It’s conference time, and you’re off to the opening keynote. What are you expecting?
Do you want to be entertained, informed, inspired or provoked, or
maybe all of the above? Are you looking for your current thinking to be
affirmed, challenged, or dismissed?
So, which of those emotions will impact on you the most? Which of
them is most likely to have an impact on what you do when you go back to
your school or district, and most importantly, which is likely to cause
you to not only reflect on what you are currently doing but potentially
enable you to make significant change?
For me, I’ve always found speakers usually fall into one of two
camps: “warm baths” or “cold showers.” We love the warm baths because
they’re soothing and they just make us feel good (and don’t we deserve
that?), whereas the cold shower really wakes you up, and shakes you into
reality… into action.
How many cold showers have you taken lately?
The truth is for any workshop or conference you’re never quite sure
what you’re in for, but when it turns out to be a “feel-good” speaker,
you walk away happy with the world. It’s nice isn’t it?
You’re not sure the speaker had any idea about the reality you face
every day in your school, but he or she left you feeling good about
yourself and your world. And then later on when someone who couldn’t
make the opening stops you in a break and asks what the opening speaker
was like, you find it hard to recall anything worthwhile except their
funny stories, their little bit of personal drama..and well, hmm you’re
not sure what the point of it all was.
But the real question is, did their presentation have any substance
at all? Was there anything useful that you could take away, something
Seymour Papert used to say was for “Monday and Someday,” or was it
really just an escape from the reality of your day to day routine?
You see, I think most of the events we attend simply add to the
malaise that has infected our profession, and while we might articulate a
case for being provoked and seeking new ideas, feedback from conference
organizer surveys will tell us that in reality, most people seek
entertainment and affirmation. Sad really.
Maybe it’s because we don’t get enough of either of those in our
daily work, particularly for those in leadership positions, and for the
most part, we are happy to seek out professional learning events that
largely endorse our current thinking and practice?
Now I know all of this might sound a little harsh, but I can promise
you in the light of a broad range of anonymous audience feedback from
several large educational conferences that I have been involved in
running, not too many educators record a delight at being provoked or
challenged around their existing thinking or practice.
It is of real concern that so few leaders appear to be seeking new
ideas that are outside their current “echo chamber” whether that happens
to be on social media or not.
So when you roll up to a major national conference of several
thousand leaders and the opening keynote grabs your emotions with a bit
of comedy and stories of personal recovery that would do well on any
reality show, you’ve got to ask why you went in the first place.
Maybe it’s my age, but I’m looking for conversations that really
matter, that make me think, that move me to take action. I for one, am
sick of the change pretenders, who fantasize about transformation; those
speakers whose keynotes and workshops promise so much and deliver so
little…but keep you entertained nonetheless. They fake concern, they
fabricate bogus language, and worst of all they delude their audience
into believing in quick, ‘drive-by’ solutions.
Sorry, but I just don’t have time for that anymore. To put it another way, as Will said in his post earlier this week, we think “live-by professional learning” is a much more effective alternative to “drive-by.”
So, here’s what you might like to reflect on over the Christmas
break…in between families, friends and hopefully plenty of ‘your time’.
What will be the focus of your learning in 2018?
I know you, like me, have all sorts of priorities in your daily
routine, along with the distractions of the accidental and incidental
glimpses of social and mainstream media that continually catch your eye.
So here’s a thought. Focus on having a focus, because a lack of it
probably explains the lack of longevity for so many past change
Ask yourself, what should be the professional learning priority of a learning professional?
As we move the high bar change agenda forward, it just seems to me
that we desperately need focus, rather than fracture or distraction, so
that we can embed the fundamentals that will sustain the earlier work
to date. It’s time to let go of those “drive-by” events and start
“living-by” professional learning that is focused on the long game.
That means ignoring those distractions, the new shiny objects or
buildings and get a hardened collective focus on learning, even more
about how learning happens in the modern world. Focusing on the human
side of school change that can make that a reality for your students
through a deeper collective understanding of what you, your colleagues
and your broader community mean by learning and in turn focus on the
implications those beliefs have for practice.
Sounds easy? It’s not. Worthwhile? Absolutely. Perhaps some of the
most important work you may ever do, and together with the growing
global community of leaders focused on changing school, undoubtedly the
And unfortunately, this focus will mean the end of those
entertaining, drama-filled, laugh a minute, feel-good keynotes because
after all who needs someone to tell them they should feel good when you
know that the work you are doing is the best you could possibly do, for
you and most importantly, your students.
All the very best for the season. For me, 2018 can’t come soon enough!
Wednesday, 13 December 2017
I caught myself again.
The last time was in 2013 and I wrote about it then too.
What did I catch myself doing? Rushing my children... and, by doing so, denying them countless opportunities to learn.
