The Misunderstood Ingredient in Modern Learning Environments

In the era of Modern Learning Environments and all the various rhetoric around what constitutes 21st Century Learning Environments, one key point seems to be lacking in the conversation.  Money is heavily invested in making our learning environments look ‘modern’ (bright colours, lack of walls, access to alternative working spaces) and teachers are required to adapt to these environments and ‘move with the times’.

But for all the investment in these spaces, and the focus on responding to a new ‘type’ of learner, the key ingredient in any successful learning journey is under-funded, under-resourced, and under-supported to ensure this is money well spent.

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The teachers operating in these environments find themselves being thrown into the new spaces facing the inevitable steep learning curve that comes with a significant veering ‘off course’ of traditional teaching pedagogies.  Those funding the provision of these environments have a sort of ‘she’ll be right’ approach to supporting the teachers moving into these spaces, with many often expecting teachers to adapt quickly and respond promptly to the various challenges modern-learning provides.

Why is this? Why is there a fairly relaxed approach to ensuring teachers have the adequate knowledge and skills to teach in ways that enable modern learning environments to be responsive to 21st century learners? Perhaps because the pivotal role the teacher plays in this type of environment is so very misunderstood.   Teachers working in these environments, seeking to gain the outcomes modern learning approaches provide, are challenged beyond any previous trends in education to be highly creative, responsive and innovative with their learners.  The teacher’s role in an MLE requires a high degree of skill and expertise if the learning outcomes are to demonstrate the success sought by those implementing these approaches.

So what are these skills and why are they so significant for our learners? Creativity is required now of teachers in ways previously unknown in the classroom.  The creative teacher has always been a gem, a hidden sort of jewel among the profession.  In a MLE, these teachers can excel in creating exciting and passionate opportunities for learning by their students.  They can extend learning far beyond the monotony of the traditional classroom.  But creativity takes time to blossom.  It takes time to plan and grow.  And in an age of extreme workload, the creativity of teachers, is limited to moments between assessments, reporting, planning and inquiring.

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Creative teachers create creative classrooms.  Creative teachers create creative students.  21st Century learning advocates cite creativity and innovation as leading ‘soft skills’ for our future workforce.  School managers, educators and the wider education community acknowledge the importance creativity plays in a child’s learning journey.  And yet, little time is allocated for both teacher and student to foster creativity in the already jam-packed school timetable.  Teachers need to be able to move into the mind-space to become creative in their practice.  With any MLE, teachers need to move away from replicating the traditional classroom practices within a brightly coloured, open-spaced, jam-packed MLE, and be enabled to respond to this learning space with creativity, flair and innovation.  Teachers need time to move into this creative space.  Teachers need support to understand that teaching in this environment looks fundamentally different to the more traditional single-cell approaches many (if not most) have trained to work within.

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The result of teachers feeling supported to understand their role in an MLE?  The student outcomes sought by those promoting this modern learning approach.  Teachers will come to understand how crucial their role is and feel they have the time to create the sort of learning opportunities available to students within these environments.  They will move away from some of the practices inhibiting creativity in the classroom and model the kinds of thinking needed by the learners before them.  They will see themselves as part of the learning journey, rather than the expert in the room.  And the physical space will work to support all learners, rather than simply be another ‘pretty’ space with untapped potential.

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Creativity is a key skill of any effective teacher.  Within a modern learning environment, it plays a significant role in generating the soft-skills required of our modern learners.  And yet, creativity is difficult to generate with the myriad of workload requirements faced by teachers presently.  For modern-learning environments to be successful, it is the role of the teacher, not the physical space, that is the key ingredient to successful student outcomes.

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Play: The Four Letter Word in Primary School

As a researcher, facilitator and advocate of teaching and learning through play in the primary school sector, I am continually asked “it all sounds great, and we know the benefits – but what do we call it….because it can’t just be called play”.

Decades of research provides evidence that play is the most valuable and successful way in which children engage in learning.  Through play, children can build all the necessary skills and knowledge required of them in readiness for adulthood.  Social-learning theory, constructivism, cognitive development theories, socio-emotional theories and physical development theories all uphold the power play has in the holistic development of children.

