The first in a series of posts about what we all – regardless of location, curriculum and age level – can learn from the philosophy, practices and people of Reggio Emilia.
One of the most powerful impressions that I left Reggio Emilia with is the mind-blowing intelligence of the teachers who work there. Each one of the people I encountered spoke of children and their learning in a way that was deeply rooted in psychology, described in evocative – often poetic – language, richly conceptual and always, always, about growth and what is possible.
Teachers in Reggio Emilia are constantly poised, alert to the nuances of learning that goes on around them. They see concepts as they are unfolding in front of them (as though they were being displayed in their retina!) and are able to name and document them as possibilities for further inquiry. They notice, for example, when a three year-old child says one toy car goes faster down a ramp than the other toy cars “because the air goes through it”. They name that concept as “aerodynamics” and they respond in the full belief that children that young are capable – given the right materials and support – of launching into a full-scale research project into such a complex concept.
Clearly, there are many ingredients that help to develop this intelligence. But one quote, hit me really hard the moment I heard it:
“Teachers have a right to intelligent ways of working”Silvia Crociani, a Teacher in Reggio Emilia
This resonated with me because I’ve been doing a lot of work recently on two things that have become fundamental in the art of teaching today – (1) the mentality and dispositions of the teacher, and (2) the processes that teachers are involved in.
Those processes are our ways of working.
As a PYP Coordinator, I have been trying to develop processes for planning that encourage teachers to operate intelligently – to question habits and norms, to avoid repetition of units or teaching from the planner, to identify the real purpose behind what we’re doing with students, to grapple with semantics as we endeavour to describe learning, to be researchers into their students’ thinking and behaviour, to document their observations and see them as data, to ponder what ‘to understand’ means and what might be genuine evidence of understanding, etc…
But it struck me that we may have been trying to go through these processes within a bigger context of unintelligent ways of working. In other words, we have been trying our best, pushing our mental capacities, but we’ve been doing this within some systematic constraints that limit our ability to go beyond a certain point.
The first, and most important, constraint is time.
In Reggio Emilia it has been decided that, if teachers are to be capable of thinking about the children they are teaching, going through the notes and other forms of documentation they have about the children, sharing thoughts and diversifying their perspectives about the children with other adults, making thoughtful decisions about how they will respond to what children are doing and saying and taking action to make those decisions become reality… then they need time to do so. As a minimum, six hours per week is devoted – officially – to doing just that.
It is a priority.
It may even be the priority because everything else hinges on what comes out of it.
In most of the schools you and I operate in, that time has not been identified as a priority. When creating school timetables, very often with an industrial mindset, this often comes as an afterthought – in 4th, 5th, 6th, 10th, 24th place in the order of priorities depending on the school you’re in. Many teachers snatch at snippets of time throughout the week, others may have one hour a week, two if they’re lucky. Great teachers continue to think well beyond the school day, their minds never turning off, making them prone to burn-out or that feeling of isolation many of us feel when the system doesn’t support how we wish we could operate.
I urge all school leaders to ponder the following questions:
- Do we believe that the quality of learning is directly related to the amount of time teachers have to reflect, think, discuss, make plans and take action?
- Are the systems in our school promoting these things as a priority?
- How can we use the phrase “intelligent ways of working” to reflect on how we do things in our school?
We’ve always stated that meaningful learning is flammable. It starts with a spark and then ignites! You know when learning has caught fire….. agency ensues and the student drives their learning and not too much can get in their way. The difference between a flame and incendiary learning can be categorized quite easily in terms of duration, desire and determination.
A flame burns during a specific period of time (unit of inquiry) and usually reduces to embers, just like a typical fire. The student was empowered and energized, yet there was a point that they moved on to the next thing.
Incendiary learning catches fire and stays burning bright, long after a unit of inquiry. The student is empowered and energized, and they are still in the fire taking their learning even further, long after the next thing.
A stark contrast. One is perishable and one is enduring.
The subtle difference between ‘was‘ and ‘is‘ has a remarkable difference at the same time. This changes the whole complexion of learning as the ‘energy of learning’ has been sustained and has the learner enthralled.
Last week, I visited a previous School I was at and a number of the students I taught literally, hunted me down. One of those students was Nicole.
This is Nicole as a Grade 5 student chatting with the Head of School (Adrian Watts) and explaining the message she is trying to communicate through her art piece. Her art work is incredibly personal and powerful as she is expressing the importance of finding her voice and expressing who she is. The mouths in the background are all those who have told her that she can’t do anything. With Nicole at the center of her art work, her positivity is radiating out and drowning out the negative and judgmental voices. This was a real turning point for Nicole in developing her self belief. She had a teacher who saw something special, and it was all about allowing her to see that too. This was Step 1 in Nicole’s journey of finding herself.
The next learning experience pushed her even further. Enter the PYP Exhibition. Nicole’s artwork was the first step she needed to take and this naturally led her to explore and better understand her next self-discovery…. putting her new transformative experience of who she is becoming into action and finding direction in the process!
