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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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’.

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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.

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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?

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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.

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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.

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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

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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.

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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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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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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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