I continue to try to create a student-centred learning environment. I do my best at ensuring the learning of my students not only drives the choices in the class but drives all decisions that are made at school.
However, what I learn is as important as what they learn.
I don’t mean this in some cheesy “my students teach me something every day” kind of way. I don’t mean in some “every day I learn something new” way I mean, I need to be an active learner.
I need to understand the struggle of learning first hand. Not through nostalgia. Not through faded memories.
I need to hate it when I get something wrong and then resist picking it back up. I need to feel accountable to my future and take a risk anyway. I need to seek out an expert and be willing to admit my limitations. I need to hear feedback, ignore and deny it at first, and then learn to accept it later. I need to produce. I need to create. Now.
If I’m not actively learning something, I’m just pretending to be a co-learner. I’m pretending to get what they are going through. I’m merely going through the paces of helping them wade through learning.
On top of all that, being an active learner is the only way to be able to look a student in the eye, tell them you don’t have the answer and take the leap.
Learning is a leap. It is a prioritizing of time. It is about putting time into something you aren’t good at, which for most of us, is a devastating concept.
Now all of this is not to say that we need to be in school. In fact, I think formal education skews our ability to see learning through the necessary lens. We fall into the game of formal education.
Instead, we need to be involved in authentic inquiry. The best teachers are always learning.
So, I guess the question remains, what are you learning?
I believe that classroom culture is of the utmost importance. It defines the learning. Some people would argue that classroom culture is determined within the first week. Some say, “you must set it early.” I tend to disagree.
Classroom culture in my estimation is constantly in flux. Events that happen within the context continually change culture. I think surprise is one of the most powerful tools of classroom culture.
Although routine is important to a student’s ability to deal with the ‘learning’ work, the unease of not knowing what will happen raises awareness and I believe engagement.
This speaks to the idea that lessons should not be planned weeks in advance. Not for the reason that you might not get through the material, but because surprise is as powerful for the teacher as it is for the student. Surprise lets teachers be in the moment.
Sometimes the surprise comes when a student who thinks he’s going to be in trouble finds the teacher laughing alongside him.
Sometimes the surprise comes when the expectation is altered mid-stream.
Sometimes the surprise is nothing but a change in the routine.
I think by allowing for surprise, using surprise, and maintaining the will to be surprised, classroom culture will be rich, trusting and effective for learning.
On Friday night, I slept on the street. But unlike many of our community’s homeless I was not alone. I was surrounded and comforted by about 200 students and teachers from 14 different high schools, including public high schools, catholic high schools and private high schools. This event brought together a community.
Strip the Streets 2011 is the second annual event that raises awareness of the over thousand youth who are accessing the services of local homeless agencies. The event is a rally, a march, reflection, storytelling, experience, connection and compassion-building.
This event leaves a profound mark of empathy on all who participate.
As one of the founders of this event, I am incredibly moved by the scope of the event this year. It doubled in size yet lost none of its intimacy. The energy balanced between electric and sombre.
It is events like these that change education. Because the education that these students walk away with is not theoretical, it is not teacher-directed. It is personal. It is relevant. It is real.
These students walk away tired and cold aware of their privilege and of their responsibility. Students walk away recognizing the power of actions.
Here is some video I shot asking a few students and teachers for their immediate reflections:
Each of these speakers share something in common, yet each person’s experience is incredibly different. Isn’t that what we want from education?
In that video, I talk about the event being multi-levelled. Education is too.
It is about community. We all build community in our learning. Learning is incredibly social. By enabling students to build community, we enable our students to learn authentically. The event of education is about bringing a diverse group of thoughtful people together and sharing and building the skills we share.
It is about energy. Learning is an electric event. When we are in the midst of flow, learning moves in our body. When we create an environment when students are excited, engaged to learn, others build off of it.
It is about suffering. Learning is hard. Learning is a struggle. The search for excitement and engagement should not undermine the rigour required of education. It is also about understanding another person’s struggle to learn and helping them overcome that struggle. When we create atmosphere of mutual struggle and aid, we create environments of exquisite learning.
