The need for flexible, personalised and responsive curriculum September 13, 2015Posted by Editor21C in Directions in Education, Engaging Learning Environments, Primary Education, Secondary Education.
Tags: creativity, curriculum, exemplary teachers, NAPLAN, personalised learning
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from Steve Wilson
Imagine you had promised your friend or partner that you would go with them to watch a movie each week for a full year.
Imagine then, having made this commitment, that your friend or partner did not consult with you about which movies to watch – they simply selected the movie each week, irrespective of your own preferences or tastes, and expected you to come along.
You might put up with it for awhile. You would likely develop resentment about the situation. Eventually, as an adult, you might confront your friend and explain your feelings and try to change things. If they didn’t change, in all likelihood, you would simply stop going to the movies with them.
For children and young people in schools, the school curriculum is like being forced to go to the movies, to see things they often don’t like or can’t see the point of, but where they do not have the adult prerogative, legally at least, of simply not going to school. Trapped in schools with an unresponsive curriculum, feelings amongst young people towards school can and frequently do include resentment, apathy and disengagement. Every teacher commonly experiences these feelings amongst their children, and not just amongst the children who are the lowest academic achievers.
We should not underestimate the power of an unexplained and unresponsive curriculum as a factor in child and youth disengagement from school. Nor should it be underestimated as an explanation for any perceived decline in international education standards among western nations where, in most facets of life, young people influence and exercise considerable choice in most other areas of their lives except in school.
In writing this piece I am assuming curriculum as a broad entity, ranging from the documents comprising the Australian curriculum and the range of state-based adaptations to it, through to the formal and informal learning experiences of children in classrooms and schools, structured and developed under the auspices of each school.
Curriculum is the key. A cynic might say that curriculum is what education systems DO to learners in schools. A greater cycnic might say that what is done to learners is also being done to teachers. If our curriculum is not carefully thought through and structured, it can act as a straitjacket on teachers and learners, undermining their capacity to explore and engage through education. If the curriculum is over burdened in content areas, over prescribed with mandated teaching points, over tested, over regulated, then it robs learners and teachers of the potential to engage in education with imagination, personal investment, and joy. Learning becomes a chore, for learners and teachers alike. And, often, they disengage as a result. They simply stop trying.
In my many years as a teacher and teacher educator, I have always believed that teaching is among the most creative of professions. There is nothing more satisfying for a teacher than to develop learning experiences that enable children to understand concepts, develop skills and values, develop confidence, and enjoy their learning. The act of conceiving of and creating these learning experiences, ones that you know will bring out the best in your learners, then seeing your creative, intellectual efforts work in the classroom, and seeing children grow and want to keep learning as a result, is the key reward for the teacher.
To achieve this, curriculum needs to be freed up, becoming a crucible for fostering creative imagination rather than a straitjacket encouraging disengagement. We need a flexible curriculum, far less prescriptive than we generally have now, which encourages teachers to engage with and be responsive to the personalities of their students, and which enables young people to become involved with and take responsibility for their learning.
How to do this? We have plenty of evidence that current curricula are generally overcrowded and too prescriptive, so a good first step would be to identify a set of genuinely necessary core competencies, skills, values and content, which are limited and restrained, and which are essential for the social and economic wellbeing of individuals (and through them, the nation). The remainder and bulk of the curriculum should take the form of flexible guidelines which teachers can respond to with imagination and creativity, thereby inspiring their children to become involved and to strive to excel. This is a strength of the current curriculum in Finland, which has been considered the global ‘gold standard’ over the last decade.
We used to have in Australia, in the 1970s and 80s, strong and successful state-based cultures around school-based curriculum development – ones which enabled schools and their teachers to craft engaging and relevant curriculum developed from a clear but limited systemic curriculum framework.
These cultures (like the culture currently emphasised in Finland) had strong expectations of teachers as highly responsible, creative and professional individuals, based on high levels of trust of teachers. Unfortunately, later neo-liberal political ideologies and governance (from both sides of state and federal politics) gradually eroded these cultures. Examining and re-valuing the strengths of these previous curriculum cultures in Australia might be a good place to begin in conceiving how a less centralised, less crowded and more responsive curriculum would work for learners and their teachers.
Secondly, we have plenty of examples of thinking about curriculum, learner motivation and pedagogical approaches which respect the role of learners in learning, and teach us how to be inclusive of the tastes, preferences, talents and humanity that learners bring to their learning and their schools. People who have provided conceptual and practical clarity in their related writings include John Ainley, James Beane, Garth Boomer, John Dewey, Jacquelynne Eccles, Michael Fullan, William Glasser, Susan Groundwater-Smith, Roger Holdsworth, Stephen Kemmis, Tony Knight, Carl Rogers and R.E. Young amongst many others.
