Searching for the magic.

I was one of those annoying teachers who thought that remote learning could be kind of magical. Naivety aside, I saw remote learning as a chance to do things differently, to approach learning without the constraints of a regular school day. Whilst I wasn’t hoping for a global pandemic to hit us and for schools to close, I saw it as a chance to innovate and be creative. When we were caught in limbo between planning for a school closure, and also trying to maintain normality at school, the prospect of only having one thing to think about was a welcome relief.

Less than 2 weeks into remote learning, the sheer challenge of the situation is not lost on me. It’s a giant balancing act for all of us. The amount of factors to consider is, at times, paralysing. As a friend put it, it’s like trying to stand upright on a beam that’s balancing on a ball in the middle of an earthquake. I have no doubt this is also how it feels for parents, many of whom are in the incredibly challenging situation of working from home while also supporting their children. Considering the wellbeing of all members of our school community has, and will continue to be, a priority.

Purely from a teaching and learning perspective, there are many reasons why remote learning is a challenge. It’s much easier to manage tasks and students than it is to create an environment where students are learning. What works for one child, doesn’t work for another. What one child needs may be completely different to what the rest of the class needs. How I think a learning task might go is just that, how I think a learning task may go. The majority of the cues that we normally take from the students through conversations, or their body language, are simply not there. Video conferencing is no substitute for being physically present in a room with a bunch of kids. On the flip side, the majority of cues that students take from us or from their peers are also not there. Just as we’re in a situation that we’ve never been in before, they too are in a foreign situation. It can be overwhelming for all of us.

Yet what I know to be true about learning is still true about learning. Wellbeing is at the core of learning. Learning looks different for different people. Learning is flexible and responsive; it’s a ping pong game between us. Learning that actually matters is often not found in the curriculum. 

More than ever, I want to be back with my Year 6 class in our classroom. I miss their energy, our conversations, the laughter, and the natural ebb and flow of learning which had become our normal. While I wait for that to happen, I’m holding onto the belief that there can be magic found within these challenges, and that innovation and creativity can grow in spite of (or perhaps, because of?) these limitations. I’m choosing to look for possibilities, and ask questions.

  • How might we provide opportunities for students to connect, and stay connected, with each other?
  • How might remote learning help us better understand ourselves and each other?
  • What if we ask students what really matters to them right now and let the learning grow from there?
  • What if the timetable is flexible and responds to the needs of the students? What if we plan the timetable with the students?
  • How might we move beyond managing tasks and students, back to focusing on the learning and moving learners forward?
  • How might we experiment with ways to balance individual conferences, small group conferences and workshops?
  • What if we ask students what they need, and then respond to those needs? What if we ask parents what they need, and then respond to those needs?
  • What if we provide optional workshops for the students based on their current needs?
  • What if we allow ourselves time to experiment with structures and systems to see what works?
  • How might this experience change our view of learning once we’re back at school?

What do we do with curiosity?

More and more I think that noticing and naming curiosity is a skill which can be developed and that the capacity to notice and name curiosity in the moment can be built. Sparking curiosity was somewhat of a personal inquiry for me in 2018. So now, in 2019, I’m ready to start the year by exploring the next part with my new class: What do you actually do with that thought, idea or wondering? What are the possibilities? How do you seek complexity within an idea or wondering?

As part of our first unit of inquiry, which we will continue over the year, we’re exploring dispositions and how these dispositions impact us and the culture of our learning community. Our second unit of inquiry is a new unit looking at the interplay between art and mathematics, the role of mathematics in and how transdisciplinary thinking can be transformative. The intersection between these two units is providing rich and authentic learning opportunities.

Earlier in the term we visited the National Gallery of Victoria to see the Escher x Nendo Exhibit. Not only does this exhibit perfectly illustrate the beauty and complexity of art and mathematics, and the innate connection between the two, but every single piece within the exhibit has the potential to spark curiosity.

“But how does it work? How did he actually make it?”

“Which way am I meant to look at it? It’s actually impossible!”

“What was Escher thinking? How does this fish somehow transform into a bird!?”

“What would it look like if I looked at this from the back?”

It seemed really natural to look at this experience with the disposition of curiosity and to use it as starting point for responding to curiosity. What are the possibilities? Someone suggested researching more about Escher’s life. We paused for thinking time. Then the ideas started flowing. We could: analyse the artwork to see the maths within it, draw it to see what techniques are used, take inspiration from one of the artworks and create our own, make a scale model of Nendo’s creations, build a 3D representation of a 2D artwork and make a 2D representation of a 3D artwork. One of my personal favourites came right at the end, “You could actually stop and look slowly at something that grabs your curiosity. What do you notice?” Their curiosity was genuine and the energy was palpable. Fast forward a couple of weeks, and after a few more opportunities to take their ideas further, curiosity is growing amongst the students. They’re seeing more possibilities. They’re making, discussing, debating, refining and wondering.

Some questions that have been guiding our thinking and discussions include:

  • How do you know that you’re curious about something?
  • What questions grow from curiosity?
  • How might we seek complexity?
  • What does it mean to be in flow? (Both as individuals and as a class)
  • Where is the maths within what we are building/making/creating?
  • What disposition would be helpful in this moment right now?
  • What other dispositions might help us be curious?