It is about action. Learning is doing. True education comes with not learning about our civic duty, but enacting our civic duty. Learning is about taking what we read and changing behaviour. Education and our schools should be harbingers of action.
Strip the Streets is an example of education gone right. Absolutely right.
The Kitchener Record wrote a little article about our event: Youth rally against homelessness
In school, we love to celebrate. Holidays, aberrations in the weather, sporting events, art displays, we celebrate with all our might. On most days, I think we celebrate too much. I think we focus too often on rewards, thinking the celebration of mediocrity is a good way of motivating our students.
However, there is one place we must remember to celebrate. When students are wrong. We don’t do it.
But we need too.
By celebrating, students when they are wrong we are building up capacity for making mistakes. We are building our acceptance and tolerance of being wrong.
By engaging in wrong conversations, we help our students understand the power of error. That learning needs errors. That being wrong shows that you are in the process of learning.
Being wrong exists in the realm of creativity.
Being wrong exists in the realm of innovation.
Being wrong is original thought.
When we get rid of the fear of failure, we get rid of the fear of learning.
So, tomorrow, when a student tries something new and is gloriously wrong, celebrate it.
After having read, “Everything Bad is Good For You” by Steven Johnson a few thoughts jumped out that are directly related to how we teach and why kids game.
“We absorb stories, but we second-guess games.”
As an English teacher especially, this thought resonated. We love our stories. As teachers we often think, if we relate something to a story, if I can frame the story correctly, it will engage students. Johnson is right; absorbing is not what where we are looking for our students to finish. We want them to second-guess, become critical thinkers. We want them to own the process of their learning. This only happens when we re-frame the story as a challenge/game/problem/question. But it goes further than that…
Johnson says, “Better to have minds actively composing the soap opera of their own lives than zoning out in front of someone else’s.”
This is where personalized learning as the context for all learning is required. We, too often, ask students to put their lives away and focus on our lives. Our academically minded, subject-focused lives. The ones we’ve planned, scripted, rehearsed and sometimes, done before. It is a reminder that we must forget our plans and be willing to work with the lives the students bring to the room.
When it comes to gaming and integrated-game learning, Johnson says, “It’s not what you’re thinking about when you’re playing a game, it’s the way you’re thinking that matters.”
This is an especially important distinction. This is the distinction that is needed. Student engaging in video games are extremely rich, cognitively. They use reasoning, logic, problem solving, creativity and many of the skills we want in our students. Too often we see this play as frivolous. This is what we should want them to do. Now it is the task of the teacher to frame games and frame learning in the same way. To make it challenging, rewarding, skill-building, yet offer continuous feedback.
In the next little while, I’m trying to focus my cognitive faculties towards gaming culture. Steven Johnson’s book was a great place to start.
How do we create a learning environment where the benefits of gaming structure are achieved?
What if we strip education down to the essentials of learning? No flashy technology, no detailed lesson plans, no teacher unions, no elaborate pyramids of strategies, just the bare bones.
Like a musician that takes away the production elements, and relies on just the basics of their voice and acoustic instrumentation. A musician who tries to capture the soul of the music by hearing its internal vibrations.
What would those elements be?
Curiosity. Support. Mistakes. Questions. Challenges. Reading. Writing. Problem Solving. Community. Perseverance.
Did I miss any acoustic elements?
Now let’s construct our classes, our assignments, our environments of learning. Let’s think about assessment, achievement and success.
Let’s hear the soul of education.
Does this make for the same system we deal with today? Does it sound the same in the hallways, classrooms, staff rooms, blogosphere?
Is the linchpin to the revolution the number of students in the room? Is this where real facilitated learning begins?
After a wonderful break, I walked into my classroom and ten students joined me. Out of a registered twenty seven, ten decided that Monday was worthy of their presence.
It was wonderful. They worked away at multiple tasks, blog reflections, and summative assignments and I was able to spend time with each student. They were productive, chatty (who wouldn’t be after a two week break) and altogether engaged.
I asked myself, was it me? Not at all. Was it my energy? No, I was a bit sluggish actually. Was it the mix of kids? No. It was the dynamic that is created with fewer kids in the room. The time I had to help each student work through their issues, their questions.
