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Tag: learning

Passing sentence – hard labour


So they don’t speak in sentences anymore! So trumpets a headline in a recent press report.

Apparently there is anecdotal evidence that young people are entering school and not speaking in sentences. Let’s accept for the sake of argument that those making this assertion are in a position to make such a judgment. What’s the explanation?

Well the immediate response is to lay the blame at the feet of electronic devices and media.

There might be an element of truth in this but it is not likely that the actions of little ones with their cute iPads or toy smart phones bring such a factor into consideration but the actions of their parents. Walk along any city street, or through a shopping mall or anywhere that grown up and especially young parents congregate with children and you will see the many adults giving closer attention to their texts and messages and whatever on their devices than they are to quality interaction with their children. One can only imagine that the situation is even worse at home where presumably the children are in a environment that requires even less attention from the parent.

Children develop language through a variety of factors. They arrive at the task with an innate desire to communicate through their eyes and their ears. They start with sound, move onto words and then proceed to put words together. They pick up patterns and rules and this process shows sometimes in the “mistakes” they make. “I for-nearly-got to put my underpants on,” said my son one morning. “I cutted my finger.”

They are acute observers of such patterns as emerge from the language they hear. Again, my son when told that we were going to go and see Granddad asked the question “Which one? ‘Golly Gosh’ or ‘Crikey Dick’?” He had observed that each grandfather had their own particular exclamation that they used and probably in fairly identical situations. Don’t underestimate the power of the young person when it comes to language learning.

In fact, the world’s population actually manage to learn their language to varying degrees without the help of schools, often in states of poverty and hunger, regardless of culture or faith. In fact one applied linguist claimed that it wasn’t learning language that was hard, but learning it in classrooms. Most young learners achieve excellent levels of language use with knowing a stick of grammar. Knowledge of grammar is useful for the most elegant and sophisticated uses of the language and is best learned when comparisons between language are possible. A child learning Maori and English will at an early age understand that a Maori sentence is different from an English sentence even if they couldn’t give you a definition of a sentence.

And here are some tips.

Grow the young person’s vocabulary – the number of words a learner can use with confidence will be the factor that identifies them as an advanced language learner or one that is catching up or lingering behind their peers. Words are the fuel of language. How many of us travel to foreign lands and get by with single words garbled because our ears aren’t up to it. Young people thrive in a situation where they are surrounded by real people who use lots of real words in real situations.

But this is not an invitation for parents to take over the talk. Janet Holmes tells the apocryphal story of the three year old who never uttered a word until one day at the dinner table she said “Would you please pass the salt?” An astonished parent sought an explanation as to why she had been silent until now to which she responded “Everything has been OK up till now!” Sit in a café and hear the parents taking over the responsibility for talking – usually in the third person. “Now, does Tommy want a muffin or a brioche? Mummy is going to have a brioche? I think Tommy would prefer a muffin? That’s what we will have today.” Child thinks: “Won’t be long and she will be back on to the iPhone!”

So children need to be surrounded by quality speakers of the language. Consider the impact on the development of young one’s when Celebrity A speaks on TV “Yeah, well, definitely – awesome, I mean to say – at the end of the day, well, brilliant!” Spot the sentence on that gob-full.

Finally, be relaxed about the young ones. The silent ones who don’t talk early will talk later (check for hearing issues though!) and they will use language at about the same level of sophistication as the early chatterers. And remember that talking is thinking. A silent brain is not an inactive brain. Children hear more than they appear to listen.

Vygotsky, the great Russian psycho-linguist, reminded us that “thoughts are not merely made up of words but come into being through them.” He uses the anecdote of the young boy who when challenged about something he had said replied “How do I know what I think till I see what I’ve said?”

It is very likely too early to predict that children are mutating into some kind of non-sentence-using little creatures. But do pay attention to the language environment in which they swim. It is probably the most important part of the child development eco-system.


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Bottling up the policy on Te Reo Maori

Hon Nanaia Mahuta thinks that the policy is compulsory Te Reo Maori in schools, Education Spokesperson Chris Hipkins thinks that well its important but….. While the rest of the MPs and most of the electorate have no idea what the Labour Party’s position is.

