Friday, April 20, 2012

School Visit 2&3

Now that I am back in New Zealand I finally have the time to reflect on the notes I wrote about my last 2 school visits in the UK. I decided to visit a secondary school while there, which may seem irrelevant to other primary school teachers as a tool for my learning, but I believe that if we are looking at the 'whole child' as we claim to be, then we need the 'whole picture' - from the beginning of their school-life to the end of the system as we know it in Year 13.

I visited a lovely all-boys school in Epsom, Surrey and spent the morning in the maths department with a teacher who is in my PLN on Twitter. We had been communicating about what I wanted to look at and it was really interesting to see a maths lesson with Year 8 children, a short session of problem-solving with Year 13 boys and then a tour around the ICT department to see what is happening there. It ended with a great meeting with one of his colleagues, comparing notes and picking each others' brains.

There is still a separation of technology and eLearning in this school and from what the teachers said, there is still a real separation everywhere. It shows me how far ahead many NZ schools actually are in their thinking and also in the very intentional way that we teach the Key Competencies.

In our discussions, we talked about how all secondary schools the world over are really 'hands-tied' a lot of the time. We HAVE to have some benchmark for achievement, an exam system of some kind that is standardised otherwise we have no way of differentiating between knowledge in learners. All parents and teachers understand this. What is different however, is the fact that most secondary teachers want MORE than 'just' exams - in other words, they are tired of 'talk and chalk' and seek ways to develop a broader set of life skills in each learner. How then, can they achieve this if the curriculum is so rigid and often archaeic?

The boys' school that I went to seem to be embracing 21st Century learning in their own way. Some teachers in the maths department have set up a blog - as a way for their students to reflect on their personal learning. The HOD has also used Google Forms to create an evaluation sheet for his students to fill in but it is not about their learning - he has done this so that the students can comment on and critique his teaching. What a powerful way to get older students to be in control of the learning and also to give them ownership. I was really impressed by that.

I was also impressed to see that other departments and teachers of other subjects were actually massively utilising the ICT in the school. When I walked around the students were incredibly engaged when using the computers. There was a Year 9 science class working on revision - the teacher had set up a session for them where they were using online tools to find information and then create a brainstorm of keywords which they then turned into a wordfind for a partner.

There was another science lesson in the library using the computers and laptops to investigate the heating and cooling process. Again, the student engagement was astounding. In one of the main ICT labs there was a Year 12 class who were designing a website using specific criteria from a brief and were using DreamWeaver to make this. This class was all internally assessed for the work and the teacher talked passionately to me about her learners and their motivation.

I found it interesting that they had worked to increase all of their computer labs to have 1:1 devices. Although the students were talking to those around them about their challenges and learning, all of the work was individual and required no collaboration at all.

In the classrooms in the UK, it appears that most schools have an interactive whiteboard now which only the teacher uses. I find this interesting because instead of it being 'talk and chalk' it is more like 'interactive pen and talk' if the students are not using the boards at all. However, there is a lot more creativity around the boards uses and the teachers are able to accurately demonstrate lines and graphs in maths and so on.

All in all, I was left with some interesting conclusions. Secondary school - or Years 7-13 in NZ - are left in a unique position. They must prepare students for exams but they must also build on the foundations of the primary years. This would seem to be easier than it is being made in many ways, since the exam years are ONLY the last 3 years of those 13. Why then, does secondary school become so entrenched in putting students in boxes and testing, testing, testing? There has never been a move to change this process so that assessment is more important than input in and output out, with no reward for the ability to think, problem-solve, problem-create, collaborate, self-manage, be resilient and flexible etc. There are many vibrant and enthusiastic secondary school teachers, however, who do place equal weighting on these skills as well as the knowledge.

It is rather like our maths curriculum in primary school here, which emphasises knowledge AND strategy - in other words, looking at the whole learning process rather than just knowledge. I do wonder when we will ever develop this process as an integral part of our years outside primary school...

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