Friday, November 26, 2010

We have lost so much the past 50 years. We need to return leadership back to creative teachers.

As the end of year, and my career in education, draws near time for some reflection. And it not all good and, with National Standards on the horizon, getting worse but it is not the time to meekly comply.

The rise and fall, and possible rise again of the leadership of creative teachers.

It was in the sixties when creative classroom teachers working within a shared educational philosophy were the real leaders.

In contrast to all the structural changes that have happened since the advent of Tomorrow's Schools the role of the teacher has been neglected. There are some, such as Professor Frank Crowther, University of Queensland, who says that, since the 1970s, the professional respect for teachers has diminished. This blog reflects his thoughts.

The only hope , Crowther believes, is for creative leaders to return to the centre stage of school leadership again.I agree.

Timing is everything when it comes to transformational change

After the end of the Second World War there was an undercurrent of feeling of a need for a better world and great faith was placed on education as an important means to create a more equitable society. By the early sixties the conditions were right for innovative teaching approaches to spread, building on the work of earlier pioneers. In the UK the Plowden Report was published and in the USA there was what was called the 'open education movement'. Both gave recognition to progressive ideas that influenced innovative teachers in New Zealand. At the centre of such developments was an appreciation of the importance of the creative classroom teacher. They were exciting times.

Frank Crowther talks about teachers meeting in the local pub on a Friday afternoon to talk about teaching and sharing ideas, and this was our experience as well. What was interesting was that we did not look to principals or distant curriculum developers for permission to try things out. Instead we spend time reading, talking and visiting each others classrooms. We developed a strong group in our own area and, to this day, our area of New Zealand, Taranaki, is still known for its quality teaching. And New Zealand teachers generally have a well earned international reputation for being creative teachers. A lot, however, has happened since the mid 70s, and for teacher autonomy and professionalism, for the worse.

Real ransformational change

The progressive 'child centred' education of the 60s and 70s transformed primary education forever. Out went the arid formalism and teacher centred teaching of earlier decades. Secondary schools, at the same time, remained more or less impervious to such learning centred changes. A key influence in New Zealand were the school advisers, in particular the art advisers, who spread ideas such as the importance of student self expression through the arts and also integrated programmes. Now all these advisers have been scrapped!

They were dynamic times but at best it was a half finished revolution. The ideas were strongest in the developmental approaches of the junior classes and only exceptional teachers were able to transform older classes. But today teachers, in comparison, according to Crowther, haven't been given anything like the reward and recognition that teachers gained in those times.

Then teachers took one step back - socio economic issues more important.

By the mid 70s things were beginning to change for the worse. As the courageous work of the earlier pioneers gained official recognition, a 'bandwagon' for all to climb on board was created, and there was an inevitable 'back to basics' backlash against such 'play way' approaches, as they were called by the critics.

As well, in the 70s, various reports, in particular the US Coleman Report stated that no matter how good your school is, what matters in child's life chances most are socio-economic considerations. The role of the teacher as a result became less relevant as schools were asked to focus on implementing equity issues.

There can be no argument about the need for such equity issues, or the need for greater home school partnerships, but it did take away the emphasis on the importance of keeping a focus on quality teaching and learning.

Then the 'God of curriculum' came on the scene - and the rise of the distant 'expert'.

Perhaps, according to Crowther, more damaging to teacher professionalism was the development, for political and economic reasons, of centralized curriculums. Earlier, in the 1950s, the launching of the Russian satellite 'Sputnik' had shaken the complacency of the USA and the resulting curriculum revolution eventually spread to New Zealand. Rightly or wrongly teacher initiative was supplanted by, what Crowther calls, 'the God of curriculum'. Distant curriculum experts now called the tune.

Teachers who had jumped uncritically onto the 'progressive bandwagon' now found new ideas to accept leaving creative teachers to fight their own battles against the growing conformity of imposed curriculums devised by distant elites who had little experience of the reality of classrooms. And today this imposed curriculum issue is worse leading formulaic best practice 'state teaching' to National Standards.

Then principals were to be the 'heroic saviors' - teachers take another step back.