These contributions assist us in conceiving of more responsive, dynamic, shared and inclusive learning environments and communities, and of how to create effective and positive relationships between teachers and learners. They show us how these approaches can benefit and stimulate ALL learners – not just the most academically capable.
This, the ‘how’ of curriculum, is just as important as the content it contains. The ‘how’ of curriculum, the way we enable young people to engage in learning, must encourage young learners to make an intellectual and emotional investment in their learning by having input into how it is designed and conducted. That is the real beginning point to their engagement – enabling their committed buy-in to the process of formal learning.
Thirdly, in our teacher professional learning and development opportunities, in both the pre-service and in-service career stages, we need to continually emphasise the role of teachers as professional, imaginative and creative transactors and facilitators of learning. My own suspicion is that too many of our teachers may have come to regard teaching as having become de-professionalised – a profession in which they are simply expected to teach to the dot points the syllabus or school program contains, and to teach to the test.
Those teachers who do feel this way are being quite realistic – an over-crowded, over-mandated, over-tested (and often politically driven and destabilised) curriculum is de-professionalising. We need to give back to our teachers the opportunities and curriculum development skills to create curriculum and learning experiences that capture the hearts and imaginations of our children and young people.
Clearly, some of the above solutions to curriculum may require agitation by the profession and community, leading to macro, politically-endorsed reforms. In the absence of these, there are still very positive things that can be created by schools and classroom teachers from an over-prescriptive curriculum. Many formal curriculum and syllabus documents are not, on a closer reading, necessarily as prescriptive and confining as they first appear. Many mandated themes, topics or teaching points can be interpreted and adapted by the teacher, who can choose what to emphasise within particular topics, how much time should be allotted, what teaching approaches, activities or approaches to assessment might be used, and what opportunities there are to provide students with learning choices. With imagination and creativity, flexibility, personalisation of learning and responsiveness can often be crafted from curriculum documents which may initially seem too prescriptive and unforgiving.
Teachers who do manage to find this flexibility have the opportunity to create spaces in the curriculum into which they can invite their young learners to discuss, craft and conduct learning activities and the content they focus on. These teachers often feel great personal and professional fulfilment when they do engage with their students around their personal learning preferences, and achieve great learning motivation and improved academic outcomes with their learners – even on tests like the NAPLAN (without them having to emphasise the practising of the test).
Let’s return to my opening movie analogy. Imagine instead a classroom in which children and young people are continually participating by suggesting things to learn, and ways to learn, activities to do, ways to assess their learning, and in which they help their teachers to drive learning and learning outcomes. Imagine the creative energy that might drive the group, and the outcomes that might be achieved. Unlike the movies you are forced, unwillingly, to see, this is learning where you see the point, and want to engage, because it is in some ways your curriculum – as a learner (or a movie goer), you help to own the choices. Our curriculum design must be smart enough to enable learning to be personalised, flexible and responsive. Anything less risks more teachers feeling de-professionalised, and more learners in our schools choosing to disengage.
My child: 5 important things teachers need to know October 22, 2013Posted by christinefjohnston in Inclusive Education.
Tags: children with special needs, personalised learning
As a mother of a child with special needs, what follows are the five most important things I wanted to share with teachers as you undertake the very important job of teaching my child.
1. It is important that you listen carefully – both to me and to my child. This is important for a number of reasons. Teachers may well know the curriculum, but as a parent I know my child and his issues better than anyone else. I have sat in on hours of appointments with specialists, itinerant teachers, doctors etc. I have held my child’s hand and wiped his tears when he underwent hurtful interventions or traumatic and risky tests. Further, I deal with the many day to day issues that arise with my child. I’m the one who comforted him when he was told that he couldn’t drive for an unlimited time two days after he got his L plates. I’m the one who ensures he is fed a balanced diet, is dressed for the day, does his homework and that he gets enough sleep. Teachers please don’t be afraid to tell me that you don’t know what to do when dealing with my child and when you are confused or don’t understand something. I love it when teachers are willing to seek my advice and knowledge. It tells me that you value my experience, my opinion and are willing to work with me in educating my child.
