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:
My wife finds the time to read.
My Mum enjoys the relaxing act of sweeping sand off the verandah.
My children play and make up stories.
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
Visible thinking is nothing new.
Many people do it, at varying levels.
This got me thinking about how people use visible thinking beyond just using visible thinking strategies. Do we use this to drive student inquires and interests by taking the time to read everything students write or is it just decoration that looks good on the wall?
Let us share something that worked well today and consider the possibilities and potential in the “new doors” that visible thinking strategies open up. At the moment students are exploring, interacting and creating through the arts as a way to launch into their next unit of inquiry. We set the rooms up with different art zones and they had total freedom in what they could do, and choose where to go and when. We just stepped back and let it all happen. 30 minutes into the experience we brought them together to respond to some questions and statements that were written to provoke thinking.
The results were incredibly revealing.
We started to read all of them carefully and noticed that just about every student made a connection that opened up new doors to learning. This is responsive teaching. Could you imagine what doors would open if we gave the students time to explore, create and interact with the powerful statements and ideas they have revealed to us? Whether it be revealing their personality, learning style, knowledge, skills, attitudes…….. it is all telling. They are telling us how to teach them and maybe what they want school to be more like, if we gave them the time to do so. Where could these lead? How could they spark new connections and learning? Are we opening doors and walking through them, or shutting them closed?”
Whether we like it or not, teachers need to be interesting. If we are not interesting then there is little or no chance that our students will find us or the material we teach of any interest at all.
But, how do you “become interesting”. Paul Arden, in his brilliant little book called “Whatever you think think the opposite” makes the case that it simply requires you to be interested.
Many of us in this profession trudge the well-trodden path from school to home and home to school. For many, life revolves around school and an unhealthy obsession with how much work there is to do. Sometimes there is even a twisted pride and rivalry around how late people stay at work, who gets in to school earliest and who comes in at the weekend or doesn’t. There is a dangerous assumption that the hardest working teachers are the best teachers.
I have bad news for these people. All those countless hours spent at work may mean they get more done, but may make it much less likely that their students want to learn from or with them. It may make them very dull people who are unlikely to interest, inspire or motivate young people in the slightest.
So, instead of staying behind at work… ask yourself if that task really needs doing or if it will really transform learning. If not, get out of there… go and explore your city, go and take some photos, go and read a good book, go and see a movie, go and meet a friend (who doesn’t work at school!) and talk about life, go to a museum, go and people-watch somewhere, go down that alleyway you’ve always wondered about, enroll in an evening class, eat somewhere you’ve never tried before, go to a market, develop that talent that lies dormant… be interested in the world outside of school.
What you bring back to your classroom – knowledge, curiosity, connections, awareness, compassion, perspectives – will inevitably make you a better teacher.
“Gregorious stayed in the second-hand bookshop a long time. Getting to know a city through the books in it – he had always done that. His first trip abroad as a student had been to London. On the way back to Calais, he had realized that, except for the Youth Hostel, the British Museum and the many bookshops around, he had seen practically nothing of the city. But the same books could also be anywhere else! said the others and shook their heads at all the things he had missed. Yes, but in fact they weren’t anywhere else, he had replied.”
Books take on a life of their own. The books on our shelves are as much an indication of who we are than anything else. The books we pass on to other people are gifts of wisdom or worlds worth a visit. The books we stumble upon in a thrift shop, or that we blow dust off in a hotel lobby on the other side of the world are as serendipitous as turning a corner to find an amazing view or a chance reunion with an old friend.
Sure, we can read stuff on iPads and Kindles and whatever other electronic device someone deigns to invent over the next few years. But, it is a sad indication of where we’re going if anyone who considers themselves to be even remotely enlightened reckons it is OK for them to replace actual books.
Call me old-fashioned, but don’t we have a responsibility to be old-fashioned about a few things?
Excerpt from “Night Train to Lisbon” by Pascal Mercier
Image by Ian Wilson on Flickr: https://www.flickr.com/photos/foolstopzanet/
Both my daughters had swimming galas this week. On Saturday morning, guess what they were playing… yep, swimming galas.
This is a pattern in my children’s lives. When they have real experiences, those experiences become part of their play, part of their language and part of their landscape. After a trip to the doctor, they play doctors for weeks. After a train journey, they build trains out of dining chairs. After a meal in a fancy restaurant, they create fancy restaurants and write menus and act like chefs.
