Tag Archives: play
Pasi Sahlberg has called it GERM – the Global Education Reform Movement. It’s an apt acronym because it is infectious and it is doing us no good at all. In fact it is doing what all infections do – weakening us and making us vulnerable to all sorts of other opportunistic infections.
A GERM infection happens when policy makers see that something is wrong with education and instead of drilling down to find out what is causing the problem and then seeking solutions, they decide to measure what is wrong and then try and use that metric as a solution. That is tantamount to taking the temperature of a child with the flu, discovering that it is too high, and putting him outdoors in the snow.
In all GERM countries we see the same scenario:
- blanket standardized multiple choice style testing of all kids – in the belief that this one test is a measure of the effectiveness of everything important that goes on the school
- shock horror reactions to the results followed by the apportioning of blame – and the imposition of sanctions against low scoring schools and teachers
- mammoth efforts to lift the scores in the next round of tests – narrowing of the curriculum, teaching to the test, teaching of test taking skills, loss of free play time, development of scripted teaching programs that de-skill teachers, devaluing of subjects that are not tested
The USA is deeply enmeshed in this epidemic with the majority of school districts GERM ridden. One of GERM’s prominent advocates Joel Klein invited Australia’s Prime Minister and Minister for Education to discover what the infection had done to his New York City schools. The inevitable happened. When you are exposed to GERMS you become infected. That infection is spreading through the Australian school population. You, dear reader, will know the severity of the epidemic in the schools around you.
There are a few school systems that remain immune to GERM – Finland is one – but without action this growing epidemic may become a pandemic.
The root of this problem lies in the belief that one standardized test, administered in the same way, to every child, in every school at the same time is capable of measuring the complex, rich, varied nature of education and, more importantly, is capable of measuring our children. It is not.
If you read this blog you already understand the important things that go on in schools. You also understand that the things that matter the most are the very things that a four point multiple choice question cannot measure.
What can you do?
Make your voice heard.
Within your professional organizations have this subject raised to the top of the list of concerns. Don’t let it languish at the bottom – too hard, too complex. It’s strikes at the root of our professional ethics if we meekly allow something so destructive to go unchallenged.
Write letters to the newspapers, contact talk back radio, contact your local politicians.
Talk to your parents, your local community groups.
Focus on what you know is important.
If you are a teacher, focus on helping the kids to learn and refuse to let your professional skills be diminished. Teach the curriculum with all the depth and richness you can muster. Don’t teach the test, teach the children! Make it clear that if you have to administer the test you will, but also make it clear that it has no significant place among the important things you are doing at school.
If you are a parent understand the pressures on teachers and let your voice speak for them. You have the right in Australia to refuse to allow your child to sit for NAPLAN tests. In the past the refusal of parents in Victoria to allow their children to sit for an earlier manifestation of NAPLAN – the LAP tests – resulted in their lack of statistical validity as a measure of achievement and they quietly faded into the background. No one can discipline parents, you can’t have your pay docked or lose your job, if you pull your child out of the test.
Above all else –
THINK about what effect these high stakes standardized tests are having on education and then consult your own professional conscience and set of ethics.
How much are you prepared to tolerate?
You can listen to Pasi Sahlberg speaking in New York about GERM on this 18 minute video:
There is a much longer talk given at the University of Melbourne available at:
If there are two things that get my blood boiling they must be the devastating influence that high stakes standardized testing is having on schools, and hence our children, and the denial of time to play that accompanies this.
I had a wonderful opportunity when I was a school principal in the USA. Testing had finished and we were faced with the daunting task of keeping the kids focused and gainfully occupied during the last couple of weeks before the summer holidays. They sniff freedom in the wind at that time of year.
Adjacent to my school there was a open air swimming pool. It was a private subscription pool and none of my kids had ever entered the water of that pool. Around 95% of them were African American and about 60% were living below the poverty line. Private pool membership was not high on their parents’ priorities.
I received an unexpected phone call from the pool manager who offered us the pool for the next two weeks, complete with life guards. The season wasn’t due to begin until after school finished and he thought this would be a neighborly gesture.
I was delighted and immediately contacted all my teachers to see how they felt. They expressed the same enthusiasm and so we set about putting together a schedule so that the kids could all have several opportunities to go to the pool, with a particular emphasis on grades 3 and 5 who had just completed a tense week of testing.
