Monday, October 31, 2011

A brief history of education - the academic illusion.

I have recently finished reading 'Out Of Our Minds - Learning To Be Creative' - by Ken Robinson. It is a very thought provoking book and I thoroughly enjoyed it. I found the arguments he makes regarding the current practices of education and how it should be reformed for the future to be very interesting. Sir Ken's discussions are based heavily on the types of intelligences we traditionally value and judge our students on, specifically those stemming from the rationalist approach to thinking - the sciences. This has lead to particular types of education systems and I found it interesting to read through the history of how education has developed (in the western world).

The Kings School in Canterbury claims to be the oldest grammar school in England, stating that it's origins have been traced back to AD 597, although these sorts of institutions may have originated up to 1000 years prior to that. Grammar schools were founded by religious bodies and thus their purpose was to educate children (boys only in those years) for the church - the pathway to all professions such as law, politics or the civil service. This meant learning Greek and Latin literature (as Latin was the international language of the church). During the 15th and 16th centuries many non-religious organisations identified their own needs and established schools in order to meet them.

The 19th century impacted education specifically in the sense that during that time period there were significant advances in science and technology and it was also the time in which the Industrial revolution was taking place. This meant that there was a gradual movement away from a classical education (grammar; rhetoric; dialectic; arithmetic; geometry; music; astronomy) and more towards an education structure that is more familiar to us today. This generally involves a hierarchy of subjects - languages, mathematics, science and technology at the top and the arts and humanities at the bottom.

In 1870 the British Government passed an Act of Parliament to develop provision for primary schools. This extended to secondary education in 1902. In 1944 an act was passed which would enable the provision of free education for all. The purpose of this act was to develop a society of workers that would meet the needs of the post-war industrial economy which required a better educated workforce. It provided an opportunity for millions of people who had previously been denied education. Two types of schools emerged: grammar schools - to educate the top 20 percent of people, such as doctors, teachers, lawyers and accountants. Then came secondary modern schools - which were associated with vocational education and aimed to produce blue collar and manual labour workers. Despite all best efforts, because of the ways that these schools evolved there continues to be a higher status attributed to 'academic' programs.

Robinson refers to this as the 'academic illusion'. He argues that too narrow a view continues to be applied to academic intelligence and that teachers and parents must 'see through the academic illusion to their students' real abilities'. With the ever evolving knowledge of the human brain and the different ways that students learn, it is vitally important that teachers create environments where students can demonstrate their intelligence in the ways best suited to them.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Analysing Inquiry

The PYP is based on an inquiry approach to teaching and learning. Kathy Short, a leading expert on inquiry learning, defines the term as 'a collaborative process of connecting to and reaching beyond current understandings to explore tensions significant to learners'. She identifies five key principles of inquiry learning: (i) Inquiry is natural to learning (ii) Inquiry is based in connection (iii) Inquiry is conceptual (iv) Inquiry is problem-posing and problem-solving (v) Inquiry is collaborative. As I was reading through these I reflected on how I manage these in my own class and how I encourage my grade level team to promote these as well.

Inquiry is natural to learning: This principle relates to the idea that inquiry is the natural way that people learn inside and outside of school contexts. It refers to the individual engaging with what his happening in their life around them until something catches their attention and piques their curiosity or challenges their thinking. I think, as a grade, we do a good job of encouraging our students to combine both the knowledge that they use in their everyday lives with the knowledge that they learn in school. This is important for inquiry learning as it promotes a natural way of learning.

Inquiry is based in connection: This principle is based on the premise that learning needs to have significant points of connection otherwise it can be difficult and tends to be easily forgotten. Connecting students with experiences from their own lives encourages inquiry and allows teachers to observe current understandings. I think we do this quite well. We certainly strive to scaffold learning engagements that allow our students to connect the key concepts with their own experiences. This is commonly done at the beginning stages of a unit of inquiry as it helps the students 'tune in' with the type of learning that will be taking place. I wonder if we could try harder to revisit these sorts of connections more periodically throughout each unit though. This may help to re-focus the students and help them reflect on their learning. There is, however, a level of caution to be considered here as we don't want to over-guide the inquiry and the students do need to have the opportunity to explore their own learning independently.

Inquiry is conceptual: This principle refers to the ability of teachers to place the major emphasis of their teaching on the big ideas that lie behind topics. This will in turn lead to deeper understandings that are transferrable across different contexts. This type of learning is more important now that ever before. The world has moved from an 'Information Age' that relied on knowledge workers and analytical thinkers, to a 'Conceptual Age' that asks for the ability to think collaboratively and combine creative thinking with analysis. The PYP has five essential elements, one of which are the key concepts. All of our units of inquiry are based around these and their associated concepts so we are driving conceptual learning from the start. In this sense, I feel that we do a good job. The challenge that sometimes arises is maintaining this conceptual learning. Sometimes we get caught up with focussing on an interesting topic, theme or activity that may have a conceptual link, but is still being explored in a more factual way.

