The buck has stopped.
I have waded through my teaching career so far proclaiming – to anyone who will tolerate it – my sincere belief in the need for a reconceptualisation of education and an examination of the many assumptions that no longer apply in the ways they did even a decade ago, let alone the way they did when the institutional forms of (most of) our schools were forged (50-200 years ago). At its core, my dissatisfaction with the status quo arises from aspects of the organisation most schools employ of separating their students’ learning into subjects taught by specialised departments. Specifically, the way in which this specialisation disconnects various learning areas from each other and scrambles them across an arbitrary timetable which students then need to assemble into a working model of their universe.
I think that the ideal outcome of a good education is a connected-up picture of the world, a conception of one’s place, past and future, a diverse and useful set of skills for operating in the world, and importantly, a metacognitive awareness. If this is the end goal, does it make sense to send our students from English to Biology to Art, without paying any attention to how these subjects overlap or relate or connect? We expect them to absorb scattered nuggets of knowledge across all of these disconnected subjects and from this to assemble a working mental model of the Universe. It’s like being given assorted pieces from 7 different jigsaw puzzles and asked to make a picture.
Students arrive at school pre-installed with a mental model of the universe. It is our job as teachers to help them accurately develop that model to ever more sophisticated degrees, focusing on areas which hold the greatest interest and(/or) usefulness for the students. It is difficult (or impossible) for a busy teacher to co-ordinate content with other departments in your average high school, there is simply too much complexity for teachers to be able to take the time to integrate their curricula.
My view is that this, combined with the economic drivers underlying the funding of these departments based on student numbers, causes departments to compete for “ownership” of subject matter and the funds that accompany students choosing to study it. For instance, take ‘Art Design’ (Visual Art) and ‘Design and Visual Communication’ (Technology); there is a huge overlap in both the skills and content being taught under these banners and thus a lot of opportunities to combine and customise curricular standards from both paradigms and to tailor course design to meet a wide variety of design contexts and approaches in a unified way. Too often, departments are trying to attract students in one direction or the other instead of seeing it from the student’s perspective where they might benefit most from a course combining the approaches of Art and Technology. A student can be accepted into an architecture degree with an excellent DVC or Art portfolio submission, but for the best chance of acceptance into such a fiercely competitive course surely a student would be best served by a portfolio which showcases both their artistic and technical design skills in a consistent and focused way?
This doesn’t just apply to subjects that have obvious intersections of skills or content but, with a bit of thought, connections can be found between any two subjects with a bit of thought. Whether you’re thinking of historical statistics, the physics of sport or the economics of agriculture, there are a multitude of lenses that can be focused on any given topic or area of interest and brains are built for making connections. In my opinion a school’s goal should be to train students who have both a broad range of skills to choose from and a good general knowledge of the world in order to assess which approaches to any given situation will be most fruitful in achieving a desired outcome.
Of course every single school has a different management structure and a different set of inter-departmental (and, usually, inter-personal) dynamics so there are differing degrees of co-operation between departments, but in most cases the crucial lack is in the time and space for colleagues from different departments to plan and collaborate both within and outside of the timetable. I had 8 year 9 classes, last year, two terms each, two lessons a week (minus holidays, sports days…). These students bustled from subject to subject, from paradigm to paradigm through an arbitrarily structured timetable to land occasionally in front of me. I would do my best to instil the finer points of “using a compass” (a hasty revision of my aspirational lesson plan of “drawing isometric circles”) while contending with a crowded, uncomfortable classroom, profound disinterest, a lack of equipment and the gnawing feeling that there must be a better way to do this. There was certainly no hope of my connecting whatever it was they were learning in any of their other subjects to what they were learning in mine, just the 55 minutes between that bell and this bell and then see you next week…
There are a great many reasons why a new, idealistic (yet pragmatic), savagely handsome, bespectacled and bearded, art teacher might not be able to walk into a long-term relief role in a grammar school technology department and immediately begin breaking down department walls and connecting up the learnings of teh students all around, and needless to say, I did not. And I reached the end of that road at the end of term 4 last year. And now I’m to begin a new journey, down a new, long-and-winding road, which brings me to your computer screen: My new job.
All my excuses, you see, are now gone. In diagnosing the systemic challenge of teaching students about a connected-up universe in a connected-up way within a departmentalised institution delivering a pixellated curriculum, I have sketched out a problem that has the inertial weight of strong public interest, millions of dollars of ministerial and private funding, political and professional contention and the combined resources and connections of generations of old boys pitted against anything but incremental change. Any individual teacher caught in this maelstrom might only play a tiny part in helping to bring about change while working within that system.
Now, though, I have somehow found myself in an entirely different landspcape of professional possibility, and responsibility. Because, contrary to all my previous imaginings and hopes, I now work at Hobsonville Point Secondary School.
I have followed this school’s progress since teacher’s college when I stumbled upon a blog post by Steve Mouldey about the downright indecent things they were doing with the New Zealand Curriculum and post-it notes. It is a public school in a new, modern (PPP-funded) building serving the new housing development at Hobsonville Point, destined for a roll of ~1350. I have joined the staff as the school enters its 3rd year of operation and welcomes a new cohort of year 9s to join the year 10s and year 11s who have been there for the last year or two respectively.
There is much to read about how the school operates and many future blog posts for me to talk about my perspective of it as I get in amongst, but for now, I am happy to find the buck resting at my feet, laden with the weight of a responsibility to prove the value of my ideas about learning and to contribute to the positive life journeys of as many of my fellow travellers as possible.