Friday, December 31, 2010

Is 'Deep Practice' all that matters? Can anyone be a genius?

We've all heard the nature versus nurture debate played out in various forms in the past, but could there be a new twist? Is the environment in which we learn and the extent of our 'deep practice' of anything, the key to making us all outstanding at anything we choose to pursue? One of the more interesting recent manifestations of this argument was stimulated (in part) by Daniel Coyle's book 'The Talent Code: Greatness Isn't Born. It's Grown' which was published and received widespread attention in 2009.  Coyle is a journalist (not a psychologist, geneticist or educator), who after observing many talented people drew some conclusions that would, on the surface, seem reasonable. The primary thesis of Coyle's book is that anyone can be a genius. This is a VERY convenient truth for every over ambitious parent out there, or any budding sportsperson or musician. The gist of his the argument is seen in the following quote from his book:
'We tend to think of the great Renaissance artists as a homogeneous group, but the truth is that they were like any other randomly selected group of people. They came from rich and poor families alike; they had different personalities, different teachers, different motivations. But they had one thing in common: they all spent thousands of hours inside a deep-practice hothouse, firing and optimizing circuits, correcting errors, competing, and improving skills. They each took part in the greatest work of art anyone can construct: the architecture of their own talent.'
Coyle's book is motivated by the rapidly increasing knowledge of the brain's incredible plasticity. While it was possible once to hold the extreme view that intelligence is dictated primarily (or in extreme cases, exclusively) due to genetic disposition, the weight of evidence from brain research suggests that this is a ludicrous position. However, so too is the view that everyone begins life as a blank slate ready to become a genius if you are in the right environment, with the right teachers and the opportunities to learn and practice. I'm not suggesting that this is what Coyle is saying, but some of his work has been clutched upon by people who would want to believe that this is the case. Coyle's book quite helpfully reminds us that 'deep practice', good teachers and seeing good models for learning and performance are very important for learning. 

A Bit of Background on the Brain Research

As I mentioned in a previous post on early brain development (here) the child is born with more neurons (probably double), and connections between the cells (synapses), than are needed. Every neuron has an output fibre (an axon) that sends impulses to other neurons. Each neuron in turn has many hair-like input fibres (dendrites) that receive impulses from other neurons. As the child grows the number of neurons remains relatively stable, but each cell grows and becomes bigger, mostly because of the massive growth in dendrites that branch out like flourishing trees.
Prof R. Douglas Fields NIH
In recent years we have learnt a lot about another component of the brain's architecture, myelin. This is essentially material that forms a sheath around the axons. It is critical for brain development and begins to be produced in the foetous in 14th week and continues to develop until adolescence. Its growth is rapid in the first two years of life (and is helped by a high fat diet). Myelin enhances (speeds) and regulates conduction by the nerves and Axons, so that signals get there at the right time.

Myelin was first studied with people who had brain damage (and reduced functioning), for example, people with multiple sclerosis. The work of R. Douglas Fields and his colleagues at the National Institutes of Health (USA) has expanded our understanding of how myelin improves brain functioning. In essence, this work suggests that the more neurons fire signals between one another, the greater the growth in myelin that is wrapped around the axon of the neuron.  And the more myelin that is wrapped around axons, the faster any signal travels; up to 100 times faster, depending on the coating (or lack of it). Apart from the function of increasing signal speed, myelin also has the capacity to regulate signal speed so that signals can even be slowed to reach synapses at the right time. You can imagine how important this is when a golfer swings a club using more muscles, joints and tendons than is imaginable, all in unison with the tiniest margin for error.
This research has expanded scientists' understanding of what might be possible with brain development. It opens the way for the possibility that 'deep practice' might enable greater intellectual growth in the young, as well as repairing and improving the brain functioning of those who have suffered from disease or injury that affects nerve functioning.

Typical Structure of a Neuron & Myelin Sheath (C.G. Morris, 'Psychology: An Introduction', 12th Ed, Pearson)
Coyle and 'Deep Practice' 

Coyle's concept of 'Deep Practice' is very helpful. He defines it this way:
'Deep practice is built on a paradox: struggling in certain targeted areas - operating at the edges of your ability, where you make mistakes - makes you smarter. Or to put it a slightly different way, experiences where you're forced to slow down, make errors, and correct them - as you would if you were walking up an ice-covered hill, slipping and stumbling as you go - end up making you swift and graceful without your realizing it.'
The concept isn't new - for example, Anders Ericsson defined 'deliberate practice' well before Coyle came up with the label 'deep practice' for which there is great overlap - but it reinforces much that psychologists, educators and sociologists have been saying for a long time. Anyone who knows the work of Ericsson, Vygotsky and Bruner, will hear echoes of their work in Coyle's book; some of whose work he acknowledges. But what Coyle does is add on the ideas that flow from the recent brain research and popularise the idea that brain capacity isn't simply fixed at birth.  

