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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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.

Real Planning

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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The Cause of a Mothers Heart Attack

My three year old causes me mild heart attacks several times a day. Not necessarily due to his risk taking, and not always due to his loud and boisterous nature. The latest cause to my coronary health is his urge to ‘boom’ everything in site. I will come out of the bedroom in the morning and he appears around the corner with either a stick, Lego, piece of cut off pipe, or if none of the above are available, his fingers in the shape of a gun. Then follows a loud BOOM with ‘I got you Mum’, BOOM, BOOM, BOOM.

Not content just with obliterating me, his sister, father, cat or passing chickens in the driveway…….he will often then elaborate on the military attack with cannons, bombs and when all else fails ‘ninja moves’. He will explain in great detail how when he points his cannon, (or boomer) over ‘there’, it will then shoot out and fire to over ‘there’ and explode ‘getting you Mum’. Naturally cannons shoot things out of them, so this demonstration is usually accompanied with some object in trajectory across the room.

I am a peaceful person. I do not advocate the use of guns or support those who feel the need to arm themselves. I initially banned guns from our home when our eldest boy was young, reneging on the ban when it became clear I was fighting a losing battle. We carefully monitor the use of TV with our little ones, and in the most part (apart from some cartoons) they are not exposed to violent TV programmes. Nor have they been exposed to any video games. So it is somewhat perplexing to understand where my sons urge is for throwing things across the room in the context of his game. There have been several moments where he has looked most disappointed when I have, in a fit of frustration (and increased heart rate), suggested bluntly that he stop throwing things around the room. I decided to step back and notice other moments through the day where the theme of throwing things has recurred. Such as throwing clumps of dirt over the fence to watch them roll down the paddock. Throwing (without notice) clothes at me, rather than passing them to me as request. Stones firing over the back fence (despite the livestock in the paddock). And of course the ever present bomb presence lurking around the corners in our home.

It was clear upon reflection that my son had an urge to throw things. And it was also clear to me that no amount of me telling him to simply stop was going to actually gethim to stop. It was an innate urge that most of the time appeared to be impulsive and beyond his rational thought. He just did it. And by me telling him to stop it was only going to help in creating frustrations that would be hard to manage.

Pennie Brownlee and Kimberley Crisp provide a useful explanation for the urges children demonstrate, particularly in the early years. These urges include collecting, distributing, transporting, enclosing, rotation, circular, trajectory, ordering, grouping, construction and deconstruction, posting and family-making. When adults take the time to stop and observe a child’s behaviour it will be these urges they will see in their children’s repeated play-behaviours. Sometimes it is these very urges that we find ourselves saying are causing tests to our adult sanity. Like my 6 year old daughters apparent need to transport her many toys in handbags around our house, or to and from her grandparents home. Not a problem until she has included in one of her many bags her asthma medication which then cannot be located when needed! A common frustration of parents occurs when toddlers insist of posting items down the toilet. And how many adults have located toys in the microwave? Who hasn’t in their childhood made huts with old sheets, blankets the couch and chairs? All these reflect innate urges for transportation, posting and enclosure. And some of these can be so easily misread by adults. Kimberley and Pennie also acknowledge that these urges don’t miraculously cease when we are all grown-up. As adults we continue to have our own urges that filter into our daily behaviours. If my teenager hangs the clothes out on the line, I often have to go and re-peg for my own self-satisfaction. It may be the subconscious need to draw circles on a pad of paper while talking on the telephone. Or the gut reaction to finding a flat stone at the edge of the lake or ocean……determined it is the perfect stone for skimming. Only to find you weren’t successful initially and needing to skim many more times before finishing, happy you there the perfect ‘skimming stone’.

How then, does it feel to the person who has the urge to re-peg the clothesline if they were not permitted or even restricted from doing it? What about if, when in the telephone, you were prevented from doodling and drawing in spirals on the scrap piece of paper? Would you then be able to focus on the content of the telephone conversation? Or would your thoughts become consumed with the desire to doodle and the frustration that you were not permitted? Would it be easy for you to walk away having not successfully skimmed the perfect stone on the water?

So why, then, are children often told they can’t do things that are stemming from these innate urges? Rather than banning throwing in our house, I have had to define some expectations around when and where the throwing can occur. Last weekend we set up a pyramid of cans under the clothesline and he was able to ‘smash’ them with his throws to his hearts content (all roaming livestock was redirected from the area). He was given a pile of stones to throw over the fence into the paddock behind our house with his sister and I becoming his cheering team depending on the length of his throw. At the point where it is apparent he is about to shoot his cannon inside our house, he is redirected outside to take up a more tactical vantage point rather than not have the advantage within the confines of the house.

Adults need to take the time to see and to learn about the urges children have in their play. Perhaps by first considering the urges we have as adults, we can then put ourselves in the hearts of our children…….empathising with what they must really feel when told they can’t do what their urge is telling them they must. It is when we, the adults, can truly see what drives our children’s behaviour, that we can then begin to be responsive to our children’s needs.

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