Posts tagged ‘John Dewey’

The rearview mirror

It was media theorist Marshall McLuhan who famously said we look at the present through a rearview mirror.  This is what I am doing at the momenrear-view-mirrort as I reflect on the last 498 posts on bluyonder.  There have been some posts that were well-received, others critiqued and many that have been ignored. The blog was never
going to be a lone catalyst for educational transformation but it joins the thousands of educational blogs around the world creating a critical mass for change.

In all the bluyonder musings, the biggest challenge seems to be ‘why is it so difficult for teachers to change?’ For the most part we are stuck in the liminal space between the vast experience of the past and the unimaginable possibilities for doing the valuable work of schooling differently.  This isn’t the responsibility of the teaching profession alone (although the profession needs to drive the agenda) – it is one that society shares. Teachers need the support of the local school communities. These communities need the support of coherent education policies that reflect an understanding of the challenges in providing a first class contemporary schooling experience.

Unfortunately what I continue to see is a vicious cycle where teachers don’t trust the administration when improvement is advocated, where governments want students to be creative and innovative but continue to support high stakes testing and where parents want more engaging learning experiences without schools daring to be innovative in teacher practice and school design. All these come together in the perfect storm alongside publication of  international test rankings and federal and state elections. If we want contemporary practice, innovative solutions, continuous improvement and the like as the norm for all schools, some things have to change. A good start would be for communities to talk up the work of their schools. This requires a stronger and deeper engagement than currently exists.

However the most important change we need is to turn the schooling model on its head. Most schooling is still defined and designed around “the Curriculum” and the delivery of this curriculum through the timetable construct. It is not the curriculum that should shape the learning and teaching but the students themselves. In other words the kids are the curriculum. The question of why it so difficult to start with the child rather than the curriculum isn’t new thinking (John Dewey) but it seems we have become increasingly fearful of failure as compliant servants of an industrial system (Ken Robinson). Yet failure is at the heart of learning, teaching and ultimately improvement (Dylan Wiliam) and it is this that keeps me fixed on the bluyonder while occasionally pausing to see where we’ve come through the rearview mirror.



Time to Tinker

The idea of school as a workshop for ‘tinkering’ isn’t new. John Dewey and others like Reggio Emilia, were early exponents of experiential learning and a great believer that schools should be an extension of home-life and society. Dewey writes in the School and Society (1912):

There is little of one sort of order where things are in process of construction; there is a certain disorder in any busy workshop; there is not silence, persons are not engaged in maintaining certain fixed physical postures; their arms are not folded; they are not holding their books thus and so. They are doing a variety of things, and there is the confusion, the bustle, that results from activity. But out of occupation (not akin to work), out of doing things that are to produce results, and out of doing these in a social and cooperative way, there is born a discipline of its own kind and type. But the school has been so set apart, so isolated from the ordinary conditions and motives of life, that the place where children are sent for discipline is the one place in the world where it is most difficult to get experience – the mother of all discipline worth the name.

Some years ago, Gever Tulley created the Tinkering School. It began as a six day program to “explore the notion that kids can build anything, and through building, learn anything”.  Tulley saw that new insights often emerged when problems become puzzles to be solved. It’s a powerful reminder of how capable children are – especially ones with power tools!

The best-selling Australian children’s author, John Marsden, has also created a school, which is philosophically similar to Dewey’s approach to education. Candlebark challenges traditional approaches to learning and teaching by emphasising the importance of experiential learning within meaningful social contexts; where the learner is not an observer but an active and valued participant within the learning community. From its website:

Candlebark believes that children flourish by experiencing life at close quarters. We regard first-hand experiences as generally superior to second hand experiences. We try to say “Yes” as much as possible – yes to new ideas, yes to experiments, yes to innovations. If the school has a motto, it is “take care, take risks”. We encourage an active engagement with the world. According to our assessment of students’ maturity and abilities, we may teach them to use axes, log splitters and chainsaws. During maintenance activities students may be up ladders, on roofs, changing light globes, using hammers, saws, mattocks, vacuum cleaners and electrical tools.

What seems to separate these schools from the traditional mainstream approach to schooling is time. Students at Candlebark and Tinkering School have time to tinker, explore, problem-solve, build and reflect.  These students are ‘learning by doing’ or in the case of the Tinkering School, ‘learning by building’. When students tinker with materials and ideas, ideas develop in a process that begins by being open to ideas and can end in a ‘happy accident’ as the doodle illustration below shows.

Noone knows the importance of ‘tinkering time’ more than the creator of the BlackBerry. Mike Lazaridis has not only been described as the father of the smart phone revolution but is founder of the Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics, whose alumnus includes Stephen Hawking.

