Tag Archives: perspective

Principal: school doesn’t work for most kids

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School doesn’t work for most kids, which is why some schools are starting to be more flexible in their teaching and learning. Shutterstock

“Secondary school, at least, only really works for about a third of students,” according to Templestowe College principal Peter Hutton. Speaking in Melbourne last week, he also asked how “we made learning, something that in younger years was so innately pleasurable, get so bad”.

Hutton used the metaphor of schools as a bus, where 30 kids get on the bus, the teacher sits at the front and, no matter how much the view is of interest to the child sitting on the bus, we can’t stop. Instead, we say, “I’m sorry, son, we can’t stop to look at that, we have a schedule to keep.”

But at Templestowe College in Melbourne, Peter Hutton is doing something different. Not only are students able to take classes outside their year level, they are actively engaged in the school in hiring and firing staff, in offering specialised courses based on their own areas of expertise and in challenging expectations around school days. But why and how?

Students take responsibility for their learning

At this school, students are encouraged to take responsibility for their own learning. They are able to make decisions about what they study, in what year level and in what order. This approach, which mirrors what is done at many democratic schools, is known as student-directed learning.

This style of learning is popular at universities and in schools. However, it may be vastly different from many of our experiences at school. This approach involves allowing students to direct the topics of study, the length of time they study a topic and the way they are assessed. At Templestowe, the school has partnered with La Trobe University to meet students’ interest in studying computer gaming.

Students whose subject choices are not offered by the school complete what is known as a Personalised Learning Project (PLP). They set the objectives of the project, choose a staff mentor and then complete the project.

Students who are given the ability to plan their own learning are said to improve their achievement and build on their capacity to learn. They work in partnership with their teachers to encourage independence and take charge of their own learning.

Hutton gives the example of a student who was in Year 7, but wanted to sit in on a Year 12 Physics class. The student was able to do so, but only if he didn’t interrupt the learning of the Year 12 students. They found that the student was not only surviving, he was thriving.

When asked about this, his classmates said:

Well it’s a bit weird actually … because he sometimes knows more than we do.

Much like in democratic schools, the school offers students the chance to control their learning to meet their needs. This chance to control learning is in line with school improvement practices that empower students to shape and direct the education they experience and the management of the school.

Research has shown that students who are engaged in active inquiry investigations of different concepts enjoy greater learning gains than students who are not. They are also more likely to learn more about how they learn, to meet their learning goals and to experience school as more pleasurable.

Students’ learning plans are individualised and flexible

One of the more controversial aspects of Templestowe is its flexibility. Start times for students vary according to what the principal describes as research around sleep patterns for adolescents. They received media coverage for their staggered start times of 7.15am, 9am and 10.15am with finish times of 1.15pm, 3.30pm and 5.15pm.

There is a good deal of research that indicates that adolescents should be able to start later if they feel the need. Some research has said that teenage moodiness and poor school behaviour could be mitigated by better sleep patterns, including later sleep and later rising, with schools factoring that in to their starts. Similarly, a 2010 study concluded that even modest delays in start times improved adolescent moodiness, health, alertness and achievement.

Students choose when they go to and from school. Shutterstock
Click to enlarge

What are the problems with this flexibility?

Some of the problems will stem from epistemological differences between this school’s approach and the established expectations of parents and education commentators. For example, some parents may not trust their child to take responsibility for their own learning, believing that curriculum experts and teachers are better placed to make those decisions.

Further, they may find it difficult to understand students taking control of the hiring and firing of staff. Some may struggle with the idea that it is a students’ role to mentor and tutor other students, or to offer courses and activities to other students. It may be seen as a conflict of interest to have students working for the school as receptionists and maintenance staff.

Or it might be difficult to understand why a student of Year 7 age might want to enrol in Year 12 Physics. Or why, for that matter, the Year 12 students wouldn’t roundly object to that child being in their class.

Similarly, when it comes to start times, the idea that children can choose when they start might be shocking or horrifying for some parents. If only because they may not like the idea of having to make multiple student drop-offs!

Original article found here.

