Sunday, 14 December 2014

Intersectionality - and a bear called Paddington

I'm lucky enough to get involved in many of @teachnorthern's fantastic projects (she couldn't bear my nagging otherwise) -  and the latest one 'TeachDifferent: Identity' looks set to be a cracker.  The project aims to explore concepts of intersectionality and diversity; moving educators away from 'tick-box' approaches to equality to considered examinations of society's, and our own limiting assumptions. Identities will be explored through coaching, community philosophy and dialogic approaches.  It will celebrate our multi-layed, glorious complexity as human beings and also encourage us to consider and challenge how identity is used to oppress.  It's a brave and exciting project that will, I think, strike at the heart of our values and beliefs as educators.

The term 'intersectionality' was first coined by Kimberle Crenshaw in a seminal article* which examines how patterns of oppression are bound together.  For example, women can face discrimination on grounds not only of their gender but also their race, class, ethnicity, ability.  Society (and law) like to categorise us into one protected characteristic or another, but rarely examines the complex space between them - where people might have many identities, and can be treated (or oppressed) differently according to the way that they intersect.

Intersectionality can't really be considered without thinking about privilege also.  As a white woman, fortunate to have lived a life full of means and opportunities, I want to recognise this and explore it more for myself.  I am gradually becoming aware of the unconscious ways in which my identity privileges me every second of every single day. (Peggy McIntosh writes powerfully about this, here). Writing this blog is, in itself, of course, an act of privilege. This thought has stopped me pressing the Publish button more than once, but I don't want my ego to stop me exploring ideas and talking about them.

Kay SidebottomTypically, I want to do EVERYTHING at once, so found myself this weekend researching identity politics in the middle of taking the kids to see Paddington at the cinema.  In my usual, non-academic way, I started to think about the small bear from Darkest Peru in terms of his own issues with connecting and managing the intersections of his identity.  

So this is what I thought about.

Paddington is a bear, of course - but he isn't just a bear.  In fact, this aspect of his identity is generally accepted without question; he appears out of the blue at a London railway station and is mostly ignored.  In the film he gets lost and Mrs Brown reports him to the police as a missing person.  'Around 3 foot 6 - blue duffle coat and a red hat - oh and he's also a bear,' she describes. 'That's not much to go on,' the police officer replies.

Paddington is also an immigrant, an exile, an outsider.  These are the issues that he most commonly explores; the facets of his identity that he most struggles with. He undertakes a quest to become 'English', whilst holding tight to the memories he holds in his red suitcase, and writing to his beloved Aunt Lucy at her Home for Retired Bears.  He struggles to adjust to life in a cold and damp London; he suffers oppression at the hands of the meddling neighbour, Mr Curry.  He is a child, although his age is never made clear.

What I love most about the book is that Paddington is different, but his most obvious difference (he's a BEAR!) is irrelevant to the story. (Children get this and completely accept it, because they haven't yet learnt that that 'different' doesn't mean good).   Paddington's 'bear' status isn't all he's about - he isn't asked to represent all bears or to speak on every bear's behalf.  The story is more interested in exploring the relationship between his identities as an exile, a child, an adopted person.  It does not attempt to over-simplify, but recognise the complexity within.

Life isn't like Paddington, of course. At the end of the film, he writes a letter to his Aunt in which he states: 'In London nobody's alike, which means everyone fits in.' We dream of a world like this, where differences are a cause of celebration, or accepted without question.  This blog also over-simplifies complex, political concepts, but I know that #TDIdentities will allow to us open up important and meaningful discussions - and give teachers the confidence to do the same in their classrooms.

*Crenshaw, K.W. (1989). Demarginalizing the intersection of race and sex: a black feminist critique of antidiscrimination doctrine, feminist theory and antiracist politics. University of Chicago Legal Forum 140:139-167

Friday, 5 September 2014

Reflective teacher - 30 day blogging challenge, day 5

Today's challenge asks you to post a picture of your classroom, and discuss what you see and don't see, that you'd like to.

I wondered about missing this one out, as I don't have my own classroom, or actually a permanent place of work - and also, these days a lot of teaching and work I do is on-line.  (I could post a picture of my office at home, but you really don't want to see that).  The same is actually true for most of the teachers I know these days; erosions of physical space due to cost-cutting, and changing work practices and patterns makes having your very own space unlikely. This made me question 'are physical classrooms that important?' but I really believe that they are; as Nancy Kline says 'Place matters because it says back to you that YOU matter.'

