I’m back in the classroom (Grade 5 half way through the school year) after a few years of only teaching a few single-subject classes every week, and have been struck by the need to maintain a balance – of learning experiences that really push students to challenge themselves and those which recognize that they’re tired and ready for something more relaxing and ‘low key’; of learning experiences that set up situations in which students are forced to interact to complete the task versus those that recognize the needs of more introverted students to have the space to think things through and follow something up by themselves. More recently I’ve had to balance the assumption by students that one of the jobs of a teacher is to plan the learning experiences and just ensure that students ‘get on with it’ versus my assumption that the exhibition should involve a high element of student choice and direction so that the learners themselves take ownership of the whole process from start to finish and ultimately learn what they’re ready to learn and what they need to learn.
We haven’t yet started our exhibition unit but with less than two weeks to go until the official starting date I knew that we had to reach consensus on the central idea, if only because other students and teachers have started asking questions like: ‘What is this year’s exhibition about?’ and ‘When can we start thinking about exhibition mentors?’ I’ve been struck by how uncomfortable some people –students and adults – feel when surrounded by ambiguity. My feeling is that the exhibition will unfold on its own terms within the guidelines established by the PYP curriculum framework and based on the needs and interests of the students – therefore developing the skills, knowledge and conceptual understandings that the students themselves realise they need to complete it. This idea seems to run against the view that ‘teachers know best’ and ‘planning everything in advance is the key to successful learning’.
So far we had established the following:
- This year’s exhibition will fall under the transdisciplinary theme of ‘Who we are’.
- We will be focusing on our passions.
- There will be some action component.
We have some understanding of what the exhibition day itself will be like, having completed a Y-chart on our recent extended field trip (What will it look like, feel like, sound like?) but we have not yet determined the skills or attitudes that we will need to develop while working towards this culmination of the exhibition unit.
The central idea was now up for negotiation. I set the students the task, in groups, of unpacking the transdisciplinary theme. At first there were comments along the lines of:
- Do we have to do this?
- What do you mean, we have to make the central idea?
- What’s a central idea?
- Don’t the teachers do that?
- This is too hard.
- What does ‘spiritual’ mean?
- I don’t understand ‘beliefs and values’.
- What’s ‘mental health’?
- This [‘the nature of self’] is really confusing.
- Why do we have to discuss ‘rights and responsibilities’?
That’s when I had to avoid the temptation to jump in with my own ideas, and allow the students more than a few moments of confusion. I had to trust my instinct that they would be able to come up with something deeper than ‘Well our passions are just what we’re interested in’ and stop myself from leaping in and giving them the easy way out. With a little bit of prompting, the odd example and what seemed like 20 minutes of uncomfortable silences each group suddenly, in stages, became animated. Individuals started grabbing the pen and saying ‘I want to write this bit’ and comments started to get deeper:
- So our passions are about who we really are.
- But what if we don’t understand who we are because we don’t want to think about it?
- Children have the right to play and to do things they enjoy.
- It’s about our dreams, not just our interests.
- Sometimes our religion stops us from following a certain passion.
- Why do our parents tell us what we should be interested in?
- It’s all about our DNA .. our genes … our parents make us what we are and they shape our passions.
- Health is all about happiness.
- Being human is about happiness. How can we be happy?
- We have to think about who we are if we want to be happy.
- When we do what we enjoy we cooperate, so our passions help our social health.
- Passions help us think, so that’s our mental health.
Later in the day we tried to pull some of these ideas together to create a central idea. We analysed the central idea of our current ‘How the world works’ unit against some criteria for an effective central idea which helped the students to reach agreement on what this exhibition central idea needed to be. So far we have a list of key words:
Our passions … skills and mindsets … health and happiness … sense of self … action
We’ll need to come up with some verbs to link these ideas, and then try our central idea out in the context of the transdisciplinary theme, then play around with it a bit more. Already I feel a sense of curiosity within the group; a sense of wondering which will allow them to take ownership of the whole process of the exhibition. It will be a messy, unpredictable process for much of the time but I’m being reminded of the need to let go, to allow long stretches of silence and thinking time and to trust that given some timely prompts and provocations, these learners will find out for themselves what they are capable of, map out their goals, identify their own areas of investigation and in the process take their learning to a deeper level.