Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Schools should embrace fun and active learning - not National Standards .

Maltese students actively involved in science meets history study.

Educators should teach students how to think, not what to think writes a former principal of a primary school Salvina Muscat in Malta. Advice our technocrats in the Ministry should be taking if we want to ensure our new curriculum is to work. National Standards are a destructive diversion.

I liked what Salvina Muscat wrote so much I have copied her article from the Malta times. Ms Muscat now works in the Malta Education Department. We need people like her in New Zealand.

'In making laws which bind parents to an education system, we collectively assume a huge responsibility. And yet, for a high percentage of students, the school experience is not a good one.

In the early years of education children seem eager to learn; they are lively and happy. Generally, the classroom provides an atmosphere of spontaneity in which children are encouraged to explore, discover and create.

However, large numbers of students leave school feeling bitter and defeated, not having mastered basic skills society demands from them.

For teachers of unhappy children, the school experience is generally also an unhappy one.

The temptation is to go on the defensive and claim the students are stupid or that their social background is to blame.

It is not always so easy to draw this line. We must reflect on the teaching approach used.

Does this trigger in children a love for learning? How has teaching changed in comparison to the massive flow of information available as a result of the progress in technology? Are we teaching for dynamic learning or superficial knowledge?

In their book, Cognitive Process Instruction: Research On Teaching Thinking (1980), Jack Lochhead and John Clement assert, "We should be teaching students how to think. Instead, we are teaching them what to think."

Very often, education consists of transmitting subject content to students. In most cases, this is done in an excellent way; however, we fail to transmit to students the skill to think effectively about the subject matter - namely how to properly understand and evaluate it.

We need to find a solution to the fact that a majority of school-leavers feel like 'failures'. All children need to feel safe to learn in a manner which best suits them. While they are learning they are liable to make mistakes. This means they need to take risks and at the same time feel safe to take such risks.

Hence, schools need to create a positive environment which makes children feel respected and valued for who they are. Children learn best in an atmosphere of warmth and acceptance. Learning can be fun, or rather should be fun. Thus, it needs to focus on presenting children with enjoyable experiences.

These experiences need to include a variety of activities. In this way, children get more involved in learning about themselves, other people and other environments.

Activity while learning does not necessarily mean taking children out of the classroom every so often, or using teaching time to carry out unrelated activities.

Learning needs to focus on more interesting and better-prepared learning programmes which help children participate actively. This allows them to develop skills and competencies at a rate that is appropriate to their level.

Every person is unique, has different abilities and ways of memorising; each brain is uniquely organised. The same learning method will not be equally successful with all children. Learning needs to take the form of play so that, while it is enjoyable, problem solving skills are improved.

Scholars like Kim Tegel agree that play caters for many areas of development as it involves making decisions, group management, cognition and hypothesising, creativity, physical skills, aesthetic development and language development.

Play is open-ended and helps all children. How can a teacher make this a reality in the classroom with all the constraints?

In their publication, Promoting Active Learning: Strategies for the College Classroom, Chet Myers and Thomas Jones define active learning as "talking, listening, reading, writing, and reflection through problem-solving exercises, and other activities, all with the objective of requiring students to apply what they are learning".

A great deal of research supports active learning exercises. There are findings that students who are actively involved in the learning process are more likely to retain information, understand subject content and maintain overall interest in their study.

The benefits of a student-centred active learning approach has been well-documented; it serves students well when they enter their ever-changing fields of employment and need to adapt to change, think critically and work both collaboratively and independently.

As educators, our role is to facilitate learning for all children. If we need to tap different minds to be active participant learners we need to use a creative learning approach to teaching, supported by the use of resources.

The more senses (seeing, touching, tasting, hearing and smelling) are involved, the better the learning. The mind learns by association; in short this means we relate the unknown to the known. We need to explain the 'why' of a thing or an action.

In teaching, one needs to be flexible and able to adapt plans to the needs that may crop up as the learning is in progress. While talking about caring for plants, students need to experience planting a seed, and caring for the seed while it grows. When we discuss airplanes or any other means of transport, we can use a video and discuss parts of the machine like the steering wheel, or brakes, relating this to the car their family may own.

Children require immediate recognition of efforts made. They need to have the opportunity to discuss the results of their work and plan improvements.

Finally, it is essential to provide children with an experience of sharing their efforts. It is highly motivating if children can present their efforts to the class or in an assembly when a project or piece of work is accomplished. Evaluation is a necessary tool both for teachers and students as it is a measure of clearly defined goals set prior to initiating the task.

In this busy, fast-changing world, educating children for the future is the real challenge. Children need self-confidence, to be adaptable, to utilise their natural creativity, to understand their strengths and weaknesses, to be increasingly self-aware emotionally and intellectually, and to be capable of building relationships quickly, effectively and often virtually.

Entrepreneurship will be a vital tool for their success and for our economy's future stability. Perhaps we should encourage teachers to provide a variety of learning experiences which address different sorts of desirable outcomes.

There is a great need to teach beyond the curriculum. If we do not want change in education to remain cosmetic, all teachers need to be well-supported through training in active teaching approaches. They also need free use of resources to support their teaching. Success depends on the coordinated efforts of all.

As the African proverb goes, "Tomorrow belongs to the people who prepare for it."'

Ms Muscat is assistant director in the Human Resources Department of Education. She was the principal of St Margaret's College, Vittoriosa, when it was in the pilot stage, and holds a Masters Degree In Parmary Education.

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