Recently, Kelli and I were talking about why teaching can be so exhausting. She used the analogy of Salmon swimming upstream to illustrate how we are so often doing what we do in the face of so many other contradictory and conflicting forces.
These forces may sometimes be policies and expectations put in place by governments and education departments based on decisions which are often made by people with little or no educational background apart from the fact that they went to school. In many cases, these policies and expectations are in complete conflict with what educators know to be true about children and learning. And so, most teachers play the game while still trying to do what they believe is right even though their ability to do so (and their time, space and energy to do is) is dwindling.
In other cases (or if you’re unlucky, at the same time) the forces may be policies and expectations that are put in place by school boards or leadership teams. Many school boards are composed of people who have little or no educational background apart from the fact they went to school. And many leadership teams consist of educators so long out of the classroom and so distanced from the realities of day-to-day teaching that they are referring to how things were, or should have been, 20 or 30 years ago. And so, most teachers play the game while still trying to do what they believe is right even though their ability to do so (and their time, space and energy to do is) is dwindling.
In other cases (or if you’re really unlucky, at the same time) the forces may be the patterns of behaviour and trends that exist around you all in everyday life outside school. Students may be consistently exposed to things that go against everything you hope to be instilling in them while they are with you, such as vast differences between rich and poor, an abusive class system, the systematic destruction of the environment, institutionalised racism, corrupt officials and police, blatant consumerism and greed and disregard for human life. And so some teachers try to get their students involved in doing something about these problems, and this is great. But, all too often the overwhelming feeling that they’re only scratching the surface burns people out or the transient nature of many international schools means projects are not sustained. And so, teachers and students do what they do inside a sort of bubble of safety, security and sanitisation while still trying to open their students’ eyes to reality.
In other cases (or if you’re really, really unlucky) the forces may be the parents and what they believe about parenting. Teachers may be consistently trying to reverse the damaging effects of different parenting styles, such as children who have “learned helplessness”, children who are overprotected, children who are under too much pressure to be academically successful, children who are over-scheduled, children who are unable to relax without a screen in front of them, children who are not getting enough sleep, children who eat a damaging diet, children who are being medicated and children who are being brought up with worrying political and ethical beliefs. And so, teachers do what they do in the hope that their 8 hours or so each day with these children can, in some way counteract what is happening at home and give them a refuge, increase their confidence and self-esteem, reveal different perspectives to them and, perhaps most importantly, help them learn how to figure things out for themselves.
In other cases (or if you’re really, really, really unlucky) the forces may be the what the parents believe is, or should be, a good education. Many parents’ only point of reference about education is their own experience. Some of the more enlightened parents look back at aspects of their education and hope, more than anything else, that their children don’t have to “go through that”. Many, though, hark back to their education with rose-tinted glasses and put pressure on modern teachers to replicate those practices despite the fact that pedagogical research, as well as the world itself, has moved on since then. And so, teachers are charged with the responsibility of not only educating children but also educating parents about how they are educating their children!
The Salmon swimming upstream is a great analogy for what it’s like to be a teacher. At least, a teacher who is determined to stay up-to-date with pedagogical research and contemporary practice, who is determined to teach the child and not just the content, who is determined to be part of creating generations of young people who can give themselves and the next generation a better existence and who is determined to make the most of the privilege that it is to have such a direct impact on the lives of so many people. If not, I guess they’re just swimming along with the current… which is, of course, much easier, much less energy-sapping and involves a lot less thought!
(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.”
Muhammad Ali passed away this week. I fear that this may go totally unnoticed in schools.
What is the reason for this?
Are we afraid that acknowledging and honouring him might, in some obscure way, be controversial? Someone is always offended by something in these places, right?
Are we becoming so unfamiliar with the idea of genuine heroes that we no longer appreciate who he was or what he did?
Is the notion of a famous person putting everything on the line so that he/she may take a real stance on something so alien to us these days that Ali no longer seems real?