Unorthodox Living and Teaching in a Standardized World: part three

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Context matters. Without context, facts are points on a graph without any lines. But the context needs to be relevant. When studying for the GRE math section, I came across a question that so illustrated my issues with standardized tests that I actually remembered most of it. It was a math question, one of the dreaded word problems. I hated them in elementary school, and I still hate them. I hate them because most of the time they’re too stupid to matter. This particular one was about people sitting in an HR group, and some other mundane information. The outcome of the question was to determine the proportion of women to men and older to younger. All I could do was say, “Who CARES about the ratio of women to men? Do they do their work well? Are they beneficial to the company? Can they work together? I had real world issues wrapped up in this standardized test scenario and I frankly did not CARE about the answer!  Give me a reason to care about the answer and I’m more inclined to work toward it—and I doubt I am alone.

Actually, now that I think about it, I am not alone. I have a daughter who is all math and science.  Philosophy, symbolism, rhetoric—all the things that make me giddy—are, in her mind, a waste of time. And without context, for her they are a waste of time. She is the product of a school system that works into her natural strengths: math and science are more important than literature, history, and art. But philosophies do matter in life. A well read doctor can connect to his or her patients in a relational way, and research does seem to indicate that the human element is a critical factor in healing. A scientist without a carefully thought out world view may well end up in a Frankenstein scenario—and that what makes that particular piece of literature so current and relevant. When Shelley wrote the book, the technology of creating human life was unthinkable. Now it is almost possible. It is philosophy that feeds ethical decisions: just because we can, should we? If mathematical possibility and scientific probability are the sole measures for technological advancement, what ultimately happens to our humanity?

Unorthodox Living and Teaching in a Standardized World: part two

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Innovation requires out-of-the-box vision. We respect and revere men like Steve Jobs for their vision and for their ability to see the potential in ideas. Yet we don’t teach our teenagers to think for themselves.  Teachers in the humanities need to encourage students to find their OWN insights into literature along with learning what other scholars think. History should be a captivating story of society and cultures, how it rises and falls, evolves, changes, succeeds, and fails. We learned early on that “in fourteen hundred and ninety two Columbus sailed the ocean blue” but why? What motivated him? How is he like Neil Armstrong or Walt Disney or Bill Gates? The connections are what make history come to life. But the connections don’t matter on a standardized test so we don’t ask.  But, why NOT? Teachers are supposed to train learners, aren’t they?  Doesn’t it follow that a kid who finds relevant connections to history and literature and economics is going to do just fine on the standardized tests?

I’m a big fan of asking questions. First of all, I don’t have all of the answers. And if you’re honest, you don’t either. Secondly, as compelling as I think I am, no one wants to listen to me tell facts about this or that.  Facts matter, yes, but only as a foundation for discourse.  The interesting stuff starts to happen when students make connections between facts and themselves. Students recognize this, too, even though they may not know it yet. When I teach F451, most students intuitively like Clarisse and dislike Mildred. Why is that? Mildred represents everything we seem to value: she has material goods, friends who make her feel good about herself, and a place in a society that is a perfect fit for her. She may not be in the A-list group, but she isn’t the bottom of the heap, either.  Clarisse, on the other hand, is a loner, ostracized by her peer group, ridiculed in school, unconventional in her interests, habits, and appearance. Clarisse is, in her society, weird. Mildred is normal.  It never fails, though. Every reader sees Clarisse as the more appealing character. Clarisse thinks deeply. Clarisse questions authority. Clarisse wonders and reads and talks. Students want to do the same, but too often we tell them the answer we want to hear and expect them to parrot it back to us. This is counter-productive. Is Clarisse a symbol? Perhaps, but more importantly to this generation, Clarisse gives teenagers permission to be unorthodox enough to find wisdom. Our job as teachers should be to show students the joy of imagination and wonder and discovery.

Literature or Art Class?

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Why not both?

One of the unorthodox ideas I tested in the last school year was a “Through the Lens” concept. The idea was to read literature, write a short essay, create a digital art piece (based on student photography), and give a presentation that incorporated both the essay and the art. For 2011-2012, the theme was American Literature. It was an easy place to begin for me, as I had already put together a curriculum for a thematic approach to American Literature with a fellow teacher several years ago. American literature also lends itself to images that are approachable by most teenagers who have some interest in visual arts.