What I like about Coyle's idea of Deep Practice is that it reinforces a number of fundamental tenets of good teaching and learning that many educators have been promoting for decades. This is my take on what matters.

Learning begins when the learner has a sense that there is something to be achieved, and a hurdle to be overcome, a skill to be mastered. Parents and teachers can help these moments to occur for children through the experiences they provide and the learning environments that are created.

2. Encourage children to lurk in challenging territory

Vygotsky's work taught us about scaffolding children's learning and encouraging them to learn in the 'Zone of Proximal Development'. By this he meant that learning occurs best when we are tackling skills and knowledge just beyond our current level of competence. Coyle's description of "operating at the edges of your ability" reinforces this same type of thinking (see my earlier post on scaffolding and 'guided learning' HERE).

3. Learn, explore or practice things in discrete units

While this isn't the only way to learn (e.g. approaching some areas holistically can be best) it is an effective way to learn incrementally. Of course, we can't learn everything incrementally, and don't! But you can see the obvious applications of this work for sport, music and manual tasks, but it is also helpful when learning language, mathematical concepts, early reading, or for people with learning difficulties. When I coached junior soccer, cricket, hockey and softball I spent a large amount of time breaking the game into skill areas and having my teams practice over and over, sometimes almost in slow motion to get the technique right. The same thinking is seen in the way we teach children phonics or introduce them to sight words.

4. Practice often

A fundamental element of any area of learning is repetition and practice. This isn't new, but the work of Douglas Field and others helps us to understand why it is so effective. This work suggests that in my junior sporting teams, when I broke individual skills like throwing down into the various movements of the arm and had my teams practice the movements over and over again, the skill became more automatic as myelin developed. One of my cricket teams won a competition based pretty much on their brilliant fielding after lots of 'deep practice', they were okay at batting and bowling but they fielded better that any team of 12 year-olds in the competition. The same idea can be seen in the golfer who hits hundreds of balls at the driving range.

In educational terms, it's why I stress often in my work that if you want a child to read better, that they will need to read more words in the 'real game', that is, reading books and other whole texts. Any strategy that reduces that amount of time spent practising the ultimate aim of the skill should be avoided. 

So, can anyone be a genius, or even a Babe Ruth, Tiger Woods or Don Bradman? 

The short answer is no. It isn't just about 'deep practice', genes still matter. We need to remember that there are alternative views to Coyle that place far greater control of genius in the hands of genetic make-up. But what the new brain research shows us is that practice is very important and that when you view any outstanding individual, their performance will reflect a mix of genetic predisposition, motivation, opportunity and practice.

Leonardo da Vinci's Helicopter
Could any junior cricketer be a Don Bradman or a Leonardo da Vinci, it would seem not. For non-cricket followers, Bradman was an Australian cricketer who is undisputed as the greatest player of all time. In cricket an individual getting 100+ runs in an innings is the key achievement, which few achieve. Bradman averaged 99.94 for his whole career! That's a bit like batting close to a 1,000 for your whole career. He grew up using a cricket stump (a fraction the size of a bat) and a golf ball that he hit against a corrugated iron tank for hours each day. Many see this as the secret of his amazing eye, but how come no one else in the history of the game has come close to his achievements (the next best all time career average is 60.97)? Because achievement isn't just about 'deep practice', our genetic disposition matters too.

This should temper our ambitions with children. While it's good to encourage children to aim high, as parents and teachers, we shouldn't assume that if we just put any child in the best school, with the best teacher and give them all that they need for 'deep practice' in whatever area they choose, that they can achieve. Nor should we assume that if we can just accelerate their learning that they will sustain their achievements and end up better than everyone else. The latter is the folly of programs like 'Your Baby Can Read', which assumes that teaching sight words to a child 6 months old will one day lead to them becoming geniuses.

What the above work also indicates is just how important quality teaching and parenting is. Teachers matter!

