A “recent Dear Colleagues” letter from a teacher highlights the thoughtful reflection so central to the revolution underway across our education landscape. This kind of discourse underscores the quality of the professionals who are engaged in the teaching and learning dynamic. Are educators opposed to change? Not a chance! They are people who understand that self and system critical analysis are essential elements to create the learning environments our kids need. They work to sustain the best of what we currently do in combination with effective application of developing technologies, knowledge of brain function and understanding of how learning actually takes hold.
The conversation and provocation below are testament to the growing recognition that “certainty” is not the asset it once seemed to be as we transform our practices to a future that is still forming. What do we know?; what do we do?; when will the developing images of a new normal come into focus? The teacher wrote:
This morning I’m mulling over the implications of a few recent events on the educational landscape and I’m curious to know whether there are others who are wondering about the implications of these events on what we do each day from 8:30am – 3pm.
Last week, Sugata Mitra, the winner of the 2013 TED prize revealed his research that he claims proves that young kids do not need teachers in order to learn anything at all, including content as esoteric as the replication of DNA. What does this mean to those of us who still believe in the 19th century paradigm of teaching being about content delivery?
Of course we are all already familiar with Ken Robinson’s assertion that “schools kill creativity” at a time when the world desperately needs creative minds to help solve the intractable problems our technological advances have wrought. What does this mean for us when we insist that students do not “colour outside the box” and that they spend hours working on questions to which we already know the answers we will accept?
If we know that extended periods of sitting is detrimental to our students’ health, why do we continue to insist that they sit for six long hours in classrooms each day? If we know that teens require at least 9 hours of sleep each night for their brains to develop in a healthy way, why do we insist on giving them piles of homework that cuts into the amount of sleep they can have? If our students can use the Internet to access any information in any of our curricula at any time, why do we insist that they memorize minutia?
I have long wished that we had time to untangle questions like these but did not see any sign of this being made possible until recently when I began to sense a tectonic shift underway in our local educational landscape.
Last month a “discussion brief” was released by the district. The brief not only includes some of Robinson and Mitra’s ideas but also extends them into realms that are quite familiar to those of us who have always seen teaching as more about building relationships than about the delivery of content. An extract from the document:
In 2007 John Hattie’s research on learning pointed to the centrality of the teacher to the learning experience and the ability for quality teachers to form relationships with students that engage and motivate. The classroom teacher remains the most significant factor in the learning of the student.
There is no doubt the access to information, the ubiquitous nature of technology, the global economy and the growth of the information age is changing the nature of education and learning. In addition, we know more about the brain than ever and we have much to apply to what we know. However, just as we know that learning builds on existing knowledge and experience, any changes to accommodate and adapt to the 21st Century should be built upon the strong foundation of what we already know works for students.
My sense is that the philosophical centre of gravity amongst teachers is more aligned with Robinson and Mitra’s ideas than with the traditional idea that when a student fails a subject, that is a reflection on the student, and not on the education system.
That there needs to be systemic change has been clear for decades but it seems it is just now that we are on the cusp of a significant shift and it may be opportune to talk about what is coming our way so that we can ride the wave of change instead of being sideswiped by it.
Can we talk about this?
My colleague Jordan Tinney’s recent post on the multi-tasking/partial attention condition endemic in our email culture has reminded me of the “tyranny of the urgent” theme and how seductive it can be. It also reminded me to turn off the audio on my computer so that the next time he and I are meeting, the “ping” won’t distract. I’ll also put the monitor on sleep mode.
Public education, at a time when the world is at a tipping point socially, economically, environmentally, geopolitically and culturally (is there anything else??), has a crucial role to play in influencing whether we survive and thrive over the next decades. Our schools are the places – the only places – where the world’s children pass through our doors and are influenced and shaped by the learning environments we create. It is a daunting challenge and although I believe we are up to it, I don’t know if partial attention to such a fundamental and transformative journey will be sufficient. In response to current policies, norms and expectations we are expending huge amounts of effort and energy to sustain a status quo that is universally seen as being inadequate for the kind of future our kids will inherit. We need to pay sustained attention to the journey we are on and the goals we have set. That rarely happens. One of the most routine ways we validate our commitment to the present, familiar state of being is to be fully engaged, even overwhelmed, by the tyranny of the urgent. We have norms, habits, policies and expectations that we maintain, no matter what! But it does matter. How we spend the waking and working hours of our 7 day/168 hour week will either enable or limit the time and energy we have to attend to the scientific and artistic work that goes into creating substantial learning engagement for our students. If we over-expend our available time dealing with the convenient urgencies of today, there is little hope for a different tomorrow.
