Category Archives: education for the 21st century

Change from the Inside

empty classroom
http://www.imcreator.com/free/education/empty-classroom-2

(This blog is a complement to  Dear Students published in Huff Post) 

What do we teachers do while we wait for politicians to agree with us that 19th century school structures are obsolete in the 21st century, and that creativity, not competition, is what we should be nurturing in students?

We change the system from within.

First, we do the work inside ourselves when we gather up our courage to release our role of  content deliverer and accept that we need to be in constant role change in our classrooms: sometimes a facilitator, sometimes a mentor, sometimes a host creating a safe space for learning to happen.

Decentering our classrooms in this way is difficult work, and is never complete. It’s not a one-day Pro-D affair. It requires vulnerability to realize that we need not be  the fount of wisdom in the front of the room.We need to be  patient but persistent with this work.

We share our decentering ideas with our colleagues so that we put the magic of combinatorial creativity to work. We remix ideas from here and there to find what will fit with our students in our classrooms. There’s a lot of trial and error involved with this. Lots of reading too.

We know that this is a Sisyphean task; sometimes that rock will roll all the way down the hill. But we have to get up and do it again. And we will, with help from our friends and allies who know why we do what we do and why it’s worth the struggle.

I was “lucky” to have been both a student and a teacher in South Africa during Apartheid because there I developed my tendency to read between the lines of any curriculum and to constantly seek ways around stifling restrictions and impositions in schools.

You may think that there is a world of difference between the education system in South Africa and in Canada, until you remember that both Canada and South Africa are former British colonies and both countries imported the same industrial model of education. Much of what I do now in Canada is a further refinement of what I did in South Africa when I became a teacher by accident. But that’s another story.

There is nothing that a teacher can do about the way a school day is divided, but there is a lot that a teacher can do when shaping each day in her classroom.  I teach the humanities to teens  in a school that has “inner-city” characteristics. We have four teaching blocks a day: two in the morning and two after a 40 min lunch.  Each block is 77 mins.

My classroom activities are dependent on which block of the day it is. Sometimes there is a lecture, sometimes an experiential activity, sometimes a check-in to see where everyone is at, sometimes a nap or meditation before any work is done. My decision of what to do when is guided by neuroscience research about how teen brains work. They do not work at full capacity first thing in the morning or during the last block of the day, so I save us all the struggle by not lecturing at those times.

I use my classroom space like a Star Trek holodeck. Sometimes it’s a laboratory, sometimes a country, sometimes a court, sometimes a parliament and sometimes a lounge where conversation happens. It is of course sometimes just a classroom!

I encourage students to ask me questions either directly, through email or anonymously through the very popular Question Box. Questions from students provide me with  insights into their concerns and what I’m missing in my teaching. A colleague who teaches Math adopted and adapted this idea, but her box is called the Panic box – where students place “panic button” questions about course content.

I do very little lecturing and try as much as possible to convert the curriculum in a way that allows my students to engage in Problem-Based Learning and Experiential Learning. When I first started doing this, I didn’t know that that was what it was called! Often times I “make the road while walking”, trying to find ways to bring meaningful learning experiences to my students.

In my dreams, I see Problem-Based Learning and Experiential Learning as the foundation of what is done in public schools in the future.

And I do hope, despite the concerted campaign to defund public education, that we manage to hold on to public schools. They are still critically important, despite their many flaws.

Public schools are much more than places where accredited learning happens. They are a safe space for students whose home lives are difficult; they are the oasis in dangerous neighbourhoods; they are where many students eat their only meal each day and where they can speak to an adult about their fears and concerns.

Public schools are some of the few public spaces we have left that still function as a commons, a space for people, not for profit.

Where else but in a public school can a teen who gets a $30 000 car for his 16th birthday sit next to one who eats only three meals a week?

With so many of our common spaces being taken over by corporations, a public school is a vital social space for many students. It is still the great societal leveller where students from diverse backgrounds can meet on common ground.

The education system has to change, it’s true, but let’s work to repurpose it. Let’s not throw the cup out with the cold coffee.

Let’s change the system from the inside out.