Are we simply ignorant and have little or no understanding of the man’s importance in the civil rights and anti-war movements?
Or… perhaps most worryingly… did we forget it mattered?
I lay down the challenge that you set aside what ever other stuff you believe is so important it must be taught, and introduce your students to Muhammad Ali – for it may well be the first time they have heard of him – and seek inspiration from the way he lived his life.
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.
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.
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.
I am soon going to start a series of blog posts with suggestions for how schools and education can change in order to begin to have a positive effect on our (human) way of life. Let’s remind ourselves of some of the problems first:
- The desired outcome of school is the chance to pursue a degree, yet massive amounts of money are wasted on university degrees that are never used.
- Millions of students begin their careers horribly in debt.
- Apart from the process of learning to learn, much of the content of education has little or no lasting significance.
- Many of the highest income earners, those who are most in demand or those with most job satisfaction – are people who were deemed to be “failures” at school. For example, those people who have a trade.
- Many young people’s talents go unnoticed, only – in a miniscule amount of cases – to surface again by accident or through some stroke of luck or serendipity.
- Young people who have a need – or the ability – to specialize rather than be all-rounders are stigmatized by formal education.
- Education has become almost entirely cerebral, marginalizing those young people who think with the rest of their bodies… and simultaneously ignoring the fact that the world needs those people just as much, and maybe more.
- Schools are, in many cases, training centers for compliance:
“The child in a classroom generally finds herself in a situation where she may not move, speak, laugh, sing, eat, drink, read, think her own thoughts or even use the toilet without explicit permission from an authority figure.” (Carol Black)
- People typically have to wait until long after they have got through their education to discover the positive emotions that really motivate them – interest, joy, awe – and help them – if its not too late – figure out the direction they hope their lives will take.
- The idea of “success” perpetrated by society – and therefore by schools – is extremely narrow, very financially-focused, devoid of any emotional consideration and couched in western cultural ideals.
- Structures exist in schools that exist nowhere else in society – such as only being able to collaborate with people almost exactly the same age as you.
- Many young people emerge from their education with little knowledge or understanding of how to take care of themselves – cooking, money management, relationships, ethics, common sense, repairing things and so on. This creates cohort after cohort of people who have been prepared to work, but rely on others for their basic needs or who have to find out through trial and error.
- Students are squeezed through a finite number of career-based doors in pursuit of the traditionally accepted good, lucrative careers – law, medicine, engineering – while, in reality, good lucrative careers are way more diverse, interesting, weird and wonderful than that. Many of these careers are also significantly less destructive and/or beneficial to the world.
Any more to add?
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.
As many of us are aware, education has been quite ill for some time. I prescribe a good dose of Vitamin D… in the form of Deconstruction, Deprivatization and Demystification.
- We need to take apart our existing teaching habits so that we can stop doing the things we know have little impact, no impact or a negative impact on learning
- We need to take apart our timetables so that we can stop ourselves from segmenting learning
- We need to take apart our classrooms and make them less traditional and less restrictive
- We need to take apart our academic subjects so that we can stop seeing them as isolated entities
- We need to take apart our school calendars so we can get rid of stuff that doesn’t matter
- We need to remove barriers from our learning spaces so that other people can become involved
- We need to remove barriers from our learning spaces so that students know they can look beyond
- We need to remove barriers from our schools so that they can be part of the community they lie in physically
- We need to remove barriers from our practice so we can grow together
- We need to remove barriers that keep parents at arms length to develop real relationships
- We need to remove our own hang-ups so teachers can talk, write and reflect as openly as they expect their students to
- We need to remove the stigmas that make us keep assessment information a mystical secret from everyone but us
- We need to remove the cryptic language that makes it hard for students and parents to understand us when we report
- We need to take a “show don’t tell” approach when sharing new pedagogy with parents
- We need to open up many of our hidden decision-making processes so students can be involved
Can you think of anything else to add to these lists?
“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?