This is a wonderful talk and a timely reminder that we – adults – have to stop putting an unrealistic vision of perfection out of children’s reach.
As Emma Marris eloquently teaches us, we keep referring to an idea of a perfect, untarnished nature that simply doesn’t exist. We say there is no nature in or around the schools we work in, but there is… there’s lots of it. We have just lost the ability to see it and, more dangerously, we are failing to help young people see it, touch it, be in awe of it and want to see more of it.
We may be in danger of doing the same thing to peace. Do we present an idealistic vision of a perfect peace in which everything is sweetness and light, and therefore keep it out of reach of young people? If we do, then we need to refine what we believe peace is, or could be.
Yesterday, as I walked to work, I passed an empty plot of land. It was full of overgrowth and teeming with insect life. I had walked past it more than 200 times before and failed to consider it to be “nature”.
If we are capable of becoming so jaded, so blind and so susceptible to the false dichotomies the media provides us with, what hope have we of helping young people evolve with more sophistication?
Something has been bothering me for a very long time, I just haven’t been sure how to put it into words. Today, as I flicked through the TV channels, I think I may have figured it out.
No matter how much of an ethical position we may take in bringing up young people, both in families and in our schools, all is undone the moment they engage with mass media. Turn on the TV and we are fed a million messages that undermine all teaching.
In this posting, I will focus on violence.
Violence is glorified and war the playground of muscle-bound-heroes-in-the-making. Explosions, bombs, machine-gun fire, collateral damage, drones… you name it, Hollywood has glorified it, sanitised it and told us “it’s OK… this is normal, accept it, worship it.” Sure, a few mavericks have managed to squeeze some anti-war sentiments past the censors, who undeniably act in the interest of warmongers, but war is generally packaged, gift-wrapped and presented to us as something to revel in, not question. Either Hollywood is forced to take responsibility for the messages it transmits, or we have to take matters in to our own hands, turn our backs on it and make the production of war films less lucrative.
The violence doesn’t just remain in the realm of war, oh no, we have our violence tailored both to suit and feed our daily fears. The vast majority of TV series are about murder. In fact, if you fancied a bit of a career change and decided to become a murderer – which many people do, TV is a perpetual “how-to” guide that comes full of helpful advice and tricks of the trade. To go one step further, CSI and other similar shows, provide in-depth information about how you can avoid being detected.
Potential terrorists can also seek inspiration from TV shows and movies, with the creators of these forms of media constantly ahead of the game and coming up with all sorts of wonderful ways that you can be a terrorist. If you’re a terrorist that, sadly, lacks ideas and needs a bit of inspiration so you can raise your game, simply turn on the TV or go and watch the latest Hollywood blockbuster, and there you go… a wonderful menu of horrific acts to choose from. Take the ending of shite “cult” movie Fight Club, for example, and tell me its not rather similar to 9/11 – which happened two years later. I wonder how many people who lost loved ones in New York still think that movie was cool? Never mind those who’ve pointlessly had their faces punched in by shirtless morons trying to emulate Brad Pitt after seven pints of lager.
Even escapist, fantasy, costume dramas like Game of Thrones descend rapidly into the provision of violence-porn which give us all a guilty tingle as we are shocked, disgusted and slightly turned on by another jugular being slit, wet slurping sounds and all. But, its alright, there’s dragons and bare breasts, its not real life… or is it? Tell that toddler who just watched his junkie-father have his throat slit in front of him that it isn’t real and watch his tragic, confused face as the tears drip down his cheeks.
If I was to continue with examples, this would become an extremely long blog post. And, we all know nobody has the time to read those. So, I will end with a few thoughts about how schools might respond to this situation:
- Completely and explicitly reject mass media. This would not be censorship, as that is more along the lines of pretending it doesn’t exist. Instead, acknowledge its existence and then take a strong stance on it.
- Make the deconstruction of mass media a key part of education, teaching students to be cynical about its messages – of which the glorification of violence is just one.
- Make it very clear to parents that there will be little tolerance of these stances being undermined at home. Parents of the little thugs, for example, brought up on a media diet of Ben 10 since they could first throw a tantrum about it being turned off, will need to be on board.
Next, it may be time to look at the News.
This is a powerful talk. It turns many of the dominant educational practices and beliefs upside-down. It also is a bit of a slap in the face for some of the current practices in many schools. I will pick one to pull apart – mixing classes up every year.
I work in the international school context. Our students are perpetually making friendships and then losing friends when people leave to go to another country. They are perpetually saying good-bye to their relatives, whom they see only during some holidays. They are isolated from their own cultures and often possess few or no relationships with local people other than those who are subservient to them.
These children crave the stability of solid friendships and relationships. That stability comes from their classmates and the bonds that evolve from spending each day together. Then… here comes the weird bit… we mix them all up again the following year. They have to start all over again, from scratch, from zero…for some reason we seem to think that pulling the rug out from beneath their feet is the right thing to do. Young children’s strongest friendships are nearly always with kids in the same class. Invariably, the friendships weaken or all apart completely when they are put in separate classes.
Some kids can handle this. But, should they have to?
Some kids can’t handle it. And, no, its not going to toughen them up and make them more resilient. It’s g0ing to make them lonely.
This is pretty demoralizing for teachers too. We spend a whole year developing a class as a community of learners. We nurture relationships and cultures. And then we pull it all apart. And the process of pulling them apart and putting new classes together is not an easy one – it is time-consuming, emotionally exhausting and fraught with complexity on many levels.
