I sometimes feel that we are being buried by slogans. Quick, inspirational catchphrases that are somehow supposed to guide our decision making and our life plans. It seems a bit strange to me that these brief, often cliched, comments are somehow supposed to provide guidance to, what are often, complex issues, in the same way that the use of sound bites by the media is somehow supposed to keep us informed of current events and complex national and international issues. Despite this concern however I do, occasionally, come across a phrase or slogan that does resonate and provide genuine clarification.
Live Simply to Simply Live.
This is one of those rare phrases. It resonates with me as an individual but also seems valid when placed in an educational context. It is this educational context that I want to explore in this post.
We are currently experiencing a time of transformational educational change. The long held traditional structures and systems that have dominated and defined the learning experience for many decades are being questioned and challenged. It seems that for the foreseeable future this climate of change is likely to be constant and even accelerating.
Generally speaking this is a good thing as the world is also changing at a constant and ever increasing rate therefore if we want to provide relevant learning experiences that prepare our children for their futures then we have to try and keep pace with the changes that whirl around us. There is a danger however, that as we adapt and adopt we lose sight of what our primary focus is. We run the danger of believing that change for changes sake is enough and we run the risk of losing sight of what our primary focus should be.
We are in the most human of professions. Teaching is a vocation that exists, quite simply, to improve the lives of others. I would be prepared to bet that no one has ever returned to their old school to thank their old teacher for giving them a standardized test that changed their life but most teachers would have had an ex student return to thank them for being a powerful influence on their development. We deal with people and this should always be our primary focus.
It is possible that as we move towards attempting to meet the needs of an increasingly diverse community that we lose sight of this main focus or, as is more likely, that in a attempt to meet the needs of all we produce systems and structures that become overly complex and difficult to navigate.
Let me give two examples to explain how this could have already occurred.
We have come to the realization that a rigid timetable is not the most effective way of facilitating learning and yet we have clung to it despite its limitations. The most obvious reason for this is because it is a convenient and comparatively easy way of structuring the school day. Many of us would have been frustrated at some point of our careers when we have presented an innovative idea to out school management only to be told that, whilst it is a good idea, it won’t fit in with the demands of the timetable. A classic case of the ‘tail waging the dog,’ where the structure [in this case the timetable] is the’ tale’ that wags the learning ‘dog.’
If we remove that simple structure though and replace it with a more personalized and flexible approach to structuring the school day we run the risk of producing a very complex structure that is difficult to navigate and requires quite a bit of effort on the part of the learner to be in the right place at the right time. It can require too much in the way of decision making on the part of the learner and the risk is that this navigation of the structure takes time and energy away from the actual learning.
The challenge is to produce a timetable structure that allows for flexibility but is also straight forward. This is important as we want to keep structures and systems simple and easy to navigate so that our learners can focus their attention on their learning. In the same way we should be striving to implement straightforward and obvious systems and structures so that out educators spend less time explaining how we are operating a school or programme and have more time to focus their attention on the learning process and building academic relationships with their learners.
Our national assessment system [which I strongly support] provides another example. Our old system of School Certificate, University Bursary etc. was a comparatively simple assessment system. You sat an exam and received a percentage mark back, you either passed or failed. Easy, but also quite secretive in its methods of operation and not at all transparent. It also failed to accurately measure anything more than writing and memory skills in any meaningful way. So we introduced NCEA which is a far more transparent and flexible system that allows for a variety of ways of assessing skills and knowledge [including exams]. All good, but in dong so we have also created a very complex assessment system, one that is increasingly difficult to fully understand and one that requires planning on the part of the learner to navigate effectively. Often learners are choosing courses based on the assessment requirements rather than the learning. The challenge we have is to produce an assessment system that allows learners to focus on their learning and skill acquisition nor just how to successfully plan a path through a multitude of assessment opportunities.
In our commendable desire to provide opportunities for all we run the risk of producing confusing and complex responses. If possible we need to keep it simple in structure so that the learning can be deep and the thinking complex. This is why I prefer to have a school day that is divided into three large chunks of time and therefore easy to follow and navigate. Within those large chunks you provide opportunities for a variety of activities and groupings. You personalize at that level so that appropriate challenges are faced by the learners and the focus is firmly on their learning development.
Keep the overall structure simple and then hopefully we can enable the learning to be complex.