There’s a lot of hype around “makerspaces” at the moment – I definitely wish I’d bought shares in Lego a couple of years ago! It’s great though, our schools are responding to the need for students to work with their hands, to think differently and to learn to become content or product creators.
One thing we have to be very careful of, however, is that theses places – and what happens inside them – don’t become another separate entity, another “subject” or another thing that happens outside of “regular learning” or “the real stuff”. Know what I mean?
These spaces – and what happens inside them – need to become natural extensions of all the other types of learning that happen in our schools. All of that learning needs to create opportunities for students to make. Students need to become more and more aware of what is possible and then they need to be connected with the people, places and materials that can make those possibilities become reality.
True change happens when making becomes a mindset in the school, not a subject. If the mindset doesn’t evolve, makerspaces may end up being another fad.
You know how people often say “school is their real world” when you start talking about “out there in the real world”? Its not true, school isn’t our students’ real world. It is a social construct, designed and managed by adults. It isn’t their real world, but it is their existence.
Schools and the real world are leagues apart. Schools are bubbles. So when we say it is “their real world” we are actually talking about a sanitised, protected, censored, authoritarian enclave that they inhabit for the first 18 years of their lives.
There’s so many angles that this posting could take at this point. However, today I want to write about how we protect our students from reality in the belief that this is what is best for them, and how we might be able to change that.
If we are honest, the real world is not a very nice place. Sure, there’s lots of positive stories and wonderful people. But, in general, the world is not a very nice place. This is reflected in the fact that most school mission statements give themselves and their students the unenviable task of making the world a “better”, “happier”, “peaceful” or “harmonious” place for future generations. We wouldn’t be saying we need to do that if the world was wonderful now, would we?
But, can we honestly say that our students are emerging as people with a conviction and a determination or even an awareness of how things need to change? Are we bringing the harsh realities of the world into our curriculum and provoking our students to think critically, cynically, divergently and alternatively? Correct me if I’m wrong, but probably not.
For example, how many schools are using the war in Syria and the huge exodus – and rejection – of people as a way to develop empathy or to learn about the evil acts mankind is capable of? If not, how can we possibly believe that history won’t continue to repeat itself? What stops us from doing that? Is it the sheer quantity of other stuff that “must be covered”? Is it the fear of taking a stance that may offend someone or other? Is it a desire to be so impartial that we end up standing for nothing at all?
I wonder how many genuine learning opportunities happen out there in the real world that could be deeply explored, that would evoke genuine emotional responses and provoke progressive thinking in our students?
Imagine a curriculum that is shaped by what is happening in the real world. Imagine a school that allows its curriculum to be shaped by what is happening in the real world.
Its not that complex, really. As we all know, learning is at its most powerful when it moves from facts to knowledge to conceptual understanding. Well, those initial facts and areas of knowledge can easily be determined by what is going on in the real world – whether its the horrific and the heart-breaking or the uplifting and the awe-inspiring. Connections can be made with other events in time or space that can lead to real understanding… so your starting point is flexible. Flexible enough to be topical, real, emotive and empowering.
I work in a PYP school and we are coming up to our annual curriculum review. One of the lenses I will ask teachers to scrutinise our curriculum through will be “The Real World”. Are there real-world starting points for each of our units of inquiry? Are students able to apply what they learn to real-world situations?
Now, don’t get me wrong. I am not suggesting we burden our young people with the onerous task of righting all our wrongs and saving the planet! I am, however, asking if we should be making sure as much learning as possible is centred on things that are really happening.
I have just been in our Grade 2 classrooms. In our school we often talk about the “flow” of inquiry, the “momentum” of inquiry and how we can create the conditions for those in our “units” of inquiry.
What I just witnessed in Grade 2 tells me that they are currently creating those conditions. Students are so involved in what they’re doing that we, with our timetables, starting and finishing times and other agendas are literally interrupting them. We are breaking their flow. We are stopping their momentum.
And that’s fantastic!
These are 7/8 year old children. They have been through a process of reflecting on their lives so far, their strongest memories, the emotions they associate with those memories, choosing which memories to focus on, considering different forms of expression and selecting which form of expression to use to share stories about their memories. Pretty complex, eh?
Now, they are in varying stages of putting together their works of art – dances, paintings, drawings, lyrics, animations… all sorts. When you walk into any of their classrooms – which have actually evolved into art studios – you are immediately struck by the variety and the palpable atmosphere of purposeful activity.
Some of the students are not in their classroom. Some are in the PE department using the space and getting advice on choreography from PE Teachers. Some are in the Art room using materials and getting advice from the Art Teacher. Some have gone to the music room to seek out guidance on song composition.
Learning should look like this a lot of the time. Students accessing the variety of spaces and expertise that schools possess. Students working on something that is highly motivating and of their own design. Teachers working as connectors, advisers, referrers and consultants.
And, most of all, students should be disappointed when they have to stop what they’re doing… that’s when you know they mean it!
Even better though, would be greater flexibility so that those interruptions happen less.
Inquiry-based learning remains a mystery to many teachers, and a serious challenge to others. Creating the conditions for our students to be intrinsically motivated while still addressing important areas of curriculum is not easy.
Or, is it?
Maybe, we just have to readjust our expectations, like…
- expecting all students to be working on the same curriculum areas at the same time
- expecting all students to be interested in the same things at the same time
- expecting all students to move through an inquiry “process” or “cycle” at the same time, and with the same momentum
Once we get ourselves out of these habits of expectation, we can free ourselves up in order to free our students up. Once we do that… then we can set out to create the time, the space and the conditions for students to be able to design their own learning.
