Tuesday, 24 March 2015

Flow, Learning and Dyslexia

Recently I have become aware of the concept of flow.  

“In positive psychology, flow, also known as zone, is the mental state of operation in which a person performing an activity is fully immersed in a feeling of energized focus, full involvement, and enjoyment in the process of the activity.”  (Wikipedia)

In my own life, I can think about past times that I have experienced flow.  I just hadn’t realized that flow was the name of the vehicle that released creative ability and learning.  When I was a younger mum, I used to write music.  The songs would just pop into my head and I would be working on a piece during cooking tea and bathing the children.  It was a passion, and I could never explain how the music would come but now I recognize I experienced flow. 

Recently, as I have become aware of the concept of flow, I find that I could use it to help me in my post grad study.  Again I am passionate about what I am studying and find flow helps me to get to a place where I am at my creative best and able to apply the study to my work and in creating new information. Sometimes, the flow is over several days which contain must do’s in life such as parenting and work.  

Today I celebrated with my son as he too experienced flow at school.  He was completing a ‘flow’ project on one of his recent topics - coding.  He was able to plan his own learning around coding.  He is 15 years old and wants to be a software developer.

Josiah spent 9 hours completing his first coding course during school last week. This was a free course via the internet. There was other learning that needed to be done, but he felt comfortable to keep going with his coding as he was obviously experiencing flow. 

At many schools, learning is broken into subjects like Maths, English, Computer science.  The day is ordered in a very routine way.  One hour for Maths and one hour for English etc. This is not conducive to creative thinking or to developing continuity of learning – flow.  

How wonderful that Josiah is able to experience flow in his own learning at school.  Sometimes, you just want to keep going, to keep learning and to finish.  Because he is able to plan his own learning he is able to prioritize completing the course as being important in his day.  

I saw Josiah at school today he was sitting on the sofa and he showed me how he had started to code.  He was putting his knew found knowledge into action.

By this evening he had completed his first page on his portfolio.  That is right, he is coding his own portfolio.  He hasn't worked out how to get a web address yet, but he is on the way and one day it will go live.

The most impressive and encouraging thing about all of this is that Josiah is a student with the challenge of dyslexia.  He finds reading and writing very difficult. But he loves learning.  I asked him how he could manage to understand coding when he couldn't read.  He said that he understood the logic of coding really well and it was easier than writing and reading because it had one letter that stood for an instruction.  He could ask for help from a teacher aide for the inserting of the words, or he could use his computer for that.   At the moment at home, he is asking his younger sisters how to spell words and they tell him gladly.  He continues to work on creating a portfolio at home, sending me updates to see how it works on my computer.  Sharing problems he is working on “I’m trying to figure out how to make the images smaller.”

Learning for Josiah is experienced in the context of real life, both at school and at home. The way school is timetabled allows learning to become timeless.  Technology allows for it to be seamless.  School doesn’t define learning, instead it becomes part of the learning.  Being able to read and write doesn’t define learning. Learning is about using flow to create in and to experiment in.  Flow is a vehicle for discovery.  

I am so happy for Josiah, relieved that he is making progress in the area that he really loves and that he can experience success with learning.  How wonderful that he goes to a school that believes in future focused learning and in allowing students to self manage and to achieve flow in their own learning.

Tuesday, 17 March 2015

Assessment that actually makes a difference Tara O'Neill

Assessment that actually makes a difference.
By Tara O’Neill

Recently we have been exploring Learning Stories.  Used regularly in Early Childhood Centers throughout New Zealand, Learning stories are examples of narrative assessment.  Made famous by Margaret Carr a New Zealander.

Learning Stories are written like a story about an event, or series of events in a learner’s life.  They are like a window into a learning community.
They are narrative and detailed.  They are written to read like a story and let you have an inside understanding into a learner’s life.

There are 4 parts often seen in learning stories.

1.   What happened?  This outlines in story form what actually occurred.
2.   What learning is happening?  This draws out certain learning points that the teacher and child thinks were important for the child.  They may include Key Competencies and actual learning threads from the New Zealand Curriculum.
3.   What opportunities are there to extend, challenge or deepen learning?  These are the next steps in your child’s learning.
4.   Parent voice – This is a place for you to write or draw what you think of the learning.  It must be positive.  You might like to write about some similar learning that you have noticed at home or in the community that your child has done.  It is your place to share about your child.

Here is an example of a learning story from last week.

 Exploring with Bees.  Term 1 2015.

What is happening?