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Literacy & the iPad: A review of some popular apps

In a recent post (here) that was motivated by 'Alice for the iPad' I concluded:
It remains to be seen if developers can create interactive picture books that are more than just novelties. If they do, I'm sure that they will help to get some children more excited about reading and literature. 
Since that post I've begun looking for good new apps for the iPad and iPhone and I've been testing them myself and with some children aged 3-8 years. The iPad offers the potential to bring new forms of interactivity to the experience of reading. But while many new applications are great fun, many parents will want the iPad to be a tool for learning, not just a very expensive toy.  While I'm keen to embrace new electronic forms of literacy, I maintain a level of scepticism and want to see if they have usefulness for actually developing children's literacy.

In this post I review some interesting attempts to produce new forms of the picture book for various e-readers and phones. I review 5 apps that many people are buying. I will write a series of posts on the topic over the next few months that will cover other language and literacy apps as well as e-picture books.  For each app I will give ratings from 1 (Poor) to 5 (Excellent) in terms of a) Fun & interactivity, b) Useability, c) Benefit for learning, d) Benefit for language and literacy, e) Value for money. I will also calculate the total score for each. I should stress once again that my assessments are about more than just whether children find them fun to use.
5 popular apps that I've reviewed

1. Alice for the iPad

a) Fun & Interactivity (4) - Kids love this but to be honest the app doesn't have sound so there's no option to hear the story and the interactive elements, while excellent, are not on every page. In the short 52-page version this means that about 45% of the pages have some interactive element (most require you to jiggle the iPad). The 249-page version has the same interactive elements so do the maths, that's a lot of pages that are simply read.

b) Useability (3) - it's easy enough but I can't see an option to go back to the start without using the arrow and clicking back through each page, this is annoying.

c) Literacy benefits (2) - I've rated this as 'poor' because frankly it's just reading on an iPad with some fun elements that add nothing to the story. The children I've observed don't even read the text; they just play with the interactive elements. Get your children the book if you want them to focus on the text.

d) Benefits for Learning (3) - I can't see any benefits beyond that which a book can offer other than learning how to use an iPad, which is something that most kids will master in 10 minutes.

e) Value (3) - at $11.99 US it's not cheap and frankly there are better apps around in terms of the potential for language and literacy learning.

Total Score = 15/25 (The higher the better)

2. Mika's Adventure

a) Fun & Interactivity (4) -This interesting app is once again a picture book for iPad and iPhone. It has sound and a read along option as well as the ability to increase the size of the text (it's too small to read otherwise). It also allows the reader to discover lots of hidden interactivity and some images that illuminate when touched; this actually adds something to the story. It also has a memory game and jigsaw puzzle based on the images associated with the story.

b) Useability (4) - it's very easy to use, but like the above it doesn't seem to have a way to return to the first page without clicking back through all the pages.

c) Literacy benefits (4) - This is actually a reasonable story (unlike some written for iPad) with wonderful illustrations. It is engaging mystery for children aged 7-10 years. It uses sound and image to complement the story.

d) Benefits for Learning (4) - I think this app offers features that most books can't. While there are better stories in book form, 'Mika' might just encourage some children to read the story who might not pick up the book. The related memory game and puzzle obviously have their own benefits for memory and visualisation, but while useful, they have little relationship to the story and could be seen as a distraction. I'd encourage developers to avoid these types of trivial and contrived add-ons to a story.

e) Value (3) - at $9.99 US it's not cheap.

Total Score = 19/25

3. 'Violet' series written by Allison Keeme

There are a number of e-books in this series; I have reviewed 'Violet and the Mysterious Black Dog' which I think is one of the best stories. The books use sound, image, words and a variety of interactive elements to gain the reader's participation in the story.

Screen shot from Violet & the Mysterious Black Dog
a) Fun & Interactivity (5) - I've given this app the highest rating because it uses every sense except smell to engage the reader. One of the best features of the book is that it invites the reader to help 'Violet' (alias 'Phantom Girl') to help find clues and solve the mystery. While the dotted lines around the various pieces of interactive illustrations are a bit intrusive, they work well. My only gripe is that I found the background music a bit boring.

b) Useability (4) -This is a very useable app.  Instructions are clear, there is a 'home' button to take you back to the beginning and no instructions are needed to use it. 

c) Literacy benefits (5) - The story is simple but engaging. While it isn't a great literature it is a good early reader. I can see young readers (6-8 years) loving these books. It will be useful for developing comprehension.

d) Benefits for Learning (3) -There isn't a lot of challenge with the Violet books so there won't be a lot of new vocabulary or new knowledge gained.

e) Value (5) - at $3.99 US this is great value.

