Category Archives: Education

Possibilities for a School Day

A number of years ago, a colleague and I wrote a blog post about what the ideal school day might look like. This piece was informed by our experiences in schools, our reading of education and well-being, and by the context in which we were in. At the time, I had a clear picture in my head of the type and amount of work it would take to strive for my ideals, and I was excited to share this grand vision with others.

However, I made a number of mistakes in the writing. While key details were clear in my mind, I did not explicitly articulate these, leading to a piece which I have since found to be imaginative rather than aspirational. Most importantly, I failed to mention the basic premise – that the ideas I developed stemmed from a highly specific time and place. In doing so, I assumed that readers shared my understandings about the environment and context within which I wrote, about the roles of schools, and about the roles of educators. 

I now recognise this omission and also acknowledge that this “basic premise” is far from constant. Time and context matter. Consequently, I can only now say that there is no such thing as an ideal school day. This post explores a few factors concerning why.

First, context matters. Schools around the globe are embedded in different contexts, different cultures, different environments. Their communities, furthermore, also vary greatly, from the highly homogenous to the highly disparate. As a result, there is no one size or one model that fits all. Consequently, at its core, the concept of an “ideal school day” begs the question: For whom? And it also raises a very different question: Who’s asking? 

We tend to take it for granted that schools serve a solitary function and that is to help students learn. Of course, they do this through state-mandated or other recognised curriculum, be it academic or social-emotional. But schools also carry certain stated values that are central to their work to the culture of the organisation, values that inform what is important and how we should act towards each other.

Schools also serve other functions, as a look at the history of schooling will tell us. They are a place for children to be safe, they provide time for adults to work while their children are looked after, they provide teachers with employment and income, and that income is then further used within the local community, providing for some security for others.

Consequently, the ideal school day for students, caregivers, governments, social organisations, and teachers might look very different. For example, it is not possible to concede that the ideal school day in a single-sex school in a developing country will be the same as that of a boarding school in a developed country. If we assume that the ideal school day can be a blueprint for all schools, then we find ourselves trapped in a model that merely perpetuates our experience of what a school is, or our culturally informed model of what a school should be.

With this in mind, we need to be aware that the factors in play across educational contexts are disparate, and that such disparity varies across a number of areas. In the case of a teacher’s experience, such factors may be who the students are and where they come from, the function that the school plays within the local and broader society and how teachers interact with such domains, and the physical environment in which the students are learning. Schools are not carbon copies of one another and neither are the communities to which they belong. Therefore, what works in one school cannot simply be dropped into another without careful reflection of the role of the school, without critical thought of opportunities that exist to improve or rebuild the school, and without purposeful action.

However, if we shift the focus from the school to education, we can find commonality. Educators speak of best practice and there are indeed best practices that are informed by what we know about the conditions under which learning can flourish. Such best practices include the strategies and teaching methods that overwhelmingly work – for most students, most of the time. They also include the ways in which we respond to students’ cultural backgrounds, a sensitivity to the differences that students bring with them once they enter the school gate. By all means, educators should cultivate, learn, and develop best practices that work and then adapt them so they are more effectively able to impact the learning of the young people under their care

But even best practice in the classroom, or in the relationships we build with students elsewhere, cannot eliminate problems that schools are not built to solve.

Education is fundamentally about people, and with this comes the awareness and acceptance that we are not all the same. There exists, for example, a myth that students in selective and self-selective schools will turn out just fine no matter what. However, this myth emphasises the environment – classroom, schedule, curriculum, operations – but neglects the individual students and their life experiences and the impact that these doubtless have on their learning. Even the most homogeneous student bodies, just like society, have vast diversity that is often unrecognized. So while it’s convenient and easy to classify people based on what we see, to stereotype, there is a significant danger in doing so because it limits us from looking for what we cannot see.

As such, this is a call for those of us who care for our students and each other to work together to make the learning environment the best it can possibly be as often as we can, to recognise that we are different and that this has implications that we must attend to.  At the same time, we must also acknowledge that schools are complex and that there are certain things that simply must be tolerated in order for the rest of the system to function. We cannot have starting times that differ for each student, we cannot fund individualized learning in the models that exist, we have to run buses and integrate with other sectors of society. Schools, after all, are part of social systems. They do not exist in a vacuum, though they are often upheld as the places where miracles should occur. This is the expectation of schools even though other formal and informal institutions within social systems change, crumble, grow, or disappear. As they are parts of such social, economic, and political networks, schools are impacted by that which surrounds them. They have to exist in specific times and places for society to function and this is one of many constraints placed on education.

That there cannot be a universal school idea does not obviate us from trying to do the right thing by young people. On the contrary, understanding that there are things that we can do, despite the time and place that schools find themselves in, compels us to act.

