Many powerful and transformational ideas emerge in the world of education, become trends and then vanish. This is sometimes because the vast majority of educators never fully understand it in the first place.
The latest example of this is “provocations”.
All sorts of educators are using the word and they believe they are planning them for their students. Sadly, very often, these so-called provocations are turning into missed opportunities, throw-away activities that really don’t transform the subsequent pedagogy in the slightest.
I find this really frustrating, and I find the fact that educators are unable to see both the simple and the sophisticated information that students are revealing to them almost impossible to comprehend. As I try and wrap my head around this, I see the following patterns:
- Some people, if they were being honest, have little or no interest in changing their pedagogy. They want to do what they’ve always done and see anything that threatens that – regardless of the source – as a threat. As a result, they develop a sort of selective blindness to any of the fascinating information their students reveal. It may well be impossible to move people away from that mentality and so it may be necessary to move them out of our schools instead.
- Some people are – perhaps unwillingly – so caught up in teacher-speak, written curriculum, standards and old habits they too are blinded – they can’t “see the wood for the trees”. Some of these people may still be rescued, but only if you can still see the glint in their eye that indicates some interest in who their students really are and enough curiosity to want to find out.
- Some people are – fortunately – poised, ready, willing and able to plan and carry out provocative experiences that give their students opportunities to reveal powerful and useful information to them. However, they may not know how to use that information to transform their pedagogy and, of course, there is no single, universal answer. Instead, what is powerful, is the teacher’s determination to find ways to do so.
A very useful analogy is Shana Upiter’s Ping Pong approach. When you provoke your students, you are hitting the ball to them… then, they hit it back to you – in all sorts of directions! Now it is up to you – the teacher – to figure out what to do with the ball and how to hit it back to them again, and so on… If you can view provocations that way – as the ongoing exchange of stimulus and response, ideas and action, thinking and questioning – you will start to understand how to use the concept in your teaching. You can also liberate yourself from thinking that provocations need to be huge, overly-planned extravaganzas!
For this to happen though, the teacher must be fascinated by the words their students write or say, the choices their students make, the way their students think, the patterns of their students’ behaviour, how their students react in different situations and the questions their students ponder.
When provocations create the conditions for inquiry – by teachers into their students – there is nothing more powerful. When they just lead into a series of activities and a whole load of teaching, they may just be another buzz-word.
Allowing for student choice is a vital element in a modern education. Good teachers know this.
However, it is possible to go too far and allow for too much student choice – it places the focus on width rather than depth. It can rapidly devalue the power of the teacher as the person who guides students deeper with their learning through informed choice and decision-making, the person who has high expectations for their students.
Let’s start looking at this in an early years context. Many early years teachers claim that children should just be free to play and choose to do whatever they like, whenever they like. They like to call this “learning through play” and they get upset when anybody suggests that they design learning experiences for the children and have any sort of expectation that children engage with it. So, in essence, this approach suggests that “learning through play” is the freedom to choose from a wide variety of activities. Children may wander from one thing to another, perhaps rarely or never engaging with anything to any depth… or being expected to.
Now let’s fast-forward a few years. Surely we are hoping to bring up young people who are capable of giving their full attention, their curiosity and their interest to things. To do so, they will need to learn how to engage with things fully, the process involved in taking your learning beneath the surface. This is the type of learning that results in people who are experts, who are in their “element”, who achieve that state of flow, who are fulfilled and who have been able to develop their talents, passions and interests fully.
This all needs to be learned, over a period of many years.
A powerful early years education lies in the hands of early years educators who understand that there is a massive difference between “learning to play” and “learning through play”. Freedom of choice to roam from one activity to another is really “learning to play”. Engaging with ideas and concepts, coming to new understandings through a series of purposeful experiences – yes, planned for by teachers – that feel like playing are “learning through play”.
Young children are capable of going to great depth with their natural tendencies for curiosity, puzzlement, experimentation, trial and error, repeating, observing and risk-taking. The only thing holding them back, all too often, is the attitude of the adult who believes they are not.
With older students, say 10 and 11 year-olds, the teacher’s understanding of how much student choice to allow for continues to be very important. Of course, have a “student-choice mindset” in that you are looking for frequent opportunities to create the conditions for it. However, don’t allow it to become so dominant that it dilutes learning by limiting opportunities for students to engage with things to real depth. Allow choice because it gives you more of a chance that students will be able to settle on things that really interest them, but then insist on – and guide them towards – a commitment to depth.
Frequently, when teachers are disappointed by what their students have produced, they will shift the blame back to them and say “well… that’s what they chose”. Or, they shift the blame to the new pedagogy they are being expected to facilitate and say “well… we’re supposed to let them choose”. The fact of the matter is you – the teacher – allowed them to make that choice and opted not to get involved, to intervene, to guide… to teach!
This has been a very hard blog posting to write because its difficult to explain this simply and, no doubt, I have failed to do so! I will continue to ponder it and try to find ways to capture it… in the meantime, please help me out by making some comments!
There are many exciting things emerging in education at the moment.
All sorts of educational big-wigs are blowing us away with their theories about how learning should be. Revolutionary ideas about the power of allowing students to work on the things that really interest them or the intrinsic motivation of allowing kids to focus on making, doing and creating are eloquently being delivered in high profile keynote speeches.
And, it seems, school decision-makers are listening.
This is, of course, exciting.
