Over the past three days my school has hosted Mark Church, of Making Thinking Visible fame. He visited us to hold preliminary discussions about us developing a culture of thinking and hopefully the faculty will decide that this is something worthwhile continuing so we can begin to delve into some different perspectives on teaching and learning.
I was lucky enough to be involved with several of the breakout sessions and one idea that was raised was that the students we teach don’t necessarily believe what they see. Instead they see that which they already believe. This refers to the notion that a teacher could deliver a lesson in which they think that something has been taught, yet the student still harbours preconceived ideas. The example that we discussed regarding this was of the ideas of two students explaining that in a completely dark room your eyes would adjust to be able to see an object. Despite prolonged questioning and a carefully arranged experiment that allowed the teacher and student to sit in a room with absolutely no light, the student still maintained that her eyes would adjust to be able to see the object. Her original prediction was 2-3 minutes, then 5-6 minutes, then an hour or two and in the end she still maintained that her eyes would adjust – but it might take a year or two! This example showed that, even though the student was willing to shift her perspective slightly, she still did not believe or understand that the eye cannot see anything unless there is a light source. The lesson here for teachers is to recognise that its not necessarily the evidence that is presented that will cause a shift in conceptual understanding, but the ideas and opinions that students have around it that matters. The power is in the hands of the learner.
The acknowledgment that students have ideas and opinions has significant implications for teachers. Discovery learning, project learning, problem-based learning and the variety of other pedagogies fall short of the mark if they are enacted in a way that doesn’t listen to or value the voice of the student. They need to be embedded in inquiry. If the impetus for learning is coming solely from the teacher then they will only produce the same results as behaviourist approaches to teaching.
I’m currently reading a book by Marcia Behrenbruch called ‘Dancing in the Light‘. In this she identifies two approaches to planning in inquiry classrooms. The first she terms ‘planning for purpose‘. This refers to the teachers’ role in planning. It leaves less room for student-initiated inquiries but answers questions such as: ‘What are the significant, relevant, challenging and engaging conceptual ideas that should be addressed? What knowledge and skills could be developed through these ideas?’ This sort of planning in progressive curricula is based on the ‘Backwards by Design’ framework. The second approach to planning is referred to as ‘planning for possibilities‘ – a term that I was immediately drawn to. This process supports the development of student inquiries around the identified conceptual understandings. A variety of frameworks exist and all encourage student questioning at the classroom activity stage. When these two frameworks support each other, a teacher achieves what Behrenbruch refers to as an ‘integrative inquiry approach’. This is student-centered yet also allows for state, national or school requirements to be met within the curriculum. The craft of the teacher is dedicated to managing the interplay between the two frameworks, guiding the development of knowledge and skills identified in their ‘planning for purpose’, whilst also reflecting on the direction that student inquiries are taking. This is managed by formative assessment and focused through the conceptual lens(es) for understanding.
Mark also highlighted three types of data typically gathered by schools. That which we can count, that which we can see, and that which we can hear. He talked about filling up data buckets and that a great number of schools have a very large ‘counting data’ bucket, but much smaller ‘seeing’ and ‘hearing’ buckets. He referred to the analogy of a 4 year old visiting the doctor. If the doctor weighs the child, measures their height and takes their temperature then they may easily conclude that there is nothing wrong and they’re perfectly fine. However, a thorough doctor would also, for example, listen to the child’s breathing and heartbeat, look for any abnormalities in or outside of the body. These may point to something else and give reason to further exploration. The point is that all three types of data tell a part of the story but none tell the full story alone. Schools must ask themselves how they are filling and scrutinising their three buckets of data. If we acknowledge that students come to our classrooms with ideas, opinions and preconceptions then we must ask ourselves how we are finding out about these? How are we getting our students’ thinking into our heads, instead of the other way around?