Pretty obvious really.
But, it does make me think about schools and how much learning comes as a result of real experiences. As a teacher, the most powerful learning opportunities always came from times when I was able to provide them with real experiences. Unfortunately, the nature of schools often means that learning is divorced from real experience. We counteract that by trying our best to recreate the real when we can. We try our best by using the virtual resources that the Internet gives us. But, nothing can or should replace the real experiences that are available by going to real places, speaking to real people or making real emotional connections.
When those things happen, learning is inevitable.
As if by coincidence, I came across this passage in the book I’m reading at the moment (“Night Train to Lisbon” by Pascal Mercier):
“Thus it was 11,532 times that I clenched my teeth and went back into the gloomy building from the schoolyard instead of following my imagination, which sent me through the school gate and out to the port, to a ship’s rail, where I would then lick the salt from my lips.”
Perhaps an education based on real experiences would mean he wouldn’t have to make that choice.
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?
“Nearly the weekend”
“Holidays coming soon”
In schools, you can’t go five minutes without hearing people saying these words, or something similar. In that sense, I suppose it is no different from the average workplace. What does make it different to other workplaces though, is that kids might hear us. What is the main lesson they will learn from hearing those words?
That people wish their lives away.
It’s such an astounding contradiction. Nobody wants to get old quickly, yet everyone consistently wishes the weekend and the holidays would come sooner. Weird.
One of the main causes of this problem in schools is the cycle of “busyness”. We make our days, weeks, months, terms, semesters, years so frantic, so chock-full of frenetic activity that we are constantly in desperate need of a break. We exhaust ourselves…
Who is to blame? Well…
- school leadership has to take some of the blame. As soon as we step out of the classroom we unavoidably and instantly forget what it is like to be a classroom teacher, so we pile things on with little empathy or understanding.
- the “mould” of schools also has to take the blame – they are expected to be these busy and rather frantic places!
- teachers are also partly to blame, we are not exactly Masters in the Art of Saying No – either to ourselves, to our students or to our colleagues. As a result, we take on more, and more, and more, and more, and more, and more… and then we struggle to put our finger on the exact reason why we are so busy (except, that is, for those who are able to simply point their finger at school leadership and say “its their fault we’re so busy”!)
The funny things is… you know who isn’t to blame?
If they could, they would hang out, relax, play, be creative, come up with ideas, start their own little projects, socialize and probably do a massive amount of learning!
Some things to ponder:
- Make clearing out your school calendar a regular and rather therapeutic process. If nobody really knows why things are done, chuck ’em. If events don’t go right back to your school’s vision, chuck ’em. If there doesn’t seem to be learning involved, chuck ’em!
- Find ways to break the mould, to seek more time rather than seek more activity. Instead of filling time with things, take things away. Instead of valuing “busyness”, value being purposeful. Instead of trying to do too much and ending up not doing it well, do a few things and do them well. Instead of segmenting your days into little portions, spread things out to create bigger portions. Instead of creating huge, ever-evolving to-do lists with your students, sit back and see what they come up and then decide how and what to teach. Just try, and keep on trying. It is the only way to break these stubborn and damaging moulds and traps we consistently find ourselves in.
- Be kind to yourself. Keep things simple, don’t try and do everything that comes into your head. Empower your students by letting them know anything is possible, but keep your own agenda for teaching short and simple. If there are things you have to do, do them – it is amazing how much time can be wasted sitting around moaning about the things you have to do instead of just doing them!!! If you believe you shouldn’t have to do them, be part of driving for change – suggest alternatives, do the research, stake a case.
So… there you go. Believe me, I am equally prone to all of these things and equally guilty of falling into all the same traps. I am writing this as much for me as for anyone else.
My two daughters are in Grade 1 and Kindergarten.
These days, we return from work, feed the kids, wash up, play or relax with them for a bit and then start the routines of bathing, reading and preparing for bed.
But, we are bad parents! We have been neglecting their homework. It is strange though… we are educators and, quite frankly, we believe there is more value in us spending a little time just being with our children, involving them in the cooking or letting them go for a bike ride, than there is in sitting them down for thirty minutes and doing more school work.