This is Nicole during the Exhibition selling her ‘FABTAB’ (comes in different sizes and colours) at a market at a funky local cafe and skater hangout. This is the moment that shaped her to be a confident and articulate communicator as she interacted with dozens and dozens of people interested in her entrepreneurial idea. Incendiary Learning! Students, parents, teachers and customers were truly astonished!
As I mentioned above, I saw Nicole last week. We got talking and she said that she just made her first nternational order to Ireland of 100 FabTabs….. Nicole is still producing, refining and taking orders, now international orders, for her FabTab. What a journey she has been on and is still very much on. It all started from her artwork, that was the first step she took in believing in herself, because she had someone who believed in her. We must believe in all of our students. Personalize learning, individualize learning, whatever form it takes or looks like, choose the right approach at the right time to connect, develop and strengthen their identity of who they are. Work from that point, work from within! Let students determine their own identity and not the other way around! It is our role to play a hand in nurturing and nudging them in positive ways to see their own potential.
This is exactly what I mean by Incendiary Learning! The fire is still burning bright and Nicole has stretched in ways where she can confidently talk about the learning experience….. long after ‘the unit.’ Nicole has led her learning and is proud of what she has achieved. Agency…… yeah, true Agency at its very core! This is Nicole now in Grade 7 doing a photo shot for this very piece. The relationship and connection seems just like yesterday, still very much alive too!
Again and again…. keep our eye on the ball!
Teaching is an incredibly challenging and fulfilling profession. It’s emotionally charged and demands and expects so much of us. As teachers we give everything we’ve got to see our students be successful and thrive.
This posting is a very personal one, with a powerful message for us all.
Leadership is challenging. And to be a good leader you need to make tough calls. While good leaders aim to be transparent and involve others in the decision making. To that end there is so much that teachers don’t see. They don’t need to see. And as leaders we need to shield teachers. While every effort goes in to creating a positive and professional culture, there are times when a decision falls the other way. As professionals we need to respect that and know that we are all trying to do the best we can to create the best conditions for learning. There are obvious ebbs and flows in our line of work. And when we begin to question ourselves (which we do) or lose confidence in why we are leading down a particular path, or not. We must keep our eye on the ball. I read a profound quote from Steve Jobs today. It said, “If you want to make people happy, don’t get into leadership, sell ice-cream.” How true is that….
We hear teachers say, ‘it is about the kids.’ This is why we are doing what we do, every single day. Yesterday, I was feeling rather deflated. It happens. More frustrated that we still have teachers who just don’t get it.
And then I received an email. Like the universe was dropping a piano on my head to snap me out of my funk. We must keep our eye on the ball. I’m listening!
Above is a photo of Kevin and I during my first overseas post in Sweden in 2006, where I was teaching a grade 3/4 composite class. Kevin’s mother emailed me saying that she was clearing out his room and came across a book with a letter I wrote to him.
Tine, Kevin’s mother, wanted a photo of me to give to Kevin as something special for his 20th birthday. She went on to say, that I was Kevin’s best teacher and had the most impact on him throughout his schooling. One of the sentences I wrote in the above letter stated the importance of following his dreams and how I would ‘love to see where he was in 10 years….’
Well, I got my answer and it could not have come at a better time. One that made me quite emotional. It hit me like a lightning bolt. No matter how tough our job gets, we must keep our eye on the ball. Our students. This is one of these times, when we say it is about the kids and mean it with a full heart. Every word! Kevin is now at Coventry University studying Motorsport Engineering. He is following his passion – formula 4 championship racing. I got goosebumps reading the email from his mother.
The other takeaway I got from this is the importance of knowing or finding out the paths our past students take later in life. We need to find a way that makes that tangible. This is where the real fulfillment comes from in our profession. To appreciate that we had a very important role in their lives. There is no better feeling when years later, our students of ‘tomorrow’ look back, reach out and say you made a difference – look where I am now! That is what this is all about for me. Moments with impact. We have so many moments with our students. Moments we don’t realize the gravity of and how that stays with our students years beyond moving on through their lives. As teachers, we must keep our eye on the ball. It is beautiful moments, stories like these that make it all worth it.
I am fine with the tough talks, making calls and challenging negativity. This is because I have my eye back on the ball today!
Make a conscious decision about your future. Think through your long-term plan (a.k.a. 5-yr plan for some, and 10-yr plan for others) and start working towards it.
Will staying in the school move you one step closer to your long-term plan, or will leaving do that?
Step 1: Think through your long-term plan:
Picture your IDEAL situation. What do you see yourself doing at work? Where are you living? How many children do you have? What are your children doing – is that even a consideration? Who is taking care of your parents?
- If you could dare to think out loud, where do you want to be in 10 years?
- What are all the crazy and wacky things you could do to realize your long-term plan?
- Suppose, just for a moment, you live in a world where fear and anxiety do not exist. What could you do now?