Widening Circles

Adrienne Clarkson and me

Dear Ms Clarkson,

The photo above was taken on 19th November 1999 during a conversation we had  in the library at Queen Elizabeth secondary in Surrey, B.C. That morning you had given a speech about the promise and possibilities of our multicultural society.

At this moment, we are talking about teaching. We are not talking about the reason you chose to visit our school.

A month before this picture was taken, in October 1999, we had heard that you wanted to come to our school after you had read about the racial tension amongst our student population being played out in frequent fights between our Indo-Canadian and Euro-Canadian students. This tension had been sparked by events during a court case that had resulted from the murder of Nirmal Singh Gill who had been a caretaker at a local gurdwara until he was killed by members of a White Supremacist group.  Our school had been mentioned in the legal defence of the accused who said that being teased for their Polish names and accents while attending our school was the reason for their actions.

As the Governor-General, you wanted to see for yourself if what you had read about our school in national and local newspaper articles was true.

Do you remember being greeted in 42 different languages by students who represented each of the ethnicities in our school population?

Your visit came three days after the accused were found guilty of manslaughter and sentenced. But in this photo you and I are talking about students’ responses to  Shakespeare’s Macbeth which was what my students were studying then

I can’t remember all the details of our conversation beyond that, but I do remember that you did not ask me where I was from.

I have been told that I have an accent (I can’t hear it of course!) and so am frequently asked that question. But you didn’t ask. You just assumed I belonged here.

I thought about our encounter quite a bit while I listened to (and read) your Massey Lectures on Belonging: The Paradox of Citizenship.

massey-2014-book

Over the many years since your visit I have replayed our encounter over and over again in my mind and each time have found another layer of significance.

Five years after our encounter, while I was working on a graduate paper about racialized identities, I realized the irony of this moment when you had  come to the school to find out  about the racial tension while I was in a state of complete denial of it all.

You had only recently become the Governor-General, I had only that September begun working in my first permanent teaching position in Canada.  As you can imagine, that was quite challenging and perhaps that is why I blocked out completely the images I had seen weeks before your visit.  Images of my Indo-Canadian student with blood streaming down his face after he had been hit by a Euro-Canadian student. Images of police officers opening a car trunk filled with baseball bats, not intended for a game, just meters from my classroom door.  Police wiretaps had revealed that an attack on a school had been planned. I only remembered all this in vivid detail, five years after your visit.

Perhaps the reason I had blocked out the images was because somehow my mind could not accept that the scenes I was witnessing were happening in Canada, so far away from my birthplace of South Africa, where racial violence had been legalized and was orchestrated by the Apartheid state.

Part of the reason the court case had garnered so much attention was because it was the first major case in which the Crown used subparagraph 718.2(a)(i) of the Criminal Code to argue that the accused should get life sentences because their crime was motivated by hate.

Laws against hate were the antithesis of what I had known growing up in South Africa. It was loving that was the crime.

Under a law called the Immorality Act, it was a criminal offence for people who were classified as White to make love to people who were otherwise racially classified.  The act of loving was seen as such a threat to the state that  special police resources were expended to catch people in the act. There were many news reports of people being caught making love by police who spied at them through holes in walls.

The government could not of course stop people making love, but they did ensure that children who resulted from unions between Whites and members of other ethnic groups were classified “Coloured”, a racial category on the second rung from the bottom on South Africa’s race ladder.

As a person officially classified “Coloured”  I was a member of a community rejected by the White community as inferior and resented by the Black community because of the relative privilege of my in-between position.

Though racial segregation existed in various forms throughout the era of colonialism in South Africa, when the National Party formed the government in 1948,  a systematic process began to separate the population into ‘races’ that had different rights and varying degrees of access to national resources.  It’s widely believed that this separation of parts of the population from others was inspired by Jan Smuts’ visit to Canada where he learned about the Aboriginal reserve system but some scholars dispute the connection. 

A few days after my birth, a ‘race classifier’, having noted my parents’ ‘habits, education and speech, deportment and demeanour in general’ and having also looked at the curl of my hair, shape of my nose and colour of my skin especially around my fingernails, designated me as ‘Coloured’, as required by the Population Registration Act of 1950.

