Friday, 1 June 2018

Can ‘Play’ be Seen as Work ?

Each week an email bounces into my inbox from   I often choose one of the videos to share with classes as part of my regular ‘cameo’ class visits as the videos are usually powerful and thought provoking.

Because a recent one was particularly good on so many levels, I strongly recommend you take 7 minutes and have a look at it.

The video just adds enormous weight to the growing development and recognition of Learning through Play which so many schools are investigating.
I see so many adults shudder at the thought of their children going to school to ‘play’ and not getting down to the real work. I ‘get this’ as when most of us went through school, work was work and play was for playtime.
Many parents have come through a school system based on the transmission (empty vessel) model where the teacher helped fill the student with knowledge in preparation for exam unloading of what they had learnt. With this model in mind, it would be easy to be fooled by busy work via worksheets or other low level tasks laboriously presented with beautiful handwriting, straight lines and crafted borders.
I have to admit, with what we now know about how children learn, ‘it does my head in’ to see low level busy work whether it is through the traditional classroom lens or the learning through play approach.
There has to be a meaningful purpose (learning intention) and rigour for the learning environment to be as powerful as it should be. This doesn’t mean laughter and fun has to disappear and in fact motivation theory demonstrates that when our emotions are positively engaged we are in our optimum learning ‘flow’ which means we are very ready and energised to learn.
The video I recommended you to watch shows quite explicitly the power of play.
I often think I would love to take the word play out of the education discussion as it so often produces glazed over looks from some, annoyed expressions from others and an ethereal look from the devotees.
Some years ago, a student in my school coined the phrase ‘edutainment’(1) which in his words is a series of events sneakily intertwined with education. School should be a place of education, entertainment, friendship and memories. I would like to take this word ‘edutainment’ which I love and because it sits so well with the gamification growth in the curriculum and merge it with Papert’s ‘hard fun’ expression of all those years ago. This merger gets rid of the distracting word play and gets to the heart of the matter.

A quality learning environment promotes a strong work ethic mixed with highly engaging tasks (hard fun) and inquiries where the skills of finding out and understanding (research) are incrementally scaffolded for young children. Curiosity, creativity and rigour need to be at education’s heart.
At least equally important is the E.Q (emotional intelligence) support and development in schools. Without the backbone of E.Q., IQ is undermined and meaningless. The social and emotional aspects of education are more important than ever.
I love the charts included in the appendix of this blog and subscribe to so much of what is said in the related article.
Enough from me, except to say, don’t forget to watch the video. (link repeated)
Warren Owen
Appendix: (The work place needs of the future and the relationship of play in preparing children with the key skills and competencies required)

(1) Theo MacDonald

Picture and Quote ref:

Wednesday, 25 April 2018

In the Early World --- Back to the Future

Our new Minister of Education, Chris Hipkins has set in motion a review of NZ’s education system. He has stated that NZ has as an education system to be proud of but it now needs to change to meet the needs of the 21stC.

His vision for the education portfolio is a high quality, fair, and inclusive education system that provides all New Zealanders with learning opportunities and prepares them for the future. (1) Who could argue with that!

The minister has called for submissions on what this might look like and this is my take on things.
My thinking comes from 40 years of involvement in the primary education sector. During this time I have been a passionate observer, reader and writer on education matters. Currently I am a principal of a moderately large Wellington primary school. (Waterloo School)

 I don’t claim to have it all ‘nailed’ and I recognise and delight I am still learning as I approach the receipt of my ‘gold card’. What I do know is evidence based.

There are a few key questions to what has become so obvious to even the most cynical in the last few decades. These include how do we prepare our children for a world that is beyond our imagination? How do we craft a child’s learning journey towards a job that is yet to be created?

There is a tsunami of evidence that has been exponentially building that demonstrates the world we know today will be radically different from tomorrow. “Roughly two-thirds of students entering primary schools this year will work in jobs that do not exist yet, so the ability of countries like NZ to respond as the digital revolution accelerates depends on its future ‘skills makeup’ according to Microsoft executives at their recent Education Exchange in Singapore.” (2) This might seem a rather glib approximation but the statement is supported by reality and a lot of research and modelling including an IDC study commissioned by Microsoft which has predicted digital products and services will account for 55% of NZ gross domestic product by 2021. (last year, just 6%)  (3)

A little while ago I read a New York Times article written by Thomas L. Friedman entitled, ‘Need a Job? Invent It!(4) This provocative title deeply resonated with me as it is clearly apparent that the days of assuming our young people will transition from school or university into jobs has long gone. It’s tough out there and the ‘playing field’ has changed.