And so, I am going to extend a value judgement here (such is the freedom of blogging) and state that all educational environments should aim to do the following:

  1. Build a sense of community that emphasises relationships and interaction and do so in ways that do not incur any significant additional resources. For example, having shared mealtimes, intentional cross groupings of students for certain valued activities, or morning gatherings.
  2. Help students understand that the world is complex. All too often in schools we present scenarios that students explore but do so without the intent to help them understand the intricacy of such ideas. This requires careful planning and action to guide students through a gradual (perhaps years long) development of thought and understanding. It requires exposing students to ideas that they may otherwise not be aware of, or working with them to correct misunderstandings that they may have.
  3. Raise good people, people who value each other and what exists, through an emphasis on mutual respect and genuine care for one another and the world around us.

I can tell you how I try to do this but I am well aware that this is within my current context and the others I have encountered. This is my experience. I have been a different person, a different educator, for different groups of students with different needs; in fact, this is not simply a case of the school I might be working in, but also with the people I am working with in different courses and different sections of each course. Even such seemingly simple context matters and as a result, educating requires deep attention to purpose and to the ebb and flow of learning and growing.

This is a tall order, no doubt. But we cannot ignore that it is important if we are to help young people learn. We cannot ignore that the differences of time and place we find ourselves in must be taken into account, but also that there exist key principles which transcend such differences. And so, we need to work within what is important to the society in which we chose to live, while at the same time striving to live the principles I noted above. We cannot succeed if we try, working in isolation, to turn a learning environment into something that it is not. And perhaps we shouldn’t, for that would suggest that our thoughts are superior to those of the people around us.

Education is a craft that is continuously developed and honed in order to do the best we can in the circumstances that we have, which means that an “ideal school day” cannot be prescribed. However, this question, treated sensitively, can be a starting point for asking difficult questions. Nevertheless, there is a constant in education and this is that we work with people. And for that reason, first and foremost, we need to attend to our people.

A Few Words from Ms. Frizzle

Children from the 90s (and probably their parents) will likely recognise the line: “Take chances, make mistakes, get messy!”. A bit of internet research told me that The Magic School Bus changed significantly when it was remade in 2017, the twentieth anniversary of its cancellation, and now I feel utterly ancient.

But that line, “Take chances, make mistakes, get messy!”, brings the same smile to my face as it did when I watched the fabulous Ms. Frizzle, the red-haired elementary school science teacher with the wildest themed dresses, bring learning to life. In elementary school I was given the character of Ms. Frizzle for a school play and I could not have been more excited. I had a denim long-sleeved dress that I used to wear with tights (elementary school in the 90s, folks) and my mum pinned toy plastic fruits all over it to create a Ms. Frizzle look. An older student wrapped my hair in bright orange yarn that was a nightmare to remove. But Ms. Frizzle I was.

This came back to me earlier today when I was riding my bike to school. I was feeling extremely pleased with myself for replacing the tube in the rear tire with a tube I’d previously patched, a lifeskill that I had just performed independently for the first time. It might be embarrassing that I’ve only learned to do this at age 30 but I was just so tickled by it. It was a lovely sense of accomplishment and its impact on me led to more significant reflections on my role as an educator.

As a high school teacher, I’ve spent my career encouraging young people to try new things. At my current school, we have gone as far as making our Theory of Knowledge course pass/fail in order to encourage students to take academic risks without having to fear significant consequences. With this model, we can fully live our words: It’s okay to try something and it’s okay if it doesn’t go well because we can try something else next time.

In a broader context, it’s easy to talk about creating safe, supportive, inclusive educational environments. But it is essential (and much harder) to build them with honesty and intentionality. We can’t claim that it’s important to learn from mistakes, for instance, if we don’t allow students the chance to make them without repercussions.

Anyone who has ever learned anything has likely experienced a moment of doubt. Doing something new for the first time certainly has that potential and this can be confronting. Yet, we demand courage of young people far more frequently than we, the adults, are willing to accept for ourselves. And even when we expect the mistakes from young people, we are often not particularly forgiving when they occur.

The gravity of these thoughts are in sharp contrast to my experience in yesterday’s bike fixing endeavours, which ultimately extended to the brakes and the chain once I headed out for a test ride. It took multiple scrubs in the shower to get the grease off my hands, feet, legs, and arms (mhm true story) and I had to wash the freshly washed floor (I wish I were kidding) twice to get the black streaks off porous white tile. I giggled inwardly the whole time.

Imagine if more of our world could be like that.

We know that our early experiences socialize us to the world we live in and inform our understanding for a very long time. Some never learn to think beyond the black-and-white world of childhood, and others cast it all away without recognising its power or value. I think there’s a beautiful place to find in the middle when we have the opportunities to play in the sandbox with abandon, to make a mess knowing that putting it back together is feasible. Had I not been able to fix the bike, a few phone calls would have brought me to a friend’s house or to the uncle shop down the street. If I couldn’t scrub the floor to my satisfaction, they sell cleaning products for far bigger jobs than this.

And what this experience reminded me is that repairing and reconstructing is probably far more possible in most circumstances than we might think. A bit of courage and a lot of humility are appropriate here and this is all part of what it means to live fully. When the world seems too large to handle it not because it is, but because we have not put ourselves in a place where we’re willing to take the risks associated with trying to manage it.

“Take chances, make mistakes, get messy!” Ms. Frizzle taught. Worse comes to worst, we have to take the responsibility of cleaning up.

Amsterdam, Netherlands – April 2018

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How to Have a Conversation

Recently I talked with a student who has a bit of a reputation. I’m teaching this student, we’ll call him Jay, for the second year now and I teach him in two courses, IBDP Psychology and Theory of Knowledge. Like many individuals, young and old alike, Jay behaves differently in different contexts and around different people. When I met his mother for the first time she introduced herself as the mother of this “infamous” (her word) young man and told me to reach out if I had any problems.

I’ve taught more than a few of “those kids” over the years and I really like them. I really just like young people, actually, and that’s among the reasons I have chosen to work with them. My conversation with Jay highlighted the importance of having conversations, real ones about real things, with the young people we are raising and with anyone willing to take part.

Conversation

Oral exchange of sentiments, observations, opinions, or ideas

https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/conversation

It started because Jay asked, while reviewing his psychology notes, whether it’s true that being in an MRI with a nipple piercing can kill you. I answered the question the way I try to answer all questions from all people, which is in the spirit that they are meant. This was a real question for this student and it was important to address it as such.

After MRIs, we talked about tattoos, parents, and schoolwork. This led us to talk of what he actually enjoys and we talked about his experiences in the working world. We talked about what it means to be a good person and what it means to do the right thing, and about global politics and the current state of his country of origin. And through it, I learned a lot about who Jay is and how he sees the world.

Upon leaving the room, I wondered two things. First, would this conversation have happened had I not responded openly and respectfully to the question about piercings and MRIs? And furthermore, how many opportunities like this do we miss?

I have written about this before, particularly in a very old blog post that you can read here. (This is an example of a piece of writing on which I have not wavered, which is not true for everything I’ve written.) It is worth revisiting because conversation is important and conversation with young people is critical to who they become and the world that they know. If we want young people to engage with the world around them and improve it, we as adults need to walk through this world with them. We need to guide, support, facilitate. We need to respect, listen, hear, and respond. We need to do this with young people but also with one another. Without conversation, without connecting with others, we will be unable to make the world a better, more peaceful place.

I worry that authentic conversation is not a priority, however, and perhaps there are good reasons for this. There are indeed times when something else should come first. But do we lay ourselves bare in conversation as often as we could? Do we accept that this is a time for being vulnerable and for welcoming vulnerability in others?

Or are there conversations that we prefer not to have, leading us to shy away from any conversation at all? “I don’t like confrontation,” an old friend used to say. We are no longer in touch and I don’t know why, but I suspect it has to do with a conversation we never had.

Confrontation
A face-to-face meeting; the clashing of forces or ideas

https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/confrontation

This is an important point: Conversation is not confrontation. There are plenty of ways to have what I have learned to call courageous conversations that are not confrontational, are not arguments. There is a resolution in the end but not a winner. The frame of conversation is critical to engagement. I will respond much more openly to an invitation to talk openly with you if I know neither of us are looking to win in a zero-sum argument.

Lately I have become interested in SCARF, a model by David Rock that addresses five domains of human social experience that have profound affects on brain function and therefore our responses to other people. The five domains are: status, certainty, autonomy, relatedness, and fairness. These domains activate either threat or reward networks in the brain, much in the same way as snarling dogs and money. Neuroscience has demonstrated that we are less capable of solving problems and thinking clearly or creatively when we feel threatened. It is no wonder that confrontations and arguments are unpleasant, inconclusive, and often lead to unwelcome changes in relationships between individuals. Along these lines, it is not a surprise that we grow defensive when our status, sense of certainty, personal autonomy, feelings of relatedness, and sense of fairness are threatened. We throw up walls and we become untouchable in order to protect ourselves, and our minds do not work clearly.

This is not the case in conversation. A conversation can be, and important ones often are, confronting to the self without being confrontational towards another person. We can disagree but not argue. Instead of trying to be right or convince someone else that they’re wrong, we can talk with the aim of understanding where, why, and how we’re different. Minds may or may not change but we will all come out wiser, wiser about who we are and about how to understand and interact with the people around us.

There is much we can learn when we are brave enough, strong enough, open enough, to try. Willingness to be vulnerable is essential; it is the way to know ourselves and to show ourselves to others. This is how we must be if we want a world, and I do, in which we hold one another in the palms of our hands. Within such vulnerability is a great strength that allows us to take each other by the hand and forge a path together.

A place to begin is by hearing others and responding in ways that show we are listening. A place to begin is to hear Jay ask about piercings and enter into a conversation about life and the universe.