Mirror, mirror….

One thing that I have come to value more over the past year is the importance of incorporating time for reflection. This is crucial not only for my students, but also for myself as a teacher.

Reflection is about allowing and encouraging individuals to vocalise and discuss the events which have taken place, to think out loud, to suggest solutions they may have discovered and to perhaps pose more questions that they now have. It is a guided practise and one, that when done by skilled educators, has the potential to transform both the learning and culture within the classroom.

As a busy classroom teacher, time is often our nemesis. There is rarely enough time to cover what we want to, so it can be tempting to not bother to try and fit yet another thing into each lesson. However, reflection is not the element to omit! Without an opportunity to revisit what learning has taken place and why the learning was necessary, it can make the entire activity somewhat meaningless. Reflection allows learners to discuss their thoughts and interpretations of the activities, to make connections to their real lives as well as to prior learning, and to begin to pose hypotheses about what future learning they are still yet to uncover.

As a teacher, reflection of our own practice is just as crucial. It requires few resources other than our own observations and honesty, but it can be incredibly powerful when the effort is made. It may not always pretty, and perhaps this is why some educators don’t incorporate it into their schedules. However, reflection reveals incredible insights into the synergy (or lack thereof!) between our lessons and our learners.

Reflecting on your own teaching practice can be as simple as deliberately evaluating our lesson goals compared to our student outcomes. It can also take the form of written notes, peer observation, or even student feedback. The next step is to ensure that whatever revelations are exposed are used to inform your practice – what have you gained from your insights?; what was the purpose of your teaching?; do you need to make adjustments to improve your students’ understanding or mastery?; how does this influence what you will do next?; and so on.

There are a myriad of ways for educators to establish and maintain a reflective practice, as well as methods to encourage and build a classroom culture that celebrates student reflection. Perhaps, however, the most important component is to just ensure that it actually gets done.

Happy teaching!

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Limbo within the liminal space

The term ‘liminal space’ may be something that is unfamiliar to many, yet it is possibly one of the most common spaces learners (and people in general) find themselves in. The liminal space is reference to the process of transitioning through a period of change. It is a conscious awareness of knowing that you don’t know something. This is a direct contrast to being blissfully unaware of something altogether (hence, the phrase “ignorance is bliss”, one would assume!). The liminal space defines the transition that learners experience as they travel from the known into the unknown, which for our students (and hopefully ourselves) is something that we experience regularly.

However, many learners (and educators) are unaware that there is a definition of this crucial aspect of learning. Furthermore, many learners (and educators!) are uncomfortable inhabitants once within this space. Some will even resist entering it altogether through procrastination and work avoidance.

The liminal exists whether we like to admit it or not. I believe that our attitude as we approach this space heavily influences the process. Once it is embraced, it becomes our companion that will travel with us from “the ‘what was’ to the ‘next’ (Liminal Space, 2016, n.p.).

As we guide our young learners to embrace this space, we may need to help them to navigate the emotional ambiguity that can come with it. This can be done by reinforcing feelings of self efficacy – the belief that they are capable of learning and mastering new skills and knowledge. It can also be supported by encouraging reflection – making time for learners to consider their own learning, to make connections with prior experiences, to contemplate what they know, what they want to know, and possible strategies to employ to achieve this. We can also model our own transitions through liminal spaces and allowing our students to understand that this is a natural process that all learners experience.

The following quote from Richard Rohr shared by Liminal Space (2016, n.p.) beautifully describes this space:

“where we are betwixt and between the familiar and the completely unknown. There alone is our old world left behind, while we are not yet sure of the new existence. That’s a good space where genuine newness can begin. Get there often and stay as long as you can by whatever means possible…This is the sacred space where the old world is able to fall apart, and a bigger world is revealed.”

The liminal space is one that educators should aspire for their students to embrace one day. This may take time and guidance for this to occur, but having an awareness ourselves of this space allows us to both respect and support the transition. Most importantly, it allows our learners (and ourselves) to respect the experience of being within the liminal space. We want our learners to know not to resist it, nor to plough through it panic-stricken and searching for ‘sameness’, and instead understand the beauty and value that comes from the limbo experience of not knowing….yet.

Happy teaching!

References:

Liminal Space. (2016). Retrieved on 9th September, 2016 from https://inaliminalspace.org/about-us/what-is-a-liminal-space/

 

Putting the ‘personal’ into Personal Learning Spaces

After an absence from my blog, recent academic discussion that I have been involved in has prompted me to reflect upon my understanding and opinions about Personal Learning Spaces.

