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Saturday, September 11, 2010

My views of educating children in the modern context

For educators to provide an effective learning environment that supports and encourages the development of children’s education, it is essential to critically analyse what drives our own beliefs and practices in our classrooms. Arthur, Beecher, Death, Dockett, & Farmer (2005) tells us that without a philosophy we have no ideal to work toward and in picturing where we are headed, we are more likely to reach our destination. By reflecting on our own personal perceptions and values, and in discussion with our peers we are able to identify our own personal philosophy of education that draws on a blend of both theoretical and experiential knowledge. Arthur (et al., 2005) asserts that by making our philosophy explicit we are able to act from a framework that guides us to make better decisions on a daily basis.

A fundamental goal of education is to foster learning (Bransford, Brown, & Cocking, Eds., 1999). All students are capable of learning however the desire to learn is pivotal in the effective mastery of new concepts and skills (Caine, Caine & Crowell, 1996). My role as a teacher in the Primary Education context is to create an atmosphere that fosters learning, and develops in students a passion for knowledge and understanding of their world (Education Queensland, 2002). To that end it is imperative to examine how I view the learners whose learning I will be managing.

Images that perpetuate childhood innocence include those that place the child as clean, white and content (Holland, 2004). This can be problematic for how we educate children and the strategies we use to do so. Woodrow, (1999) asserts that many of the children we educate come from diverse cultures and social contexts and the sanitized image can homogenize children and positions those who do not fit the image as ‘problems’. My professional philosophy of education encompasses providing a voice for children by being open to listening to what they are really saying. It is my view that children deserve the respect to be consulted on matters that affect them, with particular emphasis on listening to how children want to learn, what they want to learn, and what they perceive they need to learn. To provide a voice for children we must engage in two-way dialogue that supports and values the rights of children as individuals. As suggested by Woodrow (1999), we need to talk with the children, rather than merely about the children.

Woodrow (1999) tells us that examining hidden assumptions we hold about children and childhood causes us to reflect on the affect that this may have on those that are unable to conform to the ideal and how this labelling can alter the life path of individual children. She counsels that this process is unsettling because it causes us to examine our own images and how they affect the way we interact with children. Children that enter our classrooms bring with them a variety of socio-cultural experiences and knowledge that they have developed through encounters outside of the classroom (Farenga & Joyce, 1997). It is pertinent then to consider children from multiple perspectives and as Woodrow & Brennan (n.d., cited in Woodrow, 1999) suggest an effective educator must take account of difference and promote equity and equality. All children are worthy of being the best they can be. All children have the right to be viewed as individuals without being tainted by biases and prejudice.

When considering the needs of the children that come to our classrooms it is valuable to examine the family and community context in which children are living. The Australian Institute of Health and Welfare (AIHW) in their report ‘A picture of Australia’s Children’ (2005), suggests that the wellbeing of children depends on wide environmental determinants including the social, emotional, physical and economic wellbeing of children’s families, and the strength of the communities in which they live. The report highlights the diversity of family types in which children are living and presents evidence that 53% of Australian children are living in families that do not reflect the standard ‘nuclear’ family of two adults caring for their biological children.

It is important to recognise the social as well as the cultural diversity that our students emanate from. Bourdieu (1983 cited in Richardson, 1986) discusses the concept of social capital where he suggests individuals are able to draw on resources which are linked to membership in groups. As educators we need to consider the different forms of capital families are able to confer upon their children, and recognise that we have a responsibility to build the capital that students are able to draw upon to be able to reach their full potential. Developing meaningful relationships with families and the wider community is an effective way of encouraging the connections that reflect high levels of social capital that students in my classroom are able to draw from. My professional practices will be directed toward developing partnerships with families as this will enable me a real connection with my students and enhance my ability to truly know my learners. This will require me to seek out information about my student’s interests, their capacities, their support structures, and their emotional intelligence. It is essential for educators to be open-minded and non-judgmental of the societal contexts that our students emanate from. My practices will demonstrate value for diversity and difference and recognise that the way to develop meaningful relationships built on trust is by recognising children’s previous experiences as valuable and worthy of recognition.

