Saturday, October 31, 2009

Tomorrow's Schools

Overture
a) Our first rose is out – Old China Monthly. Leander has several buds on the verge of bursting
b) There are two half-grown thrush fledglings on the lawn. Awkward teenagers they are demanding food from their hard-working parents.

The Main Show
Anne is in Auckland at an education conference in two capacities. She is representing me as a contributor to a book Tomorrow’s Schools: Twenty years on. She is also the editor. They asked for a commentary upon my chapter. Anne will read it. Here it is.

‘In my first term teaching I marked a set of Sixth Form history essays. On one I wrote ‘Balderdash! D-.’ At the time I was quite proud of myself. Looking back now I am ashamed. Over the years I learnt how to be more capable of assisting young people’s learning.

I was not the first teacher to be so simplistic. A child’s lesson from the second century A.D was found in a midden near Hadrian’s Wall in the U.K - a very poor copy of a passage from Virgil. At the bottom the teacher had scrawled, “sloppy”. History doesn’t tell us whether an accurate copy was ever done. But we now know a lot more about learning than they did then.

The teacher’s task is to help people learn. What is taught, and how, is the core of teaching. What is learnt, and how, is the essence of learning. The nature of assessment is crucial in this enterprise. I acknowledge and applaud that - in the 49 years since I began teaching, research on formative assessment has added greatly to knowledge about learning and how it works.

In theory, the Tomorrow’s Schools reforms were about the administration of a system. David Lange was always adamant they were not to affect the learning of students. We worked hard to ensure that while the ship was refitted, it kept sailing on course. But the system used affects the climate in which learning takes place.

The reforms meant change. They had many good aspects, and I discuss these in my essay. Here I want to highlight one of the aspects I focused on – an anxiety about the effect of the reforms, which I’ve had from the beginning. I admit my comments are oriented more to secondary education than to primary. I’m relying on teacher friends’ comments and media reports, as well as other people’s research, when I say that I suspect a concern I had about the Tomorrow’s Schools implementation has been fulfilled.

I sense that teaching has to some extent lost a professional collegiality that existed when I was a teacher. There was rivalry then between schools, yes; but as a profession we were aware of a common cause – to improve the learning of all young people, the future citizens of our nation.

Today I sense isolation and defensiveness. I’m sure it varies. It probably begins at the top. Picot recommended that there should be an overarching Council, with the heads of the Ministry of Education, the National Qualifications Authority and the Education Review Office, plus three other prominent New Zealanders appointed by the Government. This Council would be charged with co-ordinating policies from the various agencies, and looking at long-term effects of educational decisions. That idea never got out of the hangar. The result has been an on-going lack of co-ordination between the agencies, and outright competition in some instances.

Further, the legislation setting up the Education Review Office made it quite clear that its prime function was to check school accountability. A worthy aim. But the result has been that the old advisory function which the inspectors had developed, on top of their legal responsibilities, has been lost.

As for the schools, in the ‘60s and ‘70s I felt I was part of a nation-wide teacher fraternity that shared experiences and professional knowledge. There was camaraderie across schools. As an inspector, I often helped principals to send new or struggling teachers to watch and learn in other schools. Principals themselves established networks to do this. The inspectors also had a capacity to use good teachers as temporary school advisers. Each time I asked a principal for these people’s release they’d sigh and say they were sorry to lose them from their own classes, but for the sake of their personal development, and subject improvement in other schools, they’d agree.

I recalled those pre-Picot times in 1995. That year, as Director of the Council for Teacher Education, I managed on contract the work of the national language advisers. Along with the Language Teachers Association we got agreement from the Ministry of Education for the temporary secondment of teachers to assist regionally. I rang a principal to ask whether the school would release their excellent teacher to do this work for a term. I was refused. I was told that education was now very competitive. They did not want other schools learning about their best practice.

