Release learning by fighting your learned instincts

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We have to remember to go against our learned instincts.

My learned instinct is to hold my children back. We’re walking along a footpath in Cheshire, in the UK, beautiful fresh stream rushing across ancient stones. Children utterly excited to be there… and they want to run ahead, and my learned instinct, my new instinct that I’ve got from life, somehow, by mistake, is to hold them back. My first response is “no… we’re not here to run”.

Well, guess what, Daddy… you’re wrong.

These kids are here to run. And there’s no reason to hold them back.

It’s a lot like learning. We’ve just got to let them go, just run. And, I’m standing here now watching them. It’s raining, they’re full of zest. They’re excited by the space, the freedom, the flowers and by the fact that they can just run.

Yes, they make a few mistakes, get stung by nettles, make their shoes filthy in mud. But they are learning, first hand, from and about the environment. They will not forget nettles. They will identify the squelchy, marshy patches of land and – maybe – avoid them next time!

I created this context – in my role as “teacher” – by bringing them to this place. I knew it was important, special and rich with opportunities to discover. But then I have to let them be free within the context, only that way will genuine questions emerge from them, and they did:

“Why is the water and the rocks orange?”

“Why are the cows lying down?”

“Where does the water come from?”

“Why is there wool on the branches of that fallen tree?”

“Who does this land belong to?”

“Why are people allowed to walk through here?”

“Where does that path go?”

“What is making that sound?”

“Who made that rope swing over the river?”

And then, of course, many attempts at holding on to the piece of wood hanging from a tree and swinging out over the water until they had all had many successful goes!

Instead of being a controlled walk, with adults determining the path and pointing out the things they thought should be of interest or worthy of learning about (i.e. the ones we had the answers to!), it becomes a child-driven walk, a haphazard route, endless questions – many unanswered – unpredicted experiences, private thoughts and moments of personal growth and self-actualization that we – the parents – are not even aware of.

 

 

The work of the Teacher

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The best teachers are always on the lookout for their students.

I don’t mean in a pastoral way, or a supervisory way.

I mean, in a way that shows an innate curiosity about what their students are doing, what their students are saying, how their students are reacting or responding to particular situations, the kind of questions their students are asking, the kind of prejudices their students have, the kind of misgivings their students have, the kind of biases their students have, the kind of misunderstandings their students have, the misconceptions, the relationships, their interests, their tendencies.

To be aware of, and fascinated and motivated by these things is… the work of the Teacher.

Grade 5, difficult conversations and responsive teachers

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(apologies for the low quality image, but it really says it all)

Working with our Grade 5 team is really interesting at the moment because what’s going on is a real to and fro’, a real Ping Pong game in the way that the students are responding to the provocation that the teachers have designed for them, and then the way the teachers are responding to the provocations offered back to them by the students’ responses.

The teachers are having to re-think, not only having to re-think the nature of this current Who we are unit, but today they began to re-think how the data they’re getting back from the students affects the unit that comes next also. This is very exciting because this means that the teachers are not seeing difficulties as roadblocks, but instead seeing difficulties  – as a result of what their students are doing and saying (or not doing and saying) – as an opportunity again to reflect and to think “OK, how do we respond to what we know about the students now?”

The case in point here is that Grade 5 teachers, through the provocations they have been doing this week and last week, have really unearthed that the students (a) are not particularly curious about human behaviour and, probably as a direct result, (b) are not particularly good at observing human behaviour and noticing patterns. And so, as a result, they’re thinking that their initial hopes that students would be able to get to the point where they are designing their own social, behavioural experiments as part of Who we are were overly ambitious. Instead, they are going to have to devote the time and energy of Who we are to really developing that curiosity about human behaviour  – with an ongoing reflective angle that “learning about other people’s behaviour helps me reflect on my own” – and also developing their ability to actually observe human behaviour and asking those questions… what am I looking at, what am I looking for, what do I notice, what evidence is there, how do I record that evidence and what kind of patterns am I noticing that could become a big idea or even a hypothesis?