More recently, neuroscience has also identified the important link between learning through play, physical movement and the successful development of key executive functioning skills now viewed as paramount for the adult workforce.

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Yet in the face of the mountain of research, primary school educators still avoid at all cost the use of the word play to describe the teaching and learning pedagogy within their school setting.  In primary-school based literature itself, play is not a useful search term to input.  It simply brings up very little with regards to the play – by researched definition- that equates to powerful learning opportunities for children.

Instead, educators look for ways to camouflage play pedagogy in a myriad of other packaged-type terms.  ‘Enriched curriculum’, ‘discovery’, ‘developmental’, ‘powerful learning activities’, ‘active learning’, ‘student ownership’ – all terms used by schools to justify the use of play pedagogy in their learning environment.

The need to package and market play suggests that educators are yet to truly understand and value the importance and validity of play as a powerful tool to support children’s learning.  It demonstrates an almost embarrassment at something that seems so trivial as being so vital within the school environment.  It also indicates a wariness of image and appearance – that play does not look like ‘real learning’, hence the need to make it sound as important as it is with a more academic title.  Parents, who vote with their feet, may not accept a school’s competency to provide maximal learning opportunities for their children because by all appearances children are ‘just playing’.

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A further paradox in calling play by its name exists in the mere fact that the light-heartedness of play is key to its very success.  In needing to call play something else – a more formalised label for example – educators contradict the very essence of what makes play so effective.

Children do not see play as difficult.  Play may be a challenge, but often it is the challenge itself that makes play even more enticing.  At no time, however, should true play be rigorous and laborious (as often much of formal schooling tends to be).  The fact that play is light-hearted and fun contributes to its profundity.  By renaming play we extinguish this very characteristic, and in turn reduce its effectiveness.

If we continue to be embarrassed by a term such as play it will never be used as a valid form of teaching and learning.  In avoiding the use of the word play it can only be assumed that educators are embarrassed that something that appears so trivial can in fact have such an impact on students’ learning.

Would this be the case if the terms were ‘reading’ and ‘writing’.  Why are these terms so readily accepted, and play is not?  Reading is not marketed as an ‘Accessing Visual Information for Purpose (AVIP)’ program.  Writing is not validated as an ‘Effective Communication Skill Development (ECSD)’ program.  Yet both reading and writing have a depth of skill and knowledge within their ‘label’ that is not fully understood by those untrained in the teaching of these areas.

Play is the same.  Play, as a teaching and learning tool, cannot be easily defined or explained in a single term.  The teaching skills and learning outcomes associated with authentic play are multi-layered, as is with the teaching skills and learning outcomes associated with reading and writing.  And yet, the terms themselves are widely accepted by all within the greater school community.  Play as a term still struggles to join this party.

How does play become accepted as a valid and powerful teaching and learning tool? By starting with being called what it is.  Play.  Educators need to stop trying to camouflage the pedagogy by calling it something other than what it is.  It should not be embarrassing to say that the way in which children learn best and in a meaningful way is through play.

Teachers know what works for children.  Teachers understand what is developmentally appropriate for their students.  Parents and the wider school community need to be supported to understand this also.  By using the word play as part of an evidence-based, carefully considered and professionally implemented pedagogy, teachers can ensure play gets the recognition it deserves and is accepted as the valid and powerful learning tool it is designed to be.

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What’s the Point of School?

Over the past few weeks I have been approached by a number of Mums who have expressed an ongoing concern for the well-being of their children attending school.  They want to hear how we came to the conclusion to home-school our children and the advantages and challenges associated with our new found lifestyle.  While the usual themes come up in the conversation, such as ‘how do you cover the curriculum, how do you ensure your kids socialise’ etc, there is one theme that has me quite stumped.  I say that I get approached by Mums, because this theme is about how best to convince their husbands to consider an alternative option to mainstream schooling.

