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