The fallen bee
The bees needed a new box to be added to their hive.  The previous week Lucia had found a sleepy bee outside the class.  She carefully picked it up and showed it to Koka Tara.  Most students had a look at the bee and could see pollen on both legs. The community talked about how the bee took the pollen back to the hive to make honey with.  Next the class went on a walk to return the bee to the beehive. 
This was very exciting as many children had forgotten we had a beehive.  When we got to the hive, the children stood to one side where they were safe and watched the bees come in and out of the hive.  We carefully placed the sleepy bee onto the ground outside the hive.  

The new bee box
The next day the children sat in a group and looked at the four parts of the bee box.  They discussed how it could be put together.  Several children tried different ways to put the box together.  This went on for a good 10 minutes.  Matua Andrew and Koka Tara asked the children to draw how they thought the bee box would go together.  Finally, someone worked it out.
Next the children needed to work out a way of keeping it together so it would not fall apart on the bees. Many ideas and suggestions were raised, tape, glue and finally we decided on nails to hold it together. The children suggested we go to the materials tech room to find what we needed. We found hammers and nails as well as earmuffs and safety glasses. With all this equipment the students then decided they needed to hammer and nails. This was a real sharing of skills and talents as well as a great sharing and communications exercise for them.
Each child was able to successfully hammer in several nails, it was really great to see the skills they have and how they are able to look at the nail and not the hammer. What a great experience we had that day.

What learning is happening here?
New Zealand Curriculum Level 1
Key Competencies
Thinking in a real and experiential way.
To look at a problem and find a way to solve it, using trial and error and creative thinking. Each child was involved and creating solutions to problems that arose as we made the boxes.  They were using their skills of exploration and reasoning to work out how to solve a puzzle using the wooden sides for the bee boxes. This was all about using their skills to put it together in the right way so that all the pieces fit. It was in reality a real life jigsaw puzzle. 
“Technology – Nature of Technology  - Characteristics of Technology – Understand that technology is purposeful intervention through design.” 
It was clear that each child made the connection from design to build to finished product and the satisfaction that comes froms seeing through to the end what you have started, this is a vital part of learning.
“Health and PE – Movement concepts and motor skills -  Movement skills science and technology.    Develop a wide range of movement.”
It was exciting to see that the skills from our daily Perceptual Motor Programme transferred as the children were able to look at the nail and not at the hammer as they accurately nailed the box together.
Writing and Reading
Many of the children took the opportunity to write about the bee and the honey.  Some children also read some books about bees

What opportunities are there to extend, challenge or deepen learning?

Next week, the Bee man Paddy Cowen is coming back to get some of the honey out of the hive.  The children will see the honey and taste it.  They will have first hand experience of where honey comes from and the magic and wonder of bees.

Parents Voice – What do you think?  (room for parents to comment).

Here are some of the great reasons to spend time writing Learning Stories.

1.     They focus teachers on contextful learning.  They direct our focus as teachers into what is really happening in the students learning.  They help us to see the real learning.  Learning in context of a learner’s world.  Learning which other forms of assessment can’t capture. They focus the students and whanau (family) on real learning.  Parents can see through an open window details of some of their child’s day.  This is so important for new 5 year olds, who often when their parents leave are upset or nervous.  They are empowering for students who parents are worried about their learning.  Children can proudly show their whanau success and name what they did in the learning process which was so valuable to them.
2.     They are positive and future focused.  They allow for growth and celebrate success.  They are hopeful and predict success for every learner. 
So often with summative assessment, you just feel depressed and stressed by the results but with these learning stories, you feel happy and hopeful.
3.     They are motivating and meaningful for everyone concerned.  They are like signposts directing future learning and lighting the path for topics, skills and learning muscles to be activated and stretched.
4.     They show progress.  Progress of a student is clear to see.  They do not judge, they do not put one child up against another.  They do not put the child in any danger of failing.  They are for students and for learning.
5.     They link real inquiry learning into the New Zealand Curriculum and Te Whariki.   It is a vehicle to pull out learning from inquiry. Assessment highlights places in the curriculum being achieved.
6.     They build relationships to and with Whanau.   Everyone loves good news and everyone loves reading about their children.  Teachers can use these stories to talk to whanau and build solid relationships between home and school.

We are excited and looking forward to seeing how these stories impact our learning community and help our learners to celebrate being authentic, future focused learners.

Wednesday, 11 March 2015

We Need to Do Different

Thirteen years ago marks a transformative change in my approach to teaching and learning. Its when I realised it was about learning not teaching.

