Wednesday, 21 September 2016

Moving away from traditional standardized class organisations - back to the future.


What has really changed on our school the past 50 years?

The other day I had the opportunity to visit a school I began my career visiting in 1960

During  a discussion with the principal she mentioned the classrooms had been developed into innovative ( or flexible) learning environments.

Teachers teach students learn
I couldn't help that suggest that  I bet the daily programmes/timetable of the classrooms hadn't changed much since I visited 40 plus years ago ( with exception of availability of information technology).. If anything the current emphasis on literacy and numeracy had reinforced the timetable of earlier times taking up the morning time with the rest of the Learning Areas squeezed into the afternoon period. Hardly flexible teaching? Hardly progress?

What would I do if I were teaching today?

My visit made me think of what I would do if I were to be responsible for teaching in one of the classroom spaces. It is always easier to give advice than it is to put ideas into practice; classroom organisational pattern are hard to change. Teaching is a conservative occupation.

Precursors to child centred learning

Student centred learning has along history. For me John Dewey is one of the important educators with his encouragement of student led learning. In the 1950s child centred developmental programmes were
Dr  Beeby
introduced in junior classrooms but they didn't reach up to standard classrooms. Such programmes were encouraged by the philosophy of Dr Clarence Beeby, the innovative Director of Education, and by Peter Fraser Minister of Education in the first Labour Government.

Dr Beeby established the advisory service and appointed Gordon Tovey as. Director of Art Education Gordon Tovey with his team of art advisers developed  creative art programmes  in schools and later related, or integrated, arts programmes. I was lucky to have attended two such courses in the 60s.. Such courses  inspired many teachers (mainly in rural schools) to develop integrated prgrammes the best known of which was Elwyn Richardson teaching in an isolated small rural school in Northland.   His book In the Early World published 1964  has recently been republished by the NZCER and is well worth inquiring.
Gordon Tovey

Environment student centred project 1970  -1980
Marion Keeble
Inspirational UK teacher 69

Following teaching in a progressive primary school,in England in 1969; a school where the whole day was integrated around a variety of curriculum challenges based on four rotational groups  I began working  with a small group of local teachers to put ideas into practice  We  previously were all impressed with the Nuffield Junior Science Project which challenged us to develop open ended science studies - often with different groups studying different topics. .

At the end of the year we published our findings in small booklet which itself  was problematic as it was not permissable for advisers to publish  without  prior approval of the Education Department. Ironically, five years later, we  were asked to republish it  and to present the ideas at the  1975 Auckland NZEI 100 Year Centennial Conference held at the Elleslie Racecourse

Our small booklet 1970


Below are the main ideas that evolved.

Recently I found a battered copy of our conference booklet and it was interesting to read the thoughts we had developed 1970-75

The curriculum

We were all dissatisfied with the  traditional compartmentalised programmes of the day and also the emphasis on using ability grouping in reading and maths; integrated studies was our emphasis..

We thought it vital to centre learning around real experiences  of the students but we also appreciated that this interest could be motivated by teachers by means of interesting displays to arouse student curiosity and questions

We made great use of the rich immediate environment as a major source for studies -natural history, heritage and social studies. Other distant studies in time and place were also to be included.
Studying wasp nest

When a study was agreed to students brainstorm questions and ideas they might like to study and often a flo chart of ideas placed on the blackboard - an ideas from the Nuffield Science Project As ideas were completed they were checked off.

The teacher and class then  planned activities to complete in group work - art ideas, maths, language and activities related directly to the content chosen. We all believed t was important  to do fewer things well; in depth. A simple checklist of Learning Areas covered  enabled teachers to note areas needing future coverage,

Teaching skills at point of need..

Importance of observation
The importance of teaching skills at point of need in all areas of learning was vital to ensure all students achieve their 'personal best' and to help all students take a growing responsibility for their own learning and behaviour. One skill we thought important was 'to slow the pace' of students' work  so as to allow space for teachers to come alongside the learner to ensure all students were able to achieve their 'personal best'. The role of the teacher was to be a guide and facilitator to at as a learning coach  .. .

Class organisation and room environment

We had in our minds the metaphor of classrooms as a synthesis of a workshop, museum, science laboratory and art gallery - the  room environment we saw as the main influence on the students; the major 'message system'

We arranged the desks  to suit the pattern of work and the classroom was to more or less divided into learning areas - one for maths challenges;  one for language activities;  and one for the current study .Areas in the classroom should not be rigid but are basically where students  do art activities, read and research centres,  maths challenges and areas featuring the current study.

Some form of organisation is still important and teachers made use of group rotations with timetables and activities made explicit on the blackboard.  At first maths and language would be undertaken in the morning, moving away from ability grouping, and integrated , where possible, with
Workshop gallery
content and skills required for the afternoon activity programme.

Groups varied but essentially a research reading/writing group; a an activity group doing practical things; a group working on their finished booklet and an art group. Where possible necessary skills  and content introduced during the morning programme.

At various times the whole day focused on the four group  changing three or four times during the day; an integrated day

Each study unit lasted three or four weeks with  week one introducing the study , usually motivated by a teacher display,  planning activities and shared experiences. The second week rotational group work and the rest of the time students working independently finishing off work.


'Slowing the pace of work' to develop quality.

One of the main ideas we felt important was to 'slow the pace of students ' to allow teachers to assist those in need  and to ensure quality results in any area of learning. We believed too many students worked with the belief 'that first finished is best' and spoil their work by rushing. It was, we felt, important to develop a sense of craftsmanship and pride of achievement. We wanted all students to feel the satisfaction of doing something really well.
Careful observational of a pheasant

As part of this 'slowing of the pace of work' was the idea to develop a sense of aesthetic craftsmanship /design in all activities . One important idea was to introduce the idea of focused observation through drawing  , not only for its own sake, but also to encourage questioning, ideas for language and to be re-imagined through the creative arts.

Student records of learning - 'portfolios' 
Am important element of programmes was the introduction of a personal writing book in which students process one piece of quality writing about their own lives weekly. As well another book  featured recorded ideas from content studies. Along with other books thees books will, in effect, be seen as student portfolios in which students and their parents can visually see progress. All books were expected to show qualitative improvement..
A study of church architecture

Each study led to the development of a student booklet or chart Students were given deign help to ensure  quality work.

The room environment

We all believed in the importance of developing the classroom environment to celebrate student achievement. Visitors to the classrooms would see the students' achievements in all areas of learning and  work based around the current inquiry study, As part of this environment student work to be suitably framed and displayed by the teachers. The total classroom was to be seen as the major 'message system' of the classroom.
Teacher motivational displays

Transition time

Time would be required for teachers and students to make full use of such a programme.  Transition would depend on teacher and student readiness and skill and teacher confidence in the areas being studied. It was a difficult task for teachers and students to unlearn past  procedures. The best time to experiment with new ideas would be at the end of term where the holidays could be used to rethink success and failure.  Abandoning  all past security could well bring about chaos which would be detrimental to students.

Nothing was perfect - a work in progress.

The booklet referred to featured teachers comments on the development of their programmes and it wasn't all plain sailing. One problem was to move too fast before teachers and students had gained the skills necessary for independent work. Giving students too much choice is as almost as bad as having no choice at all. The need for gradual change soon became apparent and that students could only handle greater choice when they had the skills to do work of quality - many of the skills required were best introduced to groups with similar needs.
Colonial;l  disply

With time a sense of shared ownership developed in all the classrooms as students and teachers grew in skill and confidence. Most important were the various studies that were introduced and researched by the students - studies that were integrated with poetic writing, art and language. When studies were completed they were shared with parents and visitors.


Later on one teacher developed the ideas very successfully  in an open plan building ( the  modern. innovative or flexible buildings of today).

All teachers continued with the approach until retirement and some of the ideas are still to be seen in local classrooms today - mainly the emphasis on quality work and stimulating classroom environments celebrating student work.

What would such teachers think about today?

The teachers involved would be improvised with the intent of the New Zealand Curriculum and with the purpose built flexible buildings that are a feature of schools today and all would be well placed to integrate purposeful modern information technology.
Quality book work

 They, however. would be less than impressed with the imposition of National Standards which would remind them of an education system they thought they had left well behind. An they would not be impressed with the narrowing of the curriculum as a result of the Standards and the And most of all they would resent the lack of trust and respect given teachers and the oppressive audit and evaluation requirements believing, as Einstein said, 'not all that measures matters and what can't be measured does'. They would be really concerned with the workload placed on today's teachers to assess and record progress..
neglect of creativity that  results form formulaic teaching.


If I were to return to teaching today!
An excellent document

If I were return to a classroom today I would further develop ideas we developed at the time. As a  principal, and later as Massey College of Education adviser, I found the most difficult thing  to change were the teachers belief in the need for ability grouping in literacy and numeracy. The best answer was to 're- frame' these areas so as to integrate them, as much as possible,  with current class studies and, in the process, develop a connection between the morning and afternoon programmes.

So, if I were a teacher today.

If I were to to teach in a class today I would love to continue with the ideas we developed all those decades ago .Ideas that are just as relevant to the future as we thought they were in those days particularly  if we want to ensure schools are to develop the talents and dispositions for all students to be life long learners.

 I believe the ideas we developed  would be ideal to develop the life long active learners, able to 'seek, use and create their own knowledge' as the New Zealand Curriculum asks of teachers.

Such ideas, with the addition of modern information technology, would be ideal to develop personalized learning and teaching in today's  modern  flexible learning environments


Quality student records



 Innovative Schools  currently pushing the boundaries are .

A school I admire is New Tech High School in California.

Check out Elwyn Richardson's book 'In the Early World'.






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