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.
You know how people often say “school is their real world” when you start talking about “out there in the real world”? Its not true, school isn’t our students’ real world. It is a social construct, designed and managed by adults. It isn’t their real world, but it is their existence.
Schools and the real world are leagues apart. Schools are bubbles. So when we say it is “their real world” we are actually talking about a sanitised, protected, censored, authoritarian enclave that they inhabit for the first 18 years of their lives.
There’s so many angles that this posting could take at this point. However, today I want to write about how we protect our students from reality in the belief that this is what is best for them, and how we might be able to change that.
If we are honest, the real world is not a very nice place. Sure, there’s lots of positive stories and wonderful people. But, in general, the world is not a very nice place. This is reflected in the fact that most school mission statements give themselves and their students the unenviable task of making the world a “better”, “happier”, “peaceful” or “harmonious” place for future generations. We wouldn’t be saying we need to do that if the world was wonderful now, would we?
But, can we honestly say that our students are emerging as people with a conviction and a determination or even an awareness of how things need to change? Are we bringing the harsh realities of the world into our curriculum and provoking our students to think critically, cynically, divergently and alternatively? Correct me if I’m wrong, but probably not.
For example, how many schools are using the war in Syria and the huge exodus – and rejection – of people as a way to develop empathy or to learn about the evil acts mankind is capable of? If not, how can we possibly believe that history won’t continue to repeat itself? What stops us from doing that? Is it the sheer quantity of other stuff that “must be covered”? Is it the fear of taking a stance that may offend someone or other? Is it a desire to be so impartial that we end up standing for nothing at all?
I wonder how many genuine learning opportunities happen out there in the real world that could be deeply explored, that would evoke genuine emotional responses and provoke progressive thinking in our students?
Imagine a curriculum that is shaped by what is happening in the real world. Imagine a school that allows its curriculum to be shaped by what is happening in the real world.
Its not that complex, really. As we all know, learning is at its most powerful when it moves from facts to knowledge to conceptual understanding. Well, those initial facts and areas of knowledge can easily be determined by what is going on in the real world – whether its the horrific and the heart-breaking or the uplifting and the awe-inspiring. Connections can be made with other events in time or space that can lead to real understanding… so your starting point is flexible. Flexible enough to be topical, real, emotive and empowering.
I work in a PYP school and we are coming up to our annual curriculum review. One of the lenses I will ask teachers to scrutinise our curriculum through will be “The Real World”. Are there real-world starting points for each of our units of inquiry? Are students able to apply what they learn to real-world situations?
Now, don’t get me wrong. I am not suggesting we burden our young people with the onerous task of righting all our wrongs and saving the planet! I am, however, asking if we should be making sure as much learning as possible is centred on things that are really happening.
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.
I recently gave this talk at the Learning2 Conference in Manila. What I am basically saying is that things need to change, that we need sudden and urgent change in the world and that schools – if we stop deluding ourselves – can be a powerful source of that change.
There are many things about life today that we passively continue to accept:
- that success = money
- that waste is OK
- that pollution is inevitable
- that destruction = progress
- that new is best
- that media = truth
- that Hollywood represents social/cultural ideals
- that school = work
- that education is the key
- that its OK for technology to lead the way
- that we have no control over the future
I could go on… its really interesting to start a list like that! However, its more interesting, and indeed sobering, to look at education and schools through those lenses and to see just how much we perpetuate the things in the list, to see how much we transfer those ways of thinking to kids.
In my talk, I use the metaphor of moulds… and I think I can take this idea one step further by saying that moulds help us to play it safe. I think schools persistently play it safe – we go about our daily existences in fear of persecution from parents, governing bodies, governments, testing companies, universities, media companies, big business, religious groups etc… As a result, not only have we become passive, we have also become rather bland.
I challenge any school to seriously reflect on its impact on society. Has it made a positive impact? Has it made a negative impact? Has it made any impact at all? What is it doing about that?
Everybody goes through school. People’s school “careers” define their futures. So, what kind of futures are we defining? Do we know? Can we be bothered to find out? Are our alumni making a positive impact on society?
These are HUGE questions. But, surely its time to start trying to find out, trying to discover what our actual impact is as perpetuators of the status quo or as agents of change.
I don’t know about you, but I’m not happy with the status quo.
Recently, one of our Early Years Teachers – Jenna – said schools like ours are going through a bit of an “identity crisis”. She’s right.
One way we’re going though an identity crisis is in our use of time.
We all know that learning is most powerful when we allow it to flow, when we design learning that has momentum and then honour it by letting it continue. Instinctively, we can all sense when our students need more time and when stopping them is an interruption that they may not recover from.
But, what do we do every day of their lives in school? We stop them. We interrupt them. We create brief, fragmented bits of teaching for them. Its the stop-and-start, come-and-go, here-and-there, bits-and-bobs model of education. Its our special way of abusing time!
Fortunately, I am not alone in this way of thinking. A group of our teachers recently went to Learning2 in Manila and came back determined to undo the damage that had been done to their timetables… here are some ways we can all do this:
- Only have the bare minimum locked in to your timetables. In most schools, this just means specialist lessons that have specialist teachers.
- Plan one or two days in advance only. Allow the events of each day to inform what happens the next day.
- Have a paper version of your timetable, A3 is best, that you can write on. This way, you can “go with the flow” as well as indicate where and when you have done the essentials, such as stand-alone maths.
- Help your students understand the importance of momentum and flow in their learning and get them to tell you when they need more time or when they don’t.
- Get to know your curriculum like the back of your hand so that you and your students can make connections with it as learning evolves.
Your timetable is often the main thing that is holding genuine, deep learning back.
This quote is remarkably true about the Art of Teaching, in many different ways.
The ability to see and make connections is a crucial ingredient for a genuine modern teacher. It is our ability to see and make connections that enables us to integrate subjects, to make learning inter-connected and to see that learning – in many shapes or forms – exists in every single moment.
In my experience, there are teachers who – regardless of training or qualifications – just have the ability to walk into a classroom and see the relationships and connections that exist between the types of learning going on. For example, they can see how a student’s desire to learn how to cook is also an opportunity for them to develop their ability to read, do measurement and understand scientific principles. They can also see beyond that into the possibilities of writing and publishing cookbooks, publishing recipes online, creating tutorial videos and developing their ability to explain through speaking as well as writing.
There are also teachers who need to see it to get it, who need to be shown… maybe a few times. These teachers may need to rid themselves of their own experiences as a student – some of these are very deeply ingrained – as these may have limited their ability to see connections for some time. They may also need to rid themselves of the things they learned when they were being trained as teachers. Many teachers were, to put it bluntly, trained to be very dull, disconnected educators. Some of them burst out of those shackles as soon as they see what it is truly possible to achieve with students, others may take a little more coaxing – its a bit like the different ways that animals react when released from a cage!
Sadly, there are also teachers who will simply never see the connections that exist between different types of learning and will, therefore, never make those connections for their students. Their teaching will forever remain as isolated lessons and skills. The thing is – these are often lessons that do need to be learned, and skills that do need to be developed. So we have a real dilemma about what to do with these teachers. Do we try and get rid of them? A year with them could, and often does, put a student off learning forever. Or do we treat it as a “year-in-waiting”, a year developing crucial skills that the students will – eventually – begin to see the purpose of later when, if, they are fortunate enough to have some time with someone who helps them make those connections?