Te Marama Pūoru Waiata Māori – learning for all

On my way back from EducampBOP yesterday afternoon I listened to the Mixtape on RNZ.  I hadn’t realised that following on from Te Wiki o te Reo Māori there was a Māori Music Month.  I can be forgiven for not knowing about it as this is its inaugural year and there hasn’t been a lot of mainstream media coverage about it.  The guest on the Mixtape was Rob Ruha  who “is from the East Coast, and is recognised as a leader of traditional Māori music. He has a unique style of which has been described as an eclectic mix of soul-roots-reggae with a touch of RnB, rock-blues and jazz” (see Stuff.co.nz article).

This afternoon I listened to the Mixtape of Moana Maniapoto and one of the things she said struck me – she introduced herself as a musician, a songwriter, always learning and she went on to say that her life has been about storytelling whether through music, documentary making or writing in general.

I have talked before about the power of storytelling for learning. Recently I was involved in a Facebook conversation about the relative merits of teaching handwriting in primary school. As usual, there were many opinions and I have written about this before too, so I am not going to revisit it. But one of the comments that was made was that learning how to read and write brought Europe out of the Dark Ages and another said that people will not be able to contribute to society fully if they don’t know how to read and write. It was also said that not knowing how to read and write would seriously hinder a person’s ability to learn.

So this is the nub of this post.  Why do these people think this is the case?  And how does the emphasis reading and writing meet the needs of all our learners?  It is true that up until relatively recently, while reading and writing have been the main ways that we have accessed ‘knowledge’ in educational systems in western societies, there have been people who have struggled to learn and progress.

My contribution to the conversation was that for generations we learned through storytelling and song which developed active listening skills, the ability to communicate orally, articulate ideas and responses to stories and retell them.  They were adapted and embellished on the way, maybe to fit the context of the situation or maybe because some details had been misinterpreted or misunderstood and people filled the gaps to make the story work.  People learned how to craft language and think on the spot and they were creative, they used verse, songs, jokes and prose.  The places we listened, often alongside a  ‘master’ as he/she went about their trade, or around a fire or in the kitchen or in the fields meant that we spent time with our community elders and built connections and relationships, learned respect and shared ideas.  And listening to stories helps our learning because it activates not just the processing language parts of our brains but the sensory and motor aspects too.  And telling stories is just as powerful for learning as we have to articulate what we mean, we have to process our thoughts and organise them.  I know we do that when we write too – I have edited and re-organised the paragraphs and my ideas in this blog post as I have written, but when we speak we have to do that on the go, dynamically as people listen to us and they can question and interrupt and ask for clarification.

Now I am not saying that reading and writing hasn’t enriched learning, it is an essential tool in the education box and we should make the most of what it offers us.  However, the emphasis over the last century or two has been on the written word and the process of writing as a means of learning.  And I think that it has been a barrier to learning in terms of how we measure learning for many people. Their learning in school, the ability to pass exams has been almost entirely predicated on reading and writing. So if we have a child in a class that finds it difficult to read or write,  we make them do more of it so they can catch up. If they don’t reach a certain level of literacy they will not be able to access ‘learning’ across other subjects, even maths because they are all based on reading information and then writing about it.  My boys are creative kids with heaps of ideas, they both struggled with the physical aspect of forming letters and making their writing legible. They were slow at writing so they stopped thinking up big ideas, or at least writing them down because it took too long.  So they never really explored their ideas, articulated them, ordered them and crafted them fully to the satisfaction of their teachers in an essay format.  Fortunately, my boys are ‘good’ readers so they developed a wide vocabulary,  they identified how to form sentences and worked out how language works through the range of genres that they read.  If they had greater access to typing and being able to use a computer for their writing the barrier for them may have been removed. If they had been able to record their voice and speak their ideas out loud rather than writing them, how might that have affected their learning?

20150930_223616Remember that the very first way of communicating was through gesture and voice, through songs and images. The rhymic nature of poetry and songs stimulates the brain but also the body so that we move and sway in time, the words somehow stick in your brain, just think how much easier it is to learn a poem with rhyme and rhythm than one without and how the words of catchy tunes rattle around your head without you even wanting them to!   So my boys also loved listening to stories; we read often to them and they had tapes and CDs which they listened to in the car or at bedtime.  The power of listening and how it impacts on the ability to memorise (I won’t say learn because they are very different)  was reinforced once when I came upon my eldest at the age of 3 ‘reading’ Winnie the Pooh. He had memorised the words from the tapes he listened to regularly and from us reading to him and was ‘reading’ to himself, turning the pages as he went!

