The first in a series of posts about what we all – regardless of location, curriculum and age level – can learn from the philosophy, practices and people of Reggio Emilia.
One of the most powerful impressions that I left Reggio Emilia with is the mind-blowing intelligence of the teachers who work there. Each one of the people I encountered spoke of children and their learning in a way that was deeply rooted in psychology, described in evocative – often poetic – language, richly conceptual and always, always, about growth and what is possible.
Teachers in Reggio Emilia are constantly poised, alert to the nuances of learning that goes on around them. They see concepts as they are unfolding in front of them (as though they were being displayed in their retina!) and are able to name and document them as possibilities for further inquiry. They notice, for example, when a three year-old child says one toy car goes faster down a ramp than the other toy cars “because the air goes through it”. They name that concept as “aerodynamics” and they respond in the full belief that children that young are capable – given the right materials and support – of launching into a full-scale research project into such a complex concept.
Clearly, there are many ingredients that help to develop this intelligence. But one quote, hit me really hard the moment I heard it:
“Teachers have a right to intelligent ways of working”Silvia Crociani, a Teacher in Reggio Emilia
This resonated with me because I’ve been doing a lot of work recently on two things that have become fundamental in the art of teaching today – (1) the mentality and dispositions of the teacher, and (2) the processes that teachers are involved in.
Those processes are our ways of working.
As a PYP Coordinator, I have been trying to develop processes for planning that encourage teachers to operate intelligently – to question habits and norms, to avoid repetition of units or teaching from the planner, to identify the real purpose behind what we’re doing with students, to grapple with semantics as we endeavour to describe learning, to be researchers into their students’ thinking and behaviour, to document their observations and see them as data, to ponder what ‘to understand’ means and what might be genuine evidence of understanding, etc…
But it struck me that we may have been trying to go through these processes within a bigger context of unintelligent ways of working. In other words, we have been trying our best, pushing our mental capacities, but we’ve been doing this within some systematic constraints that limit our ability to go beyond a certain point.
The first, and most important, constraint is time.
In Reggio Emilia it has been decided that, if teachers are to be capable of thinking about the children they are teaching, going through the notes and other forms of documentation they have about the children, sharing thoughts and diversifying their perspectives about the children with other adults, making thoughtful decisions about how they will respond to what children are doing and saying and taking action to make those decisions become reality… then they need time to do so. As a minimum, six hours per week is devoted – officially – to doing just that.
It is a priority.
It may even be the priority because everything else hinges on what comes out of it.
In most of the schools you and I operate in, that time has not been identified as a priority. When creating school timetables, very often with an industrial mindset, this often comes as an afterthought – in 4th, 5th, 6th, 10th, 24th place in the order of priorities depending on the school you’re in. Many teachers snatch at snippets of time throughout the week, others may have one hour a week, two if they’re lucky. Great teachers continue to think well beyond the school day, their minds never turning off, making them prone to burn-out or that feeling of isolation many of us feel when the system doesn’t support how we wish we could operate.
I urge all school leaders to ponder the following questions:
- Do we believe that the quality of learning is directly related to the amount of time teachers have to reflect, think, discuss, make plans and take action?
- Are the systems in our school promoting these things as a priority?
- How can we use the phrase “intelligent ways of working” to reflect on how we do things in our school?
What is a mindful School? Let’s narrow that a bit to satisfy our learning context…..
“What does a mindful School do to promote mindfulness?”
This can mean many different things and seeking clarity on defining this would be an inquiry worth exploring together as a School. For the purpose of bringing this even closer to the middle, what does this mean when thinking about prioritizing and synthesizing the things that should matter in School.
In essence, the below points was a process we went through in determining the Time Space Philosophy. What really matters and where should we be putting our intellectual energy?
Being mindful all boils down to having the capacity and wisdom to listen.
Never underestimate the power of listening. Recruiting and harnessing that power of listening has the potential to unlock a cornucopia of ideas, emotion and thinking. This process promotes a lot of soul searching by being introspective and extrospective. It allows us to listen to ourselves and the things (people) around us. We either get caught up in our own internal existence or other external forces…… and a lot of the time – both, depending on the situation.
How can we delineate between our ‘perceptions’ of what we think is happening, against the ‘reality’ of what is happening? And how does this distort our choices and actions in what drives and motivates us to do what is right, fair or ethical, with everyone and everything in mind? How can that mindfulness influence the things that matter or where our attention should be fixed on?
Raw and honest listening, without fear or judgment.
