Sandra, my two year-old-daughter, has a wooden puzzle in front of her with a series of doors. Behind the doors sit magnetized objects, each corresponding to the image painted on the front: the cow rests in the barn, the turkey cooks in the oven, the bird perches in its cage. Sandra became fascinated with these puzzles when she was about a year old, presenting me with a dilemma: what to do when she puts the object in the wrong box.
I’ve watched many parents over the years play similar games with their children. Generally what I’ve witnessed is the child places the dog in the oven and the parent responds, “No, Carlos, the dog doesn’t go there. Where does the dog go?” The child looks up, hears the word “no,” moves the dog to another location, perhaps the birdcage, and then looks up again to see if Mommy is smiling (she isn’t, the dog belongs in the doghouse).
When I became a parent, I’d previously taught in classrooms for 20 years, so I find my parenting largely informed by the choices I’ve made as a teacher. I’ve always believed we should nurture children’s imagination and help them to see possibilities in their own lives as well as in the world around them. In other words, our work as teachers is about opening doors rather than closing them. Which brings us back to the puzzle. When Sandra places the dog in the wrong location, how do I respond?
There are times in our lives when we do need to know the right answer—which button to push on our television’s remote control to turn it on, for instance. However, we also want to be able to think outside of the box and explore possible options that might be beyond the set of choices that are put before us. Is it possible to have it both ways?
I decided when she played with her puzzle to never tell her she was wrong. When she was one year old, I would play the game with her. As she placed objects wherever she liked, I’d be working on the same puzzle placing them behind their “right” door. But now around the age of two, an age where she understands language and can speak in small sentences, I realized a different approach was possible.
One day, as Sandra began putting all the objects behind various “wrong” doors, I wove an imaginary tale explaining why that particular object, at the moment, is resting in that location:
- It’s nice that you put the lunch in the garage. I’m sure the workers will appreciate something to eat around lunchtime.
- Oh, the dog is going into the barn. He’s a good friend with the cow and I hope they have a nice time together.
- You’re putting the cookies in the gift box. I think someone will love to receive your homemade cookies as a present.
- The dog’s going into the birdcage! Oh no! I hope the bird is somewhere else. I’m not sure if they are friends.
Some might argue, “But there is a right answer. The puzzle came with all the objects in the correct places.” It most certainly did, and my daughter mastered that a long time ago. Now it’s time for the real learning to begin. By putting the objects in a variety of locations, Sandra creates what psychologists refer to as conceptual blending. When the brain is forced to bring disparate concepts together, it must work harder as different parts of the brain are activated. Once you learn where the objects go, it’s quite easy to keep repeating the same activity, but when you place the object in a different slot your brain must think, “Hmm, how can I make sense of the fact that these two images that appear to have no relation are now together?” Now the puzzle becomes infinitely more interesting, even for adults, as we must invent narratives that might explain why the dog is now in the lunchbox. Sandra now enjoys putting the objects in different places and we laugh together at the disjunctive associations.
I arrived at this solution because I simply wasn’t comfortable telling my daughter the dog was in the wrong place. Who determines the right place for the dog to take a nap? Such approaches to the simple dilemma of a puzzle mirror the daily choices I make in the classroom. I have the same hopes for my students and my daughter. I hope they are able to see many solutions to a given problem. I hope they approach the world with a sense of imagination and adventure. Perhaps most importantly, I hope they may see things from different perspectives, and realize that indeed, the dog might be much happier resting in the barn.
This week at Habla we’ve had several extraordinary educators from around the world visiting: Anne Thulson, Arnold Aprill, and Terry Blackhawk. Along with the formal presentations for the community that are part of our “Pedagogy of Creativity” series, we created an informal opportunity for our visitors and local educators to share an “aha moment” over the last year when they deepened or changed a particular aspect of their work. You can read about some of them here on Arnold Aprill’s blog. Here is my story:
In working with teens and adults we’ve all witnessed the post-lunch slump. Our classes, workshops, and meetings are filled with energy in the mornings, with everyone fresh from a night of sleep and amped up on coffee, only to be followed by an afternoon where we can barely muster the energy to offer an idea. We’re all just trying to make it through the rest of the day.
I’ve been facilitating day-long professional development workshops for teachers for many years. In the mornings, my colleagues and I demonstrate how teachers can incorporate a variety of performance activities into their curriculums. We take teachers through an active process of reading, writing, and performing. Everyone is energetically engaged . . . then we have lunch.
In November, Eileen Landay, my coauthor of A Reason to Read, and I presented a day-long workshop at the Coalition of Essential Schools Fall Forum. After lunch we decided the teachers would sit to work in groups and consider ways to take the ideas of the morning back to their classrooms. As they worked I saw the zombie-like stupor take hold. We mixed the groups up again to share ideas, and this helped, but still, it wasn’t the kind of vibrant process we had experienced in the morning.
