Reinventing Education: The Role of the Teacher

Clean SlateClean Slate now has a blog all of its own! No more education posts will appear on Secrets of the Sandpit. Please click here to read and comment on this post and catch up on my latest thoughts on reinventing education.

In Part 4 last week, I started thinking about the role of the teacher, but ended up focusing on mentoring and bringing a family atmosphere into school instead. So this week I really will discuss the all important topic of what the teacher’s role will be in my Sandpit School.

I have put a lot of emphasis on learning being instigated by the child in my new school. The children decide what they want to learn and when and have a great measure of freedom to explore their interests. You could be forgiven for thinking that I am arguing that teachers are redundant or even in the way. In Part 1 of Clean Slate I already go some way towards explaining how I see the teacher’s role, but I would like to go into a little more detail here.

Guide

Tourists mostly explore by themselves, but appreciate being able to consult a guide (book)

Tourists mostly explore by themselves, but appreciate being able to consult a guide (book)

In a school designed to help children explore the world and discover new interests, one of the teacher’s most important roles is that of a Guide. On arriving in a new country you have no idea what there is to see and do, so you turn to a guide (book) – someone who has lived or been there before, has many years of experience and knows their way around. Children are in effect new immigrants on earth. One of the things I love about spending my days with my two small people is that everything is new and exciting to them. They have no idea what the world has to offer and every new discovery is the best thing yet.

The teacher has the privilege of being a Tour Guide to Life. They should be a sensitive guide: not killing off the enthusiasm of their charges by their own prejudices or cynicism (“Oh you wouldn’t like medieval art, it’s a bit boring” or “Don’t bother with Arabic, you’d have to learn all the special letters. It’s too difficult.”) but hanging back long enough to find out what each child is like in order to get a good idea of what they might enjoy. The Guide lets tourists spend as long as they like exploring an old ruin, even if they have seen it many times before themselves, but then knows when to suggest moving on to another location so they don’t miss out on other fantastic sights.

Expert

When you are discovering a new interest, you can get quite far on your own. Let’s say you have heard of archeology and you decide to get a spade and have a go at it in your own garden. You have fun digging and finding. Perhaps you dig up some objects which you then take inside and start to examine. You can decide what you think they are and how old they are and what they are made of, using your own current limited knowledge. But there will come a point – and mostly people come to this point all by themselves – where they will want to look up more information. Most of us go on the Internet and will Google: “old pot with two handles” to see what comes up. We might go to the library and find some books on archeology. Some of us might be lucky enough to have friends, relatives or acquaintances who have some experience in the field and we can show them our find and ask them about it. These experts will either be able to gives us answers or give us good tips on where the answers can be found.

The teacher as expert provides these avenues of broadening the child’s knowledge and experience. Firstly, by providing a classroom that is equipped for self-study. It will have folders with fact files, relevant books and posters and computers or tablets with which children can access the Internet. The teacher can assist where needed by helping with these peripheral but essential research skills. Secondly, the teacher will themselves be the expert, who can provide answers when asked or point the child in the direction of where the answers can be found.

The teacher as expert is sensitive to where the child is at and is responsive rather than intrusive. Some people are happy just digging in the garden. If, even after a long wait, even after other junior archeologists have come and shared what they have found out, even after the expert has shown them pictures of dig-sites and examples of what you can discover with a bit of research, a child is still just happy digging in the garden, then let them. Closer inspection may reveal that their interest was not in archeology at all, but in dogs, or mini beasts, or gardening. The teacher can then gently encourage them to go and do some more exploring in the Biology Wilderness, for example.

Lecturer/Story teller

The two roles I have outlined so far are very hands-off. They involve a lot of preparation before school starts in setting up rooms, but very little traditional “teaching” while a session is in progress. However, I definitely see a place for direct transference of information from teacher to students en masse, not just one-to-one on demand. Everyone has their preferences when it comes to learning. There are plenty of children who benefit greatly from sitting down and listening to someone tell great stories. Not just fiction, but great stories such as “What is courage?” and “Who was Leonardo da Vinci?” and “What is a chemical reaction?”. Sitting down and listening in itself is a skill worth learning for everyone and it will get you far in life. It also provides some structure to an otherwise very free learning environment.

So in the Sandpit School, there could be set times in the day or week when you can go and listen to great stories being told by people who know their stuff. These will be the teachers, because the teachers are experts on their subjects, but they can also be visiting speakers. Children can ask questions and get involved, and these, too, will be occasions to both discover potential new interests and go deeper into the topics that already fascinate you.

