Authentic Adventurer or Keeper of All Knowledge?

Today was a culmination of some pretty intense work by our daughter in her home-learning for Term 3.  Following her passion for New Zealand’s native birds, in particular the Karearea (New Zealand Falcon), she completed a 45 page reference book documenting all the local birds living in our immediate neighborhood.  Her reward for the focus and perseverance shown in this was a visit to the Wingspan Birds of Prey Trust in Rotorua.  Here, she was able to appreciate up close and personal the amazing prowess and beauty of these endangered native birds.

Because we are time-limited these school holidays, we chose to do the trip in one day.  300 kilometres each way, it was always going to be a long day.  The car was packed with a variety of entertainment, including an on-tap supply of Lucky Luke magazines (our son’s current favourite) along with notebooks, colouring books, and toys we were off on our next home learning adventure.  As we drove north, the conversation was rich with enthusiasm, curiosity and passion.  In fact, we didn’t put the stereo on for music until well after we passed Taupo (approximately two hours worth of driving).  The topics we covered in that time included the weather patterns observed (we drove through a significant amount of fog); a variety of creature habitats, comparisons regarding various species of animals; observations regarding the different types of plant life we noticed and the change from native bush to human-created pine forests; sustainable farming (why we farm cattle and sheep); fire prevention methods in forests and so on.  One topic led to another and throughout the entire conversation, myself and my husband simply posed ‘I wonder’ questions and interjected with either a fact to compliment the direction of the conversation, or to correct a misunderstood or misquoted fact by the children.  The conversation was rich and centered entirely around the children and their curiosities and wonderings.

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We are extremely fortunate to be able to enable these opportunities for our children within our home-learning environment.  And while I am very mindful that being responsible for two children’s education is entirely different to that of 30 children in a classroom, I do wonder how the same principles of wondering and curiosity can be encouraged in a classroom setting.  Many working in such a busy learning environment will find it very difficult to have rich conversations with their students particularly directed at an individual’s interests and passions.  Why is this?  Why do the sheer number of children make this a barrier to being able to scaffold our children’s learning desires?

For many teachers it comes down to the programming.  Focused on teaching to a specific subject in a compartmentalised way, or ensuring that children are working to an arbitrary timetable, teachers are constantly engaged in ‘busy’ work.  ‘Busy’ with groups, ‘busy’ with whole-class, ‘busy’ with those highly challenging individuals,  But simply ‘busy’.  Teachers do not allow themselves time to simply ‘be’ with their learners in the classroom.  When a teacher is the main Traffic Management Controller and Keeper of all Knowledge, they simply do not have the time to listen, observe and most importantly, converse with their students in an authentic manner.

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And authentic is the key concept.  Sure, teachers will engage in an ‘oral language’ activity with their students.  They will facilitate a discussion regarding the lesson focus.  But how many teachers can say with any conviction that they sat alongside their students while they were engaged in topics they were very passionate about, and simply conversed with them?  That they were able to talk about an enormous array of topics and authentically allow the conversation to go where the students directed it?  For many teachers, while the desire to do this is very real, the reality is that the pressures of school timetables and external policies means that time is far too precious to engage in authentic activities.

So how can teachers create these more authentic learning opportunities and rich conversations with children?  How can they pose ‘wonderings’ and ‘curiosities’ that enable them to learn more about the students they are responsible for and their passions?  How can they even spark a passion or an interest?

By changing the classroom program.

Rather than being in control  – the Keeper of all Knowledge, or Traffic Management Control – that the reins are handed over to the students to do their own ‘wonderings’.  The role of the teacher then becomes a much more active and equal one within the authentic learning the children engage in.  Rather than directing the learning, the teacher becomes an observer of the learning, judging when it is appropriate to provide a scaffold to new ideas and knowledge, when to be a resource provider, when to be a commentator and when to be a silent partner in the process.

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It is a far trickier role to have, as the students’ ‘guide’ than the traditional role teachers have held since the establishment of the western schooling system.  In fact, it can be absolutely and utterly exhausting.  I find, with the intensity of our children’s learning passions, my brain is somewhat of a quagmire as I have had to keep one step ahead of the children’s learning throughout the day! I have to be able to recall where to find interesting facts and figures that might extend the curiosity of our children’s areas of learning.  I have to be able to quickly think of possible suggestions, terminology and resources to point my children towards in order to further their learning experiences.  And this is exhausting.  So times by 30 and this is a potentially very intimidating concept for even the most adventurous of teachers.

