Category: Inquiry

Natural inquiry depends on a culture of permission

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Inquiry is basically about permission.

When students know that they are able or allowed to pursue the questions that come into their head, take the directions that become appealing to them and make their own decisions, they do those things more. It sounds obvious to say it, but it’s true.

When there is a culture of permission – when the teacher in the room is more likely to say “yes… let’s do it, let’s give a go, let’s get that, let’s go there, let’s see if we can find that”… well, then the students are more likely to end up with that attitude and more interesting learning happens as a result.

You know when you’ve entered a classroom like this as it has a very particular feeling to it. Students are usually engaged in doing very different things and working in different ways, and the teacher is not the centre of attention. In fact, there is usually a sense of things not being completely under the teacher’s control, a wonderful feeling of teetering on the brink of chaos. Not only is this type of teacher comfortable with not being completely in control, she is also confident in her students’ ability to make decisions and that “bad decisions” are not bad decisions but opportunities for real learning.

Children have their natural tendencies to inquire eroded progressively as they get older. Sometimes, this is because the adults around them fear for their safety! Other times, though, it is because the adults around them want to be in control… or feel they have to be in control because that’s what teaching is.

So, I guess the culture of permission starts at the top. If school leaders make sure teachers know that being in complete control of students no longer represents good teaching, perhaps teachers will – in turn – be more inclined to release control to their students.

Isn’t it ironic… don’t you think.

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“When that is out of the way.”

“Once we get through it.”

“It will soon be over.”

“When it’s done we can then get back on track.”

How many times do we hear these statements in schools. Wishing to be doing something else. Galloping along to get to something else, even if we don’t know what that something else is. We all know in schools there is something to be done. We are always doing things, most of the time without knowing the purpose or meaning of it.

As we all know, accreditation is a big deal and we do know the meaning and purpose of it. Being authorized means you are a good school, doing good things and it’s a good place to work and learn – essentially, that is what it all comes down to in its simplest terms.

A self-study is an opportunity to take a look at the school you teach at and students learn in.  A school should invest about 12 months in the Self-study process. That’s plenty of time to collect evidence, look at the previous evaluation report, make some self-study groups, make judgments against the standards and practices, write a summary and go through a team visit. This is an opportunity to learn more about what you do well, where the holes are and find ways to plug those holes to be an even better place for parents, teachers and students. The self-study is a time to celebrate, keep schools accountable and  mostly focus on Section C (2,3,4) – the quality of teaching and learning and how people work together towards a common goal.

This is the right time to now introduce the word irony in this situation. If a Self-study is meant to be an opportunity to celebrate the achievements of how far you’ve come, why does it bring so much displeasure and angst?

We have dedicated and committed teachers doing their best to put a robust, detailed and accurate Self-study report together… yet I have to say, I’ve caught myself saying the above statements. I should be fist pumping teachers in the corridor and giving high fives for the work we’ve done. The reality is we are tired. After a good day of teaching and learning, getting up in front of the staff and saying those words Self-study, just sucks the enthusiasm out of the room. But, this is important and we have to do it. The Self-study is mostly about collaboration, teaching and learning. This is the business we are in. This is what we offer.  I find this incredibly ironic and vexing.

Half of me feels like I am going to get a rap over the knuckles for sharing this much with you.

Am I saying what everyone else is thinking and feeling, or is it just me?

Maybe I am suffering from Self-study fatigue….

The PYP and the “genie in a bottle”

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A parent recently asked me if I felt her children would struggle when returning to a more conservative model of education after several years in a PYP school… and an innovative PYP school at that.

She was mainly thinking about whether or not they would have fallen behind academically in the traditional subject areas as the system in her country, like in most of them, is very content-specific. I said that they may find there are things that they haven’t learned… of course! However, I told her, after several years in the PYP they will have the ability to access that information as they will be skilled in the “art of learning”. I reassured her that what they have learned, or haven’t learned, should not present them with insurmountable problems.

What they might struggle with, I said, is being expected to go backwards in terms of how they learn. Being put back into a traditional classroom set-up in which all students sit at tables all day, sometimes in rows. Being put back into a traditional teacher-student authority relationship. Being put back into situations where all students are doing the same thing, the same way at the same time. Being put back into didactic, predetermined contexts for learning. Being put back into a place where only a few forms of expression are valued. These are all things they might struggle with. These are all things that many children who leave PYP schools and go back to state systems struggle with.

The metaphor of a genie in a bottle sprung to mind as I was talking. We laughed about how the PYP has released the inner genie in her children, and children like them, and how it might be very difficult or even impossible to put the genie back into the bottle!

But, do we really want to?