I’m an Aussie, so this was all very familiar territory. In Australia we attempt to make all our youngest children ‘drown proof’ with swimming lessons during school time. Sometimes it is held one morning a week for ten weeks but more commonly the little ones will go every morning for two weeks. The buses arrive in the morning, they head for the pool with their teachers and a few parents in tow, and return tired and ready for a quiet afternoon two or three hours later. I was also used to being in charge of my own school. You see, in Australia – as in Finland – the principal actually has the authority to lead and to manage, to make decisions about staffing, budgets, how money will be spent, what contracts will be issued, how schedules will be formulated, what specialist teachers will be employed. I was learning, with great frustration, the straight jacket of micro management that was in place in my new school district.
And so I decided that I probably ought to inform my supervisor of my intentions and my plans.
That showed me my first mistake.
I had not asked permission.
The response was swift and final.
“This activity is not approved. It is an inappropriate use of instructional time.”
Apparently we were meant to spend the last two weeks of the school year getting the kids ready for the next year and the next round of testing.
We did have a field day, and some of the kids did get to have a dip in the pool. But that was all.
Every year I was there I struggled with the instruction that my kids were only to have 15 or 20 minutes of recess each day. I would walk around classrooms in the afternoons and see children dozing off at their desks simply because they had spent almost all of their day physically understimulated, sitting down or walking in lines from one room to another.
In my first year I submitted the daily schedules to my supervisors for approval. I had included a thirty minute ‘rest’ period each afternoon for my 4 and 5 year olds.
You guessed it. “Not approved. They are here to learn, not to rest.”
In the end I resigned.
Why does this all still upset me?
Because as long as we place such emphasis on high stakes standardized tests we will see more and more of this kind of thing. We will see the needs of childhood pushed aside in the interests of high test scores. I watch with dismay as Australia moves more and more closely to the USA model.
At the International Conference on Thinking in New Zealand last month, UNESCO had a stand. On the back wall was a poster with the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child.
Article 31 states:
“States Parties recognize the right of the child to rest and leisure, to engage in play and recreational activities appropriate to the age of the child and to participate freely in cultural life and the arts.”
There are only three members of the UN that have not ratified this : Somalia, because there is no government in Somalia, South Sudan because it is such a new nation, and the United States of America.
We may be justifiably concerned about the narrowing of the curriculum, the superficiality of the tests, the loss of the arts because they are not tested. There is another consequence that must not be ignored – the loss of play.
In my belief system, to remove opportunities for free play from children is a form of child abuse. It is a systemic denial of a fundamental right of childhood. And schools all over the United States are doing just this and if we allow it we will see the same in Australian schools and any that subscribe to GERM.
A principal friend of mine in Australia had 23 plastic milk cartons delivered to the school and left in the playground. He watched what the children would do with them when left to their own resources and what he saw amazed and delighted him. The thing is, these children had a 30 minute free play recess mid morning and a 50 minute free play recess after eating lunch. How long will it be before our Australian policy makers decide this is not an “appropriate instructional” use of time?
I am now in my second week of camping at the beach. I am surrounded by children. I take great delight in watching these kids as they exercise the parts of their brains and bodies so neglected by our test obsessed education system. They are so inventive with so little. Small beetles and bugs are fascinating, they spend hours deeply immersed in books, they invent new games and challenges, they turn cartwheels, they ride bikes, they cooperate and sometimes they fail to cooperate and then they learn about negotiation, about forgiveness, about sharing. They make things out of grass and bits of wood and bark. They play tricks on the adults. They laugh, they squabble, they share secrets. With the minimum of adult direction they fill their days with play – the work of childhood.
I often read about the loss of school learning during the summer vacation. I never read about the loss of vacation learning during the school year. How much independence, inventiveness, imagination, team work, self motivation and cooperative work and play, learned during the holiday period, simply withers on the vine due to neglect during the school term?
I found it became untenable that I was required to limit the free play recess period of my elementary aged children to 15 minutes a day when I was a school principal in the USA. It felt like a form of child abuse. In the interests of maximizing instructional time we removed the opportunity for play and wondered why it was so hard to keep these children focused on school work as the day dragged on. We wondered why they were so unable to negotiate their way out of quarrels, so clumsy at working in teams. But these are skills learned by doing, not by being told. These are skills forged in the free for all of the playground, the same place where imagination, fairness and resilience begin to grow, are tested and thrive.
This poem by D J Enright comes to mind.
‘The thing that makes a blue umbrella with its tail –
how do you call it?’ you ask. Poorly and pale
Comes my answer. For all I can call it is peacock.
