My wife came home today and talked about how great it had been working with one of our colleagues on something. The way she talked about it really synthesized many of the things I have been wondering about recently, particularly with regard to planning, collaboration and why (or why not) people are able to do it well.
She talked about how the generation of ideas had been centre-stage and that this person had been able, so quickly and naturally, to adjust her initial ideas based on new information that led to inevitable change. Rather than be upset about it, take it personally or complain about this new information and the reasons behind it… she just adapted.
This is a great example of the ideas being much more important than the ego. This is something that is inherent in good teachers. They love to discuss ideas, to share them, to develop them, to change them, to play with them and even to return to the original ones! They know that these processes are vital as teachers struggle with the complexities and challenges of making things as purposeful as possible. They know that their part in this process is important, valuable and worthy of their time.
Most importantly, they know that the process exercises their brain, expands their thinking, keeps them fresh, challenges their intellect and helps them make connections with other people.
They know they’re learning.
Critical in all of this, also, is the understanding that we shouldn’t fear our own ideas, we shouldn’t fear “being wrong”and we shouldn’t be annoyed by the refining of our ideas by other people – that’s the exciting part! As educators, we try to guide students towards being able to exchange ideas without an adversarial approach – “I’m right… you’re wrong” – but so often get caught in that petty, dichotomous behaviour ourselves.
Take a look around you when you’re next at school. Look out for the people who…
- just come out with their ideas without second-guessing themselves or other people’s interpretation
- love to listen to other people’s ideas just as much as they love to say their own
- visibly learn and grow as ideas are shared
- refer to other people’s ideas
- have a sense of excitement, freedom and chattiness about ideas
- discuss ideas socially as well as professionally
- understand that ideas are not about knowing everything
- know that the discussion of ideas is time well spent
- understand that ideas are not responsible for the people who thought of them!
… and let them know you appreciate them.
By contrast, but equally important, keep your eye out for the “Idea Killers”! (see the fantastic list of 16 ways people kill ideas in this posting, from which I also got the header image for my posting)
We all know that modeling is perhaps the most powerful aspect of teaching – that we might tell students to do something 1000 times with no effect, but do it ourselves for them to see and the effect is palpable.
Yet, how often do we genuinely model the things we are constantly expecting our students to do, become competent at and comfortable with?
Speaking in public is a classic example. We expect it of our students every day… we expect them to respond to questions or contribute ideas in whole class discussions – yet how often does silence fall in staff meetings or workshops when teachers are expected to do the same? “Oh… I’m not comfortable speaking in large groups…” Hypocrisy. And what of assemblies? Putting our students in front of 100s of other students and expecting them to cope yet hiding away in fear if the same is asked of us? “I’m terrified of public speaking!” Hypocrisy.
Its the same with openly sharing our mathematical thinking… “Oh, I’m not comfortable with that, I’m terrible at maths” or drawing “Oh, I’m not doing that in front of anybody… I am so bad at Art” or publishing their writing “I’m scared about putting myself out there.”
It is an endless stream of hypocrisy that culminates in the ultimate hypocrisy – teachers who talk constantly in meetings, presentations or workshops yet lambaste their students when they do exactly the same thing in their lessons.
So, to redefine schools, we should get teachers well out of their comfort zones, or fill schools with teachers who are ready and willing to step out of their comfort zones or just remove the whole idea of comfort zones completely. Unless, of course, we’re going to respect the comfort zones of our students and allow them to be limited by them (after all, how do we know that isn’t the right thing to do?) And, maybe we should be up front and call people out on hypocrisy and remove the “do as I say not as I do” mentality permanently.
Our schools could be full of teachers who are sharing their talents, who are putting themselves out there, who are giving it a go despite not “being comfortable with it”, who are willing to recognize their shortcomings and addressing them, who are leading by example.
Our Grade 2 students are currently learning about emotions and emotional intelligence. They went on a field trip to the cinema to see Inside Out and the movie has inspired some very interesting thinking.
Cathy, one of the G2 teachers, gave her students a blank piece of A3 paper and asked them to draw what’s inside their heads. She got back a combination of ideas from the movie and original ideas developed by the students. This kind of open task brings out creative ideas, misconceptions, interesting language and unique interpretations that can drive inquiry in ways that teachers would not be able to predict. All too often, teachers provide their students with closed tasks designed to elicit predetermined responses that the teacher determines to be right or wrong, good or bad. When they design ways that create space in the learning for the students’ genuine responses, things are very different!
When I saw the drawings, I immediately wondered what it would be like to photograph them, put them in one of our green screen studios and film the students inside their own heads taking us on a trip around what’s inside their heads! This extended the task into new territory as the students stretched their ability to explain their thinking and to coordinate both sides of their brain as they watched themselves live on the monitor!
So, next time you’re trying to think of a way to find out your students’ ideas, thoughts or feelings, don’t design a closed set of questions to which you can anticipate the answers. Instead, design something open that creates space for them to release information that you couldn’t predict – it’ll be much more interesting.
I was recently very fortunate to attend a keynote speech by Richard Gerver (@richardgerver) during the IB Annual Conference in Singapore.
One of Richard’s quotes that really resonated with me was:
“One of the most important things we need to do in education is get out more.”
This a short and simple statement but, like many short and simple statements, it asks many questions!
How often do we venture beyond the walls of our schools?
It’s funny… “field trips” are viewed as a special event and are done, in most schools, pretty rarely. In my school, for example, most grade levels have ventured out of the school only once. There are many reasons for this – costs and the fear of anything “happening” are often the biggest barrier. Indeed, I know of one IB school in Australia in which it is strictly not allowed to take students on field trips! How about that?
