Monday, September 08, 2014

Taking The Time And Care To Do It Properly

On Thursday and Friday last week I wrote about the idea of transforming public education in America, an idea that sometimes appears depressingly impossible given our current political circumstances; where one of the leading billionaire "corporate education reformers" can blithely discuss the grudge he still holds against public schools over a bad grade in middle school, saying, "They paired me up with a moron, and I realized these people thought I was stupid, and it really pissed me off!" It sometimes seems like too many and too much to take on these guys, their deep pockets and their drive to win at all costs, but the truth is that teachers, parents, and students around the world are successfully transforming education, despite the neoliberal ideologues, and the way they are doing it can be a model for our own transformation.

In August of 2013 I was in Auckland, New Zealand conducting a teacher training. I've been doing this sort of thing for the past couple years, speaking to groups of teachers and parents in New Zealand, as well as the US, the UK, Greece, and Australia. This was the first and only time teachers arrived carrying copies of their nation's early childhood curriculum framework: Te Whāriki

As a citizen of a nation in which our national curriculum (Common Core) is being imposed from on high, I naturally assumed that they were hoping I'd perform a sort of on the spot criticism of their curriculum, but instead I discovered they had brought their copies proudly, to show me what was possible, but I still didn't really understand. It has taken me 12 months to get my mind around this alien idea of a national curriculum being almost universally embraced. In fact, it wasn't until my most recent trip Down Under where I met Wendy Lee, New Zealand educator and project director of the Education Leadership Project, that I finally "got it." As she discussed the development of the Te Whāriki, it clicked for me that one of the reasons these teachers felt so much ownership was that it had been developed through a transparent, inclusive, democratic process, as opposed to the behind-closed-doors, top-down, my-way-or-the-highway approach taken with our own disastrous Common Core.

It takes time to develop and implement a curriculum that is accepted, inclusive, meaningful and makes a difference for children. ~Prof. Helen May (lead writer of the Te Whāriki)

No one ever said democracy would be fast or easy, but that doesn't mean that it doesn't work: it means that to do its work well it takes time. It takes time because at the heart of democracy is a consultative process: if anyone's voice is excluded, then it's not democracy. Developing the Te Whāriki was a process that spanned the better part of two decades beginning in 1991.

From the book entitled Understanding the Te Whāriki Approach, authored by Wendy Lee, Margaret Carr (another lead writer of the Te Whāriki) and others:

The curriculum development process was organized to ensure dialogue with all parties having an interest in early childhood education. Representatives from all national early childhood organizations, government agencies, universities and research and teacher training institutions sat on an advisory panel and gave feedback on all the papers. A review group was established by the Ministry of Education to represent the government and evaluate the document . . . A curriculum development team of 15 practitioners, trainers and nationally recognised individuals formed the core working group. The curriculum was structured to enable the development of common principles, aims and goals, and also to provide the opportunity to negotiate the identity of diverse provision within the curriculum framework. Six specialists working groups were developed, enabling six core 'communities' to have a voice at the curriculum table.

Those 'communities' were the Infant and Toddler, Young Child, Māori Immersion, Pacific Island Language, Home-based Services, and Children with Special Needs working groups.

From 1991 to 1993, the framework was developed during a process of circulating a series of working papers and gaining feedback from early childhood educators, from a diversity of services, in local workshops and conference presentations across the country. Draft guidelines were published in 1993, inviting further published feedback. It was through this process of intensive consultation that consensus concerning the proposed curriculum principles and the aims and goals for children was able to be reached amongst the diverse early childhood services.

Only after the Te Whāriki was officially published in 1996, a document that by this time contained no surprises for anyone, did they then turn their attention to assessment, the place where the Gates Foundation and for-profit education testing companies, those who essentially wrote our Common Core, bizarrely, started. In the words of Helen May (link added by me):

The Ministry of Education subsequently funded several research projects towards developing frameworks for evaluation and assessment based on the inclusionary principles of Te Whāriki . . . followed by Kei Tue o te Pae-Assessment for learning: Early childhood exemplars, a project that was lead by Margaret Carr. The exemplars use a learning story framework of children's interest, strengths and dispositions. This represents a shift from internationally dominant paradigms of assessment for children based upon checklists and developmental measures of competency, skills and content (my note: not to mention high stakes standardized testing). A key principle being that diversity must be accommodated.