I recall long ago as a rookie vice principal, I spent much of a long, long day “finding the stolen Walkman.” Many readers may barely recall the era of the Sony Walkman and its mobile music features. It was ground breaking in the 1980′s and valuable on the stolen goods market. That day – interviewing kids a la Columbo (also a dated reference), searching lockers, checking stories, finding reliable sources… – resulted in the return of the Walkman. Triumph and order! Along with that flush of success, I also remember that as I drove home that night I wondered how I could devote a full day to the Walkman escapade when that kind of time never seemed available to engage with professional colleagues on matters of quality instruction and assessment, setting school climate and culture, or meeting individual needs. Those conversations were shunted off to the margins, too often at the end of a staff meeting or on a professional/non-instructional days or perhaps during a hurried exchange of disconnected ideas in the hallway.
I am not advocating that we abandon our responsibility to sustain orderly schools. What I am suggesting though is that we have to be aware of the seductive power of the urgent. It is easier to search for the Walkman (or today’s equivalent – the iPhone 5) than it is to wrestle with the challenging and complex issues of what we know about learning, about students’ brains and about engagement. In a similar fashion, it is easier to plow through a screen full of emails (with another screen loading right behind) than it is to look at the kinds of transformational change the school system needs. More and more, education professionals are finding ways to carve out regular “sacred time” for reflection and sharing; no phones, no email, surfing the net or scanning twitter feeds. We might think that our skill at multi-tasking is unparalleled but really, we are fooling ourselves as we bounce around in a cyber-world of scattered partial attention. Try reading a transformational article – the whole thing – and make margin notes on what it means. There’s a good chance that something will interrupt your train of thought and that the substance of what you have been reading is reduced to thin gruel. Flipping between screens on your computer allows you to engage and disengage from the important and nibble on the trivial. Let’s not fool ourselves that busy is a synonym for successful and that random and scattered task orientation gets the job done. The people, the schools and the systems that are achieving new and better results for students work very deliberately to make “the main thing the main thing.” By doing that, there is real momentum and real change.
A question for Stuart re. music, co-regulation and self-regulation as I wonder about the strategic and positive role that music can have in the learning environment. Music is a universal language that stirs the emotions and is strategically used to arouse or subdue the passions of the individual or the group. Go to a hockey game and the crowd gets “amped up” by the play list. In the locker room, the players are tuned into their personal selections on their iPods. Attend a more somber event and music helps to set the tone and activate memories as well. Do we know how effective this strategy is in either up-regulating or down-regulating a classroom environment? What are the neurological elements in play here?
What I love most about self-regulation is how it changes the way we look at everything: the kinds of questions we start asking and where we start looking for answers. In regards to the question that Mike is raising about the role of music in the classroom, we’ve known for some time about the soothing effects of music – in this case, maybe a couple of thousand years, since Plato was already writing about this. But in recent years there have been some exciting advances, especially the research being done by Valorie Salimpoor and her team at the McConnell Brain Imaging Centre in McGill.
As soon as I read about her research I understood immediately why I find music like the ‘Flower Duet’ in Lakmé or Scarpia’s ‘Te Deum Laudamus’ in Tosca so overwhelming. I have precisely the responses that Salimpoor reports: I get shivers and chills, my heart speeds up, I start to breathe faster. Now, thanks to Salimpoor’s research, I have a much better understanding of why this is happening. What she found is that the reason why we have these physiological reactions is because when we listen to music that we find especially moving there is a surge of dopamine produced in the striatal system. In other words, the reward system in the brain is strongly activated, and just the thought of listening to music that has had this effect in the past is enough to produce these effects.
As Mike speculates, we have such an incredibly powerful tool here for supporting up and down-regulating in the classroom. There is just one important point to bear in mind: not all music has this effect, only the music that we resonate with. Force me to listen to pop music (as my children do all the time) and I’m sure my reward system goes into cryogenic stasis. So we need to start thinking about different music, for different purposes, and maybe even the beneficial role of pop music for some kids some of the time.
For more information about Salimpoor’s research, go to http://news.discovery.com/human/psychology/music-dopamine-happiness-brain-110110.htm)
Do we learn more from our easy successes/victories or our difficult challenges and setbacks? The latter, I think. Here are some notes representing feedback from schools and classrooms engaged in the exploration of self-regulation as a new and better framework. These are good people, taking risks and seeing what works/what doesn’t. Their willingness to share is essential:
* We found it didn’t work when we took the concept of less visual stimulation to the extreme and took down all materials on the walls and put away everything in the classroom. All that was left in the room was desks/chairs. It was a cold and sterile room and all the kids were anxious;
* Our commitment to create a sensory room (which is great) didn’t initially include the thoughtful planning for an appropriate layout of the equipment, how the room was to be used and how it was decorated. In our first effort, each wall was painted a different bright color resulting in visual overload;
* Our school established a good sensory room but we initially decided that social opportunities could be created between students if several students used the sensory room together. In theory this might sound good but these children were all high needs and the resulting dysregulation caused us to rework our plan;
* We were reminded that a focus on providing up-regulating activities throughout the day overwhelmed the need for the classroom rhythm to include both up/down regulating environments for all children and most crucially for some; and,
* We had to reassure ourselves that increased self-regulation is not a linear or sequential process. There are many elements that impact a child’s ability to self-regulate on a moment to moment, day-to-day basis. Over time, the successful awareness and meta-cognition do result in a new normal” but graphing that journey looks more like a spiral than a straight line.
