Sunday, 15 November 2015

Education Alchemists

Picasso had it right when he said, "Every child is an artist", but he also added, "The problem is how to remain an artist once he grows up!" For some, the visual arts have been viewed as an easy alternative to the core curriculum.  What many do not consider is that the visual arts not only offer a rich opportunity to engage children in higher order thinking but are also an opportunity of teaching children to look closely to see their world. To analyse, synthesise and to create a representation that is personal, creative and expressive. The challenge is to give children the confidence to believe in their creative talent and to honour their own and others' work so as to allow their ideas to flow freely and not allow the filters of doubt to enter their head. One only has to observe a 5 year old painting to see a truly untainted take on the world. Art naturally links so well with all aspects of the curriculum, particularly science.
It takes very special people to create this type of learning environment. They are the gold of the education world. They are truly education alchemists.


Saturday, 10 October 2015

I Saw an Angel in the Marble

Michelangelo of course was a genius of gigantic proportions. His work is breath taking from architecture through to his stunning sculpture, drawing and painting.  He was able to see in nature and the world generally what others couldn’t see.

 He famously said, ‘I saw an angel in the marble and carved until I set him free’.  This line is so inspiring across a number of dimensions. It excites me from an education perspective.

 Every day parents and teachers have this same opportunity with children. If you look close enough you can see the unique individuality and fragility of each child. This presents a wonderful and critically important time when we can embrace and nurture this fragile beauty. Handled correctly we can draw out the trust and confidence of the child to show their real selves, their personal voice, their creativity, their soul, their worries, their dreams and in doing so set free their potential as human beings.

 When most children arrive at school they are usually bursting with ideas, creativity, personal voice and personality. Their filters on life are open and free. They are keen to express themselves and are willing to have a go at all sorts of new tasks.

 The sad reality is that in traditional education settings, these same children incrementally close down their filters showing less and less of themselves. They learn quickly that there is often only one right answer the teacher is looking for, there is only one way to interpret a question and that their ideas are best to kept to themselves as they are annoying or wrong.  These messages are learnt in subtle and not so subtle ways. A painting may be judged on the skill set of realistic representation of what the teacher wants rather than the ideas and thoughts behind the child’s work. A child’s writing may be judged on the surface features of neat writing and accurate punctuation as opposed to the ideas and thinking of the content. Many children quickly lose their confidence and view themselves as ‘dumb’ because they don’t meet the teacher’s expectations. Quiet and sensitive children or children who just don’t fit the ‘norm’ of life can melt into social obscurity if the teacher allows the more confident, brash or even bullying types dominate the learning environment.

 On a more macro front, if the leadership of a school demands conformity and ‘straight line’ thinking of their staff this filters down into the classroom and the school culture. People become fearful and slowly but surely creativity and personal voice gets melded into a machine where surface features of policies and procedures are more valued than the head and the heart. Most teachers become fearful, lose confidence to speak up and usually fall into line.

 On a broader front still, this is the challenge of our education system.  NZ needs teachers who are encouraged to be creative, have personal voice and autonomy.  This doesn’t mean we don’t need structure and systems but on all fronts, including the macro national level and within schools themselves we need people who are set free to sincerely connect with each other and the children on a real and powerful level where personal voice,  trust, empowerment, respect, risk taking  and real empathy are celebrated.

 If all people are made to think the same via structure and systems, then nobody is really thinking at all. Can you see what is possible for NZ education as Michelangelo saw in the marble?



Friday, 17 July 2015

We All Wish For the Cloths of Heaven

Like so many others,  I just love W B Yeats’s poetry and his poem ‘Wishes for the Cloths of Heaven’ stirs me deeply.
The simplicity and frugal use of words, the stunning imagery and the profound metaphorical essence of this poem captures the emotional intensity we all feel about our passions. It is such a beautiful poem and  I refer to it regularly.
“Had I the heavens' embroidered cloths,
Enwrought with golden 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.”
The poem is so romantic but yet it could refer to any context where immense passion and love is concerned.
Recently I read in the DomPost that the creator of the ‘jetpack flying machine’, Glenn Martin had resigned as a director from the Martin Aircraft Company. He said, “To me the personal jetpack was always number one, and so the company has a different vision for where it wants to go [compared] to mine. And eventually you go, it’s not for me.” On his departure he went on to say, “I only have two pieces of advice. Deliver the dream that people want, not the product that is easiest to build. Now don’t @#!* it up!”
What Glenn Martin was saying resonated with me and I immediately thought of Yeats’s poem, particularly the line, “Tread softly because you tread on my dreams.”
Steve Jobs (Apple) and Bill Gates (Microsoft) had very similar dreams. Both wanted to get a computer into the hands of everyday people and of course they both have achieved this beyond their wildest dreams. Their energy, passion and entrepreneurship has been absolutely stunning. Steve Jobs died a few years ago but he can rest in peace knowing his wonderful company Apple continues to aspire to the same entrepreneurial vision which was so important to Steve Jobs.
Through the success of  Bill Gates’ original dream he has become one of the wealthiest men on the planet and now his vision goes beyond just breaking new ground with his IT company to using his success to assist the impoverished.
Martin Luther King in his famous speech “I have a dream…...’ laid out his hopes and aspirations for the black community. His passionate call for racial equality became a mantra for subsequent generations and his words provided a vocabulary and bridge for others to carry on his work after his assassination. Although his ‘dream’ is still yet to be fully realised, much progress has been made and others have stepped forward championing the cause.
Not everyone one will be as visible as a Mandela, King, Gates or Steve Jobs but we all in our own way,  bare our soul and lay down our dreams and hopes for the future goodwill of all manner of things including our families. For many they have the privilege to feel passionate about their work where they can make a real difference to others’ lives as part of their vocation.