They then said “OK, well let’s do How the world works next… and in How the world works, we give them six whole weeks just to test those hypotheses and to do so using a clear scientific process. Now that flow and constructivism from one unit to another is really exciting.

And, there’s a lot of tension and worry about “how am I going to get my students to this point or that point by this time?” or “oh, my students haven’t responded to this very well” or “they’re not that interested in it yet”… all of these natural tensions that teachers feel – good teachers feel. But then, coming together spontaneously – not waiting for a meeting – coming together spontaneously, working their way through it using all that information  to help them redesign and redefine how things go from here.

It’s brilliant.

It also reinforces a point that I make over and over and over again and that is that teachers have to have difficult conversations, teachers have to go through the struggle themselves, teachers have to finish the day thinking “I don’t know where this is really going… how do I find that clarity, how do I help my students find that clarity?” The only way they can do it is by having difficult conversations, by challenging each other, by challenging themselves. Good teaching is not just a series of tick-boxes that you can say you’ve done. Good teaching is critical thinking, it is tension, it is emotion, it is responsiveness, it is spontaneity.

As Suzanne, one of the Grade 5 team said after reading this post:

“Openness to spontaneity makes good teachers great.”

 

 

Provocations and the Ping-Pong Analogy

Many powerful and transformational ideas emerge in the world of education, become trends and then vanish. This is sometimes because the vast majority of educators never fully understand it in the first place.

The latest example of this is “provocations”.

All sorts of educators are using the word and they believe they are planning them for their students. Sadly, very often, these so-called provocations are turning into missed opportunities, throw-away activities that really don’t transform the subsequent pedagogy in the slightest.

I find this really frustrating, and I find the fact that educators are unable to see both the simple and the sophisticated information that students are revealing to them almost impossible to comprehend. As I try and wrap my head around this, I see the following patterns:

  • Some people, if they were being honest, have little or no interest in changing their pedagogy. They want to do what they’ve always done and see anything that threatens that – regardless of the source – as a threat. As a result, they develop a sort of selective blindness to any of the fascinating information their students reveal. It may well be impossible to move people away from that mentality and so it may be necessary to move them out of our schools instead.
  • Some people are – perhaps unwillingly – so caught up in teacher-speak, written curriculum, standards and old habits they too are blinded – they can’t “see the wood for the trees”. Some of these people may still be rescued, but only if you can still see the glint in their eye that indicates some interest in who their students really are and enough curiosity to want to find out.
  • Some people are – fortunately – poised, ready, willing and able to plan and carry out provocative experiences that give their students opportunities to reveal powerful and useful information to them. However, they may not know how to use that information to transform their pedagogy and, of course, there is no single, universal answer. Instead, what is powerful, is the teacher’s determination to find ways to do so.

A very useful analogy is Shana Upiter’s Ping Pong approach. When you provoke your students, you are hitting the ball to them… then, they hit it back to you – in all sorts of directions! Now it is up to you – the teacher – to figure out what to do with the ball and how to hit it back to them again, and so on… If you can view provocations that way – as the ongoing exchange of stimulus and response, ideas and action, thinking and questioning – you will start to understand how to use the concept in your teaching. You can also liberate yourself from thinking that provocations need to be huge, overly-planned extravaganzas!

For this to happen though, the teacher must be fascinated by the words their students write or say, the choices their students make, the way their students think, the patterns of their students’ behaviour, how their students react in different situations and the questions their students ponder.

When provocations create the conditions for inquiry – by teachers into their students – there is nothing more powerful. When they just lead into a series of activities and a whole load of teaching, they may just be another buzz-word.

 

Careful what we keep out of children’s reach

This is a wonderful talk and a timely reminder that we – adults – have to stop putting an unrealistic vision of perfection out of children’s reach.

As Emma Marris eloquently teaches us, we keep referring to an idea of a perfect, untarnished nature that simply doesn’t exist. We say there is no nature in or around the schools we work in, but there is… there’s lots of it. We have just lost the ability to see it and, more dangerously, we are failing to help young people see it, touch it, be in awe of it and want to see more of it.

