Category: Transdisciplinary

Why kids need experiences


Both my daughters had swimming galas this week. On Saturday morning, guess what they were playing… yep, swimming galas.

This is a pattern in my children’s lives. When they have real experiences, those experiences become part of their play, part of their language and part of their landscape. After a trip to the doctor, they play doctors for weeks. After a train journey, they build trains out of dining chairs. After a meal in a fancy restaurant, they create fancy restaurants and write menus and act like chefs.

Pretty obvious really.

But, it does make me think about schools and how much learning comes as a result of real experiences. As a teacher, the most powerful learning opportunities always came from times when I was able to provide them with real experiences. Unfortunately, the nature of schools often means that learning is divorced from real experience. We counteract that by trying our best to recreate the real when we can. We try our best by using the virtual resources that the Internet gives us. But, nothing can or should replace the real experiences that are available by going to real places, speaking to real people or making real emotional connections.

When those things happen, learning is inevitable.

As if by coincidence, I came across this passage in the book I’m reading at the moment (“Night Train to Lisbon” by Pascal Mercier):

“Thus it was 11,532 times that I clenched my teeth and went back into the gloomy building from the schoolyard instead of following my imagination, which sent me through the school gate and out to the port, to a ship’s rail, where I would then lick the salt from my lips.”

Perhaps an education based on real experiences would mean he wouldn’t have to make that choice.


Can we teach from the inside of a bubble?

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?

Why teachers wish their lives away

“Nearly the weekend”

“Almost Friday”

“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?

The kids.

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:

  1. 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!
  2. 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.
  3. 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.

“Creating a Culture that Cares” by Tiffany Eaton

Tiffany Eaton @votefortiff

So many times I have shuddered, hearing “but my kids just don’t get it” or “my students are just not interested in learning.” The question I can’t help but ask myself is: just whose fault is that?

 Surely kids are not innately programmed to sit on a dirty patch of carpet, cold flooring or at rigid desks and listen to us lecture about stuff that, quite frankly, they’re not interested in learning. At the age of 9 did I care if I used a comma in the correct place? How about memorizing the history of the country I lived in while happily sitting ‘Crisscross Apple Sauce’? In fact, even as an adult I was recently reminded (over the course of a 3-day course) that quite frankly, learning isn’t that fun. Or can it be?

I must admit, I’ve been there. Frustrated with the realities of orchestrating a class of 20-30 kids with varying abilities, interests, social skills and levels of ‘grit’ in a classroom. We all do our best with what we know, right? Getting a class invested and engaged isn’t always perfectly how we originally imagine it to be.

How do we move past these realities and create a culture that truly cares?

Dare I suggest we quit making it about ‘us’ as teachers or about the systems we work within and quite simply ask the students how they view their own learning and what they need to be successful? Why not provide the framework of learning and have the students guide each other? Why not stop sitting around talking about ‘what doesn’t work’ and instead, do more to teach kids to truly think, teach kids to truly care and to teach them to find their own true passions.

As educators we’re always talking about this constructivist model that we know—and research has proven to work – but all too often we get caught up teaching the mundane skills, providing random activities that don’t truly lead to authentic learning. We need to back the train up, get to know our students on a deeper level and create the appropriate structures to guide experiences and inquiries that will leave everyone truly interested in learning.

I’ve had several ‘a-buzz’ moments as of late that have left me energized, full of hope and reminded me what learning in a Primary school should be all about: letting kids explore, find their passions and abilities and choosing when they want to dig deeper. Through these various activities I’ve been reminded of the value in relaxing myself and in turn, allowing kids adequate time to make it happen….

1.    Concentric thinking:

Inspired by my PYP coordinator’s use of the ‘Concentric Thinking’ model, several weeks ago I ordered 56 graphic organizer mats to be printed for use in the classroom. How they would be used, I had no idea. However since spreading all 56 large mats across the hallway, my kids have been bright eyed and bushy-tailed about their learning…. independently. In fact, one student even came in this morning and the first thing out of her mouth was, “When can we use those big organizing mats again; I made a little one in my homework book!”

Once spread down the hallway, my class’ goal was to prove wrong the teacher that walked by chuckling at the abundance of mats everywhere and commented, “What are you going to use those for? I bet they’ll accumulate dust.” Not long after, I could hardly hold back the class and we stopped talking about the mats and simply started ‘doing’ with them.

The students automatically saw numerous graphic organizers that represented their personal thinking/passions and they physically jumped on different mats. Some used their bodies on the mats while others recorded their ideas with sticky notes, visibly showing their thinking. The class blew my mind and students explicitly taught their peers various ways they can use these organizers to shape their thinking. How to solve an algebra equation in two ways (“one way fast like a rabbit, one way slow like a turtle”); Vietnam in the past, present and future; an iceberg analyzing the depth of feelings; steps of travel; to reach the ‘core’ of their passion project.