Now that you go to school, you will learn how we call all sorts of things;
How we mar great works by our mean recital.
You will learn, for instance, that Head Monster is not the gentleman’s accepted title;
The blue-tailed eccentrics will be merely peacocks; the dead bird will no longer doze
Off till tomorrow’s lark, for the letter has killed him.
The dictionary is opening, the gay umbrellas close.
Oh our mistaken teachers! –
It was not a proper respect for words that we need,
But a decent regard for things, those older creatures and more real.
Later you may even resort to writing verse
To prove the dishonesty of names and their black greed –
To confess your ignorance, to expiate your crime, seeking one spell to
life another curse.
Or you may, more commodiously, spy on your children, busy discoverers,
Without the dubious benefit of rhyme.
The more I read about the successes of the Finnish school system the more convinced I become that the key is in its teachers. You can check it out here.
In Finland the length of the school day is shorter – that’s because great teachers know how to make the most of every minute. Many studies have revealed the enormous amount of time devoted to non-learning tasks in the classroom. Good teachers know how to organize a school day and a group of kids so that time is never wasted.
Time is provided in the school day for professional learning. Good teachers understand they are lifelong learners and are eager to build on their skills. They are committed to learning in their own lives.
There is no strict curriculum, no pacing guides, just broad outlines of areas to be covered. This is because the community and the authorities know they can trust teachers to do what is best. They believe they have the knowledge, the training and the intellectual discipline needed to make the best choices about what kids need to learn and when they need to learn it.
There is no ‘payment by results’ because there is a proven belief that all the teachers are good teachers. They do not gain entry to the profession until they have demonstrated that.
Children have around 75 minutes of free play each day because teachers understand that ‘the work of childhood is play’ and they understand how to integrate the things children learn in the playground with the things going on in the classroom.
Teacher candidates are selected from the top 10% of high school graduates. No one becomes a teacher in Finland because they couldn’t get into another course and because of good pay or long holidays.
The profession is held in high regard and much is expected of teachers. It is more difficult to enter university to become a primary teacher in Finland than it is to enter medical school in some universities.
There is no whole scale testing of children until they are 16. Teachers are trusted to know what is needed and then to provided it.
30% of primary school aged children receive some form of additional learning support as soon as their teachers deem it necessary. Learning problems are addressed as they are revealed and noticed by highly skilled teachers.
93.2% of students graduate from high school in Finland compared with 76.82% in the USA. And in the USA we need to keep in mind the reality that this percentage is inflated by the “credit recovery’ programs that allow for a D graduation after the completion of a short summer course for failing students. Finnish students stay at school and succeed because they have had a history of quality teaching.
In other words the quality of the Finnish education system rests on the quality of the teachers.
The quality of the teachers is ensured by a demanding initial selection system and a lengthy period of professional preparation during which the ongoing suitability for teaching is constantly monitored.
You don’t get into a classroom in Finland if you are anything other than a highly skilled teacher.
Sir Ken Robinson (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iG9CE55wbtY) has commented that all over the world nations are tinkering with education. Mostly they look at rewriting standards and curriculum and then they work at designing tests.
What they fail to do, and the single thing that they MUST do, is look at the teachers.
Finland began reforming its education in the 1960s.
There are no magic bullets.
There are no short cuts.
If we don’t begin the hard work now, when will we?
I had made an agreement with myself to write a blog every week. Sometimes life catches up with us and we are lured away from our intentions. The call of a rocky coastline, a box of oil paints and brushes, a canvas and a convivial group of artists was too much to resist. My apologies! But now I am back and here are my thoughts for this week. Please share yours with me.
I have been following the growth of the Victorian State Schools Spectacular for a few years now. It is one of the largest recurring performances in Australia and is a professionally staged production performed at Melbourne Park to an audience of over 10,000 people.
The amazing thing is that it involves a cast of almost 3000 government school students, working towards a common goal in a collaborative, competition-free environment. They sing, they dance and they have a wild and wonderful time. The end product demonstrates the talents, the discipline and the imagination of our kids. And guess what? It isn’t a test! That’s right, it is deliberately NON-COMPETITIVE. Time is taken out of the regular school year to give our kids this experience, and it grows from a long history of enrichment activities that are part and parcel of the school experience in Victorian schools.
