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