Thursday, 17 December 2015

Collaboration - Power in Observation

Hobsonville Point Primary School celebrated a the work of its students last night with a small film festival. The films were all student creations, the tech support work, the MC's, Kapa Haka and musical performances all from students. I sat taking all this in, thinking about their journey as learners and it dawned on me, my own journey this year has been immense.

Reprising my journey would be rather self-indulgent ( check out these posts for the journey: seeking a growth mindsetscientist for a day,  Ask the questionSwing thoughts,  Mud,) it is more important to share about the vehicle for this journey.

The ILEs that are being built or redeveloped produce a deprivatised learning space. Sharing the learning space with 2-3 other teachers, having few walls to hide behind, colleagues strolling in and any number of visitors means every move you make is observed. This can be daunting, but it also creates amazing professional development opportunities. I've been privileged to work with amazing people this year, sharing LC4 with many but the bulk of my time has been spent with Lisa and Amy. Both are foundation staff at HPPS and have lived the journey that I undertook this year, often you can feel like you're a beginning teacher again.

In my previous school we did 4 minute walkthroughs and occasionally you'd share some learning space, this gives you a small insight into what your colleagues do and how they do it. As beginning teacher you get observed regularly and do observations of others. Deprivatisation creates opportunities for constant observation of others, their observation of you and leads to real professional development if you open yourself to it.

It it is not the formal observation that is powerful, but it is the seeing each other in action and reflecting afterwards, it is the noticings and wonderings that you share. It is the added value that you create together and the osmosis of teaching tools, strategies and each others experiences. This is the observation that you undertake together in your shared space that I am sure has made me a better teacher than I started the year. In these deprivatised environments you also get to notice how other teachers in their space do their thing and over the course of the year there are many little noticings.

Professional development this year hasn't been attending expensive courses, it has been about watching my colleagues, sharing the space together and being comfortable with constant observation.

Thanks for the year Lisa, Amy, Jody and everyone else I've shared the space with, collaborating with you in 2015 has been a whirlwind and a privilege.

Monday, 7 December 2015

Mud, Fun and a TOD

Me: Stop being so childish!

Student: But I am a child...

Prophetic words from a ten year old during an in-class activity at my previous school.  I'd prided myself on facilitating interesting and engaging activities for the classroom but these words made me chuckle, cringe and then reflect at the time. Since Friday last week they've been ringing in my ears again!

HPPS held a Teacher Only Day last Friday to plan for 2016 and for us that meant contemplating and discussing the Nature of Learning after a report produced by the Centre for Educational Research and Innovation at the OECD. There are many challenges to educators in this report, for our morning we focussed on The 7 Principles of Learning section and reflected on what challenged us or made us wonder about our own practise. 

My students have engaged in a range of projects this year, with varying success, and we have supported, encouraged and provoked their thinking throughout their journey. Understanding each child's learning needs, dispositional needs and interests has played a critical factor in the development of each project. We allow them to experience their own learning pits, but support them to make their way out of it. Some have had some very real deadlines, dealing with outside organisations, event calendars or critical milestones for their projects. This is a lot of pressure for year 4 - 6 children!

As we shared our challenges with our colleagues I wondered about this. Yes, we provide many opportunities for our learners to be stretched academically and dispositionally. But how is this affecting them? Are we overloading them? Are we demotivating them? Could they cope better with more or less? What's my role? I need to know my learners and their motivations, use my teacher voice to enable them to set realistic goals, reframe their objectives for events and projects but most importantly I need to remember they're still children, albeit very competent children. I've taught at tertiary level and while its important to have high expectations of all learners, I need to remember that there are vast differences in capacity and capability between a 10 year and a 21 year old. It seems obvious, but when you've got year 4 and 5 students running day long events and testing their self-directed skills the confusion between children and adults is easier. I ought to avoid this confusion and must celebrate the children as they do what they do best, be children.