We've just moved to Paris. Everything is new. At the moment, the newest things are christmas decorations in the streets and the increasingly intense cold. Every morning, my children just want to look, talk, feel, experience, ponder, notice, appreciate and wonder. But, I have caught myself rushing them. Hurrying them up towards some imaginary or completely unimportant deadline - the need to be early, on time or not late.
It doesn't really matter if I'm early, on time or not late. My children matter. their experiences of the world matter.
It's shocking for an educator to do this to his own children. But, we do it to our students every day. We hurry them from lesson to lesson. We dictate their agenda all day. We reduce break times. We don't give them enough time to eat. We decide if they can go to the toilet or not. We treat "inquiry" as a stand-alone subject that we do in the last period, if they're lucky. We make their lives busy, indeed we teach the art of "busyness", as if we don't trust them to do anything of value if we don't.
And yet, we all know that the most powerful learning happens when we slow down, when we give them sustained periods of time, when we don't interrupt and when they're making choices about why, how and what to learn.
Old habits die hard. How much of modern schooling is still "old habits"?
Stephanie Menzies recently completed her Master of Education degree, with her final assessment on play-based learning. Useful websites for play ideas include
www.pinterest.com, www.backtoblocks.com and www.playbasedlearning.com.au
Play-based learning: producing critical, creative and innovative thinkersFebruary 2015
STEPHANIE MENZIES enters a plea to bring play back into the classroom.
Go inside any primary school classroom and look for the ‘play’. Where is it? When did we become so serious with our students and forget to include play? It was only 15 years ago that we could go into any Year 1 classroom and find children playing with play-dough and creating the most spectacular creatures, painting a masterpiece or gluing together toilet rolls to make a spaceship. They were engaging with each other, negotiating, sorting out arguments and establishing friendships. They were imagining, exploring and inventing. It was through taking risks, discovering new ideas and putting these ideas into action that learning took place.
Now it seems such acts of play are a thing of the past. We walk into a typical classroom and find containers of maths equipment that only come out at maths time, musical instruments gathering dust while they wait for the designated timeslot to learn percussion and Lego in buckets under the reading shelves waiting to be used on rainy days.
We are reading a lot lately about having children ‘school-ready’ when they start school, especially so that the transition to school is smooth for the child. Why don’t we turn this thought completely around and ask schools to adopt a play-based pedagogy to reflect the Te Whāriki early childhood curriculum and weave this pedagogy thread throughout all levels of primary school?
Why don’t we play?
Our children have more structure and organisation in their lives than ever before. They get fewer opportunities for play within their classrooms, whether it is free play, supported play or purposeful play. We know the social, emotional, intellectual and cognitive benefits of play based-learning, so why aren’t we brave enough to put some free play back into our classrooms?
I once taught a boy in Nelson, who arrived on his fifth birthday with a bright, cheeky grin that instantly stole my heart. But it was difficult to engage him in any classroom activities. He wasn’t interested in the sand, the water, Lego or the Mobilo. After two weeks of trying to engage him, I visited the local recycling centre and bought an old typewriter and camera. I placed these objects in a tray with screwdrivers and left them out all day. The only rules I attached to them was that there were to be only four children playing at a time and they could only be played with before school started. He started coming to school each morning at 8.30am to dismantle these objects. I would take two minutes out of my morning preparation to go over and greet him, ask him about his family and make comment about the mechanics of what he was doing. We built up a positive connection which turned more into an attachment, and I found he would do anything I required of him in the classroom. We established respect for each other – him respecting me for taking time to get to know him and me respecting him for adhering to the classroom rules and expectations.
There are many reasons why we may not have play-based activities in our classrooms: a perceived loss of power; the amount of imagination required to come up with ideas; the organisation of time, materials, activities and spaces; the classroom may be noisy and messy; students may be talking, laughing and moving around, and you may feel that you are losing all classroom control and management.
But take a look inside an early childhood centre and you will find none of these things bothering the teachers. They set clear expectations of their students and have consistent rules and consequences set in place. They have already done the hard work; primary teachers just have to keep up their practices.
I found my love for play-based learning in a Year 1 class in Hokitika. I had 12 students, including identical boy triplets and identical boy twins. Almost half of my entire class looked remarkably similar and was mostly boys! I was rummaging around in the caretaker’s shed looking for some paint one day and came across an old wooden carpenter’s table along with a dusty box full of child-sized tools. My dad cleaned them all up and sent me back to school on Monday with a box full of wooden off-cuts and shiny clean tools. I set the table up outside my classroom and placed the box of materials beside it. During maths I sent one of the groups outside to the table. I took a breath that lasted the whole lesson and let it out once they were all back inside with all fingers intact and eyeballs still in their sockets. Kevin had a permanent smile on his face because he was allowed to work outside in the sun, James was delighted at his creation of a futuristic space-ship and Becks was the envy of her class when she appeared with a wooden praying mantis including its wooden enclosure. These children had the opportunity to communicate with each other, share materials, practise patience, negotiate, create a masterpiece and have fun!