At the start of a new term I've noticed lots of school teachers sharing pictures of their classrooms (shared or not) on Twitter, and they really are things of beauty.  Design and intelligence about use of space and the impact on learning has moved on enormously and the rooms are bright, clean, informal and welcoming.  I would certainly feel that I mattered in places like that. The presence of light especially seems to a big impact on how people feel, and how able they are to concentrate and take in information.  The beautiful big windows in the classrooms at Northern College (usually open with the blinds up) seem to open up my mind too, and let new thoughts in.

I don't have much influence over where I teach, although I do try to reorganise the room layout whenever I can (often to people's annoyance).  During my time as a trainer at the Council, I had a sudden lightbulb moment when I realised how much an impact the spaces chosen for councillors and officers to 'learn' in actually had.  Most of the sessions were held in Committee Rooms - formal spaces, more appropriate for the cut and thrust of political meetings than relaxed discussion and group working.  People would naturally slip back into their Council roles in places like that - the physical barriers of static tables, microphones and heavy chairs also made teaching practically very difficult.  I'm not sure what those places said to us.  Not 'you matter', but 'process matters, tradition matters, the status quo matters'.  Once I realised this I did my best to find alternatives, settling finally on the Members' Lounge - a rather antiquated room with easy chairs, plush carpet and the air of an old people's home.  This room didn't particularly say ' you matter', either but it did say 'sit together; relax; talk; be comfortable.'  I would like to think that as a result of running sessions in here the quality of the thinking and discussion went up, although it isn't easy to quantify.

Although there isn't always much you can do to influence the spaces you're given, there are little things you can do (as well as rearranging the furniture) once you're in there that can help.  Getting light and air in are vital. Using posters, flipcharts, a welcome picture on the door (thank you @teachnorthern for getting me to see the importance of this), water on the tables, coloured post-its dotted around to brighten things up. Once students create their own work of course you can use this on the walls, too.

What do the places you teach in say to your students, and to you?  And what can you do to make them say 'you matter?'

Thursday, 4 September 2014

Reflective teacher - 30 day blogging challenge, day 4

Today's question is a classic - 'What do you love most about teaching?'

I've been mulling this one over and it helps me to compare what, in my mind I do now - 'teaching' with what I did a few years ago - 'training'. Training people was generally about achieving the aims of the organisation. It was great if workers enjoyed it, and grew and developed along the way, but ultimately the needs of the company had to be met. Increased productivity, fewer absences, and lower staff turnover was generally the name of the game - where I worked, anyway.

If you look at the government's agenda around the education of adults, I would suggest that these aims are broadly similar. Jobs teaching functional skills and 'employability' are everywhere, and I teach these things myself. So if I'm doing similar kind of work, why do things feel different for me now? Why do I enjoy it so much more and how come I'm more creative than I've been at any other point in my career?

The truth lies in the word 'Teacher'. Simply by calling myself this I have opened a world of possibly for myself and my students, and it is mainly about growth. Training feels limiting and functional (you 'train' a dog). In 'teaching' there is the wriggle room to do things differently, be truly inclusive, consider the individual, question things, reflect and grow, be yourself. As a teacher I allow myself the freedom to write, make connections on Twitter, continue to read (though I don't have to). Of course there will be many trainers who do all this too, and more, but I do think that we are often limited (or conversely, emancipated) by the words we select to describe and identify ourselves.  What connotations do the words you choose to use about yourself have, and are they limiting?

There is also, in teaching, a respect for self-development that I haven't found elsewhere (not shared and respected by all of course). It's about professionalism, but something more than that - especially if, like we do, you teach for a social purpose, believing that education really can change lives, communities, and the world. Importantly, this all starts with the teacher and the faith that we can be the best we can be, if we are prepared to work at it and want it enough.

My thoughts have rambled a bit here, but I think what I'm essentially trying to say is that teaching for me is believing in the capacity within every person and ourselves as teachers to grow and develop.  It's about questioning, and looking at things in new and liberating ways.  The very process of spending 20 minutes or so thinking this through and writing about it - and the pleasure I've taken from it -  sums all this up for me, in a 'meta' kind of way :)

Tuesday, 2 September 2014

The reflective teacher - 30 day blogging challenge, day 3

Today's question theme is observation - choose one area of practice that you want to improve on.

