Education is in a constant state of change, yet it can also be stagnant. The system is both a product of its successes and failures. As global education systems evolve, we continue to grow the innovators of tomorrow while also recycling the sins of the past.
Education systems will only be as good as their worst champions, yet change and growth, no matter how slowly, still occurs. The cycle of constant change manifests itself in opposing ways. Early adopters embrace opportunities to try new strategies and reflect on innovative practice, while those who are sceptics of change set up camp in what has always worked for them, what they believe to be tried, tested and true. It is necessary for both of these to coexist. The early adopters keep us moving forward, while the campers slow us down and make us take pause, lest we make a hasty decision and move forward too quickly.
As educational theorists digest and publish the latest brain research, translate it into pedagogical learning theory and filter it down to the school or practice level, schools shift to keep up with the pace and demands of change; or, they throw their hands in the air and spin in a vicious circle, unsure of which way to go. The more we learn, the more choices we have. Choice can either motivate us or it can paralyse us.
In the midst of all this change and stagnation is the learner – the one constant, yet also the greatest variable of all. Without the learner, our purpose as educators would be lost. We do what we do for the learner. Yet, no two learners are exactly alike, and each learner is constantly going through his/her own change – physical, intellectual, social, cultural and emotional.
The Great Paradox of Education is both exciting and exhausting. Whether we acknowledge we are or not, all educators are agents of change. We respond to the changing nature of the learner and inevitably, as the learner changes in a changing world, the very nature of learning changes too. It is the learners we teach who grow up and enter the world and make their contribution through science, technology, creativity, innovation….the list goes on! These learners, knowingly or not, drive our change as the education system responds to what what they give back or take from the world we help to prepare them for. The noble calling of education is alive and well and I am so grateful to be able to exist in this ever shifting paradigm, navigating the waters of child development, innovation, pedagogy, reflection…and change. How about you?
Time has a way of marching on in spite of us. In schools, the clock on the wall is either friend or foe. Time can propel us or it can paralyze us. I’ve had a life long love-hate relationship with time. I’ve tried to master it, manage it, conserve it, speed it up, slow it down…the list goes on. A wise mentor used to laugh at me and tell me that I needed to be more playful with time. Play with time? How can you play with something that is always moving, never still? While I couldn’t see it all those years ago, my mentor was right. You really can play with time. It’s in the very forward motion of time that the beauty of time playfulness lies. At that point in time, he knew something I did not: time is only scarce if we think it is. I used to think of time as my enemy – it grinded me and wore me down as I constantly tried to battle and slay it. There was never enough time, and worse still, there was no way for me to somehow get more of this fleeting trickster.
In my own inquiry into how to play with time, I discovered a great book by Elizabeth Saunders called, The Three Secrets of Time Investment. While this book is not written specifically for educators, and my motivation to read it was more personal than professional, I still found myself reading the book through my educator lens and thinking about how Saunders’ principles could be applied to teaching and learning. Saunders proposes that time should not be managed. Instead, she challenges the reader to look at time from an investment perspective. Ultimately, we can choose how we invest our time. Instead of spending time, we need to invest our time. When we look at time from a perspective of scarcity, we are in fact hoarding it. If we always think there will never be enough time, there never will be enough time. However, when we look at time from the perspective of abundance then, and only then, can we have a magical play date with time. Here are some of my key applications of Saunders’ time investment “secrets” to an educational setting:
1. Accept the fact that time is finite. Every school day has a definitive beginning and end and there are only so many hours in a school day, and so many days in a school year. You can’t do it ALL. Face it and move on. Rome wasn’t built in a day and neither is a learner, so why do we try to cram everything under the sun into a school day? The more time you spend on one discipline, activity, etc., the less time you can spend on
another. A typical school day is approximately 6 hours long. Factor in recess breaks, lunch and transitions and there are about 4.5 hours of quality learning time in a day. How we play with that time is essential. You know you will see your students for a finite portion of their learning day so you have some choices to make about how that time should be invested. To play with time, focus first on the big picture before you start dialling it down to daily specifics. Think about all of the factors that might pull away your time…relational issues that need resolving after recess, assemblies, accidents, unexpected events like fire drills, absences, etc. Stuff happens in schools – there are a lot of variables that can’t be planned for or controlled. Leave room for these and focus on the time you DO have.
