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.
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.
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.
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.