The next week I was presenting another day-long workshop for teachers in South Portland, Maine with my colleague John Holdridge. I knew we could do better.
When the teachers entered the room after lunch we didn’t let them sit down. John said, “By the time I count to 10 please be in a standing circle . . . 1,2,3 . . .” We introduced a childhood game to get them back in the space and working together. John demonstrated the game Rock, Paper, Scissors to the teachers and asked them to play a version of it in pairs (little did I know about the history of this game and the variations of it but there were several introduced in the room). Then we asked the question, “When this morning did you feel you were most challenged?” They had a quick conversation with their rock-paper-scissors partner and then returned to the circle. We then instructed, “Change places in the circle by the count of 5″ and everyone quickly crossed over and found a different spot. We asked them to find a new partner and play a quick game called “Thumbs Down” (see below). After this we asked, “What was your experience working with the text this morning?” (in the morning we had participated in a process of bringing a chapter of Seed Folks to life with a variety of performance techniques). After this conversation we gathered again in a circle, changed places, and then John asked them to grab a partner, choose a letter from their names they have in common, and physically represent that letter.
We repeated the process several times of a) having conversations in pairs; b) returning to the circle; c) changing partners; and d) playing a quick physical activity.
Some might think playing physical games between conversations is a ridiculous waste of time. But what I found is that when we interspersed discussions with “play”, the room filled with laughter and energy, not just during the games themselves, but also during the task-oriented conversations. The discussions were much more animated as teachers energetically exchanged ideas, a stark contrast to the previous conference’s post-lunch slump.
When it came to more extensive conversations, and planning for classroom implementation, we asked the teachers, in pairs, to go for a thirty-minute walk discussing how they would like to use the set of ideas from the morning session in their own practice. It wasn’t until nearly the end of the afternoon session that the participants actually sat down in groups and planned on paper what they hoped to accomplish in their classrooms.
We spend a lot of time sitting, not just in schools, but also at work and at home. New research suggests the detrimental effects of sitting too much for adults as well as kids. I’m not sure if it’s time to throw out the desks and conference tables, but a little more moving around sure wouldn’t hurt.
Find a partner and face each other arms length away. One partner puts hands out palms up. The other partner puts hands in a thumbs-down position with the thumbs in the partners palms. Everyone begins playing the game where the palms-up person tries to slap the top of the hand of the thumbs-down person before he/she pulls away. Go for 3 out of 5 and switch sides.
What other ideas do you have for “planning on your feet”? Feel free to add your ideas in the comment section. Thanks!
Previously published here on the Harvard Graduate School of Education blog, “Voices in Education.”
Many years ago when I was a student in a teacher certification program, one of our daily requirements was to observe the classroom of a different teacher in the school. Many of my colleagues complained about this assignment—sitting in someone else’s class when you have papers to write, hundreds of pages to read each week, and your own class to teach can seem like a waste of time—but for me this was the most important part of the program. I did my student teaching in a large urban high school, and, like any public school, it had a handful of teachers who were in my view exceptional, many that were fine, and a few that probably needed to be in another profession. I observed them all.
It’s obvious that a young teacher has much to gain by watching an excellent teacher, but what is there to learn from an average or even poor one? I challenged myself to learn one thing that I could incorporate into my own practice from every teacher. When I walked into Nancy’s room, a biology teacher in an urban high school, I immediately noticed the aesthetic beauty of the space: lush aquariums along the windows, lab spaces for the students with all of the proper equipment in place, and a multi-colored agenda of what the day’s work would be. On her agenda the words “lab report” were surrounded with an illustration of an explosion like the “BAM!” in a Batman comic book. When she began the class she announced, “The lab report is your chance to express your ideas, to tell everyone what you’ve learned. You want to convey that ‘aha’ moment to the rest of us.” Today, I still begin my classes with an agenda, and more importantly, I hope I convey the same enthusiasm about my students’ work that Nancy did.
Throughout my now twenty years in the field of education, whenever I have sat in a classroom (whether to coach new teachers or to participate in a professional development workshop offered by a colleague), I have always entered the experience with anticipation. Rather than thinking only of what I can offer as an experienced teacher or, worse, having an “I’ve seen it all before” attitude, I ask, “What stories does this classroom have to tell? What can I learn to incorporate into my own practice?” I approach every experience in my fellow teachers’ classes with a sense of inquiry, and this makes my time spent in educational spaces invigorating because I always have more to learn.
In the last few years, as I wrote the book A Reason to Read: Linking Literacy and the Arts, my colleague Eileen Landay and I applied this approach to writing about education. When we visited schools, sat in classrooms, or taught our own students, we looked for the stories that each group of teachers and students had to tell. Each chapter of the book begins with one of these stories—Flor, who endlessly drew pictures of birds in her English classroom in Mexico; Russell, who wrapped himself up in a stage curtain and wouldn’t come out; Daniel and his students in Brazil, who organized a peace demonstration in their small town of Inhumas.
