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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What is the Point?

Ask any junior school teacher what subject causes them the most grief when it comes to engaged students and they will invariably answer ‘writing’. Pair that with disengaged boys and teachers reply with a sigh and sometimes an eye roll as they recollect many incidents of trying to have boys write a daily story. The parallels between making young children write and pulling teeth are numerous. It is at writing time that teachers find the incidents of misbehaviour increase and the focus shifts from teaching the writing process to managing engagement of children in the room.

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Why is this? Why has writing become such a chore for children and teachers alike? Why is it that teachers are having to resort to individual incentive systems or heavily scaffolded strategies in order to get a piece of writing from their students in their writing books on an almost daily basis? The answer perhaps is in the relevance of it to today’s children. Generation Z and now Generation Alpha children arriving in our schools have at their disposal a plethora of technology from which they can choose to communicate with others. And this is the key…..when they choose to communicate. As adults we use written text when we choose to connect with others. There would be a small percentage of the population who engage in writing for their own personal satisfaction. For the most part, the average human being will write when there is a purpose. If we, as adults, do not sit down daily to write a story about our weekend……why do we expect our students to?  It is well known as children progress through school they tend to deviate towards their interests and passions.  These strengths are often already noted in junior classrooms.  So why is it that teachers continue to pursue story-writing with students that communicate through their behaviour an absolute lack of interest in the activity?  Instead teachers should adopt a view of providing these students with the skills they need to use writing as a tool to communicate with others, while supporting the development of their strengths and interests.

Some would argue that, with the exponential growth of technology available to our children, learning to write is not as important as it once was. This is not the case. What is more important is the way in which we expose our children to the various audiences that they may engage with using the technology available. Now, more than ever, children have the potential to access a global audience. To have the power of their message communicated worldwide. To be heard. So, of course, they must be exposed to appropriate learning opportunities on which they can build a solid foundation  about written language.

But it is the purpose that is most relevant, rather than the argument about learning written language itself. Let’s face it, in general in junior classrooms, it is the boys at writing time who will become the most disruptive and disengaged in the lesson. Some will sit and stare at the ceiling, others will sharpen their pencil ten times over and many will annoy their neighbor. In the most extreme, these students will be prepared to upend a classroom in order to avoid the writing task. All because they do not see the relevance of the task to them. It is simply not important to them. Couple this with their experiences of teachers standing over them, or keeping them back until the writing is completed……and writing has become their most disliked subject at school.

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So how can children engage and build on their writing knowledge without the unnecessary battle with their teacher? Perhaps consideration to the variety of writing tasks available to students in the classroom is the answer. Many teachers run a writing program that is whole-class, story writing or the traditional processed-writing model. Students do not have a choice in the task, other than what they might choose to write about. Why not provide students with a variety of writing tasks, mirroring those that adults use to communicate in reality? Letter writing, emails, shopping lists, birthday cards, journals and for those most adventurous…blogging! Students can learn that they write for an audience, rather than to write in a book for their teacher’s satisfaction. By using a variety of tasks, students may receive replies from those they engage with, either through email, letter or blogs and therefore take on an understanding of the point of writing.  Of course, the story writers in classrooms must also have their needs met. But these students are often writers anyway, without the need for teachers to creatively motivate them. By providing those less-likely to engage in the writing process with highly motivating activities, inevitably the teacher will be released to consider extending our future Shakespearean authors as well.  In short, all the students will see the point to the task required of them, because it will be relevant to their own interests and needs.