This meant that under the law I was “a person who [was] not a white person or a native”, the latter category reserved for the “racially pure” aboriginal races of Africa and the former for those who “in appearance [were] generally accepted as a white person.” The language of the Act specifically stated that, though a person may appear to be White, they could not be so designated if they were “generally accepted as a coloured person”. This “general acceptance” depended, according to the Minister of the Interior, on the “judgement of society – conventions which had grown up during the hundreds of years [of occupation by the Dutch and English colonizers]”.

Having “Coloured” entered in the space for ‘race’ on my birth certificate meant a circumscription of my choices in life, but not as many as I would have experienced had I been classified ‘Native/Bantu,’ a term used to refer to aboriginal Africans.

Apartheid Durban Beach

Politically, it meant that I would not have any access to power structures within the government, since only White people could vote in parliamentary elections.

Economically, it meant that I could only consider work and careers designated for me under laws that controlled access to employment, but it also meant that I had more choices than those occupying a lower rung on the ‘race’ ladder. It also meant that I could own land, a privilege denied ‘Natives/Bantu.’

Socially, it meant that I could only visit certain beaches, attend certain cinemas, ride on certain buses, eat in certain restaurants, enter post offices at certain entrances and sit on certain park benches, restrictions shared by all non-Whites.

Living on the border between Whiteness and Blackness in South Africa meant that my enculturation was distinctly European, and I grew up learning the culture of the people who designated me as a second-class citizen. I did not learn the languages or the culture of the majority aboriginal African population with whom I shared characteristic physical features.

As a consequence of my early experiences in South Africa and my experiences as a new Canadian, the concepts of belonging and citizenship are ones I grapple with when I try to articulate what they mean to me. I’m not even sure I’m succeeding in expressing what they mean to me here. But please bear with me.

At the time this photo was taken, I had not yet begun teaching the Humanities Co-op, a program that continues to feed my soul in the face of the ongoing assault against public education by our BC Liberal government.

Strike photo

The Humanities Co-op provides a way for me to offer students experiences that I hope will lead them to a realization of the many ideas about belonging and citizenship that you mention in your Massey lectures, ideas that I wish I could express as well as you do.

In a Humanities Co-op, Grade 11 students have all their courses for one semester with the same teacher who is responsible for teaching the academic courses and for monitoring the students when they are out of school for six weeks of work experience.

The model was first designed in the 1970s as a pre-employment program consistent with the ‘education for human capital’ goal for education but I have interpreted the structure of the program to be a powerful vehicle for social transformation instead.

Originally intended as a ‘co-operation’ between the fields of education and business, the model was supposed to prepare students for the world of work with its characteristic competitive, alienating and hierarchical structures. Whether or not a teacher actively tries to create collaboration and connectedness in the classroom, a sense of community arises naturally from the day to day interactions between students who share the same space for six hours each school day.

Because QE’s student population is comprised of 46 ethnicities, our classrooms are like a microcosm of the global village with a range of cultures and beliefs. This is fertile ground for seeds of transformative ideas about belonging and citizenship.

For the past fifteen  years,  I have seen my teaching role as not only covering learning outcomes in academic courses, but also nurturing collaboration within a caring classroom community. While I prepare students for their work experience placements, the main focus of my program is not the world of work so much as the work of social transformation. In other words, my work is the exploration of what it means to belong and to be a citizen.

Students’ exploration of the concept of citizenship is facilitated by an online simulation (created by a brilliant friend and colleague) the Civic Mirror, which turns our classroom into a country with a government and an economy.

The Civic Mirror

Through online and face-to-face interactions, the simulation provides a space for students to grapple with political, economic and social issues.  Students “live” in a simulated country in which they elect a government, trade goods and services and perform many roles of citizens in the real world. 

The brilliance of the simulation’s structure is that unless citizens co-operate, their country will disintegrate into chaos with catastrophic consequences for everyone. They learn fairly quickly that citizenship is not something that is simply acquired like a badge but that it involves a careful balancing of individual and group needs.

But before students are ready for this exploration, they engage in activities aimed at breaking down the barriers between them, built up as a consequence of the structured separation and competition in schools.

