Stop blaming the children. Start fixing the system instead.

NYC School

A climate of fear tends not to encourage the best learning.

I love sharing and reflecting on the magic taking place in my classroom. My hope is that it can inspire fellow teachers to reflect on the impact they are having on the social, emotional and academic well being of the students in their care. My hope is that it will eventually provoke an honest and considered conversation that will lead to better learning outcomes for all students within the education system. Yes, I appreciate that that’s a lofty goal.

But despite what we wish to tell ourselves, all is ‘not well at mill’. That’s why it’s critical that we move beyond the personal and speak in a way that puts the wider education interests of our children at the forefront. Not a day goes by that I don’t dispair at the enormity of the problem we are facing. Systems are notoriously difficult to change. But that should not stop us from facing up to the reality. Sure, celebrating success is essential but let’s not avoid tackling the core issues as well. Those unconscious biases run deep.

So as I continue along the path of delivering a reflective, evidence based teaching programme, I will also continue to be the conscience of educators. And just because you may not witness personally the issues that are being referred to, it does not mean they do not occur. Finding examples is easy. But addressing the problem? Not so easy. Maybe it helps to appreciate that it is not an issue solely for educators to deal with. That it needs to be seen as a human rights issue as well.

I for one, am hopeful that the victims of historic abuse in state care will get the justice they deserve.

Or how can a 4 year old boy run over and killed by a lawnmower in a public park be described as no more than a tragic accident?

In a New York city school, a teacher was videoed terrorising the children in her care during a maths lesson. I note that John Hattie says that it is very difficult for teachers to stop a child from learning. I think the teacher in this video makes a very good attempt to prove that theory wrong.

Or in 2017, it came to light that a New Zealand school was utilizing a ‘seclusion room’ as a way of dealing with ‘difficult behaviour’. I wonder how the Ombudsman’s Inquiry into the issue is progressing? I don’t recall hearing a great deal of contrition being offered by the school when this issue came to public attention.

And back in 2015, a group of teenagers got to speak publicly to the New Zealand parliament to describe their negative experiences in the classroom. They described incidents of being bullied and mistreated by their teachers; of being told they were unteachable; that their work was described as ‘shit’, then ripped up and put in the bin; of being told to stay in at lunch time and do it again.

I also wonder whether classroom culture played some role in the death of Aryan Banerjee in a New Zealand school in 2015. Aryan was left unattended in the class to finish some writing while the teacher took the rest of the children out to play. Why was that? Was Aryan, in effect, being punished for not completing his writing? Is that best teaching practice? Is this a reminder that it is time to put a halt to the overused practice of exclusion in schools? In the end, the school managed to have it presented as a health and safety issue. In the end it would appear that the caretaker was made the ‘fall guy’ for failing to ensure door handles were on the toilet cubicle doors at the time.

It’s too easy to blame the children for failing. Instead, we need to be providing an education system that works for everyone. And the cool thing is, there are already successful working models in existence that we can rely on to lead the way.

Ease Education: Teaching at a human scale.

You can also find Ease Education on Facebook and Twitter.

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.

‘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.

The future of education

For most of the last century, entry-level jobs were plentiful, and a university education was an affordable path to a fulfilling career. That world no longer exists. The growing shortcomings of our school model in todayʼs innovative world need to be acknowledged and addressed.

The future of education

I’ve seen the future of education and it is not, as we are often led to believe, dominated by computers, technology, homework or discipline. That’s because education, at it’s very heart, is a human endeavour. It’s about people and relationships. The future of education is about thinking, inquiring, creating and sharing. It’s an education system that will better prepare our children for the future and be better for our country as a whole – economically, environmentally and socially. Our schools need to be moving away from the highly tested and narrowly focussed system that prevails, towards an inquiry based system that is responsive to the wide range of needs of all learners.

Problems with a test based system.

A test based education system is focused on delivering content. It has a narrow focus. It produces winners and losers. It generates compliant thinkers in a time when we need critical thinkers who are able to challenge the status-quo and be problem solvers. It is a system not responsive to a changing world. In the words of Sir Ken Robinson, the current education system “has mined our minds in the way we have strip mined the Earth”. Our nation’s future economic, environmental and social well-being, is dependent on an education system that caters for all students and nurtures and develops all their talents equally. The future is a broad and inclusive education system that celebrates curiosity and thinking. Our World depends on it. And we need to move fast. Our children need to be prepared for an unpredictable future.

