Saturday, 1 July 2017

A Stressed System - We Need To Act Now

The announcement of the changes to or addition to the technology curriculum in terms of enhancing digital technology got me has had me blogging in my head all weekend and so, here I sit, about to try to get that blog post out of my head, onto the screen.  Ironic in the fact that I am using digital technology in an attempt to challenge and transform thinking...very ironic indeed because I was not of the generation that grew up being taught through this digital technology...but miraculously can use it to suit my needs because I was engaged in a curriculum that taught me to develop other skills that in turn allowed me to apply this across all areas of my life, that allow me to see myself as a learner...and I didn't need to be taught through digital technologies to do that, I needed to talk to and interact with human beings in challenging situations that engaged and interested me.  But, i'm getting distracted from my point and the title of my let me get back on track.

Firstly my post is not really about the changes to digital technology in the curriculum, I have given very little thought to that other than to say that I think the government is once again grandstanding on something that very quietly, and without funding has been happening in our schools for a while now...children transforming their learning through the use of digital technologies.   The key word here is transforming...not replicating what they could do with a pen or pencil, not simply enhancing the learning, or amplifying it so that it is bigger or better, but transforming, making something new, communicating with and challenging the thinking of  others, innovating, designing....failing and getting up and trying again.  Schools around the country do this on a daily basis, with no funds to do so, because our teachers operate via number 8 wire mentality, always have and always will.

So the government can grandstand all they like, the reality is that it will change very little as I think that all with due respect most teachers around NZ understand that digital technologies will be part of the future of the the children that they teach today and if they didn't already know that then they have their heads buried in the sand.  The last point I wish to make on this is that I hope that this announcement by the government does not give rise to a plethora of devices and one to one situations in classrooms, because in my opinion on a social and emotional level that is the last thing our children need.

Back to the original reason for my post.  We are existing in a stressed system.  Children are stressed and show this through behaviour, reluctance to try, opting out.  Teachers are stressed and find it difficult to keep up with what is going on and all of the expectations placed on them and Principals are stressed, spending more and more time on compliance and less time supporting the children, parents and teachers in their school.  I know that a system under stress while it can continue to function, gradually shows signs of this stress, and we are seeing these signs throughout our schools on a daily basis.

There are many things that have created this stress, but for the most part a testing culture, a crammed timetable, the overwhelming burden of evidence, evidence, evidence, a general lack of trust, and the dreaded unstandard, national standards which have become an absolute burden and have done nothing but increase anxiety and distrust.

I ask you how you feel when you are stressed, are you able to function to your full capacity, are you even able to think clearly?  I would hazard a guess and say that your answer would be no.  I then ask how we can expect our children can possibly function when some are coming to school already stressed and school itself is no longer a refuge from this stress, but only adds to it?

Where am I going with this...once again I am rambling...but I do have a point, so bear with me.

Our system has become top down...or perhaps it always was.  Rather than looking at where children have come from, our system has become obsessed with where they need to be to pass NCEA.  This top down flows from government, through to high schools, intermediates, primary and then to ECE.  At each stage we are supposed to be 'preparing' them...but preparing them for what and why the pressure, why do we not acknowledge that working from the ground up, understanding what our children and families are coming in with and building from there would be far more beneficial for our children and ultimately our country.

I think this top down approach has bred a lack of respect and understanding of each level of development, it has led to a blame culture and instead of us understanding each other at each different level of schooling we have begun to blame each other...this distrust is unhealthy and destructive for education, but not only that it gives us a good excuse when it comes to why our children are not experiencing success.  We use this excuse to blinker us and prevent us from coming up with innovative solutions that will transform our schools.  These excuses get in the way of us being open and honest.

Humor me for a moment and let's envision what it may be like if we did it the other way.

If I spoke to the ECE's and listened to the challenges they face, the areas of need children are coming in with, listened to the progress they had made and then built my new entrant programme around these specific needs as identified by my colleagues...both acknowledging where they had come from, how far they had progressed and then in turn what I wanted next, wouldn't I be better off?  If I did this regularly, each year and changed and transformed my programme based on need, wouldn't this be better for the individual cohort of children each year? We need to be honest, what worked for the children last year, may not for this years children...we need to change!

In turn if at the beginning of each level the next steps were first guided by the level before, then we would be giving our children a real pathway.  If we acknowledged the challenges and valued the progress made it would then leave us better able to advise each other and give ideas.  If we were able to share with each other what worked and what didn't work without feeling like we were being blamed by our colleagues who teach the levels above us, wouldn't that be amazing.
What if we job swapped for a day, now how brilliant would that be.  Another novel idea would be government members sitting down with teachers at the grass level and actually listening to us rather than imposing new initiatives and then claiming to have consulted via think tanks or online.