From the moment they enter my classroom, students are in situations that provide opportunities for them to check and change what they think they know about themselves and about each other. They are challenged to learn something about themselves that may surprise them, to discover something about others that they did not know even though they have “known” that person since elementary school. Through experiences and discussions, they slowly learn to see each other quite differently.

This student’s year-end reflection is typical of the kinds of transformation in attitudes that I am always hoping for:

Before going into [this class] I saw people very differently. I never wanted to talk to people who were classified as the “freaks” or even the “geeks”. I always thought they were different than me and I didn’t want to interact with them. The first month of school was an introduction to a new perspective. Seeing how the “freaks” and “geeks” were didn’t bother me… Just because they didn’t do the girlie things that I do, I thought that they were different. On the field trip I got to interact with a lot of my peers that I most likely would have never talked to in such depth with when I was in school. I learnt a lot more about who they were and how they saw aspects differently from me, and to my surprise they weren’t any different than me. Some girls on the field trip couldn’t eat beef because their religion so I asked them questions on it and learnt a lot more about their religion. Before the field trip I would have thought that was stupid, but since I took the time out to ask and learnt how to listen to other people’s views, I learnt the respect that they have for themselves and their background.

Reading  these kinds of reflections each year feels like a healing to me. There is something about watching my students learning about each other (“bonding” in teenspeak) and working together in new ways that gives me hope for the future of our civilization.

I could share many other stories, stories that had not yet happened when we met all those years ago. I have a sense you would be interested in them, given your work during your tenure as Governor-General and since.

Next week I will greet my 2015 Humanities Co-op class. One of our activities for the first week of the semester, synchronistically the start of Black History Month,  will be to read and discuss your second lecture, the one you presented in Halifax, the one that references the destruction of Africville.

I should confess that I listened to your lectures out of sequence. I was first drawn to fourth one, on ubuntu, mesmerized by your images of Madiba’s memorial, comparing them with my own memories of the broadcast. As the lecture continued I was riveted by your argument about a kind of ubuntu existing in Canada.  I found myself agreeing with you until my mind recalled all that has happened in Canada during the Harper years.

I suspect that if we met today we’d have much to talk about beyond the violence in Shakespeare’s Macbeth.  We could talk about my “two degrees of separation” from Madiba. We could talk about why I believe adopting an ubuntu philosophy is the only way we will have any hope of surviving climate change. Or we could talk about my amazing students who, every day, fill my heart with hope and love.

Yours sincerely,

Lizanne

Can Teachers Save Civilization?

Road

(An updated version of this post is published by Huffington Post BC)

[T]he task is to articulate…an alternative worldview to rival the one at the heart of the ecological crisis – embedded in interdependence rather than hyper-individualism, reciprocity rather than dominance, and cooperation rather than hierarchy. …Because in the hot and stormy future we have already made inevitable through our past emissions, an unshakeable belief in the equal rights of all people and a capacity for deep compassion will be the only things standing between civilization and barbarism. (This Changes Everything, page 462)

Naomi Klein may not have had our public education system in mind when she made this call to action in the final chapter of her book This Changes Everything  but let’s consider the possibility that our public schools could provide a place for the exploration and practice of an an alternative worldview, one that could save civilization.

What if, to prepare our children for the complete restructuring of our political, economic and social systems necessitated by the climate change crisis, the dominant paradigm in schools was not competition for grades but instead collaboration to solve real problems?

What if, instead of preparing students to be careerists and consumers in an extractivist economy, schools focused instead on preparing our children to be global citizens, aware of how their choices and actions impacted the lives of all other global citizens?

What if, instead of teaching our children the traditional literacies – reading, writing, numeracy – we also taught them ecological literacy, social literacy and emotional literacy, and other ways of “reading the world“?

And what if we did all this within the framework of ubuntu, the African philosophy that suggests that I am because we are, that my ongoing existence depends on the existence of others?

Could adopting the  ubuntu worldview save us from  the slide toward a state of barbarism that will inevitably exist should the climate change predictions of the Pentagon and the Intergovernmental Committee on Climate Change (IPCC) be allowed to come to fruition?