One’s personal learning space is something that can be highly individualised, but often one that is not consciously decided upon. It is only when we reflect on our own preferences for learning that we then begin to notice the key features that we required in order to be successful lifelong learners. The personal learning space is designed around what our students need in order to demonstrate self-direction in their learning, self-efficacy and self-reflection. For younger learners, these are skills which may only be in the earliest stages of development, but they are crucial skills which their teachers should encourage and support.

Each learner, whether they be a child, teen, or adult, will have reasons which motivate them to learn and offer them a sense of self-direction. Sometimes the motivation will be a desire to avoid failure. Other times, it will be a desire to achieve the end result (e.g. mastery of new learning, a new skill, etc). It may be linked to a learner’s belief of the value the new learning gives them once it’s achieved – is it personally relevant? Whatever it is, it allows a learner to take responsibility for their own learning experience (Smith, 1996, n.p.).

Learners will also have a level of belief in their own ability to succeed which may vary from task to task, subject to subject, and even day-to-day. A learner’s ability to begin a task with the necessary amount of self-belief that they will succeed may be linked to prior success in that area, comments or feedback they have received in that area, or their own perception of the cognitive challenge that lies ahead. I have also found that this area can fluctuate greatly when influenced by seemingly unrelated factors such as life-pressures, social struggles and/or times of stress or duress.

The final area that I am concerned that doesn’t get factored in enough is to teach our students (and ourselves!) to become reflective learners. Students need time to consider what they have learned, to make connections to prior knowledge, and to express their understanding of their new learning to themselves and to others. However, often teachers find themselves finishing up lessons without having included any time for reflection (for their students or themselves) and soldiering on to the next timetabled activity in order to keep up with time constraints.

Given that these factors are all highly personal for each learner (hence the name ‘Personal Learning Spaces’), how does one teacher ensure that they are encouraging and fostering these skills in all of their students? My personal belief is that it comes down to keeping it personal and knowing your students.

A teacher will find it difficult to foster a sense of self-direction if the tasks that they assign for younger students unless they are engaging, relevant to their real lives and have value. In some cases, some learners may need more explicit scaffolding in order to develop self-direction skills, whereas others will need minimal assistance. However, teachers will know when they’ve hit the ‘sweet spot’ in lesson design because their learners will be positively engaged in their own learning and require minimal assistance or external motivation in order to keep going.

I believe this is even more true for self-efficacy. The relationship that you develop with your students will allow you to gauge their self-belief as it changes day-to-day, task-to-task, subject-to-subject. Having a genuine relationship, rapport and understanding of what your students believe about themselves as learners who can succeed is crucial. This knowledge allows teachers to ensure that their students will be faced with tasks and activities that will be challenging, but will still allow for success on some level. We don’t want to be bombarding students with unrealistic tasks which will chip away at their self-belief. We can only avoid doing this when we have genuine relationships with our learners.

As for reflection, this is something that our young learners will need to be explicitly taught. As teachers, how are we factoring reflection into each of our lessons? What questions are we teaching our students to ask themselves about their learning? What do we know about their lives in order to make their learning relevant? What connections are we encouraging them to make with prior learning? When are we ensuring that we revisit the learning pathways we have guided our students along?

So, although ‘Personal Learning Spaces’ asks us to consider something that may vary for each of our learners, it is important that each teacher considers their influence on each component. Just as adult learners would be reluctant to invest time and effort into an activity that serves no purpose, that is not relevant to their needs, and appears unrealistically impossible, so too will our students. As teachers, we have to ensure that we keep things personal with our students in order to create harmony between the lessons we design and the development of the skills they will need to become successful life-long learners – self-direction, self-efficacy and reflection.

Happy Teaching!

Lifelong Learners

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As an educator, we need to be armed with a hefty toolbox of resources, including our own skills, knowledge, strategies, experiences, behaviours, and opinions. We also need to be able to breed motivation when children seemingly have no desire to learn. We are sometimes challenged to inspire boys and girls with engaging learning opportunities that are relevant to their everyday lives, and we must be able to create welcoming and encouraging learning spaces that are tailored to suit their needs in order for them to take risks with their learning.

Most importantly, I believe we need to instil the belief that learning doesn’t end. To become lifelong learners is something that we all must preach and practise. I feel this is particularly important as an educator as we are the ones fortunate to be involved in the learning experiences of so many children year after year. We lead by example, and for those of my colleagues who have reached the ‘end’ of their most recent learning journey, I implore you to keep the momentum going throughout your professional practise.