Stories of success describing real teachers and students provide us with multi-dimensional portraits of what life is like in the rough-and-tumble world of schools, capturing both the beauty and challenges of teaching and learning. As teachers we are inundated by seemingly endless top-down mandates that tell us what we ought to be teaching. What we need much more of is time for teachers to observe and have conversations about each other’s practice. At the policy level we need to dedicate fewer resources to educational experts sitting in rooms developing lists of standards and tests and more toward discovering what inspirational on-the-ground teaching looks like. When Malcolm Gladwell was asked where story ideas for his influential books like The Tipping Point and Outliers came from, he answered that he doesn’t write about famous people or those who hold all the power. He said, “You don’t start at the top if you want to find the story.” The stories that we need to find and tell live in our classrooms. They reside in the daily interaction of students and teachers. If we are to find ways to transform our schools, we must spend more time in our fellow teachers’ classrooms working to understand these stories of true educational change.
Tuesday night's Parent Book Club on "Teach Your Children Well" was so packed with information that Kurt and I decided to cut a part of his terrific essay, "Dance Like No One's Watching." But after re-reading the parts we cut, and talking with my father, who (also) taught public school for his entire career, I decided that these small but important bits are vitally important to another part of the discussion: if we are going to foster true learning and help kids develop a roadmap for authentic success, we're going to have to talk about teaching, too.
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Previously published here on the Huffington Post.
During the Great Depression Myles Horton and a group of committed educators founded Highlander Folk School. Based on Dutch models of adult education centers, Horton built the school to provide a place where adults who shared a common cause could meet to hash out their ideas regarding how to better organize to promote social change. The first groups to gather at Highlander were workers and labor leaders who organized unions in the South. Later, the school would serve as a fulcrum for the civil rights movement by helping to inspire Citizenship Schools. Teachers from the black communities ran the schools themselves, focusing on teaching the basic skills of reading and writing necessary at the time for voter registration. In Frank Adam’s history of Highlander he explains, “From two words—ought and is—arises the tension out of which people will learn and act.”
Today’s school reform movement is a battle over the “is” and the “ought.” Perhaps it’s not too hard to agree on the “is”—problems we are facing in our public schools, particularly when it comes to equal opportunities for all of our nation’s youth—but what seems to be most debated is what ought to be: what are the goals of school reform and how might we reach these goals?
Unfortunately in reaching for solutions, we have silenced the voices of those who matter most. We are seeing across the United States—and in many countries around the world—the disenfranchisement of our teachers. Education policy makers at every level—city, state, and federal—have become an oligarchy that ascribes to a few common principles: 1) a school’s success or failure is determined by students’ performance on standardized tests; 2) it is the fault of teachers when students perform poorly on these tests; 3) if students do not rapidly improve, schools and individual teachers need to be held accountable; 4) accountability, by federal mandate, might involve the state taking over the school and firing all the administrators and teachers, thus “reforming” the school from the bottom up.
Such measures are often justified by policy makers with statements such as “we’re doing what’s best for the students.” However, what they often don’t take into account is the fragility of the overall school community, made up certainly of students, but also of teachers, parents, community partners, school staff, and administrators. Education relies on the day-to-day interaction among real people in a shared space. We cannot impose a rigid set of expectations and then believe that our teachers will be able to teach thoughtfully and creatively.
School principal and education writer Debbie Meier describes the critical relationship that exists between the world of the teachers and the world of the students:
Students learn a lot from the company they keep—including the intellectual habits of their teachers. We’re never going to get kids to approach science or literature thoughtfully if their own teachers do not have the space or time for thoughtfulness, much less permission to practice it. Adults need to model the habits of mind they want their students to adopt—good judgment, the exercise of reason, respect for differences, a willingness to try new things, and the courage to ask hard questions. But teachers who are “just following orders”—implementing a one-size-fits-all program in accordance with an experimental protocol—are not helping their students learn these lessons.
The National Research Council of the National Academies of Science recently reported that the most important skills students need in the 21st century workforce fall into three categories: cognitive skills, interpersonal skills, and intrapersonal skills. Two of these categories emphasize our ability to relate with others and our capacity for self-reflection and improvement. A system that views its teachers like cogs in a machine is not one that is likely to foster these skill sets at any level.
Through our top-down mandates and ubiquitous talk of “accountability,” we are discouraging teachers from fostering creativity and innovation in their own classrooms. Lately, I was having dinner with a teacher at a high school that fired all its teachers and then was “reconstituted,” to use the Department of Education’s term. I remember walking down the hallways of this urban school many years ago and feeling such a strong sense of community and warmth. I asked him if the school still felt like this after the draconian changes. The teacher responded, “I’ll tell you the truth Kurt, the school has lost its sense of humanity.”
