Technology, creativity, and computer led creative destruction.

Music has become an increasingly large part of our daily routine in the classroom. Music sets the scene. It’s a part of what creates our learning culture. We dance to it. Sing along to it. Transition to it. Much of the music in the class now comes from a streaming website played through a computer or other device. I have an iPad full of recorded songs of a colleague playing the guitar. I got rid of the CD player a while ago. Superfluous. I shudder when I think of the clunkiness of cassette tapes and before that, vinyl.

I believe technology has been a wonderful enhancement to how I provide an effective learning programme. Music and dance are both a primal instinct. They help connect us to others and make us happy. Having music and dance in the classroom is a way of creating that essential happy and human learning environment. And we also know from Hattie’s research that technology per se, will not create effective learning. For technology to be really effective it needs to be used as more than just a replacement for pencils and paper or to give the students access to the latest apps to respond passively to. Creativity is a human endeavour first and foremost. Technology is at its most effective when it is used to amplify creative thinking. Creativity needs to be fostered and encouraged. Providing access to a computer will not be a guarantee of a pathway to creativity. Ken Robinson goes one step further by suggesting that schools are actually doing a good job at killing student creativity.

Out in the real world, beyond the silos and echo chambers that schools tend to be, technology is wreaking havoc on the economy and job market. Computers are hollowing out the mid-range jobs; those clerical and production line type positions. That’s because computers are now better at doing jobs that can be broken down into explicit procedures. At the same time, there is growth in jobs that don’t require high levels of education but are difficult to automate; low paid, service type jobs, like hospitality.

Fortunately, we teachers are in a lucky position. We are in a profession that computers will not make redundant. Even though computers may now be able to do a better job than teachers at delivering content, they can’t be trained up in the very human skills of creative thinking, cognitive flexibility, abstract reasoning, problem solving and empathy. But unfortunately, it is difficult to see these skills being embraced in the education sector in any serious way.

Even though it is not in my job description, I have embraced the reality of computer led creative destruction and applied those skills that can’t be learned by a computer, to my own learning journey. I read widely; beyond the field of education, that is. I apply those new discoveries in my classroom. I take on the task of being a problem solver very seriously. Even in the face of opposition. And while I don’t believe that teachers alone can solve the problems that technology led creative destruction bring, I do believe that we need to do better at preparing our students for the world beyond the classroom. I do believe that teachers would do well to look up from their lesson plans and check out the world around them a little more often and start to embrace their human qualities.

Ease Education: Teaching at a human scale.

You can also find Ease Education on Facebook and Twitter.

It’s about the learning experiences on offer that is critical, not the age that children start their formal education.

blocks

For 5 year olds building a tower of blocks together, it takes a lot of emotional skills. Skills that can be taught.

Less than a year ago, I published a post entitled “5 years old is too early for children to start their formal academic education”. I read through it recently and realised that there were some aspects that no longer accurately reflected my current thinking. In that original post, I argued that 5 years old was too early for children to start their formal education.

Instead, I want to argue that it is not the age of the child that is critical, but the type of educational opportunity that is on offer, that needs to be the focus of our attention. It’s not about the age but whether the education on offer is developmentally appropriate for the child. And I also believe that there is a strong argument that for some children, being in a high quality learning environment, and receiving developmentally appropriate learning early on, could in fact, be a better option than not being in a formal education setting.

In that post, I also criticised the role of standardised testing in education. My belief at that stage, was in line with the majority of my teaching colleagues, ie. standards were harmful to education. But having since made some significant changes to my teaching practice, I have started to realise that those standards are not the problem that we have been led to believe. I would still prefer it if we could hold out for a year or two but I now realise that doing so won’t create the change in the way we approach learning in a school environment. And that’s where the real issue lies, I think. Parents need to reassured that their child will be receiving a developmentally, age appropriate education. “Children are resilient”, should not be the ‘go to’ phrase to explain away parent concerns.

So I have decided that, rather than edit the original post to bring into line with my current thinking and practice, it would be more useful to leave it as it is and write a new post that highlights how and why my thinking has changed. In that way, I will be staying true to another of my beliefs; that it is important to be open to criticism and to be willing to change your thinking when necessary. Because, ultimately, it is all about developing a stronger case for change.

In that original post, I tried to get to grips with the emotional and cognitive reality of a 5 year old. This is the age of the children in my class. Insights into the minds of 5 year olds would surely help me  be a better teacher. The insights I refer to came via a documentary I watched on television. It was pure gold. To recap, Professor of Neuroscience and Education Paul Howard-Jones reveals that 5 years old is a critical age in a child’s life. “The learning that takes place at that age is creating a blueprint for life as an adult.” He says that, “the foundation of the well-being of an adult is based on a child’s early emotional and cognitive development. A good foundation at an early age will lead to good interpersonal relationships and self-regulatory thinking.” Wow, that’s serious stuff. With serious implications. It makes me scared and excited in equal measure; the opportunity that it presents to me – as a teacher of 5 year olds.

For me, these insights were revelationary. I took these insights as part confirmation – that I was already in the process of creating a learning environment that prioritised the need to work at a ‘human scale’. But I also took these insights as part license – a signal to expand on this practice and explore the impact of these insights more fully. I am increasingly confident in my belief that it has been the applying of these insights into my classroom practice that explains why I am seeing the enormous improvement in learning that I am seeing. These insights gave me confidence to continue developing and implementing a teaching pedagogy that focused on creating a broad range of learning opportunities – emotional as well as academic. These insights seemed to give even more credence to the Ease Manifesto.

