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.
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.
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
Recently, I have caught myself boring myself while talking about education.
As a result, I have started to say less in an attempt to stop boring myself. However, I have also found that saying less bores me too.
These are worrying signs that I am on the predictable path many of those who opt for leadership roles in schools find themselves on… the path towards irreversible irrelevance. I am boring because I am not cutting edge anymore. I am not cutting edge anymore because I am not a teacher. Sure, I have my experiences from before, but those become stale and worn the more they are recounted and rehashed. Sure, I have the experiences I gain from spending time in classrooms, but those are gained from teaching vicariously and are not really my stories.
Perhaps boredom is the goal… a form of bliss. But, it’s not working for me.
A school is a part of a wider system, a bigger picture.
But what is that bigger picture?
How does your school reflect the systems, cultures, communities and directions that lie outside the school… and what role does the school play in those?
I wonder if many of the international schools we work in have anything at all to do with the bigger picture of the city, community or culture they are part of. I also wonder if they reflect that bigger picture too much!
Imagine, as I am at the moment, that our schools represented and lived up to the ideals and visions that were espoused in their mission statements. Can we truly say that we see those ideals and visions being reflected in society as a whole when we step outside the school gates? If a school is an idealistic island surrounded by the ills of society, is it truly going to have any effect on the world around it? Indeed, it may be more true that those ills are equally present in our schools. And, soberingly, the very existence of the school may depend on the presence and perpetuation of those ills.
I’ll leave you to decide what they are…
France is far from perfect. But one of the reasons for that is a kind of national reluctance to hurry up. Things are done in good time. In the mean time… people spend time with family, they relax, they eat good food, they sit around with friends. Somehow, they still seem to be enjoying the things that don’t depend on the pursuit of wealth. Therefore, perhaps, work is slightly less crucial.
Rather than resent that half-finished job, that road still closed for repairs or that shop not open on a Monday, perhaps we should take a leaf from their book.
Both my daughters had swimming galas this week. On Saturday morning, guess what they were playing… yep, swimming galas.
This is a pattern in my children’s lives. When they have real experiences, those experiences become part of their play, part of their language and part of their landscape. After a trip to the doctor, they play doctors for weeks. After a train journey, they build trains out of dining chairs. After a meal in a fancy restaurant, they create fancy restaurants and write menus and act like chefs.
Pretty obvious really.
But, it does make me think about schools and how much learning comes as a result of real experiences. As a teacher, the most powerful learning opportunities always came from times when I was able to provide them with real experiences. Unfortunately, the nature of schools often means that learning is divorced from real experience. We counteract that by trying our best to recreate the real when we can. We try our best by using the virtual resources that the Internet gives us. But, nothing can or should replace the real experiences that are available by going to real places, speaking to real people or making real emotional connections.
When those things happen, learning is inevitable.
As if by coincidence, I came across this passage in the book I’m reading at the moment (“Night Train to Lisbon” by Pascal Mercier):
“Thus it was 11,532 times that I clenched my teeth and went back into the gloomy building from the schoolyard instead of following my imagination, which sent me through the school gate and out to the port, to a ship’s rail, where I would then lick the salt from my lips.”
Perhaps an education based on real experiences would mean he wouldn’t have to make that choice.