2. Don’t be afraid to set high expectations for my child in your class. Sure, make allowances or adaptions or accommodations and yes provide scaffolding and direction, but also make sure my child is challenged. You need to truly believe that my child is capable of learning when given appropriate opportunities and supportive environments. You may just be pleasantly surprised by what my child shows you he can do. Further give my child a chance to experience success once you have challenged him and then celebrate that success with him. This encourages my child to always want to succeed. As I wrote this piece I asked my son what advice he would have for any of his past or present teachers and his answer was that he likes it when his teachers “treat him like every other child but also help him when he asks for it.”
3. Use any special knowledge or interests my child has to your advantage. Further don’t be afraid to use these interests in building your relationship with my child or as a motivational tool. Ensure that you provide ample opportunities for my child to tell you what he knows – there is nothing he likes better. For example, my son has always been incredibly interested in space – he hopes to be astrophysicist. I suspect his knowledge around space would rival most teachers’ knowledge – certainly he knows a lot more than me about it. What a wonderful human resource to have in your classroom. Let go of the need to be in control and let my child share his knowledge with others. You don’t always have to be the ‘teacher.’
4. Remember, however hard it might be dealing with my child or however difficult you feel my child is being, just getting through a day is challenging for him. My son is exhausted when he gets home as he negotiates the physical, academic and social challenges he faces each school day. My son came home from a participating in a sports carnival in so much pain that we had to carry him to the bath. I imagine that the day was challenging for his teacher’s aide but I am certain she wasn’t the one sobbing from physical pain that night.
5. Look beyond my child’s disability. His disability is just one part of him. Just as other children have blue eyes or freckles my child’s disability doesn’t and shouldn’t define him. My son is more than his disabilities. I want his teachers to see the sensitive, smart, kind hearted and hardworking child he is.
My hope is that this has given teachers something to think about, both those just beginning their teaching journey and those more experienced. Most of the parents of a child with special needs that I know, simply want the same thing you do – the best for their child. My greatest wish is for supportive, thoughtful, caring, and knowledgeable teachers, as they undertake their all-important work in educating my child.
And he said, “Let’s Bring Classrooms into the 21st Century …” January 29, 2012Posted by Editor21C in Directions in Education, Early Childhood Education, Engaging Learning Environments, Primary Education, Secondary Education.
Tags: creativity, curriculum, personalised learning, technology and education
from Jane Hunter
In this entertaining post Jane Hunter continues to examine how technology can effectively underpin many teaching approaches which lead to ‘deep learning’ and great learning engagement for young people in our classrooms.
I want to start this blog contribution with a game – it’s called “Guess Who Said This?”
Look at the dots point below and see if you know who said the following at a breakfast meeting late last year in the USA?
- You begin with the conviction that every child can learn.
- You set high standards.
- Think of it this way. If we attached computers to leeches, medicine wouldn’t be any better than it was in the 19th century, when doctors used them to bleed patients. You don’t get change by plugging in computers to schools designed for the industrial age. You get it by deploying technology that re-writes the rules of the game by centering learning around the learner.
- There is a crisis of imagination.
- Our children are growing up in Steve Jobs’ world. They are eager to learn, and quick to embrace new technology. Outside the classroom they take all this for granted – in what they read, in how they listen to music, in how they shop. Outside the classroom, they take it for granted that people will compete to meet their individual needs and expectations. The minute they step back into their classrooms, it’s a different story. It’s like going back in time. With the right technology, we can do the same for education.
- Let’s be clear: technology is never going to replace teachers.
- What technology can do is give teachers closer, more human and more rewarding interactions with their students.
- At the same time, technology can give children lesson plans tailored to their pace and needs.
- Digital technology gives us the means to transform the dismal status quo – and to do it quickly.
- Put simply we must approach education the way Steve Jobs approached every industry he touched. To be willing to blow up what doesn’t work or gets in the way. And to make our bet that if we can engage a child’s imagination, there’s no limit to what he or she can learn.
If you said Rupert Murdoch … then you are correct! No prizes or free iPads I’m afraid … sorry!
I was shocked that I found myself agreeing with much of what he was saying, as usually his views are the antithesis of mine.
Terrifying! Really?! What!!
Murdoch’s address was drawn to my attention by one of the teachers attending a day of cross-case analysis for my doctoral work. This study examines a purposive group of ‘imitable teachers’ (ones worthy of imitation) and their conceptualisation of technology integration in the classroom (are they possibly the ‘Steve Jobs of teachers?).
One teacher in the study previously worked with IBM as a programmer, another is a qualified film maker, one has a PhD in learning design, and the fourth teacher is one of the first teachers in NSW to have a serious amount of digital technology in her classroom BUT what happens is all about what her students create using it!
