We have to remember to go against our learned instincts.
My learned instinct is to hold my children back. We’re walking along a footpath in Cheshire, in the UK, beautiful fresh stream rushing across ancient stones. Children utterly excited to be there… and they want to run ahead, and my learned instinct, my new instinct that I’ve got from life, somehow, by mistake, is to hold them back. My first response is “no… we’re not here to run”.
Well, guess what, Daddy… you’re wrong.
These kids are here to run. And there’s no reason to hold them back.
It’s a lot like learning. We’ve just got to let them go, just run. And, I’m standing here now watching them. It’s raining, they’re full of zest. They’re excited by the space, the freedom, the flowers and by the fact that they can just run.
Yes, they make a few mistakes, get stung by nettles, make their shoes filthy in mud. But they are learning, first hand, from and about the environment. They will not forget nettles. They will identify the squelchy, marshy patches of land and – maybe – avoid them next time!
I created this context – in my role as “teacher” – by bringing them to this place. I knew it was important, special and rich with opportunities to discover. But then I have to let them be free within the context, only that way will genuine questions emerge from them, and they did:
“Why is the water and the rocks orange?”
“Why are the cows lying down?”
“Where does the water come from?”
“Why is there wool on the branches of that fallen tree?”
“Who does this land belong to?”
“Why are people allowed to walk through here?”
“Where does that path go?”
“What is making that sound?”
“Who made that rope swing over the river?”
And then, of course, many attempts at holding on to the piece of wood hanging from a tree and swinging out over the water until they had all had many successful goes!
Instead of being a controlled walk, with adults determining the path and pointing out the things they thought should be of interest or worthy of learning about (i.e. the ones we had the answers to!), it becomes a child-driven walk, a haphazard route, endless questions – many unanswered – unpredicted experiences, private thoughts and moments of personal growth and self-actualization that we – the parents – are not even aware of.
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.
(apologies for the low quality image, but it really says it all)
Working with our Grade 5 team is really interesting at the moment because what’s going on is a real to and fro’, a real Ping Pong game in the way that the students are responding to the provocation that the teachers have designed for them, and then the way the teachers are responding to the provocations offered back to them by the students’ responses.
The teachers are having to re-think, not only having to re-think the nature of this current Who we are unit, but today they began to re-think how the data they’re getting back from the students affects the unit that comes next also. This is very exciting because this means that the teachers are not seeing difficulties as roadblocks, but instead seeing difficulties – as a result of what their students are doing and saying (or not doing and saying) – as an opportunity again to reflect and to think “OK, how do we respond to what we know about the students now?”
The case in point here is that Grade 5 teachers, through the provocations they have been doing this week and last week, have really unearthed that the students (a) are not particularly curious about human behaviour and, probably as a direct result, (b) are not particularly good at observing human behaviour and noticing patterns. And so, as a result, they’re thinking that their initial hopes that students would be able to get to the point where they are designing their own social, behavioural experiments as part of Who we are were overly ambitious. Instead, they are going to have to devote the time and energy of Who we are to really developing that curiosity about human behaviour – with an ongoing reflective angle that “learning about other people’s behaviour helps me reflect on my own” – and also developing their ability to actually observe human behaviour and asking those questions… what am I looking at, what am I looking for, what do I notice, what evidence is there, how do I record that evidence and what kind of patterns am I noticing that could become a big idea or even a hypothesis?
They then said “OK, well let’s do How the world works next… and in How the world works, we give them six whole weeks just to test those hypotheses and to do so using a clear scientific process. Now that flow and constructivism from one unit to another is really exciting.
And, there’s a lot of tension and worry about “how am I going to get my students to this point or that point by this time?” or “oh, my students haven’t responded to this very well” or “they’re not that interested in it yet”… all of these natural tensions that teachers feel – good teachers feel. But then, coming together spontaneously – not waiting for a meeting – coming together spontaneously, working their way through it using all that information to help them redesign and redefine how things go from here.
It also reinforces a point that I make over and over and over again and that is that teachers have to have difficult conversations, teachers have to go through the struggle themselves, teachers have to finish the day thinking “I don’t know where this is really going… how do I find that clarity, how do I help my students find that clarity?” The only way they can do it is by having difficult conversations, by challenging each other, by challenging themselves. Good teaching is not just a series of tick-boxes that you can say you’ve done. Good teaching is critical thinking, it is tension, it is emotion, it is responsiveness, it is spontaneity.
As Suzanne, one of the Grade 5 team said after reading this post:
“Openness to spontaneity makes good teachers great.”
There is a misconception in life, and particularly in schools, that “speaking my mind” – or honesty – is a euphemism for being a bit of an arse. Either I don’t “speak my mind”, which must mean that I bottle everything up, conceal my true thoughts and never share what I genuinely think or believe, or, I feel like I can just go around being rude to people and make “speaking my mind” a kind of license to make all interactions highly personal and confrontational.
Both of these dichotomous positions are damaging to a school culture, and people who adopt them can be equally toxic in different ways.
Person A, the type who never “speaks their mind”, usually makes it clear to everyone that they have made a conscious decision never to “speak their mind”. With this constant declaration of self-censorship comes an implicit declaration of disapproval, judgment and criticism. It translates, basically, as “if I could speak my my mind it would be negative and I would tell you how useless this, that and they are”. The dangers of people like this are:
- They do actually “speak their minds” in small circles of people, sharing their bottled up negativity with those people they have decided they can confide in, and forming little clots of people in the organisational flow. These clots, like real clots, cause all kinds of awful things to happen – others become wary or paranoid of them, good ideas or initiatives get blocked or people who excel at their jobs have their confidence chipped away at until they leave but the clot remains.
- At times, opportunities arise for Person A to express themselves with anonymity, and this is like a dream-come-true for them. They feel liberated to “speak their mind” and unleash their thoughts onto people with no fear of having to take responsibility for their words or actually talk about or think it through with another human being.
- Person A may often also just go about their business, interacting only rarely with other people, but still walking around with their dark cloud hanging over them. People avoid them for fear of being caught in the storm – dragged into a negative conversation that has the potential to ruin their day or forced to listen to toxic gossip. This sort of isolation does nobody any good… particularly as Person A is responsible for the education of young people.
Then, there’s Person Z, the one who has taken it upon themselves to educate everyone else by just being an a$#@%$#e. They shoot people down, they belittle people, they interrupt, they opt out of conversations that need to be had, they refuse to take part in any positive initiatives, they make the discussion of ideas personal, they see things only from their perspective, they struggle to focus on student needs rather than their own, they talk when people are trying to address a group, they criticize meetings or workshops that don’t quite live up to their high standards (which are rarely reflected in the way they teach!), they have stopped learning, they get angry about things that don’t really matter, they write people off and give them no chance of redemption… the list goes on.
Fortunately, schools are also full of People C, D, E, F, G, H… the people who occupy the grey areas. These people:
- understand the value of exchanging thoughts, opinions and ideas
- are able to discuss things without making it personal
- are able to remain free of judgment
- value open and positive relationships
- are conscious of the effect of their attitude on others
- can see the big picture by “zooming out” of situations
- feel uncomfortable in gossipy situations
- try to get along with everyone in a way that is not artificial, because they know it matters
- give people the benefit of the doubt
- are respectful listeners
- are open-minded and ready to learn from any source
- don’t sulk
I know these are all generalisations, so please don’t comment and tell me that! Instead, please think about whether Person A and Person Z exist where you work, how they affect your school culture and how we can move beyond such polarised behaviours. Until that happens, the potential for the evolution of schools may well remain in their hands.
Leadership involves – or at least should involve – a certain amount of inspiration. People who grow into leadership positions are usually inspirational in one sense or another. Some might be recognized for their inspiring practice, others for their ability to generate creative ideas, their ability to bond with students, their depth of knowledge, their talents or their aptitude for getting the best out of people.
But, this capacity for inspiration does not come from an infinite source – it could, at any time, dry up. It may disappear temporarily for different periods of time or, worse, it may dry up completely.
You see, inspiration cannot exist in isolation. It may do so for a while, but eventually its going to need something – or someone – else to feed off. Inspirational people need to surround themselves with other people who are capable of inspiring them, they need to be constantly challenged and to have their thinking re-arranged. This does not mean being surrounded by people who see things the same way, although that – to a certain extent – is not a bad thing. Instead, it means having people around who surprise you, shock you, challenge you, excite you, influence you, motivate you, impress you and invigorate you.
In the context of schools, this is particularly true. Pedagogical leaders end up being promoted away from kids and out of the classroom – the sources of inspiration. For a while, referring back to their own practices may serve a purpose, but they will eventually fade into memories. A good leader knows that and seeks to redress the balance by finding and hiring talented individuals who can serve as their inspiration and then set out to create an atmosphere – a “culture of permission” that allows them the scope to express themselves.
A problem with this, though, is that many teachers struggle with the concept of self-actualization and taking control of their own growth. It is amazing how often you will hear people saying they wish they had more freedom in one breath, but then complain about not being told what to do in the next! Leaders genuinely appreciate those people who seek them out with ideas, with alternative approaches, with innovative suggestions or even just to talk through something they’re thinking about. People like that are energizing and – whether they know it or not – are inevitably a source of inspiration for people in leadership positions.
All of this should leave us asking several questions:
Leaders should be asking themselves what type of people inspire them, whether they are surrounded by that type of people and how they can make sure they are!
Teachers should be asking themselves what kind of energy they give off – are they the type that is capable of exciting, of invigorating and inspiring? If not, how can they be more like that?
A few days ago, the Dalai Lama tweeted this:
The Dalai Lama has hit the nail on the head. As educators, we are caught in an endless cycle of change as we perpetually seek to “make education better”. However, unless that is part of a higher purpose (or at least one that could have some visible manifestation for us to see the fruits of our labour) – being endlessly in the pursuit of the vague idea of “better” is pretty demoralizing and exhausting. It is also quite pointless as we never stop to think about why we are educating, what school is really for and what the long-term effects are of being educated.
We do need to “change our way of life”, lets face it. Take a good look around you… and beyond. Can we honestly say that humanity is doing a good job at the moment? Can we honestly say that we are part of something positive? Can we put our hands on our hearts and say we are creating a better world for our children, and their children?
Even more worryingly, can we honestly say we – in our schools – are creating better children for our world?
There are all sorts of positive stories out there about people doing wonderful things. But they are a tiny fraction compared to the stories of greed, destruction, waste, pollution, violence, hatred, racism, misogyny and stupidity. Those positive stories frequently come about despite how people are educated. They are often the result of those people who are challenging the systems that education is a part of. They are often perpetuated by the outliers, failures and rejects of formal education or the people who had to wait until their education was over before they could do something they really believed in.
In some cases, however, they are the direct result of education… a single school with a clear mission, a solitary teacher who makes a lasting impact, a student who emerges as a true leader, a project that gathers real momentum. We must start to gather these examples and commit ourselves to creating the conditions for them to happen more. Much more. So much so that they become our purpose – not creating employees, not getting kids into universities, not guaranteeing high incomes.
So… I call upon all teachers to ask yourselves…
“are you changing our way of life through education?”
If so, what are the conditions that allow you to do that?
If not, what holds you back?
Artwork by Igor Morsky. For more information about him and his work, click here.
“Action” is the most abstract of the PYP Essential Elements. We know it’s there, we know its important, we know its designed to encourage students to do good things… but we so often misinterpret it, forget about it and trivialize it.
Jane Goodall’s quote, below, puts it in the most simple terms. Students (and teachers) need to see how everything they do represents their “actions” and that reflection on what they do helps them to consider the difference – either good or bad – that their actions make. This could range from putting their shoes away when they get home to reaching for a book instead of an iPad to helping a friend with a problem to noticing a child beggar and mentioning it to a parent to… the list goes on.
Our problem, very often, is that we narrow down what “action” means so much that it has little or no value. Are we surprised, then, that so many of our students go through school believing it is a bake sale?