Focus on the Outcome:
- What is it that you really, REALLY want? Dig deep…
- What is the PAIN of NOT achieving your plan?
Align your vision with your Values:
- Is this plan in line with your values? (Hint: Ask yourself what’s really important to you in life – will this plan help you achieve more of that?)
- Is this plan something YOU truly want, or is it something you think you SHOULD have? (Hint: If it is a ‘should have’, it may be someone else’s dream)
- When you think about your plan does it give you a sense of deep contentment or ‘rightness’, happiness and excitement?
Step 2: Work towards your long-term plan:
Now break this down into achievable steps by answering the following questions:
- What’s good about your current situation? (e. what’s the benefit of staying where you are?)
- Can you hold on to those good aspects if you decide to make a change? Or is that something you’re willing to sacrifice?
- Suppose you had all the information you needed, what would your next step/s be?
- If you did nothing else this school year, what 3 things would still make the year a success for you?
- What can you start doing, stop doing or do more of, to move towards your long-term plan? (Make a list using this “Action Brainstorming” tool)
If you still find yourself in a dilemma, please do reach out to me and I can conduct an online “Dilemma Coaching” session with you. Please note that you should have thought through all the questions I’ve listed above for that session to be effective. I can be reached via email at email@example.com or through my website at www.innersensecoaching.com.
Sometimes I watch toxic forms of entertainment media by mistake. I may make this mistake by being fooled into thinking I’m enjoying it… Game of Thrones fell into that category until I became aware of how disgusting it was to watch an endless stream of people have their throats slit, and how it was preparing us all for the current political climate of not knowing who to trust (i.e. nobody).
Today, I allowed myself to watch Triple 9 as a form of masochistic entertainment and to educate myself about what mainstream crap people are flocking in their millions to watch. Like most shows and movies at the moment, it’s mainly about the fact that you never know who is good or bad. Dirty cops, bent politicians, self-serving narcissists with blood on their hands, decent people forced into crime by their circumstances, repulsive gangsters with a vocabulary of 7 words. This is the portrayal of cool, this is what is being transmitted to us all as “normal”, as “how it is”.
Sure, kids shouldn’t be watching this toxic stuff… but they do. Here in Vietnam, I have seen babies glued to iPad screens watching cool American people shoot each other. I know of 8-year-olds who’ve seen every episode of Game of Thrones. I know many kids who’ve seen Breaking Bad. They’re not only being fed toxic food, but their minds are being poisoned too. The message? Shooting people is not only the norm, it’s also kind of cool.
And then, there’s the adults. The countless bored adults sitting at home getting a thrill every time some mediaeval prince’s throat gapes open, getting an adrenaline rush watching heavily armed robo-soldiers massacre villagers, gripping the seat as yet another car chase scene takes the lives of innocent faceless families on their way home from the supermarket, thinking their intellect is being stimulated as they try and figure out what side – if any – Jack Bauer or Jason Bourne is on, momentarily feeling an emotion before forgetting the image of another hooker all cut up and mutilated in a dumpster to focus on the latest supercool, unshaven renegade detective light up a smoke and sip a glass of bourbon in a dimly lit bar.
You see… I get the distinct feeling that the education we provide counts for nothing as long as the media continues to toxify, misdirect, confuse, anesthetize and desensitize us. As long as the people behind the media control what we watch, they control how we think, feel and behave. The vast majority of us who consistently absorb all of this are educated… well, we went to school and university at least. Genuinely educated? Perhaps not. If we can’t see we’re being manipulated then we’re just not that smart, are we? If we are willing to tolerate glitzy, high-budget forms of entertainment portraying everything that is wrong with the world while ignoring the fact that there are real things that need to be done… well… we’re not moving on that quickly, are we?
If I had the time, I would love to do a full inquiry into the income generated by bloodgutsmurderlyingwarviolence movies compared with movies that make you feel good, or tell a story of ethics. First off, the hunt for examples of the latter would be over very fast. Secondly, the data – I am sure – would be so grossly unbalanced as to make it appear completely ridiculous.
I’d like to see Hollywood and its equivalent in whatever countries are making this stuff start to take some responsibility for the effect they have on people, which probably won’t happen. So, we have a few choices:
- Detox – don’t watch any of it, and try and help other people do the same thing
- Prepare – teach people to understand media, the real reasons its produced and what effect it might be having on them and others
The first option is not a reality… you only have to think about how traffic slows down so everyone can take a good look at the grisly remains of a car crash (or the disappointment when there’s nothing to see) to understand the animalistic desire to torment ourselves with disturbing or distressing imagery and emotions.
So, perhaps the only answer is a hard-hitting approach towards teaching critical media consumption, from an early age. Stop blocking stuff and denying the existence of anything mildly controversial in schools and get real. Get it out in the open and have some discourse with students about it. We need to be helping them learn how to think… but I feel like we’re still only generating an endless stream of thoughtless consumers. Mainly because most of us are thoughtless consumers too!
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.