So for clarification, in my original post I wanted to convey the following points:-

  • it’s absolutely essential for a 5 year old entering a formal education environment to have a strong emotional and cognitive foundation before embarking on a rigourous academic journey.
  • for whatever reason, not all children are entering school with that foundation and that it is not my role to find fault in that, but to address it by creating a learning culture/environment where that foundation can be provided.
  • children can gain that foundation if the appropriate learning culture/environment has been established. It can be learned.
  • this approach helps lift the emotional and academic achievement of all the children in the class. That’s the primary goal of a public education system; having a learning environment that benefits all students equally.

But where my thinking now differs from that original post is that I no longer believe that the age children start their formal education is such a critical factor. Instead, I am concerned with how:-

  1. I see children arriving at school and being thrown into the “deep end” of academic learning. Read, write, count, jump! Worksheets for Africa. Busy work. And it’s all head stuff, too. Abstract. Teacher directed instead of being genuinely inquiry based. Hardly engaging stuff. Nowhere in the NZ Curriculum does it require teachers to require 5 year olds to focus on narrow, academic learning outcomes.
  2. the transition into formal education is managed. By and large, opportunities for the children to grow and develop pro-social skills in a traditional school setting are at best, cursory and abstract. The need for allowing students to develop their emotional and cognitive skills through deliberate practice, is ignored. “Transition” is a ticked box. It is easy to label and treat the children who lack that emotional and cognitive foundation as “naughty”. Instead, they need to be viewed as being underdeveloped in those areas and needing to be given more opportunities to learn.

We really do need to stop blaming children for problems for which solutions lie firmly in the hands of teachers. And while I am on the topic of blame, I would like teachers to see the national standards as just that, standards. They are not to blame for what is taking place in the classroom or a child’s emotional state. The standards are not a statement of how to teach. They are a target. They don’t advise on the volume of photocopied tasks that need to be completed. They can operate as a ceiling if you allow them to. But I think that kind of teaching was in practice before the standards were introduced.

Be a problem solver. Be honest in identifying the things you are doing that make a difference. Eliminate the things that are not making a difference. Do what is right for the children, not to keep your colleagues happy. Stand up to willful blindness. Engage the disengaged. Stop looking for excuses. Eliminate the need for the “naughty square”. The consequences of failing to address these issues are serious – individually and collectively.

Do it for the kids.

Ease Education: Teaching at a human scale.

You can also find Ease Education on Facebook and Twitter.

The Collaboration Curse

numberpuzzle

Number Puzzle: a deep learning environment needs to be created and nurtured.

I originally started this site as a way of sharing some of the expertise that I believe I had gained over many years of being at the chalkface. It’s a hard earned expertise. Expertise gained from being open to new ideas and thinking – from within education and beyond, from being empathetic to the learners in my classroom, from encouraging myself to respond authentically to my own creative thinking and from being prepared to trial ideas in the face of opposition and resistance.

It recently occurred to me that I may be witnessing a case of “wilful blindness” within the education system. Strong words? Let me clarify.

I believe that this expertise has allowed me to create a supercharged learning environment that benefits all the children in my class. The other reason I started this site was born out of frustration of not being able to get my professional colleagues to see the results that I was seeing or to respond positively to my efforts; that my expertise was not being valued. It recently occurred to me that I may be witnessing a case of “wilful blindness” within the education system. Strong words? Let me clarify.

As a whole, for most children, our education system appears to work pretty well. Unsurprisingly, it seems to work better for those children on the higher end of the social equity ladder. For the rest, it has more of a lottery feel to it. But even for the students doing well enough, there is a deeper story to tell. Appearances can be deceptive. That’s because, in reality, any child with a pulse is going to achieve some level of learning throughout a school year.

It’s an issue relevant to all organisations and all aspects of society, not just education. It’s a human problem.

For many of my first years as a teacher, I felt that the children in my class were learning despite or, in spite of my efforts. My biggest hope was that I wasn’t doing them any harm. As it turns out, Hattie’s research shows that it’s pretty hard for a teacher to stop a child from learning. Whew! But teachers and schools taking credit for learning that would be taking place anyway? – that’s a biggie. That’s the belief system I am keen to challenge; that needs to be challenged. It’s an honest and earnest endeavour.

This should not be read as a criticism of teachers, but as a critique of a system. It’s an issue relevant to all organisations and all aspects of society, not just education. It’s a human problem. I wonder how many people chose to not know what was happening to children under the care of the Catholic Church. I wonder how many people chose not to know that children were being kept in seclusion rooms. I wonder how many people still believe that putting children in seclusion rooms is an appropriate practice. And this is in the face of evidence that tells us that controlling children in this way is unethical and ineffective.

…the reality of collaboration is much more complex. Collaboration is a process, not a place.

Defence against my claim of “willful blindness” within our education system will probably focus on the fact that it operates as an open, democratic, fair and equitable system. On the surface, everything is as you would want it. As well as that, schools are run by professionals. They are required to keep up to date with the latest research and technologies and be open to and willing to share new ideas and thinking. Collaboration is encouraged. Which is a good thing. The research tells us that collaboration is where it’s at. That’s because people in organisations can achieve things collectively that they cannot achieve individually. Collaboration can provide that spark that will light the fire of progress. It makes sense.

