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.
We need to stop talking about the 21st Century as if it is the future, we are already in it.
We need to stop trying to address new situations and challenges with old models and moulds.
If we are in any way serious about moving education forward, or even just catching up, we need to be in the business of breaking moulds. If we keep using the same old moulds, it doesn’t matter what we put into them… the end product will always be the same.
Here are some educational moulds that could do with being broken:
- Leadership – Leadership roles in schools tend to be very restrictive as there is usually only one possible way to advance if we are ambitious and wish to expand our scope of influence. The career path usually takes us further away from kids, further away from learning. This will inevitably make leaders less relevant! Why not break a few of those moulds and create alternative career paths for people so they can continue to be their best?
- Homework – For all the talk about homework, there is still remarkably little change. Thousands of teachers are still handing out homework to thousands and thousands of students that is still in the same mould as it was 5, 10, 15 and 20 years ago. We have moved on so…. let’s move on. We could even go so far as to break that mould and then simply not replace it!
- Reports – Another mould that we continue to use even though we know it isn’t the right mould. Break it, rethink it, redesign it, discard it… anything but carry on with the same.
- Classrooms – It is such an uncomfortable feeling to walk into a classroom (for any age) and find it to resemble classrooms we endured when we were kids. It is so refreshing, on the other hand, to walk into a classroom that breaks those moulds. Imagine a classroom with different seating options, different shapes and heights of tables, different lighting options, different smells and sounds… Teachers need to have a daily routine of asking themselves “would I like to be a student in my own class?”
- End-of-year class parties – just adding this as our school year comes to an end and I have been around every classroom and found mountains of junk food, packaging, throw-away cups and plates and wide-eyed over-indulged children who ate lunch only an hour beforehand. Time to think again people! Have a pool party like we did in Year 6 at NIST, have a class sports day, go out somewhere, bring someone in to do something different with them. Or, at the very least, cancel lunch on that day.
- Technology – Funny isn’t it, most of us actually think 21st Century leaning actually means using technology. We are mistaken. It actually involves, but doesn’t mean, using technology to make learning different to how it was before, not simply replicating what is used to be like but using a computer or other device instead. Use technology to break a few moulds, then it may serve a purpose. Be careful, we are in danger of creating some rather dull new moulds in the way we currently use technology.
- Committees – Instead of creating a few of those dull old committees and populating them with people who have to be in a committee, how about using an inquiry style of leadership and letting teachers determine what needs to be done to improve their schools and then empowering them to take action and make those improvements happen. Teachers who feel empowered to create change have a much better chance of nurturing students who feel empowered to create change.
- Timetables – The fragmentation of the school day is often done with little thought about the flow of learning or the time needed for genuine inquiries to take shape. Discrete lessons, certainly in primary education, may be close to obsolete. In fact, in my teaching practice over the last few years, I would struggle to give an example of a lesson that actually ended – many began, many had middles, but I can’t think of any that had an end. And, I wouldn’t want them to!
- Meetings – Any time any person is running any meeting, they should consciously try to make it unlike a meeting. This is really hard, the meeting is a very strong mould! But, if we can just approach them with the determination to chip away at the mould we will start to create something different.
- Professional development – Throw some money at it, get on a plane somewhere, sit and listen to someone, take away one or two things, implement one of them, share nothing. All too often, PD falls into that trap. Great for getting around the world, meeting people and making connections… don’t get me wrong. Hopeless for moving a school forward. Even bringing in big names and filling rooms with teachers can sometimes have little or no impact. Good professional development should have a sustainable impact on a school’s culture of learning and to do so it needs to be dynamic and multi-faceted. A model that we are experimenting with and getting a lot of success is bringing in practitioners, people who still teach, and setting them up to have an effect on the teaching and learning in the school in multiple ways – team-teaching, demonstration teaching, helping with planning, working with parents etc… there’s lots of ways to do it. Give it a try!
- Learning – Yep, even learning is stuck in a type of mould. While doing a teacher appraisal today, I snapped a photo of this image that was on top of one of my colleague’s files – it pretty much represents the mould of teacher/student relationship that is being broken and needs to be broken more!
Anyway… enough from me. What moulds are you breaking? What moulds would you like to break?
Image from OKFoundryCompany on Flickr: https://www.flickr.com/photos/jamesoneil/
It has become painfully obvious to me over the last few years that teaching may be the only profession in which you can be guaranteed that someone will say you are wrong about something at least once a day.