Great learning, even better when it is shared.
We still ask the village to raise a child, but today, we need the children to save the village. Last week, 500 of those children from Canadian and American high schools arrived in Costa Rica to join local peers in waging peace on the environment. They were delegates to the EF Global Environmental Summit, where they immersed themselves in deep learning and creation of action plans on climate change and the global eco-crisis. They heard from world-class keynote speakers and met with scientists at La Selva Biological Station, Earth University and INBioparque. Everywhere they went, they saw the magnitude of our global environmental challenge: evidence of mankind’s decades of devastation and the tireless work in research and education being done in response. They participated in design teams to develop solutions for their communities around food production, waste management, transportation and energy. For these kids, this wasn’t an eco-tourism adventure; it was a pivotal point in their journey as global citizens, part of a generation of young people who now have the task of bringing wisdom to their elders. The 13-18 year olds aren’t “tomorrow’s leaders,” they are seizing the leadership reins today, before it is too late.
Costa Rica is a country without an army, a place proud to be known as a biodiversity superpower, and the home of some of the richest and most complex ecosystems on the planet. It is a tiny place with a small population and an environment that has been on the brink due to past practices of deforestation and other environmental degradation. Costa Ricans know that nature is under assault and while she is resilient, we need to help her. There is no better place to learn, to share and to create the future.
The conference led off with Dr. Alvara Umana, former Minister of Energy and the Environment and still an international force on environmental policy. His powerful story highlighted the severity of the local and global challenge and chided western governments past and present for their short-term thinking and lack of evidence-based action. His country is a living laboratory of environmental restoration thanks to the decisions he and his colleagues made starting in the 1980s to begin to reverse the devastation that had ravaged the tropical rain forest during the previous two decades.
The next keynote presenter was former U.S. Vice President Al Gore, who riveted the students with the continuing truths that are so painfully inconvenient to the fossil fuel industry. He made the audience angry, he brought them to despair and he offered hope based on their ability to act and lead. Mr. Gore told students that the same power for change made accessible to people of past generations through the advent of the printing press is now exponentially more potent via social media. He challenged the delegates to exercise their voices and their influence on government representatives, those same people who currently spend 5 hours a day on the phone with industry lobbyists rather than working to create environmentally responsible legislation and practice.
The third in the trio of world voices was Canada’s own Severn Cullis-Suzuki, whose passion has been clear and resolute over the 21 years since she spoke as a 12-year-old at the Earth Summit in Rio in 1992. Her session in Costa Rica opened with a video clip of that event. “If you don’t know how to fix it, please stop breaking it,” she implored the delegates in her legendary and timeless address. Her challenge to the students in Costa Rica was undeniable. If she could do it then, they can do it now, even more powerfully with the aid of social media and global networks. “You are not the leaders of tomorrow, you are the leaders of today…and you are not waiting for everyone to wake up and smell the methane.” You are taking action now.”
Dr. Umana, Mr. Gore and Ms. Cullis-Suzuki all reminded the student leaders that we live on a single, finite planet and our survival is not a given. The carbon dioxide/global warming crisis can’t be written off against next year’s profit line. Booking a space shuttle flight to colonize another planet isn’t an option, so we have no choice but to ensure our environmental, economic, educational and social justice behaviours redress today’s frightening state of the planet so we can step back from the brink.
When 12-year-old Severn Suzuki spoke in Rio she was talking to a room full of policy makers – mostly men in suits deeply invested in the status quo. In spite of the clarity and the courage of her message, the environment has suffered even more in the two decades since. This weekend, she spoke to a far more influential group. She and the rest of the conference resources activated the power of 500 teens pulling together toward environmental sustainability.
You won’t have to wait long to see and feel their influence as they find their voice, channel their passion and harness their energy to change the course of environmental history and the sustainability of our planet. They will embarrass us out of the status quo. They will take risks and are prepared to fail, fail again and fail better (Samuel Beckett) in creating and innovating toward a better future. Their Global Citizen project work illustrates that, and it’s just a beginning.
We need to get out of their way or get with the program. These are the kids who will help to save the village.
Jeremy Burman, one of the researchers connected to the self-regulation project we are engaged in (see: www.self-regulation.ca) shared the following observation about how awareness of and engagement with self-regulation is impacting a school system that was built on behaviourist theory and foundations. He explains his work/our work as follows: (more…)
Whether we venture into a new neighbourhood, the local library, a coffee shop or a school and scan the environment, we have a set of expectations and make a pretty quick assessment of whether these places are right for us. Each of us sees something different based on our perspective: the realtor, the barista, the social activist, the young mom and the cultural anthropologist all have different lenses through which they see the world. (more…)