Beyond reason: the argument for the holistic
By Kelvin Smythe
Beyond reason: the argument for the holistic
I have yet to confront the Hattie matter, before I do, I want to circle a bit. In effect, though, throughout this posting, my concerns with Hattie provide the binding thread. [This was the opening paragraph when the item was first posted in early 2009.]
[An opening paragraph for the reposting (August. 2010) might read:
This posting was first put up in early 2009 as a preliminary to my direct analyses of John Hattie's academic and polemic trickiness. With the NZPF executive now lined up with the rest of us, I want to direct attention to the main national standards' issue: saving the New Zealand curriculum. What Tolley and Hattie have done is redefine the curriculum as literacy and numeracy and the narrow, measurable parts. That is why the previous posting was a re-run of an earlier posting ('The battle for primary school reading'); it is also why some other previous postings on the curriculum will be put up, and some new ones written. I urge that saving the New Zealand curriculum be the main item on the agenda in national standards' issue.]
The main question in this posting is: Are we going to allow the academic and bureaucratic technicists, atomisers, and testers to take over the education world or, even worse, simply inherit it? Learning is more than reason and logic – we all know that – why then do we allow our children, our schools, and soon ourselves (performance pay) to be judged on reason alone and, in particular, on those parts of reasoning that lend themselves to measurement. We allow our children to be judged on technical, measurable parts of reading and maths, and other curriculum areas, as if those technical, measurable parts in themselves are sufficient for evaluating in those curriculum areas and, in total, represent a complete education.
On the basis of the posting’s title, I am concerned that some will dismiss this posting as being about something nice but nebulous – about something that is an add-on if teachers have the time, inclination, or ability to concern themselves with such matters. I want to directly challenge that view through a recognition that the affective, the aesthetic, the symbolic, the intuitive, and so on, are at the heart of successful classrooms, not at the periphery; and that a clear recognition of their role could be the missing link for some teachers, indeed for the system as a whole. I want to demonstrate that such affective qualities are well-grounded; that an important step in their direction is as simple and elegant as teaching to a main aim and transforming objectives into criteria (adventurous criteria) and, in the course of a series of activities while pursuing the main aim, teachers noting (mainly in their mind) interesting behaviours by individual children in relation to those criteria. What is nebulous about that? There is more, of course, but that is a crucial first step. There is also nothing nebulous about the transformative learning experiences for children that occur from time-to-time; all teachers have had such experiences in their teaching: teachers could have stumbled onto them, the opportunities could have presented themselves, or things could have been set up to increase the likelihood of such experiences occurring. Whatever – the important thing is an appreciation of the importance of such experiences in sustaining and deepening children’s learning, and that such experiences are at the apex of holistic learning.
This posting is a plea to those who recognise our education system is out of kilter to do what they can help to protect the ideals of holistic education. The task, I know, is difficult, because there is very strong institutional pressure from politicians, the review office, aspects of university functioning, certain academics in particular, aspects of the advisory service, and aspects of the board of trustee system for schools to submit to tight testing and assessment arrangements, with tightly organised teaching and personnel arrangements to match.
The focus in this posting is on the nature of holistic education – that is, education that encompasses the duality of reasoning and feeling, the cognitive and the affective, the rational and the non-rational – because, it is argued, holistic education is fundamental to a complete and humanising education. As well, holistic education, if it is understood and accepted by the education system, also has the important characteristic of placing a fair amount of learning out of the reach of the testers and atomisers, thereby giving more status and power to those in schools which, in itself, further bolsters holistic education. To carry out this focus on the nature of holistic education, particular attention is paid to the ideas of John Dewey as foundation theorist for holistic education.
As evidence that holistic education is a significant part of New Zealand education, and assuming that my writings on education are within that holistic education tradition, I make regular references to three publications I produced in the ‘90s: a booklet on developmental teaching and learning; a booklet on social studies; and a magazine for teachers (1990-1999). The use of those references is intended to reinforce the idea that that the holistic duality has for long been part of what we do, and to demonstrate that it is comfortably attainable. There is attention to the way the affective needs to be grounded in detail and reality; the nature of true problem solving; the benefits of basing teaching on main aims rather than objectives; the need to provide ample ‘space’ for children (that is space within activities for the divergent; and space in the form of time within programmes overall) if we want them to be creative and imaginative; the importance of the intuitive in teaching and learning; the importance of feeling and sensing, as well as knowing and saying; the importance of teachers showing sensitivity about when to intervene and when not to intervene in children’s thinking; and, related to that, the importance of teachers not unthinkingly pressing children to verbalise.