Our National Curriculum identifies several values and key competencies that we strive to teach our children. Almost all of them can be developed through play-based activities: innovation, inquiry, curiosity, and sustainability, respect, thinking, using language, and managing self, relating to others, participation and contributing.
I propose that we say, ‘enough is enough!’ Children in ALL years at primary school have the right to play, both within their classrooms and in the playground. We know that they become intrinsically motivated through play-based learning (and the need for rewards and star charts may no longer be needed). We know that one of our main goals is to motivate students to learn and we want them to continue to learn long into the future. We know researchers are linking the benefits of play on the developing brain. All around the world, children are engaging in pretend play that simulates the sorts of activities they will need to master as adults, suggesting that play is a form of practice. So give them the opportunity to practice at school, right now in your classroom.
Digitally record the creations your students make and upload them to your class blog. Be prepared to let the child discard their creations when they are finished with them...it’s often the process that is more important for the child than the product!
Give yourself permission to roam around the room observing the children at play, listen to their conversations, take photos for picture stories, sit down alongside them and engage in conversation, identify ‘teachable moments’ and run with them. You will soon work out the right time and place to intervene. Use your intuition, experience, knowledge, expertise and common sense to judge when the time is right.
In order to face the challenges of the 21st century, our children need to be critical and creative thinkers. The industrial age is truly over. We are now ensconced in the knowledge age with its unique challenges that are largely undefined as yet. Why not create a classroom environment to reflect a play-based pedagogy approach which encourages children to think outside the square and be creative? Why not arrange materials in provoking and inviting ways to encourage exploration, learning and inquiry?
We all know that play contributes positively to a child’s sense of well-being. It enhances a child’s natural capacity for intense and self-motivated learning. It helps build creative and critical thinkers, and lets children test social boundaries. Play produces curiosity, openness, optimism, resilience and concentration. It enhances a child’s memory skills, develops their language skills, helps regulate their behaviour, advances their social skills and encourages academic learning to take place.
Why not be that brave teacher who says ‘I’m going to bring play back into my classroom’? Maybe your next PD session could be a visit to a local kindergarten to see the learning that is taking place...through play.
www.pinterest.com, www.backtoblocks.com and www.playbasedlearning.com.au
10 ways to bring back play, have fun and promote learning:
- Buy old suitcases at the op-shop and fill them with various manipulation toys: Lego, Duplo, Meccano, wooden blocks, magnets and an assortment of magnetic and non-magnetic materials. Bring them out at different times of the day and let your pupils spend 15 minutes creating.
- Keep a plastic cube full of natural materials. Children love having a handful of shells, some pieces of branch, some stones and a glue-gun. Trust me on this! Give them these things and stand back and watch the creativity and learning that takes place!
- Collect a box of mechanical junk from the recycling store and add several screwdrivers and Allen keys. Set the box up somewhere in the classroom for the children to go to before school, or on rainy day lunch times.
- Bring out the woodwork table and tools you will find hidden in the back of the caretaker or sports shed. Add a box of wooden off-cuts (not treated wood) and you have created an amazing builder’s paradise! Keep this table just inside your door so you can easily put it outside each day. Offer it to your colleagues’ students to use outside your room. I found I never used to get in trouble for the noise my students made when I offered it to other classes!
- Introduce glue-guns to your classroom along with a large basket full of recycled cereal boxes, perfume boxes, toothpaste boxes, egg cartons, etc. I suggest you use cool glue-guns which can be found at your local supplies store.
- Alternate between having a sand or water tray in your room. Along with learning science and maths concepts, children also have the opportunity to practise their social skills.
- I can’t think of anything better to use ice-cream containers for, than to fill them with play-dough. It is easy to make, can last a couple of weeks and children of most ages enjoy playing with it. Don’t be scared off by the ‘germ-brigade’. Dirty play-dough doesn’t kill, and children over five don’t tend to snack on it!
- Why not include a painting easel into your room and give it the respect one gives a classroom computer. Use watercolour paint cakes with a jar of water and a cloth nearby and let children come and paint when they feel like it. The world will not stop spinning if you let a child spend 10 minutes painting her masterpiece during silent reading.
- Have a box of dress-ups in your classroom. A Year 6 teacher may allow his students to use them every time they present something to the class. This infuses the presentation with laughter and helps put the more nervous students at ease.
- Wooden blocks should be in every classroom at every level in primary school. That’s a no-brainer...all children, at any age enjoy building with blocks.