Many powerful and transformational ideas emerge in the world of education, become trends and then vanish. This is sometimes because the vast majority of educators never fully understand it in the first place.
The latest example of this is “provocations”.
All sorts of educators are using the word and they believe they are planning them for their students. Sadly, very often, these so-called provocations are turning into missed opportunities, throw-away activities that really don’t transform the subsequent pedagogy in the slightest.
I find this really frustrating, and I find the fact that educators are unable to see both the simple and the sophisticated information that students are revealing to them almost impossible to comprehend. As I try and wrap my head around this, I see the following patterns:
- Some people, if they were being honest, have little or no interest in changing their pedagogy. They want to do what they’ve always done and see anything that threatens that – regardless of the source – as a threat. As a result, they develop a sort of selective blindness to any of the fascinating information their students reveal. It may well be impossible to move people away from that mentality and so it may be necessary to move them out of our schools instead.
- Some people are – perhaps unwillingly – so caught up in teacher-speak, written curriculum, standards and old habits they too are blinded – they can’t “see the wood for the trees”. Some of these people may still be rescued, but only if you can still see the glint in their eye that indicates some interest in who their students really are and enough curiosity to want to find out.
- Some people are – fortunately – poised, ready, willing and able to plan and carry out provocative experiences that give their students opportunities to reveal powerful and useful information to them. However, they may not know how to use that information to transform their pedagogy and, of course, there is no single, universal answer. Instead, what is powerful, is the teacher’s determination to find ways to do so.
A very useful analogy is Shana Upiter’s Ping Pong approach. When you provoke your students, you are hitting the ball to them… then, they hit it back to you – in all sorts of directions! Now it is up to you – the teacher – to figure out what to do with the ball and how to hit it back to them again, and so on… If you can view provocations that way – as the ongoing exchange of stimulus and response, ideas and action, thinking and questioning – you will start to understand how to use the concept in your teaching. You can also liberate yourself from thinking that provocations need to be huge, overly-planned extravaganzas!
For this to happen though, the teacher must be fascinated by the words their students write or say, the choices their students make, the way their students think, the patterns of their students’ behaviour, how their students react in different situations and the questions their students ponder.
When provocations create the conditions for inquiry – by teachers into their students – there is nothing more powerful. When they just lead into a series of activities and a whole load of teaching, they may just be another buzz-word.
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.
We just returned from an overnight trip to the Creativity Center of Arts in Malindi, Mombasa. The previous 5 years (in Grade 5) students have been going to Tsavo National Park to learn about wildlife and sustainability. Being a new team member it was time to invigorate this trip and connect it to the Exhibition – time to power it up! Promoting and advocating change was difficult. Parents were confused and annoyed that their child would not be going to Tsavo. This line of thinking is quite dangerous. It actually reveals a little bit of the school culture and tradition that has lingered around here… but, I won’t dwell on that. While we were met with a lot of resistance, there was also some strong support coming from the other camp of parents who could see what we were trying to do. The other parents just needed to be educated, they needed to see the value in changing. In the end, we were able to make changes and it is our hope that this change remains till something better or more fitting can be offered. That is the main reason for change, right?!
The past week has been buzzing. We bonded. We listened to each other. We shared stories and observed students playing with ideas, tapping into their creativity and allowing their imagination to flow. In short, we saw another side that we would not have seen, unless we as teachers stayed true and were bold enough in pushing what we believed in.
So how did we organize and plan for this and then bring it back to the Exhibition?
Transdisciplinary Theme: how we express ourselves
We offered 6 different creative/expressive experiences. This is an example of Team 1. The other 6 Teams simply rotated through each experience.
The trip was balanced between creativity, The Exhibition (setting the scene) and bonding with one another though meaningful downtime.
Tuesday 4th of March
Time to relax and feel the space. We had one Exhibition session.
Wednesday 5th of March
We ran 3 art sessions and had 2 Exhibition Sessions. 3 Hours of downtime.
Thursday 6th of March
We ran 3 art sessions and had 2 Exhibition Sessions. 3 Hours of downtime. Honored student work in the gallery.