In recent years the myth of the principal as the key to school transformation became persuasive and as result the principal's status has gone up commensurably. Crowther questions this myth, believing that the reality has not lived up to the rhetoric. The so called 'heroic leader' may effect short term change but all too often this is a temporary transformation. It is ironic, believes Crowther that the image of the school principal as the centre of school reform has contributed to the lowering of the status of teachers. This hasn't been helped by a pressure for principals to be mere managers responsible for complying with Ministry directives.

And then this brings us up to the era of 'market forces'.

Once again this is the case of an international 'force', or ideology, influencing all organizations and systems, none the least schools. Self managing competitive schools were 'sold' as a means to empower local communities, and as away to escape the paternalism of the then educational bureaucracy. With time it has shown to be a mixed blessing but one side- effect was to further sideline the classroom teachers, and as well, a new even more confusing technocratic managerial bureaucracy has been established creating a 'low trust' audit environment that does not sit well with teacher creativity.

And now technocrats in are total control - teachers now 'deliver' curriculum!

What was left of teacher professionalism was further put at risk by the implementation in NZ of a bland copy of the UK standardized National Curriculum, followed up by the almost incoherent Learning Area Statements, with their endless strands, levels and learning objectives all to be assessed and checked off. In secondary schools the technocratic nightmare of the National Certificate of Educational Achievement has soaked any remaining energy of secondary teachers and has put the possibility of real secondary educational transformation years away.

Teachers can now be seen as technicians 'delivering' imposed curriculums.

New Curriculums, which began as rational solutions are now recognized, even by the Ministry itself, as 'overcrowded' and increasingly incoherent.It seems along way from the days when teachers felt able to 'design' their own curriculum to suit the needs of their students!

All around the world the once wise men (and woman) of the educational elites are now busy 'slimming down', 'stock-taking' and modifying their once impeccable curriculum documents.

Quick fixes also include a return to basics by focusing on literacy and numeracy, and of course targets and testing. And we now have 'key competencies', which do sound very much, like the old 'learning how to learn' of the 60s! A brief moment of light occurred with the introduction of the 2007 revised New Zealand Curriculum but this was soon dampened by the new governments Standards agenda. It still remains a potential fuse for real change if teachers had the courage.

Creative teachers hang on against all odds

It has all been an abysmal failure but its worse feature has been to undermine the creativity and innovation of individual teachers. There have been those who have managed to 'subvert, colonize, or mutate' the curriculum and assessment requirements, and this is to their credit, but it has been at too great a cost. It is now ironic that the Ministry is recognizing that the quality of the individual teacher is the most important factor in a child's learning, and is also now encouraging schools to share innovative ideas. This change of mind is all a bit too late, but all the welcome none the less. Once again the Standards agenda is diverting such moves.

Now time for the Ministry technocrats to face the truth - the Emperor has no clothes.

Someone 'on high' needs to take responsibility for the legacy of confusion that has been created but they have all sold out to the demands of their new political bosses. This is unfortunate as there is a real need for the personalization of learning and the tapping into student's interests and talents, if we are to 'engage' students and prepare them well for the unpredictability of the 21sTC. We need to move away from the current standardization and accountability ideology to a one valuing co-operation, diversity and creativity.Where are our leaders now?

All that has been gained is teacher burnout, stress and overload

Imposed school reforms, that are not 'owned' by those who have to implement them, are doomed to failure but not before that have all but destroyed what they intended to reform.

Full circle - a time for teachers to add their voice to the debate.

There were signs that the technocratic lunacy and the associated compliance and audit mentality may becoming to an end, or at least diminishing, and that schools may be able to foster more creative approaches. It is time for schools to work together to develop a set of shared beliefs about teaching? It is time for schools to value, and share, the wisdom and creativity of their teachers? Maybe it is time to appreciate that it is the relationship between the teacher and the learner that is the critical factor? And may be it is time, once again, to see teachers as curriculum 'designers' rather than curriculum 'deliverers'?