2. Clarify priorities. Knowing your curriculum well is the first step to knowing how to prioritize learning time. If you aren’t sure where you are going, how can you decide where to make curricular time investments? Be realistic when you decide on your curricular priorities. Real is not always ideal, and as Saunders puts it, “reality always wins.” Educators tend to have a bent towards the ideal, and in doing so, we lose sight of what is real. Plan with reality in mind – who are your real students (not the ones you imagine)? How much time do you really have (not how much time do you wish you had )? What is reallyworth knowing and doing? Decide what is essential – less is more. When we put the less is more principle into practice we can make wise time investments that bring playful learning yields. We leave room for learners to have the time to play, explore and inquire. We model prioritization for our students – a pretty necessary skill in today’s fast paced, time challenged world.
3. Habit Patterns Rule. Establishing routines and systems creates stability and security. When you feel stable and secure, fear is replaced by playfulness. One thing I’ve learned is that kids thrive on routines – not rigid routines, but consistent and predictable routines. Predictability creates the space to for spontaneity. Spontaneity invites inquiry. Inquiry invites motivation. Motivation invites learning. Learning invites growth… Habit patterns also enable us to make informed choices when setting priorities. (See #2) How often do we “fly by the seat of our pants” in the classroom? When there is a lack of routine, we lose sight of priorities, and we are right back in the trenches fighting the war against time.
Our relationship with time has significant impacts on how we approach every aspect of teaching and learning, from deciding which learning outcomes will have the highest priority, to how much time learners will need to spend on a task or engage in a learning opportunity, to how much room there is for students to engage in inquiry and reflection. If we are hurried, our students will feel hurried. If we are weary, our students will feel weary. If we are playful, then our students will feel playful. How will you invest your time, so that the learners in your classroom will see the value of how they invest theirs?
Since the dawn of time, humans have been plagued by urges: primal urges, creative urges, instinctual urges, relational urges…When we have an urge we are propelled to act by either delving into the urge, or repressing it. Learning urges are a necessary part of inquiry. Urgency in learning tells us that we must take action to know more or do more to find out or come to a new understanding. Urges move us forward in the construction of meaning – they are like itches that have to be scratched. If we don’t tend to our urges we can become disengaged or even resentful. In today’s world, when a learner isn’t given the room to follow his/her urges, they often say, “I’m bored.”
When educators see themselves as learning architects who are designing learning spaces built on a strong curricular foundation for learners to inquire and construct meaning while developing skills, they must be open to exploring how to create urgency in learning by both igniting and propelling the urge to inquire.
How do learning architects create urgency within curriculum?
First, they define the inquiry purpose by clearly knowing what knowledge is essential for the learner to come away with after all is said and done. They do away with all the fluff – there’s no urgency in that. Then, they design provocations, opportunities and open-ended engagements that ignite the fire of urgency by inviting learners to connect, explore, wonder, puzzle, collaborate, problem solve, think and apply. They carefully plan opportunities for skills that fit the concept to be introduced, practised and/or mastered.
The learning architect also knows the importance of sharing/modelling their own learning urgency by literally selling the curriculum to the learner so they buy in with their learning currency. Curriculum is much like stock – learning architects are the designers and marketers of that stock and learners are the investors. The more the learner feels the urge invest in the curriculum stock, the higher the learning yield will be.
Finally, learning architects know that less IS more. Because they see curriculum AS architecture, they understand the importance of careful design in the learning process so that learners have plenty of space to explore and construct meaning. Learning architects do away with the seemingly but usually unconnected laundry list of activities and instead design open learning structures that invite the learner to take on the meaning construction process. The learning architect coaches and guides the learner by carefully providing the structural support that a learner needs to grow and thrive.