We may be in danger of doing the same thing to peace. Do we present an idealistic vision of a perfect peace in which everything is sweetness and light, and therefore keep it out of reach of young people? If we do, then we need to refine what we believe peace is, or could be.

Yesterday, as I walked to work, I passed an empty plot of land. It was full of overgrowth and teeming with insect life. I had walked past it more than 200 times before and failed to consider it to be “nature”.

If we are capable of becoming so jaded, so blind and so susceptible to the false dichotomies the media provides us with, what hope have we of helping young people evolve with more sophistication?

humble inquiry

humble inquiry

As I mentioned in my previous post I am moving to a new school….. this book has revolutionized every aspect of what I hope to achieve as we create positive change and consolidate on what works….. together. Especially, as we look more closely at the culture of the school.

There are many different personalities with different leadership qualities and styles. While a true leader may have to bend depending on the context, person/people or situation there should always be at least one thing that grounds your approach. I believe it is ‘The gentle art of asking instead of telling’ which should be something we attempt to develop as our craft.

For most of us we work in and with an inquiry curriculum, we need to also inquire too. The people we work with are just as important as the students we teach. They are! If we truly want the best out of people telling them will not create mutual respect or trust for open communication and collaboration. Asking builds relationships. Not only does asking build relationships, but it sharpens our IQ and EQ on what type of questions to ask which invite open dialogue.

Humble inquiry is intended to illustrate an attitude or provide specific questions that show interest and respect, which will stimulate more truth telling and collaboration. Humble inquiry is not a checklist to follow or a set of written questions – it is behaviors that comes out of respect, genuine curiosity, and the desire to improve the quality of the conversation by stimulating greater openness and sharing.

To put some of these ideas and approaches into action I am going to experiment with this by conducting a humble inquiry into who we are as a school and to mark a point on where we are in place and time as a school as we set goals and connect to our vision and mission. To take it a little further, I hope to use all the 6 transdisciplinary themes and through observations, conversations and humble inquiry I hope to gain a clear insight into who we are as a school with fresh eyes. If what I notice is the same as what people see and feel, then we have an opportunity to challenge, learn and plan ideas to implement change or improve on what we are already doing. This should make people feel part of the process, encourage opinion and amplify voice. I have no idea what this will reveal after such a process, but isn’t that the point of inquiry?

I will be using this to record the things I notice and hope to get teachers and students to also be part of this inquiry too. Let’s hope we can create the culture of listen first and then make sound decisions after with pure intentions to bring people together and help us be the best we can for our students and the people we work with and learn from.

6 week inquiry

 

The best place to start – physical space

 

not knowing

Starting a new role is exciting. The thrill of doing something new and different is incredibly grounding and sobering.

Taking that next step out of the classroom and stepping back into even more classrooms is a very humbling privilege.

I sat in my ‘office’ for the first time a few days ago and must admit I was feeling quite overwhelmed – in a good way.

“Where do I even begin?”

I felt blank and the urge of panic was creeping in and about to take a hold on me.

I have an inordinate amount of things to do and don’t even know where to start. So, I sat there in that moment to quiet myself and regain some composure.

Anytime Sam and I have ran or lead anything to do with teaching and learning there is still one we’ve always started before pedagogy. The physical space. This is often overlooked yet it sets the tone for everything you do.

Create the space you want to be in, feel, think and do. Let that space reflect and be an extension of who you are and what you want to be about.

I did just that….. moved furniture, emptied old draws, put folders aside, made a list of the things and furniture I would need to make the space show who I am and what I value.

Voila…..

From this point on, I was able to chip away at all the other things. I felt comfortable and there was a sense of calm and peace in the way I approached that endless list which buried me before.

As we all start again a new year, whatever your position or role, start with the physical space first.

What does your space say about you?

What mood do you want to create?

How will others feel when they are in that space?

How does your space allow you to do things even better?

Are students part of your thinking and designing? How?

Now, before you do anything else, think about the space you want to be in. It is just like your bedroom, you spend just as many hours in it, yet you are actually awake. Make it special!