Total Score = 22/25

4. Miss Spider's Tea Party, by David Kirk

This is based on the picture book of the same name. It is a delightful story of a spider in rhyming verse. It offers a variety of ways to experience the book, including reading it, hearing it, painting some of the pages, playing match games and puzzles based on the illustrations.

Screen shot from 'Miss Spider's Tea Party'
a) Fun & Interactivity (4) - Young children love the story and the illustrations, and have fun exploring the illustrations by touching them to see what they do and to hear special effects. 

b) Useablity (5) - This is a very easy app to use.

c) Literacy benefits (3) - There isn't a great deal of benefit beyond that which a reader would gain from a book. But once again, some children might read the iPad version before the book. 

d) Benefits for Learning (3) - The book has rich language so there will be benefit in expanded vocabulary. The painting, matching game and puzzles also have value for learning, but they don't add anything to the reading experience of the story itself.

e) Value (4) - at $7.99 US I think this is app is good value.

Total Score = 19/25

5. The Wheels on the Bus

This is an iPad version of the well-known song.  It was winner of the "Best Children's App” KAPi Award at the 2010 International Consumer Electronics Show.

A screen shot from 'The Wheels on the Bus'
a) Fun & Interactivity (5) - Young children just love this app. Even two year-olds will enjoy turning the page, listening to the words, singing along and moving the various illustration features. They can open and shut the doors, move the bus, operate the wipers etc.

b) Useability (5) - This is a very easy app to use. 

c) Literacy benefits (4) - For the preschool child there is benefit in reading this type of repetitive book to develop concepts of print and an understanding of 'books'.  

d) Benefits for Learning (4) - The book doesn't offer much more than a book except that for the very young it is an easy introduction to digital reading. There is the added benefit that all senses except smell are used. Great for hand-eye coordination, memory, language learning etc.

e) Value (5) - at $1.19 US there is no better value in a children's app.

Total Score = 23/25

Some final general points

There are some exciting attempts to create electronic picture books that are more than simply read along versions for the iPad. However, overall many of the attempts so far need further work. I would encourage developers to keep the following in mind:
  • The books need to be more than just fun play with the iPad; they must enhance the reading experience.
  • They should avoid trivialising the text with add-ons that have little to add to the story.
  • We need quality language, stories and illustrations.
  • The books must be easy to use and have many of the same qualities of real book (e.g. the ability to flip forward and backwards easily).
  • They need to use as many of the senses as possible.  
Some other resources and links

TechRadar's '7 Best iPad Apps for Kids' (HERE)

5 Amazing iPad e-books for kids (HERE)

My post on 'Alice', the iPad and new ways to read picture books (HERE)

Friday, December 17, 2010

Ruth Park (1917-2010): A Tribute

One of Australia's finest writers, Ruth Park, has died aged 93 years. She was born in New Zealand in 1917 and moved to Sydney to marry D'Arcy Niland. Together, they raised five children all the while struggling as freelance writers. 

She began writing early, contributing poems and stories to the New Zealand Herald's children's page, and later the Auckland Star. She also contributed to overseas newspapers, including the San Francisco Chronicle and the San Francisco Examiner. Joy Hooton's in her survey of Park's life comments:
"Her formal education was conventional; in secondary college it was gained in part by means of a National Scholarship which a dedicated nun and 'the best teacher [she] ever had' pushed her into winning. Far more important was the self education she rapidly received from witnessing the struggles, disappointments, frustrations, failings, achievements and aspirations of members of her family and community."
Ruth Park's career as a novelist took off when she won the inaugural Sydney Morning Herald literary competition in 1946 for her first novel 'The Harp in the South'. This was part of a trilogy that included 'Missus', 'The Harp in the South' and 'Poor Man's Orange'. 'The Harp in the South' is the story of an Irish family living in the slums (at that time) of Surrey Hills. The story portrays just how tough life could be in Sydney at that time and offers a picture of Surrey Hills that included poverty, teenage sex, wife-beating and murder.  The setting for her story was realistically based on her observations of life in the area while living above a small shop in Devonshire Street.  The book was a huge success and was eventually translated into 37 languages.