In this posting I call on Martin Thrupp for a quote that points to the dodgy basis of the ‘effectiveness and improvement’ school of research – the school of research Hattie is part of, and which provides aid and comfort to review office functioning, and nearly all contemporary official testing and curriculum policies. (Thrupp, I hasten to add, would not have been thinking of Hattie when he wrote this, though he was definitely thinking of the review office.) I also call on Jim Neyland to stir us to be more courageous in our work in schools. And, in the search for ways to re-establish holistic approaches in classrooms, one official growth point is referred to: the second competency – ‘Using language, symbols, and text’.
I address in this posting the difficult task of convincing the doubters, the unsure, or the perplexed, that human experience involves elements beyond our intellectual control. I want to convince those people that just teaching children how to read, write, and recall, is not enough; that what makes teachers memorable and schooling satisfying requires feeling as well as knowing; that if we want to prepare children properly for life we need to involve them in deeply transformative experiences. All right – good – necessary first step: we’ve taught children to read, write, and recall, but without the right affective context, without the intrinsically-driven motivation, without the curiosity, without the ability or willingness to respond intuitively to experience, without the sense of wonder and excitement about learning, how is that reading, writing, and recall to be sustained let alone deepened into something rich and imaginative? It won’t be, it will wither on the vine. In Semiotics in Mathematics Education, Luis Radford agrees. He notes how knowledge has been reduced to a commodity then adds, ‘This fetishist corruption of learning operates a separation between knowing and being and ends up favouring an alienating form of being.’ (p. 13) [Luis Radford is a lecturer in mathematics education at Laurentian University, Canada. His book is Radford, L., Schubring, G., & Seeger, F. (Eds.) (2008) Semiotics in Mathematics Education. Sense Publishers.]
The argument in this posting will be will be that worthwhile experiences require more than control and rationality; that a concentration on conscious control will obstruct rather than facilitate education experience. We need, I argue, to take into account planned and unplanned processes, logic and intuition, and reasoning and sense. We need to build anticipation into our teaching so that what happens becomes highly significant. We also need, I argue, to give children a central role in determining the meaning and value of experience.
Such words might sound fine, but how practicable and important is the kind of education they point too? I make three particular responses: First, in reference to the statement in the previous paragraph about ‘just teaching children how to read, write, and recall’ I would say attention to the affective makes this easier to do and when ‘done’ more sustainable as a process and more life-sustaining as an effect; second, I mention above how I regularly use in this posting three of my publications from the ‘90s – what I found interesting was that in applying the ideas of Dewey and other supporting theorists backwards to the publications, I found many parts of the publications were consistent with their ideas, and they were the parts that worked best in theory and practice; and, finally, if you, like me, complain about the shallowness you see in the society around you, surely it is incumbent on us to do something about it – and that something I suggest is involving children in an education that is rich in transformative experiences.
If the technicists want to test and research our children, our schools, and ourselves, then they should tell us what learning theories they are basing that testing and research on. Most New Zealand teachers don’t want the technicists’ ‘effectiveness and improvement’ research which is based on downplaying the effect of social context on learning; selecting a narrow part of the curriculum; breaking it into small parts; teaching those small parts; testing those small parts (who cares about the Hawthorne effect says Hattie in ‘Influence on student learning’, Inaugural Lecture, August,1999.); big surprise – the children can repeat some of the stuff back; announcing this as the latest learning (or as accompanied Hattie’s research findings – ‘the holy grail of learning’), selling the idea to rightwing politicians (as often happens), then benefiting from it in expression of power or, even, sometimes income. Meanwhile, we and the children are at the butt end of this madness, this impoverishment of the human spirit, this search for aggrandisement (as I see it) by politicians, bureaucrats, and academics at the expense of our freedom and the well-being of our society.
We, on the holistic side of the learning theory debate, are willing to concede the significance of Piagetian ideas on logico-mathematical reasoning; but we call on John Dewey as our foundation theorist to provide the balance. His ideas on the aesthetic philosophy, the transformative powers of the compelling experience, and the way he integrates both the rational and non-rational, express our conception of education. For Dewey, the rational and non-rational combine for the holistic, form the unity of two, and, together complete the human experience. As a result, it is not a matter of one being more important than the other but of being complementary. [The main book by Dewey referred to here is Dewey, J. (1934) Art as experience. New York: Dover.]
We make our stand here: base your testing and research on the duality of the rational and the non-rational or go to blazes.
