February 08, 2014

journey into the wonderful unknown

No matter how many years I have been teaching, despite awards and recognition; I can honestly admit that things do not always go smoothly as planned, and I continue to learn from my experiences - because I have to! In particular in my new role, I am finding that everyday requires a tremendous amount of effort, energy and reflection. There are so many conversations that need to take place in order to minimize misunderstandings and to move on. This is my journey into the wonderful unknown, where relationships are what matter the most!

So the adventure continues and there have been so many changes for me this year as I transitioned to middle school. Not only am I teaching a new grade level in a grade 6/7 clustered classroom, within a new school system and having to get to know a new staff; but I have also recently taken on a team leader role. Nevertheless, I enjoy a challenge and I like to stay busy, so I have also volunteered to coach a number of teams this year (soccer, volleyball and basketball) as well as joining three different committees (activity day, literacy, and social responsibility) - one of which I am now the chairperson. So these are all opportunities with their own requirements of time, thought and effort, which are all new; although some of my colleagues from my previous school and networks might say that, "Not much has changed," for me.

Being actively involved with staff and students in a variety of settings is what fuels me as an educator, and a few of the ways I have continued to grow and stay grounded is through my own educational readings on curriculum and leadership, my professional development with peers, and through my own reflective journaling (including this blog). I would consider these three factors the "from others", "with others", and "in solitude" that are critical to my success. 

A number of months back I was reading from a book, that was given to me when I presented to a group of masters students and researchers, called: "Wonder-Full Education: The centrality of wonder in teaching and learning across the curriculum" (2014). There is a chapter that intrigued me a lot, "From 'Unknown Questions' Begins a Wonderful Education" by Kiyotaka Miyazaki. The writer contrasts the Japanese dialogical "Saitou" pedagogy with most western "known-information-question" practices. 

Miyazaki explains, 

"Wonder-full education begins from 'unknown questions.' Unknown questions are those whose answers are not known by the teacher, even though the teacher may have posed the questions. They may also be questions raised by others, whose significance the teacher does not understand. Since the teacher doesn't know the answer, she/he cannot provide the 'correct answer' to the children; the answers need to be explore. When the teacher commits to a collaborative exploration of the answer with the children, the explorative activities involve the children in tackling the question. In this sense, the unknown question stimulates children to think deeply about the teaching material."

I begin to wonder how many times I have shut a student down and told them to just listen first instead of allowing them to question what is being learned. Although I would love to think that I only do the latter all the time, I know that this is not always true. There is a difference between seeking unknown questions and questioning authority. I have witnessed both on many occasions. The art of teaching is knowing not only about recognizing the differences and maintaining appropriate classroom management, but about how to provide the right conditions under which students feel safe to question and learn. I also consider this to be true with adults. This can become especially tricky when we are trying to go deeper with learning in the classroom or discussing the merits of a new program or technique. 

The new ministry documents "Enabling Innovation (2012)" and "Exploring Curriculum Design (2013)" talk about a curriculum that is simple, elegant, and deep. It will take some time to find out what those terms actually mean and their practical application. At a recent professional development session a number of staff were looking at these new documents and discussing the impact this will have on us. There are many perspectives on what will happen; however I think this is a move in the right direction and not something entirely new to education on the whole. 

Miyazaki highlights that in 1973, the Saitou Research Group of Pedagogical Studies defined the most important keywords were about the opposition between students, teachers and contents: 

"Between children, teacher and teaching material should be generated contradictions, oppositions, confrontations, and conflicts. Children and teacher should, going beyond the oppositions, discover and create new views, and go over to the new horizons."

A shift has already begun for many, and personally I am having to change how I deliver instruction to the students to capture their attention and imagination. Certainly there are many times that I have gone back to old ways and rely on more traditional methods; but I am continuing to integrate the more innovative and creative (imaginative) methods of instruction that I learned in my master's work because I want to have an impact on how my students learn. I am significantly aware at times of my own need for heroic qualities such as: patience, perseverance, humour and kindness. These qualities are forged in the presence of others.

I have begun noticing opportunities for this dialogic kind of learning recently. I was having a discussion with my students about RAK (Random Acts of Kindness) week that is coming up. I could tell that the students were waiting for me to tell them what we would be doing and some were just trying to "wait it out" until the Nutrition Break bell went or when I would stop talking. However, there was a bit of a shift when I confronted them with the reality that I wasn't going to direct them, and that they needed to tell me what they wanted to do. A discussion finally surfaced with some thoughtful ideas. 

Another is an example of a lesson on Lightning I created as part of a unit on Electricity. I began with some images and stories from Myths about Zeus with his thunderbolts, and Thor and his hammer wielding lightning bolts. 

Zeus with his thunderbolts
I also presented some background information on Benjamin Franklin and his famous lightning rod experiment. 

Benjamin Franklin and his lightning rod experiment

I had put together a small slide show of images of lightning, followed by images of the after-effects of a lightning strike to buildings, humans, animals, and a tree. The entire lesson culminates in the students enacting what to do if they were caught out in a storm. 

All of these tools are to used with the aim to engage students' imaginations and connect them to the curriculum content. The textbook gives a scientific explanation of how the cloud and ground become charged with opposite charges. The image of a tree is shown as being positively charged, while the cloud gains a negative charge. Since the tree is the highest object it becomes a target for the static charge that has built up to discharge to the ground. 

I then darkened the room and put on some storm soundtrack that I had. Whenever the thunder rolled, with a slight delay, I would turn on my lamp. Any student who was not safely crouched down was hit by the lightning. I also had a palm tree at the back of the class which I told the students could be used if they wanted. When one boy went over during the storm he was of course hit. I was trying to teach them about the science behind the activity as well as what to do practically in this kind of situation.

