It’s that time of year in primary schools again – the time for mixing up the classes and making new ones for next year. I have some thoughts about this.
My first thought is that mixing the classes up every year should not be the default. This is particularly true in international schools where students have very little continuity in their lives anyway. Friends are constantly coming and going, being made and lost. These children, generally, have little bond with their extended families – cousins and so on. Their little lives are in a constant state of flux. In a way, our schools owe it to them to provide a little bit of continuity. Instead, we pull the rug from under their feet and force them to go through the painstaking process of making friends all over again. Even as we speak, my daughter is being separated from her closest friends – for the third year in a row. Just doesn’t seem right, really, does it?
My second thought is an indicator of a bigger problem – friendship within and across classes. Whether we say it is a major factor in the creation of classes or not, to our students the issue of which class their friends are in is HUGE. Each year, we see close friendships break down when students are placed in separate classes. After a while, new friendships are formed with students in the same class. The fact of the matter is – being in the same class seems to be the key factor in the sustainability of friendships in schools. This is an indicator of some very serious problems:
- Classes become silos in which students have few opportunities to interact with and learn with students from other classes.
- Play opportunities may be too rare, infrequent and brief to allow for those times to create the conditions for rich friendships beyond just the ones that exist in the classroom.
- Our students’ lives outside of school clearly become equally scheduled and compartmentalized as “play-dates” (God, I hate that term) are based more and more on students who are in the same class and who parents deem to be acceptable friends.
If schools are going to grow beyond their current state – the need for which so many of us are in agreement about – we need to take a long, hard look at this class-creating habit we have developed. It may be way more damaging and counter-productive than we think.
We also need to look at what our timetables say about how much we value play and the social connections and relationships that could be evolving in so many rich ways if we allow more time.
Perhaps we also need to work with parents in order to attempt to break down this “play-date” culture which converts what should be healthy, spontaneous play with whoever happens to be around to adult-manipulated, scheduled “dates” with carefully selected children.
What does your school do?
Is there an approach that you feel is right?
There is a misconception in life, and particularly in schools, that “speaking my mind” – or honesty – is a euphemism for being a bit of an arse. Either I don’t “speak my mind”, which must mean that I bottle everything up, conceal my true thoughts and never share what I genuinely think or believe, or, I feel like I can just go around being rude to people and make “speaking my mind” a kind of license to make all interactions highly personal and confrontational.
Both of these dichotomous positions are damaging to a school culture, and people who adopt them can be equally toxic in different ways.
Person A, the type who never “speaks their mind”, usually makes it clear to everyone that they have made a conscious decision never to “speak their mind”. With this constant declaration of self-censorship comes an implicit declaration of disapproval, judgment and criticism. It translates, basically, as “if I could speak my my mind it would be negative and I would tell you how useless this, that and they are”. The dangers of people like this are:
- They do actually “speak their minds” in small circles of people, sharing their bottled up negativity with those people they have decided they can confide in, and forming little clots of people in the organisational flow. These clots, like real clots, cause all kinds of awful things to happen – others become wary or paranoid of them, good ideas or initiatives get blocked or people who excel at their jobs have their confidence chipped away at until they leave but the clot remains.
- At times, opportunities arise for Person A to express themselves with anonymity, and this is like a dream-come-true for them. They feel liberated to “speak their mind” and unleash their thoughts onto people with no fear of having to take responsibility for their words or actually talk about or think it through with another human being.
- Person A may often also just go about their business, interacting only rarely with other people, but still walking around with their dark cloud hanging over them. People avoid them for fear of being caught in the storm – dragged into a negative conversation that has the potential to ruin their day or forced to listen to toxic gossip. This sort of isolation does nobody any good… particularly as Person A is responsible for the education of young people.
Then, there’s Person Z, the one who has taken it upon themselves to educate everyone else by just being an a$#@%$#e. They shoot people down, they belittle people, they interrupt, they opt out of conversations that need to be had, they refuse to take part in any positive initiatives, they make the discussion of ideas personal, they see things only from their perspective, they struggle to focus on student needs rather than their own, they talk when people are trying to address a group, they criticize meetings or workshops that don’t quite live up to their high standards (which are rarely reflected in the way they teach!), they have stopped learning, they get angry about things that don’t really matter, they write people off and give them no chance of redemption… the list goes on.
Fortunately, schools are also full of People C, D, E, F, G, H… the people who occupy the grey areas. These people:
- understand the value of exchanging thoughts, opinions and ideas
- are able to discuss things without making it personal
- are able to remain free of judgment
- value open and positive relationships
- are conscious of the effect of their attitude on others
- can see the big picture by “zooming out” of situations
- feel uncomfortable in gossipy situations
- try to get along with everyone in a way that is not artificial, because they know it matters
- give people the benefit of the doubt
- are respectful listeners
- are open-minded and ready to learn from any source
- don’t sulk
I know these are all generalisations, so please don’t comment and tell me that! Instead, please think about whether Person A and Person Z exist where you work, how they affect your school culture and how we can move beyond such polarised behaviours. Until that happens, the potential for the evolution of schools may well remain in their hands.
Unfortunately, I think that the idea of collaboration is very rarely understood properly by teachers of the PYP. For many of us, student collaboration has always meant “working in a group” and never really progressed any further than that. Part of the problem with this is our misguided belief that teacher collaboration means “planning in a group”, but more on that another time.
Ironically, it is our flagship student experience – the PYP Exhibition – that can be held responsible for our misconceptions about collaboration. It was always designed to be a “collaborative inquiry ” and so, to that end, teachers have been popping their poor students into groups in PYP schools worldwide every year. Doesn’t sound so bad, does it? Well, yes, its catastrophic for many of the following types of student:
- those students who end up being put in a group because there wasn’t a group based on their interest
- those students who end up being put in a group because the group they wanted to be in was “full”
- those students who always end up doing all the work in groups
- those students who always fade into the background while others take the glory
- those students who have always let others do the work because they lack confidence or skills
- those students whose interests and styles of learning are never quite the same enough for them to be in a group
- those students who make misguided group choices and regret it later
- those students who compromise their own identity just to be in a group
- etc… have I left anyone out?
When teachers create a finite amount of groups for the PYP Exhibition (often defined by a finite number of pre-determined things the kids can learn about) with a finite number of places in each group they are undermining inquiry from the word “go”. They are also pushing cooperation and not setting the scene for genuine collaboration to happen naturally. They are creating the conditions for conflict, frustration, bickering, divisive behaviour, sulking and competitiveness. We have all seen it.
When you remove this obsession with grouping from the equation completely and allow students to develop their own inquiries… a real, natural, diverse, dynamic and unpredictable culture of collaboration begins to evolve:
- you get partnerships and groups emerging at different times in the process based on a recognition of like minds or similar goals
- you get frequent, spontaneous collaborations taking place as students share information, exchange ideas or help each other with things
- you get collaborations happening between students and adults as teachers, parents and other members of the community get involved in the process
- you get collaborations between the students and students of all other ages who become part of the process
- you get collaboration happening by email, and online
- you get collaboration you never anticipated
Putting students (and all people) in groups and calling it collaboration is a mould that must be broken. We have been breaking that mould for a while now, and it works.
Why not give it a try? There’s no need to wait for the PYP Exhibition, after all… it’s just another unit of inquiry.