Monday, August 10, 2009

Heresy:learning doesn't have to centre around the curriculum.

One of the best 'emerging' lessons I have seen happened when one of the year one students showed his teacher his orange which was just beginning to decay with mould.This set off an interest in such things and for a while the classroom looked like it was the centre for rotting fruits and vegetables. A spectacular pumpkin took centre place. Students did regular drawing of the orange to follow the process.Digital cameras would have been useful.

Our new curriculum says that 'intellectual curiosity' is the source of all learning. If this is the case then the role of the teacher is, as Jerome Bruner wrote, to practice the 'canny art of intellectual temptation.'

Children are born with a disposition to learn. In the early year they are the closest thing to a pure scientist we have. Unfortunately only a few adults manage to leave formal schooling with this passionate sense of curiosity intact - individuals who are happy to work at the edge of their competence, pushing themselves into unknown areas that have captured their attention. For too many students, such a passion to know, has been blunted or ignored by teachers busy with their curriculum plans. And, all to often, such questioning students are a plain nuisance - their teachers claiming they do not 'pay attention' ( to them) .After all who wants kids to keep asking questions all day?

Well I do. I believe it is possible, if schools really were learning centred, to develop a powerful curriculum that arises, or emerges, out of students curiosity and, all the more so, if teacher set out to develop environments to capture students' attention.

It boils down to a lack of trust in our students or perhaps a feeling that as adults we ( as defined by distant experts) know what is best for them to learn.

I am not saying that I believe children would simply learn by themselves. I take Bruner's idea of 'intellectual temptation' seriously and believe teachers should develop learning situation to encourage their students to explore all the learning areas, or disciplines, and in the process 'learn how to learn'. I envisage (and have seen) classrooms full of displays, artifacts, and technology that few children could resist the temptation of involving themselves. The traditional skills of literacy and numeracy would still be vital to ensure all studnts are able to, as it says in the curriculum, 'seek, use and create their own knowledge'.

An intuitive teacher can easily encourage students, through by the provision of such temptations, to involve themselves. Then, by coming alongside the students, discover their questions, prior ideas and current explanations ( theories). In such classrooms any number of exploration might be taking place, some by individuals but more often by groups of students. Interests are contagious and students do like working together.

The teachers role would be to ensure students develop the habit of learning in depth by 'doing fewer things well'. By this means a depth of understanding would be gained as well as an appreciation of the social and personal competencies required to work together. Students would need to be helped with time and resource management so as to share the equipment and other resources.

This integrated project based, or inquiry learning, approach provides relevance, reality and rigor to learning too often missing in our schools. To be done well the 'artistry' and sensitivity of the teacher is central. Such teachers need to value the questions, ideas, research and creations of their students.

It is the students' questions ( helped by a bit of Bruner's 'canny intellectual temptation') that provide the real curriculum.

All this is entirely possible but only if the right conditions are in place. Trusting students can only succeed if teachers are also trusted. There are a number of educationalists, from John Dewey to James Beane, who write supporting such an approach but more importantly it has been successful with creative teachers over the decades.

This is not an easy way of teaching but it is creative and fun and echoes the natural way students learn.
Any success would need be judged not only by what teachers and students create together but most of all by the attitudes towards learning, and each other,shown by the students. A walk around such a classroom ( or better still a whole school) would soon indicate the success or other wise of such an approach.

I would bet on it.


Jody Hayes said...


The energy ... the enthusiasm ... the frustrations ... the struggles to understand .... it is all just so motivating!
My class are currently deeply wading through some wondering about inventions of siege warfare - and you might think that sounds quite straight forward and old fashioned theme based learning. But add inquiry into the mix and then there are groups of children all going in different directions, all with a range of weird and wonderful 3D objects etc - it is wonderful to be part of as their teacher!

Bruce said...

I LOVE your comment Jody!!! Sounds like the class is great fun. Siege warfare weapons make great science!