In this, the first ever Time Space Education Podcast, Chad, Cathy and Frank and I discuss the purpose of our work and what our professional focus is at the moment. Naturally, however, we drift into lots of other
I had to get my motorbike fixed today, so I went out around noon in the 40 degree heat. Before I left, I made a conscious decision to leave my phone at home… one of those things you’re sure about but aren’t sure why.
20 minutes later, I knew why.
As I sat there waiting for the guys to fix my bike, I stopped. I absorbed.
I watched the giant trees above me swing in the wind, their smaller branches and then their leaves all making their own rhythm. I watched the old lady collecting scraps of rubber from the tyre repairs places and attach them to a huge ball of rubber scraps that she balanced on the back of her motorbike. I watched the oddly proud rooster scratching about in the gravel. I watched the ebb and flow of people as they did their own things. The guy with the bundle of sugarcane for the woman who endlessly made cup after cup of juice at the cart next to me. The filthy, sweating construction workers seeking refuge in the shade and a plate of rice and pork. The complex system of grunts and nods the mechanics had as they figured out a problem with the wiring.
I was very grateful to myself, the version of me who knew I would have sat there flicking past meaningless things with my thumb like sifting for tiny fragments of gold that might, by chance, be interesting to me. Over-communicating, but failing to receive the most important information… what was going on around me at that moment.
Generations of our students are in danger of missing almost everything that happens around them. Sure, these devices are cool and they make possible all sorts of things we may never even have imagined. But, they’re also nasty little things that suck at your attention and lead to almost complete oblivion.
Make sure you teach balance, but first of all… make sure you practice it yourself.
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.
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.
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.
To be a teacher who truly has an effect on students you must know learning. To know how to teach is not sufficient, instead you must become skilled and dexterous at noticing learning. And this is learning without predetermined boundaries. Contexts yes, boundaries no. For when we establish too narrowly the boundaries of learning we instantly rule out learning that is new and different.
To know learning, you must know life. An adult who “lives to work” will struggle here as a direct result of inevitably becoming rather narrow minded. An adult who is aware, who is regularly challenged and exposed by new situations, an adult with knowledge beyond her own area of expertise is much more likely to be able to see learning of different types.
This type of person sees and makes connections that enrich life in their classroom. Most of these connections are spontaneous and not planned for. This type of person responds to students in a way that makes the student feel that they are part of a wider world, not a classroom bubble. Connections are frequently made with media, knowledge, literature, ideas, people, businesses, organizations and aspects of society that lie within and beyond the walls of the school.
When this culture of connections exists in your classroom, learning can take many forms… sometimes being so “disguised” that it looks unlike learning in any traditional sense. Learning lies in the background and provides forward momentum for students regardless of what it is they are doing.
If you were to walk in to the classroom of a teacher like this, you would see them:
- Creating contexts in which students are engaged and energized.
- Differentiating – in a sophisticated sense – so that students are pursuing their own inquiries or working on their own projects.
- Getting out of the habit of playing “guess whats in my head”. Sharing ideas and making connections with and for students as and when they are needed has a profound effect on the directions students can take.
- “Noticing and naming” the learning that is taking place in order to validate what students are doing and help them plot their way forward, navigating their way through their curriculum.
- Establishing a meaningful reflective process that creates a culture of intrinsic motivation for students.
- Taking steps to set classrooms up as “learning studios” that are dynamic spaces that change according to what students are doing.
- Skillfully and intelligently documenting learning using different forms of media.
- Empowering students by deliberately creating a “culture of permission” in which students feel that they can give things a go and that their teacher is able to work with them to make things happen.
Do you know any teachers like this? I do. And all too often they are in the minority. How do we change that?
In the market, on Saturdays and other special days, he sits and mends broken chairs. Not just any chairs, but those made with wicker or weaved rope. The immediate reaction is “how does he stay in business?”. I mean, do people really get their chairs repaired?
As I stood there, a middle aged couple brought their wooden chair up, a gaping hole in the weave where someone had clearly put their foot through it – probably a grandchild – and handed it over. They chatted for a bit and he pointed at the areas that would need to be worked on in order to restore it. Then, the couple bid him a good day and they wandered into the market, stopping for a moment to greet an older couple pushing a trolley full of paper bags of fruit.
This little scene, which probably lasted only a few minutes, had such a profound effect on me that I felt it in my chest. I felt like I had been learning as I watched, and the learning was of a melancholy nature. I felt I had witnessed several aspects of humanity that were on the decline, that were losing their place in society because of their inability to compete with other aspects of humanity that are most cost-effective.
The man who repairs things seems to be a thing of the past in most societies. It is now too easy to simply go and get a new object for less than you would pay for the old object to be fixed. As a result, we discard things freely and attach little or no value to things which less than a generation ago would have been prized possessions. I don’t know the provenance of that chair, but one could imagine that couple’s parents may well have sat on it eating their breakfast when they were in their 20s. By getting it repaired, their great-grandchildren may well do the same. That has to be the right way, don’t you think?
A side-effect of all of this for education is that working with your hands is also becoming a thing of the past. My three-year old son was transfixed watching the Chair Repair Man work the wood and twine and wicker in his strong, nimble hands. I could see that my son wanted to have a go, to touch the materials and see if he could make them do the same things. But, sadly, the schools I work in will educate this tendency out of him. Sure… he’ll be allowed to build with blocks and other stuff in Early Years. But, sooner or later, all that will be dismissed and he will end up like the rest of them sitting in rows staring at screens.
He may also never know what it feels like to walk up to someone and chat about their trade, learn about how they will do something for you and then negotiate a price – to make human interactions a valued part of daily life. He will probably interact purely through a device, if that involves anything that can actually be called an “interaction”.
And, as we become more and more convinced that staring at a device having surface-level conversation with groups of people who like everything we say is “socializing”, I would say his chances of bumping into someone he has known for many years and stopping for a regular conversation are pretty negligible. Which is sad, not old-fashioned. Just plain, simple sad. Don’t you think?
So, I’m starting to sound like some anti-technological, retro-Dinosaur type aren’t I? But I wrote this on a laptop, I will upload it to a website and I will share it with my PLN using Twitter. I know how to use the stuff… I just don’t want it to use me, or for it to replace what is real and right, or for it to rob my children of what it feels like to work with their hands and hang out with people face-to-face.
It is down to our generation to fight for a few things, to embrace the new while preserving the old. Being progressive has never been a synonym for being submissive. Personally, I think it is education’s duty not to be submissive.