Friday, June 26, 2009

Teachers and children


A recent article in a Canadian newspaper (The London Free Press, 15 March 2008) made several interesting comments about children. This article was written during the March school break when children in Ontario schools have a week of holiday. At the outset the writer stated, ‘We do our children a favour by giving them the opportunity to spend a few days at play… It’s called unstructured free time and it’s crucial for a growing mind. All you have to do is look at the face of any child on March break to see proof of their enjoyment. Kids need time away from the regimented grind of school; we all know that.’ I was immediately curious because it is rare that such a comment is made so blatantly by an observer.
And so I read on. ‘Here in North America we pride ourselves on being goal-driven, on being result oriented. So giving children time for free-form thinking and playing is not a priority. There’s school. After school, there are sports or music lessons. In the evenings and on weekends, more structured activities (homework, even for the youngest children, could have been added here). We have even put a structure on play itself – we are, after all, the generation that invented the term "play-date", but assigning a time and place to goof off is the antithesis of childhood fun. This is not a trivial matter. Having a well-developed imagination is important later in life, whether our kids grow up to be editorial writers or security consultants or entrepreneurs.’
I continued to be very impressed by these observational insights until I read the closing sentences. ‘So enjoy the dying hours of March break. A fun pause in the school year, its benefits will be apparent in the years to come.’
When I finished reading the article, I began to reminisce about my teaching career and the events that led me to conclude that play must not be relegated to a week in the winter when school is closed, but that it is essential that play be a vital part of the child’s day at school every day.
My transition from a teacher to a teaching principal, and eventually to a full-time principal in an open area school occurred within twelve years. It was not until I was a full-time principal, however, that I began to reflect on the various approaches of the teachers, particularly those approaches used in the open area of the school. I needed to know more, more about open education generally, and more about young children specifically. This reflection developed into a desire for further education, and I was able to take a sabbatical year at the Institute of Education, London, England, under the auspices of the associate-ship programme for overseas students.

In addition to courses at the institute in the department of child development, I attended a number of ongoing sessions that were offered in various teacher centres in and around the London, England area. These teacher centres offered short courses which focused on specific topics, including the teaching and learning of mathematics and language literacy. At these centres, I met teachers, assistant head teachers, head teachers and inspectors who guided me to a whole host of other pursuits which augmented the network of sources I could tap. That children need various materials and equipment (both indoor and outdoor) in order to learn was, at this time, a relatively new idea for me. The main emphasis in my environs had been on paper and pencil activities, although the revised Department of Education documents in Ontario (1966) and the Hall-Dennis Report (Department of Education, 1968) were strongly suggesting a more active approach to learning.
The work of Susan and Nathan Isaacs, Dorothy Gardiner, Edith Biggs, Robin Tanner, Sir Alex Clegg and the West Riding movement in Yorkshire, England, Lowenfield, Lady Plowden and her report, were all well-known and respected in England, and gradually I began to understand their philosophy and pedagogical stance. I was developing my own implicit theories from talking, reading, listening and sharing with other teachers the explicit theories I was so keen to understand. Their training had been very different from my own. They understood child development well, and indeed the whole country seemed to value children themselves. I had a long way to go to incorporate into classrooms what I had learned and seen in England.
On returning to Ontario, I was assigned a newly created position of primary coordinator, with the responsibility for programmes in the primary division. My first task was to pilot in four classrooms a junior kindergarten project (four year-olds) within a predetermined framework: the physicological, psycho-social and language development of each child. It was to have a Piagetian orientation and, therefore, a philosophy which recognized play as learning. I then proceeded to formulate a definition of play as inclusive of the elements of totality, spontaneity, activity, freedom, choice and engagement (concentration) in an environment which encouraged the child to interact with materials, peers and adults.

At this time the Ontario Ministry of Education was beginning to formalize tests for early identification of children who would be at risk in a school setting. These tests were quite inappropriate for a setting that allowed children to play and to interact freely with adults, peers and materials. The framework referred to above, provided abstract but integrated constructs of learning. It did not provide concepts that were sufficiently concrete for teachers to observe children’s learning readily.
Relying on current available literature, I developed and incorporated ‘The Eleven Indices of Learning’ into the framework. Two major issues that concerned both parents and teachers were teaching children to read as soon as possible and eliminating kindergarten (five year-olds) if the child had been to junior kindergarten or nursery school. The eleventh index of learning ‘symbolizes his/her feelings and ideas through drama, 3-D construction, picture making and print’, and identifies the culmination of all the child’s learning experiences before he or she can read and write (the pre-print years).
From these experiences emerges the print programme. The transition from pre-print to print can be described as a movement from making sense out of the perceptual manipulative world to making sense out of the symbolic abstract world. Not only did the teachers have a more realistic basis for ongoing observation of children at play, but they were enabled to communicate to parents more effectively their observations of the child’s learning, and the significance of the children’s means of expression.

