The first in a series of posts about what we all – regardless of location, curriculum and age level – can learn from the philosophy, practices and people of Reggio Emilia.
One of the most powerful impressions that I left Reggio Emilia with is the mind-blowing intelligence of the teachers who work there. Each one of the people I encountered spoke of children and their learning in a way that was deeply rooted in psychology, described in evocative – often poetic – language, richly conceptual and always, always, about growth and what is possible.
Teachers in Reggio Emilia are constantly poised, alert to the nuances of learning that goes on around them. They see concepts as they are unfolding in front of them (as though they were being displayed in their retina!) and are able to name and document them as possibilities for further inquiry. They notice, for example, when a three year-old child says one toy car goes faster down a ramp than the other toy cars “because the air goes through it”. They name that concept as “aerodynamics” and they respond in the full belief that children that young are capable – given the right materials and support – of launching into a full-scale research project into such a complex concept.
Clearly, there are many ingredients that help to develop this intelligence. But one quote, hit me really hard the moment I heard it:
“Teachers have a right to intelligent ways of working”Silvia Crociani, a Teacher in Reggio Emilia
This resonated with me because I’ve been doing a lot of work recently on two things that have become fundamental in the art of teaching today – (1) the mentality and dispositions of the teacher, and (2) the processes that teachers are involved in.
Those processes are our ways of working.
As a PYP Coordinator, I have been trying to develop processes for planning that encourage teachers to operate intelligently – to question habits and norms, to avoid repetition of units or teaching from the planner, to identify the real purpose behind what we’re doing with students, to grapple with semantics as we endeavour to describe learning, to be researchers into their students’ thinking and behaviour, to document their observations and see them as data, to ponder what ‘to understand’ means and what might be genuine evidence of understanding, etc…
But it struck me that we may have been trying to go through these processes within a bigger context of unintelligent ways of working. In other words, we have been trying our best, pushing our mental capacities, but we’ve been doing this within some systematic constraints that limit our ability to go beyond a certain point.
The first, and most important, constraint is time.
In Reggio Emilia it has been decided that, if teachers are to be capable of thinking about the children they are teaching, going through the notes and other forms of documentation they have about the children, sharing thoughts and diversifying their perspectives about the children with other adults, making thoughtful decisions about how they will respond to what children are doing and saying and taking action to make those decisions become reality… then they need time to do so. As a minimum, six hours per week is devoted – officially – to doing just that.
It is a priority.
It may even be the priority because everything else hinges on what comes out of it.
In most of the schools you and I operate in, that time has not been identified as a priority. When creating school timetables, very often with an industrial mindset, this often comes as an afterthought – in 4th, 5th, 6th, 10th, 24th place in the order of priorities depending on the school you’re in. Many teachers snatch at snippets of time throughout the week, others may have one hour a week, two if they’re lucky. Great teachers continue to think well beyond the school day, their minds never turning off, making them prone to burn-out or that feeling of isolation many of us feel when the system doesn’t support how we wish we could operate.
I urge all school leaders to ponder the following questions:
- Do we believe that the quality of learning is directly related to the amount of time teachers have to reflect, think, discuss, make plans and take action?
- Are the systems in our school promoting these things as a priority?
- How can we use the phrase “intelligent ways of working” to reflect on how we do things in our school?
Although meetings are a context for collaboration, they are not collaboration itself. It is totally possible for collaboration to exist without meetings, and it is also totally possible for meetings to exist without collaboration.
True collaboration becomes part of a school culture when educators are inclined to be collaborative. Not because they have been told to collaborate, but because they can see the value in it for learning.
This inclination to be collaborative involves a number of habits. Here’s my take on what 7 of them might be…
- Friendliness – Highly collaborative educators are basically friendly. They enjoy chatting with people, and this opens up a myriad of possibilities to enrich learning. Because they are friendly, other teachers like hanging out with them and this makes it much easier to work together. Pretty simple really.
- Being curious – Highly collaborative educators are naturally curious, always asking questions and always interested in what is going around them. This curiosity is infectious and invites other teachers and students to get involved. Curious people are more likely to stick their head into other classrooms, more likely to probe in order to find out what people really mean and more likely to take an interest in what other people think. They are learners and are highly aware of how much there is to learn from their colleagues, students and community.*
- Looking and listening for connections – Highly collaborative educators want to be collaborative and are, consciously or subconsciously, alert and actively seeking out connections and relationships with ideas, knowledge, talents, skills, thoughts, places and people. Because of this natural connectivity inclination, highly collaborative people become more receptive to coincidence, serendipity and good fortune that can make learning rich, complex and real.
- Continuing the thinking – Highly collaborative educators don’t switch their brains off when they leave the school campus and back on again when they arrive the next day. They’re still thinking late into the night, jotting down notes, sharing ideas on social media, reading blogs, contacting other educators and collaborating with a wide variety of networks. In addition, they generally like to share what they’ve learned with their colleagues over coffee the next day and don’t feel ashamed about “talking shop”!
