‘Needs’ or ‘Wants’

I couldn’t begin to tell you how many times I’ve explored with students the difference between ‘needs’ and ‘wants’. It’s often a very entertaining activity, their definitions are generally very different from my own, but then after a while we reach an agreement about what these terms mean for them and for children all over the world. (For those of you who also teach this topic, there’s some great resources from the UN, here’s an example.) I wonder though if it would be worth doing a bit of a revision on these concepts for adults, particularly adults involved in education, and even more particularly those who have a say in education funding.

Last week I attended a conference about education. I was very lucky to be able to attend, and it really was inspiring hearing from so many educators about the difference they are making in the lives of students all over Australia. I’m looking forward to reflecting on the ideas with my own school team and really thinking about what we can learn from these experiences. However, while there were a number of sessions focused on teaching and learning, a significant amount were about capital works building projects. I probably should have expected this, given that the conference promotional material talked about ‘learning spaces’ but I naively took the view that learning spaces are about so much more than bricks and mortar. Oops. It was while listening to these talks, that a few common themes emerged. Firstly, if your students are to have any hope of learning, you must knock down walls. Physical walls, not the metaphorical ones. Secondly, go forth and purchase curved furniture in all colours of the rainbow, students will not learn if your furniture is rectangular and dull. Thirdly, if you have a 25 metre pool you will need to build a 50m pool. This, my fellow educators, is a need.

Apologies for going somewhat heavy on the sarcasm just then, but this was the message that was presented by most, not all, of the speakers. It will shock no one to know that most of these presenters came from independent schools. What saddened me to my core was the fact that these renovations were enabled, at least in part, by our current school funding model. The fact that one school is able to determine a 50m pool as a need highlighted for me the complete absurdity of this system. There is absolutely, in no way that this meets anyone’s definition of a ‘need’. What it does point to is the gross inequity about what school needs are perceived to be by different members of the community. There is such disparity in this that I really have no words left to describe how upset it makes me feel. 

As I reflected on this situation and tried to analyse my response to it, a few other things became clear. The first being, that obviously no one ‘needs’ a 50m pool, this is by anyone’s definition a ‘want’, no child’s education is going to be improved by having one or hampered by not having one. Let’s take that off the table. The big question is, what to do students really ‘need’ in order to learn. This is far too big a question for me to answer here, there are reams of research about the answer to that, some of the consistent themes are: a teacher who cares; feedback; a safe and supportive learning environment (no mention of rainbows or curves); opportunities to make choices; relationships; authentic experiences and the list goes on. The thing to note is that all of these, all of them are possible in any learning environment regardless of the furniture. What I wonder is, are we being distracted from the main thing, are our heads being turned by colourful furniture, glass walls and whiteboard paint? What we are looking for is the best education possible for our students. Is this focus on buildings just another way of schools who have the money finding a way to differentiate themselves from schools with less money because they know, the research tells us it’s so, that once socio-economic status and parental levels of education are taken out of the mix, private schools make minimal (if any) difference to the educational outcomes of their students. Is furniture the new battle ground? Is it a case of the Emperor’s New Chairs?

I do believe in the difference that learning spaces make to student engagement and I have removed tables and chairs from my room and am exploring different options for the classroom environment. I did it on a $300 budget. Do I need $30000? No. Would it be nice to have that money? Absolutely! Would it make any difference to the learning outcomes of my students? The jury’s out on that one. I don’t need money to change the learning space. The fact that independent schools are choosing to spend their money that way is because they want to, and because they’ve got the money. Why do they have that money? Because our current funding system is not not needs based. The biggest thing I took away from the conference was just how very inequitable our funding system is. My students don’t need sofas and glass walls on which to write, they do need a system that gives them a fair chance at competing with their peers who already have the odds stacked in their favour. Imagine what an equitable funding system could do for a system that already shows its strength in the results it is achieving. Let’s say no to pools, and yes to equity.

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This is my classroom. It looks different at the end of every day as students engage with the space and make choices about where and how they learn best. That’s the point. No pools needed.

 

Empowering learners (that includes you, teachers)

First week of school is always a roller coaster of anticipation, planning, adapting, winging it. There a things about it I love: like meeting my new class, getting to know them, seeing the potential for the year; and bits that are harder to fully appreciate: last minute changes to classes, timetables, rosters; realising after 10 minutes that I’ve pitched a lesson at completely the wrong level and the constant thinking, planning, worrying. On the whole though, for me the good far outweighs the challenging. Fresh starts, shiny shoes and that buzz of excitement that fills the first week win every time.

This year one of the things that’s made the first week particularly exciting is that I’m trying out a more flexible learning space. I spent a lot of time over the summer reading, talking to people and thinking about how a space impacts on learning. This is one of my favourite parts of being an educator, the potential for change and improvement. I believe that teaching is at it’s core fundamentally innovative, every day, every lesson we are in a position to innovate, to respond to students flexibly, to adapt, to experiment. I just love it.

I’ve started small with changing the learning space, I wanted my students to have something familiar to begin with so they felt comfortable and could interact with the environment as they felt ready. It has been so inspiring to see how they chose to use the different spaces and furniture and the care they took with these decisions. This week I only had half my class, the Year Ones, as the Kindergartens start on Monday. This has made it easier for them to explore different options. The thing that stuck out for me was how much they thought about where and how they would work and how well they worked in these spaces. When they chose their space they all, without exception, focused on their task fully in a way that I hadn’t expected. It was also interesting to see who consistently chose to work alone, in spaces very much apart from other students, something that I had deliberately allowed space for after reading Susan Cain’s book, ‘Quiet’.

On Friday afternoon I asked them what they thought about the classroom and if we should change anything. They had amazing, practical ideas. We need to move the bean bag because it’s in the way at the moment, we should use the cushions better and the coffee tables should be together, for a start. They are so excited to take responsibility for this environment, one student has allocated himself ‘cushion organiser’ and will set up the cushions every morning. They pack away the furniture at the end of each day without being asked and they are the most settled I have ever seen a class by the end of week one. Why? I believe it’s because they feel empowered, they’ve been given the opportunity to make choices about their learning and they have risen to this challenge. I can’t wait to see what impact this has on their learning and their social and emotional development over the year.

As to me, I also have been empowered, I was able to choose the furniture for my classroom, I haven’t had to work with a set of standardised desks and chairs. I was empowered to research, to explore and to present my rationale for these changes. I was empowered to reflect on my practice and to seek to change it in order to improve the outcomes for my students. This is what excites me, this is what makes me love my job. As empowered learners there is no end to what my students and I can achieve.

How was your first week? What are you trying this year? How are you empowering your students and yourself?

This is how my classroom looked this week, it will look different on Monday and I can’t imagine what it will look like by the end of the year. Exciting times.

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