She was a very generous woman. In the mid 1980s my eldest daughter and I had just read 'Playing Beattie Bow' (she was about 11 years-old). This was one of her earliest introductions to time-slip historical fantasy. She read the book many times and loved it so much that I bought her a hard cover copy as a birthday present and sent it to Ruth Park asking her to sign it. Not only did she sign it, she sent (from Norfolk Island where she was living at the time) a second book 'Callie's Castle' for my youngest daughter, who she described as 'Her secret friend'. As well, she wrote a two-page letter to me about literature and her writing. This led to a number of exchanges over the years about books and writing.

The editor of the Cambridge History of Australian Literature, Peter Pierce said:
"She can properly be regarded as a child of the Depression and a marvellous chronicler of that time. She was a prolific writer, from the social realism of her novels to the children's books. She was one of those remarkable New Zealanders who made a life and career here.''
Her Books

She was to publish nine adult novels. These included 'Poor Man's Orange' and 'Swords and Crowns and Rings'. The latter won the Miles Franklin Award in 1977.

As well, she wrote almost 50 children's books, including one of my favourite Australian adolescent novels 'Playing Beatie Bow'.   She also wrote the timeless series of 'The Muddle-Headed Wombat' (15 in all) that was based on her radio serial that ran from 1957 to 1971.

She wrote non-fiction as well, including many feature articles for major newspapers like the 'Sydney Morning Herald' and 'The National Times'. Some of these focussed on the Depression and Sydney's early history that she was always able to bring to life. Her non-fiction also included an autobiography, 'The Drums Go Bang!' in 1956 (with D'Arcy Niland) and 'The Companion Guide to Sydney'.

Fantasy was common in Park's writing for children. Her work also has the wonderful ability to communicate a sense of real characters and life situations. Her wonderful ability to write authentic history was also evident in much of her work. Nowhere in her children's work are these combined better than in 'Playing Beattie Bow'.

The 'Muddle-Headed Wombat' series that was illustrated by the wonderful Noela Young have delighted many young readers. Characteristic of all of her work the Muddle-Headed Wombat' series was written with the imaginations of children in mind. The impossible is always possible for children. Park understood this. Her book 'When the Wind Changed' again demonstrates this (who could forget her daughter Deborah Niland's wonderful illustrations) brilliantly.

Her other children's books included 'The Hole in the Hill' (1961) which drew on her New Zealand experience 'Come Danger, Come Darkness' (1978), 'The Big Brass Key' (1983), 'The Gigantic Balloon' (1975). Her books also show some of her ongoing interests, including the sea and islands in 'The Sixpenny Island' (1968), 'My Sister Sif' (1986) and 'Shaky Island' (1962) and an interest in the supernatural seen in 'Playing Beatie Bow'.

A number of her books were also made into films, including 'Playing Beatie Bow' and 'Harp in the South' which was made into a successful television mini series.

Her Awards

Ruth Park won many awards but these included the Children's Book Council of Australia Award for Book of the Year in 1981, for 'Playing Beatie Bow'. She also won the Children's Book Award in the NSW Premier's Literary Awards in 1986 for 'When the Wind Changed'. She was also awarded an Honorary Doctor of Letters by my own university, the University of New South Wales in 1994. She won the 1977 Miles Franklin Award for 'Swords and Crowns and Rings'. She was made a member of the Order of Australia in 1987.

Other posts and resources

Joy Hooton's excellent essay 'Ruth park: A Celebration' HERE

Full bibliography of Ruth Park's books HERE

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

The Worrying Preoccupation with Weighing the 'Sheep'!

Global trends in education policy

I’ve recently returned from a trip to Europe where I had the chance to read British newspapers most days. Reading 'The Times' every day was like being at home reading the Sydney Morning Herald. Not because the content was the same, but because many of the articles about education covered the same topics as at home. In Britain, as in Australia and to a large extent the USA, governments, business leaders, media commentators and some parents are decrying the limitations of education systems and are planning or are implementing remarkably similar strategies. In brief, the public agenda involves a call for:
  • More extensive national testing of literacy, maths and science.
  • Tougher exit exams at the end of high school that provide a single mark that allows all students to be compared across the country.
  • A strengthening of system-wide standardised testing of literacy at grades 3, 5 and 8, and in Britain there are plans to test 5 year-olds and include the data in school league tables.
  • The publication of lists of the ‘top’ schools ranked on available cross-national data (e.g. the 'My School' website in Australia).
  • Better-qualified teachers.
  • Increased benchmarking against other OECD countries on the various Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) tests.
  • The introduction or strengthening of national curriculum initiatives.
The dilemma of how often to weigh sheep

Overall, the priority is on being able to measure student performance based on agreed measurable outcomes. Now, I’m not against measurable outcomes, but in education they have some limitations when compared to, say, raising sheep, or monitoring factory production. The assessment of sheep production can be monitored in varied ways. You can weigh the sheep, assess the quality of fleece, check general health signs etc. But one thing I know, as the wise Scottish sheep farmer once said, “it doesn’t matter how many times you weigh the sheep, you have to feed them if you want them to grow.”

