"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!