This topic is fairly fresh in my mind, having gone through an Ofsted assessment earlier this year.  There are lots of areas I want to improve on if I'm honest.  I'm a reflective person by nature (as this blog testifies) and have the tendency as teachers often do, to be self-critical.  The brilliant Stephen Brookfield's Perfect 10 theory* (about how we focus on the one negative comment in a sea of excellent feedback) is an important reminder about how we should always seek out the positives and keep a sense of perspective.  I really believe that we need to keep in mind the fact that students (particularly adults) enter the classroom with experiences, situations, worries and fears that are a natural part of life, and affect their learning.  As teachers, we can't influence everything, so it is important to maintain a realistic outlook about what we can achieve in the little time we are with them.

This being said, of course we should seek out improvements and constantly work to improve our teaching practice.  I was paralysed with fear when Ofsted came to observe me and while the inspector's comments were positive and helpful, I prefer the relaxed and informal feedback given by critical friends and colleagues. The head teacher John Tomsett (@johntomsett) asks his staff the question 'How can I observe your lesson in a way which best helps you improve your practice?'  This shifts the focus from performance management to productive and constructive feedback, giving the responsibility and ownership of development back to the teacher.  For me, the answer might be 'Can you join in with the group activity on x, as I would like to get a sense of whether the students are really learning effectively?' or 'Can you come at the start of the lesson, as I would appreciate some ideas on how better to open it?' or 'Can you read through the feedback I'm giving student x, as I would like your views on to improve my assessment methods?'   Teachers generally have a good sense of where their practice needs extra work, so why not take advantage of this and help them where they need it most?

I also think that we don't actually observe each other enough.  You can learn so much from seeing other teachers (particularly in your subject specialism). Co-teaching with a colleague provided me with so much learning this year, and one of my aims for the coming term is to do more of this. Observation shouldn't be about fear but about growth - and learning, not just for the observed, but for the observer too.

*Brookfield S, (1995) Becoming a Critically Reflective Teacher, Jossey-Bass

The reflective teacher - 30 day blog challenge, day 2

Today's post is about use of technology in education.

One of my frustrations last year was about the reluctance of fellow educators, colleagues and students to engage with the amazing array of free tech out there. The benefits of online personal learning networks and tech for learning are huge, and I struggled to see why people didn't want to take advantage of them.

What I conveniently overlooked was the fact that I used to work in IT and took my confidence in this area completely for granted. I'd be mortified if others were frustrated by my lack of confidence in other areas (of which there are many :) - so one of my aims this year is to be more patient and have empathy - and work harder at helping others to gain confidence and find out what suits them (without doing things for them, of course!)

Personally, I want to achieve the following:

- explore Open Badges further and use them in my practice
- investigate some of the less well-known tools like Feedly and Padlet which the fabulous Ruth (@TheRehn) has told me about
- consider whether the online Community of Praxis network, which works so brilliantly in Teacher Education could work with other groups that I work with, such as elected Members
- continue to bang the drum about the joys of Twitter, Yammer, Google + and other tools as we move into the post-Feltag and an increasingly digital world.

Monday, 1 September 2014

The reflective teacher - 30 day challenge, blog one

The topic for the first of the 30 day blog challenge is to think about goals for this academic year.

This is an interesting one for me, because as a freelancer I'm not used to thinking in terms (geddit?!) of the year actually beginning in September.  However, the pattern of my first self-employed year has certainly been term-based - and I have just survived my first school holiday without being at work (although some on-line work has continued, thankfully).

It's a good opportunity to reflect back on the past year.  It's been a time of massive growth and exploration for me - I've been fortunate to try out lots of different things, some of which I have loved, others not so much.  I've learnt some things that I already knew but didn't want to admit, and some exciting new things too.

I get a sense that the next year is going to be similar in a lot of ways.  There are still a lot of unknowns about what I will be doing, and I am conscious of a real need to 'just go with the flow'.  For someone who likes to rush to the end of things (books, days, bottles :) this is a massive challenge.  I like to know where I will be, what I will be doing, who I will be with.  The opposite is scary but necessary in the role that I have actually chosen to take on.  And it doesn't mean that I can't have aims or set a direction - in fact I definitely should.