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Another consideration as to why children don’t engage in prolonged writing activity is from a developmental perspective.  Children require a variety of skills in order to be able to think of, structure and recall ideas to begin a story.  When writing this in an exercise book or with pen and paper, add another layer of skills on top.  Holding a pen/pencil is one such challenge for our modern students.  It may be that the availability of pens and pencils has been scant at home and the child simply has not had sufficient practice in holding a pencil, let alone correctly.   For some children, holding a pencil during a prolonged writing task simply hurts.  On top of holding the pencil is then the recalling of ideas while forming letters into unknown words/spellings.  An enormous amount of thinking involved in what is often seen as a basic task by educators.  If teachers offer a varied menu of writing tasks, some of these skills can be addressed, while those with deficits in some areas can be supported to engage in the writing process.  It would be unrealistic to expect all children to happily and successfully engaged in a task of this magnitude on a daily basis without support.  And yet many teachers do have this expectation, and frustrate when it is not met.  By having a varied menu, some pen and paper activities, some technology activities, children will be able to write without realising it.  Because their learning focus will be to communicate with others, not in how to construct a story or recall an event.  After all, that’s the point of writing isn’t it?

Students, as all people do, need to see the point to their learning.  If they don’t, they simply will look for other activities that will be more interesting or relevant.  These might just be activities that teachers fear the most in their classroom environment.

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Conveyor-Belt Learning

Each year I grow increasingly concerned as both a mother and educationalist about what lies in store for our boys within the current education system. There is something quite depressing happening in our classrooms. Boys are becoming disengaged and unmotivated to participate in activities on offer, and as a result become the ‘behaviour problems’ that attention then focuses on. So as teachers we must start asking ourselves what’s happening for our boys in our classrooms?

Prior to the introduction of National Standards in New Zealand, new entrant teachers would generally have 5 year old boys arrive in their first day of school and recognise that these boys were not school-ready. Many were happy to be at school to eat their lunch and rip around the playground. Others fixated on the blocks, or marble-run game in the classroom. Some enjoyed the physical games, card games and maths activities. And a few cottoned on to the idea that they were in a place where they had to pick up a pencil and write, or began to feel their success in accessing stories and text. There did not seem to be the ‘rush’ that is apparent in today’s junior classrooms. Teachers now are expected to have children progress within their first year of school to meet the ‘standard’ after 1 year at school.

But what happens when these boys who arrive at school not developmentally ready for learning meet a teacher frantic to ensure progress happens? Frustration occurs on so many levels and for all parties involved. The first frustration is that of the teacher. A competent teacher will realise the mismatch between actual ability and expected achievement and feel frustrated, firstly, with a system that is so out-of-touch with the children realistically existing within it. A subsequent frustration is the lack of resource, of which is mostly time, for the teacher to begin to spend with children who need to meet the standard in one year.

Little consideration is given to the link between boys misbehaving and the impact the national standards have had in their behaviour. The first thought of teachers is that they have a boy or boys in the class not following the rules and being disruptive in class. But what if the behaviour displayed by the boys is a communication of their frustration around what is expected of them in their first year? While the teacher is focused on the pressure in pushing achievement, the boys are reacting to the pressure by not engaging in the activities expected of them.

Generally the activities expected of boys in the first year of school are to support the growth in writing, reading and maths knowledge. The inevitable is beginning to happen in that teachers are beginning to teach to the standard, rather than deliver the NZ Curriculum. For boys to be reading at Green Level at age 6, they need to get a fair move on when they arrive at school. For children that have been exposed to a rich variety of text and are interested in what text has to offer them pre-school, achieving to green level is fairly reasonable. But for those boys who are operating developmentally at age 2,3 or 4, the idea of spending time sitting reading or writing for anywhere between 20 to 40 minutes is unfathomable. In fact, it then becomes far more entertaining to wander around the classroom annoying and interfering with others than it is to complete a colouring activity or written task.

Teachers need to really reflect on what the true impact National Standards are having on their teaching and management of boys arriving at school developmentally not ready. Should teachers continue to battle, pressure and drag children towards an illusive level of achievement? Is this ensuring boys are going to school everyday with enthusiasm and excitement towards the day ahead? Is this tunnel vision (eg knowledge-based literacy and numeracy skills) really going to equip these boys with life-long skills such as problem-solving, self-management, curiosity and imagination? Are we teaching the whole-child, or are we adopting the conveyor-belt approach to churn out children who have knowledge but no passion or love of learning?

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