Category Archives: Teaching as inquiry
I spent a great deal of last year enamoured with the idea of modern learning environments. One of my placements was at a school which had a large awhina area (an indoor court-yard) shared by 4 classes as a break-out space. It was fantastic to have a space for the syndicate (group of 3-4 classes) to meet as well as a place for students to have a place work independently of the teacher.
Coming into a more traditional classroom space with 28 of the flip-top style desks seemed rather daunting at the start of the year. While I had the advantage of an old cloak bay, where I put a couple of round tables in, I was stuck with what to do in my main classroom.
In the end I went old school making a couple of rows pushed up right at the back of the room. That lasted all of two weeks as I hated the large void created by having kids squished against the back of the room.
Over time I tried different table configurations to improve the flow of the classroom but the desks forever seemed to be in the way.
As I was sitting the library one day, I noticed something about the class. There was something about the design of the library that changed the vibe of the class. We became more mellow and the students seemed a lot more relaxed, more importantly they weren’t all working at desks. So I posed a question not just to myself but also my students:
How can we make our classroom more like the library?
We held a world cafe to try and answer that very question before coming up with ideas for the planning the classroom. It was amazing to see the level of creativity the kids came up with when having a blank slate. The students wanted cushions and more soft furniture as well as little nooks and crannies to read in. They absolutely loved the idea of being able to draw on windows and walls so I got some liquid chalk and some blackboard decal to put up on walls.
But the biggest problem still remained.
They soaked up so much space and energy in the classroom and often were an impediment to learning rather than an aid. What’s more a lot of the desks seemed to be places to store junk and bits of paper in which is space that could be used for different purposes.
Which led me to wonder could I ditch the desks?
Some teachers like the idea of giving each child a home base in the classroom. It gives teachers a degree of control as to where students sit which can be used as a way to manage behaviour in particular of students who have a tendency towards off-task behaviour. I know spent a ridiculous amount of time between the first and second term trying to make tables to ensure that my groups had a mix of personalities to make classroom management easier.
And then there were the students. Flip-top desks not only function as a work space for the kids but also storage. However for some kids they were also a giant receptacle for junk. Nevertheless the desks give each student a space in the classroom and that’s important for kids. Yet when tasked to design an ideal classroom, desks didn’t feature prominently in the students’ plans.
So I decided to take a risk over the school holidays and ditched individual desks. I bought the round tables out of my breakout space into the main part of the classroom and I chucked a few of the flip-top ones into the breakout area. I spent the early part of the school holiday quietly stashing away the remainder of the desks in little nooks and crannies over the school.
In their place I added some cushions, a bean bag chair and turned a sturdy bookcase on its side to provide storage and a bench type area. Student gear was stored in buckets which immediately increased the amount of floor space available.
The kids were shocked when they came back. Where would we sit?
The answer was wherever you feel comfortable.
The result of clearing out the desks is that my class feels a lot more agile. I love how quickly the room can configured and reconfigured depending on the the needs of the learners. If we need a big space for the whole class to meet that’s easy. When the kids need to collaborate in groups there are places for that, if they need quiet places they can find those as well. For their part, there are some students that absolutely love the new set up while there are others that miss having their desk.
One of the interesting side effects of moving to a more agile learning space is that actually makes classroom management a lot easier. During a classroom observation my principal noted that there appeared to be less students in the classroom because the kids were spread out and engaged in the learning.
Yes it means that it is a lot harder to monitor kids for off-task behaviour however the flip side is that off-task behaviour tends to be a lot more localized as the kids aren’t sitting so close together so there is less chance for others become distracted.
While I would love to have access to the wonderful teaching spaces that I’ve seen in some of the newer schools but I’m learning to make the space work for me. The purpose of this post is not to convert everyone to start chucking out their desks but rather to realize that while purpose-built modern learning spaces are awesome, regular classrooms can become awesome learning spaces with a modicum of cash and a bit of creative thinking.
A few weeks ago, I was at meeting where the presenter remarked to the largely teacher audience that we would have to excuse her creative right-brain tendencies during her presentation.
I’ve been ruminating about this off-hand remark for weeks, the idea that teaching isn’t a particularly creative profession. Certainly when we think of creative fields, design, art, music, film, writing and even science probably figure a lot more prominently in people’s minds than education.
Yet when we think of great teachers, and more importantly see representations of great teachers in the media, creativity is a common trait along with a commitment to education that goes beyond thinking of teaching as a job.
And I think there’s something in the idea that when we invest our creativity into an activity, our feelings about it change.
Is that why schools and by extension teachers are often viewed so negatively by society? Because they are seen as being places that kill creativity.
In one of TED’s most popular talks, Sir Ken Robinson argued that our educational systems have perpetuated a crisis of creative thought as students get their creativity taught out of them, time and again, in a systematic fashion.