There are so many people with a vested (and sometimes even not vested) interest in what you do in your classroom that you can be sure to be judged over at least one small detail each day at work. I can think of no other profession in which there are so many other experts lining up to tell you how, and how not to, do your job. In which other professions could you open your email at night, be unjustly criticized by someone and then struggle to sleep? It happens to teachers all the time.
This can become extremely debilitating:
- It can stop you from being innovative
- It can make you second guess your every action
- It can limit the experiences you offer your students
- It can destroy your confidence in yourself
- It can undermine the fundamental importance of the individual teacher and the differences we bring to education
I am fairly lucky. To a certain extent, I am strong about what I believe about learning and how I go about putting what I believe into practice.
Others are less lucky. Many teachers are highly sensitive people to whom the opinions and judgments of colleagues, parents, administrators and whoever else happens to pass by matter a great deal. These people can shrink before your eyes as their individuality, decision-making, ideas and approaches are questioned. They spend countless hours writing replies to critical emails – all too often justifying their own blatantly good actions in response to blatantly ridiculous criticism. Honestly, if we were to spend several years gathering all of the things teachers are frequently told they are wrong about we could compile possible the best tragic joke book of all time!
This trend really bothers me. The disempowerment of teachers really bothers me… particularly as these people are being asked to empower their students.
- Possess a very clear vision/mission statement through which everything can be “filtered”
- Hire teachers whose thinking and practice are aligned with that vision
- Have a default setting of backing teachers first, responding to criticism second (if at all)
- Have a zero-tolerance approach to gossip in the teaching community
- Hire leadership teams who have a strong, teacher-centred, approach
- Believe in themselves and the way they work
- Make sure they are working in the school that is right for them, and vice-versa
- Not apologize in response to unfair criticism
- Always respond to criticism by suggesting a face-to-face meeting, not by an exchange of opinions or justifications by email
- Inform a member of the school’s leadership team once a series of criticisms begins
- Have confidence in the fact that most criticisms are likely to come from ignorance
- Allow their colleagues the space to be themselves
- Have faith in the teachers who devote their last drop of energy to doing their job as well as they can
- Make sure their kids are in the right school for them, or;
- Be willing to have their predetermined ideas about education permanently changed, or;
- Be ready to change which school their child goes to, not try and change the school they do go to
- Find other distractions if they find themselves putting too much thought into what is going on their children’s classrooms!
Picking fault with teachers in a way that is destructive should not be tolerated. In all honesty, is there another profession in which this happens???
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.
I just had an interesting conversation with my colleague, Alicia. We were discussing relaxation and concentration and the difficulty many students have with them. We drifted on to the topic of “21st Century teaching and learning” and how that immediately seems to mean TECHNOLOGY.
But, why should 21st Century teaching and learning only be about technology, and how do we break away from that limiting (and pretty scary) assumption.
What other things could be the ingredients of a 21st Century education? Here are some of my thoughts, please feel free to add more!
- Ecological intelligence
- Aesthetic appreciation
That’s what I came up with so far, and… if we are honest with each other… technology is actually the enemy of many of those things. In fact, we can link the over-use or mindless use of technology to the exact opposite of most of those things. For example, most of the kids who struggle to relax or concentrate are that way because they are so used to devices being given to them to keep them occupied.
Of course, technology is going be a major factor in the 21st Century. But, unless people grow to see it as a tool and that actually they are more important than the technology, we could be doomed.
When planned thoughtfully, field trips are very important and powerful learning experiences that can have a transformative effect on student inquiry. By being mindful of the following points, we can ensure that field trips are as meaningful and effective as possible.
- There is a clear and powerful purpose to the trip, with clear links between the concepts that will be explored and curriculum needs
- The field trip experience should stimulate inquiry and a richer understanding of the current unit of study
- The location has been selected specifically with learning in mind
- The impact of our students on the location and people there has been considered and catered for, e.g. by going one class at a time
- The trip will be timed to maximise learning opportunities for the students, giving students the chance to engage fully and soak up the experiences being offered
- Opportunities and locations for briefing students, reflecting, rest, drinking water or having a snack have been identified and planned for
- Plans have been made to enable students to capture learning meaningfully during the trip
- Attitudes and behaviour have been discussed with students beforehand to ensure they are in the best mood to make the most of the experience and to represent the school
- Additional adults are considered not only in terms of safety but also enriching student experience – smaller groups may mean more powerful learning
- Steps have been taken to make sure trips are environmentally responsible – this kind of modelling is very powerful for students
- There are varied and meaningful follow-up experiences planned so that the trip was worthwhile
We are going to introduce these points in our school as a checklist for teachers to go through when planning field trips. If they are unable to tick off most (or all) of these points… the trip may not be worth it!