For many of us, our precious dreams, hopes and aspirations won’t be  fully realised or we will have to settle for some compromise. Sometimes we are in complete control of our destiny when it comes to our life’s goals and aspirations  but often because of things out of our control these dreams can be dashed.
Yeats’s poem is a wonderful lyrical metaphor which allows the reader to reflect on their own hopes and aspirations calling on those who follow to ‘tread softly because you tread on my dreams’.

Friday, 26 June 2015

The Magic of Numbers
In recent times we have all heard in the media that maths learning is not up to scratch in New Zealand. Mind you, this is not new news. “A report commissioned by the Ministry of Education found that in 2013, 41% of Year 8 students were not achieving in maths at the expected level, with holes in fractions, decimals, percentages, and pro-numerals. The New Zealand Initiative released its latest education report Un(ac)countable: Why millions on maths returned little. The title raises a critical question: why did New Zealand pour $70 million and counting into a project that has failed to improve maths learning? The report covers the history of the Numeracy Project, taking a critical look at this expensive experiment that has failed to return benefits.”(1)

Right from Y2001 when the Numeracy Project was implemented in schools many of the country’s education commentators raised their concerns at such a radical change to maths teaching in primary schools. Many of the older brigade were cynical and touted other education fads that had come and gone such as the Graves’ writing process’ of the 1980s. Not that these and other curriculum initiatives were fundamentally flawed, but because the old and wise heads had seen the pendulum swing too far with each new fad and they often felt common sense and hard earned experience were not fully considered.

Millions of dollars were poured into the Numeracy Project curriculum development including significant professional development for teachers. Most younger teachers ‘cut their teeth’ on the numeracy project approach and it is all they now know regarding teaching maths. The Ministry of Education at the time said, “The biggest difference in schools involved in the Numeracy Project is that children are encouraged to learn a range of different ways to solve problems and to choose the most appropriate one for each problem. You may be familiar with certain ‘rules’ for doing maths. While these will still work, your child may learn different ways to solve problems. Often these methods involve mental strategies, or working things out in your head, rather than written methods.

Well, it is clear the Numeracy project has not lived up to its hype and we not only have many young people put off maths through utter confusion and failure but also many confused younger teachers not quite sure where to next with regard to teaching maths.

I agree with Rose Patterson’s analysis of where the numeracy project has placed our learners. “It is big picture, working it out in your head, seeing patterns, estimative, intuitive, and investigative. Grasshoppers. Sounds fun really, and as many critics of the Numeracy Project have pointed out, myself included, there is nothing wrong with grasshopper maths learning. The problem is the lack of emphasis on the former. (The exact, prescriptive, step-by-step, written, formulaic maths learning. Inchworms! May not be as fun but it is certainly useful.) And while there has been such an emphasis on seeing the big picture of how the maths game works, the eye has been taken off the ball. This inchworm style of learning may not be sufficient alone but it is necessary for helping children form the deeper conceptual understanding of maths that the Numeracy Project intended.” (2)
Everyone is in agreement that we shouldn’t swing back to the other end of the pendulum to the old style of teaching maths (rules, rules, algorithms, algorithms) but harness the best of both worlds.

For my money the key two aspects of primary maths teaching should focus on fostering fluency with number and the teaching of problem solving strategies.

It may sound old fashion but children need to have quick recall of their basic facts (times tables). There are so many fun and real life contextual ways of assisting children gaining this recall. However, like most things worthwhile in life, a bit of graft is also necessary. Children who do not gain quick mastery of the basic facts often lose confidence with maths as they struggle to gain accuracy when completing the most fundamental maths problems. This compounds as they get older and the demands of the maths programme amps up. We have a duty as educators to create an environment of support and expectation so young children have fun and achievement gaining this number fluency. Basic fact acquisition is the start of this fluency but it goes way beyond this with ‘playing’ and ‘exploring’ with number becomes part and parcel of  school life. Looking into patterns, primes etc make maths come to life---children begin to see the magic of number.

Problem solving is of course at the heart of all maths. Some children are intuitive and can quickly unravel maths problems but many do not have this natural ability. Some even have difficulty reading what is being asked. If children incrementally are exposed to problem solving strategies such as ‘guess and check’; ‘make a list’ or ‘create a table’; ‘draw a diagram’; etc , they have a ready armoury of approaches to unravel what is being asked of them.

If problem solving is handled in a supportive, real life contextual and collaborative way it becomes a fun part of the classroom programme and huge gains in achievement and confidence are made.

For many young teachers, maths teaching and learning has been confused via the numeracy project. Within the programme there is much to be lauded but it is definitely time to take stock and consider what we is working and what is not. Teachers need to follow their gut intuition and use teacher inquiry to gather information, build on their findings and become passionate explorers of  the most effective teaching methodologies that build confidence with their children.

My gut instinct and experience tells me, keep it simple and ensure fluency with number is paramount, closely followed by the teaching of problem solving strategies. Once children gain confidence with these core skills, success with more complex maths challenges will follow.

(1) +    (2) Why millions on maths didn't add up | Rose Patterson | The National Business Review---Rose Patterson Published: 12/06/2015