I’m very concerned at what is happening in relation to the public debate about education where much of our energy is being spent on calls for more testing. As well, large amounts of money and time are being spent on practices which arguably contribute no more to children's growth than weighing does for the growth of sheep. The people who know most about education, the teachers, are being beaten up by farmers, policemen, lawyers, social workers, small business owners etc, because the teachers don’t want to keep ‘weighing’ their kids and limiting school programs to that which can be easily turned into items on a national test.

I’m no stranger to business and public policy, nor the needs of parents and I’ve been an adviser to PISA and other major national assessment projects in Australia for almost 20 years. I believe that testing has a place in assessment, I see the value of a national curriculum and even system wide testing. And I know that parents want and deserve clear feedback on their children’s progress at school and their performance relative to other children. You can read my post on the ‘My School’ website in Australia for a fuller discussion of some of these issues (here). However, for me, the problem with national assessment programs and the My School website is what they are unable to measure, or those things that cannot be easily measured in quantitative terms.

PISA and the performance of some nations

Prof Geoff Masters
It is worth noting that of the English speaking countries surveyed in reading literacy, Canada, New Zealand and Australia have outperformed the USA and the United Kingdom since PISA was commenced. While I won't speculate on the performance of the USA and the UK, I would offer one piece of advice, increased testing will do little to help either country, only quality teaching will help. The USA has a long history of standardised testing of reading that is well beyond anything you would have found in Australia or New Zealand, although this has increased dramatically recently. It is also worth noting that Australia’s love affair with the national testing began about ten years ago. Since then, while Australia continues to have high levels in reading literacy (we were ranked 9th of 65 countries in 2009 in the PISA results), we have seen a decline in our performance in the same period. In a recent report on Australia’s performance, Professor Geoff Masters, the Chief Executive of the Australian Council for Educational Research (ACER) points out that:
“Australian students are still performing well above the OECD average but their results in reading literacy and mathematical literacy have declined significantly over the past few years,” 
More worryingly he points out that:
“Australia was the only high performing country to show a significant decline in reading literacy performance between PISA 2000 and PISA 2009.”
For Australian readers let me stress that our performance is still high, only six countries had significantly higher scores for their 15 year-old students. But for me a number of alarm bells are ringing.

I don’t think that the secret to a great education system, let alone a great nation, is the structuring of national school education systems to teach to tests, particularly when the tests only measure one small slice of what learning and education is about.

Professor Allan Luke commented recently on Australia’s first attempt at a National Curriculum in a paper for the Australian College of Education:
“To date, the Australian Curriculum has the hallmarks of the new generic, transnational curriculum settlement that emerged in the late 1990s as a response to new economic and social contexts. This features a focus on basic skills acquisition and a taxonomic reinstatement of canonical content knowledge in literature, science and history. It attempts to address the emergence of digital cultures and transnational economies through a complex overlay of 'new capacities' to be 'embedded', integrated and indexed against traditional basics and subject knowledge.”
I don’t agree with all that Luke says but his major point is well made. Many of our efforts to respond to a changing and more complex world, have involved cobbling a few new ideas onto traditional notions of curriculum. Schools are not factories, they are places where teachers create and lead communities of learners who inspire one another. Schools and teachers are trying to educate children for life in a world where there are greater opportunities for learning and the gaining of knowledge than at any time in human history.