I wrote this in 2006:

At the end of 2001, 14 years of experience in the classroom along with some very motivating professional development experiences - including attending NAVCON and visiting the new Primary School Discovery 1 after it had been in operation for two terms had me convinced learning should and could be very different than what the traditional classroom allowed. In 2002 I was very lucky to have the opportunity to work with a colleague who had very similar thoughts to mine and after a lot of professional dialogue and debate we set about changing the face of our classrooms. 
The classroom programme we developed together for our combined classes involved students writing individual timetables each week. They were provided with a list of set times they would need to attend workshops for some basic learning needs- sometimes in core curriculum areas, and then given a list of optional workshops teachers would be running through the week, some of which they can choose when to attend and some of which they could choose whether to attend. All students had differentiated core personal learning plans they followed for stand alone Maths and Literacy learning. They could then select independent learning from any of their learning plans and from the constructed, independent learning theme activities for the term to complete their timetable for the week. 
The crux of the rest of the learning programme had integration at its core. One classroom theme was explored in depth for the term with both class and group workshop learning experiences as well as independent activities provided to enhance the learning points. A real effort was made to include out of classroom experiences at this stage in the development of the theme. Various learning strategies are included in workshops in the first half of the term. In the second half of the term students worked on an inquiry in an area of personal interest related to the theme. The level of inquiry could depend on the students’ learning ability and can range from completely independent and in-depth over 5-6 weeks to a more structured inquiry where we as teachers facilitated some of the inquiry at the knowledge and comprehension levels and then the students took more control at the analysing and synthesising stages of the inquiry. 
Completed inquiries over the years we worked in this environment both excited and enthralled me with the level of understanding and development I have witnessed in students once they are given the freedom to pursue learning in this way. 
Team teaching and the willingness to share with, learn from, celebrate success and reflect on disappointments with a colleague was an integral part of the success of this learning environment- for both students and teachers.
Other features of the learning environment included:
  • ICT, with 15 computers in the environment used both as an information source and means of analysing information along side their use for more creative synthesis of learning. Producing animations of learning and using photography as well as keeping a digital portfolio to represent learning were both strong features of the learning environment. 
  • strong communication with parents.E-mailed newsletters each Monday listed workshops to be taught, learning intentions to be covered and other general information for the week. 
  • a learning celebration/ parent sharing evening each term where not only completed products from the term but the processes are shared. Strong use was made of digital images and a digital video to record the process all term. These are edited for sharing with parents as an integral part of the students’ preparation for the sharing evenings. These times are also used for students to share inquiry learning processes as well as final products with both family and the wider school community. 
  • the majority of parent teacher meetings involved the students as well. The students developed the skills to take more leadership within this setting 

