Recently I have been exposed to two ideas that are shifting and shaping how I view and understand myself and others: contextual wellbeing and ubuntu. By extension, these ideas are also very much changing how I view, understand and interact with the students in my class. As I consider both the African philosophy of Ubuntu, and the idea of contextual wellbeing, I see the many connections between them. And I also see the many, many reasons why in the past my unintentional focus on individualistic wellbeing hasn’t produced the long term results I hoped it might. 

Dr Helen Street discusses the idea that “wellbeing is about the space between us as much as it is about us” within her book, Contextual Wellbeing: Creating Positive Schools from the Inside Out. Now that she mentions it: OF COURSE. Every time I have felt truly well as a person has occurred within a social context that supported my wellbeing. Yet our society regularly champions individual heroes, breeds unhealthy competition, often promotes external motivation and advocates for compliance over agency. We live and learn in an imperfect system. OF COURSE it’s not as easy as looking solely at an individual. Wellness is not an individual pursuit.

In grappling with these ideas and the implications for the classroom, a colleague introduced me to the idea of Ubuntu. In investigating Ubuntu, I’ve discovered various different explanations but many of them come back to one of these two definitions: “I am because you are,” and “people are not people without other people.” I don’t, in any way, claim to be an expert on either of these two ideas, but I have become particularly intrigued with how embracing Ubuntu may have the power to shape our view of humanity, our community and our wellbeing.

A small seed began our class inquiry: What is Ubuntu? We’ve watched videos, read definitions, analysed examples and discussed our own explanations. We’ve used thinking routines to go below the surface and explore more of the nuances. The concepts of connection, wellbeing and community have been thoughtfully unpacked through the process. Debates have taken place as we’ve grappled with the tensions we see between our current reality, our context and Ubuntu. It’s brought to the surface previously ‘undiscussable’ topics as we honestly engage in dialogue about the challenges that we face, and the frustrations that we feel as humans. It’s tricky and messy to own your hurts and your vulnerabilities and your mistakes. And, quite honestly, we’re not there yet. We’re still figuring out just what Ubuntu is within 6B. We’re in the midst of reevaluating who we are as a community and who we want to be. I wish we’d had this seed months ago. But would we have been ready for it? I don’t know. We’re ready now. There’s enough trust in the spaces between us.

We also think we finally have an Essential Agreement: Ubuntu.

Assessing Worthiness

I make professional judgements regularly about what is worth learning, teaching and assessing. These judgements are based on prior experiences, the curriculum and my understanding of student needs. Whilst student questions and thoughts guide our inquiries and we adjust as we go, many of these initial decisions are made prior to the learning happening. I sit in planning meetings where we thoughtfully and strategically plan provocations and opportunities for inquiry based on what is worth understanding and knowing. The learning that arises from this is rich, meaningful and purposeful.  

But lately I’ve been thinking that maybe the worthiness of an inquiry can also be found almost entirely through the inquiry itself. Maybe something which we, as teachers, wouldn’t place much value on can progress into an inquiry that greatly develops student understandings, skills and dispositions. The worthiness could be found within the questions that arise, the way a student makes decisions about the next steps, the skills (which weren’t originally evident) that are needed, the dispositions that are nurtured and given opportunities to grow. A small seed of a question or a thought or a desire to make, design or build something can organically flourish into a deep, authentic inquiry.

And maybe I’ve been asking myself the wrong question. Instead of asking whether an inquiry is worthwhile, I should be asking: what would make this inquiry worthwhile?   

