The pursuit of “busyness” is all-encompassing, it is everywhere and we are all perpetuating and complaining about it at the same time.
I am sitting in a beautiful fisherman’s cottage in a sleepy village on the coast of Vietnam. The rain has started to pour, simultaneously cooling the air and scuppering our plans for the next couple of hours and so… we are forced to relax.
Instead of piling into a taxi and heading into Hoi An, the beautiful and bustling nearby town to do all the things we think we are supposed to do on holiday – sightseeing, shopping, having cultural experiences, dragging our children and ourselves around making the most of being on holiday – we do nothing.
Or do we? What, exactly is nothing?
This is what “nothing” looks like at this exact moment:
My wife finds the time to read.
My Mum enjoys the relaxing act of sweeping sand off the verandah.
My children play and make up stories.
But, why do we only allow ourselves to relax into doing these things when the rain prevents us from going somewhere else? Because we have become conditioned into “busyness” – the cult of activity and the sense of guilt or fear-of-missing-out that characterizes the modern existence.
This is true in education too. We have allowed learning to be described as “activity” and we strive to keep students busy all day and every day. We have also allowed a fear of missing out to dictate what must be learned, and when, in order to make sure everything gets “covered”. The concept of relaxation, and so – inevitably – the ability to choose to do things that only relaxation really allows, is almost entirely absent from schools.
I wonder what would happen if a school set out – with true intent – to create a sense of relaxation, to replace “busyness” and fragmentation with long periods of time during which teachers and students could relax into simple, deep and meaningful pursuits, to value what happens in those circumstances rather than panicking about what is not happening…
Header image from http://www.boundless.org/~/media/Images/article/rel-13-good-busyness.ashx
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.
We all know that modeling is perhaps the most powerful aspect of teaching – that we might tell students to do something 1000 times with no effect, but do it ourselves for them to see and the effect is palpable.
Yet, how often do we genuinely model the things we are constantly expecting our students to do, become competent at and comfortable with?
Speaking in public is a classic example. We expect it of our students every day… we expect them to respond to questions or contribute ideas in whole class discussions – yet how often does silence fall in staff meetings or workshops when teachers are expected to do the same? “Oh… I’m not comfortable speaking in large groups…” Hypocrisy. And what of assemblies? Putting our students in front of 100s of other students and expecting them to cope yet hiding away in fear if the same is asked of us? “I’m terrified of public speaking!” Hypocrisy.
Its the same with openly sharing our mathematical thinking… “Oh, I’m not comfortable with that, I’m terrible at maths” or drawing “Oh, I’m not doing that in front of anybody… I am so bad at Art” or publishing their writing “I’m scared about putting myself out there.”
It is an endless stream of hypocrisy that culminates in the ultimate hypocrisy – teachers who talk constantly in meetings, presentations or workshops yet lambaste their students when they do exactly the same thing in their lessons.
So, to redefine schools, we should get teachers well out of their comfort zones, or fill schools with teachers who are ready and willing to step out of their comfort zones or just remove the whole idea of comfort zones completely. Unless, of course, we’re going to respect the comfort zones of our students and allow them to be limited by them (after all, how do we know that isn’t the right thing to do?) And, maybe we should be up front and call people out on hypocrisy and remove the “do as I say not as I do” mentality permanently.
Our schools could be full of teachers who are sharing their talents, who are putting themselves out there, who are giving it a go despite not “being comfortable with it”, who are willing to recognize their shortcomings and addressing them, who are leading by example.
Whether we like it or not, teachers need to be interesting. If we are not interesting then there is little or no chance that our students will find us or the material we teach of any interest at all.
But, how do you “become interesting”. Paul Arden, in his brilliant little book called “Whatever you think think the opposite” makes the case that it simply requires you to be interested.
Many of us in this profession trudge the well-trodden path from school to home and home to school. For many, life revolves around school and an unhealthy obsession with how much work there is to do. Sometimes there is even a twisted pride and rivalry around how late people stay at work, who gets in to school earliest and who comes in at the weekend or doesn’t. There is a dangerous assumption that the hardest working teachers are the best teachers.
I have bad news for these people. All those countless hours spent at work may mean they get more done, but may make it much less likely that their students want to learn from or with them. It may make them very dull people who are unlikely to interest, inspire or motivate young people in the slightest.