When I was a classroom teacher in Victoria we had a school camp every year from grade one up. In grade one everyone slept over at the school. We all bedded down on the floor and giggled and grumbled our way through the night. Next morning we fed all our little people and their parents picked them up around 9.30 am. Each year the number of nights increased until grade 6, when all the kids went camping under canvas for five full days.
We also put on a school production each year. This would be an all singing, all dancing extravaganza and would usually involve every child in grade five and six in some way, on stage or back stage. Once again, this all took time out of the regular school day. Often we would perform the show on two nights in a local theatre and the excitement and pride that was felt by students and the whole community was palpable. This tradition would be continued once they got to secondary school.
We taught all our kids how to swim. The goal was to have them ‘drown proofed’ by the age of 7. For two weeks all our younger children would go to the swimming pool in buses every morning. They would come back bedraggled and weary, so afternoons were usually pretty quiet and low key.
We knew how much our kids learned through participation in camps, swimming and productions. They learned about self-discipline, cooperation, persistence, imagination and about worlds that were often well outside their daily life experiences. We enabled city kids to sit around a camp fire at night looking at stars, we made it possible for the disengaged kid to become the lighting manager’s right hand man. and maybe we saved some kids’ lives in the future because they knew how to stay afloat. We did so much that was valuable. And none of it was tested. Interestingly, our kids have done very well indeed in international measures of literacy and numeracy.
Imagine my horror when I was advised by my supervisor at the last school I administered that my kids could not take advantage of an opportunity to use the local swimming pool once the end of year tests were completed. The pool was next door, we had been offered access and life guards and it was two weeks before the end of the school year. The reason? “It is an inappropriate use of instructional time”. We should be preparing the kids for next year’s tests.
Things are changing. We need to be on our guard. This is what happens when test scores become more important than education.
“Play is the work of childhood”. Whether this was originally said by Piaget or Montessori is unclear, but there is no lack of clarity in the meaning. Our children learn when they play.
As we look towards the successes of the Finnish education system it is worth pointing out that their elementary school children have 75 minutes per day of unstructured recess and playtime. I recall when I was an assistant principal in Australia, the teachers complained that during the 45 minutes of lunch time free play there seemed to be a spike in small injuries. Disagreements in the playground increased during the final fifteen minute period. They wanted to cut the playtime to thirty minutes, matching the thirty minutes of free play that all the children had mid-morning. The request was taken to School Council where the parent members roundly dismissed the request. “Play time is when my kids learn all about team work, negotiation, and cooperation. If there’s no friction, there’s no need to learn how to compromise”, argued one father. So we maintained the daily 75 minutes of free, unstructured play.
It came as quite a shock to discover in the last school that I led that the school district permitted only 20 minutes each day for recess. The school near my house had done away with recess altogether. I was also surprised when some of my teachers complained that the children kept running into things and each other during recess, so I went outside several times to specifically focus on this. They were right. The kids walked down the steps and then broke into a run that often resulted in collisions. Why? My observations persuaded me that they were so pent up that they were like springs suddenly released when they hit the open spaces. They also had so little experience with physical play that they had not learned how to play actively around one another.
What are we doing to our youngest children when we keep them penned up in classrooms for 6 or 7 hours a day? They walk in carefully monitored, silent lines from classroom to lunch room and back again. They largely remain seated and hopefully following instructions while they are in the classroom. At the end of the day they line up for the bus, sit quietly (I’m being hopeful again!) on the bus until they get home. This amounts to an eight hour day with 15 minutes of running around!
We are training our children to be compliant because we are refusing to allow them the freedom to sort things out for themselves. Playgrounds are the places where children learn what is fair and what the consequences will be if you act unfairly. They learn how to take turns and what happens to them when they won’t. Children learn how to function as social beings in the playground, not in the classroom where the teacher arranges, resolves and manages everything.
In schools where children have extended unstructured play times the supervising teachers provided constant support as the kids learn how to negotiate and compromise. How many times have I sat on a seat outside with a crying, outraged child sitting next to me? We would explore what had led to the crisis, talk about possible solutions and then I would send the child back into the group to re-establish himself, with a lesson or two hopefully learned through experience.
The world is a very deep pool indeed, and many of the pressures and problems of the ‘real world’ exist in the hustle bustle of the playground and not in the classroom. As educators we should be providing the opportunities for children to learn how to safely stay afloat in the shallows of the playground, teaching them the things they need in order to survive successfully when they move into the deeper waters of the world outside school, when they will no longer have our protective arms to keep them afloat.
What do you think? What is your experience now and how does it compare with when you went to school?