Advisor

Mary: a child learning about nature through experimentation.

Finally, when a session is coming to an end, the teacher once again becomes your tour guide, advising you where you might like to go next based on what you have seen so far. If you are in the English room and you have just started reading The Secret Garden, the teacher might suggest you go to the school garden next to find snow drops or plant flowers – or perhaps to the History Room to find out what clothes Mary might have been wearing. If you are in the kitchen and you have been baking pancakes, you might ask the teacher why the syrup has made your hands sticky. The teacher would then suggest going to the Questions Lab for your next session to do experiments and find out more.

The teacher as advisor is sensitive, and gives advice when asked, based on what genuinely seems to flow from the child’s current projects – not from a desperate need to create reasons to send them to the Maths room.

Your Turn

What else do you think a teacher should or should not aim to do in a curriculum guided by the students?

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Reinventing Education: The Mentor and the Family

Clean Slate

Clean Slate now has a blog all of its own! No more education posts will appear on Secrets of the Sandpit. Please click here to read and comment on this post and catch up on my latest thoughts on reinventing education.

Welcome back to Clean Slate, my initiative to scrap school and start again from scratch.

The Story so far

In Part 1, we looked at motivation as the key factor in learning.

In Part 2, I suggested school should be structured to allow pupils to explore and pursue their interests.

In Part 3, I imagined the Sandpit School and sketched an example ‘class room’/session.

And so we arrive at Part 4, which you see before you. I started writing about the role of the teacher, but found there were so many other sub-topics lurking that I would need to split this into several posts. Today is about the teacher as mentor, and about providing children with a safe base at school. I realise that a lot of my ideas on learning so far have been very individual and that they might result in a child seeing different people at each lesson he goes to on a given day, which wouldn’t provide much in the way of continuity. So here is my suggestion.

A Surrogate Family

At my hypothetical Sandpit School, children would start the day with half an hour in a ‘home’ group, with their mentor. They are encouraged to regard their group as a ‘family’, a ‘house’ or a ‘team’. Many children come from warm, loving families already – hopefully the home group will simply serve to help them recognise school as familiar and safe. For those children whose home lives are less than ideal, who don’t have a place where they feel unconditionally loved, the home group could become the one place in the world where there are people who will look out for you and support you, like in a family. And like in a family, the children in your group will be of all different ages and stages in the school. The older ones can help the younger ones if they are struggling – with school work, practicalities, or with life.

The teacher who acts as mentor for the group is responsible for the well-being of their charges in the school. The children will see their mentor every day, regardless of the subjects they choose to explore, and hopefully the mentor will become someone they trust enough to turn to with any issues at school or at home – a bit like a parent.

The Desired Outcome

The mentor is responsible for helping the home group to be a model of what family can and should be:

1. A place of acceptance
2. A safe place
3. A place you can come to for guidance and advice

Like in a family, not everyone will get on all the time, not everyone will be close friends with everyone, but the home group will stick together. If you are five years old and lost, a member of your home group will be a friendly face to help you back to your class. If you are getting bored of dinosaurs but don’t know where to start with discovering a new interest, your mentor knows you well enough to suggest you go to the Questions Lab to find out about fire, or you can talk to another student and ask them what they have done that was good.

Ultimately, if done right, the home group will help children (especially those who do not get this from their own parents and siblings) to leave school with a positive blue print for family-style relationships that they can implement in their own lives. Even if home for them was a place of terror and neglect, they will have this supportive group and supportive teacher to look back on to inspire them to create a better life for their own children.

How to make it happen

Everybody needs a place like this. It is human nature to seek out or create a group of people who are like family and stick with them through thick or thin.

This is why young people get involved in football teams, or school plays.

This is why teenagers end up in gangs.

They want to be a part of a group that cares, that protects its members, that shares a common goal and has in-jokes they can laugh at that nobody else understands. Us against the world.

The best families provide this for their children. If we give our children acceptance, safety and guidance, they will still look for their own groups and teams, but these groups won’t replace the family, merely supplement it.

So how do you get a group of children of various ages to become a team, a home, a family?

1. They need to have time together: besides half an hour at the start of each day, home groups could reconvene at the end of the day to chat about what they have done and get ready to go home. There could be an a time slot each week for home groups to meet together for longer. Time is the baseline, without time together it will never work.