Since then we have used these mats for UOI, Math, Passion Projects and our integrated literacy. Not only do I find myself amazed by the conversations that have ensued from these mats, but so have the visitors that have passed us in the hallways or pop into class. They have commented on our active discussions, surprised that 9-year olds can debate topics such as the impact of globalization, contrasting societal structures worldwide and modernization. I can’t help but think: why do we keep telling kids exactly how to do everything our way and then complain that our students these days don’t think for themselves?

2.    Passion Projects/Genius Hour/20% Time…. Whatever you want to call it:

Need I say more? If we want kids to think, sometimes it is as simple as giving them time to think about ‘what makes them itch’ (of excitement), pursuing their diverse talents and abilities.

Once a week my class is almost completely independent, with students engulfed in cooking, drawing, learning about Math, researching laws, writing, building airplanes to scale, etc. Whoever said that kids these days don’t care about anything have it all wrong. I can’t help but think that if they’re not interested, their learning must not be relevant to them or is being presented in a manner that makes more sense to the teacher than to the kids. Do you blame them for not caring?

If we want risk-takers in our classes and for students to, “Understand what [they] don’t know and be willing to explore things [they] don’t know without feeling embarrassed” as Sir Ken Robinson recently commented, don’t we as teachers need to be willing to explore new ways of teaching as well?

3.    Leadership Opportunities: Caring 4 Creepers

Running the Community Development Club could be a headache, organizing bi-weekly field trips, fundraisers and kids filling your room during breaks, screaming cheers they will use the next day to promote their causes over a mega-phone. Personally, I can’t help but feel the absolute opposite. In fact, having kids lead the school by example has improved their confidence, focus in class and ability to think outside the box.

When the year began the ‘Community Development’ group couldn’t think past running a bake sale. A bake sale that would involve their nannies baking beautifully presented cookies and cakes all night without any authentic learning occurring and students frantically buying. Spending money, that quite frankly, they didn’t earn (let alone doesn’t remotely cover the cost of the baked goods if we were to do the math…!).

Over the course of 6 months, the students have been hands-on in organizing, visiting and asking questions about the world and questioning the answers they’ve found. They are now throwing ideas of large-scale fundraising initiatives, huge awareness campaigns, and more sustainable projects. The apprehension they displayed on their first visits to our partner organizations as small children jumped and touched them has completely diminished and they are finally seeing kids as kids and are happy to learn together. It’s not perfect and it’s not always sustainable but they’re 9 and we’re going in the right direction…

The world is changing so rapidly that we can’t possibly teach to a text. We need to be encouraging kids to interact, kids to do kid stuff and kids to care. This isn’t breakthrough and we’ve heard it all before, however I can’t help but wonder:

  • W​hy do we keep telling students how and when to think, without giving them opportunities to truly feel any ‘why?’
  • Why are we directing our students to think in our way, guiding everything they do with checklists and step-by-step procedures? They’ve grown up in a new, more technologically complex world and by February, it’s time to gradually release our control at a rate that works for our class.
  • After our students (all too) obediently follow our specific instructions day after day, why do we then we complain that they are not capable thinking for themselves?
  • Why do we wonder when they go crazy at recess or when we turn our backs in class and they go wild? Then again, why do many teachers tremble when an Administrator walks in their classrooms door?
  • Are we really giving students the skills and attitudes to be successful? Do we as teachers really have the skills to be so-called ‘successful’ ourselves?

Let’s put aside our issues with the systems, standards and our own personal problems and let’s take a risk to liven up some learning. Let’s work together to challenge our students to take ownership in their learning. As educators, let’s challenge each other to make a better effort to share, collaborate and seek help from one another more, finding the best people to inspire a culture that really cares!

….. Maybe we should all be re-learning how to truly think, together.

Help them be in awe before asking them to care

Schools, and particularly PYP schools, are forever telling kids to care about and be responsible for everything. “Save water”, “save endangered species”, “reduce, reuse, recycle”, “save electricity”, “stop child labour” and so on…

However, it is becoming more and more apparent that we are going about things in a back-to-front way. Recent conversations with my wife, Kelli, and my Director of Academic Studies, Adrian Watts, have uncovered – at least for us – a real problem. We seem to be expecting students to care about things that they don’t actually have that much respect for, interest in, curiosity about or knowledge of. As a result, much of the action that emerges from learning is quite tokenistic, shallow and fleeting.

Asking them to care about the natural world before they fall in love with the natural world probably isn’t going to work. Telling them to conserve water before they see and understand how magical it is probably isn’t going to work. Expecting them to consider the habitats of endangered species before they are blown away by their uniqueness and beauty probably isn’t going to work. Encouraging them to take action to protect the interests of other people before they have truly connected with them probably isn’t going to work. Hoping they will strive for peace before they have been surrounded by it probably isn’t going to work.

Much of this thinking comes from the work of Richard Louv, author of Last Child in the Woods, and is based on the idea that you can’t truly care about something until you admire it, experience it and understand it.