Friedman quotes an executive he interviewed as saying, “We can teach new hires the content, and we will have to because it continues to change, but we can’t teach them how to think-to ask the right questions-and to take initiative.”

Many of the answers to how can we prepare our children for our rapidly changing world have been proffered by some of the world’s best education minds including Sir Ken Robinson.
Despite the huge goodwill, energy and resources that have gone into New Zealand’s education system over the last few decades, many of our education outcomes have been progressively falling. (5)
We are not alone in failed approaches.  Professor Guy Claxton from Kings College, London listed the following international failures.   (6)

These countries’ visions use similar words describing the desired skills and attributes needing to be promoted in their students. Words such as ‘creative’, ‘confident’, ‘flexible’, ‘curious’, ‘independent’ and ‘collaborative’ abound. These key skills and dispositions are widely recognised as being central and critical to preparing our young for the wild ride ahead.

Claxton and others asks, ‘So what goes wrong’? (6a) Why aren’t these dispositions imbedded in our education system after so many years of talk? Never before has it been so easy to access research and best practice pedagogy via the world’s experts so what gets in the way of achieving better outcomes for children?

I believe there are two related barriers which get in the way of comprehensive and meaningful implementation.

Firstly, fear gets in the way. Everyone involved including the politicians set out to do the right thing based on the best practice but often the desire to improve learning outcomes is accidentally sabotaged and confused by each level of the education hierarchy setting out to justify their existence.

I say fear because so called ‘accountability’ has too often got in the way. A classic example of this which has been widely acknowledged in NZ has been the obsession with national standards data gathering which has driven schools inwards so their lens focussed on the traditional 3 Rs. This is a generalisation but unfortunately the fear of allowing ‘standards’ to fall and / or a poor ERO review caused many schools (BOT and Principals) to exhaust their staff with endless paperwork and reviews leaving minimal reflection time for teachers to see the ‘woods for the trees’.
We have a great opportunity to make change now but we have to be fearless.

Many well-meaning people worry about falling standards and the importance of the basics in education.  However what has to be realised and understood is of course we can’t underestimate the importance of the basic skills and dispositions that empower communication and knowledge building.  These skills will always be fundamental and need to be fostered with rigour wherever possible using authentic and meaningful contexts. It is not the ‘content’ of these fundamental skills that needs changing but the ‘how’ they are taught and scaffolded which is crucial.  Essentially we need a school system that values the developmental nature of learning. Young children don’t and can’t jump the same hurdles all at the same time, but we can engage their minds and capture their unique ideas and thinking. Get this right and you build real learning power, confidence and aspiration.
We need to value questions above answers and creativity over fact regurgitation with an overlay of high aspirations for all.

People like the world renowned ‘thinking’ guru, Dr Edward de Bono have always believed thinking and creativity are skills that can be taught and learnt! The exponential change our children will face, demands that thinking skills should have the same focus and currency as the core skills of numeracy and literacy.

What is exciting, is that once this is recognised, across the board academic outcomes trend upwards.
According to Friedman, Finland is one of the most innovative economies in the world and it is the only country where students leave high school ‘innovation-ready’. They learn concepts and creativity more than facts.” Intelligence is not enough. Creativity, or the ability to think divergently, can be developed and improved. It’s a learnable process. 

What are these skills or dispositions and what is the journey we need to take children on to give them real learning power? The answer to this question has been written and spoken about for years and years.
Skills such as perseverance, flexibility, questioning, curiosity, creativity, collaboration, reflection, resilience and optimism.  I like Guy Claxton’s metaphor of a school as a mind gym v an assembly line. (7)  The concept of imagining the mind as a muscle you can build is appealing.
Seymour Papert said, “Learning should be hard fun” (8)   where there is engagement, passion and purpose.