Inquiry is problem-posing and problem-solving: Problem solving in a typical inquiry situation often looks like students engaging in a designed task, being encouraged to ask questions about that problem and to research those questions. Problem-posing develops once a person has acquired a wealth of knowledge about a topic or issue. Time needs to be spent exploring and immersing students in these and eventually tensions will arise that allow them to problem-pose. I think a lot of the time I consider the questions that my students ask during problem-solving engagements as problem-posing questions when they're not. If I am the one setting the engagement then I am the problem-poser, not my students. They are simply asking questions (still a valuable skill - don't get me wrong!) about my problem. My realisation about this principle is that I have been focussing too much on guided inquiry. My goal is to make my units focus more on collaborative inquiry, where the students have greater freedom to pose and investigate problems that they find interesting within that unit.

Inquiry is collaborative: Collaboration differs from co-operation in that it is not just about working together, but also about thinking through dialogue about ideas. Effective learning occurs when participants work together towards understanding - they learn in an experience, not just from an experience. In other words, learners gain understanding by being part of something, not just learning about it. I think this element is the one that we are probably strongest at. Collaboration is high among the students in each class, between the classes in the grade and also with classes in other grades in the school. Additionally, we use technology to enhance the collaborative experience and allow the students to connect to minds in other parts of the world, of different ages and backgrounds. These collaborative experiences allow for effective inquiry learning to take place.

Overall, I think we do a pretty good job of fostering a positive inquiry-based learning approach in our grade. There are certainly things that we can improve on but we're on the right track. It will be interesting to discuss these elements in greater personal detail with my team members as we reflect on our current unit of inquiry.

Monday, October 3, 2011

The Education Miracle

This morning I read a very interesting newspaper article about educational performance of different nations. Its focus was on the recent high performance of Asian nations - namely Korea, Singapore and China and looks at their rise to the top of the international student rankings. It states, however, that this rise hasn't come without a cost.

These three nations, among others, have regularly topped these sorts of ranking tables in recent years. As a result, education reformers in search of similar results look to these countries' curricula for inspiration on how to enhance their own programs. However, according to Dr. Yong Zhao, from the University of Oregon, more attention needs to be paid to the other results that these systems yield.

The article highlights three key educational points:

(i) The development of the whole child - Dr. Zhao highlights the existence, in these systems, of high levels of psychological stress, the strong directional focus from the teacher to the student, and a lack of social experiences, which can lead to poor emotional development in a child. He also mentions the children's lack of confidence, for example, creativity, entrepreneurial spirit and imagination. To claim that an over-reliance on purely an academic focus - however that may be defined - is detrimental to a student's development is not ground breaking news. However, what still astounds me is some people's (and I include teachers, parents, students and policy makers in this group) fascination with academic scores and results. People talk about the importance of developing the 'whole child' but I sometimes get the impression that few truly believe it and even less actually act on it.

(ii) The over-reliance on standardised testing results - Dr. Zhao states that standardised test scores are ''easily manipulated if you pay for college prep schools''. Long used to measure student achievement or academic ability (and more recently for other means), there is regular discussion about the methods and uses of standardised testing in many different settings. The use of standardised testing results to allocate funding, student class or level placement, and teacher performance has wreaked havoc among several countries with one of the most notable examples being the No Child Left Behind Act in the United States. Despite all this, Government representatives still seem to view this as the most effective way of evaluating many parts of a school's teaching and learning. And to be perfectly honest, it's hard to blame them. Many elementary school teachers advocate the end of standardised testing, citing student rates of development, over-reliance on factual knowledge over deeper understanding, and multiple intelligences as key arguments against the use of these assessment methods. But many Universities still base their student admission criteria on these sorts of tests. So, inevitably, as the student progresses through their schooling years, they need to learn how to perform on such assessments. It pleased me to read the section in the article that mentioned how some Universities are changing their selection process and criteria to not only rely on academic performance. They are doing this because students are performing well on standardised tests to enter their universities, only to find themselves being 'dragged back into the pack' once they're in. It is a small start, but these realisations need to come from the top (ie. universities and colleges) in order for the changes to fully filter through the complete educational life of a child.

(iii) The importance of collaborative working skills - The article also states that many of the students that enter 'top' universities are leaving without jobs in any of the Fortune 500 companies that they expect to gain. 'People talk about how they lack confidence, how they lack entrepreneurial skills, how they lack the ability to work with a group'. These skills need to be fostered and a focus on 'skill and drill' style learning experiences does little to enhance them. This loops back to the first point of developing the whole child but highlights that fact that it doesn't simply stop after elementary school. These skills need to be developed throughout a child's entire education.

It is sometimes difficult to have the vision and courage to change the ways of the past, especially when they are still used in many circumstances or if the reasons for the change are not completely understood. Fast disappearing are the days where mastering one discipline in one way would be enough to guarantee the successful completion of a task - or even a career. Today's workforce favours employees who boast a skill set consisting of creative thinking, the ability to collaborate, and the capacity to synthesise and transfer knowledge to new and related fields. It is the students that possess these skills that are the real miracles of education.