Stumbling over this Philosophy still stands the test of time. These are as true now as they were when first written, all those years ago. Taking the time to connect again and recognizing my own growth (and failings) in these is such an invigorating and timely reminder about being true to our beliefs and values and why it is important to breathe life into them. For us, bringing them into focus again is important. We recognize that importance, so these can once again manifest and transpire in ways that create the best learning environment and conditions for teachers and students to thrive and flourish.
I just shared these with our Primary teachers, asking if anyone is interested in exploring these to examine what, how and why we do what we do. How seeking simplicity will bring us back to our purpose. And coming up with ideas to make these work effectively for our School community. The response was overwhelmingly positive and full of gratitude and appreciation.
This has now led us to use these to guide our own inquiry into how we can be and do better. Working from within, just as we do with students. After our Pi Mai break we are going to do an eight week inquiry into finding ways to take tangible action. Already some ideas are floating around such as having once a month Barbecues at School to socialize and interact…. another idea is that we create the timetable for next year…..and on and on.
We have no idea where this is heading or what the outcome(s) will be. And that is the exciting part. Having teachers feel united and lead an inquiry to plan and prepare for 2018-2019 is incredibly energizing and motivating!
Listening to the things that are important and then working together can only result in one thing. Developing a Culture of trust. A culture where people feel valued and respected to be part of the growing and learning. Being part of the decisions as everything we do ripples. Taking action that empowers us. And having the fortitude and humility to listen to one another, because we know that is where the real power lies – inside all of us to create a mindful School! A School that we co-constructed together as we amplified voice and listened carefully.
How would these ripple out in your School?
What do you think about these as important elements in creating a mindful School?
- The world is increasingly rushed, frantic and discordant. Most schools have become this way too, many of them even worse than the world outside their walls.
- Nothing powerful, creative or innovative ever happens in a rush.
- Allowing teachers and students to focus on “now” rather than always thinking about the next thing.
- Removing as many things as you can from school calendars that have nothing to do withimproving learning.
- Being strong in your beliefs when working with parents.
- Being creative with the timetable – giving yourselves the time to be creative with the timetable – so that time is used effectively.
- Fostering a culture in the school of making explicit connections between time and improving learning.
- Making it unacceptable for school leadership to allow themselves to lose touch with how teachers use their time compared with how they use theirs.
- Looking for opportunities to free up time, not fill up time.
- Working continuously with school boards to help them see the difference between positive andnegative approaches to time.
- Honesty about the role time plays in putting peer-to-peer relationships under strain.
- Practical ways to remove administrative tasks that don’t improve learning.
- Creative strategies to encourage a general sense of “slowing down”.
- Recognising and celebrating mindfulness and its impact on behavior and learning.
I caught myself again.
The last time was in 2013 and I wrote about it then too.
What did I catch myself doing? Rushing my children… and, by doing so, denying them countless opportunities to learn.
We’ve just moved to Paris. Everything is new. At the moment, the newest things are christmas decorations in the streets and the increasingly intense cold. Every morning, my children just want to look, talk, feel, experience, ponder, notice, appreciate and wonder. But, I have caught myself rushing them. Hurrying them up towards some imaginary or completely unimportant deadline – the need to be early, on time or not late.
It doesn’t really matter if I’m early, on time or not late. My children matter. their experiences of the world matter.
It’s shocking for an educator to do this to his own children. But, we do it to our students every day. We hurry them from lesson to lesson. We dictate their agenda all day. We reduce break times. We don’t give them enough time to eat. We decide if they can go to the toilet or not. We treat “inquiry” as a stand-alone subject that we do in the last period, if they’re lucky. We make their lives busy, indeed we teach the art of “busyness”, as if we don’t trust them to do anything of value if we don’t.
And yet, we all know that the most powerful learning happens when we slow down, when we give them sustained periods of time, when we don’t interrupt and when they’re making choices about why, how and what to learn.
Old habits die hard. How much of modern schooling is still “old habits”?
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.
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.
There are times when something becomes so obvious that it hurts. Today was one of them.
We are trying to create the schedule for an in-school maths PD with Lana Fleiszig. To do this, we needed to gather the timetables of each grade level and identify times for demo lessons and planning meetings.
There was was a moment when we had the timetables for several grades laid out on the table and I had one of those painful realisations… the way we fragment the daily lives of children verges on the tragic.
The only thing that gives me hope is that, in many cases, the timetables we create for students are actually “just for show”. In fact, one of my most like-minded colleagues and I exchanged conspiratorial glances across the table as she said those exact words!!! But, when will we stop doing this to our students and to ourselves? When will our timetables reflect what we already know about learning – that it mustn’t be interrupted when it is in full flow, that providing sustained time creates the conditions for real inquiry, that it doesn’t happen automatically just because it is on the timetable.