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(Longworth & Davies, 1996, p. 22)

Immerse yourself within an inspiring community of professionals and continue to widen your network (virtual and otherwise) as the years progress. Give back to your community and share what you can with others, whether that be encouragement and support right through to your professional advice. Most of all, remember that we are a part of the largest group of professionals on the planet, so you are not alone! You just need to keep moving forward, as both a teacher and a learner.

Happy teaching!

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This post is dedicated to a cohort of educators who are preparing to cross a virtual threshold this evening as they submit their ideas, suggestions, and hopes for future learning spaces. If their experience in discovering the possibilities of learning spaces in education was anything like mine, then the past several months would have been eye-opening, challenging, inspiring, and worthwhile. Good luck to everyone with your future endeavours, and thank you for allowing me to be a part of your experience.  

LONGWORTH, NORMAN, and DAVIES, W. KEITH. 1996. Lifelong Learning: New Vision, New Implications, New Roles for People, Organizations, Nations and Communities in the 21st Century. London: Kogan Page.

Where does change begin?

In the past few weeks I have had the privileged opportunity of participating in a community of teachers and discussing the role of educators today. Part of these conversations revolved around learning spaces, what they are, who they are for, and why teachers need to have a sound understanding of them in order to maximise the student experience. This alone makes for stimulating conversation.

However, one final comment from my mentor has once again left me pondering (as so often they do). He was commenting on the understanding that we are all aware that education has the power and ability to change lives. Yet, he encouraged us to remember this:

you are an arbiter of that change – do not leave it to others when it can be you who makes the change!” (Staples, 2016)

So often we feel that there are other people more qualified to make significant change. They are more capable, more skilled, more available, more experienced, more dedicated, than us. However, the reality is that as educators, we all have that power every single day that we are in contact with our students. What we choose to study with them, the conversations we choose to have, the experiences we choose to provide them with, and the global awareness we choose to bring into our classrooms will all contribute to make change.

We are the ones who are qualified to do this because we are educators. We are part of a global network of educators who have the ability to have a powerful and positive impact on the students we come in contact with. It is from this global network that some incredible professionals make a decision to make an enormous change to their daily lives in order to bring about change for others.

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https://www.theguardian.com/world/2016/jan/22/isle-of-wight-superhead-running-makeshift-school-for-refugees

However, as an everyday teacher (and I mean this with no disrespect whatsoever) it may seem that we are not able to solve the educational crises we see around the world, but that doesn’t mean that we can’t (and don’t!) have an impact. The knowledge, skills, understanding, and behaviours that we assist our students to develop will add to how they choose to interact as members of a global society in years to come.

We will touch the lives of countless students during our time as educators, and it is important that we realise that even though it may seem that we are not the ones teaching the children from the most dire of circumstances, we still have the privilege to be the arbiter of change through the choices we make for ourselves, our students, and our professional networks, and our school community.

So, take a moment to enjoy being a member of one of the world’s largest professional groups and make the decision that change will start with you.

Happy teaching!

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References:

Staples, A. (2016, October 30, 13:18). Online forum: Final week.

Celebrating International Day of the Girl

Today, October 11th, is the United Nation’s International Day of the Girl. For some females in first world nations, they may have the luxury of wondering why this day is even necessary? Perhaps, they are fortunate to have been treated as equals to our male counterparts and not feel that they were disadvantaged or discriminated in any way due to being a female. Or, instead, they may be one of the billions of females around the world whose future is limited in every way imaginable because they were born a girl. Their access to equal opportunities for healthcare, education, social-status, and/or political opinion is some cases non-existent, and in the worst cases, it is illegal.

However, the reality for many females who may feel that they haven’t been disadvantaged by being a female is that inequalites and stereotypes are so ingrained in our society that we don’t even notice them happening. That is where the #LikeAGirl campaign helps to demonstrate this beautifully.

This campaign was born from a desire to encourage girls to continue to participate in sports as they reach adolescence. From a global perspective, quite obviously fighting for equal access to quality education and healthcare is very clearly a top priority. However, the #LikeAGirl campaign resonated with me for a number of reasons. Firstly, it demonstrates firsthand how otherwise young, confident, first-world girls have internalised what being like a girl means. This, in turn, presumably goes on to shape their thoughts, their conversations, their opinions of self-worth, and their perceived abilities and limitations as a female in the 21st century.