I propose that we limit this practice and seek out opportunities to provide stability for our students. We keep classes relatively unchanged if it feels like the right thing to do. If there is something wrong with the dynamics of a class, we take steps to remedy it. If not, we leave them alone, let them have their friendships. They need them.
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.
- What has become normal in schools?
- What has become normal in life?
- How much of what is normal is acceptable?
- How much of what is normal is harmful or destructive?
- How much do we perpetuate the normal in schools?
- How do we challenge the normal in schools?
- How do we encourage our students to challenge the normal?
BIG questions. But, if we are not answering them in the world of education then where and when will they be answered? Can we afford not to answer them?
Thanks to Dominic Wilcox for challenging us to reinvent normal.
Thanks to Katherine Williams for sharing the video about Dominic.
Thanks to Twitter for connecting people’s minds.
I recorded this bit of audio to try and remember my thoughts as I reflected on watching my kids play this weekend. I did start typing it up, but the more I listened to the recording, the more I realized it would just be better to upload it to Soundcloud and share it that way!!!
How do you create space for, and in, the learning?
Life is short.
Childhood is even shorter.
Children deserve to come to school and be excited, challenged and motivated. We have our students, in our space, for one year. During this time, we are creating narratives – stories – with them. What are those stories? What stories do our students tell about their days at school?
On Sunday night, my daughter said “I can’t wait to get back to school to work on my project, Daddy. I love what I am doing.”
Wouldn’t it be great if each student said those words to their parents on the night before school? Wouldn’t it be great if every student was totally engrossed in their inquiries. “It feels like playing” she said later.
The first half of the year, in many schools, can be very business-like. Some things that have always been on the agenda may now be expected to be done with consistency and quality. Some familiar things may be done in unfamiliar and better ways. Some new things may be added to the equation in order to take teaching and learning to the next level. This all takes time and effort. It is hard work.
In the second half of the year, however, there may be no surprises. So, focus on those narratives I mentioned above. Focus on working with students so that each day, each week and each month of their lives at school unfold as interesting, exciting, surprising stories of personal growth and learning. If some old habits need to be discarded to make that happen… discard them. If a few risks need to be taken to make that happen… lets take them. If a few people need to be challenged to make that happen… challenge them.
Teachers put a lot of work into figuring out what our students should or could be doing. But, we also need to take a good long look at why. How do we get our students to want to read, question, write, draw, build, listen, design, argue, solve, play, win, collaborate, research, experiment, notice, think…?
Each day, ask yourself these crucial questions:
Would I want to be a student in my class?
Would I be interested in what we are doing?
Would I be inspired by me?
Would this unit excite and motivate me?
Would this experience stimulate my curiosity?
Would I be at my best here?
You want the answers to those questions to be “ÿes”. You are teachers. It is your purpose in life for each of your students to feel that way. It is your source of pride and satisfaction when they do feel that way. It is what gives you a thrill and makes you feel as though all of your effort has real meaning.
Life may be short. But it is shorter when waiting for each day to end, when waiting for the weekend, when waiting for a meeting to be over, when waiting for the next holiday to come. This time is your time, and it is the most important time for your students.
It is their childhood. Help make it an amazing one.
Image by Patrick Breitenbrach
My friend and newly-qualified colleague, Monisha, sent me an email with this image and message yesterday. The image is so provocative, the way she writes is so eloquent and the questions she is pondering are so hugely important that I am just going to copy it into this posting verbatim.
“As adults and educators, we are often plagued with many preconceived notions of what is “right”. Perhaps it is due to our own experiences, competing with other schools/friend’s kids/benchmarks/colleagues or even time constraints.
But by molding minds are we actually just cramming them into our own molds? Or can we try reshaping ourselves to help children form their own shapes and grow into them?
Something to think about. The powerful visual attached made me ponder…what happens to the “excess” that is cut off?
As I walked to the gate to get on my plane back to Bangkok, from Phuket, departing passengers merged with arriving passengers just for a moment. A flight had come in from Russia and the flow of passengers was being blocked by a little boy, possibly four years old, who had stopped to look out of the window. Just across the tarmac of the runway was the clear blue sea of Phuket and he was gawping at it, shouting excitedly at his parents in Russian. Perhaps, and I know this is an assumption, this was the first time he had seen the sea, or at least a sea that looked like that!
Naturally, this got me thinking.
I wonder if, as adults in our capacity as teachers or parents, we sometimes forget about that emotional response to seeing, hearing, feeling, tasting, sensing, knowing, making or understanding something for the first time. Are we sometimes guilty of missing that crucial moment of learning because we have become accustomed, blasé, jaded, cynical or ambivalent about the world around us? Does this mean that we become less able to teach or less able to bring up our children in ways that do connect with their emotions? Are we, dare I say it, too caught up in our own emotional web that we forget what naivety and real “finding out” feel like, not just for children but also for ourselves?
I hope not. This emotional response, I believe, is actually the essence of curiosity. Curiosity can, but doesn’t always have to, convert itself into inquiry.
So, I guess what I’m saying is… parents, teachers, anybody with a part to play in the growth of children, try to remind yourself to see things through their eyes. Try to reconnect yourself with those emotional responses . Try to live in a way that gives you those emotional responses too – travel, seek change, be mindful, look closely at the world around you, try new things, have a go, be open to people. Then, I am sure, we can all play our part as well as we are meant to.
I have to thank Louie Schwartzberg and TED for the video below. I wonder if, had I not watched this video , if I would even have seen and watched the little Russian boy at all: