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?
Excerpt from “Night Train to Lisbon” by Pascal Mercier
Image by Ian Wilson on Flickr: https://www.flickr.com/photos/foolstopzanet/
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.
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?
On the eve of publication of The Great Gatsby, Scott Fitzgerald removed more than thirty pages from the novel. This was at the ‘galley’ stage, when the author is sent proofs to check for errors before printing proceeds.
The pages Fitzgerald struck out consisted mainly of Gatsby talking to Nick about himself. By taking them out, the novelist created a gap in his narrative, posed the question implied in the title, and preserved the mystery surrounding his central character. It is this gap which has driven the fame of his masterpiece in the 88 years since its publication.
As in narrative, so in inquiry – it is the gaps which drive engagement. The gaps are where the imagination plays. Reading is a creative activity; narrating a collaboration between storyteller and listener.
But you can’t have a gap by itself, of course. It has to be a gap in something. Through the outsider Nick Carraway, we observe Gatsby staring at the green light across the bay. We hear his party guests swapping wild rumours about him, we learn of their fascination with this gentleman thug, we wonder why he doesn’t attend his own parties…. a little later we hear his fantastical life-story from his own lips and don’t believe a word of it.
At the last moment, Fitzgerald decided to leave it like that. And so Jay Gatsby remained a living, breathing contradiction, and became immortal.
To create the space for inquiry, you need to plot your curriculum. The word ‘plot’, by the way, is not synonymous with ‘story’. It means the way the story is told – its narrative structure – what we learn in what order, and how – and when (if ever). A storyteller never tells the whole story. As a storyteller it’s good to leave out the boring bits – but leaving out the most interesting bits is sometimes a stroke of genius.