But what happened was the boy by the tree wanted to dispute this "fact" and proceeded to inform us all that the tree would be the safest place. I must admit that it kind of got to me how he was "interrupting the flow" (pun intended) of the lesson that I had put so much time into creating, and I saw his behaviour as a bit of a nuisance. To be honest, I was seeing his actions as a distraction since it wasn't done in the most respectful way; but what I realized afterwards was that he was really wanting to question the learning. I don't believe this was done to be purposely rude or question my authority, rather that he had a genuine, real curiosity to understand why a tree would provide the safest point, not because it would shelter him, but he was hypothesizing that the electrons would discharge safely into the ground without harming him. I started to realize that what I need to do with some of my lessons is to go deeper into how the students perceive it. 

Miyazaki writes,

"To understand meaning is to understand it as the answer to a question. The teacher must examine the horizon behind the question as the children understood it."

As I continue to plan, I want to make more opportunities for students to question, even the simple concepts. Next time, I could simply start the lesson with a question such as, "Where is the safest place to be if you are outside in a storm?" Furthermore, I might show the students the word lightning and ask them to generate questions they have about the topic as it relates to electricity. There are many possibilities.

One last example is that I have one student currently working on his Genius Hour / Learning in Depth project on the Periodic Table of Elements. He has been happily researching and building molecules. Yesterday, I asked him why the periodic table is organized as it is. He told me the elements are arranged by atomic number. Good right!? Then I asked him, "Why does the table look like it does though?" "It has such a weird shape and colour arrangement, why?" He responded, "I don't know?" I replied, "I don't know exactly why either." Under other circumstances I might have said that I do know and that he should be the one to learn about it - I mean I took chemistry and physics in high school and have some understanding, but the truth is I don't know if I really know. How often do we do this as adults and as teachers - give the perception that we have all the answers, or make students feel like some questions are so basic that they should know. We typically begin from a place of feeling that we should know, but there are so many things that we don't actually know well. In this particular situation, the place we can then start from is a shared investigation between us.

Miyazaki concludes:

"To discover the unknown question, it is necessary for the teacher to commit to authentic learning in which she/he encounters the teaching material anew. The teacher must give up being the adult who knows better. Sometimes, she/he finds the unknown question while listening to the children's voices. Still the responsibility rests with the teacher to discover the unknown question, to share it with the children and to make the lesson wonderful. When the teacher makes her/himself a wonderful learner, children will also become wonderful learners."

Through the employment of the heroic qualities mentioned above, and in modelling what it looks like to be actively engaged and listening, I know that some break through thinking can be developed. My thought about this is that as students are given more responsibility in sharing and contributing to their own learning and towards their community that then they will have to identify what is important for them and consequently how they want to proceed and show their interest and understanding. As I link this to the new curriculum drafts I see that the core competencies that are required of students across all subjects include these aspects of: communication, critical and creative thinking, and personal and social awareness and responsibility.

There are a number of conversations going on in a number of teams, schools, and districts currently. It may be that everything has to be back on the table for discussion. Does "platooning" of subjects (for example, where one teacher teaches Science for 2 classes and another teacher teaches Socials) work within this new learning framework? At middle school we cluster grade 6 and 7 students together, and grade 8 students are separated. Perhaps we need to re-look at how we have structured grade groupings and teams. There are differences between these words: collaboration, platooning, co-planning, and co-teaching that need to be explored and understood first and not just assumed that we all know what they mean.

So as the shift to the new curriculum and assessment documents, and reporting practices takes place, what will be required is constant reflection and realignment of priorities and communication between all the members. It will most definitely require a shift in values and practical instructional methods for all of us. We cannot simply "wait it out", or hope for June or retirement, if we are all to become effective agents of change. There will be no direct course from content to understanding, everything will need to be mediated with understanding of the language.

How we navigate this new landscape will be critically important and unique. It reminds me of something my father taught me. We used to have to steer our speed boat into shore on our approach to our cabin on Savary Island. I learned at a very young age that there were many rocks on the beach below the surface of the water that we couldn't see at regular tides, but could be extremely damaging if they struck the hull of the boat. My dad had devised a path through the rocks while viewing the beach at low tide as he explained to me. In order to safely navigate to shore, we had to line up two points on the horizon - a path leading from the beach to the top of a cliff and a large tree, and at a certain point we had to change direction. Other factors that had to be considered while driving the boat included: the tide level, speed of travel, and distance from shore. I remember hanging off the nose of the boat when I was very young, and as I focused I could in fact see the rocks under the surface of the water as we slowly drifted in to shore. I was mesmerized by the "floating rocks", but of course as I got older I learned much more about all that was involved in successfully completing this trip safely. 

My advice for this next part of our educational journey is to proceed with caution, set our sights ahead towards the end goal, but keep an eye on how things proceed through the many "unseen" obstacles which lay just beneath the surface along the way. Eventually we will get there, as long as we move forward together, as we face these new challenges. We will definitely need to listen to the wisdom of many who have gone before, so that we don't make careless, hasty errors. 

As we look towards deeper learning and more authentic ways of communicating student learning, what do we do then with students who spend just as much time finding a silly face and random funny quote to add to the end of their presentations as they do with the actual research and content of their work? Some things we need to just let be..."whatever"!  Hopefully through developing trust, mutual respect, and opportunities for questioning; students will have a deep desire to investigate and tap into their own curiosity because they are not just doing something for us, but they are interested because it is a meaningful learning adventure for them. We should never set sail from these shores on our journey into unknown waters.