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Maintaing the Optimism
02-27-2016, 11:15 AM
Post: #1
Maintaing the Optimism
Thinking about the readings and discussions in the third workshop caused me to reflect on my experiences and observations of school education over the years, both as a learner and as a teacher. It is interesting for me to see the changes in the conceptualisation of teaching and learning in classrooms influenced by political rhetoric, social attitudes, new ideas and trends and various interpretations of academic research.

My schooling began at a time when the transmission approach was accepted as the way schools went about their daily business. My experience as a student, in both primary and secondary school, was sitting at individual desks facing the teacher and blackboard, where I was presented with what was considered important knowledge. My classmates and I duly listened, answered questions when cued and completed tasks as instructed. We expected nothing else.

In those days, classrooms were often quiet spaces as students worked individually on set tasks. Interaction between teachers and students was very much of the “Initiation / Reply / Evaluation” style, with most of the talking done by teachers as they delivered to us what was deemed to be important knowledge. Questions from students were never encouraged. Parents rarely entered the school grounds, all play was outside – whether it was cold and raining or 100 degrees Fahrenheit, and student reports were issued at the end of terms with the first focus on the ‘place in class’ rating. There were clear expectations of the level of learning students were required to reach by the end of each ‘grade’ and reading ability was ascertained against capacity to read stories and answer comprehension questions using standardised ‘basal readers’. Passing English and Maths at each year level was vitally important. Numbers and scores were really important, with scores out of 10, or out of 100, telling parents and students how they ranked on the ‘smartness’ scale. Those who didn’t reach the ‘benchmark’ each year were ‘kept down’ to have another try the next year. Legal school leaving age was 13 years.

I find myself thinking now about how such practices position learners. When I reflect on my own progress through school, I can see how I positioned myself. I readily adopted the empty vessel mantle for myself, taking the attitude that teachers and adults had the knowledge that was worth knowing and that if I listened to them, I too would become knowledgeable in time. Taking on this mantle was made all the more easy as being female immediately cast me into a non-dominant role, which presented little tension for me as I was also an avid reader of Enid Blyton novels. The stories I encountered within those pages reinforced the ideals that the males led and the females followed, important jobs were done by men while women looked after the home, parents – particularly fathers, possessed wisdom and children were apprentice adults. Indeed, thinking back on it, most of the books I read at the time perpetuated the beliefs that parents/adults/teachers knew and children/students acquired all the knowledge needed to become successful adults from them through attentive, respectful listening. Religious influences, which really framed my learning environment, contributed to the ease with which I accepted the role of unquestioning, absorbing, apprentice of learning. It supported the notion that I came to school- and church-learning knowing nothing of any significance and would gradually learn and appreciate the ‘truths’ (that is, anything worth knowing) from knowledgeable others. In fact, I believe that I continued to view myself, and my role as a learner from this perspective all the way through my secondary and tertiary education.

The next time I can remember noticing teaching and learning environments and relationships in schools was around the late 1970’s early 1980’s when I noticed that things had changed. Rows of desks had been replaced by table groups, students frequently faced each other rather than always looking at the teacher, blackboards had become white boards, students could work together during lessons and teachers had moved more into a supportive, nurturing role, rather than a wise dispensers of knowledge. In this different environment, students engaged in a much broader range of activities than I had ever known in the classroom and individual progress was considered the norm. Passing and failing no longer appeared in the rhetoric or on the school reports, with teacher comments considered valuable signs of student engagement with learning and feeling of belonging at school and in the classroom. Students we no longer overtly ranked into achievement order within their own classes and parents actually entered the school grounds on a regular basis. A wide range of books were incorporated into teaching of reading and a greater range text types were included in the teaching of writing. ‘Speaking and listening’ was now talked about as part of literacy teaching and learning.

The classroom seemed a softer, kinder place to be. Such an environment was friendly towards social learning, sharing of knowledge became the norm and students were encouraged into conversations about a range of topics, including asking questions and relating their own experiences. Schools and classrooms developed into communities of learning where a wide range of activities were considered valuable learning, and teaching approaches such as The Tribes Approach appeared and flourished. Acceptable demonstrations of valuable learning extended beyond English (now Literacy) and Maths (now Numeracy), with a plethora of ‘new’ subjects appearing in the secondary curriculum. In fact, I left university ‘qualified’ to teach subjects that didn’t even exist in the VCE curriculum when I was at school. Multiple ‘forms’ of Intelligences and a range of taxonomies entered common teaching and learning rhetoric and practice. In retrospect, I suppose I was noticing the effects of changed ideas and attitudes after ‘think tanks’ like Dartmouth 1966.