Imagine a school where students are competent not only in reading, writing and arithmetic, but are also able to “read” the land around the school, noticing when there are changes in the natural environment and what those changes mean.

Imagine schools where diverse groups of students, guided by teacher-mentors, worked collaboratively on projects that solved actual problems, gaining valuable experiences while doing meaningful work.

Imagine schools where project-based learning and place-based education were not the exceptions that they are now but instead were part of a seamless connection between classrooms and the communities surrounding schools.

These innovative teaching practices are just a few of many that teachers have developed while simultaneously having to contend with multiple challenges in public schools brought about by a neoconservatist assault on public education everywhere.

Teachers are always keenly aware that they are midwives for their students’ futures. Now, more than ever, they need to be supported in the work that they do to prepare students for a chaotic and challenging future.

Instead of defunding public schools and bashing teachers, wise politicians, guided by an enlightened public,  should realize that teachers, not corporations,  are critically important to our future.

There is no economy without an environment.

Our children’s future lives depend first on there being a livable environment. In contrast, corporate profits depend on the denuding of our land, the pollution of our water and of our air.

The kind of world we will all live in by the time our kindergarteners graduate will depend on who and what we as a society choose to support on the road to the future.

The choice we collectively make will change everything.

We Are All Connected…

http:::www.imcreator.com:free:nature:sunrise-3
http:::www.imcreator.com:free:nature:sunrise-3

 Anyone who spends time with children or teens knows that they sometimes say the most profound things, perhaps without actually meaning to. It’s as though their eyes can see the world in ways no longer possible for those of us who have fully conformed to conventional ways of thinking, those of us who no longer see the ordinary magic that surrounds us.

Each year I am reminded of this ordinary magic when I take my students on a three-day camping field trip. Even though it’s the most exhausting and stressful thing I do – imagine being responsible for 30 teens for 72 hours – I know that their experiences at camp will be what they remember for the rest of their lives. They come back to school each year to tell me so.

There is nothing extraordinary about the camping field trip. They canoe, complete a high ropes course and engage in various teamwork challenges. But it’s what happens to them in between these activities that they remember most of all.

In teenspeak it’s called bonding. And, as in all words that teens repurpose, its meaning goes beyond what may conventionally come to mind, of two or more things being fused together.

When I first heard the term I had to ask a lot of questions before I fully understood what it meant. Teens don’t always articulate clearly the full meaning of what they’re trying to express.

Bonding, I learned, is what happens when they stay up all night (despite my best efforts to discourage this)  talking to each other. The topics of these talks range from the silly to the sublime but no matter where they begin, they end in a deeper understanding of each other. They get to this place of understanding when they learn how much they have in common with each other; how so many of them have similar struggles, the same concerns and worries. They learn that they’re more alike than not, that their families and circumstances are similar despite cultural divides.  It’s this deep understanding of each other that leads them to experience what they call bonding.

Scientists would have a different way of describing these “bonds”, the ties that bind us to each other.

Neil deGrasse Tyson says it’s the most astounding fact – that we are all not only “bonded” to each other but indeed that we are “bonded” to the whole universe:

“Recognize that the very molecules that make up your body, the atoms that construct the molecules, are traceable to the crucibles that were once the centers of high mass stars that exploded their chemically rich guts into the galaxy, enriching pristine gas clouds with the chemistry of life. So that we are all connected to each other biologically, to the earth chemically and to the rest of the universe atomically. That’s kinda cool! That makes me smile and I actually feel quite large at the end of that. It’s not that we are better than the universe, we are part of the universe. We are in the universe and the universe is in us.”

Christmas is a perfect time to consider this most astounding fact about our existence.

Consider that our biological connection to each other extends far beyond the family with whom we share the Christmas meal. It can be traced all the way back, through thousands of generations, to our first home in Africa. The food we eat during this time of feasting connects us to the earth chemically and those chemicals themselves are the result of the atoms spewed by stars into the universe.

Science has long provided the evidence for this most astounding fact. Why then do we live each day oblivious of it?

