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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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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Giving Teachers Permission to Have Fun

“The pain of containing people who are disengaged is more than the effort it would take to reconnect with them” (Sir Ken Robinson, 2011)

I decided to enter the teaching profession after spending a couple of years after high school working as a travel agent. I was looking for more in a career and figured that teaching was one of only a few occupations that offered opportunities of spontaneity, flexibility, fun, laughter and autonomy in ones’ day. Coming from a family of teachers, I felt I was adequately informed as to the role of a teacher and despite initially fighting the inclination to sign up, at age 20 I began my study at teachers college.

15 years on, in my current role, I am meeting more and more teachers who are increasingly feeling despondent with the role. They are frustrated with high class numbers and squashed timetables that include numerous extra curricular add ons that directly impact on their ability to ‘keep it simple’. And most recently, they are under increasing pressure to teach to targets rather than to the children in front of them. Instead of looking at the class they have and the varied developmental levels contained within it, they are expected to move children towards a national standard, rather than celebrate the strengths a child brings to the class.

The New Zealand national curriculum was heralded as a leader at its conception. It was to allow teachers to teach students of the 21st century. A focus on thinking skills rather than knowledge content. Recognition that our future population will be needing skills that will allow innovation, flexibility and inquiry, rather than the ability to recall a vast bevy of facts and figures. Encouraging our kiwi learners to become forward thinkers able to problem solve, hypothesise, invent and create. This curriculum is still current…….it is still the curriculum legislated that teachers in New Zealand mainstream schools must follow. So why then do teachers feel they have to be permitted to teach in the way that the curriculum allows for?

When teachers discuss with me their concerns for their practice, there are some common themes that repeat. Lack of fun, lack of spontaneity and the inability to allow children to be in charge of their own learning. No time for those teachable moments that just appear in the day, because if the timetable is deviated from the stress in trying to ‘catch up’ is too great. Finally no time in the day to teach to individual developmental levels, especially addressing the ever increasing lack of school readiness in children beginning school.

So what is the alternative for teachers? To keep on keeping on, using the same methods of classroom traffic control (task boards) and programming (group rotation) to marry with the innovative curriculum we currently have? It appears that when the NZ curriculum was introduced, there was simply a lack of in-depth communication with the grass-roots of the NZ education system in how it would look in the classrooms. School managers and Ministry officials participated in the rounds of professional development associated with its introduction. The expectation was that these school managers would then provide the same professional development to classroom teachers. In many schools this did not happen to the extent that it initiated a change in practise in the classroom program and child-management. There became a large chasm between current teacher practice and future expected teacher practice.

And all this before the introduction of the highly controversial national standards. Despite the NZ curriculum, national standards were rolled out, a direct contradiction to the ideals of the curriculum. As predicted these standards have become the reason for many decisions teachers make in relation to their planning and assessment practices. The very philosophy of the NZ curriculum has been lost in the translation of the national standards. Just as NZ was on the verge of shaping children’s learning to be futuristic, flexible and skill-based, the national standards have necessitated a sharp u-turn back towards the archaic approach of filling up students with knowledge. Many would argue what is wrong with knowledge? Isn’t this why students are sent to school? To learn more? But what if this knowledge taught is at the expense of teaching students how to think?

Thinking skills are now more fundamentally important than being knowledgable in a variety of subject matters. It is mooted that the students we have in our classrooms today will be employed in occupations that have not yet been invented. Students will be working with technology that we have no ability to conceive at present. Traditional labour jobs of yesterday may look vastly different in the future. Students now will have numerous occupations and careers in the future, in contrast to our parents and grandparents who worked the same job for 40 years. How then can we as teachers possibly equip our students for this future by teaching them knowledge that will outdate itself before they finish high school? Instead, we can teach them to think. To access information. To query. To create. To problem solve. To ask questions of their world and the people in it. To inquire.

All this is possible within the framework of the current NZ curriculum. This curriculum gives permission for teachers to deliver a different programme in their classroom. One that is more relevant to today’s students and our future leaders than ever before. Yet teachers still feel they have to teach as they have always done. School managers are indirectly reinforcing this by keeping on keeping on, rather than examining the needs in their classrooms. Children that are disengaged, children lacking in motivation, children struggling to access level one of the curriculum. If teachers were to be courageous and revolutionise their teaching program, would these children continue to be disengaged? Would there be a lack of motivation in the classroom, if children were suddenly encouraged to explore themes relevant to them? If the teacher and school communicated to their students that their thoughts and ideas were important and worthy of further investigation? By teachers working alongside students, instead of operating a top-down fill-up-the-vessel approach, the skills children would then be exposed to develop would be numerous.

Teachers need to move away from compartmentalising the curriculum and exploring ways that students can experience all the skills needed (such as reading, writing and numeracy) within a real-life, relevant learning context. It is ok to run reading or writing programs alongside an inquiry focus. In fact reading and writing should be as a result of the inquiry, not separate from. A classroom timetable should not itemise curriculum subjects in compartments, of which one is inquiry, or discovery learning as a ‘topic’. The day should be inquiry-based, with reading and writing arising as a need or tool from the direction the inquiry focus is taking. Numeracy should, wherever possible be integral to the process as well, providing relevance to students in the application of their maths knowledge. If a daily timetable was fluid, inquiry-based, rather than compartmentalised, surely flexibility, spontaneity and fun would ensue?

Classroom teachers need to truly question why they signed up for this job. For me, the autonomy I had in the classroom, the ability for me to control my day was an attractive component in pursuing a teaching career. This is still possible for teachers today. Flexibility and spontaneity was another attribute of teaching that was attractive in signing on. This, again, is still possible, given the current NZ curriculum. Fun with children, was at the very core of my desire to be a teacher. Are teachers having fun now? Are they truly relaxed in their classrooms, learning alongside their students, modelling the very joy in exploring and discovering new learnings? If not, is it time for teachers to be asking why not? And what needs to change for teachers to be having fun alongside their students again? What needs to change in order for the classroom to be future-focused? And who is preventing these changes from occurring? Because the legislation is there for it to occur. Teachers just need to remember that they have permission for this change to occur. The NZ curriculum says they can.

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