Friday, August 31, 2018

Book Review: A Learner's Paradise by Richard Wells

Recently I took some time to read A Learner's Paradise, Richard Wells' praise of the New Zealand education system. He makes a compelling case that New Zealand is the best place to be a learner in the world. His main arguments are that we have a system set up to be responsive to learner needs because we have a very open-ended curriculum and we have several other structures set in place to allow educators to adapt their practice to the children they see each day.

I agree with much of what he says, up to a point. Certainly our curriculum is one of the best to work with if you are a teacher. There are many broad ideas, rather than specifics. We don't have a set plan that's the same for every child. There's no one telling teachers that you have to teach fractions at a certain time of the year and in a predetermined way. We have Key Competencies that are overarching for our curriculum, which help us as educators mould our learners into citizens who engage with society and try to better it.

Schools also have a great deal of autonomy in New Zealand. We are essentially self-governed and are able to determine what and how we teach. Teachers here have the opportunity to grow and learn. Our standards are based upon growth, not competency. Every three years a teacher needs to show work towards developing their capabilities rather than just ticking boxes. The way this appraisal process work is determined by schools and in many cases by the educators themselves.

Schools in New Zealand are free to interpret all of these documents as they wish (within reason of course). And through that interpretation, we have had some amazing things come to be: KidsEdChatNZ, The Mind Lab, CORE education and others. New Zealand teachers have it pretty good, and so do New Zealand learners.

The book also delves into some amazing practices that are happening in New Zealand schools. Two of my favourite were Kids Domain Kindergarten and Breen's Intermediate School. Wells told a story of children at Kids Domain going to visit a parking garage and then returning to class and coming up with designs to make a better parking garage in an example of Design Thinking being used with very young children. Breen's Intermediate has different spaces designated for different modes of learning (see the picture below) paired with the ability of learners to design their own school days to make an extremely innovative and learner centred approach. Those and the other examples (and many others not in the book) prove just how amazing a school in New Zealand could become.

All of that sounds rosy and amazing. However, I don't feel as though many schools take advantage of these amazing opportunities. I've seen many schools in the few years I've been here and most of them still spend 75% or more of their day on reading, writing and maths, with no opportunity for learners to have any input into their education. I see teachers working themselves silly trying to make sure they see four reading groups, three writing groups and four maths groups every day. More than ever, some schools are treating education like an industrial process, putting children on an endless conveyor belt towards the teacher. 

I wish every educator in New Zealand could read this book and see what is actually possible in this amazing system. There is so much innovation and amazing things being done, it sometimes saddens me to still see children trudging through their school days just getting through a school day or worse, feeling disengaged and powerless in their lives. We've lost sight of what is possible and what success really means in our schools. Richard Wells has done a great and necessary job in reminded all of us what we actually have and offers glimpses of what's possible.

If you are an educator anywhere, try to find the time to read this amazing book and share it with your colleagues. Surely it will open your eyes!

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