Never has the case been stronger for a policy of compulsory Te Reo Maori instruction and learning for all New Zealand school students but this is not the first time that the Labour leadership has lost its bottle on this one.

In the 1980s I was on a national curriculum group developing a syllabus for English in Form 6 – up to that point the sixth form had no syllabus and simply used examination prescriptions (who said the senior schools wasn’t all about going to university!).

A distinguished group of knowledgeable people (and me!) set about devising a strategy to teach about language at that level that was innovative and exciting. It was to be a study of English language based on a comparative linguistics approach. In other words, Sixth Form students were to learn about English language by comparing it to another language and that other language was to be Te Reo Maori.

There were compelling reasons for doing this.

Te Reo Maori was an official language of Aotearoa New Zealand therefore all citizens have some obligation to be acquainted with it.

More importantly, knowledge about language is more easily achieved when a student has a basis for comparison. In what ways is this language different from this other language that I already know? Most English speaking people who insist on and endorse the teaching of English grammar actually only learnt what they know about through an experience with another language. This was probably Latin or French, or German.

You do not need to know about English grammar in order to learn the language as a native speaker. But knowledge about how the English language works is essential if students aspire to be highly articulate and elegant in their expression and especially in their writing. So what better way to seek improvement of your first language (should that be English) than by studying a second language? And what better language to study than Te Reo Maori?

It is a language used around us – daily on television, radio and in many places and occasions in our daily lives – I hear much more Maori spoken than I do French or German.

Maori is also linguistically an excellent choice as it has a different vocabulary, an easy phonics system and a quite different structure. And it is an easy language to learn and pronounce. No!!! I hear some older people say but that is not the fault of Maori language, it is the consequqnece of not getting the opportunity to learn about it and to learn it at a time when we were young enough and our aural skills were acute enough to hear and retain the sounds which are different from English – another useful comparison.

So a policy of getting more Maori language instruction into schools is on very strong grounds and there is no danger of it not helping students to achieve higher levels of competence especially in English.

The dangers and risks are all political and that is where some courage is needed.

And who and when did a Labour leader lose his bottle? It was about 1985 or 1986 when the new Form 6 English Syllabus was circulated for comment and a certain lobby group within education got at David Lange and, goaded by allegations from the Opposition side of the House that NZ kids would all be gabbling Te Reo Maori but have no competence in English, and not for the last time he lost his bottle. It was enough for him to summarily dismiss the English Syllabus group which never met again.

New Zealand lost a chance to lead the way internationally to not only  bring an indigenous language into the mainstream curriculum but to also demonstrate the value of doing so to all the students who each require in order to achieve  and learn, knowledge about and skill in language at increasing levels throughout their educational journey.

So Chris Hipkins should stick his head up above the desktop and declare a strong policy of introducing Te Reo Maori into schools for all students. Not enough teachers, of course there is. They live in the street out the back of the school.

“Courage mon brave” and what a shame my own education sees me default to this exhortation rather than to “Kia kaha!”


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There’s no “moocing” about here!

I have become a student again. Yes, I am now a student of the University of Edinburgh. This would have brought great pleasure to my Scots grandmother I am sure.

Yes, I have started my first MOOC (Massive Open Online Course). It is called “Philosophy for Everybody”, lasts for seven weeks, will require me to study for 1-2 hours a week and has a book that goes with the course.

How did this come about? Well I had, some time ago, wandered through the various web sites of the major providers – Coursera, NovoEd and so on – and must have left my email address somewhere that indicated I would be interested. They got in touch recently with a range of courses that I might be interested in. Easy, minimum fuss from my point of view, getting back to me impressed me – all behaviours that face-to-face providers might strive to copy.

I needed something that would not have time demands that were too heavy, that was focussed, had good, helpful resources and related to my interests and past learning. This fitted the bill nicely.

At 1-2 hours a week I could see myself managing this. The trouble with so much conventional learning is that it is dolloped out in such large chunks, like the ladles of mashed potato thrown onto your plate in the army mess-hall. I wanted finger food.

The focus was clear and the explanations of it attractive – a short introduction to some of the current approaches to philosophy, thinking and ideas. The resources were clear – seven staff members at the University of Edinburgh each wrote a chapter related to their unit in the course, they were put together into a book and that was it. I got mine from Amazon and put it into my Kindle – I have the resources for the course with me in convenient form.