- Putting learning first – Highly collaborative educators automatically generate more work for themselves by putting learning first, they can’t help themselves! When you put learning first, you remain open to all possibilities and are always keen to explore them further to see if they will have an impact on learning, and these possibilities frequently involve collaborating with other people.
- Making time – Highly collaborative educators do not allow themselves to use time as an excuse not to collaborate. If there’s an idea they want to share with a colleague, they make the time to talk to them. If someone needs or wants to talk with them, they make time to listen generously. If an idea demands more time to become fully developed, they make the time to work on it. Most importantly, they don’t wait to be told what time they can collaborate, they just do it instinctively.
- Making thinking visible – Highly collaborative people invite others to join them by putting their thinking “out there”. They are honest about what they think, they make crazy suggestions, they verbalise possibilities, they expose their vulnerabilities, they take public notes and draw visuals in meetings, they offer to help, they leave their doors open (or remove them), they stick post-its on the wall, they display quotes, they write, they share. Far from being about attention-seeking or self-promotion, these tendencies are all about looking for like minds, allies and the desire to be better educators.
Would you add more to this list?
Thanks to Chye de Ryckel for asking the question that prompted me to write this blog post!
*Thanks to Alison Francis for adding more to the Being curious habit.
Artwork: Totem Pole by Ken Vieth
Unfortunately, I think that the idea of collaboration is very rarely understood properly by teachers of the PYP. For many of us, student collaboration has always meant “working in a group” and never really progressed any further than that. Part of the problem with this is our misguided belief that teacher collaboration means “planning in a group”, but more on that another time.
Ironically, it is our flagship student experience – the PYP Exhibition – that can be held responsible for our misconceptions about collaboration. It was always designed to be a “collaborative inquiry ” and so, to that end, teachers have been popping their poor students into groups in PYP schools worldwide every year. Doesn’t sound so bad, does it? Well, yes, its catastrophic for many of the following types of student:
- those students who end up being put in a group because there wasn’t a group based on their interest
- those students who end up being put in a group because the group they wanted to be in was “full”
- those students who always end up doing all the work in groups
- those students who always fade into the background while others take the glory
- those students who have always let others do the work because they lack confidence or skills
- those students whose interests and styles of learning are never quite the same enough for them to be in a group
- those students who make misguided group choices and regret it later
- those students who compromise their own identity just to be in a group
- etc… have I left anyone out?
When teachers create a finite amount of groups for the PYP Exhibition (often defined by a finite number of pre-determined things the kids can learn about) with a finite number of places in each group they are undermining inquiry from the word “go”. They are also pushing cooperation and not setting the scene for genuine collaboration to happen naturally. They are creating the conditions for conflict, frustration, bickering, divisive behaviour, sulking and competitiveness. We have all seen it.
When you remove this obsession with grouping from the equation completely and allow students to develop their own inquiries… a real, natural, diverse, dynamic and unpredictable culture of collaboration begins to evolve:
- you get partnerships and groups emerging at different times in the process based on a recognition of like minds or similar goals
- you get frequent, spontaneous collaborations taking place as students share information, exchange ideas or help each other with things
- you get collaborations happening between students and adults as teachers, parents and other members of the community get involved in the process
- you get collaborations between the students and students of all other ages who become part of the process
- you get collaboration happening by email, and online
- you get collaboration you never anticipated
Putting students (and all people) in groups and calling it collaboration is a mould that must be broken. We have been breaking that mould for a while now, and it works.
Why not give it a try? There’s no need to wait for the PYP Exhibition, after all… it’s just another unit of inquiry.
Myself and Chad are on our way to Phuket to spend a week at the wonderful, small, new school called The Gecko School. This is a cool story in itself, and one I will tell in subsequent postings this week.
However, I am going to look backwards first, to my time working in the city I sit in now – Bangkok – en route to Phuket.
I was here last week too, and bumped into a couple of ex-colleagues as I wandered around the city I both love and hate. We sat for a few minutes and analyzed the strange culture of one of my former schools – a place where innovative and “different” teachers tend to struggle. One of them casually came out with a statement about teachers who don’t share their ideas and try and glorify themselves by keeping hold of them and being secretive about how they teach. I nodded without really considering what was said. I only really thought about it afterwards, and it annoyed me because I was pretty sure it was a thinly veiled dig at me!
It is in the nature of ideas that sometimes they work and sometimes they don’t. It is also in the nature of ideas that they are spontaneous and organic. Very often, one is not aware of how good an idea actually is until its happening! A strong teaching team is aware of what each other is doing in their classrooms. Student learning is public. Doors are open. Chats about learning are frequent, formal and informal. When you see something working in another classroom, your curiosity is piqued… you ask the students and teacher what they are doing, why they are doing it and how. You may ask the teacher to come and run a session in your class – or, even better, some students. Or you may just pop back, take a few photos and consider how, or even if, to adapt it to the way your own students and classroom culture operates.
