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.
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.
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.
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?