Week 3 begins with much excitement and nervous energy. It’s officially “decision day” and students begin this week by indicating their top 3 choices for topics and related issues that they are interested in pursuing for their in depth inquiry. It’s important that students understand that their collaborative inquiry groups should be formed not based on their friend choices, but rather on an issue that they feel passionate about. Passionate enough about the issue that it will sustain their interest as they structure their inquiry over the next several weeks as they move into the exploring phase of our inquiry cycle. They also have the opportunity to indicate a topic and related issue that they really don’t feel passionate about. The teachers and I meet later in the day to lay out all the decision forms and begin to form the groups in each class. We look for patterns and connections. Each group will consist of 3-4 members and it is our goal to try to ensure that each child is placed in their first or second choice. We want to honour their choice and passion. We know that the weeks ahead will bring tremendous personal growth as students engage in such deep inquiry and attend to their differences in learning styles, thinking and application of their knowledge.
Students are excited to finally have a focus for their inquiries and to learn who they will collaborate with. Another milestone of this week is the matching of groups with mentors. At our faculty meeting we review the role of the mentor and teachers sign up with a topic that they have some prior knowledge with, or feel interested in supporting. Later in the week they will receive an e-mail invitation for their first meeting with their group from the students.
Now that student groups are formed and mentors are assigned, students begin to do some wide reading relating to their specific topic and related issues. They begin to brainstorm key concept questions related to their issues and begin to gather resources. Our teacher librarian supports this stage and is quite involved in ensuring that students understand how to use Destiny to create lists of resources and maintain an ongoing bibliography as a part of being academically honest.
Towards the end of the week students begin to brainstorm their ideas for their central ideas and lines of inquiry. Each group then has a one-on-one session with me to formalize these very important components. I am amazed by the thinking of this year’s groups – this is our ninth exhibition, and this year it is evident that students have made the connection between the central idea and concepts and the lines of inquiry as defining the specific issues that will help to illuminate their lines of inquiry. One students comments to me, “Mrs. de Hoog, isn’t the exhibition like a unit of inquiry except it’s us who are writing the central ideas and lines of inquiry and deciding how we will inquire instead of the teachers?” BINGO! As each group meets with me they share their ideas and thinking. I listen closely as they speak and share. I help them to word-smith and ensure that they see the importance of concept driven central ideas and clearly defined lines of inquiry. Students are ready to move into more serious research now that week 4 is upon us!
Some of our 2013 Central Ideas:
The pressure to keep up with the changing idea of beauty affects the way people perceive themselves.
Sharing and caring for the earth’s water will help ensure a safer future.
Understanding the harm bullying causes within communities can enable people to take a stand against it.
Population growth is a global issue that impacts quality of life.
The increasing availability of weapons has significant and lasting consequences.
There are consequences for communities where there is a lack of available and adequate health care.
During our second week of preparing for the exhibition, the goal is to take students deeper into the issues that connect to the transdisciplinary theme, Sharing the planet. They begin by completing a web of possibilities, where they independently explore the range of different topics connecting to the four aspects that define the theme. They connect back to the charts they created during Week 1.Students then use their independent thinking to facilitate small group discussions to further extend and define the charts created during the provocation the previous week through the lens of the four theme descriptors. A carousel strategy is used to facilitate small group discussion, thinking, sorting and classifying of the different topics brainstormed the previous week. Students also have the opportunity to add topics to these charts as they are passed from group to group. Part of the sorting process also involves eliminating redundancies, and as the charts are passed around students make further connections to the commonalities across the four theme descriptors.