Well, that’s the theory. Because the reality of collaboration is much more complex. First of all, the openness that collaboration is supposed to foster is not going to be enough to drive change if all parties can’t agree that there is a need for change or improvement. I see the problems and the need for change. I speak to other teachers who recognise it. But that’s where it ends. They won’t say anything. They remind ‘blind’ out of fear, or in the belief that some things can not be changed. There may also be a genuine inability to see the need for change. This could be due to ignorance. Imagine if the entry standard for teachers entering the profession was raised to that required for law or medicine.

Effective collaboration requires seeking out people who are different to ourselves, who have a different way of thinking.

Secondly, collaboration will only be as effective as the working environment allows. I recognise that sharing my ideas and experience can be a source of cognitive dissonance. But isn’t that the point of it all? A conflict of ideas is a key component to creating change and progressing ideas. Having my ideas dismissed because they don’t fit with the thinking of the group is not collaboration. Collaboration does not take place in an echo chamber. Effective collaboration requires seeking out people who are different to ourselves, who have a different way of thinking. A level of professional conflict needs to be tolerated.

Thirdly, collaboration needs to viewed as a set of skills that needs to be learned and taught. Creating opportunities to work together in an ‘open’ way has wonderful potential but it is just the first step in the journey. Truth and knowledge on their own are insufficient to bring about change. That won’t happen until the skills and moral courage to use it are developed fully. To get to this point, organisations will need to make huge cultural shifts. School leaders need to step up.

Finally, the real role and value of collaboration needs to be fully understood and agreed to. The current interpretation of collaboration in an education setting is focused on open-plan classrooms. Needless to say, requiring teachers to work in open-plan spaces with more children is not a guarantee of effective collaboration. To expect so has to be seen as incredibly naive, if the first three points already raised have not been addressed satisfactorily. Until then, it is a case of the proverbial cart being put before the horse. It should be also be noted that according to Hattie’s research, it is collaboration, not the teaching space that has the highest positive impact on learning. And as far as I can see, an open plan space is not a definition of collaboration. Collaboration is a process, not a place.

Persistence, patience and a determination not to be blind or silent will be my guiding light.

Furthermore, I utilize the process of collaboration in my classroom on a regular basis and can identify the impact it has on the children’s learning readily. The children in my class will collaborate as a result of my guidance and sometimes as a matter of choice. I value the control I have on my teaching space. Everything in my room and every activity I undertake is as a result of deliberate decisions and actions developed from years of experience. That deliberateness has another purpose too. It provides me with opportunities to develop high quality relationships with each student. That in turn, allows me to have meaningful learning conversations with the students. Those moments are precious and are responsible for creating that supercharged learning that I refer to.

A deep learning environment needs to be created and nurtured. That precious commodity could be undermined so easily. Working with a teacher who does not appreciate that, or who is unwilling to see the merit of that approach will only dilute and frustrate the learning experience. Bigger is not always better. And in the case of a better learning environment, I believe that creating an intimate learning environment should be the goal.

So, “where to from here?” I ask myself. “Is there a place for someone like me within the education system?” It feels as though I am at a crossroad. The issue for me is no longer just about developing expertise as a teacher. For me to feel any satisfaction as a teacher, it feels as though I need to move beyond that and start developing expertise as a change agent. I will need to develop skills around convincing colleagues and parents and bureaucrats to look more critically at what effective learning is, and how it can be best delivered. That’s an entirely different proposition to simply delivering the curriculum. But I think I always knew that.

One of the things that I am giving consideration to is to try and enhance my academic credibility. I could do that by quantifying the learning that I am seeing. That would take time and effort and it could be worthwhile. But I’m not entirely convinced that it will be enough. There is a stereotype around people who act as ‘whistleblowers’. The perception of people who challenge the status quo is that they should not be trusted; that eventually they will be punished/crushed for their radical ideas. But actually, I take heart from the research. It reveals that whistleblowers tend to be very loyal to the organisation/institution and care a lot about it.

I don’t like conflict but if I am going to continue to be a teacher and do what I think is the right thing, I will have to accept that tension and conflict will be a part of that process. Rather than trying to avoid it, I will need to focus on making a stronger case and being better at arguing it. By taking on the critics and collecting evidence, I can develop my argument and make it stronger.

Persistence, patience and a determination not to be blind or silent will be my guiding light. As Margaret Heffernan says, “we enjoy so many freedoms today – but freedom doesn’t exist if you don’t use it.” If you agree with this sentiment, I encourage you to act on it by sharing this blog post far and wide.

Ease Education: Teaching at a human scale.

You can also find Ease Education on Facebook and Twitter.

 

Inspiration for this blog post come Margaret Heffernan’s work which can be found at the following links.

Heffernan – Dare to Disagree – Is conflict good for progress?

Heffernan – Dangers of willful blindness

 

 

What ‘Under the Bridge’ documentary tells us about New Zealand society and its education system.

The ‘Under the Bridge’ documentary reveals a lot about New Zealand society and the New Zealand education system. But does it tell the full story?

The strong sense of community and aroha of the Papakura High School students really shines through. I was totally drawn in by the students whose stories were featured. They were earnest, genuine and compelling. I really wanted them to succeed.