We were lucky in those earlier times. There were national in-service courses in Lopdell House in Titirangi and Hogben House in Christchurch. They were very resource-hungry, but they mixed and matched teachers from throughout the country. They helped create a sense of shared enterprise. There were often unexpected spin-offs. I did my Hamilton school’s time-table. One summer I met a problem. I remembered hearing a fellow Head of English at a course saying his school had got round that problem. I rang that Invercargill school and spoke to the Head of Maths. Eureka! Problem solved.

The old Department of Education developed a fairly unique, consultative, interactive loop-back method of curriculum development, involving a great number of teachers along the way. This meant a considerable buy-in to suggested changes, unlike overseas, where teachers were often reluctant to accept the imposition of a top-down development.

Maybe I was naïve, but I thought the Picot model would allow flexibility for schools to experiment with new forms of administration. The old primary/secondary division still bedevils our system. Educators tend to be conservative. The concept of middle schools has never got off the ground. Morrinsville College, where I began teaching had an attached Forms 1 and 11 on the same site. It felt like a larger educational community.

When I interviewed the late Ian Mitchell, Henderson High School principal, for my book ‘Education Is Change’, he spoke of a dispute which arose over a request to have a Tuvaluan language nest in the school. They wanted to build on a vacant piece of land by the canteen. The Ministry officials argued that you couldn’t have little ones playing where the big ones might knock them over. Ian told me, “It should have been our decision and our response to a community need. Eventually we won. When you go over to our canteen now there are big students buying their food, and right beside them these little mites. That is as it should be – a softening influence and the big ones more conscious of their responsibilities. It’s part of a caring community.”

Many people in the community still think that education can be delivered in an Industrial Revolution model - a production line. But that’s not how we bank, play, farm and communicate now. The Information Revolution is based around interactive networks. One of the major obstacles is the age cohort concept. It is not how people learn naturally. I count myself lucky that I went to a little sole teacher country school where we all learnt together in the one room. I envisaged that because there was nothing in the reforms to prevent an amalgamation of schools, or a sharing of facilities and resources, such things would happen. This has not happened as quickly as I anticipated - with the exception of the East Coast, where the Ministry of Education, to its credit, has facilitated the process.

The cohort model also carries another unfortunate assumption: that one finishes learning when one leaves school. A modern knowledge society assumes life-long learning. The shelf life of much information, and often skills, is short. As work patterns, both paid and unpaid, continue to change, people of all ages will increasingly require upskilling, new skills or just new knowledge. Schools could be transformed into learning centres which, as well as delivering compulsory education, and necessary upskilling, could also be places where digital technology is available for all in the local community.

The narrowing down of adult education courses is therefore a seriously retrograde step. In many societies the old help educate the young. We have an increasing number of senior citizens. Fresh learning for such people is more than beneficial to them personally; it widens the opportunities for them to make continued contributions to the community. In the context of a learning centre this could mitigate against the atomisation of society that many American futurists predict. Most of these call for a return to community to counter a number of current trends. The local learning centre where people of all ages from the community mix and learn together could be a powerful lever.

That was part of my vision as we planned delivery of the Picot model. That vision assumes collegiality in a school and across schools. The possibility takes us back to the tension inherent in the model – power to the local people, yes, but what about national priorities? Autonomy and accountability are uneasy but necessary bedfellows.

Tomorrow’s Schools was an administrative reform. It was about the delivery of education. It is worth recalling that David Lange always said it was only the first leg of the double. The second leg was to be curriculum, the what, why and how of teaching. Schools exist for that purpose. No matter how it is delivered, a curriculum needs to be delivered. How this is done will both reflect and determine what is learnt in our schools. What curriculum should be taught is a national matter. How it is delivered is a local matter. How these two needs are reconciled will shape our education over the next decades. I believe teacher collegiality and community trust in that collegiality are vital components in the development of an even better system.’

1 comment:

  1. Very thoughtfull post on Personal Development. It should be very much helpfull.

    Thanks,
    Karim - Positive thinking

    ReplyDelete