So in many ways I don’t think the presenter of my workshop was entirely off-base when she assumed that teachers are detail-orientated types who love nothing more than flicking our red pens over spelling mistakes and making sure that our students pull their socks up. After all, I doubt many people would list a teacher among the creative people they’ve met. Maybe an art or music teacher might make the grade; maybe that one special teacher who marched to his or her own tune. But in general teachers are viewed as a uncreative bunch.
Certainly Sir Ken is right that part of the problem is undoubtedly inherent in our educational system. Schools are institutions which come with regulations and organisational hierarchies that often don’t sit well with creative-types. Because another central theme in the superhero teacher narrative is that this subset of teachers are frequently disruptive to school culture and often find themselves on the losing side of clashes with school authorities.
John Keating got pushed out in the Dead Poets Society as did Katherine Watson in Mona Lisa Smile. Real-life teachers Erin Gruwell and Jamie Escalante clashed with administrators over pedagogy in their films and in a nod to my friend @apathyjack, Dr Cox would have lasted all of five minutes in a school setting.
Perhaps it is this conflict between creative individuals and existing systems which is the reason that creativity isn’t something that is valued in the selection of would-be teachers nor much in teacher education programmes. Yet we can’t expect our educational systems to produce creative concept-driven thinkers if we don’t also have creative teachers in the classroom. However in my experience there is far more emphasis put on developing teachers as managers of classroom learning rather than as creative professionals.
One of the scary implications of the rise of Kahn Academy is that teachers don’t have the inclination nor interest to become competent producers of content – digital or otherwise – in their own right. I’ve had a couple of people remark to me that they can’t understand why I’m not in the film industry because of the video content that my class and I produce. Yet I don’t consider myself in away a proficient digital story teller. In fact most of my ideas are frequently stolen from others.
And I think that’s part of the problem. Teachers themselves often don’t view themselves as being creative, they think they merely reuse and adapt the ideas of others. What we often forget is that creativity isn’t a lone flash of insight but actually the adaptation of existing ideas to new contexts. It’s taking a reading programme and changing it to fit the needs of your learners. It’s turning a bucket into a place to store student gear.
Would schools function well if they were full of creative-types? I know I am a terrible when it comes to anything remotely admin-related. Collecting forms, organizing learning portfolios, policing uniform, even remembering to take the roll are tasks that are forever tripping me up and I hate doing them. What’s more standards and exams can also be rightly pointed to as constraints on teacher creativity.
But the thing is that creative professionals are always working within constraints. In fact creativity is often defined by the constraints in which it transpires. But even if you hypothetically swept away National Standards, NCEA and other traditional boogeymen of classroom creativity what would teachers do? Are teachers on the whole prepared to move forward as creative professionals?
If teaching is a creative profession how do we develop the creativity of our future teachers? How do we attract creative people to enter teaching? When and where, if ever, do teachers come to recognize themselves as creative professionals? How do we develop creativity in the teaching profession?
I always feel uncomfortable when people start talking about leadership. Especially if it happens to be in the context of events that have the tag ‘Emerging Leader’ ‘Young Leader’ or ‘Future Leader.’ Leaders have interesting things to say, leaders have responsibilities, leaders don’t forget to take the class roll after lunch.
I think opinionated geek is the most accurate description.
When I heard that #ignition2012 was happening during the April school holidays I couldn’t wait to book my flights vven though the dreaded ‘leader’ tag was attached to the event. The reason? Two days of un-conference .
Ever since I went to my first unconference back in July 2011 I’ve been hooked on the format. As a learner there’s nothing more engaging than being able to choose what to learn, when and from who. As an attendee I much prefer being an active participant at a conference than sitting as an audience member patiently waiting for the Q&A session to contribute to the conversation. Yes the person up the front might have something important to say but unconferences embrace the idea that the sum of the expertise of the people in the audience is greater than the sum of expertise of the people on stage.
Which is what made #ignition2012 so exciting.
All those hierarchies that our model of industrial system of schooling built up over the last century or so vanished. At #ignition2012 it if you were veteran teacher of scholarship level physics at a large-inner city high school or someone in their first year of teaching five year olds their ABCs at a rural country school. Everyone was there with a common purpose to make New Zealand schools awesomeness incubators.
I love teachers from such a diverse range of contexts quite readily give up two days of their holidays to spend time at #ignition2012 learning and growing together. Nobody was required to be there and yet we were there. Some teachers traveled great distances to participate and the result was a giant melting pot of professional learning. There were sessions on e-portfolios building apps for learning and looking at applying augmented reality into the classroom. We discussed the Ultra Fast Broadband inquiry and talked about the conditions that lead to success for Maori students. In short it this was teacher professional development on steroids.
#Ignition2012 undoubtedly highlighted that the greatest strength of the New Zealand schooling system, institutional autonomy, is also its Achilles Heel. New Zealand schools and the educators within them don’t talk to each other nearly as much as we should. I think this is particularly the case for Beginning Teachers who can easily become isolated in our classrooms/schools with very little contact with those beyond our own bubbles. #Ignition2012 gave teachers an opportunity to connect with other teachers we would normally not be in contact with and the result was a bazaar of ideas to improve teaching and learning in New Zealand.
