Archive for the ‘Innovators’ Category

Rethinking the beginning

Australian Council for Educational Research (ACER) CEO Geoff Masters, recently identified some of the challenges we face in closing the achievement gaps in schools. He writes:

Schools continue to be organised on traditional lines with students being assigned to year groups, and teachers delivering the curriculum specified for each year group. If teachers treat all students in the same year of school as equally ready for the same curriculum, then some lower-achieving students are likely to be left behind and some higher-achieving students are unlikely to be challenged and extended.

While every attempt to personalise learning is made, schools remain hamstrung by traditional structures. As Masters writes we ‘prejudge students’ learning needs based on their age or year group’.  We continue to process students through the factory model and it is no more obvious than in Kindergarten when students are assessed and categorised.

What if in deconstructing these traditional lines and structures of schooling, we re-conceptualise Kindergarten based on what we now know about the importance of play, the diversity of learning needs, backgrounds and interests of each child in the context of today’s world.

Teachers will often say children can’t sequence when they start school but if they can toast bread, then they can already sequence. What if the first year of ‘formal’ schooling was focussed not on what students couldn’t do but what they had already achieved?  What if we could slow Kindergarten down by extending it across two years?

This would certainly provide more opportunities to explore, play and create and for children to build their confidence as learners.  It would also give teachers more time to connect with and understand each learner, to develop trust, encourage curiosity and foster deeper relationships.

Rethinking Kindergarten is the tip of the iceberg in what needs to be a larger debate on the whole pre to post schooling experience.  As Geoff Masters says, one way we may close the achievement gap is to move away from the group-think and group-solutions that have influenced schooling for more than a century.

 

 

 

Lessons from Sesame Street

For those who grew up watching Sesame Street in the seventies, there is research suggesting the much-loved show led to improved early educational outcomes for children.

sesame street

A new study has found that US children who had greater access to Sesame Street when it first aired experienced positive learning outcomes throughout primary school.  Boys and black, non-Hispanic children experienced the greatest benefits.

The authors noted that “Sesame Street may be the biggest and most affordable early childhood intervention out there, with benefits that can last several years. These findings raise the exciting possibility that TV and electronic media more generally can be leveraged to address income and racial gaps in children’s school readiness.”

Created in the late 1960s, the Children’s Television Workshop (CTW) was considered an experiment. However, if you watch the pitch reel for Sesame Street, you’ll see this wasn’t an experiment at all.  The show’s rationale was to take the best theory and practice in early learning and apply it to a contemporary context – TV.  Behind Ernie and Bert, Big Bird and Count Dracula was a carefully crafted learning experience designed to engage, enable and empower young learners.  It was achieved by:

  • operating from the fundamental premise that every child could learn no matter what their background
  • integrating various techniques to engage children through song, animation, conversation and puppetry
  • meeting young learners where they were (at home) by locating the show outside a house on Sesame Street
  • giving children control over their learning and TV viewing (which is why it was aired in the mid-morning when older siblings were at school)
  • creating an awareness of the child as an individual and the world around them
  • making learning fun and recognising diversity as the norm

That Sesame Street is still broadcast forty five years on is testament to its core values and principles. The context may have changed but the principles remain.  According to the study’s authors Sesame Street acted as the first Massive Open Online Course of its time, aimed at delivering free educational content to a mass audience.

Sesame Street began with the belief that every child can learn. Its success and longevity globally can be attributed to professionals working and planning together and continually evaluating the impact of their work by seeking regular feedback from children.

UK educational leader and speaker Richard Gerver (quoted in Ken Robinson’s Creative Schools) says educators today need to find the best early learning facilities and spend time learning about what they do.  Sesame Street has taught millions of children valuable lessons over the past four decades and there are valuable lessons educators can learn from Sesame Street.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Remixing schooling

If you’ve been watching the series Redesign My Brain with Todd Sampson, you’ll be familiar with the work of neuroscientist Dr Michael Merzenich.  Dr Merzenich is a world authority on brain plasticity – the idea that the brain can continually re-wire itself.  Hence, the term ‘soft-wired’.