What’s the alternative?

Every day my classroom is filled with curious children who are engaged in meaningful interactions and discoveries. Interactions and discoveries that I am continually delighted to reflect upon but, no longer surprised by. Children are powerful and creative thinkers when given the opportunity. And these interactions and discoveries don’t take place by accident. They come about by creating a learning environment that is provocative and that entices lots of thinking out loud, creating and sharing. In the words of Yong Zhao, standardised testing regime, like National Standards, operates as a ceiling to learning rather than as a foundation.

Importantly, from a teacher’s perspective, it is an environment in which these learning discoveries are often self-generated. Discoveries that can be shared from child to child. That’s learning at its most powerful. These are discoveries that the children are making about the World around them, but also discoveries that teachers can make into learning about their own teaching. John Hattie, defines it as ‘Visible Learning’. What a great definition.

I witness too many of these daily discoveries and interactions for me to record and respond to. Needless to say, these are interactions and discoveries that will never find their way onto an A4 piece of paper with ‘National Standards’ written in bold at the top. But they are happening. And they are glorious. They are discoveries that cover all areas of the curriculum. It is a genuine and authentic form of inquiry learning. Real solutions to real problems. From language and literacy, to science and numeracy. But they also reach beyond the academic realm. Social learning is a key component of these discoveries. A happy, socially engaged learner is the foundation of a good learner – a life-long learner.

Play and imagination are key components of effective learning. Finland is a standout achiever in the education stakes. And the children in Finland don’t engage in formal, academic education until they are 7 years old. Peter Gluckman, Chief Science Adviser to New Zealand’s Prime Minister, says that through play, exploration and positive social interactions, children can learn to develop empathy, resilience and emotional stability – that is, interpersonal skills that will serve both them and our nation well, when they move into their teenage and adult years.

What’s stopping us?

Call for educational reform is not a new thing. By the end of his career, an exasperated John Holt felt that home-schooling was the only way children would get a decent education. I have faith that the system is flexible enough to change; that change is seen as necessary and desirable. I live in hope that a determination to make significant change will happen, sooner than later. But change in how schools deliver education needs to take place alongside economic, political and social change. A new world order needs to be established. Having the top 47 richest individuals with the equivalent wealth of 50% of the World population is neither desirable nor sustainable. Having only some people enjoying the spoils of the current economic model, while the rest are disenfranchised, is neither desirable nor sustainable. The economy needs to serve and benefit everyone.

For everyone to be able to see the future education that I witness in my class everyday, it will take a significant leap of faith. And trust. Teachers will be trusted to do their job. That’s because teaching will be valued and the best people will be recruited to be teachers and those teachers will be provided with the best possible professional development. They will work in an environment in which they feel free to innovate, take risks and be creative. Children will also be trusted to be curious, discerning and enthusiastic learners because they will be given the right environment and opportunities and will also feel safe to take risks.

In the words of Yann Martel, in our current education system, we have a story that won’t surprise us. It confirms what we already know. It won’t make us see higher, further or differently. It’s a flat story that only provides yeastless factuality. And unfortunately, it’s a system that also provides us with winners and losers. We need a system where everyone is enabled to flourish.

Ease Education: Teaching at a human scale.

You can also find Ease Education on Facebook and Twitter.

Check out the article below from the World Economic Forum. It argues for the need for kindergarten age children to be playing.

Continue reading

When students become teachers and teachers become learners.

 

I gave a pair of 5 year old children some place-value blocks, a number flip chart and a brief explanation of how a number on the flip chart can be represented by the blocks. I then turned away to scan the classroom and to observe the other children doing their own maths activity. About 1 minute later I heard a child’s excited voice say, “Look, I’ve made 132”. I went to investigate. Yes indeed. The child had made 132 with the place-value blocks. I turned the camera on to capture the moment. You can hear my voice in the video prompting the child to repeat what he had already told me. Trust me on that. He was excited. He knew what he was talking about. He was aware of his achievement. I know that I had previously talked about the concept of place-value to the children. But it was more in a quick, “isn’t this interesting and useful thing to know”, kind of way.

I want to share this learning moment because I think it reveals a lot about effective teaching pedagogy.

