Monday, 7 August 2017

“The hurrier I go, the behinder I get.” ― Lewis Carroll

Over the last decade there has been pressure building from the highest echelons of the education sector to address the equity issues around under achievement, particularly of the bottom quartile of our school age population. The national standards data schools are mandated to gather, starkly remind us of this underachievement. Our Maori and Pasifika students are over-represented in these statistics.

So what’s to be done! The Education Review Office make no apology at zoning in on this underachievement as they review schools. Schools are expected to demonstrate they have strong internal evaluation systems in place analysing data and then using teacher inquiry models, drill down into what could be the ‘triggers’ to provide the supports to achieve accelerated progress for the students who are not achieving well.

Research says the biggest contributing factor to success is what happens in the classroom, not least personalising learning, having high expectations of the students, providing ownership/agency of learning, engaging in rich tasks and having strong relationships between individuals and their teacher. As Hattie has said, it is not what school a student goes to but what teacher they get. (1)

There are many other powerful things that can be done to assist lifting achievement such as creating a partnership of learning between the teacher, family and child so all are working together.  Putting energy and commitment into sincerely engaging with the various cultures to ensure all families are valued and engaged in school life cannot be under-estimated. This cultural responsiveness is vital, not least with our Maori and Pasifika communities as they are over represented in this tail of underachievement.

The above issues are all so important but in our quest with the best of intentions to address this problem of inequity, I believe the system is engaging in short term thinking and has developed tunnel vision and an over emphasis on national standards. Good schools have always known where their students lie in this norm referenced way and as we all know, weighing the elephant all the time isn’t going to change its weight. However many schools and teachers become distracted from what we know as best practice because they become anxious about their national standards data to a point where the balance of joy and creativity gets out ‘whack’ which impacts not only the students but also the teachers.

This is unfortunate as when children start school it presents a wonderful and critically important time when we can embrace and nurture these young and fragile beings.  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 help set free their potential as human beings.

Children arrive at school bursting with curiosity personal and personality. Their filters on life are open and free. They have been empowered up to this point to express themselves and are willing to have a go at all sorts of new tasks.

Teachers more than ever feel pressure to ‘get their students progressing’ on the national standards continuum and they have to be careful not to incrementally chip away at these young people’s confidence so they show less and less of themselves. Children learn quickly if there is often only one right answer the teacher is looking for 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.

On a more macro front, if the leadership of a school demands conformity and ‘straight line’ thinking of their staff, it will filter 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. In this scenario teachers lose energy and confidence to speak up and usually fall reluctantly into line.

Successful teachers need to be given more autonomy to use their time and their expertise to mentor others. Many fine teachers are expending far too much time and energy justifying their existence via data gathering and other related paperwork. Teacher inquiry and related gathering of assessment information has always been part of best practice and we need structure and systems including at the macro national level and within schools themselves. However the pendulum has swung too far. We need people who are set free within the bounds of the school’s shared vision and values 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. There has to be accountability, but this accountability and energy is being drained from many as they feel the pressure from above.   

Allied to the pressure around national standards is the perceived need felt by some to narrow the curriculum to a stage where reading, writing and maths becomes so much the mantra that other subjects such as science, the arts and the social sciences drop down under the radar and the integrated and inquiry based themes of learning are pushed to one side.

Some schools both nationally and internationally have been able to ‘see the woods for the trees’ and been able to par back testing and other formal assessments and maintain their focus on holistic education where student agency, inquiry and engaging contexts for learning are at the heart of every day. This frees up learning time and allows teachers to focus on more powerful methods of gathering understanding of where individuals are at via interactive dialogue between teacher and students. The information gathered can be used to inform next learning steps. (formative assessment)  This co-construction of learning puts students at the heart of the learning and is going to be far more powerful for the student than a grade. The unrelenting pressure some schools feel to gather evidence to justify their position has become destructive.

“This is not about being soft and fluffy. It’s about believing that listening to pupils matters. The assumption that you can reliably put a number against what a child is capable of is flawed and dangerous. Potentially, it leads to the individual and the people around them having a very limited set of expectations.” (2)

British educator, Sir John Jones was interviewed on nine to noon last year. His theme was ‘we only seem to value what we measure’.
Sir John says it’s time to rethink and repeal the assessment systems used in many education systems.
“In a way it’s a crisis in the system – are we preparing children to pass a test, or are we preparing them for life?”
I agree with Sir John.  Learning is developmental. That is, children come to key conceptual understandings when they are cognitively able and not before. Yet schools are currently being called upon to put an inordinate amount of focus on those children who are not ‘at’ the standard for their age. Teachers are encouraged to work hard to give these children ‘accelerated progress’ (more than one year’s progress in any given year) but the reality is, many of these children are just not developmentally ready and some simply not in an optimal state for learning.