These Mums share with me their partners’ responses when they have discussed their concerns they have around their children’s declining happiness in attending school.  Sore tummies, disengagement, sadness, tears and inevitable school refusal identified by the Mums are seen by their partners as just ‘a part of being at school’.  Certainly when we first discussed with family members our decision to remove our daughter from school, the typical response was “isn’t that the point of school?  No one actually wants to be at school?”

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Why is this so? Why do, particularly grown men, accept without question the occurrence of being miserable at school?  As if some kind of rite of passage, you have not truly experienced childhood until you have woken up with a sore tummy or headache, or simply wished day after day that you didn’t have to go to school.  I say particularly grown men, as this is the part that astounds me most.  School statistics feature boys highly in areas of ‘underachievement’ or those with identified behaviour problems.  ‘Reluctant writers’ are more often than not, boys.  Those referred to services such as Resource Teachers of Learning and Behaviour, or the Severe Behaviour Team, are more often than not, boys.  It is boys who find it hard to sit still on the mat.  Boys that find school ‘boring’.  But astoundingly as men and fathers, they are the ones reluctant to address why their children are bored or disengaged in school.

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If school is to be a place that inspires and creates life-long learners, as our New Zealand Curriculum outlines in its vision statement, then complacency around disengagement should not occur.  Reluctance and anxiety around going to school should not be seen as a rite of passage, but a true indication that the system is not working for all children.  While homeschooling is not for everyone, school environments that are motivating, engaging and inspiring should be.  We should not require our children to ‘harden up’ to the rigors of the institution of school, but rather look to what needs to change in order to best meet the needs of all our students.

Ken Robinson outlines in his TED talk the power of ‘alternative’ education.  Many of these reluctant or disengaged learners inevitably end up in such programs if left to remain reluctant over time.  He highlights how these programs are successful as they are often individualized, tailored to student interests and passions, developmentally appropriate and flexible in their delivery and structure.  He questions, if they are so successful, why do we call them ‘alternative’? Homeschooling is one such alternative.  But so are alternatives that directly result in parents calling into question some of the basic institutionalized practices that remain in our school programs today.  Having children seated for inappropriate lengths of time.  Testing and assessments that are used for purposes other than to inform planning the next step in a child’s learning journey.  Discipline practices that are antiquated and ineffective.  Setting work for children that is developmentally inappropriate or simply not relevant.  The list can go on.

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In today’s modern learning environment, now more than ever, with a little creative thinking as a school and a lot of courage and determination, students can have much more of a voice in their learning journey.  And while budgetary constraints, high class sizes and inappropriate expectations from the Ministry of Education all impact on a teacher’s ability to design such programs, much of what is possible is in the hands of the teacher themselves.

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So perhaps it is time, as parents, to ask ourselves if it is really ok for our children to be  reluctant, unhappy and disengaged in school?  Is this what we really want for our children?  Or do we want our children to be truly empowered to take charge of their own learning, to realise and connect with their interests and passions and be curious about the world around them?  To become capable and confident young adults that can contribute to society, without a cynical hangover from their time in school?

If so, then we as parents need to work hard to understand what is being asked of our children that is creating this reluctance, and what we can do to assist schools to better respond to our children’s learning needs.  And perhaps those who truly understand what it feels like to be miserable or disconnected with their learning should lead the way in doing this.  Dads need to take it upon themselves to learn more about their children’s reluctance and begin to understand that this is not what childhood happiness should be about.  Our children only get one shot at a childhood full of joy and discovery, curiosity and adventure.  What we learn with joy, we remember and can apply to future contexts.  If a students time in school does not inspire this, then parents need to be asking loudly – why?

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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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Learning Misunderstood

What learning is and what it looks like.  The apparent endless debate between all those with a vested interest in any kind of education system around the world.  The search for the ideal approach to learning provision by governments intent on raising educational outcomes for their young and future workforce.  And yet, with education having existed for so very long now, why is the search continuing?  Surely we’ve had enough time to define learning and in turn know how to ensure it happens?