Alongside ‘fear’, the other key barrier which gets in the way of successful implementation of New Zealand’s vision for education is we haven’t unpacked what the key skills and dispositions actually mean and look like for our teachers. Many teachers do not consider themselves as creative and they need support to demystify ‘creativity’.
The word creativity is bandied about quite often in education circles but what does it actually mean? Do some have it and some not? It is a widely misunderstood word.
Creativity is not a magical quality that some have and some don’t! We have to ensure creativity and thinking skill development is a dominant part of the curriculum. Not only should it be totally integrated in the curriculum ensuring the learning tasks engage higher order thinking and age and stage appropriate ‘hard fun’, but right from pre-school, children need to explicitly know that their thinking and ideas have merit and value.  Take a subject like art as it is a prime example. Traditionally most children have received implicit and explicit feedback about their art related to how it looks and in many cases how it mirrors realism. Art is an expression of a child’s thinking and this is where the value should be put.

Part and parcel of promoting creativity and thinking is treating these skills as natural and important aspects of learning with children. Discussing these attributes and providing skill development and understanding adds enormous uplift in confidence and indirectly demonstrates to children that their thinking has merit and it is an important aspect of their development. 

Most creative achievements have come about through dogged determination. Without going into the detail there are some common ways to improve creativity in all of us and thus it makes enormous sense for schools to make time to teach these skills and dispositions. Ideally schools will have an active programme teaching thinking strategies and infusing creativity and higher order thinking into every aspect of school life.

But it isn’t going to happen by osmosis. Schools and teachers need support, the mandate and the expectation that the culture of their school needs to live and breathe these dispositions.
We need this education change not only because it has been proven without doubt that children will benefit in all manner of means (not only academically but holistically) but also for survival. The world is facing unprecedented challenges such as population explosion, significant climate change, significant human conflict via religion, politics and greed and of course our growing resistance to anti biotics and the threat of super bugs. It is a no brainer if for nothing more than making schools a place of true learning where young people are set up wanting to learn and create for the rest of their life.
It is time to focus on learning and not schooling. Education should not be seen as something that starts at kindergarten and finishes at university. Even from a practical point of view, a university degree is no passport guarantee for a job anymore. The 19th and 20thC roadmap for success has been disrupted by exponential change, much of which has been brought about by technology.
This of course applies to us as educators. We must not be swayed by fads or pressure to do things for the wrong reasons but follow what our hearts, experience and quality research is telling us. Data is so important!  Good teachers are natural ‘inquirers’ constantly gathering important qualitative and quantitative data because they know this will provide rich information so they can provide the best programme possible. They are not driven by top down expectations unless of course it makes good sense. 
Sir Ken Robinson gets it big time when he said, Of course technology is important as is science, maths, engineering (STEM) but they are not enough! STEM is at risk of becoming a fad and a diversion away from the heart of the matter. Students need equal doses of the arts, the humanities, physical exercise and play. But more important than any subject content is school culture. (9)

So enough talk! Why would any country ignore what all the research is showing and in particular the common view points of the best education minds in the world? Why ignore the likes of Sir Ken Robinson, our own John Hattie, Professor Guy Claxton, David Perkins, Art Costa, Sugata Mitra et al.
A central part of this ‘culture’ is recognising the immense importance of teacher connection and building self-belief in students (relationships), combined with fostering an exciting and rigorous thinking philosophy where ideas are celebrated and questions valued over answers. The role of the teacher is more complex and demanding than any time in history. The walls of the class room have to be metaphorically and in some ways literally broken down.

Interestingly enough there is nothing ‘earth shatteringly new’ with what we know about how children learn and thrive. From 1949 to 1962 Elwyn Richardson at Oruaiti School with the blessing of the then and now famous Director of Education, Clarence Beeby,   discarded the official syllabus and turned to the children’s lives and immediate environment for the basis of his curriculum. Using the children’s natural curiosity and interest, Richardson taught them how to observe closely the world around them and to record their new discoveries and their own responses to these. From here, he developed a school programme that was anchored in the children’s surroundings and real lives. Through environmental study the children learned the basis of scientific method, and brought these skills to bear on studies that spanned all subjects. His method was a revolt away from science as a separate subject to an integrated programme of arts and science. Richardson wrote In The Early World (10) at Oruaiti School published by The New Zealand Council for Educational Research NZCER in 1964. The book tells the story of how Richardson’s students became increasingly aware of their own capacity for personal expression, while collectively establishing a shared understanding of aesthetic values.

