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Friday, 26 August 2016

Exploding the box

I remember saying to the Principal when my eldest daughter started school "She is not in a box"!  She is now 18 and I am proud to say she still remains outside 'the box'.  

The Box?  Education as we knew it.  The known.  Reading, writing and numbers.  Specific knowledge for a specific job.  Teachers teaching a specific curriculum.  Expected ways for children to behave.  Teachers saying "we have always taught like this and they all learn exactly like this at the same time and in the same way.

You know I love play based learning.  The main reason is because it is outside of the box.  Actually, it smashes any box.  The OECD report on innovative learning environments has at the centre of its curriculum "The learner and learning".  If the learner is at the centre of education, nothing can be predicted, known or expected. And that describes our future.  We don't know what the jobs will be in 15 years.  We don't even know if there will be jobs.

Learning outside of the box, means the learner is free to learn how they need to learn.  It means the teacher is thinking about the learner first and their needs.  They are not thinking "you will fit in with what I already do"  They are thinking "What can I do to support you?"

And that brings me to the changes that the National Government want to introduce into the New Zealand Education system.  I liken the changes to an open box.  I think they are trying to make education more flexible, and student centred with the COOL concept, and with the Special Education concept of placing resources into early childhood, they want to target children when they most need the help.  However, I am also a parent of three diverse learners.  Three learners who have and will continue to require learner support.  And as a parent, it is not only 'stressful' living with a child outside the box of regular education, but overtime if someone wants to change my 'box' or my known, it provokes more stress.  And to be honest, without more funding, I can't see how the proposed changes will be fair to anyone.  I can't work out how you can put more into one sector without taking it from another if you are not going to increase the total sum.  But that doesn't mean I don't think the ideas are not good.  And I know how I am feeling, thinking that the meagre funding that keeps my children in school now, if that disappears, how will they cope.  It is a real fear.

Over the last 5 and half years, I have been teaching at a school that is an innovative learning environment.  My three children who are outside the box have been attending this school.  It hasn't always been easy, but I can say that the child centred pedagogy, like described in the above OECD report has supported my children to learn.  Because the child is at the centre, their needs are listened to, well most of the time.  Nothing is perfect, I mean life and learning is difficult no matter what.  But, certainly, my voice as a parent, and their voices as students are listened to. I am pleased to say that many of the teachers, have listened and learnt along with me.  And actually, it has been better than being in the box of regular education.

I can see how our education system could be better.  If we truely put the learner at the centre and if schools and teachers could stop peeking out of the box, but explode it, we could be providing an amazing education for all our learners.  What could the exploded box look like?
Teachers changing the environment, their expectations, their lens to teach through, to suit each learner. Teachers listening to parents and trusting them as experts.  Teachers working in teams and not alone.  Teachers functioning as a team, joining together to come up with innovative ideas.  Schools, being able and free to educate the way each community needs them too.  Whanau, Schools, Special Education, Health,  CYF working together, communicating freely, making smooth transitions, opening up resources, sharing knowledge, together.  Putting the child at the centre.  Not the system, or the 'way we have always done this' but learning from each learner what is needed.

And change doesn't mean we chuck everything out.  There are some things that will still be needed. For example, a diagnosis.  That is essential, because it helps me as a parent, to have a framework to work within.  We need as much knowledge as we can, but it is what we do with that knowledge that makes the difference.  If we treat it like it is fixed, we will fail.  But if we treat it like it can be used, changed and manipulated, we will succeed. As the OECD report points out, it is the mix which creates the success.  How we mix up what we know, with each part of the system, helps create the change we need.

Here is my attempt to change an environment so the learner is at the centre.  I have been deeply moved by play in the classroom.  When the child arrives in the class, they are surprised to see they can play.  Children understand play.  Play is children's work. Play is learning. They relax, so the brain starts to work. They begin to learn.

Two children have recently come from schools, where the box is well defined, closed even and they have found themselves very much outside of it. So much so they have been isolated and unable to learn.  As they have been immersed in our play based environment, they have begun to enjoy learning.  They not only have success, they have continued success.  Their next steps are identified and the teachers start where they are, sensitively helping them to move to the next step in their learning.  Sometimes, it is social for example, learning how to get on with others.  Sometimes, emotional, learning how to calm down when angry. Sometimes it is academic, learning how to sound out letters. It is always about learning how to learn.  This future focused skill is transferrable, no matter what your age, or what your stage, learning how to learn is an absolute.  It explodes the box.   Learning what it feels like to struggle, being supported to keep going and not to give up, and then experiencing the success.  Being trusted to know what you want to learn and then being provided with the resources meaning you are in control of your learning not the teacher.  As we know, relationship is the key.  Exploding the box, means removing our blinkers about what we think we know about any child and looking in a new way.

Exploding the box is most uncomfortable for the adults but for the learners, it is fun, meaningful, life changing, and well, it simple enables learning.

Do you want to explode the box?  I think we can, I know we need to.  Not for our sakes, but for the children, for the learners and for the future.

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