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)

Sunday, 29 October 2017

Assessment: The Good, the Bad and the Ugly


Last week I heard a collective ‘hooray’ from teachers and many parents when our new Education Minister, the Hon Chris Hipkins announced that national standards will be scrapped. Although this article refers to national standards, it is more a cautionary note on how we go about assessment often ‘boxing’ children into grades.

Last term I came across an email in my inbox from a Year 5 (age 9) student. He was sharing a piece of writing via google docs with me so I replied and over the next few weeks we engaged in this email exchange. One day I asked him to visit me in my office and share his work with me. For the purposes of this recount and to keep the boy’s privacy intact, I will call the boy Tom. I could tell Tom was intelligent and had plenty of potential but yet seemed somewhat hesitant. His writing’s surface features (grammar and punctuation) needed some work but his ideas and general story structure was sound.

I became curious and did a bit of background on him via academic progress in literacy, report grades via national standards and chatted to his teacher. From my inquiry it was clear Tom was socially well adjusted with plenty of friends, he had scored well in reading comprehension via his PAT (national norm testing) and he was well enough motivated to do well at school.
One day I asked Tom, do you think you are good at writing? He quickly responded, ‘no’!
I asked him why he had come to that conclusion and he replied, “My report said I am below the national standard in writing.”

Unfortunately Tom is not the only student to view themselves as not good at this or that because of being labelled this way via a grade. What a terrible thing to do to young people who developmentally need to believe in themselves to take learning risks, to feel confident to share with their peers etc
A short time later I read an article written by Prof. Jo Boaler from Standford University and co-founder of   Math Class Doesn’t Work. Here’s the Solution

The article’s fundamental theme is when students know they are going to be graded, their performance usually goes down. The article is based not on opinion but on research and although it focuses on maths education, it is fair to say this research runs true across the curriculum. Boaler’s article argues that maths teachers who replace grades with constructive written comments increase student’s learning.

Grading promotes a performance culture in schools which is counter-productive to optimal learning conditions.

In her article Boaler tells the following story:  “An undergraduate recently told me that when she writes down her ideas, even when working alone, she expects someone to judge her. She’s unable to think freely because she’s afraid of writing something that isn’t “smart enough.” This kind of thought paralysis is the direct result of our emphasis on performance, which we urgently need to dial back. My research on math learners suggests that when students think they’re in class to learn — to explore ideas and think freely — they understand more and achieve at higher levels than when they think the point is to get questions right.” (1)

This is a telling commentary and not uncommon for teachers to observe and intuitively know. In a recent blog post I said that 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 encouraging 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 dialogue between the 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. (2)

“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.” (3)

I was very interested to read a recent NZ Education Gazette article on Tapping Into GAME LITERACY.
The article refers to the many serious education researchers looking at video games asking ‘what is it about games that keeps people engaged, involved, progressing and persisting?’ One of Rachel Bolstad’s (senior researcher for NZCER [NZ Council for Education Research]) lines of inquiry was looking at ‘why are kids prepared to fail in gaming but not in learning?’
The students “talked about how in games, you get a lot more instant feedback, that helps you to better understand - if you fail to achieve a goal within a game environment, you’re getting some kind of feedback that lets you know how you went wrong, or how close you were, for example.  They also talked about the fact that you can just repeat something over and over again, until you get it. There are no consequences.
They talked also about how, in school, failure is quite often framed in a negative way. It’s not just that they’re failing to do something, but they can feel like they themselves are failures, which is really demotivating. In a game, it doesn’t feel that way.” (4)

Assessment, be it diagnostic, formative or summative is very important but it needs to be a tool to inform the next stages of learning rather than a marker that for many, defines their view of themselves.

On a broader front, 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.