But, for many of us… those teachers who have been giving our students these opportunities for many years – and often getting in trouble for it – the feelings are mixed. There is a sense of frustration, and exhaustion, among those of us who have been swimming against the tide for so long. We cannot help thinking of all those times we got called in to be told to “stop doing that stuff because the other teachers aren’t doing it”. We cannot help lamenting our fallen colleagues – those who were so good that their difference from the masses led to their downfall. We cannot help feeling sad about leaving schools we have given up on and moved on, again, in the hope of being surrounded by more like minds. We cannot help thinking about all those “nearly” teachers who almost developed the strength to teach differently, but didn’t quite make it.
Sounds like sour grapes, doesn’t it? At times like these, teachers like these face a serious dilemma. Do we say “I told you so”? Do we react negatively and pompously and become a bit of an ass about it? Do we turn in on ourselves, because that has been our survival strategy for so long?
No. We are surfers… and the big wave we have been waiting for is approaching. Yes, we have been honing our skills on all the small waves on the inside for a long time – and we’ve been bashed about a bit in the process. But, our wave is finally on the way… and we need to re-position ourselves, make sure we are in the right place and enjoy the ride.
We deserve it.
Photo by Jeff Rowley
I have started a new series of podcasts – you can listen to them and download them on Soundcloud. These podcasts will feature teachers talking about learning, inquiry and pedagogy and are designed to provoke thinking and stimulate ideas.
Use them however you wish.
Here is the first episode – featuring Grade 4 teachers, Claire Simms. Its a great one to start with as Claire is basically going through the inquiries her students were involved in at the time. To walk into a classroom and ask a teacher to explain their students’ inquiries is a real test of a school’s inquiry culture.
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.
By Paul Dunbar, IB Literature and Theory of Knowledge Teacher
Time and space are the dimensions we live in.
As a literature teacher, my field is narrative, and I point out to my students that all stories must take place in time and space, just as our lives do. A story is not a photograph, but a movie. Narrative is a linear form: it takes time to tell a story, and time within the story must also elapse, though not at the same rate that it passes outside of the story. Likewise, a story must occur in space – it is very difficult to imagine a story that does not have a setting of some kind, that does not take place somewhere. Place is the performance space the characters will occupy.
All of that is rather obvious, of course, but it points us to the most fundamental questions the storyteller has to engage with. How will I handle time in telling this story? And how will I create space?
In formulating these two questions, I’m not sure I have the verbs right. The idea of ‘handling’ time for instance – is it possible to touch time with your hands? Isn’t that a bit like putting your hands in water and saying that you’re ‘handling’ the water? To handle implies being able to encompass and direct something with your hands – money, for instance, or food. Is it a bit arrogant to speak of ‘handling’ time? And ‘creating’ space?
But the storyteller – the novelist, the film-maker, the poet, the graphic novelist – must do exactly that: create worlds, populate them, fold and unfold sequences of events within them. If your narrative fails to create an imagined space – a storyworld – which the reader can enter, it will be just words on a page.
And if that space is not filled with the invisible, dynamic flows of time, your audience will not be engaged.
So is teaching a kind of storytelling?
Yes! And I mean that not metaphorically but quite literally. Teaching isn’t like storytelling – it is storytelling.
If your students look forward to your class, they do so for the same reasons that they look forward to the next installment of a story. (Something might happen in the class which will carry the plot forward. Or not!)
The idea of a course as a narrative and the teacher as a narrator is not just a fancy metaphor. The parallel can have a profound, empowering and literal truth for a teacher, and I’d like to take the idea forward in future posts. If as a teacher you accept that you are a storyteller, not a social engineer, a programmer or a bureaucrat, suddenly there is a great deal you can learn from the art of narrative.
I suppose the first thing to learn is that what you are doing is as full of creative possibilities and challenges as telling a story, whether in the form of a novel, a film, a comic-book, or any of the myriad other forms of narrative. And the first of these possibilities and challenges are:
How will I handle time?
How will I create space?
…get the best out of students.
- Believe in them. It is, quite frankly, amazing how often you hear teachers say things like “oh, my kids won’t be able to do that”. If you believe in your students, and they know you believe in them, they will consistently surpass your and their expectations.
- Take the time to know them. Many teachers struggle to get the best from the students simply because they don’t really know them. This is frequently because they are too busy pursuing their own agenda, which often has more to do with teaching than learning.
- Be determined to make it personal. When students make personal connections to the things they learn there is a much higher chance that they will care about and be motivated by them. Their thinking, their processes and their products will naturally be better as a result.
- Set the scene. Let students know that you take them seriously, that you have high expectations and that you will be watching them as they work. Take the time to get them in the right frame of mind and to get the atmosphere necessary for them to be successful. This is time well spent.
- Give them regular anecdotal feedback. Feedback should be happening all the time and in many different forms. Make it clear that you consider every single moment you have together to be a potential learning moment by giving “sweet and sour” feedback as they do everything and anything! Use “noticing and naming” (thanks Lana!) to highlight the things they do and why they are good or not so good.
- Honour them, their learning and their work. Students respond to the effort we put into teaching them, guiding them through their learning and sharing the work they produce. When we go to great lengths to make learning meaningful, authentic, interesting and energetic for them… they respond. When we don’t… they don’t. Pretty simple equation really.
- Be flexible. Don’t stick to plans if they’re not working. Don’t persist with something if students are not responding. Don’t be rigid about where things are going if they’re not naturally going that way. Don’t miss out on chances to let students steer from time to time.
None of these things are particularly new or revolutionary. But, it is really important for teachers to keep coming back to thinking this way, simply because of this fact: when students are not enjoying learning and pushing their own boundaries, it is very often our fault.
Here is a short video that shows some students giving their best and illustrates the culture and environment that can make that happen.