So, instead of staying behind at work… ask yourself if that task really needs doing or if it will really transform learning. If not, get out of there… go and explore your city, go and take some photos, go and read a good book, go and see a movie, go and meet a friend (who doesn’t work at school!) and talk about life, go to a museum, go and people-watch somewhere, go down that alleyway you’ve always wondered about, enroll in an evening class, eat somewhere you’ve never tried before, go to a market, develop that talent that lies dormant… be interested in the world outside of school.
What you bring back to your classroom – knowledge, curiosity, connections, awareness, compassion, perspectives – will inevitably make you a better teacher.
From what I have observed as a teacher and as a pedagogical leader, perhaps the fundamental questions teachers need to ask themselves are “do you know your personality, do you know how your personality affects the way you teach and do you know if your personality is willing to be malleable?”
To experiment with the pedagogical approaches that are shared on this blog, I have found that the following personality traits would be a good start:
– a curious person
– knowledgeable about all of the weird and wonderful things people do in their lives
– willing to learn from any experience, including those created by kids
– willing to know your curriculum and treat it as a friend
– willing to allow uncertainty into your teaching domain
– willing to allow things to become messy
– willing to resist peer pressure to conform in order to do things that feel right for your students
– willing to reeducate parents so that they too may see learning differently
– willing to make things happen rather than dictate what happens
– willing to set aside your agenda in order to watch, listen to, notice and begin to understand your students
Many of us are this way already. But, others may become more like this…
To be a teacher who truly has an effect on students you must know learning. To know how to teach is not sufficient, instead you must become skilled and dexterous at noticing learning. And this is learning without predetermined boundaries. Contexts yes, boundaries no. For when we establish too narrowly the boundaries of learning we instantly rule out learning that is new and different.
To know learning, you must know life. An adult who “lives to work” will struggle here as a direct result of inevitably becoming rather narrow minded. An adult who is aware, who is regularly challenged and exposed by new situations, an adult with knowledge beyond her own area of expertise is much more likely to be able to see learning of different types.
This type of person sees and makes connections that enrich life in their classroom. Most of these connections are spontaneous and not planned for. This type of person responds to students in a way that makes the student feel that they are part of a wider world, not a classroom bubble. Connections are frequently made with media, knowledge, literature, ideas, people, businesses, organizations and aspects of society that lie within and beyond the walls of the school.
When this culture of connections exists in your classroom, learning can take many forms… sometimes being so “disguised” that it looks unlike learning in any traditional sense. Learning lies in the background and provides forward momentum for students regardless of what it is they are doing.
If you were to walk in to the classroom of a teacher like this, you would see them:
- Creating contexts in which students are engaged and energized.
- Differentiating – in a sophisticated sense – so that students are pursuing their own inquiries or working on their own projects.
- Getting out of the habit of playing “guess whats in my head”. Sharing ideas and making connections with and for students as and when they are needed has a profound effect on the directions students can take.
- “Noticing and naming” the learning that is taking place in order to validate what students are doing and help them plot their way forward, navigating their way through their curriculum.
- Establishing a meaningful reflective process that creates a culture of intrinsic motivation for students.
- Taking steps to set classrooms up as “learning studios” that are dynamic spaces that change according to what students are doing.
- Skillfully and intelligently documenting learning using different forms of media.
- Empowering students by deliberately creating a “culture of permission” in which students feel that they can give things a go and that their teacher is able to work with them to make things happen.
Do you know any teachers like this? I do. And all too often they are in the minority. How do we change that?
“Gregorious stayed in the second-hand bookshop a long time. Getting to know a city through the books in it – he had always done that. His first trip abroad as a student had been to London. On the way back to Calais, he had realized that, except for the Youth Hostel, the British Museum and the many bookshops around, he had seen practically nothing of the city. But the same books could also be anywhere else! said the others and shook their heads at all the things he had missed. Yes, but in fact they weren’t anywhere else, he had replied.”
Books take on a life of their own. The books on our shelves are as much an indication of who we are than anything else. The books we pass on to other people are gifts of wisdom or worlds worth a visit. The books we stumble upon in a thrift shop, or that we blow dust off in a hotel lobby on the other side of the world are as serendipitous as turning a corner to find an amazing view or a chance reunion with an old friend.
Sure, we can read stuff on iPads and Kindles and whatever other electronic device someone deigns to invent over the next few years. But, it is a sad indication of where we’re going if anyone who considers themselves to be even remotely enlightened reckons it is OK for them to replace actual books.
Call me old-fashioned, but don’t we have a responsibility to be old-fashioned about a few things?