Last Monday, we took our children up north for a snorkelling exercise. Observing them out of their regular environment provides much food for the teacher brain. They engaged in their snorkelling activities with zeal, giggles, much laughing at each other's form in wetsuits and the constant instructions from their snorkelling buddies. Throughout the day there were the constant reminders that they're children, excitement at what they saw, horsing about in the water and on land, including an irresistible urge to play in mud! What is the role you would have taken when these kids started playing in the mud? The scaffolding to their snorkelling trip had included many separate trips, experiences and activities, but on the day the magnetism of the mud won out. Children will be children after all and why stop them?

Mud can't be at the centre of all learning though, camp, projects, field trips and shows finish and we return to the classroom. The Nature of Learning challenges all educators to put children front and centre and in my opinion flies in the face of what some schools are doing when they focus on Numeracy and Literacy with little time for anything else. The National Standards don't have to be so dominant in your planning and learning design. At my previous school, my principal spoke passionately about the need for developmental play and hands on / physical activity rather than just improving each child's literacy and numeracy.

The OECD report's Social Nature of Learning recommends children be engaged in meaningful learning experiences alongside their peers, in either formal or informal situations, such situations could include those my former principal longed for. But how much power/control/ego is involved when we presume to be the font of all things educational? The Social Nature of Learning reminds us that there is much that each child can learn with and from their peers and there is plenty of other reading supporting their peers as a powerful learning tool.

Consider for a moment those stressful moments in the day and think what they might be like for your learners. There are so many reasons to integrate play-based learning, physical activity, hands-on activities or even a Reggio-inspired approach. They can mitigate much of the stress for our learners, they'll have something meaningful to do after the excitement of lunchtime, they can experience a world they didn't know exist, make genuine connections with other learners as they share their fascinations and questions,  and most importantly remove them from the grind of learning that some classrooms can become . I appreciate that this won't help them pass their next GloSS or Running Record, but perhaps it will mean your satisfying other individual needs which may result in more success across the curriculum. Prior to reading this report I felt I knew many of my learners emotionally, now I'm sceptical. We know many but perhaps our knowledge of their emotional selves isn't as deep, does it extend past the more vulnerable learners? How well do I know the emotional drivers for each child? What might I do differently to learn about these and how could that impact the teaching and learning? This wondering has me wanting to read more about anxiety, stress and other special learning needs - there goes the summer reading!

Another book laying beside my bed is Ken Robinson's Creative Schools, he worries that there are many distractions which are top of mind for educators. Consider the outside forces you encounter, political policy/agendas,  national priorities, unions, job descriptions, parental ambitions and peer pressures. Both Robinson and the Nature of Learning report place significant attention on the relationship between the educator and the learner. Compounding this, NZ teachers will be thinking about National Standards, the front/back/totality of the NZ Curriculum and possibly thinking about modern learning pedagogy or 21st century learning or some such catch phrase. Is it any wonder that teachers glance knowingly when you say that your learning design is student-centred?

I'm not trying to advocate for a fun-based learning approach, I've posted elsewhere about doing stuff versus purposeful learning and know that within my own learning common there are many structures in place to enable learners to have success. But I'm curious about the balance, particularly with so many teachers running inquiry/passion/project based learning approaches. In the drive to create authentic, connected, purposeful learning that stretches the abilities of all learners, do we run the risk of overloading them. Often times, they've not developed the skills or knowledge to understand that they're being weighed down with too much, not until it is too late anyway. And, furthermore, many children will simply take on more because they feel that they're pleasing the teacher. This is hardly creating the conditions for success. Yes, I'm in favour of students being able to make mistakes or take risks, but this should be done with the intent that they can fail forward, that next time they'll be able to rely on the experience they've gained along the way to know what to do when they face the same scenario again. How are you feeling about being a child now? It seems like being a child could be extremely taxing!

There are many features in this report and the 7 principles are only 2 pages but we need to engage with readings such as this if we are truly to live out the front section of the NZC. Many more posts will result from analysis and reflection based on this document, for now I'm pondering how are children being impacted by the many choices we make for and about their learning. Child-centred decision making is the least we owe our learners and that is more than just numeracy and literacy.

We ask so much of our learners, but for now I must remember that it's ok if they are childish!