Families go to the supermarket together and do the washing up.

Families go to the supermarket together and do the washing up.

2. They need to share a common goal and cooperate to achieve it: during sports days or other school-wide events the home groups will function as teams and compete against each other. This plays into the sports/football analogy. During their weekly slot, home groups could work on a big collaborative project that will be displayed to the school. It could be a play, or a craft project, or a big display or experiment. They could make a film together or write a magazine. This plays into the drama analogy. These kinds of big scale events and projects are the hot house in which group cohesion is cultivated. (I would advise against learning from the gang example, though…)

3. They need to share both special and every day moments: families have holidays together, they celebrate birthdays and Sunday lunches. They appear in photographs together, smiling and wearing silly hats. They share jokes and poke fun at each other. They play games and watch TV together. They hang out the laundry and mow the lawn. The home group can decide to have breakfast together in the mornings before sessions start. They bring cakes for birthdays and have parties to celebrate each other’s achievements. This is the glue that holds a family together.

What was your safe place as a child? How do you think school can help give children positive blueprints for family life? How can you encourage a supportive environment in a group of children of various ages? Help me improve my ideas!

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Reinventing Education: Let’s start at the very beginning

Clean Slate now has a blog all of its own! No more education posts will appear on Secrets of the Sandpit. Please click here to read and comment on this post and catch up on my latest thoughts on reinventing education.

A Clean Slate

As regular readers may remember, I have been getting on my soapbox about education and how it needs to be completely reimagined. Having devoted two posts to what I feel is wrong, I am now ready to start putting it right. Every month I will write a post building up a picture of what teaching and learning could look like if we dared to start with a clean slate – which will also be the name of my project: Clean Slate.

If you have thoughts and ideas, if you would like to contribute by writing a guest post or linking up something relevant from your own blog, please let me know. At the bottom of any Clean Slate post will be an index/bibliography of other posts that help build the New Education. 

So, let’s start at the very beginning, as Julie Andrews tells us it is a very good place to start. I think any discussion about school and education needs to start with:

Motivation

Why do we learn? Disregarding the fact that we are usually coerced by external forces (parents, government): why do we decide to learn about something? I have narrowed it down to three possible motivating factors:

1. It is necessary for survival

2. It is necessary to achieve our goals

3. We are interested

Learning about construction

Learning about construction

We can see these three motivations at work in our children all the time. There has been some discussion in the field of language acquisition about the reason behind the language learning window (the age at which you will learn a language fluently) being so early on in life, and the assumption is that it is necessary to learn to communicate for survival. I am sure this is true: when you are too short to reach the fridge, how will you get your supplies unless you can ask “Milk, Mummy?” The second motivator I can see at work in my daughter as I type. Her goal: reaching Daddy’s shoes. How will she get there? She must learn to crawl.

It is the third factor, interest, that I find the most beautiful to see. It flows from our individuality. I have loved seeing my son grow up and develop preferences, learning to choose: I like this but I don’t like that. The things he likes, he has an insatiable hunger for. He wants to find, practice, rehearse, explore and celebrate them. His favourite is still numbers. He spots them on the signs over supermarket aisles and calls them out, spurring me on to find the next number in the series. A walk down a long street is interesting because he finds that each house has a number: there’s 21 and there’s 23. But Mummy, where is 22? This prompts a discussion on house numbers, the postal system and odd and even numbers. He searches for and spots numbers and letters in every day life, encountering numeracy and literacy in their natural habitat.

Child-led vs adult-led curriculum

When I was teaching, the question we were always asking ourselves was: how can we get the students interested in what we want to teach them? To start the new education, we need to turns this around. How can we teach what children are interested in learning? Children are intrinsically motivated: we need to learn not to squash this, but to help them with our experience and knowledge to learn what they want and need to know.

Now I can hear you shouting: But Judith, there are things they have to know! They will not be able to function in society if they can’t read or write or do basic maths! Maybe your son loves numbers and letters at 2 years old, bully for you, but my son’s main interest is bashing things with a large stick!

First of all: chill out.

Second of all: remember that there are three motivating factors. Maybe maths and English don’t immediately feature in every child’s interests (though it may be there if you look more closely), but it will become clear to them that they are necessary for survival (to quote Michael Macintyre: “Now, if you can’t remember four numbers, you can’t buy food.”) and for achieving their short and long term goals.