Studio Time has found a way into our learning in a real and authentic manner. It’s growing from within the unit and, I have no doubt, will continue to develop organically. As teachers, we’re giving thought to pushing thinking forward, as well as providing other learning experiences and provocations to keep up the momentum and spark further curiosity. For us it’s also about slowing down and really looking at what’s happening, and considering how we are responding to what the students are revealing about their understandings, their curiosities and themselves as learners.

Curiouser and curiouser!

It’s been a few months since we first started Studio Time in my Year 3 class and we took some time this week to stop and reflect together. Consider this a summary of their thoughts and my thoughts, which happened to be pretty aligned. Here are some things we’ve noticed:

  • An increase in curiosity and students knowing what actually sparks their interest
  • More inquiries that don’t necessarily fall into the ‘normal’ categories of school subjects
  • Less one off inquiries into small ideas/concepts and more in depth inquiries
  • Improved self management skills, social skills and independence
  • Greater interest in other inquiries which has lead to more natural connections between students and their inquiries
  • More confidence to collaborate with different people (both within and outside of our class, and both within and outside of studio time)
  • More making and creating! Inquiry does not equal researching on an iPad!

We’re not claiming it’s perfect, it’s not. Not every single inquiry reaches the depth that I wish for as a teacher, but they are becoming more confident, capable, curious and metacognitive. Each inquiry goes a step further, a step deeper, as we reflect on what went well and what to work on next. Overall we’ve noticed the importance and the value of being curious and inquiring into something that makes you wonder and want to know more. As a class we’ve decided that it’s near on impossible to have a quality inquiry that means anything to you if you don’t care about it, if it doesn’t make you question anything, if it doesn’t spark your curiosity. We’re now becoming less focused on ‘what do I want to do in this time?’ and more focused on…..’how do I find things that really, actually, truly sparking my curiosity?’


Which ideas are worthwhile to continue exploring? Deciding where to go next.

Some things we’ve been trying in order to help spark our curiosity and move our inquiries forward:

  • Connecting with a Year 6 class and setting up ongoing mentorship where the students share their Studio Time experiences, answer questions, give advice and encourage each other. It will also hopefully lead to some authentic and meaningful connections between inquiries. This has been a game changer for us as it’s opened up so many possibilities in the minds of my students.
  • Thinking about our inquiries using the ideas of ‘persevere’ and ‘pivot’ (inspired by Tania Mansfield and Studio 5). We also added in a third: ‘put aside’. This has given us the shared language to discuss the inquiries and help to ensure that they are worthwhile and have the potential to go deeper, to check that we are interested in them…to actually stop and think. It’s led to questions such as: Is it ok to put lots of inquiries aside and is there value in finding things that don’t spark your interest? What do I do if I want to keep pivoting in my inquiry? Should I persevere with this inquiry? We’ve created space in our room to record our thinking around these and make them visible.
  • Finding unique ways to record our thinking that work for individuals. We’ve noticed there can be different starting points for different inquiries and that each inquiry looks different. One size definitely does not fit all. Some students are going to try sketchnoting to show their process and how their thinking changes throughout an investigation from the initial spark.
  • Asking experts to come in and share their passions and interests with us. Interacting with others who are passionate about a whole range of things has opened up doorways for students who hadn’t considered those areas before or who were stuck in the mindset that their inquiry needed to fall within a specific school subject.
  • Redesigning our learning space together to help it move from more of a functional space to an inspirational space which encourages curiosity, can be used flexibly and supports a culture of agency. Most importantly, they now have ownership of the space. (They’ve also got some great ideas for the future but I’m not sure we can get those banana hammocks attached to the roof….)
  • Sharing what sparks our interest and why with each other when things pop up. Some definitely know immediately what makes them curious and for some, it’s not quite so easy. As part of this, I modelled my own inquiry into designing and creating a baby blanket for a family member and, through this, discussing: what sparked my curiosity, the challenges, the learning involved and what it looked like when I persevered through the hard parts. This visual representation complete with failed attempts and mistakes has provided another way of thinking about the process.
  • Making more connections to others within our community. Who is an expert in this field? Who could we interview? Whose perspective would be helpful right now?

Some questions that I currently have:

  • How can we tap into more resources within our community and beyond to help us?
  • How do we become more aware of the skills and attitudes that we are developing and make them more visible?
  • What workshops could I or the students run to help others with their studio time inquiries?
  • Do we need more Studio Time in order to get into flow and to go deeper with inquiries?
  • How do we make the maths within inquiries more visible during Studio Time?

As always, there are many things to think about moving forwards. An idea that’s always in the back of my mind is how elements of Studio Time could/should/have been flowing through into the rest of the learning time. Some current examples of things happening include:

  • Students self selecting writing workshops based on their current needs and interests in writing
  • Students volunteering to plan, organise and run reading and writing workshops based on something they have been investigating
  • Developing their own strategies for solving problems in maths, justifying why they work and how efficient they are and teaching them to others

Side note: The students chose the original name ‘Personal Learning Time’ back at the beginning but have since decided to rename it Studio Time. Seems like semantics but they’ve decided that Studio Time more accurately represents how they work collaboratively, share their ideas and flexibly use the space to inquire and create. I think this is just another example of how, as a community of learners, we have evolved.