Conveyor-Belt Learning

Each year I grow increasingly concerned as both a mother and educationalist about what lies in store for our boys within the current education system. There is something quite depressing happening in our classrooms. Boys are becoming disengaged and unmotivated to participate in activities on offer, and as a result become the ‘behaviour problems’ that attention then focuses on. So as teachers we must start asking ourselves what’s happening for our boys in our classrooms?

Prior to the introduction of National Standards in New Zealand, new entrant teachers would generally have 5 year old boys arrive in their first day of school and recognise that these boys were not school-ready. Many were happy to be at school to eat their lunch and rip around the playground. Others fixated on the blocks, or marble-run game in the classroom. Some enjoyed the physical games, card games and maths activities. And a few cottoned on to the idea that they were in a place where they had to pick up a pencil and write, or began to feel their success in accessing stories and text. There did not seem to be the ‘rush’ that is apparent in today’s junior classrooms. Teachers now are expected to have children progress within their first year of school to meet the ‘standard’ after 1 year at school.

But what happens when these boys who arrive at school not developmentally ready for learning meet a teacher frantic to ensure progress happens? Frustration occurs on so many levels and for all parties involved. The first frustration is that of the teacher. A competent teacher will realise the mismatch between actual ability and expected achievement and feel frustrated, firstly, with a system that is so out-of-touch with the children realistically existing within it. A subsequent frustration is the lack of resource, of which is mostly time, for the teacher to begin to spend with children who need to meet the standard in one year.

Little consideration is given to the link between boys misbehaving and the impact the national standards have had in their behaviour. The first thought of teachers is that they have a boy or boys in the class not following the rules and being disruptive in class. But what if the behaviour displayed by the boys is a communication of their frustration around what is expected of them in their first year? While the teacher is focused on the pressure in pushing achievement, the boys are reacting to the pressure by not engaging in the activities expected of them.

Generally the activities expected of boys in the first year of school are to support the growth in writing, reading and maths knowledge. The inevitable is beginning to happen in that teachers are beginning to teach to the standard, rather than deliver the NZ Curriculum. For boys to be reading at Green Level at age 6, they need to get a fair move on when they arrive at school. For children that have been exposed to a rich variety of text and are interested in what text has to offer them pre-school, achieving to green level is fairly reasonable. But for those boys who are operating developmentally at age 2,3 or 4, the idea of spending time sitting reading or writing for anywhere between 20 to 40 minutes is unfathomable. In fact, it then becomes far more entertaining to wander around the classroom annoying and interfering with others than it is to complete a colouring activity or written task.

Teachers need to really reflect on what the true impact National Standards are having on their teaching and management of boys arriving at school developmentally not ready. Should teachers continue to battle, pressure and drag children towards an illusive level of achievement? Is this ensuring boys are going to school everyday with enthusiasm and excitement towards the day ahead? Is this tunnel vision (eg knowledge-based literacy and numeracy skills) really going to equip these boys with life-long skills such as problem-solving, self-management, curiosity and imagination? Are we teaching the whole-child, or are we adopting the conveyor-belt approach to churn out children who have knowledge but no passion or love of learning?

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