Students in the classrooms of these teachers build cardboard cars powered by alternate energy sources – we are talking rubber bands n’ balloons; they produce scanned puppets to assist writing long and imaginative narratives with highly sophisticated vocabulary; others storyboard and create powerful short films, while some groups carry out investigations into challenging and serious topics, eg. What gives flowers their colour? What are people putting in our food?
What’s interesting (and so much is compelling here with this post being only a taste of the whole story), is that there is a strong alignment between each teacher’s ‘inside life’ and ‘outside life’. But that doesn’t mean all of the teachers are highly focused on using technology every ‘waking moment’ both at school and at home. Sure, some know how to program a computer and set up a school server, however others don’t have the latest mobile phone, an iPad, nor use Twitter or Facebook.
What these teachers do share is a deep understanding of how digital technologies enable young people to learn how to become better at learning more about their learning. As one said, “children know heaps about learning – it’s what they do! The technology helps them to learn more about their learning – to really look at it – to talk about it and be better at it – digital technology in the classroom supports making learning tangible”.
In observing and speaking with these teachers’ students, they really understand what their teachers’ intentions are, they have “fun” and what’s more, the teachers state: “we get to play too”! Such comments are repeated over and over and perhaps align with Craft’s (2011) notion of ‘playfulness’. Students in these classrooms have extended time in tasks, constantly ask questions, problem solve all the time, work in community and behave really well, and what’s more they don’t want to leave the learning space when the bell goes. Furthermore, in the well over 12 months that I have been in and around these NSW public school classrooms I have not seen ONE worksheet!
Are these examples of what Murdoch meant in 2011 when he spoke about bringing school classrooms into the 21st Century?
Reference: Craft, A. (2011). Creativity and Education Futures: learning in a digital age. Stoke on Trent: Trentham Books.
Jane Hunter is an academic in the School of Education at the University of Western Sydney, Australia, whose research centres on how teachers integrate technology into learning and teaching in primary and secondary classrooms. Jane is one of our most regular and popular bloggers. You can access her previous posts by searching ‘Jane Hunter’ using the ‘search’ button at the top right.
The context of leadership in 21st century schools: constructing the narrative for teachers October 2, 2011Posted by Editor21C in Directions in Education, Educational Leadership, Engaging Learning Environments, Primary Education, Secondary Education.
Tags: educational leadership, learning communities, personalised learning
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In his second post on school leadership, Steve Wilson argues that school leaders have a key role: to construct a ‘pedagogical narrative’, or ‘learning story’, for teachers and students in their school.
My recent post on school leadership examined the importance of formal school leaders in building up other teachers as informal leaders in schools, and the skills leaders use to do this. This is part of the context of 21st century schools – to create effective learning communities and leadership participation and engagement among teachers and their students. These learning communities experiment with learning strategies, share successes and failures, and progress the work of the school over time to improve teaching approaches and learning outcomes for all.
A key part of school leadership is to enable teachers to work well by creating for them and with them a compelling pedagogical narrative in the school . This narrative is a story about teaching and learning in their school that is optimistic, clearly and compellingly conveyed by the leadership, and which supports teachers to be clear about what they need to do in their day-to-day work. The 21st century school exists in a complex environment in which most forms of information are now readily available on-line. We are information rich (in terms of quantity and accessibility), but information poor (in terms of quality and reliability). Young people of all ages now have a lot of power in their own time to access and create information, and the role of the teacher and school in this new environment in providing quality ‘learning’ is becoming less clear. The pedagogical narrative or story of the school is important in guiding the work of teachers so they can work with, not against, these new ways of accessing and using information (learning). It is the job of school leaders to create this story for, and with, their teachers. This is the key leadership challenge in the 21st century school and defines the context of 21st century school leadership.
In the 21st century school this narrative needs to firstly explain the nature of 20th century learning, what was good about it, and what was not so good. The story needs to explain how the fundamentals have not changed – learning still needs to be challenging, enjoyable, and meaningful for young people. However, the story also needs to explain how new forms of e-networking and technologies ‘fit’ into the goal of achieving quality learning, and what this means for the ways teachers can work effectively. This story, well told and shared amongst teachers, provides a powerful basis for clarity of purpose, and for learning transformation, in schools. Here’s how I would construct the narrative.
How should we think about 20th century learning?
