Saturday, 14 October 2017

Teaching Whole Children

"It's not just what you know, it's how you think with what you know."  
(David Perkins, Project Zero)

We've been rocking the school for three weeks now, with the incredible support of the 3 Left Feet Dance Movement Creations team of Elara and Ingrid - and this past Thursday and Friday students showcased their efforts in four outstanding performances.  This was great fun for sure - but these performances also offered excellent demonstrations of collaboration, teamwork, determination, perseverance, mathematical patterning, physical dexterity, rhythm and self-discipline. Elara and Ingrid engaged the children in short, intensive instructional sessions with high expectations, strong modeling and positive encouragement - resulting, I think, in a wonderful demonstration of how school and education must consider the whole child as we plan for teaching and learning.  Imagine the challenges of trying to teach 465 children, aged 4 - 9, all of these skills independently in 3 weeks!!

In an almost 30-year career in education I have seen many, many changes in how and what teachers teach children - sometimes these changes have been significantly positive and persisted over time while other changes came and left pretty quickly! I think the most profound change, however, has been evolving over the past 10 - 15 years (at least from my perspective) as brain research has begun to recognize and show learning is not compartmentalized into disciplines or specific skills for human beings - just as we are born a whole human being, we learn best the same way. 

In fact, children (and adults) learn as much from what isn't intending to be taught in a lesson as what is - and sometimes more! Partly this is because our brains are wired to make connections all the time whether we intend to or not, partly this is because we learn from the environment, tone, presentation style and body language of our teachers and peers, partly this is because we are always learning from the world, from technology, from each other and not just in school - among other biological and neurological reasons. 

Bringing an understanding of how the brain works into the field of education has been truly revolutionary - the focus is no longer only on the content - where it certainly was when I began teaching - but requires teachers to consider how children learn and the connections they make to the world as well as how to apply, engage and question what they are learning with what they already know and wonder about. 

This has taken the focus off 'doing well' in a particular discipline and moved the focus to 'doing and thinking' regardless of topic since there is acknowledgement all learning is connected in some way

In a way, this seems to me to be an honouring of the human condition - when I think about evolution and how humanity evolved through time I am pretty confident humans learned many things at the same time as a whole being trying to survive and thrive in a challenging and perhaps hostile world. Our brains must have been able to handle a multitude of information simultaneously and capable of making snap decisions while processing many sources of data - that would, I think, mean our brains are still capable of multi-tasking and we do not need to learn everything separately.

Does that mean we never teach one thing at a time? Not necessarily - but what it does mean that as educators we need to be flexible, ready and prepared to offer learning nimbly with opportunities for intentional, direct instruction, but also with opportunities to learn through contexts where multiple skills can be developed simultaneously. The child is always whole, still part of a large world where information is constantly bombarding their brains as they try to make sense of everything. 

In other words, we all learn through as much as we all learn about - and that is an enormous change in how teachers plan for, engage students in, assess and report on learning.  

As teachers we now understand that children acquire a love for reading through their experiences with reading about adventures, science, math and history,  by asking questions and wondering - not only by learning the alphabet and decoding. They learn to love math as they play with real world math concepts and move from concrete manipulations of things like rocks and buttons through to pictorial illustrations they can create or scribble on as they count, divide and sort and finally on to symbolic manipulations, where they are curious about numbers, algorithms and formulas. Children become enthralled with science through trying out ideas, observing, predicting or hypothesizing, asking questions and wondering. They come to appreciate history through stories, explorations, experiences with artifacts and museums, looking at maps and globes, asking questions and wondering. 

And, as educators offer learning possibilities where children are learning through as much as about particular ideas, the 'whole child' also learns skills like collaboration, problem solving, empathy, generosity, questioning and a whole raft of other thinking and learning skills. Brains are engaged, bodies move, voices are heard, skills practiced and refined. Children learn how to be, how to impact, how to invent and improvise, respond and generate original thoughts, questions and representations of understanding. 

Dance programs, artist in residency experiences, field experiences, inquiries, projects, inventions, book clubs, special events - all of these learning engagements offer learning through as well as learning about as they engage the whole child in learning across a spectrum of disciplines. Learning in schools in the first decades of the twenty-first century look and sound like this because we now understand the brain works more successfully in concert (think: a symphony) rather than trying to isolate (think: a tuba). While the brain can isolate, it learns more effectively in concert. 

And so we teach the whole child.  And have great fun in the process - the best bonus of all for children is when school is fun!

Lorraine Kinsman

Tuesday, 3 October 2017

In search of a kinder world...

"Alway remember it is better to be kind than to be right."  - Jimmy Casas 

Sometimes, when your blog drops to the bottom of your do-list during the month of September, the list of possible things to write about seems overwhelming...and then suddenly it is October 3, 2017 and the events of the past four days offer only one topic that seems reasonable to write about - what can be done to make the world a little less cruel - a little more kind - than it has been these last few days?

Because I am an extremely strong advocate of peace education, I frequently say peace education is a strategy for building a kinder, more thoughtful future generation of policymakers, citizens and governance - and I fully believe this to be true. 

However, we all have to live in the world as it is now and that world seems to be increasingly more harsh, violent and intolerant of anything that is not 'right' according to personal views and perspectives. Sometimes, it can feel like "we" are all under attack from a wide variety of "different from us" folks - different ideologies, different mental states, different upbringings, different socio-economic experiences, different cultures, different colours of skin, different clothing styles, different music preferences, different beliefs about everything from taxes to religion to traffic patterns to nuclear armament. 

What can we do? What can those of us in search of a kinder world do? Yesterday, I had a discussion with my grandson about exactly this - what can we do when the whole world seems to have gone a little bit crazy?

Maybe the solution is just to re-focus ourselves - every one of us - on the word 'kind'.

I think this is going to require a grassroots movement from everyone to just stop and take a breath and think 'How can I help this situation become kinder?" 

How might the world change if every person in it just stopped and said or did one kind thing right now...what if we answered every question we were asked with 'A kind way to think of that might be..."

There are some beautiful picture books to help us share the concepts of kindness with our children and to serve as reminders to ourselves that kindness is always better than 'rightness'.   A few of my favourites are:

1) 'What Does It Mean to Be Kind?'  by Rana DiOrio & Stephane Jorisch
2) 'In My Heart' by Jo Witek & Christine Roussey
3) 'Me and Mr. Mah' by Andrea Spalding & Janet Wilson

Last night we read a picture book about kindness together, my grandson and me - being almost 11 is a good reason to still read aloud - and together we resolved to use the word 'kind' every day quite deliberately - at least twice a day. 

Maybe this will make a difference in the world, maybe it won't. But I truly believe the ripples will swell outward from these tiny pebbles of change we are attempting to toss - and one day these ripples of kindness will warmly bump up against and embrace the peaceful learners who are currently in our schools trying so hard to be the very best citizens they can be so their world will truly be a kinder place than the one they are growing up in today.

Say the word 'kind' once a day - seems like a small thing but Jack and I are going to give it a try!

Lorraine Kinsman, Principal

PS - And now the blog is started again for this new school year - I am delighted to be back opening Eric Harvie School for Year #2!