“The pain of containing people who are disengaged is more than the effort it would take to reconnect with them” (Sir Ken Robinson, 2011)
I decided to enter the teaching profession after spending a couple of years after high school working as a travel agent. I was looking for more in a career and figured that teaching was one of only a few occupations that offered opportunities of spontaneity, flexibility, fun, laughter and autonomy in ones’ day. Coming from a family of teachers, I felt I was adequately informed as to the role of a teacher and despite initially fighting the inclination to sign up, at age 20 I began my study at teachers college.
15 years on, in my current role, I am meeting more and more teachers who are increasingly feeling despondent with the role. They are frustrated with high class numbers and squashed timetables that include numerous extra curricular add ons that directly impact on their ability to ‘keep it simple’. And most recently, they are under increasing pressure to teach to targets rather than to the children in front of them. Instead of looking at the class they have and the varied developmental levels contained within it, they are expected to move children towards a national standard, rather than celebrate the strengths a child brings to the class.
The New Zealand national curriculum was heralded as a leader at its conception. It was to allow teachers to teach students of the 21st century. A focus on thinking skills rather than knowledge content. Recognition that our future population will be needing skills that will allow innovation, flexibility and inquiry, rather than the ability to recall a vast bevy of facts and figures. Encouraging our kiwi learners to become forward thinkers able to problem solve, hypothesise, invent and create. This curriculum is still current…….it is still the curriculum legislated that teachers in New Zealand mainstream schools must follow. So why then do teachers feel they have to be permitted to teach in the way that the curriculum allows for?
When teachers discuss with me their concerns for their practice, there are some common themes that repeat. Lack of fun, lack of spontaneity and the inability to allow children to be in charge of their own learning. No time for those teachable moments that just appear in the day, because if the timetable is deviated from the stress in trying to ‘catch up’ is too great. Finally no time in the day to teach to individual developmental levels, especially addressing the ever increasing lack of school readiness in children beginning school.
So what is the alternative for teachers? To keep on keeping on, using the same methods of classroom traffic control (task boards) and programming (group rotation) to marry with the innovative curriculum we currently have? It appears that when the NZ curriculum was introduced, there was simply a lack of in-depth communication with the grass-roots of the NZ education system in how it would look in the classrooms. School managers and Ministry officials participated in the rounds of professional development associated with its introduction. The expectation was that these school managers would then provide the same professional development to classroom teachers. In many schools this did not happen to the extent that it initiated a change in practise in the classroom program and child-management. There became a large chasm between current teacher practice and future expected teacher practice.
And all this before the introduction of the highly controversial national standards. Despite the NZ curriculum, national standards were rolled out, a direct contradiction to the ideals of the curriculum. As predicted these standards have become the reason for many decisions teachers make in relation to their planning and assessment practices. The very philosophy of the NZ curriculum has been lost in the translation of the national standards. Just as NZ was on the verge of shaping children’s learning to be futuristic, flexible and skill-based, the national standards have necessitated a sharp u-turn back towards the archaic approach of filling up students with knowledge. Many would argue what is wrong with knowledge? Isn’t this why students are sent to school? To learn more? But what if this knowledge taught is at the expense of teaching students how to think?
Thinking skills are now more fundamentally important than being knowledgable in a variety of subject matters. It is mooted that the students we have in our classrooms today will be employed in occupations that have not yet been invented. Students will be working with technology that we have no ability to conceive at present. Traditional labour jobs of yesterday may look vastly different in the future. Students now will have numerous occupations and careers in the future, in contrast to our parents and grandparents who worked the same job for 40 years. How then can we as teachers possibly equip our students for this future by teaching them knowledge that will outdate itself before they finish high school? Instead, we can teach them to think. To access information. To query. To create. To problem solve. To ask questions of their world and the people in it. To inquire.
All this is possible within the framework of the current NZ curriculum. This curriculum gives permission for teachers to deliver a different programme in their classroom. One that is more relevant to today’s students and our future leaders than ever before. Yet teachers still feel they have to teach as they have always done. School managers are indirectly reinforcing this by keeping on keeping on, rather than examining the needs in their classrooms. Children that are disengaged, children lacking in motivation, children struggling to access level one of the curriculum. If teachers were to be courageous and revolutionise their teaching program, would these children continue to be disengaged? Would there be a lack of motivation in the classroom, if children were suddenly encouraged to explore themes relevant to them? If the teacher and school communicated to their students that their thoughts and ideas were important and worthy of further investigation? By teachers working alongside students, instead of operating a top-down fill-up-the-vessel approach, the skills children would then be exposed to develop would be numerous.
Teachers need to move away from compartmentalising the curriculum and exploring ways that students can experience all the skills needed (such as reading, writing and numeracy) within a real-life, relevant learning context. It is ok to run reading or writing programs alongside an inquiry focus. In fact reading and writing should be as a result of the inquiry, not separate from. A classroom timetable should not itemise curriculum subjects in compartments, of which one is inquiry, or discovery learning as a ‘topic’. The day should be inquiry-based, with reading and writing arising as a need or tool from the direction the inquiry focus is taking. Numeracy should, wherever possible be integral to the process as well, providing relevance to students in the application of their maths knowledge. If a daily timetable was fluid, inquiry-based, rather than compartmentalised, surely flexibility, spontaneity and fun would ensue?
Classroom teachers need to truly question why they signed up for this job. For me, the autonomy I had in the classroom, the ability for me to control my day was an attractive component in pursuing a teaching career. This is still possible for teachers today. Flexibility and spontaneity was another attribute of teaching that was attractive in signing on. This, again, is still possible, given the current NZ curriculum. Fun with children, was at the very core of my desire to be a teacher. Are teachers having fun now? Are they truly relaxed in their classrooms, learning alongside their students, modelling the very joy in exploring and discovering new learnings? If not, is it time for teachers to be asking why not? And what needs to change for teachers to be having fun alongside their students again? What needs to change in order for the classroom to be future-focused? And who is preventing these changes from occurring? Because the legislation is there for it to occur. Teachers just need to remember that they have permission for this change to occur. The NZ curriculum says they can.