132 was the child’s number. He chose it. That is, I didn’t instruct him to make 132. I simply said, “now it’s your turn to make a number”. The tone of his voice clearly indicated to me a sense of achievement and success. He knew he had achieved something significant. According to Education professor John Hattie,

“the biggest effects on student learning occur when teachers become learners of their own teaching, and when students become their own teachers”.

The child who had made 132 with the blocks had become his own teacher. I, the teacher, had just learned something new about teaching. Well actually, confirmed/validated a teaching practice that I was already in the process of exploring. 

From a teaching perspective, what did I confirm/validate?

Place value is a key concept in working with numbers but is not a concept I would expect all 5 year olds to pick up so quickly and easily. Nor should they. Children develop differently; in different areas and at different paces. In fact, I am surprised that this needs to be spelt out. That is not to say that the concept of place value should not be introduced to 5 year olds. The video shows that it is unwise to underestimate the capability of a 5 year old. It reinforces the value of the ‘provoke, listen, respond’ philosophy. And it supports the idea of provoking children at the highest order of thinking.

…all children are different and need to be provided with learning opportunities that cater best to their individualised needs.

A key element of the maths activity shown in the video is the concrete nature of the task. It’s about manipulating and experiencing and testing. Getting a sense of what numbers mean. Visual, physical, tactile. All too often I see children being asked to complete tasks that are way too abstract and paper based. By providing more physical activities like this you can, at the very least, save on your school’s photocopying budget.

Interestingly, the child’s working buddy was more interested in fitting the blocks together in a creative pattern than creating and solving his own place value problem. He was engaged, but not in the way I had intended. But that’s cool. It was good for me to see that too. This learning opportunity only went on for a few minutes anyway. If that child was ‘into’ that task, I anticipate that he would have been inspired and been able to learn place-value from his peer. Maybe another day. No big deal. But once again, all children are different and need to be provided with learning opportunities that cater best to their individualised needs. Flexible, dynamic, organic. I have said it before in previous blog posts, the current education system only works for some students. Many students are disengaged. And this increases as students get older.

…we are talking 5 year olds here. They should still be playing. We are asking them to engage in formalised learning way too early…

The time I allocated for this task was short. Enough time to give the children a chance to develop and practice. But not enough time to be bored and disengaged. I always make a note of activities that don’t provoke a positive response from the children. I try to be flexible. I won’t give up on a task immediately. I will try a different approach. And some things are not negotiable. For example, during whole class sharing opportunities, the expectation is that children will listen actively and respectfully. I took the children outside to fly a kite the other day. They just wanted to play on the playground. Maybe I’ll try again. I used to love flying kites when I was a child. How could modern day children be so unenthusiastic about flying kites?

I want to develop confident, curious learners who can take risks and learn from their mistakes.

When the children are engaged in an activity that is genuinely interesting to them, negative behaviours are not an issue. Obvious really, eh. Based on personal observations and reflections, the same concept applies to adults too. And of course, we are talking 5 year olds here. They should still be playing. We are asking them to engage in formalised learning way too early anyway. Before it’s developmentally appropriate. 7 years old seems to be the magic number. It would seem that Bryan Bruce and I have been reading the same research. See for yourself, in his documentary about the New Zealand education system.  

I try to provide a balance between independent learning and guiding students through some specific learning tasks. (Once again, bearing in mind that they are still only 5 years old). I want to develop confident, curious learners who can take risks and learn from their mistakes. I take my role as the gatekeeper of what and how the children get to learn, very seriously. Of course I need the children to meet the National Standards that have been imposed from above. But I also want them to be curious and engaged. I am discovering that with the right input, the children seem to be able to have their cake and eat it too. With the right type of activities and input from me, the children seem to find their own pathway to success. I think the place-value experience highlights this proposition very well.

The best learning is authentic and based on the real needs and demands of the children…

I have also made significant changes in the way the classroom is set out. I have started to make a wide range of maths activities and puzzles available to the students.  Dare I say, it was the case up until a few years ago, that a lot of the maths activities that are now available to the children, used to be sitting on a shelf off-limits to the children. What was I thinking? Nowadays, the maths equipment is readily available to the children just like the books in the library corner, the toys and the blocks in the ‘play’ area, the art and crafts equipment, the writing equipment etc.

They are now available for the children to use whenever they are not engaged with me on a specific teacher directed task. And please let it be said that I am no longer surprised when I see children choose to read in the library corner, or complete a maths puzzle, or write a story, or listen to a story on the listening post – ahead of playing on the computer or playing with the variety of blocks and toys available to them. The best learning is authentic and based on the real needs and demands of the children – there’s a reference to that, “children as their own teachers” expression again. Life does not operate in a silo, neither should a classroom. 