In constructing an identity of my self as a professional educator I acknowledge that I bring with me the multiple identities already constructed through my prior experiences in life, and that these identities will continually reconstruct, integrate and reform as I evolve as an educator focused on effective pedagogy (Danielewicz, 2001). As a critical pedagogue I recognise my own values and principles and I recognise the biases and prejudices that I bring to my classroom (Cornbleth, 1990). It can be argued that teachers capable of brokering change are those that “..use a critical literacy to empower themselves in the enactments of their professional practices” (Luke, Herschell & Bahr 2001 cited in Harreveld, 2002, p. 343). Harreveld (2002) further contends that teachers who know how to decode and encode meanings, identify and analyse ways in which texts position people, question and respond to such positioning and thus use this information to formulate and articulate their own views of the world, are working within a transformative curriculum that is capable of influencing the changes in values that will enhance equity amongst students. Whilst it is essential to deliver the systemic curriculum, a critical pedagogue has a responsibility to interrupt the dominant discourse to bring about understanding of the post modernist position of relative truth (Foucault, 1981), thereby empowering students to become effective agents for social change (Banks & Banks, 1995)

An integral aspect of developing a personal philosophy of teaching is meaningful knowledge and understanding of learning theories and a mastery of instructional strategies. It is imperative to ask ourselves what is good pedagogy? Dewey (1859-1952), Piaget (1896-1980), Vygotsky (1896-1934) and others, as the founders and proponents of constructivism, advocate learning as an active, constructive process where new information is linked to prior knowledge (Learning Theories Knowledgebase , 2010). Paulo Freire (1921-1997) has had a considerable impact on the development of educational practice and his emphasis on dialogue with purpose suggests the value of enhancing community and building social capital (Smith, 1997-2002). Theorists such as Montessori (1870-1952) inform my own personal philosophy of teaching through the recognition of the importance of incorporating movement, exploration and discovery in the environment of the developing child (Montessori Philosophy, 2007). Rudolph Steiner (1861-1925) based his holistic approach to education on similar principles balancing artistic, academic and practice work by advocating developing the whole child, hand and heart as well as mind (Steiner, Anthroposophy and Education, 2002). Recent research in the area of brain science confirms that complex experience is natural and the fragmentation and isolation of knowledge is arbitrary and artificial. (Caine et al, 1996).

These are the significant theorists that inform my view of good pedagogy and it is my observation that the Dimensions of Learning framework is one which equips teachers with a professional language that defines their practice, by acting as a filter to judge what good teaching and learning is (Marzano & Pickering, 1997). The Queensland Government’s Productive Pedagogies (Education Queensland, 2002) describes a common framework under which teachers can focus instruction and improve student outcomes (Smith & Lynch, 2006). Together these frameworks articulate the practice within my classroom that will demonstrate my philosophical approach to teaching and learning. The instructional strategies that I employ will make evident my beliefs about how students learn. That is, varying the structure and delivery of learning experiences, providing for a range of learning styles along the way, resulting in students identifying their own specific learning needs, and empowering them to succeed (Department of Education and Early Childhood Development, 2006). Of three major constructs of learning theory; behaviourism, cognitivism and constructivism, Mergel (1998) reminds us that each has strengths and weaknesses and rather than abandon one approach in favour of another, we must allow the circumstances surrounding the learning situation to help us decide which approach to learning is most appropriate. Researchers (Jonnassen, nd; Reigeluth, 1992 cited in Mergel, 1998) stress the importance of organising instruction in increasing order of complexity, and taking an eclectic approach to instructional design. Ertmer and Newby (1993, cited in Mergel, 2001) assent when they detail that a behavioural approach is beneficial in delivery of content knowledge; cognitive strategies are useful for teaching problem solving tactics in unfamiliar situations; and constructivist strategies are especially suitable to dealing with ill-defined problems that demand a reflective approach to situated learning.