The things that national testing find hard to measure

When we do assess children’s learning within our classrooms and across educational systems we need to be careful what we measure. I need to stress that I’m not criticising the quality of the PISA assessments. In fact, the tests used are the best they can possibly be. They measure what they are expected to measure well. But there are many things that the tests cannot measure (or find it difficult to measure) which are very important for individuals and nations. Here are just a few:
  • Problem solving ability.
  • Critical thinking.
  • Creativity.
  • Level of engagement, interest and motivation.
  • Moral growth.
  • Aesthetic and design sense and ability.
  • Citizenship.
  • The ability to work as part of a team.
  • Leadership ability.
  • Depth of knowledge in areas of great interest.
  • Human sensitivity.
  • Well-developed self-awareness. 
While good teachers understand that the above are very important and seek to develop them, consider what might happen to teacher behaviour if all that is seemingly valued by governments, business and lobby groups is performance on school or system wide testing. A National Curriculum like that just developed in Australia (see here) must allow, indeed encourage, the development of many of the above abilities and attributes as well as basic skills like decoding. I read a number of blogs and am part of a number of online communities. The following comment by one outstanding teacher speaks volumes for the issues at hand:

Right now I have to assess 126 items per report card times 26 children. That means 3276 check marks per tri-mester, times each tri-mester = 9728 marks. Now they want us to record it 3 different places…That doesn't count the pretesting in September or the CA60's (Cumulative Student Record Folders) and literacy folders in June.

You can hear the frustration in this teacher’s voice because as a professional she knows that her time is being soaked up ‘weighing’ the children rather than feeding them on the excitement and challenge of learning. There is a need to look closely at the quality of our schools and teachers and to ensure that they continue to do the very best they can with the children parents nurture and prepare for schooling in the first five years of life. Teachers need to be held accountable, but they also need to be left alone at times to make professional decisions. On top of this, they need our support in an age where teaching is harder and all families have higher expectations than ever before.

Other relevant posts

'Australian National English Curriculum' HERE

'My School' Website: A Blunt and Inadequate Instrument' HERE

'Multiple Intelligences' HERE

Monday, December 6, 2010

Excellent Educational Toys for Children

This is the second time I've written a post on toys - toys that teach, challenge, stimulate and encourage creativity and learning.  I should start up front with a few basic over-arching statements.

First, children don't need expensive toys to learn. As I have argued in other posts, play in and of itself stimulates learning, problem solving, language development, creativity and so on (see for example my post 'The importance of simple play' here). As well, there are many activities that require few or no bought materials within the child's world. We've all seen toddlers toss the toy to one side and play with the box. So too a pair of your shoes, a coat that quickly becomes a cape, some blocks that become just about anything in an imaginary story, the plastic or saucepan sections in the kitchen cupboards whose treasures can amuse children for hours and outdoor activities.

Second, even a single purpose toy that brings great pleasure but doesn't teach a lot can achieve more if adults are engaged to some extent with the activity. For example, a game like Hungry Hippos besides helping with basic counting, can also help children to learn about turn taking, being gracious as a winner and a loser and so on.

Third, if you were planning to spend significant sums of money on toys I would be aiming for toys that offer multiple purposes and varied areas of learning. My test for many toys would be:
  • Do they stimulate creativity and learning?
  • Do they encourage language use?
  • Do they require varied skills and multiple abilities?
  • Do they encourage the integration of many forms of learning?
  • Do they help children to develop interpersonal skills (if it is a multi-player toy)?
  • Will the toy last (i.e. not fall apart)?
  • Is the toy good value for money?
  • Is the toy fun, interesting, challenging?
  • Will it sustain your child's attention beyond a few uses?
In this post I will talk about some of the bought toys that I find interesting and which have worked with our children and grandchildren. I'm not trying to be comprehensive just offering examples of good toys that meet some of the criteria I outline above.

1. Timeless construction toys

No family should be without a couple of toys that encourage children to make or construct things. These toys help to develop good hand-eye coordination, encourage creativity and problem solving and can help to develop mathematical and spatial intelligence.  There are many types of construction toys that children can use from a very young age. Here are a few examples:

Above: David uses Knupferli with Jacob (his son and my grandson)

a) Wooden blocks of some type - at our house our grandchildren still use the same set of blocks in their original walker that our children did 30+ years ago (suitable for ages 6 months to 3 years).
b) Lego - probably all three types/sizes will be useful. Our children's Lego is now played with by our grandchildren (suitable for age 6 months to 15 years).
c) Other more challenging connector toys - e.g. Knupferli Construction materials (see above). I used the soft plastic Knupferli materials when I was in Kindergarten and only just rediscovered them again (ideal for age 5-10 years). You can use them to make a simple necklace or a complex 3D shape.
d) Meccano - newer meccano sets (see right) are different, but they still combine all the old skills and interest of the metal Meccano I had as a child (age 5-15 years).