Then along came standardisation and continuous, mandated, centralised testing.

Living and working through the various iterations of sets of standards and centralised tests, I witnessed a vast change in the teaching and learning landscape. Language in politics, the media, teaching, PD’s and classrooms rapidly evolved into talk of education for jobs, international rankings, failing schools, linear progression points, teacher quality and education as a saleable commodity. Australia’s world ranking in international testing was held up as ‘the’ indicator of the ‘success of our education system’ and teachers seemed to be held directly and solely responsible for ‘our failing system’. The teaching and learning space took on yet another persona.

Numbers and scores again became highly important in defining student learning. The quality of schools and teachers was measured according to scores and rated against one another. Direct relationships were sought between student/school scores and individual teacher quality. Rubrics were introduced for all marking of student work and every feature of learning was required to be ‘numeralised’. As one principal told me: “If we can’t measure it, we don’t do it!” Teachers were continually required to produce evidence of adequate performance in a number of areas and a National Curriculum was formulated, changed and changed again as it was ‘rolled out’ to all schools. Some researchers presented formulae for ‘quality teachers’ to apply to guarantee improved student outcomes. Students were regularly tested using various externally designed ‘tests’ to yield scores that were shared with them so “they could see how much they had learnt and what they had to learn next”. In an increasing number of schools, more and more time was devoted to NAPLAN preparation with mock testing implemented and the selected writing genre the teaching focus. Student and teacher anxiety around NAPLAN implementation and results appeared to rise year by year.

Some teachers, including me, began to question critically how their conceptualisation of teaching, learning and education fits with the dominant, contemporary rhetoric. There appears to be a quest for ‘sameness’ that runs counter to the increasing diversity in Australian schools. This quest appears to be promoting, even expecting, that all classrooms and all teaching will look the same, using the ‘proven’ formula for lesson presentation, identical content, and assessment through identical tasks where student performance is measured using ‘scientific’, fool proof tables. Teacher professional judgement fades as a concept, while ‘proof of learning’ - as encapsulated in numerical scores - sits centrally and in sharp focus.

So, where does that leave me in the teaching and learning landscape?
Often floating somewhere between despair and optimism, I think.
It’s tempting to become overwhelmed by constant talk of proof, scores, evidence, performance and failing, but then I remember that I’ve watched pendulums swing and circles turn and I know that the motion will continue. That is not to say that I am sitting around waiting for another ‘Dartmouth moment’. I’m not!
Upon reflection, I believe there have always been those who sail down the wide, middle lane, living and breathing the rhetoric of the day. But there have also always been those who continually explore around the boundaries of contemporary constraints – constructing, trialling and reconstructing; questioning themselves and assumptions as they create opportunities and enjoy learning moments. I recognise that there have always been those who seek a magic recipe for ‘the’ perfect answer and those who strive to develop their own recipes and keep modifying them.

As I participate in STELLA 2.0, I learn from other teachers, hear what they’re doing in their classrooms and how they understand teaching and learning. Seeing how teachers continue to be creative in their daily work, how they develop strong, positive interactions with their students, so willingly share their experiences and truly celebrate learning keeps me feeling positive about English teaching. My learning in those workshops reinforces the feelings of optimism I experience when I listen to teachers share their practice at conferences and I learn about ways they continue to be creative in their teaching. Seeking such experiences helps me remain optimistic about possibilities available in teaching and learning, and about being a teacher.
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03-19-2016, 10:59 PM
Post: #2
RE: Maintaing the Optimism
This is a special piece of writing-a chronicle of decades spent devoted to a learning landscape. I love that line: "the classroom seemed a softer, kinder place to be". I too remember that time, with fondness and a tinge of melancholia. I wonder if we will ever be able to recreate it. Thanks, Helen, for sharing your experience, observations, concerns, wisdom and hopes.
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