We know that, understandably, many schools are still fundamentally situated in 20th century practices. Despite a century of extraordinary innovation in western education in various eras and places, learning in schools is still dominated by: prescriptive, externally driven curricula; pedagogies that are over-dominated by didactic teaching approaches and passive learning; a focusing on lower level knowledge and a lack of ‘deep’ learning; and learning which focuses on whole groups which progress in standard ways, rather than on individual dispositions and needs. These practices generally placed students as passive receivers of the expert knowledge of others. They are captured in my graphic below of the 20th century classroom as the ‘contained classroom’. This graphic conveys the teacher as the dominating force in the classroom, directing all learning, with students learning quite individualistically and disconnected from each other. They are ‘contained’ within the classroom, also disconnected from the outside world, experiencing second-hand learning through textbooks and teacher exposition, and exercising little learning initiative. While this is not an accurate picture of many contemporary classrooms (it is a worst-case picture in some respects), it is a reasonable representation of the student experience in many 20th century classrooms. We know the results of these practices. We experience high levels of disengagement of young people from school learning – even amongst our brightest young people. We find it difficult to motivate young people to want to learn. Many of us are not satisfied with levels of student learning engagement or achievement, and many teachers do not experience the levels of professional satisfaction in their work that they would like.
However, we also know what works from 20th century approaches. Carrington (2006) for example, reviewing decades of research into middle-years schooling, has identified what she calls the ‘signature practices’ of schooling – those things that have been found to work (that is, they engage students, promote ‘deep’ learning, and lead to learning achievement). They include: a focus on higher order, critical and holistic thinking, problem-solving and lifelong learning; learner-centred education; negotiated and cooperative learning; authentic and outcomes-based assessment, and heterogeneous and flexible student groupings. A good pedagogical narrative will draw attention to these ‘signature practices’ of 20th century schooling, suggesting they are a bridge to the new forms of learning that have now begun to evolve and which will eventually characterise the 21st century school.
How is 21st century learning different?
The pedagogical narrative that school leaders construct for and with their teachers should enable teachers to see the new forms of knowledge creation, transfer and networking as opportunities for enhanced learning engagement and learning outcomes. In this optimistic narrative, 21st century learning technologies and networking tools are opportunities for learning, not things to be resisted – the challenge is for teachers to be supported in learning how to work with them. Various thinkers about education (for example Leadbeater, 2008; Miliband, 2006; Williamson & Payton, 2009) argue that these approaches can lead to exciting opportunities for personalised and student-centred learning, in which decisions about learning can be partially driven and influenced by students, thereby enhancing their personal learning motivation and engagement.
My second graphic (above) shows the 21st century classroom as a ‘networked learning community’ – a more fluid and flexible learning environment than that of the 20th century. The teacher is still at the centre, directing and influencing student learning through good planning and targeted explicit teaching, and skills and concept-building. However in this more permeable and connected environment, students are also connected to each other, and to others outside of the classroom, as active learning agents. They use their intelligence and motivation, supported wholeheartedly and guided by their teacher, to engage in activities and projects they have helped to define. They use networking technologies to communicate with, and seek knowledge from, others within the class, and within and outside of the school. They use these learning networks to test and share their own learning and the cognitive and creative products they have generated through their learning. The teacher is still an essential and very significant presence, but no longer the ubiquitous and dominating presence of the 20th century classroom. The 21st century classroom is an active, participatory learning community, a part of many other learning communities, with students and their teachers as committed and active members of these communities of learners.
Clearly, such a pedagogical narrative is optimistic in its vision and expectations. Yet, it is clearly demonstrated in the both the conceptual and case-study literature on 20th century learning and pedagogy that disengaged students can become quickly and powerfully re-engaged through the creation of motivating learning communities in which they, the students, have a voice and can contribute to learning decisions. It is the job of school leaders to ensure that teachers are aware that such an unashamedly optimistic narrative of learning does exist, and that this optimistic story of student engagement through 21st century pedagogies should drive their practices and their school’s evolution into a 21st century school. It is the capacity of school leaders to develop and sustain just such an optimistic pedagogical narrative for the teachers and students in their school that defines leadership in the 21st century school. It is the necessity for schools to develop such effective pedagogical narratives that provides the key driver and context for school leadership in the 21st century.
References: Carrington, V. (2006). Rethinking middle years. Early adolescents, schooling and digital culture. St Leonards, NSW: Allen & Unwin. Leadbeater, C. (2008). What’s next? 21 ideas for 21st century learning. London: The Innovation Unit. Miliband, D. (2006). Choice and voice in personalised learning. In Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (Ed.). Personalising education. Paris: OECD. Williamson, B. and Payton, S. (2009). Curriculum and teaching innovation: Transforming classroom practice and personalisation. London: Futurelab. Online at: http://archive.futurelab.org.uk/resources/documents/handbooks/curriculum_and_teaching_innovation.pdf
Steve Wilson is Head of the School of Education at the University of Western Sydney, Australia.