Papakura High has a problem. The roll is falling. The locals are not sending their children there. They are choosing to send them to schools outside their local zone. Because they can. And that seems to be the message behind the documentary. That schools in poor communities (‘bad’ schools) are suffering at the hands of schools in richer communities (‘good’ schools). This is not a problem confined to Papakura High. This scenario is replicated throughout New Zealand.

For me, the documentary seemed to be implying that Papakura High School’s plight could be solved by fixing 1. poverty, 2. the school zoning system and 3. bungling bureaucracy. But hang on a minute. Isn’t there a glaringly obvious omission from this assessment? I mean,

  1. Where is the discussion on the role of teachers and educators in all of this?
  2. Why do we have an education system that allows parents to determine whether a school is ‘good’ or ‘bad’?

I suggest that providing Papakura High School with teachers who know what great learning actually is and then setting about raising the achievement standards of all its students would be a great way of lifting Papakura High’s roll.

If there is to be a follow up to the ‘Under the Bridge’ documentary, I’d like to suggest that the spotlight be turned on the teaching profession and the Ministry of Education. The students and community of Papakura High School deserve a better deal.

Ease Education: Teaching at a human scale.

You can also find Ease Education on Facebook and Twitter.

My submission to the Ombudsman’s inquiry into the use of seclusion rooms in New Zealand schools.

In 2016 it came to light via the media that some schools in New Zealand were using seclusion rooms as a way of managing student behaviour. Like many, I was shocked by this revelation.

I was very pleased to hear that the Ombudsman decided to hold an inquiry into the practice. For me, it wasn’t just the use of seclusion rooms that concerned me. During post-revelation discussions in the media, I became aware of enormity and systemic nature of the issue. I was also very concerned by,

1. the negative responses and attitudes of one the schools that were found to be using seclusion rooms and,
2. the poor quality of the debate in the media around the issues of managing behaviour of students in schools.

As far as I understand, the focus of the inquiry is solely about the use of seclusion rooms in New Zealand schools. However, in my submission, I have suggested that the use of seclusion rooms in schools is symptomatic of a wider range of cultural failures within the New Zealand education system and wider society.

 

My real hope is that the inquiry could also be;

1. an opportunity to examine and critique the way schools rely on outdated, unethical and ineffective methods to manage the behaviour of students and,

2. a catalyst for making some essential changes to the way that schools and teachers manage the behaviour of students.

While I have not witnessed the use of seclusion rooms during my time as a teacher in New Zealand schools, I am concerned that the practice of ‘exclusion’ is a relatively common practice. In schools, these spaces are commonly referred to as ‘naughty spaces’. Children are sent there to ‘learn a lesson’. These lessons must be quite difficult for some children to learn because a casual observation will reveal that it is the same children who spend the most time there. The (unspoken?) intent of these places is punishment. This is distinct from the use of a behaviour management strategy such as ‘time out’.

Exclusion is based on authoritarian approaches to ‘behaviour management’ and research shows that it is a totally counterproductive practice. It is unethical and ineffective. It reflects a strong and very unhelpful emphasis on controlling children. We really need to shift our thinking from ‘behaviour management’ and ‘control’ to supporting children with their behaviour development. Providing children with opportunities to learn to manage their emotions needs to be given as much priority as the teaching of literacy and numeracy.

The use of and the reliance on exclusion to manage behaviour also indicates that there is something fundamentally wrong with the education that is currently being provided. Over many years of practice, I have learnt that managing behaviour becomes a non-issue when the learning environment is conducive to the needs of all children. The education we provide our children needs to be academically and emotionally engaging. I have already documented how this can be achieved in a classroom setting.

I also suspect that there is a correlation between the use of exclusionary practices in schools, the long tail of underachievement in education and incarceration rates in prisons. Cultural bias in New Zealand schools is a reality. That is why we need an education system that encourages and supports all students equally.

I don’t know about the specifics of the legalities in NZ, but in Australia the practice of ‘the naughty square’ is actually illegal. Unfortunately, this does not seem to hinder their use in Australia. It is the education of teachers, rather than the writing of laws, that will have the greatest positive impact.

Ease Education: Teaching at a human scale.

You can also find Ease Education on Facebook and Twitter.

The essential ingredients for creating effective learning are no secret.

Stack of blocks

There’s always a detailed story behind any tower of blocks like this.

During all my years in the classroom, I have always sought to be a more effective teacher; to be able to provide more effective learning opportunities; to empower the children to be more effective learners. The improvement that I believe I am now making has been a gradual process. A process of compiling a series of ‘aha’ moments would be an appropriate metaphor. And this process has been deliberate and measured. Initially it was premised on becoming increasingly familiar with the research of John Hattie.

This research identifies and ranks the impact/effectiveness of all available teaching interventions/variables. Quite simply, it is a list of the essential ingredients for creating effective learning. On this list, we can see and compare the impact of say, class size or computers or homework…all the usual suspects are on the list. And all these variables are ranked according to their impact. I have placed a link to this list at the bottom of this post. I suspect that what you believe has the greatest impact on learning may be challenged. You may also want to check out John Hattie talking about his findings in this Ted Talk.

Personally, I believe that Hattie’s findings are the educational equivalent of the Holy Grail. My confidence in the value of this research is based on another key element. Not only have I become very familiar with Hattie’s research over the years, I have also gone about applying this research in a classroom setting. I have deliberately targeted and applied the variables at the top of the list and then observed the impact that it has on the students. This is allowed me to compile that list of ‘aha’ moments.