We want any testing or research to take into account such qualities as the non-rational, the aesthetic, the evocative, the non-verbal, the engagement of anticipation, the intuitive, the unconscious, and the compelling transformative experience. We want testers and researchers to take into account children’s sensing or feeling for a situation – a sensing or feeling that avoids the situation becoming an object of their reflection, engagement of anticipation. And if you can’t do this get out of our light. We don’t think you can, even more significantly, we don’t think you want to; we don’t think you want to, because evaluating such qualities is something only teachers, or those close to teachers, can do. We think you favour a technicist view of education, because that can be done from an office, in other words, requires no real understanding of how classrooms work and learning occurs.
In Developmental Network Newsletter I wrote that this [child-centred] learning theory ‘puts teachers in a position of power because no academically or commercially devised series of activities or tests can anticipate adequately the variety of children’s responses. That is why teachers’ observations should be central to a well-based evaluation process. When observational evaluation is low in status, so too will be that of teachers.’ (1994, 3, 19) In a later Developmental Network Newsletter I said teachers should feel confident ‘about their intuitive judgement of children’s behaviours – after all, intuition at its best, is judgement based on a combination of extensive observation, knowledge gained from this, and a holistic, emotional feel for what is occurring.’ (1995, 2, 30) [Developmental Network Newsletter was a publication I put out for ten years from 1990-1999 to help promote and protect New Zealand’s child-centred, holistic education. In its heyday nearly every primary school purchased it. Copies of articles referred to are available on request.]
And, as if answering the kind of detrimental education challenge Hattie is posing our schools, but was written 20 years ago in my booklet Developmental Teaching and Learning, I said, ‘ A searching attitude towards research is a necessary attribute in those involved in developmental teaching. Confidence in developmental can take a buffeting from the kind of research which, in the drive for reducing variables, establishes artificial teaching situations, narrows the scope of a part of education, then presents the results as if derived from … the whole … of education. Such research invariably underestimates attitudinal learning, because of the difficulty in evaluating it.’ (p. 9) [Developmental Teaching and Learning (1990) is a 55-page booklet I published to support courses I took around New Zealand to protect and promote the developmental philosophy. A limited number of copies are free on request.]
I go on to say ‘that academics should in their comments and research analyses, show a greater awareness of the challenges children bring to school, and the difficult conditions under which teachers work. Teachers have to teach all children … on a continuous basis, in an increasingly unsympathetic social climate. Academics should look carefully at the balance in their comments and analyses as a precaution against slipping into a position of exploitively building their status at the expense of teachers and children.’ (p. 13)
Support for this message to academics is found in Martin Thrupp’s outstanding book Schools Making a Difference: Let’s be Realistic! – a book which adds up to a devastating critique of the ‘effectiveness and improvement’ school of education research within which Hattie has now become the prime New Zealand example. Thrupp, discussing the behaviour of those within the ‘effectiveness and improvement’ school of thought, says ‘A general lesson to be learned from this literature is the critical importance of the politics of research. Today’s E & I researchers need to consider the worst possible outcomes of their work and act accordingly. In some cases this may involve turning down funding for projects which are tied to potentially dubious ends. Too often researchers appear to have expected a sympathetic response from policy makers. At present this is probably a good recipe for supporting the politics of polarisation and blame.’ (p. 192) [Martin Thrupp is professor of education at the University of Waikato. His book is Thrupp, M. (1999) Schools making a difference. Let’s be realistic! Philadelphia: Open University Print.]
It is my view that education psychologists have a lot to offer in helping us understand children’s learning but only when they stay at the more theoretical level; when they try to translate what they know to the classroom level they reveal feet of clay. Our foundation theorist Dewey knew this and wove his ideas into a complex pattern and established an ambiguity that resisted simplistic interpretations and easy application to the classroom. In this way he avoided the comical but insidious efforts of people like Hattie who have striven to make themselves relevant, class-level practical, also to sell themselves to politicians and bureaucrats.
My reading of education psychologists who function at the theoretical level provides substantial support to the importance of a holistic approach to learning. For instance, John Bargh’s ideas point to how our non-conscious reactions may be contrary to our conscious, rational thinking. (For instance, in ‘The unbearable automacity of being’. American Psychologist, 54(7), 462-479.) In other words, children may be saying and writing one thing, but their non-conscious thinking may be to the contrary. That would come as no surprise to teachers, but where does this place our academic testers? [John Bargh is a professor of psychology at Yale.]
