or poetic writing in the process.

Carlina Rinaldi writes, ' The child is an incredible resource.Because the child's search for meaning in life pushes you, if you dialogue with him.'

Another valuable source of inspiration for learning is the immediate environment
made great use of by Elwyn Richardson and teachers I worked with in the 70/80s. Both the man made but, more particularly, the natural world offer rich sources of ideas to investigate leading into science, maths and social studies etc. To take advantage of such ideas students need to be skilled at using their senses to interpret what they see. Most important is the often neglected skill of observation. Those who see more, observe more have more words and images to draw on. Such language experience, another almost forgotten part of past New Zealand teacher repertoire, is a vital means to develop writing and in turn literacy.

Creative teachers, following the advice of Jerome Bruner ( 'the art of teachers is the canny art of intellectual temptation'), can negotiate with their students a range of exciting inquiry topics and learning tasks across the curriculum - including literacy and numeracy studies. Such experiences provide valuable opportunities for students to tap into or discover their talents.

We not have to teach inquiry to our students it is an innate evolutionary disposition they were born with. Unfortunately in the wrong environment, where their 'voice' is not taken seriously, it can go underground.

In inquiry based creative classrooms
( where literacy and numeracy have been 're framed' to teach both necessary learning strategies and to introduce content to think about) students have the opportunity to develop into 'confident life long learners' able to 'seek , use and create their own knowledge.'

As a result of this co-constructivist inquiry approach, students are busy creating their own learning, presenting their findings to their highest personal standards. Teachers following such an approach are in a position to intimately learn how every student is really achieving - true personalised learning.

Such an environment provides the opportunities for students to create their own positive learning identity. Through teachers and student dialogue, or by the use of learning journals or learning stories, teachers can be of great value to each learner as they come to terms with those big questions of: ' Who am I? where did I come from? what am I good at? and where am I going?

Maxine Greene in her book 'Releasing the Imagination' sums it all up for me saying we need teachers,'who provoke learners to pose their own questions, to teach themselves, to go at their own pace, to name their worlds.Young people have to be noticed, it is now being realized; they have to be consulted; they have to question why.'

'Teachers' she continues, 'who are also being asked to treat their students as potential active learners who can best learn if they are faced with real tasks and if they discover models of craftsmanship and honest work.'

Such a learning environment is within the capability of all teachers once they see the point of it all.

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