I am interested in philosophy having undertaken Philosophy 1 in my BA degree many years ago. That course was strong on logic (Students sit in lecture halls. This is a lecture hall. Therefore I must be a student) and some selected philosophers – Bergson and Plato I think.

But the impressive thing to this point has been the total ease with which I have been enrolled -not only the ease, but also the style and approach. I was on first name terms with the University of Edinburgh and the philosophy team instantly. “Hello Stuart, Welcome to the University of Edinburgh.” I was enrolled, welcomed and knew what I needed to know in the space of the time it takes to search and make the thirteen clicks required by conventional tertiary websites.

Of course the course despite attracting the description “massive”, is very small and narrow. What is massive became apparent on Monday when the course started. I signed the “Honor Code” which was a simple set of requirements related to ethical and sensible behaviour in my conduct – these people trusted me! I didn’t have to show my passport, three invoices with my address on them, proof that I had the entry requirements, no standing in a queue, no being interviewed by strangers who would decide whether or not they wanted me in the course. I received detailed advice and guidance about how the course would be conducted, a detailed “syllabus” and invitations to join the discussion group,

The course had actually been open for 12 hours when I got to it on Tuesday morning and already there were several hundred people logged on to the discussion room and they came from all over the world. It was like walking into a common room full of the buzz of friendly conversation with no-one staring. Immediately I was taken by the massive reach of this course geographically, across ages and experience. Being shy by nature I didn’t sign in – I shall do that this weekend.

Now I know that it is easy to be enthusiastic at the beginning. A whopping 93% of those who start a MOOC are not there at the end. I am determined to be there. At that point, if I have “completed” the course (I know exactly what that entails and will require), I shall receive my “Certificate”. This will not be one that produces credit (you need to have your credit card handy when enrolling in those ones) but rather a simple acknowledgement of course participation and completion. That’s all I need at my stage. That might be all that a huge number of people are looking for. I suspect that MOOCs have wide appeal as a kind of Online University of the Third Age.

I promise not to bore you with a blow-by-blow account of my toe-dipping experience with this course and style of learning but will report back to you later in the year when I have completed the course (or, perhaps, have dropped out, or perhaps have failed to pass!).


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Pathways-ED: It’s not just another project!

“You mean that you don’t have any scheduled classes on a Wednesday?” I asked wondering what was happening here.

“That’s right, the students spend that time doing their impact projects,” the Principal replied. “We call them the Impact Projects and it gives them a chance to bring their learning together and apply it for a practical purpose.”

I had been invited to participate in the celebration evening at the Albany Senior High School. Thinking about it as I headed across the Harbour Bridge, I wondered if this would be like so many of the many Science Fairs I had attended, or the other efforts I have seen where students generate hugely disproportionate amounts of energy and fun but produce not a lot – never mind the quality, or the warmth.

I was sure that what I was about to see would not challenge the amazing activity I had once seen at High Tech High in San Diego. There the students were nearing the end of the semester and this school, located in buildings in an old and historic naval base, had developed a project-based approach. Students were too busy to talk to me but they took time out to quickly explain what they were doing, etc. It was greatly impressive as they gave voice to the learning they had. Mature scholarship and youthful inventiveness characterised the typical project.

In New Zealand many tertiary programmes, especially in IT, have a requirement for a keystone project towards the end of the course. Would the high school projects be like these but perhaps at a lower level?

Well, was I in for a surprise. I saw that evening some of the most advanced and mature work I have ever seen high school level students produce. It was remarkable.

Microsoft had agreed to publish an app developed by one student that simply but incrementally taught a learner the basics of music theory. It was clever in its conception and beautiful in its execution. Clean lines, simple instructions. The student was articulate both about the IT and the music. Other music projects included performance, original compositions and, the building of a “copy” Les Paul guitar. To this last student I was able to chat about a concert I had seen Les Paul give in a jazz club in NewYork. We shared an enthusiasm.