You can do many things with construction toys. Yes, you can build simply things like towers or shapes.
You can make houses, cars, anything (in the case of Lego).
In combination with other objects (e.g. plastic animals or people) you can tell stories - zoos can be created, aquariums, farms, space invaders and dinosaurs can invade villages etc.
In some cases your children can learn how to follow instructions and design plans (e.g. Meccano, Knupferli & Lego).

What's great about construction toys is that they:
  • Help to develop hand-eye co-ordination
  • Encourage creativity and problem solving
  • Can help to develop spatial and geometric skills

2. 'Toys' that allow you to create

These are not all toys, some are materials, but all allow children to be creative. Here are a few of my favourites:

a) Modelling clay - you can buy cheap multi-coloured modelling clay for $2-3 per pack, or you can make Play Dough. I've written a post on the creative use of modelling clay (here). Suitable for all ages.
b) Magnetic learning boards with letters and shapes (age 12 months to 5 years), see picture to the right.
c) Magesketch (or some other variety) of this magnetic sketching board, age 12 months to 4 years.
d) Felt boards - there are many products of this type on the market (many of these are very cheap), age 2-6 years.

3. Model people, animal and objects

There are many wonderful examples of toys that consist of people, animals, dwellings, and objects that go with them like dolls houses, castles, forts, arks etc. These allow children to engage in creative play either alone or with others for long periods of time. These simple objects can allow children to amuse themselves in a world of make believe and fantasy at home, in the car, at other people's houses etc. They are a wonderful way for children to create (verbally) their first narratives.

Some of the simplest are perhaps the best:

a) Keep a box of animals - depending on the child's interests these might be farm animals (under 12 months), African animals, sea creatures, dinosaurs and people - these can be used alone or with other toys (see the shot of Sam above with his Lego 'zoo').
b) Commercial sets like the Little People series and Sylvanian Families are wonderful for young children - we have a set based on Noah's Ark to which we've added other animals. This has kept all our grandchildren engaged for hours (0-3 years).
c) A doll's house will keep boys and girls engaged in creative play for ages and there are modern variations on the same theme with medieval castles complete within knights and dragons (age 2 -8).

4. Mathematical or Spatial Skill Toys

a) Perpetual puzzles - these are puzzles designed by Makoto Nakamura, and add a new level of creativity by allowing the child to change the shape of the overall puzzle that is based on continuous and interlocking shapes.

b) Blokus is a relatively new puzzle game with simple rules, but it can keep adults and children stimulated for ages. The purpose of the game is for each player to place his/her 21 pieces on the board (or at least the maximum number of pieces) in a continuous span unimpeded by other players' pieces. It can be played by 2 or 4 people.

c) M-Tic - this is a brilliant and simple construction type game that consists of multi-coloured plastic pieces with magnetic ends. The purpose of the game is to create geometric shapes. It is excellent for developing geometrical and spatial knowledge. If you can't find this version there are other similar examples at good toy shops (see the picture below).

d) Puzzles of all kinds - puzzles are brilliant for developing memory, patience and a variety of spatial skills. Young children can start with simply puzzles that require them to insert an animal or shape into a single hole. Later they can move to simply 6-20 piece puzzles then much more complex puzzles as they develop their skills.

5. Other categories

There are many other toys that allow children to have fun, learn, manipulate and develop fine motor skills. Here are just a few examples that I spotted at my local Toy Shop this week. If you live in Sydney Monkey Puzzle Toy Store is worth a look, it's one of the best toyshops I've seen. The owners know and are passionate about toys. Find a good local toy store where the owners choose, sell and enjoy toys.

a) Magnetic (Mudpuppy) Dress up Figures - these come in a metal box and the mannequins vary (e.g. sports model, pirate, ballerina, monster, mermaid etc).
b) Chicken Socks craft sets (Klutz) - These are cheap and have a variety of separate packets including 'Crayon Rubbings', 'Fun Felt', 'Simple Sewing', 'Hand Art' etc.
c) Perpetual puzzles - these are puzzles designed by Makoto Nakamura, add a new level of creativity by allowing the child to change the shape of the overall puzzle that is based on continuous and interlocking shapes.
d) Puppets - every house should have a puppet or two, there are many different types of puppets including finger puppets, hand puppets and string puppets.

There are obviously many great toys that I haven't mentioned. In my home I'd always want to have puzzles, lots of writing implements (crayons, pencils, chalk, varied papers), toys that teach numbers and letters, toys that train hand-eye co-ordination (through threading, putting things in holes etc), percussion instruments, Thomas Trains and cars (especially for boys), a dress-up box and so on.