Yet, every time we take students outside of the school there are learning experiences above and beyond those we planned for:
- Genuine connections with the real world
- Improved sense of place
- Observations of people’s behaviour
- Improved ability to look, see and notice
- Rich language and conversation
- Emergence of prior knowledge and wisdom
- Natural curiosity
- Greater bonds between students
- Bursting the bubble by going somewhere new, expanding horizons
- Revealing information about students as individuals in different contexts
- … and more
You see, very often teachers have a limited understanding of the learning objectives that will be reached by taking the kids out somewhere. But, if we realize that everything is learning, everything is an opportunity to develop, everything is a formative assessment – from how well students behave in an art gallery, to how curious they are in a botanical gardens, to how well they talk to strangers at a market, to how they sit and eat during a picnic. It is all real learning.
How well do teachers know the world outside the school?
I work in an international school and, of course, you get all types. In Bangladesh, I worked with local teachers who had never stepped foot in the local markets – that was for servants to do. In China, I worked with people who detested China and refused to enter into society at all, purely frequenting expat restaurants and bars. In Thailand, I worked with people who spoke literally not a single word of Thai. In Vietnam, I work with people who go from school to home and back again over and over and over each day, week, month and year. Of course, there are the complete opposites in each school too – one of my colleagues here speaks the language pretty fluently and has covered nearly every corner of the country in his travels.
My concern is that we are, in these schools, teaching many students who live in a privileged bubble, our schools are often bubbles themselves and many teachers also live in a bubble. What are we teaching them then?
I find it fascinating to provoke people in international schools by asking what difference it would make to the curriculum if the school was suddenly picked up and dropped in a completely different country in a completely different city. Rather soberingly, in some ways, the answer would be “not much”.
What connections does the school have with the community?
Inspired by the stories of two-way community connections that come out of Reggio Emilia, I do wonder about how schools can become genuine parts of their local community. Like a watch, schools seem to have become a “single-function device” – kids get dropped off here and we teach them. How else do we serve our community though? Is student art displayed in local restaurants, shops and public places? Are the students encouraged to initiate projects that feed into and have an impact on the local community? Are the expertise and talent from the local community brought into the school to create those connections? Are the students visible in the local community?
It seems we are stuck in some rather tired looking moulds (schools excel at that!). We can break those moulds by getting out more, as Richard says.
How does your school do it?
I just had an interesting conversation with my colleague, Alicia. We were discussing relaxation and concentration and the difficulty many students have with them. We drifted on to the topic of “21st Century teaching and learning” and how that immediately seems to mean TECHNOLOGY.
But, why should 21st Century teaching and learning only be about technology, and how do we break away from that limiting (and pretty scary) assumption.
What other things could be the ingredients of a 21st Century education? Here are some of my thoughts, please feel free to add more!
- Ecological intelligence
- Aesthetic appreciation
That’s what I came up with so far, and… if we are honest with each other… technology is actually the enemy of many of those things. In fact, we can link the over-use or mindless use of technology to the exact opposite of most of those things. For example, most of the kids who struggle to relax or concentrate are that way because they are so used to devices being given to them to keep them occupied.
Of course, technology is going be a major factor in the 21st Century. But, unless people grow to see it as a tool and that actually they are more important than the technology, we could be doomed.
Our students are so creative! How can we help them use that creativity to learn?
Because our students function in a world of media overload, bombarded with images, sounds, texts, and experiences, they tend to passively accept what is presented instead of generating their own mental images. If they are able to trust their own creative ability, we have to teach them to slow down and gather relevant sensory data, notice relationships, and use their imaginations to visualize.
We also need to nurture a spirit of wonder and questioning, so essential for critical thinking. When students stop to reflect and visualize what they are hearing, seeing or experiencing, they are then able to make it their own.
This is Faith. I have noticed that she is very interested in the environment. She has noticed that she has a natural talent with being creative. She is learning so much about herself by having the space and time to notice the world around her in a very different way. A way that may have not been available to her if as teachers we did not notice her gift through the arts.
This is Faith, a year 6 student with a lot of artistic talent. This really came through in the How we express ourselves unit and continued on in the exhibition. Faith is a very quiet and humble girl. She does not like attention and she is someone who has many hidden talents. Her talents only really came through because we allowed her to explore first.
We had Faith in our students and gave them time to be free in their creative expression. Once we saw this gift we had to honor her work by moving from paper to a large 1.5m by 2m canvas. She is still working on her second piece as you read this post. We plan on documenting her journey with a movie in the near future. Honor and channel student’s gifts by letting them go and then make your interventions timely. Have FAITH!
The skills and talents that students develop in their specialist lessons should come back into the homeroom and be explored further as a means of expression for their learning. This is particularly true during the PYP Exhibition, but is actually equally true for any unit of inquiry.
These two are designing and building race tracks for model cars, like Hot Wheels. They feel there are not enough “non-sport” options for the kids in the school and that many of them will love racing cars on their tracks. They have been amazingly engaged by their project as they’ve been working on design and construction all year as part of their Passion Project.
Specialist Teachers possess a massive amount of knowledge, expertise and talent that homeroom teachers do not. They can offer students going through an important educational experience like the PYP Exhibition a massive amount of guidance and support. But, how we involve them in the Exhibition seems to cause many of us logistical and philosophical problems in IB schools.
One solution is to “collapse” the regular schedule at some point in the lead up to the Exhibition “staging” – about two or three weeks beforehand seems reasonable. Then, invite Specialist Teachers to come over to the homeroom during their regular, timetabled slot and ask them to focus on students working within their specialist area and, also, to offer support to other students as a regular mentor.
Here is a video showing this model in action. You can see the profound effect this particular teacher has on the direction students are taking.