If we are keen to ensure that things like maths happen every day, can’t we just say that and leave it up to teachers to go with the flow? I am not proposing anarchy! I am simply proposing that we allow teachers to refine their art by not forcing them to fragment, compartmentalise and section teaching into little chunks that satisfy our need for accountability but that may or may not actually result in learning.
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.
“Nearly the weekend”
“Holidays coming soon”
In schools, you can’t go five minutes without hearing people saying these words, or something similar. In that sense, I suppose it is no different from the average workplace. What does make it different to other workplaces though, is that kids might hear us. What is the main lesson they will learn from hearing those words?
That people wish their lives away.
It’s such an astounding contradiction. Nobody wants to get old quickly, yet everyone consistently wishes the weekend and the holidays would come sooner. Weird.
One of the main causes of this problem in schools is the cycle of “busyness”. We make our days, weeks, months, terms, semesters, years so frantic, so chock-full of frenetic activity that we are constantly in desperate need of a break. We exhaust ourselves…
Who is to blame? Well…
- school leadership has to take some of the blame. As soon as we step out of the classroom we unavoidably and instantly forget what it is like to be a classroom teacher, so we pile things on with little empathy or understanding.
- the “mould” of schools also has to take the blame – they are expected to be these busy and rather frantic places!
- teachers are also partly to blame, we are not exactly Masters in the Art of Saying No – either to ourselves, to our students or to our colleagues. As a result, we take on more, and more, and more, and more, and more, and more… and then we struggle to put our finger on the exact reason why we are so busy (except, that is, for those who are able to simply point their finger at school leadership and say “its their fault we’re so busy”!)
The funny things is… you know who isn’t to blame?
If they could, they would hang out, relax, play, be creative, come up with ideas, start their own little projects, socialize and probably do a massive amount of learning!
Some things to ponder:
- Make clearing out your school calendar a regular and rather therapeutic process. If nobody really knows why things are done, chuck ’em. If events don’t go right back to your school’s vision, chuck ’em. If there doesn’t seem to be learning involved, chuck ’em!
- Find ways to break the mould, to seek more time rather than seek more activity. Instead of filling time with things, take things away. Instead of valuing “busyness”, value being purposeful. Instead of trying to do too much and ending up not doing it well, do a few things and do them well. Instead of segmenting your days into little portions, spread things out to create bigger portions. Instead of creating huge, ever-evolving to-do lists with your students, sit back and see what they come up and then decide how and what to teach. Just try, and keep on trying. It is the only way to break these stubborn and damaging moulds and traps we consistently find ourselves in.
- Be kind to yourself. Keep things simple, don’t try and do everything that comes into your head. Empower your students by letting them know anything is possible, but keep your own agenda for teaching short and simple. If there are things you have to do, do them – it is amazing how much time can be wasted sitting around moaning about the things you have to do instead of just doing them!!! If you believe you shouldn’t have to do them, be part of driving for change – suggest alternatives, do the research, stake a case.
So… there you go. Believe me, I am equally prone to all of these things and equally guilty of falling into all the same traps. I am writing this as much for me as for anyone else.
My family and I went on holiday to a secluded villa in the North East of Thailand. On the first day I took my little girls for a walk, they are 2 and 3 years old. I pulled them along and was in a mad rush to go wherever we were going (which was actually nowhere). I urged them to “hurry up” and got irritated if they stopped and I was forced to wait.
I was still in “work mode” or “school mode”.
Poor girls. Luckily, I realized the error of my ways and started letting them set the pace. By the last walk of the holiday I was carving bits of wood with a knife as we strolled along at their speed. They were stopping to draw in the sand, pick things up, touch leaves and flowers, watch butterflies, make observations and ask questions.
I realized that I had “de-schooled” myself. But, what does that say about the person I am when I’m teaching? Am I constantly hurrying my students along? Are they missing out on as many powerful moments and potential inquiries as my kids were on that first walk? Am I walking past my colleagues without saying “hello”? Why am I like that in school? What is it about the “busyness” of schools that makes us such manic people?
It must not continue. The time has come for people who work in schools to start looking at how we use time, and to start using time better. Most of us work in schools that profess to create people who will “create a better and more harmonious world”, but how harmonious are our schools, how mindful are our children, how frantic is the atmosphere?
It’s time to look at time, but we need to have the time to do it. Catch 22, or just another feeble excuse not to make positive change?
Do you have any stories like this?