Yes, we all know that we should be moving rapidly towards models of education that can be described as self-directed, self-regulated, student-driven, learner agency etc… and many of us are genuinely trying to do so. Many more have been trying to do so for many years… bit-by-bit, step-by-step. If you’ve been part of this for a while, “hello again”. If you’re just joining us, “welcome to our struggle”.
Creating the conditions for these types of learning to occur is not simple. It just isn’t as simple as handing control over to students and saying “go for it”. Like all people, our students need to know what “successful” looks like and how they can be it. At some point, someone has to articulate what we are looking for from our students. In collaborative teams, this means argument, compromise, semantics and considering what the different stages of learning might be as students work towards success. Assessment should be formative, purposeful and provide students with the guidance they need… it should illustrate their next steps. The language this is articulated in should be instructive, easy to understand and present in the daily vocabulary of your learning culture. Creating the tools and strategies for this to happen effectively is a very hard task, but it is hard because it is worth doing.
This notion of “successful” cannot remain a nebulous, abstract notion in the mind of an individual teacher. There can be no “hit and miss” about whether or not this notion of “successful” is communicated clearly to students, or even communicated to them at all. There can be no half-hearted attempts or abandoned thinking just because it’s difficult or “uncool”. Teachers and groups of teachers must deliberate about:
- where the learning is going
- what they’re looking for from the students
- how they might reach – or get close to that
- how they will guide students in that direction
Guess what… that’s going to end up being a rubric or a continuum or some other form or model of criteria – because that’s the point we’ve reached so far in the evolution of education. They are the thinking educators’ attempts to move beyond tests, multiple choice, right and wrong, yes and no, good or bad. They are the thinking educators’ attempts to turn the abstract into the tangible, to convert randomness to clarity and to extract what has been hidden in the minds of teachers and make them visible to students. They symbolize the attempt to allow for more freedom of pedagogy, more room for manoeuvre, more real, on-going differentiation and the recognition that our students learn and do at different rates.
Like everything in life, there’s some amazingly good examples out there, and there’s some incredibly bad ones, and a whole lot in-between. What makes them amazingly good is thought. What makes them incredibly bad is lack of thought (I feel a rubric coming…). If you’re not a fan of rubrics or continuums, or don’t think they’re fashionable… come up with another way of doing what’s in the bullet points above and share it with everyone. Fashion designers don’t ditch the previous season’s designs and tell everyone to go around naked until someone randomly suggests an article of clothing! They come up with new designs, they innovate. I’m sure everyone in education would be very interested to see what you come up with, although I can’t promise a “Paris Rubric Week” any time in the near future!
Let’s face it, without guidance, most students would be completely lost… largely because their teachers would be equally lost because they never really bothered to discuss what the learning was really about. The “blind leading the blind” is never used as a positive example, unless as a joke.
Our job is not a joke.
Now, of course, the ideal situation is for students to be defining “successful” in their own terms, in the contexts that they design instead of those designed by teachers, setting their own goals, and to be articulating:
- where they think the learning is going
- what they’re looking for from themselves
- what they’re looking for from their peers
- how they might reach – or get close to that
- who might guide them in that direction
But… guess what… they’re going to need their teachers to work with them on those things. They’re going to need to get good at doing those things… they are skills that are developed in steps (sound familiar?). Teachers will be need to be observing, noticing, assessing and giving useful feedback/feedforward about how the students are learning, the levels of autonomy or independence they are demonstrating, their ability to reflect on themselves and use those reflections to move forwards. But how will they make sure they’re using a common language? How will they make sure they have a shared vision of what “good looks like”? How will they ensure they’re consistent in their support and guidance for students? How will they make sure they appreciate the steps students take as they make progress? How will they help their students appreciate their own development?
Right now, I don’t see a better way to frame those conversations and decisions than in the collaborative creation of rubrics or continuums. Do you?
So, make your rubrics or continuums about that. And if you don’t like rubrics or continuums, come up with another way of communicating with students about their learning, share it and be a person who is part of the evolution of education, not a person who gets in our way while we try to do so.
I often hear people who are reluctant to talk about assessment tools use the very clever line about “thinking outside the box”… probably because (yes, its subtle) many of them look like boxes. It’s scary that creative people use this sort of reasoning as they seem to forget – almost instantly – how useful boxes are, how beautiful they can be, how many sizes, colours and shapes they come in and how they can be transformed into other things.
School leadership positions require a lot of energy. In a way, people in school leadership positions are expected to operate a lot like a battery, to have an energy source of their own, to have a source of answers, to have a source of ideas, to have a source of solutions and to provide all of those things for everyone else around them at will.
Like all batteries, however, the energy eventually runs out.
