Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Authentic Inquiry Learning - the focus for all classwork.

It was great to see a display to introduce a new study, and later for students to add to, during their inquiry/study/research into the times of early whaler Dicky Barrett. The group of teachers I worked with in earlier times aways introduced new studies with similar displays. To be honest it was an idea I picked from creative teachers when teaching in England decades ago.Sadly both in NZ and the UK such ideas have become less common.

Visiting classrooms these days often makes me feel sad to think of how much has been lost as schools turn themselves into testing and assessment organisations.

Teachers now seem obsessed with planning tasks for their students to do rather than co-constructing learning alongside their students -at the same time keeping in mind the 'big ideas' they want their students to gain from any study and the dispositions ( 'key competencies') or 'habits of mind' required to ensure they become 'life long learners'. It ought to be all about ensuring all students become 'seekers, users and creators of their own knowledge' as it says in the now sidelined 2007 New Zealand Curriculum.

When I visit a room I look for three aspects of the environment.

The physical environment which I like to imagine as a combined workshop, studio,art gallery, museum, media centre and library. I like the vision of classrooms being communities of scientists and artists exploring issues that interest them ( whether introduced as a part of the school programme or arising out of their own interests). I mentally remove anything from the walls that has not been created by the students themselves and I particularly look for language, art and research work that illustrates students thinking and personal 'voice'. Part of the physical environment are negotiated clear expectations for the days work.

If students are present I try to ascertain the emotional environment; the quality of the relationship between the teacher and the learners and between the learners themselves. Only when students feel safe, and trust their teachers, are they able to express themselves fully.

The third aspect is the quality of the content being studied by the students.
in classrooms I admire the current inquiry study provides the creative energy for students to base almost all their learning around. And in 'my' classrooms literacy and numeracy, while important, are seen as 'foundation skills' and, much as is possible, integrated into the current inquiry .

The last point is a key issue. These days I see teachers spending almost all their energy planning self contained literacy and numeracy programmes leaving little time for in depth inquiry and personal expression. Almost all the assessment emphasis is focused on these two areas and, as as a result, important learning in other content and expressive areas is being neglected.

Add to this a current obsession with formulaic 'best practice' teaching ( teaching intentions , WALTS, criteria)much of the work seen is 'thin' and lacks real research, personal 'voice' and creative diversity that ought to be seen. A subtle form of standardisation is now a feature of most rooms and this will be further exaggerated by the current imposition of National Standards. These 'standards' will simply add to the current school standards, or benchmarks, in literacy and numeracy already in place.

It is time teachers to begin to appreciate the point of being literate and numerate as abilities for students to make sense of and to express their experiences. And the best way to do this is to realise such basic skills is by using then in realistic contexts. Many creative people have learnt such basic skills with out attending schools and many in spite of it. Most school failure is the result of students not seeing the point of such skills.Ironically current 'heavy' disconnected teaching of such skills results in failure.

Learning is aways about engagement and doing fewer things well. Teachers need to appreciate that learning is the default mode of all students - hardwired at birth and available until dissipated by counter productive experiences including schooling.

Teachers need to place inquiry central to all their 'teaching' and to appreciate learning only 'sticks' if it makes sense to their students. It seems we are expert of 'turning off' the desire to learn by lacking the ability to 'turn students on'.

Real in depth inquiry, requiring appropriate skills, is the key to learning at all stages. And these skills are best learned as required ( 'just in time') and not provided to realize the school's agenda - or 'just in case teaching'.

It is time to put literacy and literacy advisers, and teachers who seem to focus on literacy in an unhealthy way, and an obsession with testing, to one side and get on with real teaching - or rather create the conditions for students to learn for themselves - it is what they were born to do.

Such people have done enough unintentional damage.

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