This top down approach has really led to a culture of distrust and blame that needs to go.  If we truly appreciated, understood and acknowledged where our children had come from this blaming would stop and true teaching would happen.

There are some keys to this success.  Firstly standards need to go, they need to be abolished.  We taught well before the standards, without the fear and stress of having to label children below, without the pressure cooker of trying desperately to push so much learning into our children's heads so that they could achieve a stupid standard that means very little.

Secondly we need to go back to our amazing curriculum and shape a set of dispositions that we want our children to have based on the key competencies.  This can be done across levels.  Things like empathy, kindness , resilience, perseverance....these dispositions would be common to all levels and give us something to talk about, a common ground.  These dispositions are going to be what children need moving out of school into the world.

Thirdly we need time to build relationships, to explore learning, to not feel like we are ticking boxes constantly, to allow children to explore their learning urges.

Quite sadly I feel for the most part like I survived school, I got my character from my family, my reflective ability from the deep discussions I would have with my genius of a father, my empathy and kindness from my generous mother.  Sadly I think my children are headed the same way, just trying to survive school...luckily they have me and a father that can model to them what being truly successful in life looks like..and believe me this has nothing to do with money, belongings or intellect.  What happens to those children who do not have a family like this?  This is where those dispositions come into play so strongly.

My son and daughter are in high school now, year 9 and year 10.  The school itself is a good one, doing its best in a system that plain and simply just stinks.  They cope with things in different ways, my son reluctantly speaks of disliking school, but he has incredibly interpersonal skills with adults and gets his sense of belonging from being liked.  He gets on and does things because he wants to be liked.  He achieves well because he wants to please his teachers, he is a lot like his father.  He speaks of feeling sorry for his teachers, for the stress that poorly behaved children put them under every day, the stress of trying to fit everything in.  He is doing well, but he would like to go back to primary school where in his words learning was fun.  He will be ok, but I am not sure if we should accept ok.

My daughter is a different kettle of fish.  She flourished in primary school and loved the relationships she had with the teachers, the mutual respect and most of all Mantle of the Expert.  She loved the authenticity that this gave learning, the hands on nature, the imagined and everything that goes with it.  Once out of primary she quickly became aware of the 'standards' she developed anxiety to maths and writing and quickly developed a dislike for these subjects.  She hates high school, but has a lot to offer if she was just asked.  She is incredibly reflective with an amazing ability to problem solve and come up with real solutions, unfortunately our testing culture does not acknowledge this ability.  She hates the inequality of the teacher time she gets as opposed to those behaving badly, she hates the fact that teachers are too busy to make lessons fun, she wishes they used Mantle and speaks of not feeling respected.  She is not a people pleaser, in fact, quite like me she is the opposite and teachers without the time to get to know her would see her as quite 'reluctant.'  She has an incredible amount of untapped potential if only teachers had time to get to know her.

I sound depressing and probably quite harsh, but there is light at the end of the tunnel and if we want to really be honest and speak openly there are ways to help children, just like mine,  like school again.  In fact the difference in my daughter when she has a teacher that just takes the time to get to know her and appears to care for her is incredible.  It is like that love of learning gets switched back on and it is amazing!

What do we need to do?  We need to give teachers time to get to know children, to develop lessons that are engaging and interesting, to stop the endless testing and need for evidence, and where behaviour is detracting from the learning of others, we need to be funding schools to put more intervention in place to allow teachers to teach, not police.  I don't know about you, but I don't know how my high school colleagues survive with the kind of behaviour they have to manage on a day to day basis, I wouldn't want to do it.  In no way is this post supposed to beat down high school teachers, I have the utmost respect for what they try to do each and every day,  I don't think it is any wonder that their energy to create engaging experiences and ability and time to build relationships is lacking.  I simply don't know how they work within this system.

The plain and simple reality is that as children travel through school, testing and pressure increases, while a bond with the teacher and positive adult relationships decrease,  these things are not conducive to a love of learning.
Teachers are stressed, children are stressed...our system is stressed.  Learning and teaching is impossible when under stress.  Wherever possible we need to find ways to bring calm to our cluttered curriculum and we need to do it quickly!

I urge us all to find one or two ways we can make positive changes for our children starting everything else we have the power to make a change without a government grandstanding over us...let's get our number 8 wire out tomorrow and start to think of solutions and make these a reality for our children now!