Twitter, educational websites, articles and news stories are all increasingly full of headlines about how kids love this latest gadget or that new gizmo. Photos show such children gathered around these shiny, new bits of technology pressing buttons and, apparently, learning all by themselves. Schools chuck cash at little robots and the latest big screen things with a thousand features nobody needs. They’re playing in virtual forests or putting a thing on their head and pretending to make a sandwich, yet get bored in a real forest and wouldn’t dream of making an actual sandwich they can eat. They’re flying hovering mechanical pests around while we all ignorantly pretend that one day they won’t have real weaponry on them… you know, like the real ones used by the military of powerful countries. They stare into screens with their increasingly ineffective eyes and suffer periods away from them like heroin-addicts waiting for their next hit. They will give their attention to a video of a teacher explaining something yet ignore the real human being in front of them.
Meanwhile, all the adults are saying more and more meaningless things about it all, like how “cool” or “awesome” it is. How this generation can “multi-task” so much better than previous ones. How they can learn “without us”. And, most ignorantly of all, how much “they love it”.
Now, let’s talk about something else kids “love”. Candy. They will gorge themselves on giant handfuls of fluorescent, toxic, carcinogenic, lumps of sugar, chemicals and the occasional bit of re-purposed animal product interminably until someone either stops them, it runs out or they throw up. Do we also think this is “cool” or “awesome”?
Don’t get me wrong. I think kids are capable of the most amazing things, but they still need guidance. Older generations have still earned the right to be concerned about something that doesn’t look quite right to them. People who have fought in wars or lost their fathers and uncles to conflicts that later turned out to just be testing grounds for the latest weapons technology have the right to feel uncomfortable about how robots and drones will probably end up (already are) being used and who will control them. People who grew up with gangs of friends who talked until the sun set and the voices of their mothers called them home for dinner have the wisdom to regret seeing their children and grandchildren vanish into little digital rectangles and six-second concentration spans. The millions and millions of people who have experienced the joy of arguments in the grey areas of existence between right and wrong, good or bad must have legitimate worries about generations emerging who know only of dichotomies, liking and disliking and believing the latest thing a computer told them to think.
Just because we conveniently ignore the fact that we too will be old, we too will be silenced, written off and shoved in a nursing home to wait to die by the apparently all-knowing younger generations doesn’t mean we can’t speak out now and call for some technological wisdom, some caution and maybe even… perish the thought… a little foresight? There’s a new sort of culture that’s telling us that the older people get the more stupid they become. We’re issuing licenses to our young to ignore us while willingly giving them the tools they need to dehumanise themselves and their poor unsuspecting offspring. Oh, and I forgot the best bit, manufacturing all this shite is systematically making the air, water and land too toxic for any of them to inhabit.
Yeah… “cool” right? Pretty “awesome” eh?
Now, I know most people won’t even have read this far into the posting and will have already liked, not liked, retweeted, followed or unfollowed on the basis of the title, first few sentences or whatever image I put in it. I also know that the technology I am using to write and share this is the technology I am talking about. Be careful about falling into the trap I referred to above, about completely agreeing or disagreeing, about thinking I am totally right or totally wrong. Neither you or I know… let’s not flatter ourselves. Just allow yourselves to ponder, to ask questions, to think critically and, yes, to be just about as cynical as our children and their children deserve us to be.
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.
Today, a lizard visited me. It was on my bag… for no reason, well seemingly.
It might have appeared to tell me that my universe is aligned, that the things I need are with me. Just the way it was that hot night in Bangladesh when the power had gone off for hours and my daughter, a month old, had cried and cried until a Gecko appeared on the wall. As I held her in my sweaty arms, my mind frazzled and her face red from screaming… the presence of the Gecko soothed us, reminded us of the presence of something else. Something both smaller and bigger than us.
Today, this lizard might be telling me that what I just read and the connections I have just made are profound and that I must stop and listen to them, just the way I stopped and acknowledged the presence of the lizard.
This is what I read:
“… geniuses of all kinds excel in their capacity for sustained voluntary attention. Just think of the greatest musicians, mathematicians, scientists, and philosophers throughout history – all of them, it seems, have had an extraordinary capacity to focus their attention with a high degree of clarity for long periods of time. A mind settled in such a state of alert equipoise is a fertile ground for the emergence of all kind of original associations and insights. Might “genius” be a potential we all share – each of us with our own capacity for creativity, requiring only the power of sustained attention to unlock it? A focused mind can help bring the creative spark to the surface of consciousness. The mind constantly caught up in one distraction after another, on the other hand, may be forever removed from its creative potential.”
The Attention Revolution by Alan Wallace
These are the connections I made:
- We need to evaluate whether or not the “busyness” and scheduling in schools is, actually, exactly what Wallace is referring to by “caught up in one distraction after another”.
- We need to take some time to be very honest about whether or not students (and teachers) are, in fact, just being “caught up in one distraction after another”.
- We need to explore ways in which we can create “long periods of time” in which students (and teachers) can reach that “state of alert equipoise” in which everyone can be at their best.
- We need to make the relationship between mindfulness practice in schools and the capacity of students (and teachers) to sustained voluntary attention more explicit.
- We need to develop a sophisticated understanding of what attention means and move beyond thinking it is just either (a) listening to a teacher or (b) doing what a teacher expects students to do.
image by sergey245x on Flickr, shared under creative commons license
Walking into the Early Years inquiry space is always a delight. I’ve noticed that I walk a bit faster and my mind starts swirling with intrigue as I make a beeline for Early Years. Why is that?
