09Education is changing faster than most parents realise. While schools field complaints about teachers not ‘teaching’, the reality is that it’s those parents whose children are lined up behind desks for old-style chalk-and-talk education who should be complaining.
The irony is that schools where the teachers are apparently letting the students drive their own learning and collaborate on tasks in groups instead of individually are probably doing a better job than traditional competitors.
The research behind teaching is forging ahead in leaps and bounds. At the same time, schools are grappling with shifting to the idea that students come to learn, rather than to be taught.
‘Old-school’ concepts changing
Several educational concepts have changed since parents were at school.
The first is agency, with the idea here being that the teacher is no longer the font of all knowledge. Teachers need to step back and pass the responsibility for learning to the students for the latter to take responsibility for their education.
“We should be seeing teaching that tries to get students to think more deeply about what it is they are learning,” says AUT’s Dr Leon Benade.
The second is collaboration. Long gone in many schools are the 35 desks facing forward. Instead students should be collaborating and working together as they will in the real world.
Then there is personalised learning, which is closely related to agency. It is here that instead of teaching from page four of the book on a set day, the lessons are personalised and tailored for individual students’ learning styles.
“We expect to see teachers doing a lot less talking from the front and creating opportunities for a lot more student-driven activity,” says Benade.
Following personalised learning is project-based learning. Teenagers are learning not just knowledge, but also skills as they carry out hands-on collaborative projects. This moves away from the idea that we’re at school just to learn knowledge. In science, this real-world learning might be testing water from local beaches, rather than working in a lab.
The last concept to have changed over the years is curricular integration. This is the idea that learning spans subjects. Admittedly, says Benade, it’s easier to relate Romeo and Juliet than trigonometry to real life. But instead of traipsing around from maths to geography to drama to English, an integrated curriculum is divided into themes that can be learned across the subjects, connecting up the important learning.
Benade, a former deputy principal turned academic, says that thanks to technology in particular the new teaching methods are finding their way into older teachers’ practices. Some schools do far better than others at moving with the times, however, he says.
Core Education’s Carolyn English says that secondary schools are looking to de-institutionalise their teaching. Schools are finding many different ways to do this, such as 90-minute classes, rather than 60-minute, so that students’ learning can be deeper, more project-based and integrated across multiple subjects, rather than working in silos.
Old-style buildings with lines of desks encourage certain modes of behaviour, says English. Benade agrees, saying the heart of more modern and progressive schools is the innovative learning environment (ILE), which often involves large classrooms with breakout areas and a variety of furniture designed to encourage collaboration. The new open designs encourage real-world behaviour and personalised learning, not just taking notes to pass tests.
However, not all schools want to change. Boys’ schools, says English, find it more difficult to modernise teaching than girls’ or co-ed schools because of the way they often market themselves.
“Girls’ schools talk about preparing the girls for the future,” she says. “The boys’ schools have this tradition of standing on the shoulders of giants. They can’t just toss out [the old teaching methods].”
Many schools were held back from implementing new teaching methods encouraged by The New Zealand Curriculum thanks to the National Standards implemented by the previous government.
National Standards have gone, but some say the NCEA exam system could be holding back innovative teaching, and therefore learning. By Year 10, says Benade, many students are starting to collect NCEA credits, which can lead teachers to revert to traditional models simply to get them through.
English adds that many schools have misinterpreted NCEA because they are in a competitive environment that pits one school against the next, with parents judging them on test results.
“This has driven the Year 9 and 10 curriculum and destroyed the Years 11, 12 and 13 curriculum with a programme that is designed around credits,” she says.
Benade adds: “There are some traditional teachers, notably in secondary, who do elevate content learning above all else, and see the content as a requirement in order to gain credits.”
Changes having dramatic effects
Yet 21st-century learning methods can have dramatic effects on educational outcomes.
English cites the example of Hutt Valley High School, where some maths teachers and top students were against a move from testing to assessment of projects for NCEA credits. Yet a trial resulted in excellence ratings rising by 12 per cent and merit ratings by 10 per cent, says principal Ross Sinclair.
“The new course has produced lots of debate and we have had reactions passionately grateful for the changes and passionately opposed. As the course has bedded in, the passions have subsided,” says Sinclair.
“Early results are amazing, but they reflect the keen students who are charging ahead and exploiting the opportunity to control their course decisions.
“That is not every student in the course and so the data masks the reality for those for whom the year is a challenge, just as in the past they would have found the traditional course a challenge.”