In his recent address at the Association for the Advancement of Science meeting, Lazaridis admits that his most prized possession is his education. According to Lazaridis, the basis of a great education is one that provides students with opportunities to tinker with ideas, take risks and even fail. He believes that nothing beats “creating, hands-on learning and teaching” and speaks warmly about his own high school education.

In Singapore, giving students more time to create and innovate was prioritised nationally when, in 1997, the ‘Thinking Schools, Learning Nation‘ initiative was launched. As a result, Singapore’s curriculum and assessment have been changing; for example, Ng Pak Trak from Singapore’s National Institute of Education explains:

Syllabi, examinations and university admission criteria were changed to encourage more thinking outside the box and risk-taking. Students are now more engaged in project work and higher order thinking questions to encourage creativity, independent and inter-dependent thinking. (Ng, 2008 in Darling-Hammond, 2010).

The results of this national step are evidenced in the example of Ngee Ann Secondary School:

Among other things, students are given seed money to start their own small business, and the funds they make go back into the school. They prepare a concept proposal and a business plan. Those that are selected can use the small stalls lining one walkway to sell their wares, which may include everything from creating and selling baked goods to designing and selling computer or video games. The businesses are licensed; if they violate regulations, they can be closed down for a week, as in real life, so students learn how the world operates (Darling-Hammond, 2010).

Lazaridis believes that while we are now surrounded by very powerful devices, these are just ideas and it will be new ideas that will take us even further in the future. Admittedly these ideas may come to fruition in 20 years from now but we have a responsibility today as educators, to encourage the ideas of students, to promote tinkering and to ensure opportunities for blue-sky thinking that could one day hold the key to solving complex health, ecological, economic or social challenges.

The challenge for schools is to move learners from desks to workshops; from classrooms to learning spaces; from wielding pens to ‘power’ tools. And while we can only imagine what the future will bring, I’d like to hope we are close to seeing every school as a place where children and ideas flourish simultaneously and where there is time to tinker.

Steven Johnson developed this interesting presentation on the concept of ‘where good ideas come from’. In thinking about how to develop ideas in collaboration, it’s worth a look.

The science of learning

The work of cognitive scientists is becoming increasingly important to the work of teachers as we seek more effective ways to engage learners.  This week, I’ve started reading John Medina’s book Brain Rules.  Medina writes in the introduction that if you want to ‘create an education environment that was directly opposed to what the brain was good at doing, you probably would design something like a classroom.’  It speaks volumes about the historical chasm between brain science and teacher practice.  While we are moving towards understanding how people learn, we still see as Hattie says the essential nature of our profession in terms of autonomy – teaching they way we know best, choosing resources and methods we think will work etc.

One of the most illuminating chapters is on exploration.  Medina explains why understanding how babies learn gives us insight into understanding how humans learn at any age.  Babies and young children are naturally curious about their world and they learn through a process of  observation, hypotheses, experiment and conclusion.  As he says if children are allowed to retain their natural curiosity about the world around them, they can ‘deploy their natural tendencies to discover and explore until they are 101.’

The problem is our traditional model of schooling often breaks this cycle of curiosity.  Sir Ken Robinson believes this model of schooling dislocates people from their natural talents. Medina supports this by adding that by the time children get to school they understand that they can acquire knowledge about the world around them not because it’s ‘interesting, but because it can get them something.’  The ‘something’ is a higher grade or test score.

The good news is that many people retain their curiosity and remain life-long learners.  The challenge is how we cultivate this in workplaces and schools. Medina actually proposes a ‘learning laboratory’ where brain scientists and education scientists would investigate learning in real-world situations.

This lab would be similar to a medical school in that it would have a teaching facility, research program and staff who work in the field as well as teach. It’s probably no coincidence that Richard Elmore et al has taken the instructional rounds from the medical rounds model. This is the process of  observing, analysing, discussing and concluding.  For Elmore et al, this process is designed to bridge the ‘knowledge gap between educators and their practice’ in order to improve student learning.

What I found interesting about this idea is that teachers would be learning about brain science in learning spaces. They would be learning from cognitive scientists, applying it in real world settings and then working with researchers on what works and why.

In many respects, this idea reflects the early work of John Dewey who established a school for educational experimentation at the University of Chicago in the late 1890s.  Dewey’s lab was an opportunity to learn more about ‘the process of education and ways of improving the conditions of teaching and learning.’  It is a goal we are still committed to perhaps more so in a knowledge age where we have the tools and the opportunities to ensure learning is personalised, relevant and engaging for every learner.

I think Brain Rules re-confirms why it is critical that the art of teaching be informed by the science of learning.

Logical song

I tweeted this week about finding direction in the strangest places.  I never really thought about the lyrics to Supertramp’s Logical Song until I heard it on the radio recently but I wondered whether it is in fact a commentary on the industrial model of schooling. 

Interestingly, the song was released six months before Pink Floyd’s Another Brick in the Wall.

For me, it seems to capture the aspirations of the past (John Dewey’s pedagogical creed) and the present (Sir Ken Robinson).  Voices from different times, representing a unified plea for schooling that is not mechanical and linear but social, organic and ‘magical’.

The Logical Song
written by: Richard Davies, Roger Hodgson

When I was young, it seemed that life was so wonderful,
a miracle, oh it was beautiful, magical.
And all the birds in the trees, well they’d be singing so happily,
joyfully, playfully watching me.

But then they send me away to teach me how to be sensible,
logical, responsible, practical.
And they showed me a world where I could be so dependable,
clinical, intellectual, cynical.

There are times when all the world’s asleep,
the questions run too deep
for such a simple man.
Won’t you please, please tell me what we’ve learned
I know it sounds absurd
but please tell me who I am.

Now watch what you say or they’ll be calling you a radical,
liberal, fanatical, criminal.
Won’t you sign up your name, we’d like to feel you’re
acceptable, respectable, presentable, a vegetable!

At night, when all the world’s asleep,
the questions run so deep
for such a simple man.
Won’t you please, please tell me what we’ve learned
I know it sounds absurd
but please tell me who I am.

The learning myth

I’ve been giving some thought this week to some of the great myths of schooling and one of the greatest myths we need to dispel as a profession is “not every student can learn.”

I have experienced a deep seated belief in some schools that certain students are simply not capable of learning, or learning what the teacher purports to know they need to learn.  It is often reinforced by leaders and the industrial structures of schooling that both expect, and institutionalise failure for certain groups of students.

I often ask parents if they expected their child to walk and talk and their immediate response is yes.  But when I ask them whether they taught them in 45 minute periods using a whiteboard or textbook, the answer is a resounding no. They learned to walk and talk by doing the walking and talking, trying things; being encouraged to retry and so on.

Parents work with what they have to ‘tailor instruction’, which is why John Dewey believed that school life should be a continuation of the activities of home life.

If ever there was an example to dispel this, it would be the story of Ramona Pierson.  Not only is it a powerful message about resilience and courage but about our capacity as humans to learn and re-learn.  I encourage you to listen to her remarkable story and work on TED.

What I found fascinating was that it wasn’t a teacher who helped re-educate her but a group of senior citizens who came together in what Pierson refers to as ‘radical collaboration’ to teach her to speak and learn again.  The group of seniors matched their skills and talents to her learning needs. We call it personalised learning and it was the catalyst for the incredible work she is doing now in education using data and algorithms to draw down just in time content and information for individual learners.  It supports the view that there is no one size fits all model of schooling.

Pierson is using her science background and interest in data to understand the processes not the outcomes of learning.  How do students learn, what modalities work best and what content is needed to build progressions?

Do we need to see a radical collaboration between science and teaching? Should we be working with scientists on how we can effectively personalise learning in today’s world?  We have the tools but do we need to reinforce the connections between the art and science of teaching?

In her TED interview, Pierson talks about a pilot in Indiana called ‘The Power of You’, in which three students whose learning outcomes were not improving were exposed to multiple approaches to learning.  At the end of six weeks, the students returned to school and had caught up with the rest of the class.  What was unprecedented was that the three students were able to tell their teachers which modalities worked best for them.  The students were not only in control of their learning but they became confident learners in the process. Personalised learning is about giving power to the learner and that is a powerful lesson for all teachers.

The myth that ‘not every student can learn’ is well and truly busted; Ramona Pierson is living proof.

The vocation of living

There have been some wonderful highlights for me from the recent World Youth Day in Madrid.  Many of the themes extend beyond religious and cultural divides. I thought the address by Adelaide Archbishop Philip Wilson last week to 3000 young Australians contained some powerful messages for educators.

The Archbishop spoke eloquently about the symbolism of icons and their historical significance over many centuries. He told the gathering that just as icons were a work in progress, so are we.

If each of us are indeed works in progress, then our learning must be life-long.

Dewey in his Pedagogic Creed argues that learning is a process that happens unconsciously almost at birth and continually shapes the individual’s powers, forming his habits, training his ideas and arousing feelings and emotions.

Andy Hargreaves and Dennis Shirley write in The Fourth Way: The Inspiring Future for Educational Change that lifelong learning is not merely learning beyond school, throughout life, but also learning about life and for life.

This notion of lifelong learning has been further cemented by scientific discovery of the adaptability of our brain and how that enables us to continue learning well into old age called ‘neuroplasticity’. We have an amazing capacity to learn and re-learn whenever we allow ourselves to engage in new experiences – the saying ‘use or lose it’ has never been truer.

The opportunities to learn and relearn have never been more pronounced than in today’s world.  Our ability to access information on a range of devices means will live according to Will Richardson ‘at a moment of ubiquitous learning.’

He says kids and adults of all ages, can learn ‘what we want, when we want to, if we have the desire and connection.  More and more of us are finding both.’   A perfect example is Stanford University which had over 58,000 people sign up for an online Artificial Intelligence course.

John Dewey  gives new meaning to the expression vocational education when he says “the dominant vocation of all human beings at all times is living – intellectual and moral growth…..the discovery of capacity and aptitude will be a constant process as long as growth continues.”

As educators, we must recognise that we too are learners on the continuum; students of the vocation of living.

Lessons learned

Monday’s Sydney Morning Herald featured an article on the learning spaces at one of our schools, St Monica’s Primary, North Parramatta.  Our approach as a system of schools is to to ensure the provision of a relevant and contemporary learning experience for every child, and to create a professionally rewarding professional life for all our staff.  To do this, means developing the capabilities of all teachers by introducing structures and processes that will encourage critical reflection of practice and reflective dialogue and analysis of data, since we know good teachers improve student learning.

Professor Richard Elmore wrote in The Age in 2007, “Teaching, as a profession, is undergoing a dramatic transformation, from isolated work in self-contained classrooms to collaborative work designed around challenging problems of student learning, from simple routine tasks that require continuous monitoring of how students learn, from the profoundly anti-intellectual, anti-professional culture of schooling represented by (Christopher) Bantick to one characterised by respect for the knowledge of educators.”

The move towards agile learning spaces is not some sort of quasi social experiment neither is it a short-term fix; it is a response to the transformation happening in knowledge societies and in the profession itself as teachers and students develop high levels of knowledge and technological skills.

I am often surprised at the defensive position taken when attempts are made at improving learning for children.  While I understand some of the shortsighted and silly attempts made in the past to supposedly improve schools should never have been entertained let alone implemented, too often we use the past experience to shape the future and doom ourselves to the same mistakes. We seem to value conformity at the expense of placing teachers in environments that will encourage and empower them to work collaboratively, to learn and plan together and to build their skills base.

The move towards agile learning spaces is driven by the goal to improve learning – student learning and teacher learning.  The 1970s experiment of pulling down the walls in classrooms was doomed to failure because teacher learning was missing from the equation!  The classroom may have been around for thousands of years but we need to ask ourselves whether the traditional classrooms are actually providing the kind of learning and learning experiences today’s students deserve?

John Dewey wrote in The School and Society:

Some few years ago I was looking about the school supply stores in the city, trying to find desks and chairs which seemed thoroughly suitable from all points of view – artistic, hygienic and educational – to the needs of the children.  We had a great deal of difficulty in finding what we needed, and finally one dealer, more intelligent than the rest, made this remark: “I am afraid we have not what you want.  You want something at which the children may work; these are all for listening”.  That tells the story of the traditional education.  There is very little place in the traditional schoolroom for the child to work.  The workshop, the laboratory, the materials, the tools with which the child may construct, create and actively inquire, and even the requisite space, have been for the most part lacking.

We know that lower class sizes don’t necessarily guarantee better learning outcomes yet somehow we equate this with good teacher practice.  Good practice is teachers getting to know each student as individuals and employing flexible teaching strategies that respond to these differences. Traditional classrooms make it difficult to change the space in order to create a multitude of learning activities (group, one on one, independent learning etc).

Agile learning spaces are the response to not the reason for.  We know from the research that good teachers have a positive influence on student learning outcomes.  Building the skills of all teachers requires a courageous cultural shift.  It is about understanding the nature of the world today and the nature of learning.

If we are to learn lessons from the past, then we need to realise that not every child had the kind of learning experience they deserved and we have to be honest about that.  We can no longer rely on the ideological vending machine to deliver quality learning and teaching.  We look to contemporary theory, research and best practice to guide us in our work, we rely on good teachers to deliver quality learning and teaching and we design learning environments that will enhance it.

The replacement for the ideological vending machine is I think, developing trusting relationships with teachers and their school leadership teams.This recognises that as professionals they will take responsibility for their own professional growth which has at its very centre a deep commitment to improving teacher practices that are evidence based, reflective in nature, collaborative by choice and innovative by preference.

In my experience most teachers either do this now or yearn to do it, so let’s all back them.