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As I continue to explore literature surrounding teaching practice and learning needs of students, one key factor is becoming abundantly clear.  Practitioners and policy makers cannot reach agreement on what ‘learning’ actually is, and what it looks like.  Simplistically put, it would appear there are two major camps of thought with a significant chasm between them.

In the first camp are those who view ‘learning’ as the serious business of the three ‘rs’ (and other such significant and important subject areas).  That children who are actually doing the business of learning are heads down, bums on seats and pencil firmly gripped as they plod away on the task set for them by the highly knowledgeable and expert teacher.  That learning is measured on the output of the student, and on the final product – usually in some manner of written format.  Reading levels, writing production, aptitude in solving equations all indicate a child’s progress in their learning and if a child cannot demonstrate these under test conditions, then they clearly have not consolidated the lessons they have been exposed to in their classroom setting.  Heaven forbid if a child is not kept busy with a focused task (again, usually written) and any time is wasted in opportunities for ‘learning’.  They will not seek out any learning independently and as such need to be corralled into lessons in order to fill them up with the knowledge those in this camp feel necessary for a successful working life ahead.

The second camp advocates for a more developmental approach to a child’s learning progression.  It argues that children are natural learners, and that, if left to their own devices (but not on their own completely) they will begin to inquire and adopt a curiosity to the world around them.  They will seek to understand phenomena, concepts, events and issues that will require them to learn tools and skills in order to find answers to their own questions.  They will learn to research, they will consider ways to communicate their learning or messages (this might actually include some writing) and they will endeavor to solve mathematical problems, when required, to address real-life problems they themselves have posed.  And through all of this, they will only consider themselves ‘playing’.  Their learning will be a haphazard approach sometimes, and at other times fiercely intensive and passionate.  It will be messy and loud, and other times quiet and calm.  It will be big and fast and active, and other times small, slow and passive.  Those in this camp of thought advocate for children to be supported to explore and engage with their interests and passions and to drive their own learning, often through play, drawing from the skills of adults around them that can help scaffold their knowledge and learning further.

“Their learning will be a haphazard approach sometimes and at other times fiercely intensive and passionate”

As both a teacher and a new Mum to homeschooling, I continue to be amazed at the insidious nature the first camp of thought has had on my expectations of learners……most recently my own children.  I firmly sit in the second camp – trusting that my children will have enough gumption to explore their passions, if I create the right conditions for them to do so.  I do not sit them down from 9am – 3pm with worksheets, text books and pens and paper and have them do their ‘schoolwork’.  Instead, we make learning relevant, active, purposeful and meaningful – at all hours of the day and night.  We cover a variety of topics and have no time frame as to when these begin and end.  I do not run a formal reading time or maths lesson.  We use the tools of reading, writing and mathematics to access information required to continue driving forward with the interests and passions the children have.  Accurate measurement, for example, is required when making anything involving food.  Inaccuracy in measurement results in very different baking as we have discovered.  Key skills such as how to compose a letter are important to get right when advocating the need for conservation measures for the Bobcat, for example.

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It is a hard ask to have those firmly ensconced in the first camp to consider that the traditional methods of teaching and learning are now facing considerable and significant research that contradicts their foundation.  Those that are beginning to move in their philosophy and pedagogy from this camp qualify this decision as recognising the learners of today learn differently to those of yesteryear.  And yet, put simply, it is that we in fact now have the knowledge, backed by significant evidence, to understand how children actually learn.  That they are not empty vessels ready for the filling – but unique and curious and inquiring minds eager to make connections with their world around them.

If we know how children learn, and have access to clear research around the effect play-based child-centred learning has on the motivation and engagement of our learners, then what makes it so hard to shake those from their well-established camp of traditional education delivery?  Government policy doesn’t help.  Reporting to arbitrary standards and comparing progress of students to teacher competency are such policies that do not allow teachers the opportunity to bravely pack up their gear and embark across the chasm to the opposing camp.  The fear of failure in either of these areas reflects directly on the personal capability of the teacher.