In effect, these are the moments that allow me to identify and measure the level of impact that I am having on each student. This in turn has allowed me to be selective and deliberate in how I work with the children. I am getting better at declining or abandoning ideas and processes that are imposed upon us and that act as barriers to achieving effective learning. This has had the effect of allowing me to discover the existence of a range of buttons and levers at my disposal. And slowly, I am gaining mastery of those buttons and levers. This mastery has come about by practise and making mistakes.

Over time, these buttons and levers become visible to the students. They also become familiar and proficient with the buttons and levers. Eventually they start taking control of the buttons and levers. They begin to determine how they would like to see the buttons and levers operating. That’s when the learning environment gets really dynamic. And the cool thing is that it works for all children equally. Their personality or background makes no difference. Nor is there any special equipment or programme required. Really, it’s just myself and the students, in a classroom.

The outcome of this experience for me is to validate my interpretation of Hattie’s research. To me, it seems that the variables that Hattie cites as creating the most effective learning environment, are all based on themes of humanity and relationship. The essential ingredients to achieve the dynamic learning environment that I describe above, depend on to a large extent on the existence of those human and emotional qualities. Teaching as a human endeavour! Who would have thought?

This means, I need to know my students really well. It means I need to build a strong and trusting relationship with them. My job is to observe them closely to see what their strengths and weaknesses are, in emotional and academic terms. I have Piaget to help me know what these children are capable of and to help me to help them to achieve it. It means I also need the children to know what I expect from them in terms of behaviour and in terms of learning and achievement. This needs to be made explicit and visible. Over time this all helps to provide a really strong culture of learning and collaboration.

I love seeing the children in my class at the very edge of their learning development. I just can’t squeeze any more learning out of them. And they all love it. Eventually. Some get on board quicker than others. But they love the challenge. They love knowing that they are at that edge. I always thank them profusely for their outstanding effort. And then I ask them to do it again tomorrow. By the middle of the year, this is the norm. This is when the magic really starts to happen. They want to know how they are doing. The roles reverse. They start directing their learning and I start learning from them. Those buttons and levers.

This all helps to explain why I am better at knowing the level of impact I am having on each child. I can now state unequivocally that the children are no longer learning in spite of me, but because of me. They are responding to my deliberate and persistent interventions. Their learning is not a happy accident. And that’s one of the tragedies of teaching – a school taking credit for the learning that children would be achieving anyway.

My dream is to be able to share my discovery of these powerful buttons and levers with my colleagues and show them how they work. My dream is to give all children access to those buttons and levers and the great learning that results.

Ease Education: Teaching at a human scale.

You can also find Ease Education on Facebook and Twitter.

Want to take a look at that list of essential ingredients? – check out the links below…

1. A ranking of influences according to their impact.

Hattie Ranking: 195 Influences And Effect Sizes Related To Student Achievement

2. Key influences on student achievement.

Hattie’s influences on student achievement

Standards and creativity can co-exist in the classroom

Tower of Blocks

That’s no ordinary tower of blocks.

I’m a bit confused. I am aware of a tension. Well, at least I think I am. But regardless, I’m quite ok with that. Because that’s what keeps me curious and  that’s what keeps me in my happy place… when I am learning on the job. I now understand that my job is about trying to make sense of what is taking place in my classroom and trying to figure out what levers to pull and which buttons to push.

These days I see myself as a problem solver. This insight has really encouraged me to be creative. And I read somewhere recently that creativity is about making the complex, simple. I like that. The classroom is a dynamic and complex place. Full of humans with competing demands and interests. I need to remove that complexity, remove the unnecessary, remove the barriers to effective learning. But most importantly, I need to find the humanness. And liberate that spirit. It always exists but sometimes it is hidden and you have to dig around for it.

I am now more aware than ever, that I can make a difference. I can make a difference through my deliberate acts of teaching. And that that is achieved by building strong relationships with the students. From trusting relationships come good learning conversations. That’s the hierarchy. The foundations must exist for effective learning to take place; to unleash the real learning.

So, what is this confusion and tension that I refer to? It all stems from the introduction of national standards and the international trend towards standardised testing in primary schools. My original position, like many with a vested interest in education, was to criticise and resist the introduction of this kind of regime. The arguments against standardised testing are compelling. Yong Zhao describes the standards as “too narrow, too impersonal, too linear and too focussed on the short term. It’s a model that stifles creativity and discriminates against many students.” Ken Robinson describes the need for an education system that is responsive to the needs of a modern world. He argues that the education being offered and delivered by schools currently, is only good at “killing creativity”.

You can imagine my shock then, when I discovered recently, that it was John Hattie who was responsible for the introduction of the standardised testing regime into New Zealand primary schools. I have been a big fan of the Visible Learning approach to education for some time. I have been endeavouring to apply the findings of his research into my classroom on a daily basis. How has this situation arisen? Is it a ‘situation’ at all, I wonder? Are these academics actually contradicting one another? I for one, would love to find out. But in the meanwhile, I am going to propose my own understanding and interpretation of the situation.

I now propose that a standardised testing regime and creativity can co-exist in the classroom. I believe my experiences and observations in the classroom over the past few years can validate this. (I would love a researcher to come into my room and really test this – any takers?) I am becoming increasingly aware that it is not the standards that are the problem. The real problem is in the way that teachers approach learning (in general) and how they approach (specifically) the achieving of those standards. From my observation, teaching has not changed since the implementation of the standards. It’s not the standards that are acting as a ceiling to effective learning and creativity. That ceiling is being imposed by the prevalent teaching practices. The teaching practices that you will see in the majority of classrooms throughout the world. They are pretty much the same teaching practices that you and your parents and grandparents were subjected to during your time at school.