Another student saw his project develop out of his after-school / holiday job in a surf store. He had set about developing the complete array of programmes and IT services needed to run the business especially the customer end of it – using barcode for stock control, an interactive and youthful internet store (increased turn-over = ten-fold). This was IT, business, strategic thinking, all wrapped into a very smart piece of work.

It was appropriate that in that very week where those daring young men, sailors in their flying machines were bouncing around San Francisco harbour, a further project had built a small craft that lifted out of the water on foils. The group had encountered issues, all tackled and resolved as the project unfolded.

There were dance performances, art projects (original painted shoes, a graphic novel, an origami chandelier), environmental projects (I loved the recycled furniture project – from inorganic collection to art work) and so on.

What was the point of all this? Well, quite clearly in the face of such explicit evidence of learning, some excellent teaching had occurred. But that seemed minor in light of two more important elements.

There had been extensive engagement with the community across this array of projects. Business, local government, tertiary education providers, retailers, primary schools, and sports organisations both local and national. This is just a sample. Students were faced not only with finding a confidence in doing this but also a security about their own learning as they interacted with busy people. The school had confidence in these exchanges which might have caused some nervousness in a more conventional setting.

The other exciting element was that the students were clearly demonstrating the qualities and skills that are so often spoken about as the soft skills of employment. Certainly they are the skills sought by tertiary education providers as students move into the higher levels of learning and qualifications. Team work, strategising, planning, implementing, setting of goals, ability to think creatively, to be articulate about technical knowledge and suchlike are the key outcomes of a good grounding in the basic skills.

Schools such as Albany Senior High School are leading the way in showing that having confidence in the quality of your programmes and in the the teaching / learning dynamic of the school then liberates the students and allows them to use new learning and develop new skills in ways in which the quality of the activity is nourished by personal interest, need and passion. I say need because one student had realised that she was light in physics given the direction her interests had developed – she saw an opportunity in her project work to do something about this.

Perhaps all this was summed up for me in a comment from Lucy in a reflective piece that looked back on her Impact Project experience – “The highlight for me was being able to learn from Amy.” This captured the essence of a good programme where the teacher stood aside and students saw the real lifelong learning resource -those around them.

Proud parents and grandparents, excited and animated young people, teachers who knew their job had been well done – education at its best.



Pathways-ED: The crusty issue of hungry students


We used to talk about a hunger for learning and a thirst for knowledge. Now it seems we mostly just talk about hunger.

Children cannot learn if they are hungry – we have heard this shibboleth for a long time now but it has never acquired a status of being any more than an assumption. Now along comes a research study that finds that when the assumption is tested it is found to be less than robust. Or put more strongly, there is no evidence that children who are hungry cannot learn.

If, indeed, you believe that learning is not possible if you are hungry then you dismiss learning as being out of reach for quite a proportion of the world.

On the other hand if by “hungry” you mean “didn’t have breakfast” then that is a different matter. I know of middle class young people who do not have breakfast – they learn and they survive in schools.

Now we need to be clear that the multiple factors of disadvantage that characterise poverty will certainly act against a child’s learning. Poor health, bad nutrition, damp housing, over-crowded living conditions, low or no regular family income, all these factors will impact on a child. But these go far beyond being hungry.

A lot of education systems do something about this systemic issue.

In Finland all students of all ages in the education system get not only free health care but also a free lunch. They are about the same size as we are and they spend about the same amount on education. We envy their levels of achievement so anything they do should be thought about carefully.

In the USA most states have a free lunch programme that is means tested one way or another. Of course that will raise cries of stigmatisation through identification of those with need but those arguments are generally coming from well-fed adults.

Similarly, in the UK, children qualify for school lunches and in fact the school lunches and the “dinner ladies” have long been a tradition. A positive relationship with a dinner lady really helped one of my sons settle into an English school. But it is also in the UK that arguments have broken out about the quality of the school lunches provided by parents.

Jamie Oliver even has a “school lunch manifesto”.

“As many of you know I released my new school food manifesto this week outlining my concerns for school food in England today and the actions I think need to be taken by government to ensure our kids continue to get the great all round food education they need to feed themselves better in the future and to help reduce the crippling rise in obesity. I have been overwhelmed and delighted by the support I have received from you guys out there for the manifesto. So thanks and big love to my fellow school food campaigners, school caterers, the press and the general public…. the fight continues…..”  All good stuff for the ratings.