The problem, of course, is that our students are increasingly living in bubbles, increasingly becoming separated not only from the natural world, but also from people. Our schools are trying to counteract all of this, trying to do our best to encourage them to care in the hope that they can reverse these trends we seem powerless to reverse. But, I think we need to change our focus.

Let’s remove the doom and gloom from our curriculum as it only makes students feel powerless. Let’s remove the preachiness from our curriculum as it will always feel like what it is, preachiness.

Let’s deliberately set out to breathe life back into our curriculum, to bring beauty back into our curriculum. To bring curiosity back into our curriculum. To bring admiration back into our curriculum. To bring wonder back into our curriculum.

Let’s try to design curriculum that makes students want to go out into the world and look at it, smell it, taste it, touch it, listen to it… experience and be a part of it.

Then, perhaps we can start to expect them to take an interest in it, or to respect it, or to care for it.

Grade-level standards, continuums and frying eggs

I am sitting in a workshop in Guangzhou called the “Standards-Based Assessment Summit” because I work in a school that has taken on something called AERO Standards, an international form of the Common Core Standards.

Something I am working through in my mind at the moment is why standards have to be tied to ages and grade levels. Do we, in reality, all really grow (in any sense of the word) at the same pace? Do we even want to aspire to that? If we relate this to real life, which we must surely be in the habit of doing, there are many questions that provoke further thinking about this:

Did we all learn to ride a bike or swim at the same age?

Did we all learn how to change a light bulb or use a screwdriver at the same age?

Did we all learn how to fry an egg or manage our accounts at the same age?

Did we all learn how to maintain positive relationships at the same age?

I think I can safely say we did not, and there are many reasons for this – context, readiness and so on. Imagine if, in real life, everyone was expected to learn everything at the same age. Imagine if I had to learn to fry an egg at age 12 but really struggled… then, at 13 I was supposed to move on to poaching eggs. But, of course, I hadn’t managed to fry an egg yet. Have I missed my chance… or is egg-frying still on my agenda? Would it remain on my agenda until I master it, irrelevant of my age? Will I get the support I need so I can develop my egg frying techniques? Will I be made to feel like a failure because I can’t fry an egg?

If a student doesn’t meet a particular standard for Grade 2 during her time in Grade 2, does that standard still apply to her when she is in Grade 3? Or, is she now operating in a domain that has drifted beyond her reach? Or, and I hesitate here…………. does no child get left behind?

I am trying to figure out why the recent moves away from continuum-thinking. Are standards still a continuum if they are mapped to grade levels? Are continuums still standards if they are not mapped to grade levels?

Why telling them doesn’t work

When I first got into teaching, about ten years ago, there was much talk about setting the learning “objective” or “intention”, writing it on the whiteboard, telling it to kids at the start of the lesson and then reviewing it at the end of the lesson. This all made perfect sense to me back then.

Back then, when I was teaching the National Curriculum in a small comprehensive school in England. Back then, when we were trying to get our students to pass some tests so we were not humiliated in the national press. Back then, when all the students had the same learning objective. Back then, when there were lessons that had beginnings and endings.

I believe learning has evolved since then.

These days, the idea that all of the students in the class have the same learning objective seems like a complete disregard for differentiation. When teaching dynamically and responding to both the needs and interests of the students, moments in which they are all doing the same thing in the same way are rare. I am not saying that they don’t happen – occasionally, and I mean really, really occasionally, a finite lesson in which they all focus on just one thing does happen. However, if you’re looking for that kind of thing on a regular basis in my teaching, it just ain’t going to happen.

These days, the idea that we should teach in little chunks of time and content seems to go against everything we have learned about learning itself. The  notion that you can draw a line under it and say “they’ve learned that” is as archaic as little kids sat in rows copying bits of text from a blackboard. Learning, like life, ebbs and flows. Lessons take days and the ends of “lessons” may only be enforced by the need for them to eat or run around, not by our own vanity in believing the learning is “complete”.

As far as I am concerned, telling or displaying the learning objective is ineffective… a bit like telling them or displaying “the rules”. It ticks our box, it satisfies our need to believe we have done our job. It does not improve learning. Instead, it is much more powerful to develop a culture of intentional learning, a culture in which students are constantly considering what they are doing and why they are doing it.

Culture doesn’t come from the mouth of an authority figure. Culture doesn’t come from lamination or words written on white boards before students come in the room. Culture comes from habits, from practice and from involvement. Culture comes from within.

So, next time an administrator wants to see the learning objective… tell them to watch the students. Tell them to put down their clipboard, notebook or iPad and watch what the students are doing or listen to how they are talking. Are the learning objectives evident in the room? Do the students know what they are doing and why they are doing it? Are they involved in the learning because they have been part of setting it up? Are they learning with intention, their own intention… not your intention? Do they have their own objectives?

That is when the magic happens.