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!
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.
(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.”
This is a wonderful talk and a timely reminder that we – adults – have to stop putting an unrealistic vision of perfection out of children’s reach.
As Emma Marris eloquently teaches us, we keep referring to an idea of a perfect, untarnished nature that simply doesn’t exist. We say there is no nature in or around the schools we work in, but there is… there’s lots of it. We have just lost the ability to see it and, more dangerously, we are failing to help young people see it, touch it, be in awe of it and want to see more of it.
We may be in danger of doing the same thing to peace. Do we present an idealistic vision of a perfect peace in which everything is sweetness and light, and therefore keep it out of reach of young people? If we do, then we need to refine what we believe peace is, or could be.
Yesterday, as I walked to work, I passed an empty plot of land. It was full of overgrowth and teeming with insect life. I had walked past it more than 200 times before and failed to consider it to be “nature”.
If we are capable of becoming so jaded, so blind and so susceptible to the false dichotomies the media provides us with, what hope have we of helping young people evolve with more sophistication?
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?