I began with the Transcendentalists. Who better to photograph than Whitman, Thoreau, and Emerson?  The nature element alone makes for good images. All I asked the students to do was to connect the photo to some quote or poem from the readings.

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Opening with such obvious connections allowed me to also discuss photography as storytelling and somehow reaching all five senses with imagery. I used PowerPoint to let me illustrate each point, and I encourage the students to learn PowerPoint for their own presentations. The first semester I allowed them just just share their images and discuss them, but by the end of the each all students were adept at full presentations with multiple slides.

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I will teach a similar course for the 2012-2013 school year, this time centered around the work of C.S. Lewis. If that isn’t unorthodox, I don’t know what is!

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The Logical Conclusion by T.S. Eliot

“Your Class is Working”

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Those are words to delight any teacher, especially one who loves to test new ideas. This comment was from a student in my Through the Lens American Literature class. A glutton for punishment, he is taking a traditional American Lit class as well as my experimental class, but he said he finds himself constantly creating images in his head for the books he reads in the other class. I love that; it validates my approach using the visual to analyze the written word.

I’ve had similar comments in the past. I have ruined movies, pop music, formula fiction, and bad art for multiple students because I teach them to think, analyze, and decide whether what they choose to see, hear, and purchase is worthwhile.

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, the German philosopher/scientist/literary genius (1749-1832), is my hero for providing all thinkers with three simple questions for determining the value of any art:

  • What is artist trying to do?
  • How well does he do it?
  • Is it worth doing?

I have used those questions in theater appreciation classes, literary discussions, composition workshops, and now in my experimental class. Without fail, students who internalize those three questions find themselves unwilling to spend time and/or money on things they decide don’t meet the standard of value. The beauty of the questions is in the fact that the first two are generally objective, but the third is completely subject to a personal paradigm. This requires students to identify and define their owns world views, and decide their own priorities. This requires high level critical thinking and introspection that many adults believe is out of the intellectual grasp of most teenagers. I disagree. There are those who cannot think for themselves, but there are plenty of adults who want to be told what to believe, too. I prefer to err on the side of higher expectations for my students, and I am generally justified.

What is the artist trying to do?

This the the theme/message/purpose of the artwork.  It’s often a challenge to find this concept without a sense of context, so history becomes important. Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 is a great book, but it becomes powerful when put in the context of the Cold War, and prophetic when brought into the 21st century. Even without a historical context, great literature (and music and art and dance) always presents some universal message that can be identified and understood.

How well does he do it?

This second question is about technique. Does the artist follow the rules of his form? Are the rules he bends beneficial to the form? Is the language clear? Does shape and color and pitch and tone promote the message? Does each element work together to support the whole?

Is it worth doing?

This third question is the one that separates the artist who has a message to communicate from the one who just wants to sell something. Even the Absurdists wanted to shock and stun audiences into some new understanding. This question requires considerable time and thought. At first glance my students are disgusted by Kafka’s The Metamorphosis, but once they dig into the message, the context, the powerful symbols, and the brilliant technique, they come to appreciate it. Some even come to like it. It may not be a favorite genre, but it becomes valuable because its message and the method of presenting it create enlightenment.  Other art pieces (literary, visual, or performance) may not be deemed worthy because either the technique or the message is lacking.

Worthiness is also highly subjective.  Students in high school are beginning to discover who they are, what they believe, and how they want to approach life. It is the time of life when they begin to separate themselves from parents, looking for their own answers to life’s great questions. As they begin to form their own world views, worthiness becomes a variable, not a constant.  It may be disturbing to hovering parents, but it is exciting for this teacher to watch teens find value in something for themselves.  I love to hear, “I love this book” from the students whose parents say, “They’re reading what?”  It’s even more fun when parents tell me about lively dinner table conversations about whatever book is currently under scrutiny.

Being unorthodox as a teacher means taking risks, and teaching high schoolers to think for themselves is certainly that. I am convinced, however, that students benefit immediately from coming to their own conclusions, and society benefits ultimately as these same students become adults who work, vote, and lead the next generation.