Tuesday, July 28, 2009

A view from the edge

Stephanie Pace Marshall

We live in an increasingly uncertain world and it is during such times that successful individuals need to have the confidence to try thing even if they don’t know what to do. It is this attitude of mind that will get them into the future.

Unfortunately our schools, particularly our secondary schools, were developed with old industrial aged minds and unless they change dramatically such schools will not be able to cope with the needs of their increasingly diverse students. A fragmented mass one size fits all system cannot transform itself in a personalized learning community without upsetting the status quo. Tinkering will not do. The growing number of disengaged students will force change on schools whether they like it or not.

Developing confident creative life long learner is the essence of our ‘new’ New Zealand Curriculum. I say 'new' because there is really little that is really new in it – it is just that those who wrote the curriculum have thankfully caught up with the game. Schools need to be relevant and meaningful to all students not just the academic.

The challenge is well expressed by gifted American teacher and space shuttle astronaut Stephanie Pace Marshal who has said, ‘The liberation of genius and goodness of all children, the creation of new minds, and creating learning communities that invite and challenge the wonder and awe of the human spirit’ Addressing her fellow teachers she asks. ‘Is this the work you want to do?’

If so we have a long way to go.

Uncertainty about the future ought to encourage in us courageous thinking. ‘The future is uncertain’, writes Physicist Ilya Prigogine, ‘but this uncertainty I sat the very heart of human creativity’. The previous governments New Zealand Curriculum, while admittedly not new, was an important official step in the right direction seeing, as it does all students as ‘seekers, users and creators of their own knowledge’. It is a curriculum which places ‘intellectual curiosity at the heart of all learning’.

This ambitious 212stCentury curriculum, with its emphasis on learning how to learn competencies infused in relevant learning contexts could set the scene for developing the talented citizens our country needs to survive in uncertain times.

Instead all is being put at risk by a reactionary imposition by a populist government determined to introduce testing basic standards, the introduction of which has narrowed the curriculum in other countries. This obsession with winning the achievement stakes will create an environment, according to creativity expert Sir Ken Robinson, where ‘teachers pore over variances in achievement with intensity and value of voodoo chiefs staring at bones’ and distract teachers from providing real, but less easily measured, desire to learn.

Recently the UK Cambridge Review of Primary education presented a damming indictment of primary education, stating that an overemphasis on testing the skills of reading, writing and maths is compromising student’s natural curiosity, imagination and love of learning. ‘Basic skills’ now take up over 50% of all learning time, a situation that would be common in NZ schools even without testing! The report is critical of the politicisation of basic skills in a way that is detrimental to more rewarding learning. This subversion of learning has been distorted by their equivalent of the Education Review Office. (Ofsted).

Educationalist Roland Barth has written that , ‘many of our schools seem en route to becoming a hybrid of a nineteenth century factory, a twentieth century minimal security penal colony ,and a twentieth century education testing service’. No wonder we are having problems with behaviour and truancy.

Real learning, or creativity, according to Sir Ken Robinson, is about tapping into the natural grain of young people’s dispositions. He warns us that ‘mining our student’s heads’ to achieve higher literacy and numeracy scores means we neglect other, just as important, qualities and talents. ‘Creativity is just as important as literacy and numeracy’, he writes. And thinking expert, Guy Claxton, echoes Sir Ken by saying ‘learnacy is just as important as literacy and numeracy’ He writes, in his powerful book, ‘What’s the Point of School’, that we ought to be focusing on developing the ‘learning power’ of all students.

Negative school experiences, even for the so called successful, Robinson writes, ‘stamps us with deep impressions of ourselves’ impressions that can be ‘negative and hard to remove’. ‘This success or failure’, he writes, ‘can affect our image of ourselves for life’ and he reminds us that some of the most brilliant successful people, in all walks of life, failed education. Unfortunately many school failures never recover!

‘Re-engaging’ learners, or keeping them ‘engaged’, requires more than a focus on literacy and numeracy, it require new thinking
. Futurist Dan Pink writes that the future will ‘require that the current domination of the left brained technocratic information age needs to give way to right brained qualities of inventiveness, empathy and making new meaning’; all implicit in out ‘new’ curriculum.

Even Canadian consultant Michael Fullan, one of the originators of the failed UK testing and ‘league tables’ , has had second thoughts believing now that it now is important to ‘broaden and widen’ definitions of literacy and numeracy. His ‘widening and deepening’ look like our key competencies! But he still conservatively sticks to placing the emphasis on them rather than seeing such important areas ‘reframed’ so as to focus on, and contribute to, inquiry learning. This is the advice of highly respected educator, Linda Darling-Hammond, in her latest book ‘Powerful Learning’. This is a book all principals (and politicians) should read. She is one of President Obama’s advisers.

My advice ‘from the edge’ is for teachers and schools to stand firm on the implementation of the ‘new’ New Zealand Curriculums and to fight hard against the imposition of the flailed political agenda of national testing and the possibility of demeaning ‘league tables’ of any sort.

The Cambridge review’s solution is to introduce a new curriculum which sounds very much like our own ‘new’ one. The review message is a wake up call to NZ schools to protect the creative opportunities the NZC provides from the interference of politicians.

We do need to ensure every student leaves our school system ‘confident creative life long learners’. Unpacking this rhetoric is the real challenge for schools the success of which will solve many of the problems currently created by trying to fit students into a ‘one size fits all’ system. As the saying goes ‘if the only game in town is poker, and there are some very good chess players, then the chess players will be handicapped’.

We need to work hard to personalize our schools so as to provide unique pathways for every learner so as to value the learning identities, cultures, the gifts, and ‘voices’ of all our students.

It is worth reminding ourselves that all young people are born with an evolutionary disposition to learn and to keep this desire alive is the challenge for us all. We need to recognize and amplify every learners extraordinary natural capacities; we need to observe them to see what area of strengths they have and then to build on them Real creativity, writes Sir Ken Robinson, ‘comes from finding your medium, from being in your element’ and that ‘discovering this right medium is often a tidal moment in the creative life of the individual.’

Teaching is about creating the conditions for all students to realize their potential; for all students to have the opportunity to be their own ‘seekers, users, and creators of their own knowledge’. ‘The dream begins ‘ said Dan Rather, ‘with a teacher who believes in you, who tugs and pushes and leads you to the next plateau, sometimes poking you with a sharp stick called the truth.’

To achieve the right conditions will require courageous leadership and faith in the creative potential of teachers. Teachers who if given the right conditions will do the best for all their students

Nothing must be allowed to get in the way of such a vision. Not even politicians!

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