Yes, we do have a great deal of work to do, particularly around providing equal educational opportunities for students in all of our public schools. In the tradition of Highlander, we must take a critical look at the “is” and find ways to reach the “ought.” Also like Highlander we must arrive at solutions by honoring the intelligence, creativity, and the on-the-ground knowledge of the dedicated teachers in our nation’s schools. Perhaps by working alongside rather than against teachers, we can shift the educational climate back to a place where the very humanity of the student and the teacher are valued again.
Previously published here at the Huffington Post.
As my wife and I were driving home one night on the highway from Merida, Mexico, the capital city of the Yucatan where we work, to our home in Cholul, the small pueblo right outside of the city, we somehow stumbled onto the topic of how many continents there are in the world. I mentioned seven and she indignantly replied:
“Seven! What do you mean seven: there are only five!”
“Five!” I responded. “What are you talking about? What are the five?”
“América. Asia. Europe. África. Oceanía,” she said naming the five continents she learned in her elementary school in Merida.
After asking what Oceanía is in English (Australia), I listed the seven continents as I learned them in elementary school in the United States. After futilely arguing for a bit about who was right and who was wrong (luckily we were close to home so the argument didn’t have much of a chance to escalate), we promptly looked up the “answer” on Wikipedia.
Wikipedia in English immediately identifies the seven continents. I’m right! But — wait a minute — Wikipedia in Spanish presents us with a chart of different possibilities ranging from four to seven with the explanation roughly translated, “In reality there isn’t one fixed way to determine the number of continents. It depends on each cultural area to decide if two large masses of earth joined together form one or two continents, and if specifically Asia and Europe or North and South America are one or two continents.”
So in fact, neither of us is either right or wrong. The “correct” answer depends on where in the world you were educated and taught to memorize the “right” answer of four, five, six, or seven. Asking our guests how many continents there are has become a fun dinner party game when we have visitors from different parts of the world. If they aren’t aware of the varied definitions of what constitutes a continent, a hearty argument always ensues.
In school we are taught to memorize many facts — seven continents, fifty states in the United States, 1 + 1 = 2 — but rarely are we encouraged to question these supposed facts. What would happen if we posed each of these as questions? First, we would teach students that the skill of questioning is of equal or perhaps even more importance than providing the correct answers. Students would also learn that having a flexible stance on a particular issue, reconsidering our own assumptions, being able to see something from another person’s perspective, and moving beyond who is right and who is wrong, are vital dispositions to have not only for dinner conversations, but for everything from working on a project together, to effectively communicating with your partner, to succeeding in international diplomacy.
Learning that 1 + 1 = 2 is important, and certainly an engineer designing a bridge would argue there are times when finding the right answer is critical. But it’s quite fun to think of instances where we might question this equation, even if this moves us from the field of mathematics into linguistics (1 pair of shoes + 1 pair of shoes = 4 shoes or 1 ball of clay + 1 ball of clay = 1 large ball of clay). George Cantor, the inventor of set theory in mathematics during the nineteenth century felt that “in mathematics the art of asking questions is more valuable than solving problems.” Teaching students to investigate deeply, to ask many questions, to consider multiple points of view, and to imagine numerous possible answers is perhaps much more important than teaching students to memorize and recite the fifty states. “Why is Puerto Rico not a state? Should it be? Who decides what is a state? What were the territories before they were states?”
Yet we have about 45 million students taking standardized tests across the United States. With this many tests, how can states possibly evaluate complex and creative answers to interesting questions? Open-ended questions must be graded by an actual person which costs significantly more than a multiple-choice answer checked by a computer. As a result of the NCLB act, we as a nation have moved increasingly towards multiple choice exams and, as we hold teachers and schools accountable for the results, classrooms have become places where the right answer rules. This is most apparent in New York City where the Department of Education has publicly released ratings of its 12,700 teachers. Teachers are listed by name and rated solely according to how well their students performed on standardized tests.
Such emphasis on the right answer is a far cry from the legacy of education reformer Ted Sizer who stressed the importance of an inquiry-based education: “Questions are usually more interesting than assertions or answers, and the most appealing questions are those which are genuine — dealing with matters of manifest importance to the world–and have no easy or total resolution.” Perhaps along with asking students to list the four-seven continents, we might also ask, “How and why are continents defined differently in various areas of the world? Based on the multiple definitions of the word continent how many do you think there are?” Such questions will help our students to think deeply and flexibly, which will also help them to negotiate different cultures and ways of knowing. Asking questions places us in the stance of the listener rather than the speaker. And no matter our profession — teacher, doctor, mechanic, lawyer, politician — isn’t asking the right question usually more productive than immediately offering an answer?