If we walked through our days acting on this fact, we would not still be engaged in debates about whether we should protect our environment or not. Engaging in such debates is akin to wondering whether we should protect our bodies from the cold or whether we should breathe air free of smoke.

If the education of our children was based on this fact, we would radically change what we call school and would do all that we could to prepare our children to survive through the age of climate change.

If we shaped our economic activities based on this fact, any action that could lead to the poisoning of waterways, the pollution of airsheds and the extinction of species would not only be rejected but not conceived of in the first place.

If our individual and collective decisions, whether political, social or economic were based on this fact, we would be living in a far different world, one where consumption was not cancerous,  one without poverty or pollution, one where peace was more than a pipe dream.

We would be living in the kind of world we wish for each other in the greeting cards we exchange at this time of year.

At this time of celebration of family and of joyful feasting, I hope we will pause to consider this most astounding fact and that we then resolve to act on it in the new year.

We are because Earth is

we are because earth is
http://picjumbo.com/download/?d=IMG_8782.jpg

Have you noticed that when politicians in the US and Canada talk about education reform, the  reason they provide for why change is necessary is because of what  “the economy” needs. They tell us that the reason we need to change what happens in schools is because we need to grow the economy and the only way to do that is for schools to produce the kinds of workers that corporations want.  Given the fact that there can be no economy without a healthy environment, isn’t this focus on what the economy needs a bit short-sighted?

In this age of climate change, shouldn’t we be asking  what our environment needs and then preparing our children accordingly?

The children who entered kindergarten in 2014 will be graduating in 2027.  Although we cannot predict with any certainty what the economy will be like then, thanks to the work of thousands of scientists over many decades, we now have a good idea of what the physical world will be like within a few decades if the gathering in Lima, Peru this week fails to make definitive decisions about mitigating climate change.

There are a few future scenarios that we have to consider in thinking about the world current kindergarteners will graduate into.

One is the scenario painted in exhaustive detail by the the IPCC, the Intergovernmental Committee on Climate Change.  In this scenario, any economic policies based on constant growth will be rendered void by the pervasiveness of extreme drought, extreme floods and extreme heat leading to food shortages, among other things. There can be no work done for “the economy”  if the workers have no food to eat.

Should our kindergarteners therefore learn how to grow food in extreme conditions?

Another future scenario is painted by the Pentagon which has said that climate change will be a “threat multiplier”,   increasing political instability around the planet.

Should we prepare our children then for constant war on an overheated planet where people fight desperately for access to food and water?

There are more apocalyptic scenarios in a similar vein to the ones already mentioned. Scenarios that would turn the fiction of The Hunger Games  into bleak fact.

But there are also other scenarios that are just as possible. Scenarios in which our 2014 kindergarteners graduate into a world where the cancer of constant economic growth has been routed and replaced with degrowth and economic policies that fit within the physical capacity of our planet.

To prepare our children for such a world, for the complete restructuring of our political, economic and social systems necessitated by the climate change crisis,  we need a restructuring of our education systems so that collaboration, connection and creativity replaces the dominant paradigm of individualism and competition in schools.

An education system structured around connection, collaboration and creativity would, in addition to providing education in traditional literacies, prioritize a new set of literacies. These literacies – ecological, emotional, technological, critical and social – would be framed by ubuntu, the African concept that “I am because we are”.

A child educated in such an education system would graduate with ecological literacy skills to be able to ‘read’ the land, the sky and the oceans, with emotional skills to increase well-being and decrease stress, with skills that enable navigation of  technological landscapes, with critical literacy skills to question political media and messages and with social skills that will decrease the possibility of conflict and increase the potential of working collaboratively.

A child educated in such a way would see the problems posed by climate change in a completely different way,  just as the Net generation reads the world differently to those born before we got the Internet.

And we need new ways of reading our world. So many of us think of our environment as a thing that is “out there”, disregarding completely the fact that we humans grow out of the environment as an apple does from a tree.

There can be no apple if there is no tree.

We are because the earth is.

This should be what we teach our children, this above all.

If all the delegates meeting this week in Lima, Peru, knew this and acted upon it, we would not have to fear that the scenarios posited by the Pentagon and by the IPCC could come true.