And yet, it can be done.  And the more children are supported to take control of their learning passions, the more enjoyable teaching becomes for the teacher.  The role changes, but if it is to be anything like what we experience as home learners, it is so much more rewarding to see how far children will extend themselves when truly passionate and engaged in their own self-chosen learning.  The possibilities are endless.

So look for authentic learning opportunities and reconsider your role as a teacher…….Keeper of All Knowledge……Traffic Management Controller……or Authentic Adventurer alongside the students themselves?

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What About What THEY Want to Learn?

Motivating children to learn.  Planning an exciting and engaging lesson.  Wondering how to provide a learning experience.  All the bane of a primary teachers’ life when approaching a new topic for the term or school year.  Too often, I see teachers wondering what sorts of activities to offer their students in the hope that they will be engaged and motivated to participate and demonstrate the learning outcomes sought after.

What activity shall we do?  What will they find interesting?  All sound questions on the part of a well-intentioned teacher.  Yet these questions demonstrate a fundamentally different approach to the organisation of a classroom program than what theory would suggest regarding the way children learn.

If we are to assume that children attend school with a deficit of knowledge, that only school and parents can address by ‘filling the children up’ with content, then the approach of planning engaging activities is relevant.  Children simply would not think of engaging in activities themselves that might initiate and direct their own learning, and therefore it is only right that the adults responsible for their health and well-being provide an array of activities that will ensure their educational needs are suitably met.

However, if we position ourselves to consider what children have already experienced in their few years here, as well as understand the basic biological programming within each human being, we may view the capabilities of children directing their own learning in an entirely different way.  Children, when left to their own devices, naturally inquire about the world around them.  If given freedom to explore, strangely enough, children will engage in activities from which they will learn from and make connections to their already existing bank of knowledge.

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The question is, however, is the learning that they engage with through their own explorations valued and suitable to society’s general expectation of what constitutes knowledge?  This is often where educators come unstuck.  Many will agree that children, when left to explore and inquire, can’t help but learn new things.  But are those things important and moreover, can they be measured to demonstrate the progress the children are making?  This is where many run into difficulty.  The only manageable and reasonable way in which to measure knowledge is firstly to define what is valued and then how it will be measured.

Cue the traditional ‘subject’ paradigm.  For decades, knowledge has been compartmentalised into areas to be studied.  Primarily these areas have been associated with vocational pathways and key skills identified and therefore taught.  Qualifications attained as a result of the demonstration of the knowledge of these subjects are sought after in order to improve an individuals likelihood of employment in their chosen areas.

But is this relevant in today’s age of ‘Google’?  When we have, at our very finger tips, access to any and all types of knowledge possible.  With a volatile employment market, that is exponentially changing, what skills do our children need as they face their future world of work?  Is a subject-based approach relevant now to our learners?

Piaget argues that intelligence is knowing what to do when you don’t know what to do.  Knowing how to source information needed, applying knowledge in creative and expressive ways, communicating with others, negotiating, thinking, asking for help …. all skills reflective of what is now deemed to be a ’21st century ‘learner’.

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How do students develop these skills?  There is significant research that now points to the concept of self-discovery, self-direction and exploration as key components of building such social, emotional and cognitive skills increasingly valued in the adult workforce.  These skills can only be realised and developed ‘in situ’ – that is, in the moment in which they are needed.  No amount of planning or teaching can possibly provide the same authentic learning experience to a student than when they are in the midst of their own discovery and needing the very skill that is required at the time.  When else does one learn to negotiate through disagreement?  When the very need arises in disagreement.  When is knowledge most creatively applied to new learning – when students are given the freedom to explore and create without barriers or limitations.  When does a student learn to ask for help?  When a student reaches a point where they realise they cannot access new knowledge or skills without seeking the help of others.  If students are continually taught ‘to’ as if they are large receptacles for facts and figures, they will never be given the opportunity to be able to seek out and explore learning that is relevant to their own passions and interests.  And if they do not face these opportunities, they will, in turn, be limited in the authentic experiences needed to develop the key ’21st Century skills’ in a meaningful and relevant way.

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So when we, as teachers, consider our planning for the day, week, or term, and the first question we ask of ourselves is ‘what am I going to teach them now’, or ‘how can I deliver this topic to my students’ – ask yourself two further questions: ‘What might my students want to learn about?’ and ‘how can I help them discover what they would like to learn?’  It is a challenging and at times very scary place to start – the beginning of the unknown.  At times teachers do not go to that place for fear that children may not respond as we would like.  But then what if they did?  What if the children took hold of the opportunity and rose to the challenge – seeking out new knowledge and building on important learning skills needed? By asking yourself ‘what about what THEY want to learn’ you will nevitably start on a journey into planning a far more authentic learning experience for your students that might just allow them to independently build the skills and traits needed in the 21st century.  You may even assist them to develop a disposition for learning that fosters the life-long learner we all are striving to grow in our students.