Richardson’s holistic philosophy capturing the children’s thinking and creativity has stood the test of time and is an inspiring story. The aesthetics and the power of nature holding the secrets of so much are as relevant today as ever.  Our best internationally acclaimed educationalists continue to champion such beliefs. For most children up to the 1960s their world was their neighbourhood but now technology has shown us a global neighbourhood which our young people are embracing. It is time to thread this holistic and constructivist philosophy through our schools leveraging and integrating the powerful digital tools of the 21stC. How exciting would that be!

Let’s get on with it with rigour, high aspirations and passion. Let’s really create a nation of curious and creative minds combined with empathy and good will. (E.Q.)  Let’s be fearless in the pursuit of what we have known for a long time.

How do we do this? It won’t happen overnight and I have already said enough but our biggest focus needs to be Whole School Professional Learning building the capacity of our current cohort of teachers to take on this exciting challenge of building a ‘thinking culture’ in schools.  Let’s find the people who already exist in our school system who deeply understand these dispositions and use them to work with schools to support them to providing transformational education that will not only excite students but set them alight to achieve more than they thought possible.

Warren Owen

(2)    Adele Redmond, The Fourth Industrial Revolution, DomPost 31/3/2018
(5)    NZ Principal March 2018 pp33-34
(6)    (+6a) Professor Guy Claxton, Kings College, London, U.K.
(7)    Professor Guy Claxton, Kings College, London, U.K.
(9)    Sir Ken Robinson, p19
(10) Elwyn Richardson, In the Early World,  

Picture Art by Olivier Tallec from This Is a Poem That Heals Fish by Jean-Pierre Simeón

Friday, 2 March 2018

Is Your Child Gifted ?

This blog entry builds on an earlier one on G.A.T.E. children. Firstly I quickly repeat the need to ensure our gifted and talented children have their needs met at school every day by experiencing a ‘rich’ and ‘relevant’ curriculum and secondly, the blog looks into the incredible damage that can be done by labelling children as gifted and talented. If you are short on time, jump down to the video link and see this ‘must see’ short video which just might surprise you.

Historically schools have supported students with remedial learning needs. Sadly many students who have special needs at the other end of the scale have often not had their needs met. Some of these ‘gifted’ or ‘talented’ students (known as G.A.T.E. children) become behavioural problems as they struggle to overcome boredom and frustration.

The good news is that in recent times greater education policy requirements have been placed on schools to address the needs of these students. However it is one thing to make policy but many schools find it difficult to find the expertise and resources to ‘walk the talk’.

In their bid to fulfil their responsibilities, many schools provide ‘pull out’ programmes grouping students together for a few hours each week providing some ‘one off’ stimulating activities that excite these very capable students. One positive spin off from this approach is G.A.T.E. students get the chance to engage with like minds. Sometimes these students are put up a class level. It works for some but it is socially very risky. There are various ‘one day’ fee paying G.A.T.E. schools operating and some schools recommend parents enroll their gifted child(ren) into one of these.

However these options do not deal with the fundamental issue. Like all students, G.A.T.E. students deserve to have their educational needs, including social needs met every day. Their minds need to be challenged and engaged throughout their school life! 

This is not a tall order when the curriculum is well understood, planned and differentiated appropriately. Schools must build on the interests of all students providing them with the skills so they have more control over the topic or content they wish to pursue allowing the opportunity for individual and independent study. The exciting 21stC education technology rich paradigm supports and further empowers the learner. This interactive and blended approach encourages creativity, deep flexible thinking and access to a broader range of higher level resources.

It is an exciting time in education providing schools take up the opportunities available to unleash their students’ motivation and potential.

However it is with a huge cautionary note I share Jo Boaler’s work around giftedness. Jo is a highly regarded Professor of Mathematics at Standford University. Her research and work is highly respected internationally. I highly recommend you watching this short video.