Then there is the matter of the engagement of children’s interest. K. Ann Renninger’s work explains why interest that emerges spontaneously from the environment is undervalued because of the priority education systems place on order and control. (For instance in Renninger, K. A., Hidi, S., & Krapp. A. (1992) The role of interest in learning and development. Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum.) The most worthwhile kind of interest, she says, is interest that emerges from something intrinsic to the learner and is managed by the learner. Hattie, on the basis of his research, criticises individualised teaching (see any of Hattie’s research writings) – but what kind of individualised teaching is the research based on? American, individualised workbook- type, I wager. I would ask Hattie to look at some postings on this web site for New Zealand-style individualised teaching, for instance, ‘Teacher Diary’ 1-7, any of the other postings on Elwyn Richardson, ‘… and the rabbit bobs past’, also, as an illustration of nascent individualised teaching (but nipped in the bud), ‘Reuben and WALTS’.
The role of emotion in learning should be far more than considering how children are feeling about themselves or their performance (which NEMP does valuably and very well); it should extend to such things as including the feeling the learner has for a difficult text, the symbolic significance of something, or how an idea might connect with the learner’s world. This brings into play concern for the role of objectives: they might give learning direction and energy and some security for the teacher, but they can also hinder the learner’s feeling for what is being experienced. This issue is at the heart of the dilemma in the posting on this web site, ‘Reuben and WALTS’. The concern here is with the transformative experience and the way an emphasis on the conscious, on a desire for control, and on self-awareness, can obstruct such an experience.
A reading of Dewey and the like-minded Eisner makes clear an important idea about holistic education: the limitations that an emphasis on what is already known, the intentional, and the rational can place on learning. How can children be inspired, creative, come up with new ideas, see the familiar as strange, and the strange as familiar, if learning is tightly controlled? We need the children to have space to have intuitions, feelings, especially feelings that have a sense of immanence about a matter in which there is deep engagement. In other words, space is available for children to develop a sense of anticipation, a feeling that a solution is possible for something that is perplexing them. (Elliot Eisner – emeritus professor of art and education at Stanford University – argues that the distinctive forms of thinking needed to create artistically crafted work are relevant to virtually all aspects of what we do, from the design of curricula, to the practice of teaching.)
For Dewey, the education aesthetic was grounded in detail and reality; it was not a case of the affective building on the affective; it was a duality of reality and the affective. And that is how we should approach well-based teaching and learning. In expressive writing, visual arts, drama, for instance, the main aim should always be that the expression is sincere, truthful. When we read a child’s writing we should ask ourselves what evidence there is to show the child was deeply engaged in thinking about the subject of the writing; whether the way the child responded to the subject was expressed truthfully; whether the child cared enough about the truthfulness of that expression to search for just the right word to convey that response; and whether the child cared enough to want to convey that response with clarity and fluency. (The terms ‘clarity’ and ‘fluency’, holistically encompass all the technical demands of writing.) The detail and reality, after being taken in and processed through the child’s sensibilities, will be expressed at various levels of abstraction, but with the test of sincerity and truthfulness remaining constant.
Another curriculum example that demonstrates the way reality and detail can form a dynamic interaction with the affective is in my booklet The Feeling for Approach for Successful Social Studies. (This approach to social studies predominated in primary schools in the ‘90s, to be marginalised by the officially promoted ‘enquiry learning’.) The main aim was to develop in children a sympathetic and valid understanding of their own and other people’s way of life by helping children to understand, appreciate, and be at ease with individual and cultural difference. And the main way to achieve this was to involve the children in activities that helped them to recognise the underlying similarity in all human behaviour. The way to get children close to the lives of people, to develop a feeling for them, was for them to gain information, any information, about their daily lives. The stuff of social studies was everyday occurrences, because what people do regularly is a tangible expression of their values. Through a series of activities in a learning process, the children came to recognise that while people have different ways of doing things, underlying purposes are similar. In this way a human bond was established and a way to come to terms with difference. The important point here, once again, is that the affective response was grounded on detail and reality. [The Feeling for Approach for Successful Social Studies (1991) is a 64-page booklet I published to promote an holistic approach to social studies. A few copies are available to researchers and those with a particular interest in social studies.]
My observation is that under bureaucratic pressure from the review office, especially in relation to testing and assessment procedures, classrooms are becoming less spontaneous and more emotionally arid. One of the ironies of present-day primary education is that the review office’s attention to its perception of a ‘balanced curriculum’, with its concentration on curriculum time allocation, has meant the crucial holistic balance between reasoning and the affective has become decidedly unbalanced. In language experience, for instance, there is definitely evidence of language present (though often limited in scope) but where is the experience, the experience that deeply engages children? This links to Dewey’s argument for the need for children to be involved in problem solving. Dewey is not an easy theorist to understand which, for me, has its advantages because it engages the reader to think imaginatively about the possible meanings intended. It is clear, though, that Dewey did not mean the teacher should set up a series of problems for the children to solve, for instance, how to increase the amount of recycling, or how to improve road safety, or why water evaporates. Nor did it mean that after superficial consideration, the children coming up with their own problems.