So, without being too specific (or SMART - sorry to the students who I keep telling to set aims like this), here are my goals:

1.  To continue with the work I've started around developing cultures of political awareness and constructive political relationships in organisations.  This fits with my related projects around getting women into politics, and the national recognition that change needs to happen following the horrific stories from Rotherham.  There are lots of angles to this - Thinking Environment, Community Philosophy, on-line activism.  But is often unpaid, which leads to goal 2...
2.  Consider and invest in ways to marry up the work I love with a live-able income.  There is no reason why the two things have to be mutually exclusive, but believing that they are has really held me back this year.  Which leads on to goal 3...
3.  Look for part-time work opportunities that allow me some flexibility and stability, plus an element of continuity and predictability around the places I go and the people I see.  (I hadn't realised how important this was to me until recently).  And perhaps most importantly of all -
4.  Keep an open mind, keep the faith, and just keep on keeping on :)

Sunday, 4 May 2014

Voices, retweeted

Yesterday I went to the first conference I've been to in a good few years.  For me, a conference means turning up and - in the main - just listening.  Recently I've attended learning days, teachmeets, unconferences and other variations on 'large gatherings of people with a common interest', but these have generally been participative, with workshop elements or more formalised 'meet and greet' opportunities.

We've moved away from the traditional conference models, and I've actually rather missed them.  There is a fear, at these events of 'talking at' people.  Is the assumption that this is dull, or unworthy, because people aren't necessarily learning anything?  They are entertained (hopefully), but often passive. As @tombennett71 said at the start of his talk - it's ironic that as educators we spend time extolling the virtues of participative methods of learning but then always revert back to the lecture at events like this (I totally paraphrased this - apologies to Tom! - but hope the gist holds true :)

I learnt lots yesterday though; about the differences between transmissive and progressive education; the links between reflexive practice and action research;  and the value of the question. This made me reflect back on our recent Reflexion Days at Northern College.  The keynote by Lou Mycroft (@teachnorthern) was consistently mentioned in evaluation as being one of the points at which learners were most engaged. They also used phrases such as 'inspired', 'made connections', 'got me thinking about my teaching' , 'learnt what key terms mean and how to use them'.  It was kept deliberately minimal, but I wonder what our assumption was here? The people in the room were there (in the main) because they wanted to be; many were familiar with the critical thinking practices employed at Northern College - perhaps this meant that they were more than ready to engage and question (internally and externally), as well as reflect, and this is why they took so much from it?  As Lou wrote in a recent conversation with Alison Fisher:

'I wonder if the sort of work we do together is about learning how to be better (more critical, more discerning) with any interesting (or not) information source? So, for me, a great, informative presentation equates with a TED talk, or a movie, or documentary, or poem or book...with the added punch of face to face charisma to drive the points home. As an 'expert' thinker, I can sift through the information, know how processing works for me and squeeze everything out of it that I can.'

I certainly felt like I was processing what I heard yesterday at #NTENRED.  The helpful questions in the programme facilitated this - particularly this one:

'Is the speaker's point of view contested? what might be the alternative viewpoint - have they discussed this?'

But what really made my thinking and learning go deeper was the fact that I was also spending time tweeting. Initially this was for the benefit of friends and colleagues who couldn't be there  What I actually found was that it allowed me to actively participate, in the following ways:
 - making connections with my own thinking and the thinking of others
- finding new people to connect with, with the bonus of avoiding the pain of face to face introductions (perfect for an introvert like me!)
- providing space to reflect later on, and follow up new ideas.

It brought other people into the room with me, too. A colleague asked an important question about the diversity of the speakers and delegates, which led to a discussion with @ellietrees about the homogeneous nature of events such as these, gender balance, and how to create more diverse Twitter networks.  (I would be interested to hear what other #NTENRED participants think about this).

The best thing was that, by articulating what I heard in my own words, I was able to make sense of the information in front of me and reflect more deeply.  I'm not sure that this would happen in the same way through note-taking; there is something about writing even short pieces for the web that elucidates and crystallizes thinking, and instills a discipline due to the public nature of the messages sent out.  It also reminded me that the people sitting in front of us at events like these are engaging in a multitude of diverse ways, facilitated often now (but not always) by technology.  I want to allow and encourage this kind of participation in any future plenary sessions I deliver, and hopefully both myself and my students will reap the benefits that follow.

