Monday, August 8, 2011

'On the Shoulders of Giants'

Sir Issac Newton - ' If I have seen a little  further it is because I have been standing on the shoulders of Giants.'

Guest blog by Allan Alach

So now we are in a state of limbo, a ‘phony war’, while we wait to see what the next developments will be in the national standards stand-off. With approximately 20% of schools ‘non-compliant’ (and, by inference, probably an equal percentage ‘compliant’ in name only), this makes for a substantial statement of position by New Zealand schools against standards.

As I’ve indicated previously, the government has too much political capital invested in ‘standards’, ‘raising achievement’, and all those other meaningless phrases, to give in now. If the Minister of Education’s attack on the integrity of kindergarten associations is a precursor of the approach she will use against schools, we can expect considerable misrepresentations of the situation, as well as attacks on people and institutions such as the New Zealand Principals Federation. Kelvin Smythe has posted an article about the Minister’s attack on kindergartens, and the role of the NZ Herald in mindlessly repeating this. A warning here?

The case against standards, in any country, has been well made by many people. The puzzling question is why many/most teachers in these countries are not fighting back as a powerful block. Last weekend’s “Save Our Schools” march in Washington DC, which featured Matt Damon’s excellent speech, illustrated this. Where was everyone?

“Washington D.C. is less than a day’s drive from hundreds of thousands of teachers. Why was Matt Damon fighting for their profession while they stayed home? Make no mistake ladies and gentlemen. We no longer engaged in genteel academic debates over differing approaches to spelling instruction. There are well-funded powerful forces out to destroy public education and deprive educators of their livelihoods. Despite this, most educators remain silent and defenseless. The “bold ones” fantasize about Twitter saving the world while their dignity, expertise, paychecks and pensions are being attacked. Educators, if you will not stand up and take care of yourselves, how can we count on you to care for other people’s children? If you will not stand between students and the madness of “the system,” who will?”

It is timely, therefore, to do some exploring of various themes around this concern in this and future articles.

Some months ago, a comment was posted in reply to one of Bruce’s postings, which, amongst other things, complained about people who have long left working in schools, criticising principals for their actions, or lack of actions, over national standards.

There is an implied viewpoint here, that only those in the firing line have relevance in dealing with today’s educational issues, and that the voices, vision, and depth of experience of others, including our retired colleagues, is not relevant.

To be fair, I’m not sure that meaning was intended in the comment. However it does open the door to some reflection of how New Zealand education, and schooling, got to where it is today, and of the values and principles that have made New Zealand a world leader.

The present government’s agenda, and the introduction of standards, and all that goes with them, places all this at risk. More than ever before, we are dependent on the voices of those who are able to look at this from a background of history, understanding, knowledge and experience. Those of us in the the trenches are too busy coping, and therefore less able to look around to see where the battle came from and where it is going.

A key person in the development of education was the American philosopher, psychologist and educationalist, John Dewey, and his influence exists in New Zealand education to this day.

“He believed that students thrive in an environment where they are allowed to experience and interact with the curriculum, and all students should have the opportunity to take part in their own learning”

and also

the purpose of education should not revolve around the acquisition of a pre-determined set of skills, but rather the realization of one’s full potential and the ability to use those skills for the greater good.” (Wikipedia).

Sound familiar? New Zealand Curriculum 2007?

This philosophy was brought to New Zealand schools by Dr C.E. Beeby (described as ‘the greatest achiever in New Zealand education”,  in conjunction with then Minister of Education, Peter Fraser. Fraser would be well in the running for New Zealand’s best Minister of Education. I doubt that the present incumbent would be a starter in this field.

Fraser and Beeby’s vision is still hard to beat:

 The government’s objective, broadly expressed, is that all persons, whatever their level of ability, whether they live in town or country, have a right as citizens to a free education of the kind for which they are best fitted and to the fullest extent of their powers. Schools that are to cater for the whole population must offer courses that are as rich and varied as are the needs and abilities of the children who enter them.”

