Saturday, October 03, 2015

"Those who cannot remember the past..."

It's that time again, Connected Educator Month (get the starter kit) and I've joined the blogging challenge.  My first challenge is to reflect on how my teaching practice has evolved over time. As I am no longer a classroom teacher I have taken the opportunity to reflect on my first year of teaching and compare aspects of that to today's classrooms.

When I reflect back on my first year of teaching over 30 years ago there were a lot of ideas that were similar to those around now but have evolved. My first year was in what was then called an open plan classroom, which very superficially resembled today's Modern Learning Environments (MLEs). Two classrooms had a wall removed to turn them into one large space and two single cell classrooms were also part of the set up. 

Students were all brought together in the open space between two classrooms for introductions to units or any time we were wanting to deliver content or messages to the whole syndicate at once. This usually meant one or more teachers could be released to do other things like admin tasks or individual testing (although there wasn't much of the latter happening). 

The syndicate was comprised of what would now be called year 3 and 4 students and we cross-grouped for maths. This was partially on ability and partially on year level so there were two year 3 classes and two year 4 classes. This was the most restrictive subject as we taught from a text book (Modern School Mathematics), a double page a day. There was a teachers book which we used to introduce the day's topic then the students completed the exercises from their text book. The next day we moved on to the next pages whether they understood it or not. When I questioned this I was told there was a spiral curriculum and the subject would come round again. What they didn't seem to take into account was that when it came round it was a higher level, if they didn't get it the first time it was going to be harder to get the next time. 

For reading the students were ability grouped, and then within each class we grouped again. We used the School Journals and the old Ready to Read series of readers - Hungry Lambs, Boat Day, Sweet Porridge etc. and the NZEI book which supported these with  the sight words, blends and comprehension questions relevant to each story. We didn't teach strategies like cross-checking cues or reading-on.  We used a round robin approach with each child reading aloud a part of the book while the others in the group supposedly followed reading silently. I ran a reading task board which was like a reading tumble and did at least try to have activities with some relevance to the learning. 

In the afternoon the classes revolved around teachers with each of the four teachers specialising in an area - PE, Music, Art or Drama. We taught the same lesson 4 times to different classes for all these subjects. This certainly saved on planning time but there wasn't a lot of (or in most cases, any) adaptation for individual classes or students.  

Learning in Social Studies and Science was topic-based and thematic rather than cross-curricula. If the topic was Spring then we drew blossoms and glued cotton-wool on lambs, we sung Spring songs and read Spring poems. We counted daffodils and learnt about baby animals. We crowbarred Spring into every aspect of the curriculum. We had little idea of why we did most of these things, they certainly had little or nothing to do with the objectives of the unit. We cooperatively planned and then each teacher would teach a different aspect. So again the same lesson repeated 4 times with little or no adaptation. 

Back then I was already using a constructivist inquiry approach to Science which was the subject area I got to teach. Prior knowledge was determined and student questions were collected. We would hypothesise and test our hypotheses, then analyse our information and form conclusions. At times we even tried to find authentic contexts and help students see the relevance to their lives. It wasn't inquiry as I would see it today but it was a good start. What we failed to do however was the 'what next' step, the action as a result of the inquiry. Instead we would give them a test to see what they understood and move on to the next topic.

So how does all this relate to teaching today? Well our open-plan classrooms were not a success, they were very noisy, there were no breakout spaces and learner agency was almost non-existent. We talked about being student-centered but did very little to walk the talk. There was certainly no personalisation of learning going on, teachers, not students, had control of all aspects of the learning. Cultural responsiveness was virtually unheard of, other than a token Māori Culture group which was brought out on special occasions to perform waiata-ā-ringa and haka. The whole thing seemed designed to make it easier for the teachers, not to benefit the students. It wasn't long before the walls were going up again. 

Unfortunately I see the same mistakes being repeated in some (please note that it is only some) schools who are trying out the so-called MLEs.  Walls are knocked down, new furniture (dare I say bean bags) is purchased and classes are thrown in together with little thought as to why they are doing it, and even less into thinking about the changes in practice that are needed to make this work.I see teacher-decided cross-grouping happening in some of these MLEs rather than flexible skill and strategy-based grouping tailored to the students needs.

I still see thematic units happening in classrooms, often under the guise of inquiry, where teachers have little idea of the purpose of what they are teaching. Teaching a double page a day from the maths text book may have gone (thank goodness) but in some classes there is little more personalisation of learning happening now than there was then. Teachers still have firm control of the learning in these classrooms, and true student agency is hard to find.

"Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it."

George Santayana

It is not all bad though. I also see lots of classrooms where the learner really is at the centre of everything that is done. Where students have control of the learning and teachers really understand the purpose of everything they teach. I see most teachers working a lot harder than we did 30 years ago. Personalising learning is more difficult and more time-consuming than teaching from a text book but the effort is worth it.

I have also seen some some excellent examples of MLEs or ILEs (innovative learning environments) or whatever you choose to call them, where personalised learning and student agency are the key, and proven, research-based pedagogy is put before everything. I continue to hope that teachers will visit these classrooms, talk to the teachers and see past the physical spaces into the real changes that are needed to make our classrooms places students want to be, where they feel in control of their own authentic, rich and relevant learning.  

Photos from
Hobsinville Point Primary where supporting sound pedagogy has been the priority when designing learning spaces.