I had a great conversation with a colleague and she ultimately believes that class sizes are the educational issue of the 21st Century. Not technology, not pedagogy, not assessment. Limit the number of kids in the room.
I asked her three questions:
- How did we get here?
- How do we reduce them?
- If we move the student to the centre of our classroom design and psychology, will it still be an issue?
We decided that they aren’t simple questions, no simple answers, more thinking to be done. But, is this THE issue in the educational revolution?
Are we stuck in an edububble?
Are the people, like me I suppose, who are pushing the revolution, really exposed to new ideas? Or are we just listening to the same ideas, quoting each other and circulating edu-think? Do you need to be in education to know what you are talking about?
Do we need to start letting different, non-educators have a say/perspective in what is happening in our schools?
We are so protective of the space. Too often I hear, “How can someone who has not been in a classroom as a teacher really know what it’s like?” Is it time to recognize that we are not experts in education and someone from outside of education might have better answers.
Don’t get me wrong, I strongly recommend reading the edublogosphere, staying updated in many of the books that are published “by teachers, for teachers”, but do too many teachers only listen to other teachers? Do we lose our connection with the world outside of education?
I don’t have the answers here, I’m not sure I’m even asking the right questions, but I want to make sure we are moving forward, not just rolling around and around. Passing time while we wait for students to recognize they don’t want school.
Is it time for the edububble to burst?
Today I was asked, “Why are you so happy all the time?” I kind of chuckled and said, “Why not?” and the student got real serious, “No really Mr. Kemp, how can you always be so happy, even when we are chatting instead of getting our work done, or when we have so many questions for you, or even when someone shows up late, you are always so glad to see them. Really, how can you still be happy?”
I tell him, “I’m happy because I choose to be. I’m happy because I get to learn today and I get to help people learn today. When you talk it is because learning is social. Sometimes, you want to learn something other then what I’m teaching. I get it. Why am I happy you showed up late? Well, I’m not. But what is getting angry and frustrated and kicking and screaming going to get me. You’ll still be late. Instead, I’m glad you’re here. I’m glad I get to be here to help you learn. The bottom line, I’m happy because learning is my passion.”
The students giggled a little, realizing that I’m a bit nerdy and cheesy, but then they quieted down and got to work. They hopefully realized no matter what they do, I won’t take it personally. Instead, they know that every day I make a decision to be in that room, to be happy.
Now, I’m not saying I’m great and anyone who has a bad day isn’t. I’m not saying that I don’t have my bad days. I do, although they are rare. I’m just saying, every day we can make a choice. I want to facilitate a learning environment that is positive, that is conducive to asking questions. I want a learning environment that is happy. That said, what’s the alternative?
In the hallways, classrooms, cafeteria, I hear students begging for change. They don’t express it in pithy slogans, they don’t YouTube it like some edubloggers think, instead they check out. They ‘disengage’. They call school “boring.” They shoot for 50% in a course. They skip class. These are teenagers asking for reform, for change, for a chance to escape the confines of forced servitude.
These are the students who can’t figure a way to fit into our student model. The student who sits, listens, completes, celebrates, in incredibly linear terms.
I agree with Sir Ken Robinson when he states that “reform is not enough.” The change that is necessary is major. The change that is needed is a “revolution.”
The revolution is systemic, no doubt about it. We need to change the structure of our entire understanding of school. It needs to be complete and utterly transformative. But it doesn’t start with the trustees or the superintendents.
It starts with teachers and students. It starts with open conversations between colleagues, it starts with open conversations with students. We need to remove the blindfold of expectations, curriculum, assessment, and learning. We need to re-focus what school is for: not to prepare someone for university or college, but to prepare them for a life as a learner.
Today, on the Day of Blogging for Real Education Reform, I will not only write to the wind and send this out to people who read blogs, who consider reform necessary, but I’ll start and continue those conversations. I’ll keep conversing with my students. I’ll remember that today is yet another day of learning, exploration and inquiry.
Today is a day when the revolution continues to move.
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