Sam Seidel, author of Hip Hop Genius: Remixing High School Education also believes that understanding how minds work and how people learn is critical to the current discussions on innovation and education. Re-wiring or as Sam posits ‘remixing’ education is the ability to take what already exists and create something new and relevant for learners.  He uses the example of hip-hop because it illustrates how young people re-mixed creative elements to create a dominant music culture in the US.  Sam argues that innovative education is the remixing of ideas, practices and data points collected by teachers to create a personalised and relevant learning experience for students.

Since his appearance at PBL World Australia in 2013, Sam has been working with Students Design for Education (SD4E) which is leading a group of Rhode Island students through the design process to create a new ‘student-centred’ school.  According to Sam, human-centred design or design thinking is the next wave in education because it aims at empowering students and teachers to drive change from within by becoming ‘designers’ of the learning space and learning experience.

Sam was in Sydney recently to work with students and teachers at Parramatta Marist High and to talk about the student-designed school project.  He said that design thinking demands the same skills as project based learning (PBL): think critically, work collaboratively and communicate creatively.  Sam was impressed with how quickly younger students (Years 7 and 8) at Parramatta Marist adapted to new learning experiences as a result of the skills they’ve acquired through their PBL work.

Reflecting on the critical skills and qualities needed by teachers in today’s world, Sam believes resourcefulness is important along with compassionate listening, thorough planning and adaptability. These are the cornerstones of design thinking – an organic process requiring empathy, insight, flexibility and experiment. Teaching is essentially human-centred design work – creating something  for students and with them.

Remixing schooling is about continually re-designing learning and teaching. That’s what distinguishes a soft-wired experience of schooling from a hard-wired one.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The cult of creativity

Bill O’Chee wrote recently that the current fixation on creativity in schools is ‘anti-intellectual’.  He asserts that “while creativity is important, from sciences to the arts, what is more important is rigorous thinking.” O’Chee states that what today’s learners need from their education is to “learn how to think deeply.”

If critical thinking is the precursor to creativity, then how do we develop and assess this skill in teachers so that reading critically, analysing data and formulating ideas is intuitive?

Fareed Zakaria, author of the recently published In Defense of a Liberal Education, states that education must satisfy two important aspects: creativity and causality.  First you must be able to engage in ‘out of the box thinking’ and then have the ‘rigor and clarity’ with respect to what you are arguing about.

Zakaria makes the point that in a global age where information is retrievable in seconds, we still insist that students learn superficial facts while forgoing the deeper questions of ‘why’.  As my colleague, Dr Miranda Jefferson says, it’s about asking ‘why’ and then ‘why, really?’

In a recent blthinkerog post Yong Zhao discusses the two competing educational paradigms.  He writes that “employee-oriented education values what children should learn, while entrepreneur-oriented education values what children would learn.”

By its very nature, an entrepreneur-oriented education is classically liberal. It encourages students to follow their passions in search of deeper understanding and mastery.  To think critically is to always be asking ‘why’ and it is in this journey of student discovery that the nature of teacher’s work takes shape.

If we want schools to be places where creative modes of practice flow freely, then it requires teachers and students to be continually engaged in critical modes of thinking.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

It doesn’t make sense

The prophetic Steve Jobs said: It doesn’t make sense to hire smart people and then tell them what to do; we hire smart people so they can tell us what to do.

What happens when we replace ‘smart people’ with ‘teachers’ is the recognition that we are still hiring teachers and largely telling them what to do.  Unfortunately, this is the reality of the current industrial landscape – one that has prevailed since the early 20th century.  As Richard Elmore said, maintaining a low-skill teaching profession was a way of paying teachers less and maintaining compliance.  The thing about compliance is that it kills creativity.