Friday 7th of March
We ran one session on pulling the pieces together.
I would be happy to email the full schedule to anyone that is interested.
Why did this work so well?
We gave students the room to explore, seek, observe, and just be. We were surrounded by nature and creative art pieces that adorned the resort from the moment you stepped inside to the very rooms you slept in. We were in it.
What did we achieve as a result of immersing kids in it?
I am confident in saying that ‘most’ of the kids have shifted in terms of how they see themselves as artists and as people.
It is like they have come back as different people. Ready to learn. And hungry to experiment with their ideas. We have introduced a book called the X-pand book. Essentially, it is a sketch book where they can draw, sketch and conceptualize their ideas.
During the sessions we talked about and listened to each other. We took them through a real process to play around with ideas and think about their convictions. Their convictions about what they believe, what is important to them and of the world around them and what they really care about.
It is much more powerful to add photos to illustrate this….. so here goes.
The students are writing down their experiences, then their reactions to those experiences, then thinking about which one mostly inspires them to take action and then the best way to express it.
The power of bringing in experts. Armando Tanzini is a real artist. It is his resort and he opened it up to us to use. He inspired and taught the students so much about art, in a way that we could not of done.
Students were thinking about what mattered to them and what they did during that day. This was very powerful.
Students started to defend and challenge each other on what matters to them. This really personalized their thinking as they had to communicate with one another.
Armando honored their work like real artists. he removed his own work from the gallery and put the students’ work in there. It was like the staging of the Exhibition and we hadn’t even started.
The point I am trying to bring out is that real learning is messy and sometimes you have to fight for it. We could have easily done the same trip from the year before, instead we demanded different. We kept the child at the center and in the spotlight of real teaching and learning. When things get hard whether that be from parents, teachers even administration stay with it. That is putting the kids first. That is the type of school I want to work in and be part of.
Does anyone want to share how they approach the PYP Exhibition?
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.
Know your curriculum… and then make it accessible to students in a way that helps them to develop their own knowledge. The thing is that the curriculum is complex and a little wordy. Breaking it all down and in a way that makes sense to students opens the door of genuine inquiry.
Once students know what it is they need to know they then become more knowledgeable. This happens in two ways:
- They know what it is they are learning about,
- They know what knowledge they will need to move deeper and further into their inquiry.
From here, all the other essential elements of the PYP will open up for real inquiry. Before they even get to the knowledge component, they need to know what it all actually means. Let me walk you through step by step something that supported the students in developing their own understanding and meaning.
Students recorded their first thinking about what each of the 4 science strands meant to them. This informed me what they already knew about each one and gave me a very accurate picture as to their knowledge base as scientists.
Next, the students had the opportunity to read a lot of non-fiction text all about science across the four strands. They skimmed and scanned a wide range of books. They had a lot of time to do this on their own.
After reading independently they were able to share and connect the things they had noticed and discuss and explain together.
They then teamed up again and connected the things that they read and saw in the books and transferred to their second thinking. The language and details really lifted to a deeper and wider range from being exposed to scientific books.
As a result of finding out what they first new and then allowing them to research in a very informal setting, their second thinking was now very solid and they had made a huge step forward in knowing much more about each strand.
Our next step is to gather all their curiosities and then sort and categorize them into the correct science strand. By following the above steps the students informed my teaching on what they already know, what they need to know and what knowledge we need to develop as we look closer at each of their questions and thinking.
Students wrote as many questions as they could about the things they were curious about.
They also wrote questions from the things they recorded from the field trip the day before.
Students put their questions to the science strand that it naturally connected to which helped to develop and see how science connects to so many things.
Now we are ready to take one of their burning questions and start to connect it to the concepts to channel and focus the way they will approach and plan the next steps.
Most educators agree with almost everything that Sir Ken Robinson says. But, how many of us fight tooth and nail to make what he says become a reality in our classrooms and schools? We laugh at his jokes, nod meaningfully at his nuggets of wisdom and shake our heads mournfully at his painful truths. But, what do we do about any of it?
This is his latest piece of brilliance. As he speaks, think carefully… what lessons have we learned from him and are we actually making them happen?