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.

Busy teacher

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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Family Traditions

Our family are probably representative of most these days in the little time we actually have to spend together. For the most part, my husband and I are ships in the night. He’s on morning family shift and I am on the nights. I start work at 8am, finish in time (usually) to tend to homework, dinner, bath time etc. He starts after lunch and can work through late into the night, depending on his customers requirements. Add into this a teenage son who has rugby practice, kick boxing training, not to mention the brief notion of a blossoming social life. As a result our family work in ‘departments’….Mum and the little ones…..Dad and teenage son. Because of this, Sundays have become our most precious day of the week. It is the one day where both my husband and I aren’t working, and we as a family can all enjoy each others company. It is also the one day of the week when we are all home at the same time for dinner.

Because of this, I have been on a crusade in establishing a new tradition for our family to adhere to. Our family Sunday lunch. While this may sound a little simplistic, it rarely is not. I first started the idea of a Sunday dinner. The one time when we are all sitting formally at our dining table, rather than up at the kitchen bench, or in front of the TV. But, because my children are early risers, this meant we were having to sit down at 5pm for the evening meal. If not, the point of a relaxing, enjoyable family meal was lost in the midst of fussy, tired, grumpy children.

So the idea was tweaked to that of a lunchtime sit down meal. I even had the wild idea of opening up to anyone in the house at the time….(teenagers friends usually leftover from a Saturday night social event). We have had a few successful meals since the tweak…..but to really establish the ‘tradition’ takes an awful lot of commitment. And buy in from those involved. Which at the moment I am yet to get from both children and husband. Life is so busy that I seem to be the only one concerned with the lack of time we have together solely to enjoy each others’ company.

To me the idea of traditions offer so many more benefits than just the focus, such as mine, of spending time together. They are occasions fondly recalled as adults. They are events where new and specific social learning may occur in a realistic context. They provide self-identity and a sense of belonging to the family unit. They give children something to stand for…..because there is something of importance upheld by the adults in their lives. These traditions can be as simple as Sunday lunches or as complex as which presents are given and received at Christmas time. The point is there is something there for children to identify as theirs. Something they can say happens predictably in their family, that has a feel good factor or a real point to why it happens. And something they can say is important to their family……and is therefore important to them.

Which makes the idea of my Sunday lunches all the more important. I haven’t the answer to its success yet….but I’m working on it. I think the fact it’s on my radar must give it a much higher chance of success than if it were not!