Monday, 28 April 2014

Finding a voice

Our theme for week one of the Reflexion 'uncourse', #TDReflex14 is 'Finding a Voice'.  To be truly reflexive as an educator means going deeper in our thinking about our practice, and asking those 'why' questions that lead us to being more mindful and self-aware.  Our 'voices' when we do this may be vocal, in dialogue with others - or written, through journals and thinking that we might keep private or share publicly.

For me, it is all about writing.  As a little girl, I loved to write.

I can't remember what I was writing here, but it was most likely a very long Enid Blyton-inspired saga, sustained by the ever-present biscuit tin.

But although I still love writing, I don't write fiction any more. I'm overwhelmed by the brilliance of the authors who reside in piles of books around my bed or clog up my spare room. And it isn't just that sense of being an imposter either.  When it comes to a story, I've never been able to think of one. This put me off writing anything for years, until I thought I'd have a go at blogging as a way of writing reflective journals for my PGCE. Doing this helped me to realise that there is much more to writing than make-believe.  The kind of writing that I actually like to do blends the personal with the professional; ideas are often sparked by experiences at home with my daughters but linked to the thinking I do at work.

It's taken me 40 years to find a voice that is actually me, and I'm not sure I would have found it if it hadn't been for blogging.  There is something about writing in a public space that makes me more considered and precise, and I enjoy the process of creativity that starts with an idea and often takes weeks to reach the page. Sometimes the finished product goes out into the world, and sometimes it doesn't. But that's fine, too.

And I'm glad, most of all for that little girl who had such great aspirations and found such pleasure in writing down her thoughts and ideas. The old typewriter and 70's wallpaper may have long gone, but I'm still here, typing away - and the biscuit tin is still by my side :)

Saturday, 15 February 2014

A perspective on diversity

At the swimming pool the other day I spent a few (rather chilly) minutes watching my daughters from a distance.  Now they're older, and more confident in the water, I am able to do this and enjoy the new feelings invoked by seeing them play together or independently. It struck me that, when your children are little, you only tend to see them close up. You look down at the top of their heads when they're holding your hand - or when they're really tiny, you peer down from above when they are cradled in your arms.  But the benefit of perspective allows you to see much more. I was looking at what makes the girls the same, and what features they have that are different. I was seeing them as whole people, rather than looking through a distorted lens that only allows you to see disembodied bits at close range.

Sometimes it helps to look at things really closely, and other times to zoom out and look at the bigger picture. I love the images of sand close-up, like this one - that show all the beautiful complexity and individuality of the grains, which are invisible to the naked eye.

When I think about diversity, then, I try to zoom in and recognise all the aspects that make us different and unique.  As a child, there didn't appear to be much diversity around me - I attended a mainly white school, lived in the middle of a large predominantly white housing estate and rarely experienced other cultures. Into my adult life this gave me a sense that I didn't really know what diversity meant, but of course I was mainly thinking of colour - the issue for me was literally black and white.  But of course I was in the midst of difference all the time - of class, background, religion, politics, physical ability, regionality, appearance - I just wasn't 'zooming in'. I felt ignorant of difference but didn't ask the questions I needed, to understand it better. (I'm still working hard to get better at this).

The recent Diversity Day at Northern College (part of an embedding diversity project funded by NIACE Equality and Diversity Innovation Fund delivered by @TeachNorthern) allowed me to spend time reflecting on this.  I considered my own differences and the things that make me unique in a positive sense, but that may also generate limiting assumptions (in myself and others) and hold back the development of self-esteem. As someone who was born with a genetic abnormality that meant years of operations and teasing at school, I understand very clearly what this means and how it feels to be singled out. We all do, in our different ways - and connecting with these feelings builds empathy and understanding that makes us more mindful and self-aware as teachers.

On this amazing and rich day I was also reminded of the importance, not only of zooming in to appreciate difference, but of zooming out to understand our similarities.  The wonderful Rachel Allwood (@Allwood_RF) suggested that, in the end, of course we are all the same because 'we all die'. In his book, Human Universals, Donald Brown talks about 'those features of culture, society, language, behaviour and psyche for which there are no known exception.' This list of over 60 features includes belief, classification, conflict, dreams, gift giving, jokes and music - they are common to every human being. When we look at what makes us different, then, it is valuable to remember and celebrate what we share too.  Sand and snow only gain their beauty and meaning when individual, unique elements join together.  My daughters are different in so many ways, but they share my smile and their dad's sense of humour. And of course, they both really love swimming.