Jo decided to make this short film after many years of my being a professor at Stanford and hearing from students about the labels they had received growing up.
She said, “Many of the students had been labelled as “gifted” or “smart,” when they were in school, and these labels, intended to be positive, had given them learning challenges later in life. Most people realize that it is harmful to not be labelled as gifted when others are. The labelling of some students sends negative messages about potential, that are out of synch with important knowledge of neuroplasticity showing that everyone’s brains can grow and change. But few people realize that those labels are damaging for those who receive them too. At Stanford many students were labelled as gifted in Kindergarten or 1st grade and received special advantages from that point on, raising many questions about equity in schools. But labels and ideas of smartness and giftedness carry with them fixed ideas about ability, suggesting to students that they are born with a gift or a special brain. When students are led to believe they are gifted, or they have a “math brain” or they are “smart” and later struggle, that struggle is absolutely devastating. Students who grow up thinking that they have a special brain often drop out of STEM subjects when they struggle. At that time students start to believe they were not, after all, gifted, or that the gift has “run out” as one of the students in our film reflects.
In the above film, which I really recommend that you watch, we also hear from students from a local elementary school who shared their experiences of learning without labels. Their school does not give students the idea that some students are smart or gifted and has instead shared our youcubed messages and videos about the high potential of all students to grow and change their brains. Their math community values all kinds of learners and communicates that all students have interesting and unique ideas to share. The teachers know that careful problem-solving takes time, conversation, and lots of questions from everyone. The fourth graders who are interviewed illustrate the different ideas students can develop when they are given messages of brain growth and high academic potential for everyone, rather than messages of high academic potential for only some students.
Both labels and dichotomies are damaging in education. Instead of deciding some students are “smart” or “gifted” we should acknowledge that everyone is on a growth journey and we should celebrate the growth potential of all students. “
Jo’s work is very powerful and really challenges much of the traditional thinking around many schools’ approach to providing for our gifted and talented children. Her last point in bold is very relevant. All children deserve to be challenged appropriately with the right amount of ‘stretch and tension’ to create a curriculum implementation that is built on ‘hard fun’. We must continue to pursue the aspirational goal of personalised learning for all without putting inhibiting labels on children.

Prof. Jo Boaler  Standford University.
(head image source unknown)

Monday, 29 January 2018

A Letter to Teachers

Dear Teachers

I am a passionate educator who recognises the immense worth of teachers. At times it can be a thankless vocation but overall the rewards are enormous. We all strive to do our very best for our children with the knowledge that perfection is an elusive dream.

W.B Yeats wrote the below poem to his love Maud Gonne saying if he was a rich man he would give her the world and all its treasures but since he was a poor man, all he could offer up was his dreams. 

The Cloths of Heaven

Had I the heavens’ embroidered cloths, 
Enwrought with gold and silver light, 
The blue and the dim and the dark cloths 
Of night and light and the half-light, 
I would spread the cloths under your feet: 
But I, being poor, have only my dreams; 
I have spread my dreams under your feet; 
Tread softly because you tread on my dreams.” 

In one of his many speeches, Sir Ken Robinson very cleverly uses this poem as a lyrical metaphor to sum up the challenge that we as teachers have every day.  Sir Ken finishes with:

“And every day, everywhere, our children spread their dreams beneath our feet. And we should tread softly.” (1)

Children know if we care enough. They know if we 'get them' as an individual. They know if we are doing our best for them or just taking short cuts and the easy options to get through the day. 

Teaching is a huge responsibility but also a great privilege as each day we have the opportunity to make a difference to children's lives, and over a year hopefully impact them in a way they will remember and appreciate for the rest of their lives.

"Teachers matter more than anything else in a classroom. More than any programme, any device, any new pedagogical shift... it is you who matters the most.

How we choose to engage with a child, how we choose to hear them makes all the difference to the individual. It can define how they see themselves as a learner and ultimately as a successful human being." (2)

As we enter a new year let us tread carefully.

Warren Owen

(1) Sir Ken Robinson

 (2) Footnote: I was motivated to write this by reading a piece written by Leslee Allen. 