Yes, we had to deal with questions and issues from other teachers and from parents. These kids had every perception of being engaged and achieving well already. It didn't appear that anything needed to change. In reality they weren’t that engaged in learning - at best they were compliant and achieving because they had the privilege of reasonable backgrounds, at worst they were going through the motions and just getting through from year to year.This was all done in a very old dreary two classroom block. We chainsawed a hole through the wall between them but they were old and cold, and in fairly horrible condition.
So why share this now? 
I have seen a lot of writing about MLE and MLP over the last few weeks. These are relatively new terms and in my opinion are being used as a cover all for many different things in schools. Ive read some particularly clear posts about this from Matt Ives at Amesbury and Danielle and Steve at HPSS. Having flash new buildings or furniture or open spaces does not mean that you have moved to a modern practice. Traditional practice is happening in some MLE. And MLP is being practiced admirably in some schools with old traditional buildings. 
To use Steve’s term I worry there is too much of an echo chamber in education at the moment. What we have done for years isn't serving todays learners as well as we could be. We still have massive underachievement of underprivileged learners. Learners of privilege in many schools are being compliant but not engaged in learning. But there’s a lot of back patting and accolades about things that are really very small changes. We need transformation. Learning needs to look different than it does in many schools. We need to stop fooling ourselves that our practices  have really changed very much if at all. The world has changed rapidly in the 28 years since I began teaching and yet, I am seeing planning and teaching that is pretty much the same- it just looks a bit flasher but its still the same and that is wrong. Its not the same world and the same things cannot be serving learners as well as we possibly can.
Im not saying teachers don't work hard- they do to the point where they can’t possible envisage how they can add something in or change something about what they do. Change is hard and change is tiring. But so is battling the same things year in year out. And transformative change is nearly, if not totally, impossible if you expect teachers to keep doing the same thing and tweaking it little by little. We need to give our teachers permission to change in big ways and in big steps.
MLP isn't new- the above example is from 2002. The fact that schools and teachers operating these kids of programmes are still being seen as experimental and come under intense scrutiny and negativity from some of those still operating traditional programmes needs to change.  Leaders need to be courageous and they need to give their staff permission to be courageous.  
I know that external pressures like NCEA and national standards make leaders and teachers scared to experiment with changes that may engage learners more. But you can get results. I have seen incredible results- both with privileged and underprivileged learners using learning programmes like the above. (Even using traditional assessments which I don't think should be the be all of everything we use to judge and evaluate our learners anyway.) 
Sure you may face an implementation dip when you first change from the traditional rotation force feeding of reading skills, writing skills etc and you develop engaging programmes that allow you to personalise the teaching of those skills as they are needed. When multiple literacies become something learners use to learn with and through rather than doing writing and reading or literacy at a certain time of the day, they wont be able to be assessed in exactly the same way and that is scary but we need to have courage. When older students are involved in project based learning that is rigorous and all involving you can't always evaluate their learning in a separate silo subject assessment approach.
In my opinion this change is taking way way too long to become the norm. Our young people need a tipping point and they need it now. 
We want our young people to grow up as confident life long learners who will take a risk with their learning. How will they if the leaders and educators and remain so risk-adverse to the transformative change that is needed? Leaders need to have the courage to open these conversations with the wider society as a whole. The same wider society who want to embrace all the change in the world but expect schools to look the same as they were when they were in them. Let's move on form 'it was good enough for me..." 
And leaders need to have the courage to experience the implementation dip and hang in there for the engagement and the real life learning that will occur.

Modern learning practice is not about making teaching and teachers less important, quite the opposite. Teachers are vital to activating successful and engaged learning for the learners they work with. They need to have personalised knowledge of each learner and an excellent knowledge of learning and learning steps, but also the expertise and openness to accept that learning is not linear and that the next learning step might look different for each person and cannot always be bound in a neat curriculum prescription. 

And modern learning practice is not about accepting the rhetoric we have accepted for years and saying we are doing our best, we cant do any more. 

We don't need to do more. 

We need to do different. 

And we need to do it now.

Monday, 9 March 2015

Playing in the Foundation Class- Andrew Fisher

Andrew has written this in response to Tara's last two blogposts:

In the Foundation class with our Year 1’s and 2’s we have a group of children guided by teachers who have an inquiry focus of “play”, this is aside from the normal reading, shared reading, writing and maths.

I found it really amazing that when we are looking at “play” as an inquiry topic what the children are learning as they play. It can seem as though play is just something that they do and it is a natural part of a kids life that will live at playtimes and lunchtimes outside of the class and has its own life in parallel to learning. I have to admit that in the beginning no matter what was said I was still a little skeptical about the value of play as a learning tool.

My opinions changed after a week or two of watching the kids play and watching how Tara questions the kids as they play, she will focus them and guide their learning after they have made a play choice.  I have been following her lead and really consciously questioning and focusing them in on different learning without trying to interrupt or changing what they are doing.

To really cement what they are learning and how I know they are learning Tara has been teaching and mentoring me in writing “Learning Stories” about the childrens’ play and the ways we have subtly directed their play in various directions with careful suggestions and questions. This has put a significant focus on how these everyday situations that they want to learn about and do, have as real learning with measurable benefits that can be transferred to other learning areas and curriculum areas.

For example when the children are playing with cars as a way to learn math, they are building ramps and looking unconsciously at the trajectories of the pipes and wood and concluding that certain angles are better than others, with steep and shallow angles less efficient than a moderate angle of decent. This was an eye opening example of real learning and transferable learning.

In an other example we have a core group of 5 year old girls that are really interested in insects and bugs and want to go on” bug hunts” to find new and different bugs. This is the time when they are most receptive to new vocabulary about the insects and arachnids. We can call them this and really look at the differences as to why they are different in real ways with real bugs and the learning is authentic and meaningful with so much learning and cross curricular focus this “FUN” becomes learning.

When we are doing theses things with the kids we are constantly asking questions and quizzing them on what they want to learn and focusing them in directions for learning. It is only when I started to write these learning stories that I really began to understand how much learning and what the different areas of learning are.

Real learning through real life play situations, how amazing is this to the kids learning.