A Chicago principal had her own campaign and banned lunches being brought to school by students on the grounds that they were of such poor quality. Students either bought their lunch at the school dining facility or they went hungry. It is reported that quite a few choose hunger over the school-provided option. Of course some of those students might simply have no money and this is the critical issue. If providing a nourishing meal for a young person (it could be breakfast or lunch) is beyond a family then we all own an issue that needs to be addressed.

When I went to school (fade in the violin music) we received a plethora of health checks and we received a half-pint bottle of milk each day. Such events were sometimes enjoyed and sometimes endured.

One thing New Zealand is good at is producing food. Might not the government consider a social investment contract with food producers to supply/provide a small percentage of their production for use in schools for all New Zealanders. This would apply to the basics mostly – surely a baker could put one out of every hundred loaves aside for the schools. It might well be possible, would take a little organising and would achieve what is needed.

I recall when I went to school that we would sit under the trees to eat our lunch. We had lunch boxes but many didn’t. One group of kids brought their jam sandwiches to school wrapped in newspaper. Having written that I am wondering whether that really happened or am I confusing my own experiences with those of Kezia in Mansfield’s The Dolls House.

It’s  funny how memory can sometimes confuse fact and fiction but that also happens in many education discussions, none more so than this school hunger / breakfast / lunch business.


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Talk-ED: Learning – the deep end or stick to the shallow stuff?

Stuart Middleton
13 February 2012


From time to time every educator should get into learning at the deep end!

I had decided that I would like to swim for exercise for a change and that would mean I would have to swim better than I could. So I have enrolled in lessons.

Of course, like most learners I had considered that I could swim all those years since being taught in primary school. I am not at all sure that the teachers who bravely stood at the edge of the pool and sent us back and forth across the shallow end with wooden flutter boards met the requirements for swimming instruction but they did their best.

Even though it was a primary school, the pool was very deep indeed at the deep end and we were strictly not allowed to head in that direction. So there was much fund raising and a better learner’s pool was opened just after we left. When we got to intermediate school there was no pool and with much fundraising a pool was built and opened just after we left. At high school there was similarly no pool and after huge fundraising a pool opened just a few weeks before we left.

We spent a lot of time at the pools in Hamilton, the one at Hamilton Technical College was large and new and the “Municipal Pool” large and old. But all that time spent over many summers never improved our basic skill in swimming.

There was a degree of paranoia in my family generated by my Grandmother who thought that danger started when the water reached your knees which limited the opportunities to actually swim. We were expected to enjoy the ocean to the same extent and in much the same way as a pod of stranded whales might enjoy the ocean.

One Sunday at the Hamilton Lake I fell fully clothed off the little jetty thing that was jutted out into water well above my depth. I was grateful that bystanders fetched me back up onto the jetty. Was Grandma thrilled that I was safe? If she was it didn’t show as I was soundly admonished for swimming when I had been clearly told not to. You can understand why water sports didn’t feature much among our activities.

So it has been off to lessons. I have long believed that when you are learning something there is a very small number of things that must be understood, principles that are central and critical to your understanding and consequent performance. The first lesson was a revelation as the teacher described some basic principles of swimming that I had never had pointed out to me over many years.

These really are quite simple – when you swim your body should be very straight from the tips of your fingers to your toes, you kick from the hips not the knees, keep your chin down and when you turn your head to breathe turn your shoulders with it.

Now understanding these has been very helpful and my previous fish-out-of-water thrashing is slowly being replaced by the swift gliding motion of graceful boat through the water. (That last bit is an exaggeration really but I can honestly report that there has been pleasing progress.)

I will not reveal which pool where all this is happening as I do not want crowds to gather to see this such as happened with Opo in the Hokianga back in the summer of 1955-1956 but it is an urban pool, free to the community and very well used. My lessons have been at 12.10pm on a Sunday. The pools have generally been crowded at that time except for the lanes kept clear for instruction.

This added to my anxiety. I felt some nervousness about this. Would I be the object of amusement being several years older than the clientele generally? What if I came across someone I knew? Would my egg-beater style attract attention of the wrong sort? Would I be humiliated?

