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.

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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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 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.

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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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