Our grade wide central idea is also shared with the students early in the week and they are asked to work in groups to augment this central idea. The grade wide central idea helps the students to focus in on the purpose of the exhibition and reminds the students of the importance of issues in guiding the decision making process as they get closer to defining the specific issues that will shape their exhibition. It also serves as a preassessment of the students’ understanding of key exhibition concepts and exposes them to the components of a central idea in the context of the exhibition. While each group will write their own central idea relating to their specific issue, the grade wide central idea defines our shared purpose as learners and collaborators.
To further emphasise the importance of moving from topics to issues, we explore one of the topics that was added to the charts. We choose “mega cities” as the topic and place it at the centre of the web. We use a code to examine how the topic connects to the theme (FR=finite resources; CR=communities and the relationships between them, etc.). The students are surprised to see that this topic connects to all aspects of the Sharing the planet theme in some way. Once they see this connection, the issues start to pour out and we brainstorm some of the issues that connect to this topic. Many aha-s can be heard around the room as the students start to truly realize how a topic becomes an issue. We think about it through a hierarchical lens: concept – related issues -facts/truths/assumptions. (We note that assumptions will need to be proved or disproved through the research process.)
As we finish this step together, I am floored by the learning energy that fills the room. I can literally see all the whirring and colours of the students’ collective understanding as little figurative light- bulbs brighten above their heads. The air is electric and the students’ thinking is charged! Students are now ready to try this on their own. They are asked to choose three topics from the charts that they are feeling passionate about and want to explore further through this lens. This will help to guide them at the start of week 3, as they make their decisions about what they want to explore for their exhibition.
Once students independently web three different concepts into possible issues, we poll the room and graph the issues they are passionate about. This gives us an indication of where different student interests lie and where possible groups might form. It’s a good visual for the students, as after they have the weekend to think and further expand on their webs, they will choose their top three issues, which will lead to the formation of their exhibition collaborative inquiry groups.
“Children are learning about big ideas but they are also finding out about themselves and others in their community. ” (Jo Fahey, p. 27)
I’ve been spending some time reading through Jo Fahey’s recently released book, Ways to Learn Through Inquiry: Guiding Children to Deeper Understanding and reflecting on inquiry in the early years. It’s reminded me that we have so much to learn from the littlest inquirers in our schools. They come at inquiry from a place if pure openness. They don’t worry about saying what they think as they explore; they just say whatever comes to mind as they construct meaning, sort out differences and confirm or discredit their assumptions about the world, themselves and each other. It was timely that I happened to be observing in an SK classroom very recently. What I saw and heard brought the pages of Fahey’s book to life for me.
The teacher had planned a preparing provocation to have learners connect with their new unit of inquiry exploring the concept of shelters. The learning engagement involved learners working in small groups to explore, sort and categorize a collection of images (depicting various types of shelters, homes and habitats). The criteria for the task was that each group needed to work as a team to agree on how to sort the images into groups and then name their groupings. Students quickly set off, pouring over the images. I was very curious to see what each group would decide and how they would go about getting there. As I wandered the room kid watching, I happened upon the following exchange, as a group of students began to sort their images as “structures” and “not structures”:
A: This is not a structure. (Holds up a picture of a coral reef.)
B: How do you know?
A: Because no one put it there.
B: Well then who put it there?
A: I don’t know but it’s just there. No one built it.
B: What about the tree? (Holds up image of a tree.)
A: The bird did it.
B: Birds don’t make trees.
A: But they build in them.
Later on in the lesson, students shared their sorting categories with each other and discussed why they chose to label them as they did. When the group including the two students who had the above exchange shared, their sort still included two categories: structures and not structures. As the students went on to define their categories they indicated that images were “not structures because no one decided what they would look like.” Those pictures included in the structures category were there “because they’re not built out of the same things. Someone put them there and people live in them and some are for animals.”
The dialogue between these students and the level of thinking amongst them was so rich with inquiry. By the end of the lesson the students had a theory and a definition to begin developing their inquiry into the concept from. They were already engaged in the process of attending to differences right from the onset of the inquiry as they sorted, classified and reached consensus.
