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.


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’.


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.


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.


Reading Readiness Has To Do With The Body

Once again another discussion around the importance of readiness before introducing children to formal academic learning.

Laura Grace Weldon

reading readiness, kids sit too much, Sitting down. (public domain by Jusben)

Today’s kids sit more than ever. Babies spend hours confined in car seats and carriers rather than crawling, toddling, or being carried. As they get older their days are often heavily scheduled between educational activities and organized events. Children have 25 percent less time for free play than they did a generation ago, and that’s before factoring in distractions like TV or video games.

Left to their own devices, children move. They hold hands and whirl in a circle till they fall down laughing. They beg to take part in interesting tasks with adults. They want to face challenges and try again after making mistakes. They climb, dig, and run. When they’re tired they like to be rocked or snuggled. Stifling these full body needs actually impairs their ability to learn.

Sensory experience and fun. (CC by 2.0 Micah Sittig)


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When ‘Why’ Infiltrates Your Daily Thoughts……

It has been a while since my last post.  I have undertaken a number of additional responsibilities, and crazy projects.  Such as beginning my Doctoral degree.  And deciding to home-school our two youngest children.  As a result, while many ideas for posts have come to mind, I simply have not been able to sit and record them all – due in part to ‘idea overload’.


How my brain looks at present…..

I wanted to share a personal journey I feel I am on regarding my philosophy as a educator.  I am only slowly accepting that this is somewhat of a journey…..although I suspect this journey started long before I realised I was on it.  As a primary trained teacher, I have long been a supporter of the importance a good education has in the future success and happiness of our children and the part school plays in this.  As a specialist teacher of behaviour, I am a strong supporter of a behaviourist approach in understanding and managing children in the classroom (and as a parent).  I worked in classrooms where I adopted evidence-based behaviour management approaches to ensure my students were on-task, engaged and productive during the school day. Wherever possible, I connected with my students on a personal level, promoting a sense of belonging in my classroom.  This, I believe, helped me to have engaged and positive learners – despite the varying home backgrounds they left each school morning.

As a teacher now working to support my fellow colleagues with their behaviour management skills, I am now beginning to find myself in somewhat of a transition.  In the early days of this part of my career, I would support a teacher to put in place systems that would address a child’s lack of engagement.  A child was deemed a ‘reluctant writer’, and so, rather than looking at the task required (other than to determine if it matched ability), strategies were employed to coerce the child into completing the tasks required.  This was for their own good – as they ultimately had to develop sound literacy skills in order to be a productive member of the school/adult community.

If children didn’t sit still on the mat……if children didn’t line up quietly….if children called out.  These were all areas of concern for teachers in order to be seen to be managing their classrooms effectively, so that they could ‘get on’ with delivering the curriculum.


And now, in my philosophical ‘transition’ – I find I do an awful lot of asking ‘why’.  Why do we expect children to be able to manage themselves by sitting quietly on the mat?  Why is it so important for children to line up compliantly and quietly?  Why is it so prevalent that children call out?  Why do we expect children to all do the same as every other child in our room?

These questions almost make it sound like I don’t approve of having children learn to follow rules and expectations in a classroom setting!!  They almost sound like I don’t see compliant behaviour as important.  And yet this couldn’t be further from the truth.  The reality is, children, just like adults, need to comply at certain times and in certain ways.  This is an important feature of modern society – knowing when and how to follow the rules.

What I am struggling with though, within an educational context, is asking our students to do things that appear to have little purpose to them.  Doing things for doing’s sake.  Doing things to look like we’re teaching right.  Doing things because that’s how they’ve always been done.  The questions that seems to be lost amongst many classroom and school activities I see is why and how will this encourage new learning with my students? What is the purpose of this activity?