For a start, Dewey made it clear that the problems to be solved needed to develop intrinsically. As a result, I have a simple rule of thumb for when children are involved in problem solving: if children are highly curious, deeply engaged, they are problem solving; that means something has caught their attention and they have made it clear by their deep engagement they want to get to the bottom of whatever it is. What the problem to be solved is might not be clear, but it is clear they are trying to find the answer to something. I would check, though, to see that the experience, whatever it turns out to be, has the capacity for development, for an unfolding of learning. And when I talk of deep engagement I mean much more than children being interested and willing to work industriously, even enthusiastically.
Now to return to language experience: when that is being undertaken, as for much learning in general, time should be available to provide the children with the chance to develop deep engagement to increase the likelihood of them responding holistically, creatively, and imaginatively. This space in the form of time is an essential element of holistic learning.
Attention to the philosophical setting is suggested as another important element in holistic learning. In the ‘feeling for’ approach to social studies, for instance, without the main aim ever being overtly revealed, the children became involved in activities in which they sensed that something philosophical was at stake, and it was – it was about how humans can live together in peace and tolerance. In mathematics the philosophical question might be how the world can be understood through mathematics; in science about the interdependence of the universe; or, in expressive activities about how to undertake those activities truthfully.
My writing over a number of decades provides, I think, an expression of the holistic and child-centred characteristics of a particular tradition in New Zealand education. In Developmental Teaching and Learning I say that, ‘Developmental is based on a holistic view of learning. Holistic learning is seen as learning that solves problems for children, and connects with existing learning to reconstruct experience. As a result, holistic learning can be defined as learning that is cognitively and affectively significant, and, in some circumstances, especially for younger children, physically significant.’ (p. 11)
An important way to provide space for holistic teaching and learning, I wrote, is to teach to a main aim or aims. Specific objectives and behavioural objectives (and the current variation of these WALTS) are generally unhelpful to holistic teaching. ‘The essence of behavioural objectives [and the like] is that their attainment is clearly observable following any teaching. However, the most important parts of learning are usually not immediately observable in this way.’ (p. 12). My suggestion is to teach to aims, have the children pursue those aims by participating in a number of activities, and have a range of criteria to choose from for observational evaluation of individual children’s responses.
The relationship between teaching to a main aim and holistic learning is subtle but persuasive. The use of a main aim for organising learning provides cohesiveness to the selection and implementation of activities which, in turn, leads to an increased likelihood of strong momentum in learning. This momentum is important in establishing the holistic characteristics of a sense of anticipation, a sense of events unfolding, a sense of meaning being progressively revealed. A main aim, instead of a number of objectives, encourages teachers to choose activities that will require children to employ a range of skills and behaviours which helps in observational evaluation. As well, the richness and cohesiveness of the activities will more fully engage children and allow teachers to have a less noticeable classroom presence. A main aim, in being broader than objectives, means it is more likely to encompass the affective, providing space for the divergent to emerge in learning, and time for the affective to accrue. The broader scope of a main aim also means children will be encouraged to look more widely and freely in their search for detail and information. And, because the objectives have been transformed into criteria, observational evaluation is provided with a more assured place, encouraging teachers to use their imagination and intuition in evaluating the imagination and intuition of children. Finally, acting on the main aim in relationship to holistic learning establishes an environment conducive to the transformative learning experience.
I also say that, ‘A clear distinction should be made between teaching and learning. Teachers teach: children learn. A teacher may teach something to a class of children with something particular in mind; what the children in the class learn, however, will be different for each child, and from the something particular the teacher had in mind.’ (p. 11) How we respond to that difference in thinking is important. We could force a conventional response on a child who may repeat it back to us without believing in it or understanding it; we could spend some time getting the child closer to believing in, and understanding, the conventional response (which is a legitimate teaching decision, and the most common); or we could respond to that difference as a starting point for creative and imaginative thinking. An inspiring example of sensitivity to children’s immanent and developing thinking is Elwyn Richardson’s exquisite and sometimes agonised reflections on how and when to intervene in children’s learning (refer to the networkonnet postings: ‘Teacher Diary’ 1-7; the 11-part ‘Elwyn Richardson – Lessons to be learned’; ‘Elwyn today’; or directly from his book ‘In the Early World).