So, before you write off International Day of the Girl as just another token day on the calendar OR as a day which is only meant for girls in third world countries, just take a look at the #LikeAGirl campaign and see if anything resonates with you. And, if it does, I enthusiastically encourage you to change your dialogue with the boys and girls in your classrooms (and at home) to shed some light on how we can slowly shift such ingrained, outdated, and potentially dangerous stereotypes.

Happy teaching!

Student wellbeing and learning spaces – is there a connection?

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As an adult, it is hard not to make comparisons between what school life was like for ourselves as children versus today’s students. I’m of a vintage where I still have vivid memories of the smell of freshly printed copies of worksheets (albeit, I was inhaling toxic spirit fumes that had lingered on our purple-printed papers, but that’s beside the point!). However, there are aspects of our school days that stay with us into adulthood, and beyond. Some good, some great, and even some that may be downright awful. One thing I don’t ever remember being taught about in primary school was the importance of my own emotional and psychological wellbeing. We certainly covered general physical health to some degree (e.g. exercise, nutrition), but I can’t recall anything extending beyond that, even in my high school years.

So, what has changed to make this become necessary today? Firstly, I am a huge advocate for explicit teaching and discussion about wellbeing. I am of the firm belief that children who feel secure, calm, (and ideally happy) are much better suited to be engaged in their learning versus children who are not. The current Victorian Curriculum has numerous links to student wellbeing, both physically and emotionally. Many include topics that we as teachers will be covering include things such as analysing our own emotions and how they can influence our decision making with friends and family. Many schools now have Wellbeing Programs in place, along with Wellbeing Staff members.

Concerns about our students’ mental health today is real. The statistics are alarming. The 2015 Australian report of The Mental Health of Children and Adolescents states that in Australia approximately one in every seven children and/or young person has experienced a mental health disorder in the last year. Rates for depression, self-harm and thoughts of suicide among teenagers is particularly worrying, with approximately one in ten indicating they have engaged in self-harming behaviour, with three quarters doing so in the past 12 months.

In a class of 30 grade 5/6 students I taught last week, we discussed the everyday pressures they face. Extra tuition outside of school, extra-curricular sporting/artistic/music/language classes, scholarship tutoring. In this Grade 5/6 class alone, we ran a survey and more than 70% of students had some kind of activity scheduled for every weekday after school. Furthermore, there was no child with less than three weekday outside-of-school commitments, whether that be before or after school care, sports, tutoring, or tuition. On top of that, the days they had off were often spent rushing around for their siblings’ activities. (As a parent of four kids, I know this feeling all too well – “Quick! We don’t want to be late!”, “Hurry up! It’s time to go!”).

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Our children today lead busy lives, which isn’t to say that we didn’t when we were children, but with the onslaught of constant online connectedness, I think we have failed to pass on the gift of being switched off and just being a kid. I am not trying to romanticise the olden days of my youth – there were plenty of times I would complain of being so bored with nothing to do! But, I had an opportunity to be bored, to not be rushed somewhere every day, to slow my pace and to just be. How many of our students today can say the same? 

With the Australian Government committed to provide strategies to focus on prevention and early intervention of mental health issues, it is no wonder that we now see it filtering into our curriculum. And although some of the statistics are for children who will have left the primary school system, I feel it is important that we equip them with knowledge and strategies (and even support services) before that point.

Since I am not a therapist, psychiatrist, psychologist, social worker, or the like, it is highly unlikely that I am going to be directly involved in the ongoing counselling of my students, other than to offer immediate crisis support if and when necessary. However, there are things that I can do to empower my students, and that is where learning spaces fit in. We are aware that children have different preferred learning styles, but they also have preferences for the spaces in which they learn. These spaces can vary from day to day, and from task to task. The important thing is to ensure you provide options. Allow students a little bit of independence to make responsible choices about where they are choosing to learn. Of course there are consequences if they misuse your trust, but a student who is already under pressure and possibly trying their hardest just to get through the day is going to be more inclined to do so when provided with an activity that matches their learning style along with a learning space that innately appeals to them. 

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As an educator, part of our role is getting to know and understand the children in our care. We need to be able to support them with guidance and boundaries in order to prepare them for the real world, but it is possible to do that while still honouring them as individuals. Offer spaces where they can learn somewhere other than at their desks. Provide tasks where they can choose how to convey their learning. Develop scaffolding so that working as part of a group doesn’t become the sole responsibility of one child. Plan for lessons that provide interaction with people within their community and beyond to broaden their understanding and their horizons. But most of all, create a safe, welcoming, and nurturing learning space where they can be themselves and where they will be supported while they learn the skills to look after themselves as well as others.

Happy teaching!