Traditionally assessment practices have been driven by curriculum as a means of developing productive citizens capable of possessing certain knowledge and skills (Mueller, 2010) however as a result of the development of critical approaches to learning a theoretical standpoint that positions assessment as the driver of curriculum has gained momentum in recent years, demonstrated by the examples of authentic assessment offered on Government mandated online resource banks (Queensland Studies Authority, 2010). The dilemma for me to consider here is how to balance the requirements of the standardised assessment regime driving the education debate in Australia in the current context, and creating an environment that recognises the changing needs of our twenty-first century learners to become capable of performing meaningful tasks in the real world.

Teaching is a profession that is fraught with dilemmas, that is there is a multiplicity of correct actions to take. As Groundwater-Smith, (1998) articulates, “ discuss rights is to discuss dilemmas”. In recognising the problematic situations that will inevitably arise it is imperative to ensure a considered reasoning process is applied to achieve a wise solution that is in the best interests of the child. Newman & Pollnitz’s (2002) Ethical Response Cycle is a framework that details such a process. Connelly and Clandinin (1995) propose that by developing complex and connected relationships amongst people who pursue the same futures perspective opportunities exist to establish networks that can broker changes in our work.

Groundwater-Smith, (1998) maintains that schools operating in the post-modern world take part in both global functions as well as operating in highly localised ways. Post-modernity (Bagshaw, 2007) refers to a condition in which contradictions and juxtapositions exist, and as such a global discourse is required to respond to the differing needs and expectations of all stakeholders in education. Burbules and Torres (2000) suggest that the process of globalisation has serious consequences for transforming teaching and learning, for example we are reminded that our society now engages with a growing number of highly sophisticated information communication technologies (Smith & Lynch, 2006) and developing student’s capacity to engage with a variety of technologies is essential if they are to have success in the digitally enhanced world of the future (Department of Broadband, Communications and the Digital Economy, 2009). Schostak (2005, 2008) maintains that schooling is a process of moulding and fashioning minds and behaviour according to the interests and beliefs of some particular group, whilst education may be defined in terms of its potential to challenge and suspend all such vested interests. He further asserts that whilst schooling may be necessary for developing norms of behaviour and providing information as a basis for reflection, what is very necessary in a complex and uncertain world is the process of exploring alternative ways of thinking, doing and believing, that is the freedom of thought, judgement and action.

In building positive relationships with my students I will know and value each student by acknowledging individual needs and interests; encouraging all students to contribute and respond to those contributions positively; using humour and encouraging students to find humour in themselves; development of learning activities that are connected to students lives and their communities and development of relationships around multiple aspects of students lives by being involved in extra activities that provide support to my students. Students will be valued and their opinions accepted demonstrating a climate where difference is welcomed and encouraged. I will encourage students to take risks with their learning by these actions. It will also be an expectation that students take responsibility for their learning and this will be encouraged and nurtured by providing students with opportunities to collaboratively make decisions about how learning tasks are undertaken. My classroom practices will encompass mixed ability groupings and I will encourage students to work together to solve problems. As an educator who hopes to engage the students in learning experiences I need to build upon their prior knowledge by connecting new data with pre-existing knowledge (Tobin, 1990 ; Caine, Caine & Crowell, 1996). Swadener (2000) asserts that current education systems position the child as a threat that must be controlled and contained to meet a set of hegemonic standards, and failure to do so labels the child as ‘the problem’. I propose that the greater threat is in fact a system that denies diversity and difference, that is, one that views these constructs as problematic. Schwab (1954 cited in Ben-Peretz, 2003) understood that in supporting children to construct knowledge and take responsibility for their learning it is counterproductive to exert overt control and critical judgement. It is my desire to view children as ‘at promise’ rather than at risk (Swadener, 2000), and I truly believe that I can learn from all of my students in some way or another. I am not the holder of all the knowledge, nevertheless I aspire to assist my students to be inspired to unlock the knowledge that is available to them, and to help them develop the tools to critically view that knowledge and develop a deep, wide and diverse perspective of their world of the future.

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