This matter of being sensitive to children’s conscious and unconscious thinking; when to press for its articulation; and when to let it be – is further referred to when I wrote ‘Children should be provided with opportunities to shape their learning to meet developmental needs they both intuitively feel and consciously recognise. These choices relate not only to the substance of what they learn but also to how it is learnt.’ (p. 7) An important part of that choice I go on to say ‘is the choice for children to work at a pace they feel comfortable with. A difficulty for children in much class and group teaching is that the need for quick thinking gets in the way of deep thinking; and teachers’ and other children’s thinking gets in the way of children doing their own thinking. Other people’s thinking can be a spark, but it can also be an extinguisher.’ (p 20)
Elsewhere in that publication I wrote that we ‘do not know enough about how children learn, nor are we clear enough on what they can or should learn (given the constant tension between child-centred, society-centred views of education) to divide up curriculum areas based on the assumption that the sum of the parts can, in the end, be made a satisfying whole for children.’ (p.7) I go on to say ‘Teachers should be aware that the complexity of children’s cognitive-affective processes means there are limitations on the knowledge available to establish the precise way children think and feel …’ (p. 9)
In my booklet Successful Social Studies I wrote that any objectives chosen, or ideas, or concepts ‘should not serve to organise information in a restrictive way. All the topics are broader than the main ideas – particularly when children’s ideas are considered a major learning resource. Any information that helps to develop a feeling for people should be sought or used.’ (p. 13) And in recognition of giving children time to mull over information taken in I wrote that ‘An important characteristic of the activity-based approach being advocated is that when activities are undertaken, any discussion of their outcomes is usually delayed … This delay allows children to turn over in their minds, consciously and unconsciously, the information gained so that cognitive accommodation is enhanced and a higher level of discussion, in which all children can participate, made more likely.’ (p. 28)
The following are ideas for developing holistic teaching and learning:
Think of teaching as the opportunity for children to be subject to the transformative power of the compelling experience
See holistic teaching as the complementary combination of the rational and the non-rational, the cognitive and the affective
Consider how non-verbal forms such as symbolism, tone, rhythm, sequence, pattern, juxtaposition, and harmony can be part of teaching
Carry over what we know about children’s learning in the arts to other learning
Create learning which unfolds like a narrative
Develop a sense of anticipation in learning
Develop a vocabulary and other means to express the sense and feeling of anticipation
Make available more time, for whatever it is that is being taught, to provide the space for spontaneity to occur and imagination and creativity to take hold
See affective learning as grounded in detail and reality
See valid abstraction is developed through focused particularity
Recognise that the best way for learning to be affectively significant is for it to be cognitively significant; and the best way for it to be cognitively significant is it to be affectively significant
Proceed on the assumption that if the children are deeply engaged, highly curious, they are problem solving
Establish a philosophical setting for your curriculum areas and use these as the basis for main aims
Rather than using sets of objectives to teach to, teach to a main aim or main aims, with criteria available to choose from for observational evaluation
Emphasise informal observation in evaluation of children’s responses
Recognise that a useful stem for setting out criteria can be: Children’s willingness and ability to …
Recognise that the holistic way to develop skills is by involving children in a range of activities that move them toward the main aim or aims
When observing children take into account the evocative, the non-verbal, the engagement of anticipation, the intuitive, the non-conscious, and the sensing or feeling for a situation
Resist the inclination to immediately involve children in justifying and explaining thinking and feeling
Recognise that if a question is a good question it will be an even better activity
Proceed on the basis that learning is about feeling and sensing, as well as knowing and saying
Rather than using the enquiry learning structure presently in vogue, use the long-established and well-proven one (as demonstrated in the ‘feeling for’ approach) of an introduction; developing understanding (which is the key part of the structure and the one that needs plenty of time to develop); expressing understanding; and conclusion
Often use the non-evaluative technique in receiving children’s responses
Use open-ended activities, for instance, if you have displayed sets of three pictures for an odd-one-out activity, first, word your question carefully, ‘Which one do you think is the odd one out; second, make sure the children know the pictures for the sets have been chosen at random; third, make sure that there are no right answers, just plenty of opportunity for imaginative ones; fourth, make sure you are clear in your mind that the main aim of the activity is for the children to scrutinise the pictures for a wide range of information and feelings – in other words you are leaving that crucial space for the imaginative and creative, and the rational and non-rational
Making learning more accommodating to the aesthetic, non-verbal, evocative, intuitive, non-conscious, and non-rational will be a challenging task. This is because an oppressive and narrow splintering teaching and testing regime is being pressed on schools; indeed, an agency of state (the review office) has this splintering and testing as its sole purpose; academics are selling their ‘effectiveness and improvement’ message on contract to the ministry; advisers, especially in numeracy and literacy, are advising then testing for results in ways that would be laughable if it weren’t educationally tragic (these results are then ‘sold’ to their head office which has a self-interest in ‘believing’ in their validity); and politicians continue to find selling a narrow philosophy much easier than a liberating one; and the board of trustee system has also led to a narrowing of school education. As a result, it is not surprising that school administrators are consciously and unconsciously at least bending, and often buckling, to the pressure.