Header image from here

 

Creating the need or desire to make

There’s a lot of hype around “makerspaces” at the moment – I definitely wish I’d bought shares in Lego a couple of years ago! It’s great though, our schools are responding to the need for students to work with their hands, to think differently and to learn to become content or product creators.

One thing we have to be very careful of, however, is that theses places – and what happens inside them – don’t become another separate entity, another “subject” or another thing that happens outside of “regular learning” or “the real stuff”. Know what I mean?

These spaces – and what happens inside them – need to become natural extensions of all the other types of learning that happen in our schools. All of that learning needs to create opportunities for students to make. Students need to become more and more aware of what is possible and then they need to be connected with the people, places and materials that can make those possibilities become reality.

True change happens when making becomes a mindset in the school, not a subject. If the mindset doesn’t evolve, makerspaces may end up being another fad.

 

Ideas more important than ego

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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)

Lizards, stopping and giving attention.

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Today, a lizard visited me. It was on my bag… for no reason, well seemingly.

It might have appeared to tell me that my universe is aligned, that the things I need are with me. Just the way it was that hot night in Bangladesh when the power had gone off for hours and my daughter, a month old, had cried and cried until a Gecko appeared on the wall. As I held her in my sweaty arms, my mind frazzled and her face red from screaming… the presence of the Gecko soothed us, reminded us of the presence of something else. Something both smaller and bigger than us.

Today, this lizard might be telling me that what I just read and the connections I have just made are profound and that I must stop and listen to them, just the way I stopped and acknowledged the presence of the lizard.

This is what I read:

“… geniuses of all kinds excel in their capacity for sustained voluntary attention. Just think of the greatest musicians, mathematicians, scientists, and philosophers throughout history – all of them, it seems, have had an extraordinary capacity to focus their attention with a high degree of clarity for long periods of time. A mind settled in such a state of alert equipoise is a fertile ground for the emergence of all kind of original associations and insights. Might “genius” be a potential we all share – each of us with our own capacity for creativity, requiring only the power of sustained attention to unlock it? A focused mind can help bring the creative spark to the surface of consciousness. The mind constantly caught up in one distraction after another, on the other hand, may be forever removed from its creative potential.”

The Attention Revolution by Alan Wallace

These are the connections I made:

  • We need to evaluate whether or not the “busyness” and scheduling in schools is, actually, exactly what Wallace is referring to by “caught up in one distraction after another”.
  • We need to take some time to be very honest about whether or not students (and teachers) are, in fact, just being “caught up in one distraction after another”.
  • We need to explore ways in which we can create “long periods of time” in which students (and teachers) can reach that “state of alert equipoise” in which everyone can be at their best.
  • We need to make the relationship between mindfulness practice in schools and the capacity of students (and teachers) to sustained voluntary attention more explicit. 
  • We need to develop a sophisticated understanding of what attention means and move beyond thinking it is just either (a) listening to a teacher or (b) doing what a teacher expects students to do.

 

image by sergey245x on Flickr, shared under creative commons license

 

 

If relaxation was valued in schools…

 

 

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The pursuit of “busyness” is all-encompassing, it is everywhere and we are all perpetuating and complaining about it at the same time.

I am sitting in a beautiful fisherman’s cottage in a sleepy village on the coast of Vietnam. The rain has started to pour, simultaneously cooling the air and scuppering our plans for the next couple of hours and so… we are forced to relax.

Instead of piling into a taxi and heading into Hoi An, the beautiful and bustling nearby town to do all the things we think we are supposed to do on holiday – sightseeing, shopping, having cultural experiences, dragging our children and ourselves around making the most of being on holiday – we do nothing.

Or do we? What, exactly is nothing?

This is what “nothing” looks like at this exact moment:

 

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My wife finds the time to read.

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My Mum enjoys the relaxing act of sweeping sand off the verandah.

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My children play and make up stories.

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I write.

But, why do we only allow ourselves to relax into doing these things when the rain prevents us from going somewhere else? Because we have become conditioned into “busyness” – the cult of activity and the sense of guilt or fear-of-missing-out that characterizes the modern existence.

This is true in education too. We have allowed learning to be described as “activity” and we strive to keep students busy all day and every day. We have also allowed a fear of missing out to dictate what must be learned, and when, in order to make sure everything gets “covered”. The concept of relaxation, and so – inevitably – the ability to choose to do things that only relaxation really allows, is almost entirely absent from schools.

I wonder what would happen if a school set out – with true intent – to create a sense of relaxation, to replace “busyness” and fragmentation with long periods of time during which teachers and students could relax into simple, deep and meaningful pursuits, to value what happens in those circumstances rather than panicking about what is not happening…

 

 

Header image from http://www.boundless.org/~/media/Images/article/rel-13-good-busyness.ashx