As a language teacher, I have frequently bemoaned the paucity of listening skills amongst the young people coming through to me in my classroom as well as the unwillingness of students to articulate their ideas orally unless they have had time to craft ideas in written form first.  As we have assigned more emphasis to reading and writing, to decoding words on a page we have neglected to understand the power that the spoken words has on children’s ability to learn.  When children come into a school they have spent 4-5 years listening and developing oral language. They have amazing memories, they can retell stories, they are good active listeners and mimickers. They have learned as they have watched their parents, elder siblings, caregivers, and asked countless Socratic questions about the world, life, and the meaning thereof.  So,what do we do? We put a pencil in their hands, we sit them down, we tell them to be quiet and we teach them to read and write.  I am being harsh.  I know that primary schools do so much more than that and I am well aware of the constraints that schools are under to ‘deliver’ the curriculum and ‘meet the standards’ and I am not going to go into any of that now.  But I think you get my meaning. They get out of the habit of ‘listening’ and speaking and they become over-reliant on reading and writing.

916149_edb08ecb
Enter a caption

© Copyright Ewen Rennie and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence.

 

From symbols painted on cave walls, on skins, carved into wooden posts and stone pillars to the artistic calligraphy on vellum of the monks, to the printing press and then to typing and word processing, language and, more importantly, communication have informed the way humans have lived, adapted, survived and flourished in an unpredictable world.  But language developed orally, it was honed and refined by people talking to each other. As we have travelled more widely, explored new places, tasted new foods, seen spectacular and interesting new sights and immersed ourselves in different cultures, our vocabulary has grown to reflect those new experiences.  Language absorbs and assimilates new words to represent new inventions forming them from old words, trying to capture the spirit of the object and how we interact with it and the affordance it has with our lives.

When we listen we hear nuances; tone of voice, feeling, volume, accent, we can sense mood and emotion, we can also see the facial changes and the gestures that people use when they speak and we make connections.  When we talk we have to think on our feet, search for words sometimes or explain our way around a word that we can’t quite remember or that we don’t know.  We adapt our own tone for the context, for our audience, and we make eye contact and build connections.  We also have to listen actively so we can recall what has been said, interpret it and respond.  ‘A picture paints a thousand words’ and listening conjures up a million images and feelings and emotions.  So why would we limit ourselves to writing and reading?  Why would we limit our learners to a narrow range of ways of learning?

What is exciting today is that our means of communicating are becoming richer at an exponential rate.  The technological advances that brought us Gutenberg’s printing press in the 1400s and disrupted the world of learning and acquisition of knowledge have continued apace, and now we have a range of different media that we can use to communicate and be creative.

It is important that we start to ascribe a more equal importance to all means of communicating so that all our children can learn in whatever way works for them. We have a responsibility to provide them with all the tools at our disposal, let them make their own choices and not hinder their learning because we are fearful of change.  Just because we’ve always done it that way doesn’t mean that it is the best way. Equally, it is important not to adopt new ways of doing just because they are new.  We should question and reflect, consider what they add to the mix, use them with caution but embrace the opportunities they offer for learning.  It is not the tool alone that helps us learn, it is choosing the right tool at the right time for the right purpose.  But the toolbox needs to be full and it needs to be open and accessible.

Postscript

So, to go back to the start and Te Marama Pūoru Waiata Māori – just as with many cultures the habit of storytelling through song, waiata, chants, stories and poetry has been an important way of passing knowledge and cultural ways of being and doing down through the generations.  Language is a key component of the sense of identity because language can never be truly translated word for word into another language.  Māori, like many languages existed for generations only in its oral form, passed on and enriched through song and stories. My strong belief is that it is important that we do not lose our oral languages, or we lose sight of who we are and where we came from.  So embrace storytelling in all its forms –  written, visual and oral and why not listen to a few waiata and find out more about Te Marama Pūoru Waiata Māori.

This waiata called Rariri from Rob Ruha is very powerful and retells historical accounts of the East Coast forces that supported the Kingitanga, the Pai-mārire faith and the people of Tauranga-Moana in the battle of Pukehinahina (Gate Pā) and Te Ranga from the perspective of the families, hapū and iwi that stood against the crown and its Māori allied forces.

 

 

Is school toxic to learning?

whirlpool editLast Thursday I went to a lecture by Guy Claxton at the University of Waikato entitled,

“Topsy Turvy Education: The Challenge of Embodied Cognition”.

To be honest, I didn’t really know what the title meant.  I mean, what is “embodied cognition”?
However, I have read and enjoyed the ideas in Claxton’s book “New kinds of Smart“, and was interested in hearing what he had to say.  He is an easy person to listen to, softly spoken, but clear, fluent and engaging.  He seems down to earth and he speaks knowledgeably and convincingly.  A small, discrete venue helped – there were maybe 40 people at most in the lecture theatre in the Education Faculty building – and so the discussion after his talk was dynamic and uninhibited.

The thrust of his idea is, put very simplistically,  that there is a disjunct between school and the real world.  That school does not prepare its learners for life beyond the four limiting walls of the classroom, that we are not equipping our children to be “lifelong learners”.  That in school we still follow a Victorian, industrial model of education that focuses on content,  learning “about” stuff, and that there is a natural order in which content should be “learned” (“elementitis”).  The brain or the mind is seen in isolation from the body, the senses, our environment, our experiences, our culture, and we assess “intelligence” by how effectively students regurgitate content and disembodied “knowledge”.  Claxton suggested that “Teaching is toxic for Learning” – I can’t quite remember who he referenced that quote to, but he referred to Sugata Mitra who said,

The Victorians were great engineers. They engineered a [schooling] system that was so robust that it’s still with us today, continuously producing identical people for a machine that no longer exists.

victorian education

Claxton talked about “Interoceptive awareness“,  the idea of neural connectedness, that the body is the brain, and that intelligence is dependent on more than just knowledge.  