Amidst this (for me) disappointing situation, there is one aspect of the new curriculum that has promise: the second competency, ‘Using language, symbols, and texts’. I believe we can sense in the description of this competency an aspiration for the kind of education that is the focus of this posting. The description says a number of interesting things about language, symbols, and texts – things that go beyond a literal view of literacy and numeracy. (The broader and deeper reach of this competency, however, serves to demonstrate the disappointing descriptions of the first competency – ‘Thinking’ – and the third – ‘Managing self’.) Responding effectively to the second competency, however, will not be easy for the very reasons outlined in the previous paragraph and elsewhere in this posting.
To make progress in the second competency there will be a need to get teachers to focus on the part the arts can play in the development of students’ other learning. In this respect there are two ministry of education publications: He Papahuia Toi Maori and He Wakahuia Toi Maori which have the potential to be a rich source of ideas for such learning. To carry over the arts’ learning to other learning will be difficult because arts’ ideas are only vaguely comprehended by many teachers, are viewed as discrete with only token links to other programmes, do not lend themselves to measurement, and because there are only a handful of arts advisers, and the few there are, because of the overwhelming emphasis on literacy and numeracy (in its measurable aspects), rarely get ministry contracts. However, an official sanction, in the form of the second competency, is there; some ministry publications are there; the handful of advisers is there; our education tradition is there – so, even if the hold is fragile and perilous, and the situation fraught, an opportunity, of sorts, exists.
In ‘Reuben and WALTS’, the principal’s WALTS such as ‘adjectives and adverbs’ contrast with the teacher’s ones such as ‘writing with sincerity’ and, more to the point here, ‘thinking about where else we could take our writing’, and ‘thinking about other ways we could express our ideas’. Jim Neyland’s comments (in ‘Ontological centring and education’. Curriculum Matters, 4: 2008, 40-51) are applicable first to the principal’s outlook, then to the teacher’s. He says ‘We are inclined these days to believe … that the seminal question in personal and educational aspiration is: Am I there yet? Have I met the objective? Have I reached the standard? Have I followed the protocol? … A less shrinking aspiration’, he says, ‘requires a different seminal question: How far can I go? What is the extent of my reach?’ (p. 41)
In the posting ‘Reuben and WALTS’ the principal’s WALTS like using ‘adjectives and adverbs’ contrast with Reuben’s teacher’s WALTS like ‘write with sincerity’ and, more to the point here I go? What is the extent of my reach‘H ‘How far can you go?’ Neyland asks. His response, ‘There is only one way to find out:
you must go too far.’ (p. 41)
must go too far.’
‘It is … a truth that calls us forward’, Neyland says, ‘beyond timidity’s threshold. It asks us to be more, to live more, to discover more, to refuse to accept either a prepackaged, settled, and bounded world, or a prepackaged, settled, and bounded self.’ (p. 42) ‘There is in modern education’, he says, ‘a powerful tide of influence, largely unconscious that is shaping the form and direction of the curriculum … As a result of this unconscious tidal force, things like the outcomes-led curriculum, the scientific management of education, assessment systems, and much else besides seem to the Western mind set to be good and proper in education.’ (p. 50) [Jim Neyland is a senior lecturer at Victoria University of Wellington.]
In this posting I have used a number of quotations from writing I published in the ‘90s. A major prediction was that there would be insistent institutional pressure for learning to be divided into small bits – small bits that could be observed and measured; small bits that would have objectives attached to them, then assessment to follow on whether those small bits had been ‘learned’. The reason for this small bit process, as I saw it, was that it would enable close institutional control. This measurable, observable, small bit process would allow the review office to exercise its power with assurance; no particular knowledge of curriculum areas would be required; no particular time would need to be spent in classrooms actually watching it in action; it could all be given a tick or found wanting on the basis of a paper trail; the further idea was that what was recorded in the paper trail would then be used to decide what was taught next. This last matter has some pedagogical validity, but not much, because most teaching and the best teaching occurs as a result of informal, observational evaluation, which is the evaluation process that makes the best use of teacher time, gives power to classroom teachers (where it should mainly reside), is immediately responsive to children’s needs, and most important of all, allows teachers to use their feelings, intuition and imagination in evaluating the feelings, intuition, and imagination of the children.