A lack of control as well as a lack of trust also limit teachers in taking chances to allow children to take control and trust their own abilities with their learning.  And let’s face it – if you’re a clean freak, the idea of mess and chaos within the four walls of the classroom with 30+ children is nothing sort of coronary-inducing.  It takes a significantly brave control-freak to let go of the brakes and start the process of becoming a facilitator to the learning needs of each individual student in their large and loud class.

“And let’s face it – if you’re a clean freak, the idea of mess and chaos within the four walls of the classroom with 30+ children is nothing sort of coronary-inducing.”

Children learn.  In all interaction and in all situations there is learning to be had.  With the right conditions and support, learning can be joyous and meaningful.  It can build foundations for further learning, or it can provide pathways to entirely new learning areas.  Educators need to decamp and work together to respond to the individual and valid needs of the learners they have in front of them.  Motivation and enjoyment need to be at the core of any classroom program.  Not outcomes, not levels or standards.  If a child is happy and can be given the opportunity to inquire and explore, learning will occur in its most natural and meaningful state.  Reading, writing and ‘rithmatic will be accessed as tools to further knowledge and understanding, skills will develop with meaning and purpose.  With appropriate scaffolding from adults around them, students have the potential to make significant progress – if it interests them and if they see meaning in their learning.  And throughout their entire experience they will be engaged in the very purpose of childhood – play.

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Burst Bubbles

We are extremely fortunate where we live in that our children have free reign of cross-country exploration. At the bottom of a very steep paddock owned by a neighbour lies the remains of a once large cattle beast. Long since cleaned by the rubbish collectors and recyclers of the insect world, the bones lie just prominent enough to create a sense of wonderment in little eyes exploring and seeking adventure. These bones have now earned the title of ‘Dinosaur Bones’ and they live ‘Over the Back’ when referred to as part of a proposed expedition plan when heading out the door for the day. Much hypothesising has occurred as to the species of dinosaur these bones may belong to, and great imaginings have happened as to how these bones came to rest at their final spot at the bottom of a paddock in little old Napier, New Zealand.

So naturally, when friends of my children come over the play, a visit to the ‘Dinosaur Bones’ ‘Over the Back’ is on the list. My 7 year old and her friend, with 4 year old in tow headed down the paddock returning with rather a great many bones that they announced would be perfect for their science table at school. The current unit of study …. of all things …. Dinosaurs.

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And suddenly there were palaeontologists invading my lounge. I had bones on the rug and classification, hypothesising and labelling occurring just after afternoon tea had been consumed. The language was rich, the enthusiasm was unmeasurable and the focus for the next hour and a half on these bones was extremely intense. At the end of the play date, the bones were packaged up ready for school and the science table the next day.

When I checked in with my 7 year old after the bones were taken to school as to her teachers comments about their arrival, I was truly saddened and shocked by the response she was given. My child said that her teacher had allowed them to put them on the science table, but that they were probably not real dinosaur bones. That it was highly unlikely that they were authentic, but she would concede and have the bones on the table as artefacts nevertheless.

I felt saddened for my daughter at this response. My wide-eyed, enthusiastic, focused future palaeontologist in one statement was brought rapidly back to ‘the real world’. The world where we work by facts and real-stuff……and that if a child is incorrect, we must correct them…..never mind the learning occurring along the way. Her bubble was well and truly burst.

My 7 year old is a very intelligent child. I suspect underneath it all, she probably had cottoned on to the idea these bones may very well not have been authentic…..but the joy of the pretend and the resultant imaginative role-play, creative thought and blooming language development, in my mind, was far more important than her immediate knowledge of whether or not the bones were actually real.

Why is it that we, as teachers, are somewhat uncomfortable with the magic of make believe and pretend? How do some find it so difficult to see the learning that children engage in by exploring their interests and passions? Why do we think that learning only occurs when someone (usually an adult) is in control of teaching explicit facts and figures? Why is learning seen as a separate activity to life? Children are learning constantly in every moment of the day. For many adults we are continuing to learn at least something new frequently. If not, we should be, for this is how our brain is wired. It has a ‘use it or lose it’ programming code…..and for us to keep the grey matter, we should be challenging ourselves as adult learners often.

