Sunday, November 14, 2010

Teachers' minds 'colonised' by formulaic teaching? We need a creative alternative.

A Battlefield for the Minds of our Students

There is a battle being fought for the minds of our future citizens between those who see education as a means to achieve narrow political or economic ends versus those who see education as developing the full potential, or gifts and talents, of all students.

The current government’s desire to introduce reactionary national standards into primary schools has polarized the situation but clarified the issue for teachers.

The politicians view teachers as both the problem and the solution to introducing their National Standards. In contrast the teachers, while appreciating their importance, see the problematic ‘achievement tail’ as the result of difficult home circumstances and wider social issues.

On one side stand the conservatives with their minds firmly fixed on solutions with their genesis in the industrial era; an era of efficiency, control, of measuring a narrow set of targets and standardisation. These conservatives who push this populist point of view are tapping into the insecurity of parents and their need for reassurance in these difficult times.

On the other side but less secure in their vision, stand educators who see the need for a new mindset for a new age; these visionaries see the traditional school structures and culture as part of the problem, unable to develop the full potential of all students.

Ironically the Ministry of Education is seemingly pushing both points of view. The reactionary standards agenda on one hand and, in opposition, the revised New Zealand Curriculum with its vision of ensuring all students leaving school as ‘confident life long learners’ with the competencies in place to thrive in an uncertain and ambiguous world. There is no doubt where the Minister and her Ministry stands – for standards solutions from the past. They can’t have it both ways.

As result of these confusing agendas teachers find themselves in an educational ‘no mans land’ facing both the past and the future, uncertain of which direction to face. The excitement sparked by the revised New Zealand Curriculum has been clouded by the confusion created by the political standards agenda. Schools are being pressurised by the Ministry to follow the government’s stance, placing their personal integrity and professionalism at real risk. Hardly the best position for schools to be in to ensure their students are equipped to face up to the very real challenges the future holds, challenges that will require citizens with confidence and creativity.

From my recent experience in schools most teachers seem trapped in no mans land -and, worse still, many teachers seem unaware of the battle going on. These teachers have been colonised by the formulaic 'best prectice' teaching approach being peddled by contracted literacy and numeracy advisers. It can only get worse when the Minister appoints her squads of literacy and numeracy shock troops backed by ERO.

There is a need need for creativity and imagination; an alternative vision.A vision premised on the importance of the arts and of creativity generally. Such a vision is not new it just need to be followed by schools. The revised New Zealand Curriculum provides such a guideline and foresees students as ‘seekers, users and creators of their own knowledge’. This curriculum, if implemented, provides the means to escape from ‘no mans land’.

To realise such a vision requires the replacement of the current failing ‘machine metaphor’ with a creative ‘living system metaphor.’ A living metaphor would encourage those involved to act and learn, as the very young, or artists or scientists. For teachers who like tidiness and efficiency this creative vision would provide a problem because it is very difficult to measure progress in a continually evolving learning situation.The current drive in New Zealand to gain instant results, through standards, is simplistic and will inevitably encourage a surveillance culture and a risk-averse mentality.

To escape from ‘no mans land’ teachers need to find a way out of the mechanistic status quo and to reach for that unknown future. If we are to realise, what some perceptive futurists call, a Second Renaissance or Age of Creativity we urgently require our students to develop new competencies, allowing them to thrive in uncertain times.

Until the situation is resolved creative teachers find themselves locked in a power struggle for the shape of the future minds of our students. There is plenty of ingenuity or creativity to call on but far too much teacher energy is being wasted by those in authority (including principals) who want to keep things exactly as the way they are.

Positive learning attitudes come from students completing work of personal excellence in the arts and the sciences – or indeed in any area of purposeful endeavor. When students are engrossed in such activities they often lose any sense of time and this is the power of engagement, of fully living. One has to wonder why, when and where, the emotional intensity and curiosity to learn of the very young is lost.

Teachers who have succeeded in developing such powerful learners have encouraged their students to slow the pace of their work, to do fewer things well (in depth) and in the process have helped students savour and appreciate each learning experience for its own sake. When such a level of involvement is achieved the work and the worker become as one, lost in satisfaction of real learning.

There are many educators who can lead us out of ‘no mans land’ we are in. Many names come to mind: Elliot Eisner, Sir Ken Robinson, Guy Claxton, Maxine Greene, John Dewey, Howard Gardner, Art Costa, Linda Darling-Hammond, William Glasser, Daniel Pink and Carol Dweck are names that come to mind.

In New Zealand many teachers still cling tenaciously to a holistic teaching model that developed in the 60s and 70s. This approach was led by Dr Beeby, the then Director of Education, and spread by the Art Advisers of the day. Along with creative teachers and schools, past and present, these ideas provide a true alternative to the current highly rationalised and standardised approach that schools currently suffer under. A return to a creative and personalised education is the agenda I enthusiastically support along with people like Kelvin Smythe, Mac Stevenson and Perry Rush and his friends. And lots of others I hope.

We are are asking teachers to makes choices and judgments about their schools' future rather than meekly complying, or ‘going along to get along’ with Ministy requirements. Who wants to live in perpetual ‘no mans land’?

Finally we will have no choice. As Sir Ken Robinson reminds us, ‘changes are sweeping the world that have no historical precedents…no other period in human history could match the present one in the sheer scale, speed and global complexity the changes and changes we face’.

It will not be an easy journey and when the seas seem far too treacherous and the stars too distant to face we should remember Robert Browning’s observation that a “man’s reach should exceed his grasp or what’s a heaven for”’

Up until now the current structures of education have all but destroyed this capacity to imagine by attempts to standardise and measure learning.
Terrance Deal, the business philosopher, has written poetically that, ‘teachers need, above all, to dream and dance and to impart their joy of learning to young people. Unless they do schools will never get better'.

We need to take Sir Ken Robinson’s advice and connect with our student’s talents and passions and develop ‘a new appreciation of the importance of nurturing human talent. Robinson visualises future schools where every person is inspired to grow creatively.

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