I’ve been contemplating a blog post for a while and have been really struggling to determine what it is I want to say. Since the change of federal government there has been a lot of attention directed at education, not all of it (hardly any of it) has been helpful, accurate or morale boosting. What I’m wondering is; how much of that is sound and fury. How much of the noise about a ‘back to basics’ approach is just that. What is important to educators, students and the future? Is it the posturing of politicians determined to distance themselves from their predecessors or is it the passion of those people in our schools, childcare centres, flexible learning spaces and all around our country working to inspire, to teach and to engage?
It’s the final term here in Australia, for teachers that means writing school reports, organising end of year celebrations, culminating tasks and, above all else, many opportunities to reflect. I actually don’t mind writing reports, once I sit down to do them rather than the previous weekends spent in avoidance mode. It can be an incredibly rewarding experience, an opportunity to really evaluate students’ progress, not just academically but socially, emotionally and to see how far they’ve come in a year. I’ve been lucky enough to teach some of my students for two consecutive years (small school, composite classes) and it has been wonderful to watch them grow and develop as people, not just in terms of their learning.
As I reflected on what they had achieved it occurred to me that those people who are currently stomping around saying that students need more drills and we need to return to ‘chalk and talk’ really have no idea what is going on in our schools. There’s absolutely no way that students in our schools today would benefit from that style of education. These are students (children) who use technology in almost every aspect of their life, who are used to problem solving, to finding work arounds, to adapting, to manipulating tools and learning as they go. This week my class used iPads to create posters to advertise a farmers’ market they are organising (they are Year 1 and 2 students). Leading up to this they had evaluated different posters, identified features, heard a graphic designer explain how he creates a product and planned their own posters. Over the course of 2 lessons they took photos, imported graphics, experimented with text, colour and layout, evaluated each others’ work and then improved their own based on feedback.
Students were engaged in these activities, they were asking questions, justifying their responses, solving problems, collaborating and reflecting (I’ve got the photos to prove it). Imagine if I asked them to spend the same amount of time sitting at desks, listening to me teach and copy down spelling rules or lists or whatever it is people mean when they talk about ‘back to basics education’ (a topic for a future post). Which activity would have achieved better learning for those students? Which activity is providing them with the opportunity to develop skills they can use and will need in order to participate as engaged and informed citizens? Which activity would lead to the harmonious hum of students on task and which would lead to apathy, loss of motivation and disengagement?
While it might sound like I’m getting a little ranty again, that’s not the purpose of this post. My main point is to share the realisation that I’ve had. No matter what rhetoric the government or think tanks or the media might be peddling we, as educators, recognise what our students need. We are in an incredibly privileged position to watch these students engage in learning in unprecedented ways. There is no stopping them (and good luck Mr Pyne and all those who try). I am not suggesting we do away with explicit teaching by any means. We engage in a range of tasks through which students are explicitly taught skills, such as phonics, mathematics strategies, writing, that are of course fundamental to their learning, and whoever is out there saying that teachers aren’t currently doing this needs to go visit some schools. What I am saying is that perhaps these sessions are no longer the backbone of our structure. Watching my students learn and question and understand has reinvigorated me, what an opportunity we have to engage students, to respond to their interests, to connect with them. How many other occupations provide you with opportunity to build real, lasting and inspirational relationships with your clients? Not many.
I’m beginning to look ahead to the next school year. I always approach this time of year with a certain amount of sadness as I farewell those students with whom I’ve spent the majority of my waking hours for a year (or two). This year, I’m taking the time to thank them for what they’ve taught me, to appreciate how much they inspire and I’m looking ahead reinvigorated and excited for the learning adventures of the future. Surely this is more powerful than the latest government slogan.