After reflecting on the lesson with the teacher afterwards, we both agreed that while the learners made some significant connections, they also had some misconceptions that could be further tended to through the inquiry process. While no direct question was asked of the teacher, several avenues for deeper inquiry were apparent and could be explored further:
– the idea that a shelter is only a built structure
– an inquiry into how coral reefs are made and how they do or do not provide shelter
-man made shelters vs. natural shelters
-shelters for people vs. shelters for animals
The possibilities could go on! And that’s the point. Providing constructs to facilitate inquiry leads to infinite possibilities for learning. The hardest part is getting out of the way and taking the time to learn from the learner – even the littlest learners!
We’ve recently returned from our winter holiday and things are back in full swing after a couple of very low-key and low-tech weeks off. Over the holiday I took up a hobby I tried years ago and abandoned – knitting. Just before the holiday my husband asked me to knit him a very particular style of scarf. I think in hindsight that his motivation was two fold- he wants a scarf, and he wanted me to have something to do that would force me to relax/sit still over the holiday. It’s been about three years since I’ve knit anything so I was very reluctant to take it up again. I do not consider myself a skilled knitter, even though I had completed some “challenging to me” projects at the height of my prior foray into knitting. What on earth does knitting have to do with learning or teaching?Well, quite a lot. Stick with me!
The scarf my husband asked me to knit required that I not only reacquaint myself with basic knitting technique (preparing), but that I also learn a stitch I’d never done before and learn how to join two different colours to make stripes . So, knitting needles and yarn in hand, I hopped onto YouTube and started watching how to videos until I found some that appealed to my learning style (exploring).
In “retroflection” I can now admit that the main reason why I gave up knitting 3 years ago was because I couldn’t handle making mistakes and having to undo my work or start again. What a colossal waste of time and how very frustrating! As I began this new project, I also began making those dreaded mistakes again. But this time, I am not giving up. Thanks in part to the influence of the work of Carol Dueck and Brene Brown on both my professional and personal mindsets over this past year, and because of the fact that I am motivated to complete this project for my husband. To date, I’ve restarted the scarf 8 times! I’ve put at least 5 hours just into making mistakes and learning from them as I start over, yet again (processing). I am finally at the point where I am making steady progress and can see the results of taking the time needed to learn from my mistakes and start over. This has taken a lot of commitment and perseverance, and positive self-talk as I assess my progress and plan next steps (transferring).
Knitting is a quiet activity, and so my mind has wandered and wondered with each stitch and row. I am 67 rows in, and although I have over 900 rows left, I know what the end looks like (backwards design!) and that keeps me motivated. I know I will make lots more mistakes. I might have to undo a row, or let a mistake slip, or even (gasp!) start over again. That’s okay, because I am giving myself the space to learn because I actually WANT to improve and finish what I started. It may take a while. That’s okay too. My husband husband knows he might not wear this scarf until next winter. (He’s okay with that – I warned him this will take time!)
So now I’m wondering:
How often do we stop to ensure that the experiences we plan for will allow learners (that includes ourselves!) the time they need to make mistakes and have the space for do-overs, if needed?
What supports/safe guards do we put in place in the planning process to ensure learners have the time to work through frustrations and come out the other side where they can look back and truly reflect on their growth and progress over time?
How often are we giving meaningful feedback that is relevant to teachable moments in the inquiry cycle?
In my role as a curriculum coordinator, the number one frustration I hear again and again is that there is just never enough time to get it all done.
How often do we pull back so that we can go deeper? (or are we running in the endless race against “never enough time”?
When I was a child, I never really understood what the teacher meant when he or she said “it’s about depth not breadth, and quality is more important than quality.” Now more than ever I do – it really is the less is more principle being put into practice. Dueck asserts that real growth and progress takes effort. Brown asserts that growth takes vulnerability – having the courage to show up and be seen. Effort + vulnerability = growth, one mistake or do-over at a time. Now that’s good math!