Brown, D.,1991, Human Universals, New York McGraw-Hill
Sand image via @FascinatingPics

Saturday, 1 February 2014

Faith, hope and uncertainty

This week’s #rhizo14 theme is ‘uncertainty’, and I’ve been reading some great blogs by @danceswithcloud, @bali_maha and others that have really inspired me to think more deeply about this.  It is wonderful to see synergy and parallels in our thinking – creativity in education, and how children inspire and teach us are becoming common themes.

People seem to talk a lot about uncertainty these days.  A trend for ‘un’ things – ‘unconferences’, ‘unhangouts’ – seems to indicate that we are embracing disruption and unpredictability a little more in our teaching, although there will always be, inevitably, some kind of structure to these things (freedom needs boundaries, as @lounorthern would say).

My youngest daughter Holly is certain about everything.  Last week she went to a birthday party, and spent the preceeding two weeks talking about nothing else.  She woke up on the morning of the big day and declared that ‘This is going to be the most fantastic party ever!’  (I had a massive sense of anti-climax – surely she was bound to lose pass the parcel, or the sandwiches would taste horrible?)  When I picked her up afterwards I asked if it was as great as she’d hoped. ‘Mum, it was the most fantastic party ever!’ she said.  There’s the power of hope for you.

Personally, I have a paradoxical relationship with uncertainty.  The control freak part of me craves routine, predictability and reassurance in life (this was the mother who loved the Gina Ford 4-hour feeding routines and tried them with both her babies, despite the fact neither child ever really got the hang of it. Babies eh!)  But there is another part of me that loves to take risks and hurl myself into the unknown.  Walking away from a fairly secure and well-paid job to try a new challenge is a recent example of this. And actually, a close look at my CV would show that it isn’t the first time I’ve done it, either.

My teaching reflects this paradox, too. I love to plan and be prepared; my worst nightmare (and I have it often) is of walking into a classroom with no idea what I’m going to do that day.  But conversely, two of my favourite teaching practices are actually grounded in uncertainty. Nancy Kline’s ‘Thinking Environment’ approach invites people to think for themselves; a coaching session always opens with ‘What are you thinking, and what are your thoughts?’  There is no greater leap into the unknown than to ask a person that question!  In a similar vein, teaching via philosophical inquiry requires the facilitator to completely let go.  In community philosophy, groups of learners will look at a relevant stimulus (which could be an object, a film, a picture – or even go on a visit) and come up with their own questions.  This can take the lesson in very unexpected directions.  For example, I recently brought in a beautiful picture of two paths diverging in a wood, that I’d found on the internet.  My thinking was that the questions and concepts raised would concern ideas and themes of belonging, choice, identity – possibly even making connections to Robert Frost’s famous poem.  As it turned out, however, the group started to wonder whether the picture was genuine, so the questions were actually more to do with manipulation of images on the internet, and the concept of authenticity. It reminded me that, while you can have a session plan in Community Philosophy, you shouldn’t attempt to fill in the details.  That has to be up to the philosophers.

In teaching, tapping into natural curiosity can be great way to embrace uncertainty. A couple of weeks ago, I was teaching a colleague how to use Yammer, the social networking site that we use at college where we teach.  She had lots of questions about the system, most of which I didn’t know the answer to.  My response was to say ‘I’m not sure, but why don’t you try this/click here/see what this does’.  As teachers, we don’t have to always be the experts.  And by exploring the system and trying things out for herself, my colleague was more likely to remember it anyway.  All I was actually doing was giving her attention and reassurance – sitting by her, through her uncertainty.  Project-based and expeditionary learning requires teaching that accompanies and encourages curiosity, rather than directing it, too. 

The counterpoints to uncertainty to me then, are faith and hope.  Firstly, faith in the processes we choose, and the capacity of people to work within them.  Whether it’s faith in a coaching framework, an outline session plan (with room for tweaks), or simply a belief in the power of community-based, rhizomatic learning, our faith will encourage our learners to embrace uncertainty and start their own journeys.  It is also about the ‘leap of faith’ that we take when we try something new; always hoping that things will work out ok in the end, or that if they don’t, at least we have given it a go. 