It is not a problem caused by “Ideas People” not sharing their ideas. It is a problem of the people who have the ideas sharing them and sharing them and sharing them and sharing them and ending up being stigmatized because of their ideas. Having other people not think their ideas were valid, worthwhile, important, meaningful, realistic… but then when they see those ideas come to fruition, when they see those ideas become powerful, when they see a transformation in those students because of those ideas – that is when they announce that ideas were not shared. That is when the envy kicks in, that’s when it all turns around… because there’s no proof. There’s no proof that they didn’t hear that idea, see that idea, chat about that idea… but just didn’t think it was a good idea.
But there is proof that they didn’t do it. And there is proof that the teacher who did do it, did do it! And there is proof that their students’ learning was transformed because of it.
Sadly, in some schools, that is proof enough to damage a great teacher, to render one guilty of not being a “team player”. I am not sure that many people in schools have a very sophisticated understanding of what a team really is.
- So, if you are one of those “Ideas People”, be strong. Let your practice do the talking. People who are genuinely interested will show their interest in positive ways – make them welcome. They will be important allies when times get tough.
- And, if you are one of those people who keeps pointing your finger at “Ideas People” and copping out by saying they are not a team player, look to yourself first… that may well be the root of the problem.
Over the last few years, I have seen amazing teachers get dragged down and raked over the coals for “not sharing what they do”. This accusation is often made as a way of labeling a teacher as “uncollaborative” – a really serious crime in modern schools, it seems.
“I just don’t know what she’s doing… I wish she would share” they say.
And yet, it is often more about the person making the accusation than the accused.
By saying you don’t know what they are doing, you are basically admitting that you have made zero effort to be curious enough to find out! Weird.
But then, it does make me wonder about that sense of entitlement many teachers have… and a tendency to operate from a transactional perspective rather than a transformational one. How many times do you hear things like:
- “I would do more inquiry if my students were more curious”
- “I would use maths manipulatives if the school ordered more”
- “I would do play-based learning if we had more time”
- “I would take my students out there if there was more equipment”
- “I would do that if you show me exactly what to do”
“I would know all the wonderful things that teacher is doing if they shared them with me”
There is one, very quick, very easy and very powerful way to find out what people are doing. Go and take a look. Walk in the door. Speak to the kids. Listen in. Take some photos.
Its not threatening – it is flattering.
Let’s face it, most of the best teachers we know are not 100% sure what they’re going to be doing with their students until they are doing it. Also, most of those teachers do share their ideas with us during planning sessions… but other people often just don’t get it until they see it.
The best way to share is to show, not tell. The best way to have something shared with you… is to go and take a look for yourself.
Whose classroom are you going into today???
I recently ran my first, official, “Time, Space, Education” workshop at Mt. Scopus Memorial College and have come away with plenty to think about. This will be the first of several posts in which I reflect on my experiences there, what I gained from running a workshop and what I gained from the feedback received from participants. This first posting is based on Edna Sackson’s posting called Communities of practice in which she refers to a “culture of thinking”.
Bill and Ochan Powell recently said:
“You can tell a huge amount about a school within the first ten minutes just by watching how adults relate to each other.”
I was struck, very quickly, at Mt. Scopus, by a willingness amongst the staff to have disagreements. People would regularly challenge each other openly, and remain friends. This is quite different to the culture I have found in international schools. Something about them frequently seems to prevent people from having disagreements, perhaps out of fear of “rocking the boat”, “wasting time”, “causing conflict” or worrying about being tainted as “difficult”. International school teachers frequently hold in their disagreements or challenges and can sometimes let them fester into negative emotions like resentment or isolation. I am wondering why this is and I definitely think we have a lot to learn from schools like Mt. Scopus.
Another key ingredient to a culture of thinking , in my opinion, is that people have the confidence to clarify their thinking if someone is misinterpreting them – or even simply not listening properly to them. Many times, as I observed or took part in conversations over the two days, I witnessed people saying things like “no… what I am saying is” or “hang on, that’s not what I mean” or “wait a minute, you’re not really listening”. I really loved this, simply because whenever someone does that it inevitably leads to a more powerful conversation for all the people involved, and everyone walks away feeling that they have been understood. Again, this is not always the way things are in international schools.
On several occasions, and particularly when challenged to really bash out ideas to try and reach consensus on what units of inquiry are actually about, the staff at Mt. Scopus displayed genuine, heartfelt emotions. People’s emotions about what and how they teach can often be interpreted as a negative thing. Perhaps they are upset because they put that unit together or because they really like that unit themselves or because they are resistant to change. When things became emotional at Mt. Scopus, however, it was very clear that the emotions were connected to a real sense of how important some units are to the students’ lives. These emotions are positive and are a very clear, outward indicator that you are working with people who care about their job and who take learning seriously. When we respond to something with emotion and then take the time (and are given the chance) to explain our feelings and thoughts, it leads to greater focus, creativity, innovation and ultimately improves student learning. When we hide, suppress or stigmatize emotional reactions to professional conversations, we forget why we are teachers in the first place.
These three things are essential if we are to continue to develop as teachers, and as communities of teachers. It was very exciting to be immersed in that kind of culture for a few days.