I recognized that the lack of proper in-service training for teachers working with the four year-olds, the practice of providing periodic single focus workshops often unrelated one to the other, and the need for ongoing support for the teacher were critical factors in teacher and programme development. Considerable thought was given to these factors because the programme was to be fully implemented system-wide in three years. The four pilot teachers were released from their classrooms four times during the year for special in service meetings. I also visited the classrooms regularly.
Two important events then occurred. Mary Taylor, a primary education officer with the Ontario Ministry of Education, was seconded to work with me on alternative weeks for a two-year period, and a teacher centre was established in a small five-room house with a basement. In this centre we would carry on two investigations simultaneously. One was to investigate more effective ways of working with teachers, and the other was to find out more about children’s learning through play.

Not only were Mary and I convinced that sporadic and spasmodic workshops encouraged teachers to be dependent on others for knowledge and techniques, we also knew that we had to help teachers become autonomous problem solvers and wise decision-makers. Teachers had to know why they were doing what they were doing. Only then would they have a sense of autonomy over their actions and interactions with children. We also realized that this was a lengthy process. Teachers realized this also, and expressed relief when they were told that it would take from two to five years to make a philosophical change in thinking. Teachers were encouraged not to change anything until they could articulate why they were changing.
Inquiry through interaction in a relaxed atmosphere of respect and trust characterized the centre meetings. Our search into children’s learning allowed the teachers to assume leadership when revealing their observations of children in their classrooms. Because the groups were small (six to eight teachers), it was possible for the interaction between teacher and teacher and teacher and leader to focus on the common goal of finding out more about learning and the learning process.
The half day meetings provided time for expression of strong feelings, debates, discussions (many early discussions centred around guilt, right and wrong), revelations and celebrations. In addition to providing a relaxed atmosphere for discussion, there was also an opportunity for teachers to actively construct and create. Also available was a supply of educational toys and materials for teachers to borrow for as long as she or he felt her/his children were interested.
The teachers’ voluntary and continued involvement with the centre was the real evidence of their commitment. Many of them came to evening sessions. They were encouraged that their input was influencing the direction of the systems primary programme. Of specific significance was the opportunity for release time for all primary teachers (JK to Grade 3), and the provision of fully equipped junior kindergarten and kindergarten classrooms. This included cameras for the teachers to photograph children at play.

When these photos were discussed at meetings, the interaction led to common terminology and increased understanding of the Eleven Indices of Learning. Data on children’s learning was gathered not only from photographs, but also from teachers’ anecdotal records, our notes of the interaction at the centre meetings, and children’s painting files. Analysis of this data revealed a broad, general pattern of children’s learning. With the advent of these signposts of learning, we satisfied the Ontario Ministry of Education guidelines for early and ongoing identification through observation. This pursuit reconfirmed my own implicit theory that children learn through play.
Within three years of the pilot project, the philosophy was influencing the grade one (six year-olds) and grade two (seven year-olds) teachers who developed a document entitled, ‘From Pre-Print to Print’. This document proved to be a useful summary of the transition the child undergoes as she/he becomes a writer and a reader. Principals (Headmasters) of these teachers began to meet at the centre in small groups in order to keep abreast of current developments in understanding children and learning through play. In-service work was also carried on with all the principals at regular intervals throughout the year. Two groups of grade teachers became involved in working on an environmental studies programme statement that would meet the goal requirements of the Ontario Ministry of Education (1975), as well as incorporate the philosophy of learning through play.

In 1978, we attended an international seminar on early childhood in the Scandinavian countries. This gave us an opportunity to share the Scandinavian viewpoint on young children with the teachers at the centre. It also gave further credibility to the philosophy that the teachers were continuing to develop, and provided a long range view of what still must be accomplished before educators/society can meet the needs of children.
Adverse conditions, e.g. large numbers in classrooms, small space, lack of outdoor facilities, busing, all day alternate day junior kindergarten and kindergarten (now the possibility of all day every day is being proposed), disregard for children’s nutritional needs, and so on were brought to the attention of the school officials, but because of the lack of Ontario Ministry of Education guidelines and lack of funds, the Board of Trustees did not respond. These concerns, originating from real situations that individual teachers were experiencing, are the concerns of many teachers, frequently expressed when I travelled throughout Ontario to speak to teachers and which I still hear expressed. The autonomy that the teacher could develop can eventually erode when teachers’ knowledge is ignored.
As the signposts of learning were validated and extended beyond kindergarten, it was evident that suitable materials and equipment were often unavailable to teachers. We decided to rectify this by providing an opportunity for teachers to examine and order materials and books selected for quality and suitability. This additional project became known as the Toy Fair, and helped to equip and maintain primary classrooms. This increase in books and materials allowed teachers to observe greater skill and concept development in the areas of environmental studies and mathematics, reading and writing and the arts.

The teacher centre existed for twelve years. An independent study of the work of the centre by staff from the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education in 1982 stated, ‘…the centre seems to be an unique development unit capable of maintaining professional development over a long period – years – necessary to allow teachers to develop the beliefs, knowledge and attitudes needed in the play approach.’
The closing down of the teacher centre opened a new challenge in my search for professional renewal both for me and for teachers. I asked myself, ‘What about the process of change?’ It then became my intent to design a piece of formal research that would seek to define the process that teachers undergo as they change attitudes, beliefs and acquire new knowledge. Thereby a model for professional renewal could be developed which would enable teachers to become autonomous professionals with their own convictions about learning and with a personal commitment to children.
My analysis of the research, which I subsequently pursued, led me to this conclusion. When teachers and a leader, who are co-participants in a mutually relevant pursuit, engage in a process of inquiry which is activated by the interplay of external and internal forces, they are empowered to form and solve their own challenges. The response is unique to each participant but the process of inquiry, which can be described as a phenomenon of developing competencies over time, is consistent for all participants. The five developmental phases I identified at the conclusion of the research are: changing attitudes and beliefs; acquiring new observational skills; applying new observational skills; from autonomy to initiating observational strategies; and inquiring into a specific focus.

Teachers today are undergoing more stress and tension in their jobs than they were when I was conducting research and working with teachers. Rather because the pace of life is so much faster and probably will continue to escalate, the need to examine closely how to minimize the effects of rapid change in our culture is very important. This should be a topic of concern to school authorities. Children also experience stress and tension although often they do not have either the language or the opportunity to discuss their thoughts and feelings with a sensitive adult because of the pressure of the curriculum or the rush at home. This too should concern both school authorities and parents.
Recently, I travelled to Europe. I talked with young teachers and I visited classrooms during a school fete. I saw the existence of small classrooms, large numbers of young children in these small spaces, lack of materials for hands-on activity and lengthy school days. One young teacher told me that one of her young sons recently asked her on a couple of occasions if she and his father were going to separate. When queried about the reason for the question, the child replied that there were many children in his class who spoke about having two mothers and/or two fathers. How many children worry about this and other matters but do not express their concerns?

In newspapers abroad, the concern about what to do with incompetent teachers was a question school authorities were asking. Perhaps there are some pertinent questions that all those concerned about young children should be asking. Does teacher training recognize the importance of courses on child development and the learning needs of children? Are such courses offered in-depth in faculties of education? How are teachers supported in the system throughout their teaching careers? Does formal testing focus only on the child’s weaknesses rather than his or her strengths? Do standardized tests indicate how best to help specific children? Are authorities listening to the many voices alerting us to very serious consequences of our current education system and calling for change? What is it that makes school and ministerial authorities so impervious to even a discussion with practitioners and interested persons about children and their future?
Baroness Susan Greenfield, Professor of Pharmacology at Oxford University, England, ‘often described as the foremost female scientist in Britain’ (The Independent, 6/4/2008), said in a recent interview that we need, among other things, ‘a major overhaul of education’ to prevent a generation of children becoming emotionally stunted, inarticulate adult hedonists, with tiny attention spans, who can’t differentiate between blasting away aliens on screen and happy-slapping grannies. In her new book, ID: The Quest for Identity in the 21st Century, Professor Greenfield says that people who spend a lot of time interacting through the screen can become emotionally detached, seeing life as a series of logical tasks that demand immediate reaction. Language gets crunched, along with the ability to imagine or analyze. Attention spans shorten. ‘Human beings always listened to stories and had long working memories. Now it’s action, reaction, action, reaction.’
Ever so often a declaration or formal statement is made about children’s rights. In 1976, the General Assembly of the United Nations proclaimed 1979 as the International Year of the Child. Then September 1990 became a possible turning point for children, and therefore for humanity. The World Summit for Children, held under the auspices of the United Nations and co-chaired by Canada brought more than 70 heads of state together to discuss the needs of the world’s children and within two days signed the Principle of the Right of First Call; children have the right to first call on the world’s resources for food, health care and education and these needs should be met first, regardless of the economic vicissitudes of their country. On 26 November 2007, Campaign 2000 released the 2007 Report Card on Child and Family Poverty in Canada, revealing that 18 years after the 1989 all-party resolution of the House of Commons, the child poverty rate is exactly the same.
No one knows the age that lies ahead but we are all related to the process and thereby responsible for the outcome. Someday, perhaps, the child will be the subject of educational pursuits and the curriculum will be the object – not the other way round.

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