(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 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.”
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.
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?
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.
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!
This video features my daughter, Zahra, and Linh Huyen, wife of my friend Richard and outstanding Vietnamese singer and performer.
Zahra has had dance lessons – ballet and jazz – but recently gave them up because she wasn’t enjoying them any more. However, she still loves to dance… as you can see!
I wonder how she can continue to develop this love for dancing without having to go to structured, formal lessons. Is it possible for her community to provide her with opportunities and situations like this one – where she is truly in the zone – but learning alongside a true performer and role-model.
I guess what I’m trying to say is that often the best learning happens in informal situations, when people who are driven by the same interests and passions come together, when it is not organized or planned in advance. In the absence of structure, magic happens.
Of course, there is still structure in what takes place in this video. Multiple structures – rhythm, pitch, choreography, language, communication and so on… the structure that is absent is premeditation, timetabling or even the foresight that things would work out this way. Structures like that may evolve out of this experience, Linh Huyen and Zahra already started making plans to do another performance, this time with rehearsals and costumes and a bigger audience.
When I think about some of the most powerful examples of learning that have happened in my school this year, I believe they share some of the same features. They emerged out of natural inclinations, genuine connections, meaningful interactions and spontaneous decisions. They went to greater depth because the people who became involved could see how deep it was possible to go. The adults involved believed in what the students were capable of.
Really, our job is to create the conditions for that type of learning to become more and more likely.
Allowing for student choice is a vital element in a modern education. Good teachers know this.
However, it is possible to go too far and allow for too much student choice – it places the focus on width rather than depth. It can rapidly devalue the power of the teacher as the person who guides students deeper with their learning through informed choice and decision-making, the person who has high expectations for their students.
Let’s start looking at this in an early years context. Many early years teachers claim that children should just be free to play and choose to do whatever they like, whenever they like. They like to call this “learning through play” and they get upset when anybody suggests that they design learning experiences for the children and have any sort of expectation that children engage with it. So, in essence, this approach suggests that “learning through play” is the freedom to choose from a wide variety of activities. Children may wander from one thing to another, perhaps rarely or never engaging with anything to any depth… or being expected to.
Now let’s fast-forward a few years. Surely we are hoping to bring up young people who are capable of giving their full attention, their curiosity and their interest to things. To do so, they will need to learn how to engage with things fully, the process involved in taking your learning beneath the surface. This is the type of learning that results in people who are experts, who are in their “element”, who achieve that state of flow, who are fulfilled and who have been able to develop their talents, passions and interests fully.
This all needs to be learned, over a period of many years.
A powerful early years education lies in the hands of early years educators who understand that there is a massive difference between “learning to play” and “learning through play”. Freedom of choice to roam from one activity to another is really “learning to play”. Engaging with ideas and concepts, coming to new understandings through a series of purposeful experiences – yes, planned for by teachers – that feel like playing are “learning through play”.
Young children are capable of going to great depth with their natural tendencies for curiosity, puzzlement, experimentation, trial and error, repeating, observing and risk-taking. The only thing holding them back, all too often, is the attitude of the adult who believes they are not.
With older students, say 10 and 11 year-olds, the teacher’s understanding of how much student choice to allow for continues to be very important. Of course, have a “student-choice mindset” in that you are looking for frequent opportunities to create the conditions for it. However, don’t allow it to become so dominant that it dilutes learning by limiting opportunities for students to engage with things to real depth. Allow choice because it gives you more of a chance that students will be able to settle on things that really interest them, but then insist on – and guide them towards – a commitment to depth.
Frequently, when teachers are disappointed by what their students have produced, they will shift the blame back to them and say “well… that’s what they chose”. Or, they shift the blame to the new pedagogy they are being expected to facilitate and say “well… we’re supposed to let them choose”. The fact of the matter is you – the teacher – allowed them to make that choice and opted not to get involved, to intervene, to guide… to teach!
This has been a very hard blog posting to write because its difficult to explain this simply and, no doubt, I have failed to do so! I will continue to ponder it and try to find ways to capture it… in the meantime, please help me out by making some comments!
One of my former colleagues – Glenn – once gave me a book called Edible Selby. It’s a sort of combination of a cookbook and travel book, but it’s really a book about the beauty and simplicity of finding and doing something that you love.
Ken Robinson refers to the intersection between what you love doing and what you are talented at as “The Element”. It is a special place in which work does not feel like work, in which there is a shift in your relationship with time. He doesn’t idealize this place as it, too, may be full of frustrations, mistakes, disasters, pain and heartache. But, he does argue, very convincingly, that the world would probably be a better place if more of us, many more of us, were working in our “Element” rather than in jobs we fell into through confusion, societal expectations or the desire to be wealthy.
This begs serious questions of schools, though. We do seem to be quite afraid of being places in which our students may have a chance of finding their “Element”. Indeed, we sometimes seem to perpetuate the trap of that endless pursuit, the “all wretch and no vomit” described by Alan Watts – “I’ll find out what I want to do when I leave school… I’ll find out what I want to do when I finish university… I’ll find out what I want to do after my gap year… I’ll find out what I want to do when I’ve earned enough money… I’ll find out what I want to do when I’ve retired”. And so on.
What if schools made it part of their mission to help students figure out their “Element”? What if it was OK for a student to know what they wanted to do by the time they were 16, and didn’t have to fail school to be able to do it? What if a student worked out that they don’t need to go to university to pursue their chosen path?
It seems as though a successful education is all about “keeping your options open”. But, what if it was also about finding focus, purpose… your “Element”. Why shouldn’t we be just as proud of helping students find what they want to do as we are of creating all-rounders who haven’t got a clue what they want to do?
Some people never find it, you know. And, in many cases, this may be because of their education.