Category: teaching

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 If school leaders make sure teachers know that being in complete control of students no longer represents good teaching, perhaps teachers will – in turn – be more inclined to release control to their students.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

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

Allow choice but insist on depth

Width vs. Depth

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!

Speaking your mind doesn’t mean being a…

 

Anatomy of Atherosclerosis

There is a misconception in life, and particularly in schools, that “speaking my mind” – or honesty – is a euphemism for being a bit of an arse. Either I don’t “speak my mind”, which must mean that I bottle everything up, conceal my true thoughts and never share what I genuinely think or believe, or, I feel like I can just go around being rude to people and make “speaking my mind” a kind of license to make all interactions highly personal and confrontational.

Both of these dichotomous positions are damaging to a school culture, and people who adopt them can be equally toxic in different ways.

Person A, the type who never “speaks their mind”, usually makes it clear to everyone that they have made a conscious decision never to “speak their mind”. With this constant declaration of self-censorship comes an implicit declaration of disapproval, judgment and criticism. It translates, basically, as “if I could speak my my mind it would be negative and I would tell you how useless this, that and they are”. The dangers of people like this are:

  • They do actually “speak their minds” in small circles of people, sharing their bottled up negativity with those people they have decided they can confide in, and forming little clots of people in the organisational flow. These clots, like real clots, cause all kinds of awful things to happen – others become wary or paranoid of them, good ideas or initiatives get blocked or people who excel at their jobs have their confidence chipped away at until they leave but the clot remains.
  • At times, opportunities arise for Person A to express themselves with anonymity, and this is like a dream-come-true for them. They feel liberated to “speak their mind” and unleash their thoughts onto people with no fear of having to take responsibility for their words or actually talk about or think it through with another human being.
  • Person A may often also just go about their business, interacting  only rarely with other people, but still walking around with their dark cloud hanging over them. People avoid them for fear of being caught in the storm –  dragged into a negative conversation that has the potential to ruin their day or forced to listen to toxic gossip. This sort of isolation does nobody any good… particularly as Person A is responsible for the education of young people.

Then, there’s Person Z, the one who has taken it upon themselves to educate everyone else by just being an a$#@%$#e. They shoot people down, they belittle people, they interrupt, they opt out of conversations that need to be had, they refuse to take part in any positive initiatives, they make the discussion of ideas personal, they see things only from their perspective, they struggle to focus on student needs rather than their own, they talk when people are trying to address a group, they criticize meetings or workshops that don’t quite live up to their high standards (which are rarely reflected in the way they teach!), they have stopped learning, they get angry about things that don’t really matter, they write people off and give them no chance of redemption… the list goes on.

Fortunately, schools are also full of People C, D, E, F, G, H… the people who occupy the grey areas. These people:

  • understand the value of exchanging thoughts, opinions and ideas
  • are able to discuss things without making it personal
  • are able to remain free of judgment
  • value open and positive relationships
  • are conscious of the effect of their attitude on others
  • can see the big picture by “zooming out” of situations
  • feel uncomfortable in gossipy situations
  • try to get along with everyone in a way that is not artificial, because they know it matters
  • give people the benefit of the doubt
  • are respectful listeners
  • are open-minded and ready to learn from any source
  • don’t sulk

I know these are all generalisations, so please don’t comment and tell me that! Instead, please think about whether Person A and Person Z exist where you work, how they affect your school culture and how we can move beyond such polarised behaviours. Until that happens, the potential for the evolution of schools may well remain in their hands.

 

Teachers are becoming more relevant, not less

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You can learn most information from effective use of the internet. You can pick up any skill from videos on Youtube. You can connect with experts and be in touch with the latest research and data. And so on…

Some people have allowed this to lead them into believing that teachers, and therefore teaching, are becoming increasingly irrelevant.

They are misguided, possibly by a very limited understanding of the art of teaching in the first place. Teaching is not, or should not be, the imparting of knowledge and the tuition of skills. Teaching is a social art. Teachers are the co-creators of personalities, of lives, of societies, of cultures and… of futures.

If anything, new technologies have highlighted the essence of good teaching by removing the need for the features of a one-dimensional approach. The focus is increasingly on who the teacher is as a person, the relationships they have with their students and their ability to create the conditions in which students can flourish.

This is becomingly particularly pertinent as human beings continue to make a mess of things, as they continue to practice destructive and unsustainable business, continue to wage war on each other. Levels of education are increasing worldwide, but – in the big picture – things are not getting better, they are getting worse. We may, as Carol Black does in Schooling the World, actually have to start looking at the direct relationship between education and many of the world’s most pressing problems.

I am confident that any thinking that emerges from doing so will be based on a need for teachers who are human, not the opposite.