Writing numbers on the pavement with chalk: unprompted, untaught

Writing numbers on the pavement with chalk: unprompted, untaught

If you wait, they will get to a point where they want to know. We must let go of the idea that children have to learn certain things at a certain time, in a set order. We also need to trust our children. As I said before: they have been designed for learning. They want to learn. Their in-built motivation will eventually lead them to the things they need to know.

A set curriculum, that prescribes what needs to be learned in what order, squashes motivation. If we are anxiously trying to cram in our own targets for our children, diverting them away from what they are naturally exploring at the time, we will be harming the possibility of them becoming interested in the things we so desperately want them to learn. Perhaps initially, the National Curriculum was drawn up sensibly, by studying what children need to know to survive and achieve their goals, observing at what ages they learn which skills, observing the stages that they go through before they are secure in certain skills, and recording these. Recording is fine, it helps us see what is usually the case. But you cannot use this to prescribe how every child must learn. If anything, the observation that children tend to go through certain stages to get to certain points, and observing that they tend to have certain interests at certain ages, should give us the confidence to trust children, to take a step back and let them discover what they want to learn about at each stage.

We should be brave enough to let go of this fixation on controlling the order in which skills are learned, and on everyone needing to learn the same thing at the same time.

What is our role as teachers and parents?

I am saying we need to trust our children. However, I am not saying that we have no part to play. We are older. We have experienced and learned more than our children. We are a tremendous resource in our children’s learning – and they know this. Why else would they be driving you to distraction asking you questions all day long? “Why does that man have no hair? Can you eat a shoe? Why are the sun and the moon in the sky at the same time? What is colour?”

So again, children are designed to learn. They are intrinsically motivated. They naturally explore and experiment. And they naturally consult experts. This, again, is something we need to harness in the new education. We need to build on this and not undermine their natural reliance and trust by saying: “Stop asking silly questions and do this worksheet, we’re doing long division today.”

Here is what we can do:

1. We can provide varied experiences and environments that allow children to discover what they are interested in.

2. We can and must use our life experience to guide children in what is necessary for survival. Children have no concept of what might be dangerous and this is one thing you don’t want them to learn the hard way. We don’t need to schedule lessons about road safety though – while we take children out into the world to have those varied experiences, there will be roads. This is when they learn about crossing them.

3. We can help children break down their goals to see what it is they need to learn in order to achieve them. And don’t try to sneak maths in if it isn’t there, I saw that! Maths crops up all by itself in practically everything. You don’t need to cheat.

4. We can offer extensions of what the child is doing to expand what they are discovering. If they are pouring water into containers, you might ask which cup has more water in it. If they are playing with a tape measure, you could offer your foot for measuring, and then suggest measuring the child’s foot. However, if they insist that no, it is a snake, the correct response is: “Well hello Mr Snake.”

5. We can encourage their interests, whatever they are. Even if it is bashing things with sticks, as long as they are not breaking precious things or people, they can learn from it: how thick a stick needs to be before it won’t break when bashed against a tree, what else a stick can be used for (digging, prodding, pole vaulting), collecting more of them to build a hut or a fire, using one each for sword fighting and playing knights etc.

5. We can answer their questions seriously. Yes, it is cute when children ask crazy questions, and it is fun for us to give them a funny answer, but they really do want to know why. This is the start of an interest. We need to foster and encourage interests. If you respond to questions about the human body, about flowers and about the rain in all seriousness, you have the start of a biology lesson.

Let’s recap

There are many more questions to answer, of course. I am sure you want to tell me that we need to do more teaching than I have just outlined. You will want to ask me about how this works in a formal education setting. How you can teach a million different subjects at once without having one teacher to each student and a classroom the size of the world. You’ll want to say this is all well and good for three year olds but that this method is too slow for a sixteen year old to learn what he needs to know for his GCSEs.

Again: chill out. We’ll get there. This is only part one.

To sum up, this is as far as we have got with reimagining education today:

Children are intrinsically motivated to learn what they need to survive, to achieve their goals and to satisfy their curiosity.

Children recognise adults as valuable resources in their learning.

You can trust children to become interested in the things they need to know at some point.

It is not necessary for all children to learn the same skills at the same time or in the same order.

Join in the discussion! Leave me comments, and let me know if you want to contribute by writing something or linking up.

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Many thanks to Helen Braid for creating this awesome logo!

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Time to Learn