This, of course, is another crossroads… and another point where teachers become lost:
- they struggle with the openness of the idea of students designing their own learning
- they struggle with their own judgments of the value of what students are interested in
- they struggle with the identification of learning connections
- they struggle to see the potential for where students may take their ideas
- they struggle with strategies to help students who have no idea what they want to do
- they struggle with the redefinition of their role that is so crucial (more on this in the next posting)
Very often, these struggles become the reason not to pursue student-created learning. It goes in the “too hard basket”. But, these struggles should be the justification for pushing forward with it, because these struggles symbolize what it means to inquire, they represent the efforts needed to nurture students who are inquirers, they are the inner battles we must face in order to drop our tendency to teach too much!
For those of us who push forward with it… this is what it could lead to.
Imagine a classroom full of students who have all had the chance to design their own learning (this might only be for a section of a day each week, or maybe a whole day every week… or more!). Imagine them all working on very different things – building a prototype of something they have designed, researching the existence of planets beyond our solar system, cutting fabric to create a dress, mixing ingredients for a new recipe, writing the seventh chapter of a book, conducting experiments with light.
The potential list is endless… because our students (if we allow them to reveal them to us) have endless interests, curiosities and dreams. Usually, the only thing stopping them from learning about them is the person in charge of their learning, or the institution in which they learn. But if we can reverse that, let them bring these interests, curiosities and dreams into our schools and let them pursue them… the learning that happens as a result is unprecedented.
If we know our curriculum well enough, we can make a myriad of connections for our students, we can help them see all sorts of ways in which they are learning what we would normally have had to teach them. We can use our curriculum to help them figure out where to go next… the curriculum becomes our friend as it reveals possibilities rather than reminding us what we have to cover.
Its just not going to be all the same areas of the curriculum, at the same time and at the same pace.
But, who really believes learning works that way anyway?
“Action” is the most abstract of the PYP Essential Elements. We know it’s there, we know its important, we know its designed to encourage students to do good things… but we so often misinterpret it, forget about it and trivialize it.
Jane Goodall’s quote, below, puts it in the most simple terms. Students (and teachers) need to see how everything they do represents their “actions” and that reflection on what they do helps them to consider the difference – either good or bad – that their actions make. This could range from putting their shoes away when they get home to reaching for a book instead of an iPad to helping a friend with a problem to noticing a child beggar and mentioning it to a parent to… the list goes on.
Our problem, very often, is that we narrow down what “action” means so much that it has little or no value. Are we surprised, then, that so many of our students go through school believing it is a bake sale?
How do you guide your students towards a sophisticated understanding of Action?
Mindfulness practice creates a mood, and skillful educators use that mood to help students be at their best.
Often, the mood that is necessary is one of independence, self-management and self-direction. I find it effective to give students a decent 10 minutes of mindfulness practice. Then, in the final stages of that practice, I ask them to consider what their intentions are for the time that follows. What will they try and achieve? What do they need or want to do?
We work towards being very detailed in the description, so rather than say “I will work on my project” they give specific details like “I will research how to split video files so I can edit my movie”. As you can see in this video, some of the students are quite specific and yet others are very vague. With regular practice, they would all be outlining their intentions with more detail.
This sort of strategy not only creates a mood and helps students be self-directed, it also gives the teacher a big picture of what stage each student is up to with the things they’re working on and how organized they are. In this sense, it is also a formative assessment. After the session in this video, I knew exactly which students I needed to give some time to and follow up with.
Last week, Yoojin and I were talking about new ideas and possibilities to consider for her Passion Project. On the following Monday she came to school and everything we had talked about she had followed up with by taking action. She didn’t do what we were talking about, but our chat inspired other ideas which then lead to more ideas. Clearly, Yoojin had thought deeply about the conversation we had and then put those words into purposeful action.
This then gave me an idea and I saw an opportunity to extend this to every student in the class.
Each student had till Friday to do one thing that they have been talking about doing and never got around to it, or do something that connected to learning throughout the week. The conditions were really simple, they had to prove with evidence of how their words and actions had come together.
Students are really good at talking about ideas and most of the time don’t do anything about it. They often take action only as a result of an adult telling them to do it.
We all had a remarkable week of learning, connecting and accepting responsibility. Every student had something to show and share. Here is a list of some of the things students did as part of their Yoojin Project:
- Two girls arranged to ride to school together;
- Washing up the dishes;
- Playing with their brother or sister;
- Putting more effort and detail into their exposition writing;
- Taking photos of graffiti in the community;
- Spending more time with their mum and talking about their day….. and so on.
Everything that students did was timely. It was always connected to learning, knowledge and skills. Most important of all this experience was developing them as people.
Students saw the value and meaning in what they were doing and why they were doing it. They received feedback about their Yoojin Project by their peers. They felt really positive and good about themselves. This is what successful people do – they are doers.
How much time do you take away from the other ‘stuff’ jammed into your schedule and put it into something that is authentic, purposeful and meaningful naturally? Sometimes we need to teach beyond the curriculum to reach them in other ways.
We all need to carefully listen and observe our students in what they do. We also need to take it one step further and make time to take these opportunities and treat them as priorities in what we teach.
The Yoojin Project is now part of us and what we do. The students know that this term means putting their words into action. Now how special is that for Yoojin!