How do you guide your students towards a sophisticated understanding of Action?
Our Grade 2 students are currently learning about emotions and emotional intelligence. They went on a field trip to the cinema to see Inside Out and the movie has inspired some very interesting thinking.
Cathy, one of the G2 teachers, gave her students a blank piece of A3 paper and asked them to draw what’s inside their heads. She got back a combination of ideas from the movie and original ideas developed by the students. This kind of open task brings out creative ideas, misconceptions, interesting language and unique interpretations that can drive inquiry in ways that teachers would not be able to predict. All too often, teachers provide their students with closed tasks designed to elicit predetermined responses that the teacher determines to be right or wrong, good or bad. When they design ways that create space in the learning for the students’ genuine responses, things are very different!
When I saw the drawings, I immediately wondered what it would be like to photograph them, put them in one of our green screen studios and film the students inside their own heads taking us on a trip around what’s inside their heads! This extended the task into new territory as the students stretched their ability to explain their thinking and to coordinate both sides of their brain as they watched themselves live on the monitor!
So, next time you’re trying to think of a way to find out your students’ ideas, thoughts or feelings, don’t design a closed set of questions to which you can anticipate the answers. Instead, design something open that creates space for them to release information that you couldn’t predict – it’ll be much more interesting.
We are renovating the outdoor space in our Early Explorers area. Because of a number of practical issues, the work is being done while we are at school.
This is obviously quite a disturbance, and also has an impact on the space that is available to the students for outside play.
This could be very annoying and could be a cause of stress to teachers… and therefore to students too.
However, all situations that come up around us can easily be opportunities to learn – if we allow them to be. We can choose to be unhappy about such things – like bad weather, powercuts, big events, things not working, disturbances, distractions, unforeseen circumstances etc… or we can choose to make them part of the learning. Very often, these opportunities lead to much powerful learning than we could ever have planned for!
This week, our Early Explorers teachers “lifted the curtain” on the construction work that is going on in their playground. Not only were the students fascinated by it, they were also invited to help out! So, suddenly you have a group of four-year-olds rendering a real building, using real tools and real materials. The man supervising the construction was so excited about this that he is going to continue to look for simple, safe ways that the students can be a part of the construction work.”They are the next generation of adults” he said, clearly imagining a whole group of young architects or builders in the next twenty years!
Naturally, the experience has provoked all sorts of play, art and questions in the Early Explorers classrooms… and teachers are planning many ways to take them further.
So, next time there’s a thunderstorm… open the windows and see how your students react. Next time something breaks your routine or disrupts your usual plans… run with it. See what effect it has on the learning… a different type of learning than the one you had in mind! As you become more comfortable with this, perhaps… in the future… you might start actively seeking these opportunities.
Oh… and p.s… this doesn’t only apply to early years teachers.
Using strategies to make thinking visible can be incredibly powerful. Their power, however, hinges almost entirely on how willing teachers are to learn about their students.
Far too often, I see visible thinking strategies used as an “activity” or as a way of decorating the walls. In some cases, I think teachers believe that just by doing a visible thinking strategy they are automatically finding out what their students think and that by displaying the results their thinking has been made visible.
However, in order to make the most of the opportunities that visible thinking strategies provide us to delve deep into the minds of our students, we need to be willing to scrutinize their responses. We need to be incredibly curious about the way they are thinking. We need to probe further when we’re not sure a student has responded fully. We need to try different strategies to see if different ideas are revealed. Most importantly of all… we need to be doing all of these things with them.
By showing them how interested we are in their thoughts – and by involving them in the way we respond to their thoughts – we honour them, we give them pride and we let them know their thinking is important. By basing the subsequent planning – ours and theirs – on their responses and reactions, we show them how their learning is constructed… how it builds on their existing knowledge, their ideas, their misconceptions and their questions.
This is inquiry.
So, next time you decide to use a visible thinking strategy, ask yourself if you are genuinely interested in how your students respond. If you are… great. If you’re not… try your hardest to make yourself interested. Its worth it.