Schools need assessment data for individuals, cohorts and the school itself to use as part of the package of tools to engage in inquiry with the never ending goal of striving for the nirvana of the perfect environment for learning. Nationally we need bench marks to see how we compare internationally as well as to reflect on progress so macro strategic decisions can be made. Parents want and need feedback, but it is a sad state of affairs when a 9 year old child has himself pigeon-holed as a poor writer due to a grade on his report form, particularly when all the evidence demonstrates our profession knows better than to this. (thank goodness this national standards approach has now been buried)

Schools need to be accountable and of course education needs rigour but it is now time to put our energy into what we know makes the best difference to students’ learning. A successful learner is not necessarily someone scoring good grades but someone that has been encouraged and  supported  to be creative and solution orientated to overcome learning challenges. This resilience and confidence to take risks, to actively listen to feedback and to seek help as required in the quest to grow understanding is always going to win out versus a learner full of anxiety over grades.

Warren Owen

(1)          Boaler, J   Math Class Doesn’t Work. Here’s the Solution p.1       
(2)         Warren’s Blog   The Hurrier I Go the Behinder I Get
(3)         Alison Peacock “The idea you can put a number against a child’s ability is flawed and dangerous.”
(4)        NZ Education Gazette article on Tapping Into GAME LITERACY.    16 October 2017   Vol. 96 Number 18

Picture credit: Google Images.

Tuesday, 19 September 2017

Two Wolves Fighting

At a recent staff professional learning meeting on ‘restorative practice’ within our ‘positive behaviour for learning’ focus, the following Cherokee Indian story was shared. It has had a big impact on me as I see these two wolves within me. In fact, I see these two wolves in all of us.

The story goes like this:
One day a young Cherokee Indian boy was complaining to his grandfather that another boy who was a friend had betrayed him and was now spending more time with another friend. The boy was hurt and was very sad.

The wise old Cherokee Indian said to the boy, “A fight is going on inside all of us. It is a terrible fight and it is between two wolves. One is evil – full of  anger, envy, sorrow, regret, greed, arrogance, self-pity, guilt, resentment, inferiority, lies, false pride, superiority, and ego.”
He continued, “The other is good – he is full of joy, peace, love, hope, serenity, humility, kindness, benevolence, empathy, generosity, truth, compassion, and faith. The same fight is going on inside you – and inside every other person, too.”

The grandson thought about it for a minute and then asked his grandfather: “Which wolf will win?”
The old Cherokee simply replied, “The one you feed.”

Isn’t it so true! The problem is we can never permanently get rid of the angry wolf inside us. Both wolves will always be there waiting. We can’t be sure no matter how hard we try to rid ourselves of the negative wolf. Life continually will take us on a journey of sadness, hurt, worry and joy.

When things are going badly for us it is so easy to blame others or a set of circumstances outside of our control. This can sometimes turn us inward and shut others out of our life, be defensive, uncommunicative and downright stubborn blaming the world for our troubles.

The trouble is this just feeds the angry and bitter wolf and stalls any personal progress ahead. It becomes a self-fulfilling poisonous cycle feeding the evil wolf more and more.

In many ways it is easier to flounder, feel sorry for ourselves and sulk. The hard part is to try and feed the compassionate wolf within and if you are being hurt or hindered by someone, try and walk in their shoes, ask to meet them to try and resolve issues with an open mind, hear their story and confront their truth alongside your truth. This takes guts, energy and compassion.

The reality of life is both wolves live within and it is human nature for anger to rise within us, particularly when our core values are put to the test. It needs strength and courage to stand up for what is right, even if that means confronting the situation and being clear about what your values are and what you can and can’t accept.

However for our own well-being and to have peace in our heart we need to strive to feed our humble, generous and good wolf because eventually anger and hurt will take everything worthwhile from us.
I think this Cherokee story is powerful and we should teach our children to always try to feed the compassionate wolf inside us but also be prepared to stand up for what is right using the principles of ‘justice’ and ‘fairness’.                                                                                                                                   
Imagine if the world lived this way! War might be a thing of the past.

Picture ref:

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’.