Over the decades, employers and unions have vigorously defended this structure even down to how many hours teachers should spend face to face. Building a highly professional workforce is as Jobs said hiring teachers to tell us how they work best.  It is about giving teachers permission to create the most optimal learning environments and opportunities for their students.  As Ken Robinson reflects in his latest book Creative Schools, it is based on the fundamental belief: ‘the value of the individual, the right to self-determination.’

We have spent much of the last century working on the assumption that external accountability will drive internal accountability.  It’s the cart pulling the horse, which has not only been counter-productive to school improvement but detrimental to improving student learning.

Giving teachers greater flexibisurprisedgirllity by allowing them to use their professional judgment day in and day out, is the first step to building a highly competent workforce.  Michael Fullan et al has shown that individual responsibility for one’s own learning and that of every student in the school leads to a shared internal accountability.  This sense of collective responsibility for improving student learning drives the work and feeds into a bigger loop of external accountability. This way, the horse pulls the cart.

If the best way to improve learning outcomes is to raise student motivation, expectations and engagement, then doesn’t it make sense to take the same approach when it comes to teachers’ work?

 

A coherent pre to post policy

St_Michaels_CELC_wide

You may have seen some media coverage earlier this week about early years learning and how children as young as two could benefit from structured play based learning as part of a pre to post school continuum. I’m not talking about putting two year olds in traditional classroom settings, sitting silently at desks listening to the teacher talk (that’s not our idea of quality schooling anyway). I’m talking about authentic play based learning experiences for toddlers that include age-appropriate activities like singing, dancing and even learning to play an instrument or language.

It’s about rethinking the entire pre to post school structure, to create a more aligned and coherent schooling framework.

Last week, business leader Catherine Livingstone called for a ‘philosophical change’ in the way we think about education, noting that the traditional separation between schooling and work is no longer relevant for today’s world. Increasing numbers of educators believe the traditional model of schooling is no longer meeting the needs of students today, which echo Livingstone’s observation. Business and industry leaders are constantly telling us that students do not have the skills they need, and youth unemployment has hit a 15 year high, with one in five people aged 15-24 unemployed. There is also a talent mismatch with 18 of the world’s major economies experiencing talent shortages.

We can no longer ignore the growing gap between formal schooling and success in the 21st century. We need to make a fundamental change in education. Moving away from artificial constructs like preschool, primary, secondary and post-school is a start, as these are artefacts of an age long gone.

These distinctions result in short term and narrow funding decisions directed towards separate parts of the system, instead of the whole. The Federal government decision to only guarantee funding for early childhood for the next two years, and only for four year olds, is an example of this type of constrained thinking.

Federal governing structures for education are disjointed: early childhood is within the Social Services portfolio, whereas schools and post school are within Education and Training. It’s the same story in NSW, with early childhood, schooling and TAFE all in different departments. This results in policy and funding decisions that treat early childhood, school and post-school as discrete units. Instead, we need to think about how all aspects of the sector work together to gain greater continuity in learning and teaching frameworks.

We’re a few days away from the Federal Budget – we need aligned policy and funding decisions that address the holistic, long term needs when it comes to education.

Making circles

Stephen Heppell wrote recently that schools of the future must be “places in which difficult, exciting, challenging, engaging, complex learning happens, rather than being where uniform education is delivered.”
In Tokyo, there is a kindergarten that has been designed as a place for exciting, difficult and engaging play (learning).  Its circular design literally places students at the centre.
In Asian cultures, the circle is a powerful symbol.  It represents unity and perfection.  In contrast, the square/rectangle has sharp corners representing laws and regulations.  Is this the reason why we still build schools as rectangles seeing them as places of regulations and uniform learning instead of seeing perfection in complexity, chaos and creativity?
The kindergarten is one of the best I have seen because the principal and architect dared to think outside the square.  I wonder what our schools symbolise?  Are they spaces for passivity or play; spaces for listening or living?
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