Standards and creativity can co-exist in the classroom

Tower of Blocks

That’s no ordinary tower of blocks.

These days I see myself as a problem solver. 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 in order to help the students be effective learners. Instead of explaining away failure with excuses and deficit thinking, I approach teaching with a view to discovering how I can be most effective. 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 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.

When National Standards were implemented into New Zealand schools I reacted negatively. My original position, like many with a vested interest in education, was to criticise and resist the introduction of this kind of regime. It seemed as though the introduction of National Standards was part of a shift towards an international trend towards standardised testing in primary schools. 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”. How could I support a regime that was going to be a barrier to that?

You can imagine my shock then, when I discovered, that it was John Hattie who was responsible for the introduction of the standardised testing regime into New Zealand primary schools. I had been a big fan of the Visible Learning approach to education for some time. I had been endeavouring to apply the findings of his research into my classroom on a daily basis. How had this situation arisen? Is it a ‘situation’ at all, I wondered? Were these academics actually contradicting one another?

I now realise that standards 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 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 the achieving of those standards (specifically). It’s about pedagogy. 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. Teachers need to see themselves as problem solvers. There are many variables that teachers, as individuals, can have no impact on. But too often those factors are used to explain away the inability to lift student achievement. John Hattie asks teachers to keep asking this one critical question – “What impact am I having on my students’ learning?” By implementing John Hattie’s “Visible Learning” pedagogy in the classroom over the past few years, I have discovered that high levels of academic achievement and creativity can co-exist in the classroom. Instead of being mutually exclusive, they can in fact, create a learning environment that grows exponentially.

The good news is that a template for achieving exceptional learning outcomes for all students has been provided for us. It’s all about the pedagogy.

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.

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Reframing educational outcomes – counting what counts

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Look what I made. Now let tell the world about it.

There are times that I have to remind myself of the purpose of this blog. To “inform, illuminate and inspire” was my original intent. I hope I am doing that. Documenting my thoughts and observations of the learning journey taking place in my classroom has certainly been valuable for me. There are also times when I am reminded of why I love my role in the classroom so much. It wasn’t always like that though. It has taken a lot of reflection and determination.

The current education model wants to count everything and hold everyone to account. It’s a model that stifles creativity and discriminates against many students.

I have also been inspired by the marvelous research that keeps prompting my curiosity and validating my experience. My journey, has in fact, been about breathing life into that research. It’s easy to read it and agree with it. But it’s another thing entirely to put it into practice. What I am aspiring to achieve looks and feels very different to what we typically see. There really is an confirmation bias towards maintaining the habits that keeps us wedded to the status quo, even though it’s not really working. It seems easier to stick to the status quo rather than venture into the unknown. To do so would require a significant leap of faith to get better answers to the questions,

  • What will good education outcomes looks like?
  • Will children really learn?
  • What will the learning environment look like?

Yong Zhao is a source of inspiration and validation.  He speaks about the danger of standardised testing (ie National Standards) and the need to reframe a discussion around educational outcomes. He is the editor of a new book on education called Counting What Counts. The current education model wants to count everything and hold everyone to account, according to Yong Zhao. It is too narrow, too impersonal, too linear, too focussed on the short term. It’s a model that stifles creativity and discriminates against many students.

The use of technology to deliver content means that teachers will be freed up to be more human and to help children develop socially and psychologically.

He describes the current model of teaching as a deficit one. Rather than the 3 R’s being the foundation of learning, they have become the ceiling. We need a model that allows individuals to flourish. A system that motivates and engages students. A system that works for all students equally. Teachers are still seeing themselves as deliverers of information. But that approach is should be redundant. We now have the technology to do that. Technology needs to be used to allow students to be creators rather than consumers. The real value in technology is its ability to amplify the learning, to enable it to be shared and invite collaboration.

I agree with Yong Zhao when he says that technology will not replace teachers but it will play a key role in delivering information. And this is the part that I like the most. It is the raison d’etre of this site. The use of technology to deliver content means that teachers will be freed up to be more human and to help children develop socially and psychologically. Sound familiar? These are all topics that I have already discussed on this blog in previous posts.

Fortunately, I have seen both of the education environments that he describes. I know which one the little people in our classroom would prefer. And I know the one that would really allow them to thrive.

Ease Education: Teaching at a human scale.

You can also find Ease Education on Facebook and Twitter.

An interview with Yong Zhao can be found below.

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