Monday, November 9, 2009

School's Out

It sometimes feels like I’ve run the full gamut of school-related experiences – from being kicked out of school at 17, to being invited back as a Governor. I frequently speak to students at universities around the world, but having an eternally curious granddaughter like Stella in my life has piqued my interest in the way primary schools approach the first few years of learning.

Unfortunately, it doesn’t seem we’re doing our children justice in this regard. Despite being one of the richest countries on earth, America’s education system is notoriously rife with difficulties. A recent in-depth report from Cambridge University on UK primary schools suggests a grim focus on state-determined curriculum and assessment is dampening childrens’ appetites for learning. The researchers recommend a new approach where formal learning begins age 6 (rather than 5), and that younger children be left to learn through play.

I’ve spoken here before about the importance (and fun!) of free-ranging play outdoors, and I think this principle remains the same in the classroom. Of course core frameworks are important – as long as they allow great teachers to inspire their young pupils to experiment, keep asking “why?”, and start coming up with their own answers. Sure, sometimes they’ll get it wrong. Sometimes they’ll get their hands dirty. But if their curiosity is sparked, they’ll develop a love and appreciation for learning as adventure that will last a lifetime.

I like the approach taken by President Obama in a recent speech to young American school children. Always big on hope and inspiration, the President pointed to where the best kind of education leads – discovery, innovation and creation. Not just retaining facts and ticking off boxes, but being able to take what you’ve learnt and use it to make something exciting and new that benefits everyone. His concluding questions put the future firmly in the hands of his young listeners:

“So today, I want to ask you, what’s your contribution going to be? What problems are you going to solve? What discoveries will you make?”

Fittingly, a bunch of open-ended questions best answered with imagination, not just textbooks.


Gidget said...

I am just finishing a book which speaks about this very thing by Alfie Kohn - "The Schools our children deserve" - based on the American schooling system but transferable for the UK.

Another key point that he raises is the fact that curiosity and love of learning is eroded by encouraging competition between students at too young an age, regardless of whether the child tends to place at the top or the bottom of comparitive testing. The motivation becomes "what do I need to know to beat the others" rather than "what can I learn about this?"

Kelvin Woodley said...

The UK report is an incredible document that essentially condemns their current national testing system which was introduced by politically motivated forces. The greatest tragedy is that New Zealand has not learned from this situation and political forces are introducing a system of national standards which lacks only national testing, otherwise the system is substantially the same. Protest from the education sector and researchers has been ignored as has international experience. Ironically in 2010 we will be introducing a new curriculum which is the envy of the educational world in terms of it's progressive and dynamic nature. Unfortunately the good of this new curriculum will be largely counteracted by the introduction of national standards. Politicians just can't seem to get it right!

JeanOdom said...

I've been saying this forever Kevin. As you know I teach drama to ages five through 12 in a regular school in Pensacola Florida. My students act out academics, historical events, science facts, and put on 16 major performances a year. All 640 students have roles and use everything from puppets, to play writing to get the facts down with their academics in my daily classes. We are an A school and do not audition kids. I have been doing this for 28 years here, 20 at my present school. Back in the late 50's and early 60's that's what I grew up with in my primary and high school in Morecambe, UK. Enervated teachers that could dance, act, make poetry exciting, run us ragged with a hockey stick and expect us to know every capital of every country in the world as we worked out. I learnt to do my multiplication tables on the school yard to the beat of the jump rope. Exercise and maths combined way back then. Nothing is new it's just that teachers teach the test because governments say so. They come into the classroom as new teachers with their creativity stunted before they even start because of reading blocks and no talking at the lunch tables and stuff that gets in the way of imagination. Our children deserve better. Thank goodness I work at a school that is innovative enough to have full time art, music, dance, drama and physical education. EVERY child is included not based on their scores but to enhance where each child is as an individual. To encourage them to think out of the box and acquire life time skills along with life time learning habits. All areas of the brain must be fed to develop a well rounded individual. Setting realistic goals for every child, and above all making the learning environment one that makes them want to be in school. 79 of my students stayed after school twice a week to put on a two hour play this week to raise money to send two veterans from WW11 to Washington D.C. to see the memorial in their honor. The Emerald Gulf Coast WW11 Veterans Flights. Kids feel good about doing great things for others. These kids from every grade level put on a fantastic show on their own time staying a further two hours after school to practice. Challenged in the right way kids will raise the bar some and go above and beyond all expectations. We had a major storm come in last week and without rehearsal for 8 days they came in two days after the storm and never missed a beat to put on their show for these old timers. If you wait long enough, as the saying goes, "What goes around, comes around". Jean. Brit in America