One of the biggest drains on this energy are the people who consistently need managing. By managing, I mean the people who need constant persuasion to:
(a) do their job
(b) do their job properly
(c) do their job well
This management of people is particularly debilitating as it tends to be never-ending.
During his keynote speech at the IB Annual Conference a few years ago, Richard Gerver stated that he always tries to hire people who don’t need to be managed. The fact that so much energy can be conserved as a result of not having to do the three things listed above means that it can be converted into the energy of inspiration, which I see as:
(1) inspiring people to push their own boundaries
(2) inspiring people to challenge norms
(3) inspiring people to reimagine what their jobs are in the first place
Now, in most schools – as far as I am aware – there are people who don’t need to be managed and there are people who do. The ratios obviously depend on all sorts of factors, recruitment – as Richard points out – probably being Number 1. Sadly, however, the energy output involved in managing the ones who need managing leaves little left for those who don’t. Yet they have a different, but entirely equal, need to be inspired. To ignore them may be more of an omission for the well-being of the school than to ignore those who need managing.
Unfortunately, people in school leadership positions suffer from an inability to define their roles with any certainty. They are referred to as “management”, “administration” or “leadership”. Implicit in the labels of “management” or “administration” is the perceived inevitability of having to get people to do their job. As long as people in those positions see themselves that way, that is what they will end up doing with most of their time and energy. It is also what everyone they are managing expects them to do too… leading to a disturbing culture of adult “learned helplessness”. Assuming that people in those positions were formerly teachers, one must also assume that the skills that led to them being promoted came from the management of students. Yet, we must surely be moving away from an educational culture based on the management of students. So, too, we should be moving away from a culture of having to manage teachers.
“Leadership” on the other hand, has entirely different connotations. Not always good ones, admittedly! But implicit in the idea of a leader is the ability to inspire. Again, assuming people in “leadership” positions were formerly teachers, we must also assume that the skills that led to them being promoted came from the inspiration of students.
I wonder how often this is truly the case?
And, when it is the case… how long can those people last until:
(a) they just become managers
(b) they give up
(c) they leave the profession
Header image from techpp.com
Ever since Chad and I came up with the time space education concept, I am hearing people refer to the need for time and space more and more when talking about education, school and life. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not trying to claim responsibility for this trend! I’m just concerned that the issue of having less time and less space is becoming bigger, and so the need for people to refer to it is becoming more widespread. As it says in this clip from “The Gods Must be Crazy”… we don’t know when to stop!
Students like Nikita and Kaithe, IB students at Saigon South International School, are referring to the need for people like them to have time and space, to understand their need for time and space and to be able to harness the power of having time and space to improve their learning and the balance of their lives.
Teachers – everywhere – are concerned about how fragmented, scheduled and full their daily lives and their students’ daily lives are. Everyone seems to understand that real, deep learning only happens when people are given the time and the space to engage with what they are doing fully. Yet, take a good look at any school’s schedule and you will find a grid that is dedicated to keeping everyone busy, built on the overriding concern that anyone and everyone must have their days cut into small, manageable “segments of time” that can be managed, planned and accounted for. Furthermore, they are built on the premise that learning can not and will not happen unless these grids, and other grids that dictate what must be learned and who will deliver that learning, exist.
So caught up in these grids are teachers that – even when there is no expectation from anybody to treat time and learning this way – they continue to do so. The mindset of busyness is so palpable that we can’t help ourselves as we usher kids around, interrupt them, split them up, put them back together, tell them to hurry up, tell them to slow down… We believe we are preparing them for real life, for work. But, strangely, there are almost no workplaces – except perhaps for those we believe we are not preparing our students for – that treat time in this way, that abuse time so routinely!
I guess I’m writing this because I believe that schools won’t really change for the better until they explore how time is used. Sure, we can all do funky things with funky new technology in the segments of time that we have and there’s lots of amazing teachers out there doing amazing things with their students in those segments of time. But, until we really face up to it, we will continue to ask ourselves the following questions:
- where has the time gone?
- why aren’t students able to go into great depth with their learning?
- why are so many students unsure what to do when they do have free time?
- why do we always feel like we’re behind?
- why are our students, and ourselves, so distracted?
- why are schools such busy places?
- why does it feel as though nothing was really achieved some days?
- why do we often feel dissatisfied with our teaching?
- why are we so exhausted?
I would like to see every school faculty be given the chance to inquire into how time is used in their school – a full, professional inquiry into “busyness” during which they can pull apart the traditional moulds they put time into and think again.
The question is… how do we find or create or find the time to do give this issue the attention it deserves?
(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.”
Next time one of your students or children is using Minecraft, stop and take a good look at what they are doing. I can guarantee you that they will be…
- in a virtual version of “outside”
- learning about topography, flora, fauna and materials
- solving problems
- getting lost and found
Many of us obviously think this is pretty cool, myself included. After all, the skills that the students are using “in there” are the type of skills that we are trying to help them develop as we educate them.