This is why the Common Core has been such a disaster from the start and is doomed, ultimately, to it's rightful place in the ashcan of history. It was designed to serve one constituency only: those imaginary "employers of tomorrow," fantastical creatures whose "needs" can't be foretold five years into the future, let alone decades from now when today's preschoolers will comprise the core of their workforce. The entire rest of American society, including our teachers, parents, and children, were intentionally cut out of the process, leaving us with a fait accompli, a set of dead documents, imposed in an act of intellectual imperialism, with, tellingly, no accommodations for feedback, change, or criticism. 

Te Whāriki translates from the indigenous Māori language of Aotearoa as 'a woven mat for all to stand on' and is the national early childhood curriculum in New Zealand. As a document it defines overall Principles and Goals for all early childhood programs. As a metaphor, Te Whāriki enables the diverse early childhood services and centers, their teachers, families and children, to 'weave' their own curriculum pattern shaped by different cultural perspectives, the age of children, the philosophy or structure of the program. ~Prof. Helen May

The Te Whāriki, is intended to to be a living, breathing document, open to an ongoing, democratic evolution. If I'd known then what I know now, it wouldn't have surprised me when New Zealand teachers proudly brought copies of their national curriculum to show me:

There was a high level of support for the curriculum by the early childhood sector relieved that: Te Whāriki was no takeover by the school national curriculum; it respected the existing diversity; it affirmed some strongly held beliefs about early childhood practice; it was very much a New Zealand statement and not another import from abroad. On the other hand it soon became apparent that Te Whāriki was complex, partly because it resisted telling practitioners what to do: it asked each program to 'weave' its own curriculum pattern.

There is so much to admire about Te Whāriki as a national early childhood curriculum in terms of content, structure, implementation, and evaluation, but from where I sit, the most important lesson for us in America is the process by which it came about and continues to evolve. This is what democracy demands: an open, inclusive transparent process, be it undertaken on a national level or state-by-state. This is the primary lesson we can learn from the study of successful curriculum models (links added by me):

The stories of Singapore, Finland, and Ontario are not about the triumph of scientific methods. They are not about the triumph of markets, or successful standardization. They are about cultural and governmental settlements to particular forms of education and, indeed, forms of life. ~Allen Luke (educator, researcher, author)

I am by no means an expert on either Te Whāriki or Common Core, but the more I dig into the former, the more I find to love, while the more I learn about the later, the more appalled I become. The difference, I assert, is taking the time and care to "do" democracy properly: it's the difference between pride and shame.

I'll finish with the foundational aspiration for children of the Te Whāriki, one I propose as a place to begin our own national, democratic discussion about the transformation of education -- the first small step in a journey of a thousand miles:

To grow up as competent and confident learners and communicators, healthy in mind, body, and spirit, secure in their sense of belonging and in the knowledge that they make a valued contribution to the world.

Dad told me I'd feel at home in Auckland

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Bridget said...

My heart soared when I read that a work group to consider Children with Special Needs was integral in developing the curriculum framework. How wonderful it is to take the needs of all children into account from the outset, rather than trying to adapt or modify something after the fact.

Anonymous said...

As a New Zealand early childhood teacher relatively recently qualified, it was very exciting to find you talking about Te Whaariki. There is a lot of pride in it as a document, in the emphasis it places on an inclusive, well rounded curriculum. Even more impressive is the way that The revised schooling curriculum has followed through, developing key competences for learners. As a document, it embraces the indigenous culture, as you have put it, it a way that many of our nations other systems have yet to catch up with. Anyhow, glad you enjoyed your trip!