You see, being a learner is a pretty exposed state to be in.

What I quickly realised was that nobody other than the teacher took the slightest bit of notice of my having a lesson – anxiety is such an egocentric thing!  They all went about their business at the pools and left me to what I was doing. The worries were in my head and not actually real. That is typical of learners too. No Mummy!  They will laugh at me. I won’t be able to do it! I don’t know anyone in the class!

But as with so many five year olds, I left the first lesson exhilarated and happy – this is going to be good, I will achieve what I was wanting which was to swim with ease. More importantly, something that had until now been tedious will become more enjoyable. It’s neat how good learning experiences enable you to leave the shallow end and get into it in more depth!


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Pathway-ED: Smoothing the educational paths rather than plugging the gaps

Stuart Middleton
7 July 2011

In the world of DIY there are products along the lines of NO GAPS which allow you to deal with gaps as they appear or even in new work to maintain those continuous lines and surfaces that lead to a quality finish. 

Continuity of progress is central to students achieving a good result and a gap in the educational journey is disruptive, counter-productive and in some cases the cause of failure and disengagement. The cumulative gaps lead to loads that many students simply cannot endure.

There are a number of reasons for this. One is cognitive: as Vygotsky described it, there is a “zone of proximal development”, a point at which students can with help learn. It occurs just on the edge, the fringe, of previous learning not at some spot that is removed from it or distant to it. Therefore the connection to previous learning is critical. Seamlessness in educational journeys is all.

Many students fail early in their further and higher education for this reason alone. There is a disconnection between their previous learning and what they are now encountering. This might be one of generally inadequate academic preparation or it might be a disciple deficiency. Or it might be the result of poor teaching either before or after the transition from school to post-school. As an educational issue it is serious, is often ignored and is generally seen as the fault of the student.

So getting a “no gaps” mentality into the educational system will require a far greater effort on the part of further and higher education and pose some challenges to the high school sector.

Of course, some higher education institutions simply keep raising the requirements for entry into courses and eventually will have made entry too difficult for such a number of students with the result that they will have taken themselves to a place where students entering courses are prepared to cope with whatever they are thrown. This also enables them to dispense with the support mechanisms required by higher maintenance students. It will depress their numbers and results with under-represented groups but there will be other institutions to pick up that responsibility.

Funding formulae for further and higher education that does not adequately reflect the efforts required to see that there are NO GAPS are simply not adequate. Similarly in high schools there has to be recognition that social class, the way we distribute ethnicity throughout a city and the challenges of low or no income groups make the provision of education in some schools a far greater responsibility and a far harder task than in some other schools. To fund school equally is to fund them unequally.

But gaps are not only the result of inadequate academic preparation or misplaced accuracy in assessing the needs of students, there is also the designer gap as in the “gap year”. Origninally this was the domain of the soft upper classes in the UK who were generally succeeding and were not troubled at all by a gap in the journey. But it has become a notion that not only has spread but which is admired and condoned. “My son / daughter is taking time out / finding their feet / deciding what to do….” and so on are official gaps and the evidence is ambivalent as to how this aids progress.

The final arguments for NO GAPS approach  hinge around clear evidence that if a student proceeds through school and into a postsecondary qualification without a gap they are highly likely to also undertake and complete a further qualification at a level in advance of the first qualification completed after leaving school. The road to advanced qualifications is perhaps one characterised by NO GAPS.

It could be that a “lifelong learner” is the result of this smooth and uninterrupted journey from the novitiate of the early years through to the advanced state of being a self-sufficient learner at a later age and a higher stage. The American Dream of a college degree for all has become the nightmare that it is because this smooth passage through educational stages is seriously disrupted. A great confusion of gaps characterises the community college where qualifications are significantly marked by remediation.

Most do-it-yourself exponents will tell you that those NO GAPS products have limits and their success relies on a solid structure each side of the gap and there are limits to the gaps they can close. My Dad was always saying of a extension he made to our house many years ago that should an earthquake occur we were would in trouble – “all the putty will fall out!” he would say.

Too many students face this threat when the seismic transitions they are asked to make give them a good shake-up. You can’t fill large educational gaps through some quick fix.

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