EduCafe Term 1 2015

Thanks to all those who attended the first EduCafe event for 2015.

Question: What makes an ‘educated’ person today?

Key ideas and thoughts from the evening:

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And the next question we will be discussing (as voted by you!) is…. How can we make meaningful change in our schools?

The neurology of Goldilocks

In the interests of deepening my (very shallow!) understanding of Neurology, I did some homework. Here are my latest findings, on stress and brain function.

My Google-ing journey started here, with a blog post by Judy Willis who extols the virtues of teachers with a knowledge of neurology.  Phew! I thought. I’m on the right track with my quest to find out more!

She begins by talking about Neural Placticity – the exciting idea that our brains are  malleable, able to be ‘rewired’ and that intelligence is not a fixed state.

However, this is all well and good, Willis says, until stressors inhibit our ability to learn.

Seeing neuroimaging scans of students during stress states, such as those that build up with sustained or frequent boredom (information already mastered; no evident relevance) or frustration (repeated past failures in subject), offer powerful insights into the importance of classroom climate and differentiation of instruction. These scans reveal the increased metabolic state that blocks processing in the highest brain (prefrontal cortex; PFC) when this boredom or frustration alienates students from instruction.

Willis says that people’s responses to stressors are largely involuntary. They will be fight or flight type responses that manifest themselves as acting out or zoning out in the classroom.  Obvously, this effects learning – “As students’ stressors build, loss of information access to the PFC for memory construction means new learning is not retained.” She goes on to say that  when teachers recognise this relationship between stress, behavior and learning they are more able to minimise stressors; which comes down to differentiating learning:

When new teachers understand how they have the capacity to reduce the stress of frustration or boredom by providing all students with opportunities to learn at their appropriate level of achievable challenge, their motivation will increase with the expectation of success.

So what does stress actually look like in our brain? And is it always bad for learning? The video below gives a clear and succinct picture of this, as well as some guidance for leaders (which also applies to teachers).

Which brings us back to something we all learned at training college – learning in the Zone of Proximal Development or, as Hattie puts it, the Goldilocks Principle.

Goldilocks_and_the_Three_Bears_by_jucylucyinspired

To be (together) or not to be (together)…. That is the question…

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I’ve been thinking about collaboration recently or, more specifically, collaboration as part of  design, innovation, entrepreneurship and creativity.

A couple of years ago, the Year 6 students at Willow Park explored ideas of entrepreneurship and, as a part of the process, we had many interesting people come in and talk to us. One of these people was a highly successful entrepreneur who has many commonly known brands and products under his belt. He talked to the students about how he generated ideas, which was very much an individual process. He gave the analogy of how grown ups come up with their best ideas while they are in the shower, because that’s often the only quiet thinking time they get! Mr Entrepreneur then went on to explain that he made a point of going for frequent solitary walks, without even the dog to keep him company. He did this to have time to think, reflect and generate ideas. When you think about it, the whole idea of entrepreneurship is fairly individual. Mention the word and you think, Steve Jobs, Richard Branson etc. etc… rarely whole companies or groups of people.

Yet we also know that no one individual could run one of these companies entirely on their own. We also know that think tanks and so forth are used commonly to generate ideas that no one person could have on their own. Would Apple be where it is today without bringing together different skill sets that built on Steve Jobs’ brilliance?

So my question is this – How do we allow for both independent thinking and collaborative idea generation in our classes? What about teachers? When do they get time to stop and think; as well as connect and collaborate? Whose responsibility is this to make this happen?- The individual or the school?

I also wonder if we can develop a better understanding of when it is best to collaborate and when it is best to work individually; both in terms of the task at hand and the individual involved. I’m thinking that perhaps we need to allow that lone creative genius time and permission to ponder alone. I’m also thinking of the video “I choose C” – Are we creating students who are too reliant on their peers and can’t stand on their own two feet when necessary?

Like anything, I think it’s a balancing act. We don’t want to swing too far in any one direction as too much collaboration or too much of a individual focus could be potentially detrimental.

I think it is also a matter of building self awareness. I know that I personally like to hatch an idea and add some depth to it on my own, then share and collaborate to take that idea to the next level. But I’m sure not everyone works like this, so how do we build capacity in students to understand how their creative processes work?

Is what we are teaching “life worthy”? – Part 2.

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I have recently been reading David Perkins’ book “Future Wise”. I blogged about the first 4 chapters in a previous post and today I’ll write about the key points (for me) from the next few chapters.

In schools, Perkins suggests we embrace big questions and big understandings.  He says questions should be “open, undermining, rich, connected, loaded and practical” – though he also adds that we need not ensure all questions have all these aspects – phew! Such questions allow students to be a part of the learning process, set them up for this unknown future we keep talking about, allow us to see beyond disciplines, give rise to more questions and, at times, set kids up for the reality that not all questions are answerable… yet!

In order to ‘reimagine’ education and make it ‘life ready’, Perkins suggests 4 quests:

  1. Identifying lifeworthy learning in contrast with not-so-lifeworthy learning
  2. Choosing what lifeworthy learning to teach, based on whether it will help student be ‘life ready’
  3. Teaching for lifeworthy learning – allowing kids to be a part of  the learning process and ensuring learning can be applied, kids know how to apply it and have a vested interest in this learning.
  4. Constructing a lifeworthy curriculum – we can’t fit everything in, in a really meaningful, deep way. So we need to be clever about what we select to teach, which brings us back to those big questions and big understandings.

Following this, Perkins goes on to analyse the silos of education, or buckets of content as he calls them. Perkins argues that there is nothing wrong with this way of categorising knowledge and understandings. However, he does say that traditional disciplines get “crowded with niche understandings and niche questions” which can make it difficult for students to explore really big ideas and questions.

Perkins goes on to argue that some, possibly more traditionally taught areas, can be really meaningful. He gives the example of poetry – it’s unlikely that this will  help us with the practicalities of every day life, like brushing our teeth or getting a better job. However, poetry can offer us key insights into the way the work works and how people operate. So, according to Perkins, not all learning needs to be practical in nature in order for it to be ‘life worthy’.