The quotes from my ‘90’s publications also predicted the challenge from a type of academic research based on the small bits’ process discussed above: that is children being taught small measurable bits of education bolted to objectives; other variables in the environment being reduced; the children being tested on what they had learned; the Hawthorne effect being rationalised away; and, very importantly, a naïve (in my view, wilfully naïve) interpretations of ‘results’. And academic research of this type has indeed, challenged teachers. It has belittled them by providing a rationale for some politicians, the review office, parts of the ministry and advisory service, and many of the private ‘providers’ to do things to teachers, to condescend to them. While these institutions and people are acting on their fantasy of children’s learning as a jigsaw puzzle, teachers have to deal with their reality of it as a kaleidoscope.
In the magazine Developmental Network Newsletter (published throughout the ’90s), I foresaw then that the review office’s influence would be insidious. Schools, I said, to avoid fear of public shaming and career-affecting criticism, would gradually shift their practices to conform to what the review office wanted. Sometimes, I said, schools would go even further than the review office might want, after all who was to know exactly what it did want, so schools would play it safe. The whole thing would occur largely unconsciously, a slow shaping to a narrower, more emotionally arid, tightly organised school system.
One of the complications in considering people’s ideas about the review office is that of perspective. My perspective was a systems one – that the review office had an insidious system’s effect on schools despite some good intentions for it. This perspective guided me in my actions throughout the ‘90s. My campaign (as I saw it) started with a remarkable first day at a Whangarei principals’ conference (actually in 1989 I think) when Maurice Gianotti (to be the first head of the review office) characterised the review office as an enlightened institution, a Good Samaritan providing a friendly shoulder (Gianotti only lasted a couple of years, not tough enough on teachers I suspect, so the friendly shoulder approach had its career limitations); and I (on the second day) characterised it as a massing of storm clouds. The campaign continued in the years ahead with petitions, articles, meetings, radio, newspaper, and TV coverage, even a demonstration on the steps of parliament for which I hired a character actor to play Gradgrind from Hard Times (Gradgrind derided the use of the imagination and extolled the expression of human experience in numbers). There is no doubt that, for a while, we had the review office (under Judith Aitken) worried especially when we forced an enquiry into its practices but, at the last moment, Brian Donnelly lost his nerve and the membership he appointed for the enquiry meant it was always going to be a whitewash.
The review office had, by now, ingratiated itself into the system and unchallenged dominance was theirs. As I felt the bite of my review office criticism blunted, in the absence of anything else, I shifted my attack to their reports on individual schools, sometimes slipping into attacks on personnel in general. This was a mistake, but one I still occasionally repeat. The difficulty is that I see what happens in education (in rather stark terms) as an interplay of moral action; so when I see something which I consider detrimental to children and teachers (from my point-of-view, of course) I get agitated – and there I go again. I find it hard to accept that review officers don’t recognise they are part of an institution that exercises its will on the basis of fear, and is instrumental in fixing on the primary classrooms of New Zealand a narrow education, foreign to our holistic traditions. As I said, to me, it is a moral issue. However, I will try to back off a little, perhaps by doing my best to see them as victims of the system as well.
In 1999, the last year I produced the magazine, I spoke to a group of principals, with my main message being that they should always be looking for freedoms in the system to advance the principles of holistic education; but when the system, as it seemed to them, required them to compromise those principles, then they should candidly acknowledge that to themselves. When I looked into their eyes, though, there was complete incomprehension – I knew then it was time for me to leave for awhile, which I did for nine years.
My message on my return, though, has not changed.
We should not have to discover again what Sylvia Ashton-Warner (with all her personal and teaching excesses) discovered, the importance in child learning of feeling, sensing, and the transformative experience. Or what Elwyn Richardson discovered. If you look above in this posting to the list of ideas for holistic teaching, then read about his teaching, you would be able to tick off nearly every item in the list, in particular the ones that might be considered the most abstract and challenging, for instance, thinking of teaching as the opportunity for children to experience the transformative power of the compelling experience; carrying over what we know about children’s learning in the arts to other learning; developing a vocabulary and other means to express the sense and feeling of anticipation; and seeing affective learning as grounded in detail and reality.
This posting has been about developing the courage, moral strength, understanding, and strategy to act on our holistic education – to take children beyond the confines of reason to the liberating duality of reason and non-reason, to what makes us truly human.