So much depends on that meeting in Peru because this week is when we begin to create the world that our current kindergarteners will graduate into.

Question Box

question-box

Something I love about my job is when my teen students tell me something that ‘blows my mind’ (in teenspeak). Being a teacher of teens means that I am frequently having to adjust what I thought I knew about a whole range of issues.  The most recent adjustment has been to what I thought I knew about teens’ relationship with the Internet.

Before this week, I believed that a teacher of teens should never ask a question that Google could answer because a teacher’s reservoir of knowledge could not compete in any way with what Google could deliver in nanoseconds.

Turns out, teens are not impressed with that instantaneous delivery of piles of content. As was made clear to me this week, teens much prefer to have conversations about topics they are interested in, rather than just consuming content whether from a teacher or the Internet.

It’s not that I did not have an inkling that teens interacted with information differently to the way my generation did.  Don Tapscott in Grown Up Digital did warn us in 2009 that the Net Generation (aka the Digital Generation, the teens I teach) have a radically different way of interacting with information than those of us born before the Internet existed.

In his book, Tapscott reveals that the Net Generation prefers to learn collaboratively and through discovery rather than through the traditional ‘downloading’ of information.

But it’s one thing to read about research and quite another to experience a phenomenon first hand as I did in my classroom this week.

My Psychology students had been tasked with presenting what they discovered about a topic they were personally interested in within the field of psychology.  While presenting what they had learned, they also had to explain why they found the topic interesting/significant.

As I listened to their presentations, I was struck by how frequently a student would mention that they had always wanted to know more about the topic but that they just didn’t have time to ‘look it up’.

I found this very strange.  After all, they are the first generation in human history that is able to carry in their pockets a device that gives them instant access to all of human knowledge. How was it possible that they did not use that device to look up what they wanted to know?

To help me to understand, I asked them about this in a circle discussion.  At first they could not clearly articulate what it was that was stopping them from ‘looking something up’ but gradually I was able to ascertain that it was not the availability of the information that they needed. Instead, it was having someone to talk to about the information. They wanted to have a conversation about what they read. They wanted to be able to ask questions, to talk about what they were reading, what it actually meant for them, in their own lives.

When I finally understood why they had not ‘looked up’ the information before, I also understood why the Question Box is the most popular of my teaching tools.

The Question Box is a little cardboard box in my classroom into which students can anonymously  place questions about anything they want to understand but do not want to directly ask an adult about. The questions that are placed in the box can range from the sublime to the ridiculous and everything in between. I have had the Question Box in my classroom for over a decade but have never really fully understood its popularity. Now I do.

Although my students can search Google for information on any topic, they can’t have a real world conversation with the author/s of the information. They can’t ask questions, in real time, about what they still don’t understand after reading the links.  They may be able to send a comment that may or may not be responded to sooner or later but this is not the same as having a direct conversation with the writer/s of the information.

Thanks to lessons on media literacy, teens are fairly adept at sifting through search results to find credible sources for information but they seem to be not quite satisfied once they do find reliable information.  In fact, the students I spoke with seemed to have a  kind of disdain for what they “learned” about the topic this way.  I was stunned to realize that they preferred putting a question into the little cardboard box in the classroom rather than into a Google search box.

Perhaps the Greeks were right about true learning arriving through dialogue, not through the dumping of information.

But what does all this mean for the latest education reforms that are focused on technologizing teaching, adding more computers into classrooms under the guise of ‘personalizing learning’ ?

I would suggest that education reformers speak to teens about what they would prefer to have as learning experiences. Teens would tell them that, although they enjoy using technology,  they prefer to have teachers to talk to about what they are learning.   Perhaps everyone involved in education could learn a thing or two from teens about personalized learning.

Costs and Benefits…

helen and anne s 2
Helen Keller and Anne Sullivan

Did you know that the BC government now considers learning supports for students with special needs in public education a “wage benefit” for teachers that is “too expensive” for taxpayers to afford?

Better read that again… I know it’s a bit of a mindtwist.  It would make sense though if you remember that this is the same group of people who have redefined what “essential” means… but I digress.

