Sir Ken Robinson in his book Creative Schools states that our understanding of intelligence over the past hundred years (measured largely by IQ) presents “a narrow and misleading conception of how rich and diverse human intelligence really is.”
As societies and cultures develop, new theories emerge and one of the most prominent theories of intelligence is Howard Gardner’s multiple intelligences. However in 1985, American psychologist Robert Sternberg proposed the theory of successful intelligence. Sternberg says he became interested in human intelligence because his teachers and his parents thought he was ‘stupid’ (thanks to an IQ test) and so he ended up believing that he was.
According to Sternberg, the theory of successful intelligence is the ability to work out what you want to do with your life and to succeed given the constraints of your environment. While IQ measures a single intelligence (analytical), successful intelligence is defined as creative, practical and analytical.
Sternberg has been particularly interested in how his theory applies to teaching by questioning whether you could improve student outcomes if teachers recognise students learn in different ways. Sternberg suggests teaching in different ways at different times so that every student’s creative, practical or analytical strengths are being developed.
For schools, we need to look to assessments that measure a broad range of skills including, as Dr Yong Zhao says, ‘non-cognitive such as motivation, persistence, confidence and personality traits’. It re-affirms Sternberg’s message that we must teach and assess in ways that reflect how students learn best and not the other way around.
Interestingly, the OECD is recognising the importance of social and emotional skills in addition to analytic skills by beginning to develop international measures. Earlier this year, OECD’s Director for Education and Skills, Andreas Schleicher commented that cognitive abilities still remained critical but ‘people with strong social and emotional foundation skills thrive better in a highly dynamic labour market and rapidly changing world’.
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.
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.
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.
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 blog 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 is always good to listen to students and staff talk enthusiastically about their individual and collective learning. Last week I visited St Oliver’s Primary, Harris Park and saw first hand how their data walls are working and how it has helped sharpen their professional focus and thinking.
While many schools adopt a holistic approach to capturing and measuring data on student achievement, St Oliver’s has narrowed the focus to two key areas: reading and vocabulary. Principal Anthony McElhone explained they could have just as easily measured spelling or structure but this gives them a precise focus on what they see as the critical areas for their students’ growth.
Data walls capture the process and progress of student learning and the effectiveness of teacher practice. It becomes a shared learning journey for every member of the learning community. This was illustrated when I visited an elementary school in Canada.
Every inch of the parish hall was being used as a living data wall. As you walk around the hall, you can follow the growth of each and every student. The data is transparent – teachers share accountability for student learning while students accept responsibility for their own learning path. What is so impressive is when parents visit the school and effectively cut out the ‘middleman’ by listening to their own child explain, track and describe their learning. They know where they are at, where they need to go and how they will get there.
It is visible learning in action.
Jane Caro wrote this week that “Chile, unlike Australia, is heading in the right direction” with its bill before parliament to ban public funding of for profit private schools along with free primary and secondary schooling.
I can understand why Chile’s President wants to adopt a new educational funding policy. Chile’s existing system was instituted under a dictatorship, hence why for profit schools are publicly funded. Australia on the other hand does not fund for profit schools.
Educational funding has to be based on equity across all school sectors not just one. In other words, needs based and sector-blind. Any argument about funding should focus on students not on sectors. If we venture down the public vs private debate as Caro has done, we divert our attention away from what really matters – improving learning for all students in all schools.
If Australia is to head in the right direction, perhaps it’s time to work collaboratively (all sectors) to use the funding to improve the quality of teaching in all schools. If Caro wants to focus on non-government funding, perhaps she can lobby the Federal Government to honour their end of the deal (last two years of Gonski funding).
Last week I had another opportunity to visit two Victorian primary schools that for me demonstrate good theory in practice. Woorana Park and Silverton Primary schools have established themselves as authentic learning communities. Over many years under good instructional leaders they have evaluated their practice, implemented rigorous feedback mechanisms, listened to student and parent voices and used the learning space and technology to support contemporary pedagogies.
As one of my readers pointed out, ‘open classrooms’ have a very low effect size according to Hattie’s meta-analysis. This is absolutely true. Just as no teacher is an island (see Hattie’s comments on direct instruction), there is no one pedagogy (or classroom design) that delivers everything. As Woorana Park and Silverton Primary have demonstrated, the use of agile learning spaces is just a fraction of the whole to improve student learning outcomes. Learning spaces support good teaching practices but they never act as a substitute for them.