Thursday, 30 November 2017

The Power of Play

Often my blog posts are a very generic commentary on some aspect of education but this one is focused on our school's inquiry into 'learning through play' for our Year 1s (5-6 year olds) in particular. Deputy Principal, Karen McMillan has conducted her own leadership inquiry into this subject and I have included some of her work below. From the outside looking in some of the activities may seem to have little purpose but there is indeed ‘power’ in the design. 

Play is real learning too

Play isn’t some sort of soft approach before the ‘real’ learning begins. That idea is a hangover from education’s industrial era. Play has been consistently described across time as central to cognitive, language, cultural, and social development. Lev Vygotsky said that ‘In play a child always behaves beyond his average age, above his daily behaviour; in play it is as though he were a head taller than himself. As in the focus of a magnifying glass, play contains all developmental tendencies in a condensed form and is itself a major source of development.’ (Vygotsky, 1978, p 102). He believed it was incorrect to conceive play as being without purpose. He considered that play as supporting the development of a child’s cultural knowledge that helped frame future learning of the child(Drewery & Claiborne, 2013).
I’m really confident that play is also the preferred mode of learning for young children. They get it. Play is what young children do. It’s what they know, and they are good at it. (1)
Why Learning Through Play by Karen McMillan

In New Zealand your 5th birthday is a big event. You are going to start school. However, for a long time many teachers of New Entrants have had concerns on how we transition our children from Early Childhood Education to Primary. The major difference being the New Zealand Curriculum and Te Whariki. There are links between the different curriculums but the reality for our students is they wake up on their 5th birthday and their experience of starting school can be the cause of anxiety for the children and their families.

We are finding that many of our youngsters arrive at the school gates full of curiosity and an enthusiasm for learning (natural learner agency) but somehow the school system squashes this out of them as we need to conform to set standards. For many teachers this has taken the “joy” out of teaching and the importance of personalised learning and student led learning.  
One of the key findings from the literature research is that successful transitions depend on the nature of the relationships between all involved. For children, their friendships, peer relationships and the relationship with their teacher appear central. Respectful, reciprocal relationships between the adults involved are also key factors in a successful transition. This is important for all children but seems to be especially influential for the success of Māori children.

Relationships permeate the other key themes for success that were identified in the literature, such as a sense of belonging and wellbeing at school, engagement in learning, learning dispositions and identity as a learner. Children, whose teachers take time to get to know them, affirm their culture, recognise and build on their prior learning, and see promise rather than deficits, reflect many of the features of a successful transition that will support their learning.

The child-led ‘learning through play’ model that ECE is based on has been proven to be a powerful model for child engagement and holistic child development.

Current research and practices trialling in primary schools are showing how effective this model can be in New Entrant classes, especially in the Key Competencies that underpin the NZ Curriculum.
After reading research, discussions with colleagues in both sectors (Early Childhood and Primary)  and observing a current programme in a school, we are going to incrementally implement this play based learning approach in our Junior School. (Year 1 and 2)

This means that within our daily timetable there could be:
Activities (designed to provocate) displayed inside, on the deck or under the archgola for children to come in and engage with. The various activities will cover many aspects of development such as Large Motor/ Physical Skills, fine motor skills, creativity, sensory etc. They may link to topic / learning about the world as in our inquiry planning or based on the children's passions, interest or urges (eg spinning, digging, climbing etc)

The main focus of this time however will be the Key Competencies of the NZ Curriculum ie Relating to Others, Managing Self, Participating and Contributing and Thinking alongside the Principles of the ECE curriculum such as, Well-Being, Belonging, Contribution and Exploration.

The overall aim for Learning Through Play Time is to ensure children make a smoother transition, hence they will be coming into an environment that is familiar to them. It will give teachers the opportunity to observe children and build a relationship with them in an interactive positive way while helping them to develop in areas that they need.

During 'Learning Through Play', teachers will be engaging with the children as they play and carrying out explicit teaching sessions whilst the children are playing. We believe this will result in less “busy” work such as worksheets as children will be engaged in “purposeful” and “powerful” play / learning.

If you would like further reading, take a look at these links:

(1)                                    (very short Seven Sharp Q + A with Nathan Makere Wallis)

(The work place needs of the future and the relationship of play in preparing children with the key skills and competencies required)