Today, a lizard visited me. It was on my bag… for no reason, well seemingly.
It might have appeared to tell me that my universe is aligned, that the things I need are with me. Just the way it was that hot night in Bangladesh when the power had gone off for hours and my daughter, a month old, had cried and cried until a Gecko appeared on the wall. As I held her in my sweaty arms, my mind frazzled and her face red from screaming… the presence of the Gecko soothed us, reminded us of the presence of something else. Something both smaller and bigger than us.
Today, this lizard might be telling me that what I just read and the connections I have just made are profound and that I must stop and listen to them, just the way I stopped and acknowledged the presence of the lizard.
This is what I read:
“… geniuses of all kinds excel in their capacity for sustained voluntary attention. Just think of the greatest musicians, mathematicians, scientists, and philosophers throughout history – all of them, it seems, have had an extraordinary capacity to focus their attention with a high degree of clarity for long periods of time. A mind settled in such a state of alert equipoise is a fertile ground for the emergence of all kind of original associations and insights. Might “genius” be a potential we all share – each of us with our own capacity for creativity, requiring only the power of sustained attention to unlock it? A focused mind can help bring the creative spark to the surface of consciousness. The mind constantly caught up in one distraction after another, on the other hand, may be forever removed from its creative potential.”
The Attention Revolution by Alan Wallace
These are the connections I made:
- We need to evaluate whether or not the “busyness” and scheduling in schools is, actually, exactly what Wallace is referring to by “caught up in one distraction after another”.
- We need to take some time to be very honest about whether or not students (and teachers) are, in fact, just being “caught up in one distraction after another”.
- We need to explore ways in which we can create “long periods of time” in which students (and teachers) can reach that “state of alert equipoise” in which everyone can be at their best.
- We need to make the relationship between mindfulness practice in schools and the capacity of students (and teachers) to sustained voluntary attention more explicit.
- We need to develop a sophisticated understanding of what attention means and move beyond thinking it is just either (a) listening to a teacher or (b) doing what a teacher expects students to do.
image by sergey245x on Flickr, shared under creative commons license
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?
We all know the value of physical space and the benefits it has on learning. Last week my students took things one (maybe two) steps further. I’m not even sure how it started…. one student made a comfortable space with a simple blanket and then others started to do the same. They were building, trading materials and supplies, negotiating, communicating, listening, designing, planning, innovating and on and on. I let it happen.
The result? The mood shifted. The focused increased. The creativity lifted. They were happy! This all happened on a Friday.
Then it was the weekend.
Monday morning came and students had been building, cutting wood, buying screws and tools and brought in things from home like lamps, pillows and toys. It was these touches that made their spaces feel very different. Once again, they took it to another level. And they did this on their own.
This natural and ever evolving process has revealed so many stories. Stories that are intertwined and overlap in the same moment. What they were doing is exactly what we want inquiry to be about. Where students are thinking about learning outside of school. Students are doing things that add to the experience. They take action without an adult instructing or guiding them.
While I am not pointing out the obvious, it made me stop in my tracks. I took a step back and observed what was happening around me. I realized that they are 10. They love to play. They love to hide. They love to escape. They love to pretend. We must never forget who they are at heart. The assessments, the testing, the home learning, the reporting…. Don’t let that stuff over ride you (and your students) and leave the creativity, wonder and imagination behind.
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 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.
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?
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.