Sunday, March 8, 2015

We Need to Do Different

Thirteen years ago marks a transformative change in my approach to teaching and learning. Its when I realised it was about learning not teaching.

I wrote this in 2006:

At the end of 2001, 14 years of experience in the classroom along with some very motivating professional development experiences - including attending NAVCON and visiting the new Primary School Discovery 1 after it had been in operation for two terms had me convinced learning should and could be very different than what the traditional classroom allowed. In 2002 I was very lucky to have the opportunity to work with a colleague who had very similar thoughts to mine and after a lot of professional dialogue and debate we set about changing the face of our classrooms. 
The classroom programme we developed together for our combined classes involved students writing individual timetables each week. They were provided with a list of set times they would need to attend workshops for some basic learning needs- sometimes in core curriculum areas, and then given a list of optional workshops teachers would be running through the week, some of which they can choose when to attend and some of which they could choose whether to attend. All students had differentiated core personal learning plans they followed for stand alone Maths and Literacy learning. They could then select independent learning from any of their learning plans and from the constructed, independent learning theme activities for the term to complete their timetable for the week. 
The crux of the rest of the learning programme had integration at its core. One classroom theme was explored in depth for the term with both class and group workshop learning experiences as well as independent activities provided to enhance the learning points. A real effort was made to include out of classroom experiences at this stage in the development of the theme. Various learning strategies are included in workshops in the first half of the term. In the second half of the term students worked on an inquiry in an area of personal interest related to the theme. The level of inquiry could depend on the students’ learning ability and can range from completely independent and in-depth over 5-6 weeks to a more structured inquiry where we as teachers facilitated some of the inquiry at the knowledge and comprehension levels and then the students took more control at the analysing and synthesising stages of the inquiry. 
Completed inquiries over the years we worked in this environment both excited and enthralled me with the level of understanding and development I have witnessed in students once they are given the freedom to pursue learning in this way. 
Team teaching and the willingness to share with, learn from, celebrate success and reflect on disappointments with a colleague was an integral part of the success of this learning environment- for both students and teachers.
Other features of the learning environment included:
  • ICT, with 15 computers in the environment used both as an information source and means of analysing information along side their use for more creative synthesis of learning. Producing animations of learning and using photography as well as keeping a digital portfolio to represent learning were both strong features of the learning environment. 
  • strong communication with parents.E-mailed newsletters each Monday listed workshops to be taught, learning intentions to be covered and other general information for the week. 
  • a learning celebration/ parent sharing evening each term where not only completed products from the term but the processes are shared. Strong use was made of digital images and a digital video to record the process all term. These are edited for sharing with parents as an integral part of the students’ preparation for the sharing evenings. These times are also used for students to share inquiry learning processes as well as final products with both family and the wider school community. 
  • the majority of parent teacher meetings involved the students as well. The students developed the skills to take more leadership within this setting

Yes, we had to deal with questions and issues from other teachers and from parents. These kids had every perception of being engaged and achieving well already. It didn't appear that anything needed to change. In reality they weren’t that engaged in learning - at best they were compliant and achieving because they had the privilege of reasonable backgrounds, at worst they were going through the motions and just getting through from year to year.This was all done in a very old dreary two classroom block. We chainsawed a hole through the wall between them but they were old and cold, and in fairly horrible condition.
So why share this now? 
I have seen a lot of writing about MLE and MLP over the last few weeks. These are relatively new terms and in my opinion are being used as a cover all for many different things in schools. Ive read some particularly clear posts about this from Matt Ives at Amesbury and Danielle and Steve at HPSS. Having flash new buildings or furniture or open spaces does not mean that you have moved to a modern practice. Traditional practice is happening in some MLE. And MLP is being practiced admirably in some schools with old traditional buildings. 
To use Steve’s term I worry there is too much of an echo chamber in education at the moment. What we have done for years isn't serving todays learners as well as we could be. We still have massive underachievement of underprivileged learners. Learners of privilege in many schools are being compliant but not engaged in learning. But there’s a lot of back patting and accolades about things that are really very small changes. We need transformation. Learning needs to look different than it does in many schools. We need to stop fooling ourselves that our practices  have really changed very much if at all. The world has changed rapidly in the 28 years since I began teaching and yet, I am seeing planning and teaching that is pretty much the same- it just looks a bit flasher but its still the same and that is wrong. Its not the same world and the same things cannot be serving learners as well as we possibly can.
Im not saying teachers don't work hard- they do to the point where they can’t possible envisage how they can add something in or change something about what they do. Change is hard and change is tiring. But so is battling the same things year in year out. And transformative change is nearly, if not totally, impossible if you expect teachers to keep doing the same thing and tweaking it little by little. We need to give our teachers permission to change in big ways and in big steps.
MLP isn't new- the above example is from 2002. The fact that schools and teachers operating these kids of programmes are still being seen as experimental and come under intense scrutiny and negativity from some of those still operating traditional programmes needs to change.  Leaders need to be courageous and they need to give their staff permission to be courageous.  
I know that external pressures like NCEA and national standards make leaders and teachers scared to experiment with changes that may engage learners more. But you can get results. I have seen incredible results- both with privileged and underprivileged learners using learning programmes like the above. (Even using traditional assessments which I don't think should be the be all of everything we use to judge and evaluate our learners anyway.) 
Sure you may face an implementation dip when you first change from the traditional rotation force feeding of reading skills, writing skills etc and you develop engaging programmes that allow you to personalise the teaching of those skills as they are needed. When multiple literacies become something learners use to learn with and through rather than doing writing and reading or literacy at a certain time of the day, they wont be able to be assessed in exactly the same way and that is scary but we need to have courage. When older students are involved in project based learning that is rigorous and all involving you can't always evaluate their learning in a separate silo subject assessment approach.
In my opinion this change is taking way way too long to become the norm. Our young people need a tipping point and they need it now. 
We want our young people to grow up as confident life long learners who will take a risk with their learning. How will they if the leaders and educators and remain so risk-adverse to the transformative change that is needed? Leaders need to have the courage to open these conversations with the wider society as a whole. The same wider society who want to embrace all the change in the world but expect schools to look the same as they were when they were in them. Let's move on form 'it was good enough for me..." 
And leaders need to have the courage to experience the implementation dip and hang in there for the engagement and the real life learning that will occur.

Modern learning practice is not about making teaching and teachers less important, quite the opposite. Teachers are vital to activating successful and engaged learning for the learners they work with. They need to have personalised knowledge of each learner and an excellent knowledge of learning and learning steps, but also the expertise and openness to accept that learning is not linear and that the next learning step might look different for each person and cannot always be bound in a neat curriculum prescription. 

And modern learning practice is not about accepting the rhetoric we have accepted for years and saying we are doing our best, we cant do any more. 

We don't need to do more. 

We need to do different. 

And we need to do it now.


  1. I enjoyed this post Karyn. I was pointed in your direction by a former colleague of yours who now works in my school in Edinburgh, Scotland. I am interested in what the teaching staff's role was in this transformational change. I would love you to share the staff journey with me if you have any time. Jamie