One of my favourite ideas was that of thoughts “unfurling” or “welling up” –  they don’t just happen, they arrive as a gradual unfurling like a leaf.  Emotions trigger responses, thoughts and ideas take time whilst we get on with other, often mundane, repetitive things.  Then ideas or solutions to problems may pop into our heads “out of the blue” – like a bud bursting into flower. In reality, the process has actually been happening for a while but that “pop” is the culmination of the thought process – see Hare Brain, Tortoise Mind.

I also liked the idea that the skin is a constant site of trading, it is not a boundary – our knowledge is not something that can be picked up and put down somewhere else because it is part of our experiences which help shape what our knowledge is and who we are. Our knowledge is also dependent on the people we interact with, the ideas we interconnect with, the places we live and work and play.  A great analogy was that “You can’t take a whirlpool home in a bucket” – it might look like an object but it is dependent on its situation, it is a part of things that are happening around it and they are a part of it – the repercussions, reactions, sparking of ideas bouncing around like a pinball game.

This made me wonder, as I was writing up my notes, whether knowledge can be taken home or into an examination hall? Or, if knowledge is connected with so much else, if it is contextual, experiential, dependent on understanding and if our understanding of concepts is dependent on the interconnections with our experiences, our culture, our senses, with how we percieve the world to be and with our instincts …  where does that leave teachers who “impart knowledge”?  

My notes are somewhat erratic but I have endeavoured, at least, to put them into some order.  If you want to read more and access the links to the many references Guy suggested, here are my Evernotes

Deep Learning – writing or typing?

infographic which talks about the way our brain works when we are writing

This is the second article I have read recently that talks about writing being a key component to more effective learning.  I have looked to see if there are alternative articles to refute this stance but so far have found none.  However, I wonder whether this premise is true for people of my generation (so-called digital immigrants) but not necessarily true for the present generation of “digital natives” who are growing up with tablets, phones and all things digital in their hands.  Despite being pretty handy with my laptop, “swyping” on my tablet, texting on my smart phone, I have to confess that I still find it easier to make notes on paper than on a digital document.  Having said that I do like reading via my kindle app especially whilst travelling, even if I also love the actual turning of real paper pages when reading “real” books.

So will digital reading and writing stimulate the same areas of the brain for the children of the 21st century that putting pen to paper does for the baby boomers?

This video suggests that already our brains are hard-wired differently.

I showed an infographic today to a group of colleagues for them to “read” and comment on as part of our Professional Development programme.  One of them said she found it really difficult to focus on because it was too bright and distracting; she would prefer an article with more text.  That gave rise to some discussion about styles of learning, reading, and how what we as teachers prefer and what our students find easier to access.  The general view was that although we find colours, images, symbols, bold and italic font difficult to decode our students do not.

We talked about turning the tables and thinking about how our students who have grown up in an audio-visual world feel when we confront them with a heap of text. Should we be providing more material for our students that is more in keeping with their experiences and their competencies?

Does this represent a “dumbing down” as some educators suggest? Do our students have a lower level of literacy because they prefer visual explanations rather than tracts of wordy text?

One of the Key Competencies in the NZ Curriculum is “Using language, symbols and texts“.  This recognises that information is given in more than one way and that our young people need to be able to decipher and interpret information in all sorts of forms. This means that for thousands of people, there is now greater opportunity to succeed. There have always been people who can “read” images more easily than text, who can watch and listen and learn from visual and auditory stimuli more easily than text. In the past when all learning happened through the media of text those people “failed”.

It is great that we are much more cognisant of “learning styles” and cater for them in our classrooms through using differentiated activities for our students. However, we still tend towards teaching and planning activities that lean towards our own preferred learning style; it is an effort to put ourselves in the shoes of people who learn differently to us, it takes time (that teachers with full-time workloads often do not have) and it is hard. Nevertheless, we must try so that we can enable all of our learners to succeed.

My experience is that whatever stimulus or resource we use to engage our students we have to think of why we are using it? What is the end-game? Is it going to enhance learning and achievement? If infographics, videos, podcasts, text lead to deeper thinking and deeper learning then use them.

So back to my original question; can typing lead to deeper thinking in the same way that writing with a pen is purported to?  I don’t know what the answer to that question is, but I suspect that however you are putting ideas and thoughts into hard copy it is important to focus solely on the topic you are writing about.  Russell Poldrack said that “… humans are not built to work this way.  We’re really built to focus.”  He suggests that  “multitasking adversely affects how you learn.” (See Christine Rosen’s article “The Myth of Multi-tasking”) So if you are typing or writing with a pen, switch off your phone, close your email, close all tabs on a browser and if you need to do some research as you write, try to keep your open tabs to a minimum, and focus!