I no longer fear those “evil standards”. I embrace them. By enhancing creativity through play, it has made the achievement of the standards for the children in my classroom easy and accessible to everyone. Prioritising creativity through play has been the equivalent of putting the standardised academic learning on steroids. It has been truly remarkable. It’s a completely different approach to teaching. It works. And it’s ready and waiting to be embraced and shared.

Ease Education: Teaching at a human scale.

You can also find Ease Education on Facebook and Twitter.

The Power of Caine’s Arcade

A child's version of that famous game

A child’s version of that famous game called ‘Twister’.

Once again I was reminded of why I think I have the best job in the world. These days I am always on the look out for people and ideas that inspire me. That’s the power of modern technology and the internet for you. The ability to connect and share ideas is so much faster and easier these days. It has enormous potential to be a force for good.

Anyway, I was listening to an interview with David Gauntlett about creativity. During the interview he mentioned the story of Caine’s Arcade. I checked it out and it blew me away. It reminded me so much of the creative magic that I get to witness in my classroom everyday. I had to show it to the children the following day. I wasn’t sure if it would interest them. But sure enough, they voted with their eyeballs. Later on that day, I even got taught how to play a version of twister that had just been completed. A game that would not look out of place in Caine’s Arcade.

I love how Caine’s Arcade has gone on to inspire others all over the world to find their creative spirit. I love how Caine’s Arcade shows the way in which people can connect via technology for a common good. But I especially love how Caine’s Arcade highlights the essence of creativity, intelligence and the human spirit. Such critical elements to life and society, but too easily overlooked and ignored. The best part of the movie is when Nirvan describes how much he appreciates Caine’s achievement. That’s the magic moment for me. “Who wouldn’t want to buy a Fun Pass?” he says. It was genuine appreciation. The appreciation I get to share every day with the children in my class.

So instead of only asking your children about their reading, numbers and writing, start asking about them about what they created today? See where that leads. You might find that you are setting them up for a successful future.

Ease Education: Teaching at a human scale.

You can also find Ease Education on Facebook and Twitter.

The journey to an inclusive, effective education system, starts here.

It has been revealed that a seclusion room was being used by a school in Wellington, New Zealand, as a form of punishment and as a behaviour management tool. The parents of a 6 year old autistic boy had no idea that their son, as well as other children, were being locked in this small, dark, cell-like room.

Being that I am an advocate for an education system that is genuinely child-centred, I feel compelled to comment on this awful situation. And please be warned, I will not be pulling any punches on this one. Let me start by saying that I am not at all surprised by this. I have long held the belief that teaching is the only profession that exists in which “the customer is always wrong”. While I have not witnessed the practice of ‘seclusion’, I am concerned that the practice of ‘exclusion’ is a relatively common practice throughout New Zealand schools. It is a practice that is both unethical and, ineffective. Reliance on exclusion, suggests that there is some something fundamentally wrong with the education that is being offered. I have learnt that managing behaviour becomes a non-issue when the learning environment is conducive to the needs of the children. I have documented how this can be achieved in a classroom setting.

There was shock and outrage when this story broke. As you would expect. First of all, I want to take a look at all of the responses to date.

The mother of the 6 year old boy describes this as “wrong on so many levels”. Of course she is right. We are talking about fundamental human rights being abused here.

The MInister of Education says she was horrified by the news. Good on her. That is the response you would hope for. I would also suggest that now is probably a good time to start funding special education appropriately in order to give these children, their parents and teachers a fair go. But don’t think I am letting teachers off the hook so easily. Because money won’t fix a broken culture. But more on that later.

A spokesperson for the Ministry says it would be seeking to eliminate this practice from New Zealand schools, in time.  Not immediately? I would like to see a time frame set down for this. Teachers need to know that things have to change. They need to start thinking about how they can change their teaching practice to be inclusive of all students. Yes, it is possible. I have documented how this can be achieved in a classroom setting.

The principal ducks for cover. Yep. I’m not surprised, actually.

A psychologist employed to investigate the use of the room following a complaint from a parent prepares a report. It documents the use of the room. It concludes that the use of the room is “outmoded and does not embrace inclusive and effective pedagogy”. Yes. Correct. Effective learning and positive emotional experiences can co-exist. I have documented how this can be achieved in a classroom setting.

A spokesperson for the school board acknowledges the report and admits that the school had “mucked up”. We’ll call him the ‘Fall Guy’. But more on that later.

The Ombudsman agrees with the Disability Rights Commissioner’s request to investigate the use of seclusion rooms in schools. The Commissioner says that “this practice has to stop now. It is unacceptable.” I like that. Unequivocal.

At this point I am hoping that the investigation will include:-

  • the use of exclusion as well as seclusion and,
  • the impact of these practices on all children in schools.

IHC director of advocacy says the practice belonged in the “dark ages” and schools should immediately stop it. But nor does this person want to put all the blame on teachers. It’s about resourcing, apparently. How have things come to this? Is this the kind of teachers that our universities are churning out? It would appear that they are producing soulless deliverers of content. Where are the empathetic critical thinkers? Unfortunately, this speaks volumes about the training of teachers in New Zealand as well as the governance system of New Zealand schools. But more on that later.