Moreover for those teachers on twitter and other social media, it allowed us to reconnect and put faces with profile pictures. It provided that real-life human component that is not there in online conversations. Coming together in real life is to quote the amazing @annekenn MAGIC.
What was really inspiring for me is knowing that there are other teachers out there in our schooling system who are dissatisfied with our schools and think we can do better. When I read about the latest policy developments in New Zealand education like the introduction of Charter Schools and Teach First New Zealand I often get despondent that the only new ideas for schooling are coming from the business sector. Ultimately discussions over how we train teachers or school governance is going to make very little difference to the shape of education. It’s the teachers who are in there with our students each day who need to ‘be the change’ in our schools.
#Ignition2012 shows that there are passionate New Zealand teachers out there who have no interest in perserving status quo in New Zealand schools. We know we can do better and in the case of Maori and Pasifika students in particular we know that system must do better. There are more teachers out who want to make New Zealand schools awesomeness incubators.
I hope next year you can come join us next year armed with your teaspoon.
“I honestly believe that the future is going to be millions of little things saving us. I imagine a big seesaw, and at one end of this seesaw is on the ground with a basket half-full of big rocks in it. The other end of the seesaw is up in the air. It’s got a basket one-quarter full of sand. And some of us got teaspoons, and we’re trying to fill up sand. A lot of people are laughing at us, and they say, “Ah, people like you have been trying to do that for thousands of years, and it’s leaking out as fast as you’re putting it in.” But we’re saying, “We’re getting more people with teaspoons all the time.” And we think, “One of these years, you’ll see that whole seesaw go zooop in the other direction.” And people will say, “Gee, how did it happen so suddenly?” Us and all our little teaspoons…” Pete Seeger.
My profound thanks goes to the organizers of #ignition2012 in particular to @mosbourne and the crew at Albany Senior High School. A big shout out also goes to Russell Stanners, Tony Bacon and Abbie Reynolds from @vodafoneNZ for supporting my attendance.
Welcome back dear readers and happy 2012!
I am now in possession of keys to a classroom I’m responsible for. But right now there are no students only a couple of teachers oh and me.
I’m one of these teacher people now too.
A school without students is a very surreal place. Possibly because I’ve read Children of Men one too many times but also because right now that room still feels like someone else’s classroom. Most student teachers secretly yearn for the day when they get their own classroom and they get to decide what goes where and how to set up their classroom programmes. But oddly when faced with creating a learning space instead of merely borrowing someone else’s instead of feeling liberated I felt the walls of indecision closing in on me.
How can I possibly arrange the classroom until I’ve thought through all possible options for configuration and decided upon the one that will maximize student interaction and collaboration? Am I going first name or last name? What are we going to do for ice-breakers? Even the very act of writing this first post has been an exercise indecisiveness. It’s my first post as a real teacher shouldn’t I have something profound to say now that I have an actual audience?
I’m sitting here trying to think of something of substance to type and I got nothing.
That was my attempt at a primal scream in blog form.
A few years ago I was sitting in the Museum of Modern Art in New York where I became fascinated by this one exhibition that was simply an open mic in the middle of a crowded foyer. Anyone could rock up to the mic say anything and have their words amplified to the thousands of people wandering the museum’s halls. Every so often people would step up to the mic to speak and instead of saying anything profound or even just something coherent people simply screamed. It struck me as odd that when people were faced with the freedom to say anything they wanted they couldn’t find the words to say anything at all. Perhaps the artist’s intention was to show how people will conform to what comes before or perhaps it was a demonstration of a great Volitare saying, the best is the enemy of the good.
Voltaire’s idea that in an endless quest for perfection sometimes we sacrifice good options in a quest to discover an elusive ‘best’ option is a phrase that I and many new teachers need to keep in mind in these coming weeks and months. Not because I think new teachers shouldn’t be striving to be ‘the best’ but more because when you are faced with so many decisions and put so much pressure on yourself to get things right the first time, you end up forgoing the good options in the search for perfection. And it is that expectation of instant perfection that inevitably leads to disappointment and disillusionment.
Over the last few months I’ve read or heard horror stories about people’s first year/s of teaching and wondered if the real frustration comes out of the disconnection between what what new teachers might envision teaching to be and the reality of life in the classroom. We painstakingly make plans, spend hours deliberating over choices and then see so many hours of decision-making and angst go awry in just minutes. However when faced with things not going to plan being able to walk back from the ledge of ‘zomg I am the worst teacher ever how many days is it until the end of term?’ to ‘Ok that sucked now what can I do differently next time?’ is the best survival strategy a new teacher can have when faced with the paradox of making so many choices work.
That might not be the wording of a focusing inquiry question that the authors of the New Zealand Curriculum had in mind when they wrote the Teaching as Inquiry section of the document. But it’s a good enough option for now…