Learning In Chunks

In the four months since we have become a home-schooling family, the depth and breadth of topics and content we have covered has truly astounded me.  Our first few weeks centered around Greek mythology, with Greek shields and mythological fact cards being researched and made.  As this interest began to wane, a new interest began around endangered animals, exotic creatures and conservation, which has most recently morphed into a fascination around New Zealand’s native bird species.  Significant research has been undertaken on habitat and conservation issues.  Persuasive arguments have been written as to the importance of Zoo organisations.  Flyers have been constructed and books made.  Within numeracy, geometric concepts, basic facts, multiplication, division and fractions have been adequately covered as we move on towards basic percentage knowledge.  Within greater exploratory play, measurement has been a big focus, with the children exploring their urges to mix and concoct a variety of potions, mixtures and recipes.

The rate of learning and the way in which the children move quickly through their various interests has made me reflect on the way in which I planned as a classroom teacher with my own students.  At the beginning of the year the long-term plan would be set out, with term plans, unit plans, weekly and daily plans whittled away to ensure I was well and truly covered for every event possible.  The curriculum would be divided up and topics would be assigned blocks of time for coverage.

Real Planning

From what I have since observed, the way these blocks of topics, themes or ‘unit foci’ were planned does not do justice to the way in which children learn.  Children, when ‘hooked’ learn with such enthusiasm and veracity they cannot be interrupted or stopped to think about another unrelated topic.  To truly be engaged in the learning, they appear to almost need to live ‘in’ the material, breathing it, tasting it, touching and listening to it.  And then it is done.  Without warning, the interest is over and a new one takes its place.  How long this process takes is entirely up to the child, but certainly does not appear to be a long and drawn out commitment.  It is short but intense and if well-supported, deeply engaging.

When my daughter was 5 years of age, her entire junior syndicate initiated an inquiry of ‘maps’.  She spent over a term investigating maps, drawing maps, learning about atlases and so forth.  A term of over 10 weeks.  While I like to consider my child to be of above average ability, even I know that at age 5 maps did not rock her world.  At age 5, fairies did. Fairies who wrote to her at home and who visited her in the garden.  And yet, for over 10 weeks, she plodded away at ‘maps’ at school.  She, like many above average girls, quietly and obediently followed the classroom program.  But her levels of motivation and enthusiasm for what she was learning were far from high.  In fact, it grew dangerously close to her not ever wanting to pick up an atlas again.

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Why, as teachers, do we feel the need to ‘chunk’ big blocks of time on one set topic, when children simply don’t learn in this way?  By ensuring we cover the curriculum, we are in fact, not truly responsive to the learning needs of our children.  We are not offering a flexible learning environment.  For the child that is not at all interested in maps, what options have they got to explore what truly interests them – when we are locked in to the structure of long term planning and unit/theme plans?  What do we do with that child that says ‘no thanks’ to maps but ‘yes please’ to the wild west, native flora and fauna, or princesses?

It is time to reconsider the way we plan for and teach the students we have, and the interests they hold about the world around them.  Rather than asking yourself as a teacher ‘what will interest my students’, ‘what kind of activity can I plan for today’ or ‘what are some different ways I can teach ….’ – ask them.  Get them thinking about what matters to them.  Get them wondering and noticing and observing and then connecting, investigating and exploring these wonderings and noticings with others.  This is where true learning happens at its best.  Connecting with what matters to the individual, making sense of it, and then sharing that knowledge with others.

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This process does not happen in 10 week blocks, nor in a nice and neatly structured framework whereby there is a tidy beginning, middle and end.  The process at times is chaotic but calm and tidy but messy.  Students drive their learning and are actively engaged in seeking out understanding to their own knowledge, that is meaningful and relevant to them.  This process cannot be ‘chunked’ into allocated time blocks, but allowed to happen until the end of the process naturally occurs.

In adopting this method of student-directed learning, very often the ceiling and walls come down around a child and what they are capable of knowing.  Passion for learning is ignited and the child becomes the driver of their own inquiry.  ‘Learning’ then becomes a truly intrinsic and motivating event.

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