Beyond Studio Time

Starting studio time has been been like throwing a pebble in a pond. If the pebble is studio time, the ripples are what has happened outside studio time. It’s been the catalyst for starting to reflect in a different way about how I think of learning and about how the students think of themselves as learners. It’s just not possible to say to students that what they think and value is important, and what they want to learn and what they choose to investigate is worthwhile during studio time, and then put that aside and tell them exactly what to learn and how to learn at other times. It doesn’t sit well with me and they see straight through it. It’s fair to say that they are not content with the status quo when it comes to education – and who could blame them? I’m not happy with the status quo either.
Why can’t they design the classroom? Why can’t they have an equal say in how things work around here? If they don’t agree with something, why can’t they (respectfully) voice their opinions and make suggestions for improvements? Why can’t they self select individual skills to work on during learning time? Why can’t they identify a way of recording their thinking that works for them? Why can’t they make informed choices about what will help them with their learning? And won’t all of these things help them to understand themselves as learners and therefore help them develop into life long learners? Reflecting on my professional practice through the lens of learner agency has been somewhat confronting. Things that I’ve never considered to be an issue or ways that I’ve unintentionally taken unnecessary control have been become apparent. Why am I making decisions that students would be more than capable of making? Why am I making this choice when, with support and scaffolding and careful planning, they would be able to think independently and take informed action? Sure it’s ‘easier’ in the sense that I would be in control and know what is about to happen at all times, but to what end?
The ripples of studio time are expanding and the momentum is building. Something that happened fairly quickly was students self selecting workshops to attend, based on their learning needs. Developing an understanding of how to identify areas for improvement and things that are of interest to them has meant they are becoming more and more able to honestly and critically reflect on themselves as learners and their actions. Currently, the students have asked to organise and run their own workshops into reading and writing and we have two weeks worth of sessions lined up. They’re taking their own inquiries and questions, investigating them, synthesising the understandings and skills, developing an interactive workshop and rolling them out to their peers. They’re gathering mentor texts, asking for advice, summarising the main points and crafting examples. The thinking and learning that is happening through this is incredible and their questions are becoming deeper and deeper. They’re also asking for specific workshops and I’m reminding them to chat with me if something comes up that they think would make a purposeful and engaging workshop. From my perspective, I’ve become more conscious of consulting them in the process of developing inquiries. This week, instead of rolling out an idea I had for how we could tackle a maths unit of inquiry, I put it to them to see their thoughts and ideas, transparently sharing the understandings we would be investigating. Again, they blew me away with how they approached this and with the maturity they showed as they worked collaboratively with each other and me to plan the inquiry. I’ll be posing the same question about other inquiries. I’ve also began consulting them about what they think the split screen questions should be during different inquiries and sessions. They were immediately into this. Their suggestions showed recognition of their needs and the needs of the collective. More and more their conversations show increased metacognition and more awareness of who they are as learners, their strengths and their areas for improvement. All of this has lead to them being more collaborative and interested in their peers as human beings and learners. They’re much more inclined to call each other on inappropriate behaviour or learning choices, provide suggestions, give encouragement for others as they tackle things that are challenging and recognise achievements. It’s as if in getting to know themselves as learners, they are understanding how others work and what makes them tick. They are empowered and feel accountable and responsible for themselves but also to others in our community.
A definition I read recently, through Stephanie Thompson (@traintheteacher), explained learner agency as this: ‘Learners taking ownership, making decisions, driving their journey, to the degree that works best for them.’ It was a lightbulb moment for me as it put into words what I have been grappling with and trying to communicate. They need guidance. Of course. This should go without saying. I am there to guide, scaffold and support. I have expertise and knowledge to share. There are times when I know what they need to move their learning forward. In fact, there are a lot of those times. But their needs are consistently changing as they become more self aware, flexible, self motivated and independent learners who understand how to learn. Sometimes I am more direct, sometimes I am less direct and my actions and choices are dependent on the needs of the situation and the needs of the child. Always in the back of my mind is the belief and understanding that the journey and the process of inquiring and learning is just as important, if not more so, than the destination.

Differentiation and Agency

I’ve had a bit of a lightbulb moment over the past couple of days. In this process of handing ownership of learning over to the students, I think I might have accidentally overlooked the fact that not all students are going to be ready at the same time and in the same ways. With that in mind, how have I catered for this range throughout the process? Specifically, has my desire for us to move through this process together as we build momentum meant that I’ve been inadvertently holding some students back? Or expecting students to be ready in ways that they’re not? Sure, we’re all moving in the same direction but looking for, or prioritising, consistency doesn’t feel right.  

Inspired by Dean Kuran and his post on planning learning with his students in the same way that we plan as teachers, I asked my class this week: does anyone want to try planning an inquiry like the teachers do? It was a simple offer and one which a bunch on them immediately jumped on. We sat down as a group and chatted. We discussed the process of planning, and how we, as teachers, consider knowledge, skills, dispositions and concepts. Since they already had an idea for something they wanted to explore, an inquiry into storytelling, we got straight into it. They debated which dispositions were most relevant, decided on what concepts would drive their learning, considered the understandings they would build and identified focus skills. The conversation was rich and purposeful, and I realised they were completely ready to think about their learning in this way. Maybe they had been ready for a while?  

While this was happening, other students floated around the edge of the conversation. Some students watched and listened from across the room; intrigued and interested, just observing at this stage. Once we finished, the group shared a bit of the process with the class. Their ownership, enthusiasm and passion was clearly evident. I offered again: if anyone else wants to plan this way, let me know. More students expressed interest. 

All of this brings us to this week’s personal learning time tomorrow, which will again look different from previous weeks. Some students are now ready to use their new planning to guide their inquiries. Some are now ready to try planning this way after seeing it modelled for them by other students. Some are interested but have told me they need more thinking time because they want a good question or idea first. Some just aren’t ready right now. Maybe they’re not interested in planning this way and maybe they won’t ever be?   As I reflect on this, I realise the value in each of these stages because this whole thing is about so much more than whether students plan an inquiry or about how they spend their personal learning time each week. I’m keeping the bigger picture in mind and trusting the process and the learners.