The head of Autism NZ says he knew of this issue but was unsure of the extent of the use of this form of ‘behaviour management’ system. Really? HE also says that teachers are not trained sufficiently to communicate with autistic children. He lets teachers off the hook again when he says that this has occurred because children with autism are not be able to articulate their experience. What the hell is going on here? Is this person an advocate for autism or not? Would he be so relaxed if it was his own child that was spending time in a seclusion room? Is this person suffering from an empathy deficit? And why would you need to train teachers to treat children humanely? I would have thought that empathy would be an entry level requirement for all teacher training courses.

The head of Autism NZ also points the finger at class sizes. Teachers will love him for that. The problem with the argument for smaller class sizes is that it has been found that even if class sizes are reduced, teachers continue with their ineffective teaching practices. Nothing changes. Once again, we need teachers who know the content but who are also empathetic, responsive, critical thinkers. He also recommends that better processes need to be put in place. But hang on a minute. The practice of seclusion and exclusion is taking place within a management environment that is already highly regulated and process driven. Schools undergo ERO reviews. Teachers are assessed against agreed standards on a regular basis. There are processes in place. But these processes, as they currently operate, have limited value. A bit like National Standards, these processes act as a ceiling. A bland, dry, box-ticking exercise. They don’t invite questioning, challenging, critiquing. You would hope that there are some teachers in the schools that are using a seclusion room, that feel uneasy about its use and, feel safe enough to address the issue with school management. That they would feel confident to share their concerns and know that their concerns would be taken seriously. You would hope so.

I think this reflects a governance issue in New Zealand schools that needs urgent attention. Schools are governed by an elected board. A board that is made up of community members with varying degrees of abilities and experiences. These may not be education related. School boards operate at arm’s length from the school’s daily operations and is reliant on the educational expertise of the principal. The ‘Fall Guy’ has learnt that lesson the hard way. It is the principals in New Zealand schools that hold all the power. And they operate in what is effectively a power vacuum. The ability of a teacher to address critical issues, such as the practice of seclusion, is completely dependent on the level of institutional trust established by the principal. I think the power imbalance that can exist in the classroom between the teacher and the students, can also be seen reflected in the power imbalance that can exist between the principal and the teachers. There’s got to be a better way of scrutinising principals. Until then, we will have to continue to wait until their stories make their way into the media.

When I trained to be a teacher I experienced high levels of cognitive and emotional dissonance. It’s only now, much later, that I can fully articulate that experience. I set about creating a learning environment that works for all, including myself. A humane environment. To do that, I have often had to ignore the received wisdom of those around me. I started to trust myself more. I started to trust the children more. And as I started to explore this uncharted territory, my trust was repaid. I discovered that children are capable of behaving with kindness, love, generosity, respect and sophistication of thought and judgement.

You are a long time being an adult. Please remember that when you see high academic standards being imposed inappropriately on children. Sure, it’s okay to have high expectations but the best learning takes place when it’s not forced. Play is good. Curiosity and inquiry needs to be encouraged from a child’s perspective. Behaviour doesn’t happen in a vacuum. Create the right learning environment and watch them all flourish. Behaviour can be managed positively. The best solutions are the easiest but take the longest.

The heart of the problem is that many children are not engaged with the learning that is currently being served up to them. Disengagement leads to underachievement (in the eyes of those measuring such things). This tail of underachievement gets longer. So we prescribe more of the same. Higher expectations. No excuses. Zero tolerance. Narrower targets. Less compassion. It kind of works. For some. At least when they are young and reasonably compliant. But of course there is going to be some collateral damage along the way – as we have witnessed with the use of seclusion practices. Eventually, the disengaged move on to join the ranks of the “not in education, employment or training”. If only we were tougher, they say. It’s time to get off this merry-go-round, I say.

I think it’s time to start examining the use of exclusionary practices in New Zealand schools and start looking at how we can have them removed completely. I invite teachers and parents, in fact everyone with an interest in this, to get a conversation started on this topic. Change is needed. 

Finally, in an education system that I advocate for, I believe this kind of tragedy would never happen. I would really like to know the circumstances of this case. Does it all just come down to a missing toilet door handle? I would really like to see justice for this family.

The media coverage that I have referred to for this blog post can be found here, herehere and here. Thanks RNZ and NZ Herald. Keep up the good work.

Ease Education: Teaching at a human scale.

You can also find Ease Education on Facebook and Twitter.

‘NaturePlay’ Film reveals the potential of a nature-based, play-based education system.

NaturePlay

NaturePlay

“NaturePlay – Take Childhood Back” is an award winning documentary film that focuses on the Scandinavian method of “Udeskole” – learning outdoors, and the cultural attitudes of “Friluftsliv” fresh air life behind it all. The film shows examples of positive outdoor education from other cultures with the intent of inspiring parents, educators and policy makers to remedy the growing “nature deficit” in the lives of modern children and within education systems

This beautifully rendered film is a visual and emotional feast. I challenge anyone to watch this movie and not feel a strong desire to embrace a new way of educating our children. The film spoke to me as an educator, as a parent, and most importantly, as a human. Because teaching, learning, educating is a human endeavour. ‘NaturePlay’ Film shows us a pedagogy that is unfamiliar to most but would bring huge benefits to our children, and society in general. It is a complete contrast to the deficit education model that currently burdens us. This alternative way of educating is an idea that needs to be embraced and shared. ‘NaturePlay’ film achieves that.
“Play is often talked about as if it were a relief from serious learning. But for children, play is serious learning. Play really is the work of childhood.”
– Fred Rogers

The film opens with Richard Louv reading from his book, “Last Child in the Woods”.