To be perfectly honest, eight hours at school should be quite sufficient for kids of this age – or, indeed, for kids of any age. Time invested in the family, in active play or just relaxing, is far more important… don’t you think?
Of course, it isn’t the teachers’ fault – they are usually just responding to the demands of fee-paying parents. It also puts them into an awkward position – after all, they may not agree with giving these kids homework anyway but still have to be seen to expect all the kids to do it. Those were certainly my sentiments when I had a class of my own.
What other kids would do with their time is also an issue. When TV, iPads, Playstations and other electronic devices are in the equation then there is the danger of those kids not having the chance to do more positive things with their time than stare at screens and ignore (or be ignored!). But is homework, or certain types of homework, actually worse or better than that?
Anyway, its a little rant of mine, but one I am sure many parents would empathise with and another example of schools just continuing with something they know is not philosophically a good idea simply because some parents demand it. The role of school in the education/re-education of parents is very often neglected.
On the eve of publication of The Great Gatsby, Scott Fitzgerald removed more than thirty pages from the novel. This was at the ‘galley’ stage, when the author is sent proofs to check for errors before printing proceeds.
The pages Fitzgerald struck out consisted mainly of Gatsby talking to Nick about himself. By taking them out, the novelist created a gap in his narrative, posed the question implied in the title, and preserved the mystery surrounding his central character. It is this gap which has driven the fame of his masterpiece in the 88 years since its publication.
As in narrative, so in inquiry – it is the gaps which drive engagement. The gaps are where the imagination plays. Reading is a creative activity; narrating a collaboration between storyteller and listener.
But you can’t have a gap by itself, of course. It has to be a gap in something. Through the outsider Nick Carraway, we observe Gatsby staring at the green light across the bay. We hear his party guests swapping wild rumours about him, we learn of their fascination with this gentleman thug, we wonder why he doesn’t attend his own parties…. a little later we hear his fantastical life-story from his own lips and don’t believe a word of it.
At the last moment, Fitzgerald decided to leave it like that. And so Jay Gatsby remained a living, breathing contradiction, and became immortal.
To create the space for inquiry, you need to plot your curriculum. The word ‘plot’, by the way, is not synonymous with ‘story’. It means the way the story is told – its narrative structure – what we learn in what order, and how – and when (if ever). A storyteller never tells the whole story. As a storyteller it’s good to leave out the boring bits – but leaving out the most interesting bits is sometimes a stroke of genius.
Know your curriculum… and then make it accessible to students in a way that helps them to develop their own knowledge. The thing is that the curriculum is complex and a little wordy. Breaking it all down and in a way that makes sense to students opens the door of genuine inquiry.
Once students know what it is they need to know they then become more knowledgeable. This happens in two ways:
- They know what it is they are learning about,
- They know what knowledge they will need to move deeper and further into their inquiry.
From here, all the other essential elements of the PYP will open up for real inquiry. Before they even get to the knowledge component, they need to know what it all actually means. Let me walk you through step by step something that supported the students in developing their own understanding and meaning.
Students recorded their first thinking about what each of the 4 science strands meant to them. This informed me what they already knew about each one and gave me a very accurate picture as to their knowledge base as scientists.
Next, the students had the opportunity to read a lot of non-fiction text all about science across the four strands. They skimmed and scanned a wide range of books. They had a lot of time to do this on their own.
After reading independently they were able to share and connect the things they had noticed and discuss and explain together.
They then teamed up again and connected the things that they read and saw in the books and transferred to their second thinking. The language and details really lifted to a deeper and wider range from being exposed to scientific books.
As a result of finding out what they first new and then allowing them to research in a very informal setting, their second thinking was now very solid and they had made a huge step forward in knowing much more about each strand.
Our next step is to gather all their curiosities and then sort and categorize them into the correct science strand. By following the above steps the students informed my teaching on what they already know, what they need to know and what knowledge we need to develop as we look closer at each of their questions and thinking.
Students wrote as many questions as they could about the things they were curious about.
They also wrote questions from the things they recorded from the field trip the day before.
Students put their questions to the science strand that it naturally connected to which helped to develop and see how science connects to so many things.
Now we are ready to take one of their burning questions and start to connect it to the concepts to channel and focus the way they will approach and plan the next steps.