- The Teachers: they are learners. They want to grow and challenge and experiment with ideas. Every – and I mean every – conversation is centered around students and ideas and ways to evolve and illuminate learning.
- The Space: it is changing. The space reflects thinking.
- The Energy: it’s electric and alive. You feel like you are under a spell when you are around the students and in their space. You can only be energized from it.
- The Technology: Seesaw is the best thing out there. The students (3-4 year olds) know more about Seesaw than I do. How good is that! Seesaw in short is a window into the learning. Parents are able to log on and see and read what their child is up to. It is easy to use and provides a central way for all teachers to collaborate and collect evidence of learning. It also provides updates with a weekly summary and breaks down the activity per grade level.
- The Curriculum: We’re making it work for and with the students. Inspired from ISHCMC, we are now looking for learning more naturally and have developed a conscious space for inquiry, curiosity and learning.
Using something that was first germinated through the EE Center at the International School of Ho Chi Minh City, we brought The Water Cycle here to VIS. We’ve blended all 4 units of inquiry as year long units of inquiry. This approach has liberated the learning, been more timely and true to the student’s genuine interest as inquiry learners.
This is our first attempt of documenting the learning and becoming more familiar and confident in making natural curriculum connections. This is our starting point.
Of course, having the Early Years teachers we have they took it a step further and are now documenting the process of learning and the inquiry that emerges naturally.
They have created their own A3 size book to document learning of each student.
Making those connections to the curriculum in it’s most simplest form. This is the best way to ‘learn’ about the PYP.
The teachers are excited about the potential in unlocking the learning. It has created a a conscious culture where everything the students do IS learning. As you can see on the top right of the above photo, each student has their own tab for the teacher to record their observations.
This is why I enjoy being around Early Years. The teachers are interested and engaged. They strive to be the best teachers they can. They are growing and constantly stretching themselves. And let me make this point again and abundantly clear – EVERY conversation is about student learning – EVERY single one!
I would love to be a kid in Early Years, or be a very happy parent if my child was with this exciting team that continues to find ways to evolve.
The best teachers are always on the lookout for their students.
I don’t mean in a pastoral way, or a supervisory way.
I mean, in a way that shows an innate curiosity about what their students are doing, what their students are saying, how their students are reacting or responding to particular situations, the kind of questions their students are asking, the kind of prejudices their students have, the kind of misgivings their students have, the kind of biases their students have, the kind of misunderstandings their students have, the misconceptions, the relationships, their interests, their tendencies.
To be aware of, and fascinated and motivated by these things is… the work of the Teacher.
Anyone who knows me would say I’m not exactly the most positive person in the world! But, I’ve been thinking about positivity and negativity a lot recently, and particularly this quote:
It has become increasingly obvious that there is a negative default for many people who work in schools. And, that this negative default builds up to a disproportionate sense of entitlement and readiness just to be critical of everything.
So, for example, an improvement is made to an aspect of the school – say, the playground – and then, as soon as that improvement is complete people forget what it was like before and then complain about the improvement. They pick faults in it or moan about “not being consulted”. In short, they will find something to complain about. Indeed, it is impost impossible to interact with some people without some complaining happening!
Now, of course, this negative energy is really debilitating. But, more worryingly, it reveals a lack of memory… or a lack of willingness to remember. This immediately reduces our ability to have perspective. Perspective doesn’t just come from going somewhere else and seeing things differently because of a change of location, or meeting a different person and seeing things differently through them. Perspective also comes through time, and schools’ relationship with time is often so abusive that we may well have lost our ability to achieve this.
How often do we ignore all of our success and focus purely on our failures? How often do we ignore our “Done List” because we’re so obsessed with our “To Do List”? How often do we forget to congratulate ourselves for our achievements because we’re blinded by our goals? How often do we allow someone’s negativity to infect everybody else’s positivity? How often do we focus our emotional energy on responding to negativity and leave ourselves too depleted for the positive energy?
I’d like to see a movement towards living by the quote above and away from the gravitational pull of negativity and negative people. Schools should be positive places full of positive people – I don’t mean that in a trite, naive or ignorant way – but positive in a way that still has substance. You can sense the overriding air of positivity very strongly when positive people dominate, and great things happen as a result. You can equally sense the air of negativity very strongly when negative people dominate, and the potential for great things to happen slips down the nearest drain.
This video features my daughter, Zahra, and Linh Huyen, wife of my friend Richard and outstanding Vietnamese singer and performer.
Zahra has had dance lessons – ballet and jazz – but recently gave them up because she wasn’t enjoying them any more. However, she still loves to dance… as you can see!
I wonder how she can continue to develop this love for dancing without having to go to structured, formal lessons. Is it possible for her community to provide her with opportunities and situations like this one – where she is truly in the zone – but learning alongside a true performer and role-model.
I guess what I’m trying to say is that often the best learning happens in informal situations, when people who are driven by the same interests and passions come together, when it is not organized or planned in advance. In the absence of structure, magic happens.
Of course, there is still structure in what takes place in this video. Multiple structures – rhythm, pitch, choreography, language, communication and so on… the structure that is absent is premeditation, timetabling or even the foresight that things would work out this way. Structures like that may evolve out of this experience, Linh Huyen and Zahra already started making plans to do another performance, this time with rehearsals and costumes and a bigger audience.
When I think about some of the most powerful examples of learning that have happened in my school this year, I believe they share some of the same features. They emerged out of natural inclinations, genuine connections, meaningful interactions and spontaneous decisions. They went to greater depth because the people who became involved could see how deep it was possible to go. The adults involved believed in what the students were capable of.
Really, our job is to create the conditions for that type of learning to become more and more likely.