Being a mass provider of knowledge is no longer the appropriate form of teaching.

I want to work in an education system that is equipping students with the ability to function in their lives once they leave school; prepared for a world that is looking increasingly unfamiliar and uncertain. In order to flourish in life after school, we need people to be able to apply social and emotional skills, as well as academic skills. Being a mass provider of knowledge is no longer the appropriate form of teaching.  Students need to be treated as individuals who have different learning needs. I want to be allowed and encouraged to go deeply and broadly.

Excuse my passion. I’m in bit of a hurry. We should all be. I can see a different future, and that excites me.

For some academic validation of the opinions expressed above, check out this article on The Conversation.

Ease Education: Teaching at a human scale.

You can also find Ease Education on Facebook and Twitter.

Do schools kill creativity?

I have watched this video a few times. And I have spoken to a few people who have also watched it, and who were equally impressed with it. But how has it been able to achieve almost 40,000,000 million views? The speaker certainly knows how to entertain a crowd but maybe, just maybe, his message resonates. I really hope that some of those viewers have been teachers. I hope you too will take the time to watch it (again).

I’d have to say that I would answer his question with a resounding ‘yes’. Education, in it’s current form, kills creativity. The education system in its current form was created out of a need to meet the needs of a new industrialised world. To create a work force. But times are changing. The whole world is engulfed in a technological revolution. Even though we like to suggest otherwise, nobody has a clue what the world will look like in 5 years, let alone in 50. But our education system is presented as though we do know. And all based around three core subjects – reading, writing and maths – the 3R’s. Yep, nothing has changed since my father and his father went to school. Well at least, not beyond the obvious surface features. Ken Robinson argues that “creativity is as important in education as maths and literacy and we should treat it with the same status.”

He observes that, “our education system is predicated on academic ability.” The smart ones who are destined for university. Not to study Humanities, of course. But to study a STEM subject. Because that’s what we need more of, according to the current NZ government. For these ones, it doesn’t matter that the education system robs them of their wonderful creative talents and capacity for innovation. They will survive, if not thrive. Hard work and compliance will get them through. High achievement and financial success can be used to justify stress and personal unhappiness. What about the rest? Those who don’t excel in the desirable core subjects? Their skills and talents are deemed as of limited value within education and out in the real world.

Kids will take a chance. If they don’t know something, they’ll have a go. They are not frightened of being wrong . Being wrong is not the same as being creative. If you are not prepared to be wrong, you will never come up with anything original. By the time children have become adults they have lost that capacity. Become frightened of being wrong/of making mistakes. This is how our education system works. We are educating people out of their creative capacities. We get educated out of creativity.

University is not, or should not be used as the determiner of high intelligence and success. It’s a definition that is way too narrow. Besides, with so many people now graduating with university degrees, they are becoming worthless – it’s called academic inflation. We need to stop directing our children to take subjects that we deem as valuable. We need to encourage them to find their talent and pursue that. We need to rethink our view of intelligence.

Unfortunately, I would predict that this is a risk that many of us will not be willing to take with our own children. Even if you have had personal experience that tells you otherwise. But the problem is bigger than you and I as individuals. It’s a societal issue. While we remain locked into this restricted view of intelligence, we will never be able to solve the problems that we face as a humanity – poverty, environmental degradation.

Our education system has mined our minds the way we have strip mined the earth. We need to rethink the fundamental principles on which we educate our children. We need to celebrate the gift of human imagination and start seeing our creative capacities for the richness they are and see our children for the hope that they are. Our task is to educate the whole child so they can face the unknown future.

On a personal note, I’m pleased to say that I am putting a lot of effort into addressing the ‘creativity deficit’ that he talks about. We still make plenty of time for the ‘important’ subjects of maths and language. But there is now also much more time for the children to explore and be creative. In some cases I have found myself having to really encourage children to find their creative space. I have had to really provoke and encourage. Movement and music is ever present in our daily routine. It’s wonderful. The children are growing enthusiastically into this new way of being and learning. As Ken Robinson says, “we all have bodies.” Too early on, we start teaching children from the waist up only.

Ease Education: Teaching at a human scale.

You can also find Ease Education on Facebook and Twitter.