Channelling our inner toddler: Why do we do what we do?

WordItOut-word-cloud-951060I’m going to assume that most people have experienced the ‘Why…?’ conversation with a toddler at some point. It’s entertaining for about the first 3 or 4 questions and then you (or at least I) become trapped in a never ending cycle of ‘But, why?’. Often there’s no answer, or no answer easily explained to a 2 year old and at some point the conversation ends with a ‘It just is’ or ‘You’ll understand when you’re older’ leaving neither party feeling terribly satisfied. As frustrating as these conversations can be I wonder if, as educators, there’s something we can learn from toddlers in pushing the ‘Why?’ boundary further than we might otherwise.

Yesterday @cpaterso posted a link to this article from Social Ventures Australia. It’s written by Kevan Collins who heads up the Education Endowment Foundation in the UK. One of the things the EEF does is provide a toolkit that summarises the research on the impact of a number of different education strategies and interventions. It provides links to research, an indication of the price scale of interventions and some issues to consider for educators wanting to implement a similar approach. I really recommend taking the time to look through the website, I’m sure there are shortcomings to the way in which the research has been summarised or even obtained, but for me, as a teacher in a school, it provides an excellent starting point. In the article, Collins talks about innovation and the process that support effective and sustained innovation and discusses the importance of evaluation:

Buying an iPad for every pupil may increase engagement, but schools must measure whether that enthusiasm translates into improved outcomes. Further, outcomes should be judged relative to what went before and against what else could have been achieved for a similar cost. If a less innovative small group tuition program could have delivered the same improvement more cheaply, can the introduction of iPads really be considered a success?

This point particularly resonated with me as I find myself increasingly having conversations with colleagues in my school and beyond that start with ‘Why?’. “Why did you use an iPad for that activity?”; “Why do you need to have a desk and chair for every child?”; “Why does it matter where the books are stored?”; “Why are you scribing under what a child has written independently?”; “Why are you getting students to write about their weekend every Monday?”; “Why…?” Sometimes I ask the question because I’m trying to push a teacher to think about their practice and question their choices and sometimes it’s out of a genuine desire to understand a particular strategy or choice. Either way we engage in a professional discussion and, more often than not, come out of the conversation with a better understanding of why we do what it is we do.

There are so many possible answers to the ‘Why?’ question, arising from a teacher’s philosophy or experience, grounding in research, the needs of particular students, the practices of particular schools, the requirements of syllabus documents and so on. It’s not always the answer that’s important. Just as with the toddler, sometimes it’s the process that matters, just by asking ‘Why?’ we are engaging in questioning our practice, identifying whether or not we do have a sound reason or (and this is my personal pet-hate) we do something because this is the way it’s always been done. With the push to innovate and improve and do things differently I fear that we run the risk of making choices because something looks new or exciting rather than based on a proper analysis of why that places students at the centre.

Providing the space for these conversations and empowering people to question practices is something that benefits all members of a school community and something I am going to be using deliberately with my team next term. I’m looking forward to the discussions that we have.

What do you do to check in with the why? Do you have specific questions you ask your colleagues or yourself? I’d love it if people could share any strategies they’ve used to prompt this sort of thinking.

Education: the heart of it

These are tricky times in education. Educators are faced with funding arguments and uncertainty, accreditation systems lacking coordination, upheaval in the government sector and confusion about employment prospects for new graduates. A career as an educator is one often met with ridicule from the media, lack of respect from the community and a barrage of blame statements from society. Despite all that, beyond the policy arguments, shifting priorities and increasing scrutiny there is absolutely no other job I would rather do. None. Not a single one.

I say this as a fairly experienced teacher, having taught for 12 years now, half in London and half in Sydney, in a range of schools and in a range of roles. This week, it struck home to me just how much I care about my job. It was the first day of the school holidays, where was I? At school, not alone, but with my colleagues, preparing for next term’s learning. There we were, sitting at the computers every so often saying to each other, “I’m really excited about this.”, or “I can’t wait to do this activity.”, or “What do you think about trying this?”. No one made us go into work, we care about what we do and believe in the potential of education, it makes it worth it.

Change can be challenging. It can be confronting. It can mean the end of things you like, or understand, or feel comfortable using. For me change is what I love about education. Change is at the heart of what we do and what we seek to do. Education is change: change in understanding, perceptions, ideas and lives. I can’t remember a term (or a week, or a lesson) where I haven’t changed what I intended to do. I’ve changed my lesson structure or activity in response to student interest or needs. I’ve changed my strategies for classroom management. I’ve changed the way my desks are organised, the technology I use, the questions I ask, the groups I organise for students, the texts I read, the materials I provide and so much more. Sometimes these changes work well, sometimes they don’t, but regardless of that, learning has happened, I’ve learnt, the students have learnt and my colleagues have learnt.

At the moment I’m learning about Project Based Learning. I’m thinking about what student engagement looks like and how I can maximise that. I’m reading, I’m watching videos, I’m asking questions, I’m talking to people and I’m trying things out. I’m excited. How many other careers give you this freedom? The freedom to take charge of your practice, to try new things and to change. This is what excites me about education, this freedom and the potential it holds. The potential for change, change in me, in students and my school community. What a privilege.

A quote from a book I’m reading at the moment struck a chord with me today. Agnes is a librarian in Zambia. The author asked her how she copes with all the difficulties she faces and asks “…isn’t that a challenge for you?”. Agnes’s response was “Yes, it can be challenging. But when you love something, when you love something, you do it with all your heart, all of your passion, and all of your energy.” (Wood J, 2012, Room To Read, p47).

While the challenges I face may be different to those Agnes encounters, her belief in the power of education resonates. I know of no other way to be an educator other than wholeheartedly, passionately and with love. Why would I want to do anything else?

What do you say when people ask why you are an educator? What’s at the heart of it for you?