“Nature inspires creativity in a child by demanding visualisation and a full use of the senses”, he says. “In nature, a child finds freedom, fantasy and privacy.” Beyond these utilitarian values of nature he believes that at a deeper level, “inexplicable nature provokes humility.” Powerful indeed.

 

Based on what we commonly see served up as ‘education’ in most classrooms around the world, that’s quite a lot to grasp. And the task at hand may seem quite daunting too. If that’s so, it may help to take on this challenge by breaking down the idea of ‘NaturePlay’ into two parts – play and nature. That’s because in my teaching experience, I find myself constantly needing to explain to adults of the merit and necessity of play as a way of enhancing learning. So, that may in fact be, a necessary first step. It is from that point that we can convince the adults of the real value of Richard Louv’s words. To convince them that playing in nature, immersing children in nature, will have the impact of amplifying the learning. And more than that. It will grow better citizens, better prepared for life beyond the classroom. 
“Education is not preparation for life; education is life itself.”
– John Dewey
‘NaturePlay’ Film also examines the issue many educators are facing with regard to the issue of standardised testing. The film articulates how the Scandinavian’s are leading the way in creating great learning outcomes without needing to be overly reliant on standardised testing. We learn that teachers need to be good at observing people, rather than only being good at delivering curriculum content. They provoke, they listen, they respond.
NaturePlay

NaturePlay

Listening to the children allows the teacher to determine the learning that is going on. This can be recorded but most importantly, it can be used to inform the direction of new learning. Testing is used as a tool for the teacher. But it is a formative form of testing. It is quite different than the prevalent summative/standardised form of testing and is much more informative. 
But to do so requires a culture shift. A culture of trust and of strong relationships between teachers and the children. This allows for high quality learning interactions between the teacher and students. Over use of standardised testing diminishes that highly prized commodity – trust.
“Our care of the child should be governed, not by the desire to  make him/her learn things, but by the endeavour always to keep burning within him/her that light which is called intelligence.”
– Dr Maria Montessori

‘NaturePlay’ Film highlights the enviable and enlightened education system that the Danes enjoy. It seems that this has not come about by accident. It has arisen through desire and intention. For the last 20 years, Denmark has been focused on improving life quality. They have set about reducing health costs by promoting increased physical activity. This reflects a shift in thinking across all government departments, not just education. And the demand for change is broad and comes from above at the policy level and below at the community level. Kindergartens in Denmark are encouraged to expose their children to nature. Even regular urban kindergartens go outside regularly. The children will go to a forest and go on day trips as much as they can. In Denmark it is believed that exposure to nature is a good thing. It’s part of a good upbringing. 

I found the interview with the Danish playground architect to be fascinating. We learn that a variety of nature playgrounds are available for all children around Copenhagen. These are not the standardised playgrounds with rubberised matting found in most cities. These playgrounds are made up of different surfaces, natural props, hills, and trees. These are designed for children to explore and to test and develop their fine and gross motor skills. If the children can’t get to nature, we’ll bring it to them. How wonderful. What’s stopping you approaching your local city council with a request for something similar?

But the piece de resistance in terms of playgrounds, has to be the ‘Junk Yard’. It is a playground to gazump all playgrounds. I expect it would put fear in the heart of every modern parent. This playground is NOT TIDY. It is a junk yard in words and application. It has space to explore, materials with which to cut and saw and hammer, animals to care for and staff to supervise. In the Junk Yard, the children are encouraged to experiment; to find out for themselves how things work. They are allowed to fail. Failure is seen and promoted as an essential learning experience. Risk is good. Children need opportunities to explore their own limits. This playground encourages imagination, creativity and freedom. It has places to hide. Yes, hide. Because children need places where they can hide from us. Children need alone time just like the rest of us. They need some time away from an adult’s prying eyes.

NaturePlay

NaturePlay

But it gets even better. The ‘Junk Yard’ is not just a free for all. It is an environment that also encourages cooperation, planning and persistence. Having a plan and seeing it through. Responsibility is also a key component. A code of conduct encourages that. Rules are discouraged because that makes for too much rigidity. The only rule is – be nice to one another. Be respectful. Wow. It is quite possible that most children you know will need to be guided into this kind of learning. It may not happen overnight. They may need to be trained up to look after themselves and look after one another. But this type of behaviour can be modelled. And of course teachers need to be trusted to use their judgement when required.

“Breaking an arm is a rite of passage” says a wise person in the film. I feel cheated that I never did so when I was young. But I did fall off bikes and get lost and stray from home for hours at a time and build stuff and cut myself and step on a nail and fall out of a tree. Like the Danish educators, I share the knowledge that the risk of children staying inside is far greater than letting them go outside. I implore parents who want what is best for their children – to listen to their heart and recall those happy times of being engaged in play and recall the joy and the learning that took place. And act accordingly. Seek those educational opportunities for your children. Oh, and watch ‘NaturePlay’ Film.

‘NaturePlay’ Film is available for pre-ordered screenings.

Ease Education: Teaching at a human scale.

You can also find Ease Education on Facebook and Twitter.