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.

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?   

Letting Go

I’ve been trying something with my class, trying to hand over more ownership and responsibility to them. It’s been thought provoking and challenging and humbling and rewarding. 

I started small. Students individually signing up to workshops. This moved into students having a literacy block to plan and run independently. The next step was students planning their own timetable for an afternoon based on one of our current inquiries. And finally last week, the students planned their own timetable for an afternoon based on something that sparks their interest. We spent the week using classroom learning to provoke thinking and create a list of potential questions to investigate, which helped to guide the sessions.

Each time I’ve seen an increase in purposeful engagement, critical thinking, extended focus and meaningful collaboration. Amongst other things they are creating podcasts, co authoring books, exploring fractions, analysing suffixes and investigating how languages evolve over time. They are coming to realise that it’s about the thinking and the learning, and not about looking busy and working. They can see how their learning is becoming deeper and more connected. They’re moving in and out of collaboration naturally, discussing ideas and sharing thoughts and suggestions. The buzz in the room has grown each week as the students begin to find their flow.

Each time there have also been challenges. A few students who, even with support, have been stuck. I haven’t been able to conference with as many students as I’d like. Some students have been ‘working’ rather than learning. Some inquiries have just simply been unsuccessful. There have even been a couple of heated arguments along the way. On the flip side, each of these situations paved the way for authentic learning opportunities. How do we decide what is worth investigating? What matters to you as a learner? What effective strategies could we use to resolve conflict? How can a guiding question help focus our inquiries? How will you know when you’ve learnt something? What do you do when you get stuck? What self management strategies will help us? There’s a lot still to explore. As a learning community we’re really just at the beginning of this journey. 

This week I’ve overheard multiple conversations about how personal learning time is the best part of every week. They are loving it, and I’ll continue to lean into the idea that my role is to foster curious learners and not produce compliant students.