Hope dashed by National Standards

It will take teachers, principals, students, and the wider community, to create learning communities that work to together collaboratively to move beyopnd the Standards. It will require creative leadership, both the local and central government levels. Central governments need to 'restructure' themselves, to 'let go', and instead to focus on creating the conditions to give a democratic 'voice' to teachers, parents and students. There needs to be recognition that local problems can only be solved at the local level, but then only with appropriate support. What is required are ways to 'mine, cultivate, and share the wisdom' within the system and to 'engage the ingenuity' of those at the local level. But all this is on hold while we return to the 19th C.

The development of professional learning communities.

Frank Crowther, who was feeling that his, 'whole career had been wasted, that (he) had spent (his) whole life living under a cloud', even though he 'had seen some wonderful things happen' in spite of the system, is now feeling positive at the end of his long career. He quoted in his presentation, what he calls an extraordinary statement, by Peter Drucker, a highly respected business philosopher:

'In the post industrial world, into which we are emerging, schools will be located at the centre of the community. Professionals who create new knowledge and meaning will be the leading class.' Creative teachers as leaders working in tandem with principals; the principals leadership role is to create conditions for this to happen.

Crowther believes that by creating professional communities and by focusing on pedagogy student outcomes can be 'improved in quite extraordinary ways'. A strong profession community, he goes on to say, is where 'people take a collective responsibility for everything that happens'. And authentic teaching is where there is an approach to teaching/learning developed by the people in the school to suit the needs of the school. The key is to replace the imposed beliefs of distant experts with those developed by teachers who understand the complexities of teaching through 'enlightened trial and error'

Crowther believes we have a 'once in generation opportunity' to develop such learning communities. The last such time, in his opinion, was in the 1970s and while a lot of what was then achieved was successful we have to make sure we get it right this time. In New Zealand we just have to get past the Standards.

It will require leadership beyond the concept of the 'heroic leader' and will require the re-establishment of teachers as leaders.

This will require real skill on behalf of principals because, due to an imposed compliance and audit culture, teacher confidence has been all but lost.

There are schools that currently provide such positive images, schools where principals have worked with their teachers to create visions that relate to their own aspirations. Many of these schools have developed visions around metaphors that provide a focus for all they do. From such simple metaphors they have crafted out their teaching principles and behavioral values with their students and the wider community, to the point that all in the community know 'what they stand for'. Such schools are reinventing themselves as vital centres of their communities and are well placed to take the next step to link up, and share energy and expertise, with other schools.

Parallel Leadership the key.

As for leadership Crowther believes the future lies in 'distributed leadership' where all take 'collective responsibility for anything that might come up'. This 'parallel leadership', he believes, is crucial and accepts 'the absolute critical significance of the school principal in a slightly different form' but introduces the concept of teacher leadership as of equal importance. 'You can't say one is more important than the other - it's two different things. What we know is when we get them in place is that you can actually sustain the school improvement.'

This, he continues, is about creating mutual trust. It is about valuing individual expression and it makes the principals role a difficult one. 'To create an inspirational and memorable vision is difficult enough', he says,' but to create a particular identity, a sense of belonging, a distinctive culture is very difficult'. Successful schools create alignment between the vision and a way of teaching and, when this is done, everyone develops a 'shared sense of direction' and 'wonderful things happen'. In such schools there is a 'sense of excitement about the place'; such schools, 'raise their expectations, the work becomes more focused, they say no to a lot of junk that gets thrown at them by all kinds of people'.

Learning to say no - the worms are turning!

This is Crowther's vision of the 70s done well! He believes 'the worm has turned' and principals who say no to imposed reforms can develop creative schools with extraordinary teachers who 'make learning stretching, creative, fun and successful.'

But he concludes with a warning. 'We got a lot of things right in the 70s and we got a lot of stuff wrong - we can't afford to do that again. It is not enough to let a thousand flowers bloom and then to fade'. The wisdom, he says, must be mined, gathered and shared. Schools need to lead to value their 'collective autonomy' and 'lead the educational agenda and enjoy the magic of momentum.'

Are we ready?

It is time for creative teachers to take their rightful place at the centre stage of educational reform; they have been waiting in the wings long enough.

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