From this, Fraser and Beeby established the primary school system that continued from the late 1903s until the institution of “Tomorrow’s Schools” 21 years ago. The accompanying educational philosophy survived the achievement objective wars of the 1990s, and was re-developed with a 21st century focus in the New Zealand Curriculum. Our challenge now is to nurture and protect this taonga in the face of the current attacks.

Under Beeby’s management as the Director of Education, schools became far more child centred and the curriculum was aimed at stimulating child creativity, expression, and imagination. The advisory service, as it used to be, provided assistance in all areas of the curriculum, including in the arts. That’s a stunning and tragic comparison with the deathly  and stultifying focus on literacy and numeracy ‘achievement’ that we are now left with.

Anyone reading this blog who attended a New Zealand primary school between 1940 and 1990 is a product of Beeby’s work, which in turn was a development of John Dewey’s vision. Reflect on this, next time you read the NZC - there’s that link right back to the early years of last century.

This isn’t to say that all schools were examples of best practice in that period. As is the case now, the range of performance was wide, and there were plenty of inspectors, schools, principals and teachers, who failed to live up to Beeby’s dream.

However the focus and vision was there for those who seized the moment, and none did this better than Elwyn Richardson at Oruaiti School in the far north of New Zealand in the 1950s. His book “In the Early World” (now republished by NZCER) should be compulsory reading for every teacher.  Kelvin Smythe has written extensively about Elwyn Richardson, on the Schools page of his Networkonnet website.

Those who have followed Bruce over the years will also be aware that Bruce too, has strongly promoted Elwyn Richardson, such as in this posting: Reclaiming the joy of learning and in this one: Whose learning is it?

More than just reflecting Elwyn Richardson, Bruce and Kelvin, and many others, have built on his work over the years. Online resources such as this Leading and Learning blog, Bruce’s other website,  and Kelvin’s Networkonnet, provide extensive advice and guidance on best ways to truly enable children to develop their full potential. Further to this, Australian educator Phil Cullen’s website  has a richness of resources to reinforce this educational vision. There’s enough on these websites to keep you fully engaged and supported in developing a truly wonderful school or classroom.

So where’s all this heading, you may ask? Let’s head back to the blog comment I mentioned earlier in this article.

The point I’m making is that those ‘who have long left schools’ have an incredible depth of knowledge, experience and wisdom in the development of the whole child. Because the present push to standards based schooling runs contrary to research and evidence about what really works in children’s learning, these senior colleagues are very well placed to see the dangers ahead, and to alert us to their presence. Their extensive work in education provides an historical context that was gained through time and experience, now enriched by an external perspective that has been enhanced by having the space to reflect.

The world is somewhat upside down here. One would normally expect the elders to be the conservative forces “they didn’t do that in my day” but in these crazy times, the reverse is applying. The message being strongly promoted by Bruce Hammonds, Kelvin Smythe, Lester Flockton, Warwick Elley, Ivan Snook, Phil Cullen, Diane Ravitch, et al, represents a fight against the conservatism of standards, and against the return to the pre-Dewey view of education. 

There’s been a lot of talk about 21st century education over recent years. I suggest that the time for talk has long passed, given that we are now eleven years into this century, and that babies born today will have a reasonable chance of living to 2100.  Paradoxically, the 20th century ideas of Dewey, et al, can easily be adapted to meet today’s and tomorrow’s needs and this gives great value and relevance to our educational elders.

Isaac Newton’s famous quote If I have seen a little further it is by standing on the shoulders of Giants” shows us the way forward.

Our challenge is to stand on the shoulders of these educational giants to look into the future.

Where the proponents of standards based schooling are standing, as they peer back into the past, is a matter for speculation.

How a return to the educational values of the 19th century is supposed to prepare children for their future is beyond me.

Strange times indeed.

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