Category: Space

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 If school leaders make sure teachers know that being in complete control of students no longer represents good teaching, perhaps teachers will – in turn – be more inclined to release control to their students.

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)

Using music to create mood

Playing different types of music in order to create certain moods has always been a large part of my practice. Of course, sometimes no music is required. However, at other times, the right piece of music can create the atmosphere that is needed in order to stimulate student thinking, creativity, calm or energy.

The piece of music above is one of many that I have used when I want my students to feel calm, at ease and able to express themselves, either verbally or visually. If you just hit play on this video, it is followed by lots of other cool music too (I just found that out!).

I will try and remember to share more thoughts about the use of music in classrooms, and to share some of the pieces of music that I have found particularly effective for different purposes.

How do you use music in your practice?

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

 

 

Confusing confidence with a “big ego”

 

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The word “ego” often comes up in conversations about teachers, and not in a positive sense.

We hear teachers being described as having a “big ego”. However, this is usually in reference to teachers who are confident. This confidence comes through by:

  • consistently putting ideas on the table
  • coming up with an approach and going for it
  • refusing to allow oneself to be bullied
  • projecting an image of confidence to students
  • looking confident
  • taking on the challenge of leading people
  • stepping up to deal with situations
  • consistently contributing to discussions in large groups

Sure, these can sometimes spill over into arrogance or an inflated ego, but usually only when people feel cornered, subject to critical scrutiny by colleagues or – inevitably – malicious gossip.

I think a teacher ego – in it’s negative sense – is much less visible than the things in the list above. I think a negative teacher ego manifests itself as:

  • believing one is much better at one’s job than one is
  • claiming good practice is obvious, yet not actually doing it
  • being a know-it-all
  • always referring to one’s own ideas, thoughts and practices and not those of other people
  • making it clear that other people’s perspectives matter less than one’s own, either consciously or subconsciously
  • consistently talking while other people are talking
  • finishing other people’s sentences
  • shutting people down
  • consistently judging other people’s practice and behaviour
  • believing other people are interested in one’s negative or critical thoughts
  • struggling to see anything from other people’s perspectives
  • consistently making everything about oneself
  • making one’s problems someone else’s problems

These behaviours are subtle, divisive and destructive… and particularly so because they are not usually the behaviours of people who are often described as “having a big ego”. Instead, they are often the behaviours of people who come across as insecure and, as a result, are quite hidden.

I should clarify that I’m not writing this posting because of anything that has happened to me recently… some, but not all, of my postings are autobiographical! I guess I’m writing this posting because I would like to see an increasingly sophisticated understanding of:

  • what confidence is and why it is important for young people to be taught by confident adults
  • how to avoid writing off confident people as having a “big ego” and preventing that initial observation from manifesting itself as malicious gossip
  • how to deal with the more subtle, egotistical behaviours that do more harm in our schools than any confident, or even over-confident, behaviours could ever do

 

image from https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/positive-ego-nancy-steidl-1

 

 

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

Release learning by fighting your learned instincts

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We have to remember to go against our learned instincts.

My learned instinct is to hold my children back. We’re walking along a footpath in Cheshire, in the UK, beautiful fresh stream rushing across ancient stones. Children utterly excited to be there… and they want to run ahead, and my learned instinct, my new instinct that I’ve got from life, somehow, by mistake, is to hold them back. My first response is “no… we’re not here to run”.

Well, guess what, Daddy… you’re wrong.

These kids are here to run. And there’s no reason to hold them back.

It’s a lot like learning. We’ve just got to let them go, just run. And, I’m standing here now watching them. It’s raining, they’re full of zest. They’re excited by the space, the freedom, the flowers and by the fact that they can just run.

Yes, they make a few mistakes, get stung by nettles, make their shoes filthy in mud. But they are learning, first hand, from and about the environment. They will not forget nettles. They will identify the squelchy, marshy patches of land and – maybe – avoid them next time!

I created this context – in my role as “teacher” – by bringing them to this place. I knew it was important, special and rich with opportunities to discover. But then I have to let them be free within the context, only that way will genuine questions emerge from them, and they did:

“Why is the water and the rocks orange?”

“Why are the cows lying down?”

“Where does the water come from?”

“Why is there wool on the branches of that fallen tree?”

“Who does this land belong to?”

“Why are people allowed to walk through here?”

“Where does that path go?”

“What is making that sound?”

“Who made that rope swing over the river?”

And then, of course, many attempts at holding on to the piece of wood hanging from a tree and swinging out over the water until they had all had many successful goes!

Instead of being a controlled walk, with adults determining the path and pointing out the things they thought should be of interest or worthy of learning about (i.e. the ones we had the answers to!), it becomes a child-driven walk, a haphazard route, endless questions – many unanswered – unpredicted experiences, private thoughts and moments of personal growth and self-actualization that we – the parents – are not even aware of.