But then, its actually also really uncool that modern kids can only possess “virtual freedom” and that they can only develop “virtual skills” and that, rather than using their whole bodies and all of their senses, they are using only their thumbs and their increasingly failing eyes.
You see, Minecraft is basically the childhoods of older generations wrapped up, written in code and presented in a device. Yeah… lots of things are possible in Minecraft that are not possible in the real world. But also… many, many, many more things are possible in the real world than are possible in Minecraft.
So, is it a good thing that students are using Minecraft and developing the skills that they are developing? Yes.
Is it a good thing that the “virtual outdoors” is replacing the real outdoors for our young people? No.
Can we allow the existence of Minecraft to allow ourselves to be apathetic about fighting for children’s right to play, explore, experiment, create and learn in the real outdoors? Absolutely not.
Inquiry-based learning remains a mystery to many teachers, and a serious challenge to others. Creating the conditions for our students to be intrinsically motivated while still addressing important areas of curriculum is not easy.
Or, is it?
Maybe, we just have to readjust our expectations, like…
- expecting all students to be working on the same curriculum areas at the same time
- expecting all students to be interested in the same things at the same time
- expecting all students to move through an inquiry “process” or “cycle” at the same time, and with the same momentum
Once we get ourselves out of these habits of expectation, we can free ourselves up in order to free our students up. Once we do that… then we can set out to create the time, the space and the conditions for students to be able to design their own learning.
This, of course, is another crossroads… and another point where teachers become lost:
- they struggle with the openness of the idea of students designing their own learning
- they struggle with their own judgments of the value of what students are interested in
- they struggle with the identification of learning connections
- they struggle to see the potential for where students may take their ideas
- they struggle with strategies to help students who have no idea what they want to do
- they struggle with the redefinition of their role that is so crucial (more on this in the next posting)
Very often, these struggles become the reason not to pursue student-created learning. It goes in the “too hard basket”. But, these struggles should be the justification for pushing forward with it, because these struggles symbolize what it means to inquire, they represent the efforts needed to nurture students who are inquirers, they are the inner battles we must face in order to drop our tendency to teach too much!
For those of us who push forward with it… this is what it could lead to.
Imagine a classroom full of students who have all had the chance to design their own learning (this might only be for a section of a day each week, or maybe a whole day every week… or more!). Imagine them all working on very different things – building a prototype of something they have designed, researching the existence of planets beyond our solar system, cutting fabric to create a dress, mixing ingredients for a new recipe, writing the seventh chapter of a book, conducting experiments with light.
The potential list is endless… because our students (if we allow them to reveal them to us) have endless interests, curiosities and dreams. Usually, the only thing stopping them from learning about them is the person in charge of their learning, or the institution in which they learn. But if we can reverse that, let them bring these interests, curiosities and dreams into our schools and let them pursue them… the learning that happens as a result is unprecedented.
If we know our curriculum well enough, we can make a myriad of connections for our students, we can help them see all sorts of ways in which they are learning what we would normally have had to teach them. We can use our curriculum to help them figure out where to go next… the curriculum becomes our friend as it reveals possibilities rather than reminding us what we have to cover.
Its just not going to be all the same areas of the curriculum, at the same time and at the same pace.
But, who really believes learning works that way anyway?
Over the last few years, I have seen amazing teachers get dragged down and raked over the coals for “not sharing what they do”. This accusation is often made as a way of labeling a teacher as “uncollaborative” – a really serious crime in modern schools, it seems.
“I just don’t know what she’s doing… I wish she would share” they say.
And yet, it is often more about the person making the accusation than the accused.
By saying you don’t know what they are doing, you are basically admitting that you have made zero effort to be curious enough to find out! Weird.
But then, it does make me wonder about that sense of entitlement many teachers have… and a tendency to operate from a transactional perspective rather than a transformational one. How many times do you hear things like:
- “I would do more inquiry if my students were more curious”
- “I would use maths manipulatives if the school ordered more”
- “I would do play-based learning if we had more time”
- “I would take my students out there if there was more equipment”
- “I would do that if you show me exactly what to do”
“I would know all the wonderful things that teacher is doing if they shared them with me”
There is one, very quick, very easy and very powerful way to find out what people are doing. Go and take a look. Walk in the door. Speak to the kids. Listen in. Take some photos.
Its not threatening – it is flattering.
Let’s face it, most of the best teachers we know are not 100% sure what they’re going to be doing with their students until they are doing it. Also, most of those teachers do share their ideas with us during planning sessions… but other people often just don’t get it until they see it.
The best way to share is to show, not tell. The best way to have something shared with you… is to go and take a look for yourself.
Whose classroom are you going into today???