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What made me sad with regards to this teachers response is that she missed a moment. She just missed it completely. Instead of taking my child and her friend’s enthusiasm and stoking it’s fire, she dampened it down and suffocated it. Imagine the kind of activities that could have stemmed that day in class with the arrival of these large bones. Maybe they are dinosaur bones…..maybe they’re not? If not, what else……if they are….what kind? How could we find out? Where could we look? The skills to develop in the inquiry are right there…….The possibilities are endless. And yet…..she missed it.

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If we, as teachers, go with our children’s passions and interests……allow them free reign to explore, the learning that unfolds is so much more meaningful to the child than content we may have thought they would have engaged in for the day. Because, after all, it isn’t work when it’s fun right?

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Why I left the Classroom And Wont Go Back (Yet)

I left the classroom after deciding I simply couldn’t be the teacher I wanted to be. In front of 32 Year 2 students (5 and 6 year olds) in a school in South Auckland I became more and more frustrated at the lack of time I had to connect with my students on an individual basis. Despite the enormous hours I was putting in, I was not satisfied in any way with the quality of my instruction I was able to deliver.

Hekia and her gang will argue that it is quality of teacher instruction not quantity of students in the room that lifts student achievement. As a quality teacher (or so I’ve been told) I am incredibly offended by this moot. My last classroom consisted of 32 Year 2 students from some of the most challenging socio-economic backgrounds. Over 3/4 of my class arrived in front of me operating at a pre-emergent literacy and numeracy level (operating below 5years of age). As a quality teacher, my programme adapted swiftly and often to meet the needs of my students. I taught to their level and at the time (fortunately) I did not have today’s pressure of meeting a national standard of achievement. I used my data gathered to address learning gaps and to respond to student interest all the while meeting the national curriculum objectives. I worked on weekends, holidays and late nights in order to be very prepared, thus freeing me up to spend time building relationships with my students. I had children with significant learning and behaviour needs, supported by RTLB. I had children regularly involved with counselling services. I had children reintegrating from withdrawn programmes and residential schools.

I made sandwiches for my kids who regularly didn’t have lunch. (This became more covert when the Principal banned staff from doing this). I also worked as an associate teacher, guiding a provisionally registered teacher in her first year of service. I ran before-school alphabet groups and basic word revision.

In summary, I worked my butt off. And yet I felt a sense of dissatisfaction at my ability to reach those children in my class that needed even just a little more of my time. I found there were days in my classroom where it felt like I was directing traffic. I had to work hard consciously to connect with every child every day. If I didn’t, I could easily have passed over an ‘invisible’ child in the day. There could have been children in my class, who, apart from roll call, could have not had a single individual conversation with their teacher that day.

And yet Hekia says the amount of students in a classroom has no bearing on lifting achievement. Clearly I was misguided and misinformed. I was obviously not of the quality Hekia wants in her classrooms, as I couldn’t ‘fix’ all the issues before me. While I chipped away at learning levels, lifting my students from pre-emergent through to 6 months below, I settled for providing my students with a fun and safe environment from 9am to 3pm. For many of these students that took precedent.

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My level of dissatisfaction grew to the point where I decided I couldn’t work in these classrooms any longer. For me to work in a smaller classroom setting, I would need to look up the decile rankings and even into the private providers to achieve this. But this was not attractive in the sense that I enjoyed working with children in the lower decile schools. So I left the classroom altogether. For me to be the quality teacher I wanted to be I needed the quantity of students in front of me to be less. It really was that simple. Less students gave me the ability to do my job even better.

So I left the classroom. Every year I feel the pull back. I long to have ‘my kids’ again. To enjoy being in front of children, exploring, investigating and imparting knowledge as a year-long journey. And every year I decide I simply could not teach the way I would enjoy in the current education environment. I would rage against a system instead of working happily within it.

Perhaps next year?

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