Once we, as educators, begin to have ‘why’ infiltrate our thoughts and challenge every decision we make for our students, our classroom programs should start be reflective of a more meaningful process in learning.  When we race to photocopy that worksheet needed as a ‘follow-up’ activity for our reading group……ask why do they need this?  What purpose does it have?  Who is being served by the use of this?  Much of our planning revolves around ensuring we know the children are learning.  That we have a firm handle on where our children are at, and the amount of knowledge they are accumulating. Much more of our program is around keeping our students busy while we can get to the kids that need our attention the most.  Filling-time up during those ‘independent learning moments’.  Often, these moments are where most of the lack-of-purpose activities lie.

What if, we were able to establish a program of learning in our classrooms that enabled us to be freed-up from the ‘lead position’ in the room?  If we were merely the facilitator, the resource provider and the scaffolder – the injector of extended knowledge as and when it arose?  We would not only enable ourselves to truly have time to observe the learning that our children are doing, but we would also enable our students to direct their own learning.  Students would begin to experience learning that is meaningful to them.  As a result, there would be little reason to be off-task and disengaged.


No longer would we need to coerce students into completing a task that they are ‘reluctant’ to do. When learning conditions are right, children are natural learners.  They have a natural desire to create meaning from the world around them.  Yes, even those from the most horrific of backgrounds.  These students may take longer (they have enough to deal with)….and they may need more support…..but as human beings, they too have an innate desire to learn.  As teachers, it is simply about us providing the right conditions for this to occur.  These conditions do not include activities that to a child have no purpose to them.  Rather than fighting the very nature of childhood – that is, the world revolves around the child – lets work with it.  Let’s encapsulate those natural learning desires and work with these passions……rather than putting them to one side so that we can get on with the job of teaching to our students.


When Boredom Strikes, Creativity Takes Over

I was recently asked to write for Kiwi Families, an online magazine focused on supporting families around New Zealand.  The topic?  Creativity.  A topic close to my heart given the constraints and pressures creeping into daily classroom life.  This article provide some useful tips for parents in how they can support their children’s creative growth, without relying on school necessarily to do this for them.  No longer can we assume that our children will receive a balanced delivery of the National Curriculum by their very attendance at school.  Parents do need to think strategically about what they will assist their children to experience, so that they can enhance their children’s development over and above the fundamental skills and knowledge they will be receiving by their participation at school.

See the full article here


Three Old Guys and Today’s Education System, by Sarah Aiono

An article I contributed to this week for Save Our Schools NZ. Something I am working hard to support teachers on at the moment – to not forget all their training and knowledge in the face of national standards pressure.

Save Our Schools NZ

One of the most profound impacts I have observed in the introduction of National Standards is the impact they have made on evidence-based teacher practice.  By introducing chronologically based levels of attainment, today’s current education system has, in effect, discounted the myriad of historical and ongoing research that cannot be disputed when it comes to knowing how children learn and what works best in teaching.

Of course I wanted to understand how to teach children and how to help them make progress with their learning – but hearing about what these old guys thought back in the early part of the 20th century did not particularly seem relevant to me at the time.

As a young teacher-trainee I despaired during my lectures on Human Development and Education 101 when all we seemed to hear what theorist after theorist on how children grow….milestones….scaffolding….stages and schema.  What I wanted to know was…

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What Shall I Do With The Others?

Food for thought for the transition to school…..

Bugs, Birds and Boots

This post has been inspired by two things. Firstly, it is now six months since Longworth Forest opened and those six months have taught me a lot about how children learn and how we should be teaching. Secondly, on my bookshelf I have kept, what was once, a very handy little booklet published by The Department of Education in 1963 called What Shall I Do With The Others?

It is always interesting to re read old education texts. They can often show how far we have wandered away from our basic understanding of child development. In 1963 and the following twenty years it seems that Teachers were constantly being reminded of the need to acknowledge that five year olds still needed plenty of time for “free expression”, play and rest.

“What Shall I Do With The Others” offers a chapter on The Organisation Of The Day. Every day started with…

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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.


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?