Back to benefits. Now you and I may expect employee benefits to be about medical coverage or a dental plan or a car or travel expenses. We’d be wrong, according to Premier Christy Clark. Benefits now include having other workers around you to do the work that must be done. By this definition, a nurse is a salary benefit to a doctor; a secretary is a salary benefit to an executive, and a dental assistant is a salary benefit to a dentist.

So, according this framing of our proposals for a wage increase in an attempt to decrease the blow our salaries have taken over the past 8 years due to the increase in the cost of living, if an Education Assistant helps a student in our classrooms, or if our school has learning specialist teachers, their work in the school is costed as a benefit to our salaries.

I wonder if the Premier counts the cost of her assistants in the same way, or are they just considered the perks of the job like dining out and iTunes purchases?

But what if we looked at the whole concept of benefits in a different way. Who actually benefits when we support students whose brains work differently?

We all do…

In fact people who ‘think differently’ have completely changed the world in the past. They are also presently changing the world and, if we give the students in our classrooms now the support they need, they will change the world of the future.

Take Michael Faraday for example. As a child he stuttered and struggled in school at a time when the very concept of support for students with special needs was unheard of. Luckily for us, his mother took him out of school and provided what she could in spite of their poverty.  When he grew up, even with an incomplete formal education, he discovered electromagnetism.

Now I’m not a scientist, but this much I know thanks to the television series “Cosmos”, that without Faraday’s discovery the very act of reading this blog post via the internet would not be possible.

Just sit with that fact for a moment…

Imagine what more Faraday might have given us if he had had support at school?

Here’s another example.  I’d never heard of Dean Kamen, the inventor of the iBot wheelchair and the Segway, before I watched an interview with him.  In it he explained how he struggled in school because, he said, as soon as the teacher opened her mouth he felt like a fire hose was coming at him. His  mind would be still processing the first thing the teacher said while she kept moving on, and he felt flooded with information. I imagine that this is how the mind of an incredible inventor works – taking a tiny bit of information and seeing infinite possibilities.

Thomas Edison’s inventions provide another example of how much we have gained from creative thinkers. The way Edison learned in school was so different to what other students did that his teacher said his mind was “addled”.  Despite only three months of formal schooling, he gave us the light bulb, the phonograph and the moving picture camera.  All inventions that radically changed the world.

We are very lucky when people who think differently have mentors or people who support them.   How much poorer in ideas would our world have been without the mind of Helen Keller, who although deaf and blind contributed so much through her writing and talks.  Her success due in no small way to the support she received from her teacher, Anne Sullivan.

Temple Grandin is another example of someone who has contributed much to the world after having lots of support as a child for her autism and speech difficulties.  What she has done is so amazing, Hollywood made a movie of her life. In fact Hollywood seems to have more interest than politicians do in special thinkers, given movies such as Radio,  A Beautiful Mind, Little Man Tate, Rain Man….

In this century, when all our chickens are coming home to roost in the form of dramatic climate change sparking the rapid spread of diseases once limited to small areas of the planet, we are going to need out-of-the-box kinds of  thinking that students with special needs do naturally all the time.  We are going to need special solutions to the special challenges we all face. Students with special needs may grow up to be the very people who will help us solve our most intractable problems.

So I guess in some sense, the BC government is right when they say that support for students with special needs is a benefit.

The part they got wrong however is that it’s a benefit for us all, not just to teachers. Supporting students with special needs will benefit humankind in ways we can’t even imagine yet.

But what about the costs if we don’t support these students? Well, apart from never knowing what the inventions or discoveries of students with special needs could have been, we will also continue to spend billions of dollars on a population of incarcerated people, many of whom are illiterate or have learning disabilities.

Since 2002  the number of Learning Specialists in BC schools has been cut by 20% and the cuts will increase again in 2014/15, a direct result of chronic underfunding. I’m not sure how much our Premier believes she is saving and for what purpose when she continues to cut approximately $250 million per year from the education budget, but that money is not really a savings if it has to be spent dealing with the costs of the consequences of those cuts.

Supporting all our students in all ways possible is not a cost when seen in this light. It’s an investment in benefits that we will all share.