Teacher inquiry and data gathering are all part of ‘best practice’ and always has been.  I am all for rigour in education but this rigour has to be firmly placed into a rich and holistic curriculum where good questions are more important than answers. The quality of the question will determine richness of the learning experience. We need to be focusing on a curriculum rich in higher order thinking focusing on the dispositions such as controlling impulsivitiy, collaboration, self-belief, creativity, curiosity, resilience, meta- cognition and problem solving. These dispositions not only prepare our children for the future but are proven to engage learners giving them more than just knowledge but sets them up with the spirit and soul of what it is to be a life-long-learner.

Sadly NZ has the highest rate of teen suicide of 41 OECD and EU countries according to a recent UNICEF report and I believe that our education system and its related pressures has an important part to play in this horrible statistic. We must seek meaningful ways to support young people to be successful that don’t just involve ‘one off’ grades.

It seems to me that although there is a clarion call for ‘life-long’ learning, schools are feeling the pressure to make certain things happen from pre-school to Year 13. (approx 18 years old) The reality is, many young people do not realise their learning potential until their mid twenties. Young people need time to grow without the intense pressure to jump all the hurdles before age 18 or be seen as a failure. Many young people feel they need to have their qualifications ‘nailed’ and their career mapped out by age 18. This is fine for some but a number of young people need more time and a society who has a longer and more sustainable view of what success looks like.

National standards in some situations have forced teachers to get bogged down with curriculum progressions, using them as tick sheets and marking guides rather than prompts for their own macro understanding of what it is to be a good mathematician, writer, reader etc. It is like expecting a cook to follow the recipe and unless the ingredients are exact and the recipe order is followed exactly, the cook is marked down.

Resources like the curriculum progressions are great tools but can be misunderstood and the skills taught in isolation too much. The skills teaching takes over from the ‘game’. We have to avoid the mechanistic and linear approach as we now children best learn when learning excites their curiosity and creativity which are just the dispositions our 21stC workforce is screaming out for.

Learning is not simply a linear progression but a complex and holistic experience. The linear approach takes too much of the essence out of the experience for both the teacher and the student.
The great cooks and coaches and teachers don’t use recipes or formulaic approaches. They know their craft so well they apply it creatively and intuitively as the situation demands. They are forever learning, noticing, tweaking, experimenting, reflecting aiming for continual improvement realising striving for nirvana is the beautiful allure they will never will get to, nor do they expect to as the journey is the drug that drives them on. These teachers make the time, the vocational and intellectual interest that motivates them to strive for knowledge and experiences that will help them improve their students’ holistic needs.

We need a system which is demanding and supportive of teachers to connect with children, to build their mind, body and spirit. Too many teachers are being ground down and feel they are ‘chasing their tail’ justifying their existence. As Lewis Carroll said, ‘The hurrier I go, the behinder I get’.  (4) Leaders need scope to put more emphasis on inspiring teachers to get children ‘actively into the game of learning (hard fun), empowering them to be curious, to  make mistakes, to celebrate and share their work, become critical friends and give them time to grow up believing that anything is possible.

Please don’t misunderstand me here. As I said, I am all for rigour in teaching and promoting a strong work ethic in children. My argument is to take a more holistic view of education and focus our energy into supporting and developing teachers’ professional capacity so they can facilitate higher order thinking and the transformational dispositions that will serve all our young people and reassess what we mean by ‘success’ at school. Achievement will then follow ‘as night follows the day’.

Warren Owen

(2)     Alison Peacock “The idea you can put a number against a child’s ability is flawed and dangerous.”

(3)     Sir John Jones Footnote:  (below)
(4)     Lewis Carroll, ‘Alice in Wonderland’.

'We only seem to value what we can measure'

Schools and teachers need to change the way they operate, according to British educationalist Sir John Jones.
A principal for many years in the North West of England, in a number of challenging schools, Sir John has served on a range of government policy teams, looking at truancy and exclusions.
Thomas Friedman’s book – The World Is Flat –talks about the need to develop creativity, ingenuity, portability and flexibility.
Sir John says they’re the kind of skills we’re all going to need to compete in the modern world, but many education systems still focus on standardisation control, conformity and compliance.
“Which, when you think about it, are almost opposed to the creativity, portability, flexibility.”
Footnote: ‘Humble Pie’.

Initially when national standards were first promulgated, I thought they would be a useful and transparent tool for teachers to use but because of the reasons above and the realisation of the huge subjectivity across assessment which determines the ‘standard’ within and across schools,  I have become an opponent of their use. I am very happy to eat this ‘humble pie’.