A very dear friend once said that what she most appreciated about me was my ‘irrepressible spirit of hope’.  I’ve never forgotten that.  I ‘hope’ I will always have it.

“Hope is the thing with feathers that perches in the soul – and sings the tunes without the words – and never stops at all.”

Emily Dickinson

Saturday, 25 January 2014

Independent Day

I've been following with interest the #rhizo14 discussion on 'Enforced Independence'. I'm no psychologist, although I do have a view on why some learners are more independent and motivated than others.  Much of what I learn about human behaviour actually comes from observing my two young daughters growing up, and thinking and questioning what happens around me. Today provided me with a typical insight, that, while clearly in a different context and setting, feels somehow relevant.

Every Saturday morning I take my eldest daughter swimming at the local pool. Without fail, she heads straight for the flume and we usually spend the next half an hour (or more) going slowly up the stairs and whizzing back down the slide, in a rather ungainly manner, as she always insists on sitting on my lap. This morning was no exception. Maria is old and large enough to go down on her own, and has been for the last year or so - but despite being an extremely independent child, she seems unwilling to take that extra step where that flume is concerned. Until today.

After 20 trips down the slide (yes, I counted them), Maria stopped me at the top of the steps and told me that, this time, she was going on her own.  After checking she was sure, I left her there and waited at the bottom. Within seconds she came sailing down, a serious look on her face and without making a comment (she is a rather reticent child) but, because I know her, I could tell that inwardly she was buzzing with excitement and pride.  The next half hour was spent repeating her solo slide while I grew colder and slightly disappointed that I wasn't joining in. I couldn't work out what made today special and why she chose today to take the step, but it was clear that she was absolutely ready.  It made me consider a few things about independence.

Firstly, you can't force it. For some reason, her 454th go on the slide (or thereabouts) was the one she chose to do on her own.  I couldn't predict that, in the same way that, as a teacher I can't always predict which learners are going to be the independent and self-motivated ones, or when that light-bulb moment of independent thought or action is going to spark.  But I was interested enough to talk to Maria about it over our weekly trips to the pool. 'Do you fancy trying the slide on your own today? Shall I go first and then you could follow me?' This makes me wonder if I have enough of those kind of discussions with learners, too.   Have they considered the differences between their prior experience of learning and this new approach - how they will adjust, how there lives may be a bit different as a consequence, what fears and assumptions they have? Could this discussion be a part of my initial assessment strategy?

Secondly, part of me didn't actually want Maria to be independent today.  I like it when she wants to sit on my lap, I love to put my arms around this sturdy little character that is growing up so fast and hold onto her tightly, even if only for a few seconds at breakneck speed. That is a difficult thing to admit, and it made me wonder if sometimes this reluctance spills over into the classroom.  Is there a part of us sometimes that colludes with dependent learners - because actually, we want to be relied on and needed?  As someone fairly new to teaching I know that this is a danger for me and is partly about boosting my own confidence. The balance between being firm and providing lots of a support is a difficult one, but perhaps comes down about really knowing each individual, so that you can start to work out who really needs to be held on the slide.  There is also a slight fear of missing out - what interesting stuff might people be thinking about and discussing while I'm not there? (This fear was certainly apparent today, because secretly I really love going down the flume and standing on the sidelines definitely wasn't the same!)

When I first suggested Maria go down the slide on her own, her biggest concern was that 'it wouldn't be as good on her own'. This worry was bigger than the fear of the slide, and it took some reassurance to convince her that being independent doesn't actually mean being alone. The growth of personal learning networks and communities of praxis mean that people can be more connected with their learner peers than ever before. Once learners start to see that, and experience it for themselves, you can see confidence growing and dependence on the teacher easing off. For this reason, I like the idea of motivating factors such as points for tweets and blogs or tools such as Open Badges - anything that encourages people to take that first difficult step.

On the way home from swimming today I asked Maria what was better, going down the slide with someone else, or going it alone. She thought about it for a minute or so. When her answer came it was conclusive, and told me all I need to hear about independence  'Mum, do you know - I enjoyed it so much more when I knew I could do it all by myself.'