For over 40 years, some of the best insights that I have had with respect to teaching and learning have come from my own children and grandchildren. I have seen what engages them and what bores them; what motivates them and what turns them off; what inspires them to persevere and what sends them packing. It has helped me with my parenting but it has also had a huge impact on my life as an educator. This Christmas was no exception. Here are five things that I have learned from my two youngest sons (12 and 9) so far this holiday about teaching and learning:
1. Collaborative learning almost always trumps independent activity. My youngest son is a games fiend. Cards, board games, WiiU or iPad competitions with his brother, you name it and he will play it. He is not a win at all costs kind of kid - he just loves to socialize through a shared activity. How often do we give our students the same opportunity? Are our classrooms and learning opportunities structured to support group interaction or are our kids glued to their own learning islands? It takes more prep, and way more classroom management to create and maintain constructive collective learning opportunities, but it is always worth it.
2. Learning by doing. I would love to buy a new boat for our cottage. Unfortunately, all of my assets are tied up in Lego (in the past it was Playmobil and before that every Fisher Price toy ever made). Our house is decorated, not like something out of Better Homes and Gardens, but more akin to the most current Lego catalogue. We have all of the Mavel and DC super hero sets; Ninjago; Chima; Harry Potter; Lord of the Rings; Lego Movie; Toy Story - you get the drill! What do they all have in common? They provide hours and days of infectious fun and creative activity. This summer we had a family Lego competition. A theme was chosen; we each had two minutes to choose pieces from a variety of bins; and then 15 minutes to create our response to the theme. Each resulting masterpiece was then presented, with appropriate back story, and a winner was crowned. Then we smashed them up and started over again.
"Maker spaces" have become the new bragging point for schools. Do you have one? Have you outfitted it with the latest technology and tools and materials? Are all of the bells ringing and the whistles tooting? A quick scan of social media will go a long way towards making you feel inadequate in this area! However, you don't really need anything fancy. Some bins of interesting "junk"; basic construction materials; and a willingness to let your classroom get messy (read "trashed") are all that it takes. Kids are engaged, the creative juices flow, and the possibilities are endless.
3. Books are not out of date: Our sons have as much technology as anyone could want at their fingertips - and they use it constantly. Having said that, during "technology-free" times they move seamlessly to their newest book and dive down into whatever adventure awaits them there. Good, age-appropriate literature is always in demand in our house (for children and adults) and, although I love the convenience of carrying around a library on my mini, there is nothing more satisfying than the tactile feel of a good, solid book in your hands. It is always a great family outing to prowl around a bookstore hoping to score the latest by a favourite author or discover a new series to explore. When we travel, local bookstores are always an important stop en route. Having the right literature in your classroom (for all reading levels) and giving exclusive time each day devoted to its exploration is sure-fire winner.
4. There is nothing better than a good story, well-told: Most nights, I put our sons to bed with a story. Years ago, I made the strategical error of inventing a story about a trio of monkey detectives. We now have our own version of the "1001 Nights" as our 3 detectives have travelled to every continent solving mysteries for the local non-human populations. The only times I get bumped off the bedtime agenda is when my wife has them entranced by a "read-aloud". Usually a book that is a bit too advanced for our younger son and a bit too easy for our older one, but one that tells a great and engaging story.
I love going into classrooms where you can hear a pin drop as the teacher reads to the whole group. We are a species with an oral tradition much deeper than our written one. Telling stories and reading aloud to students not only honour and preserve that tradition, they foster a sense of community and shared experience.
5. Sometimes plans just have to go out the window: As good 21st century parents, we pride ourselves on our ability to over-programme and organize our children's lives. Less structured holiday times are a good reminder that, when we take the time to sit back and let things happen, wonderful learning experiences can take place. Giving children time to explore, and supporting them in getting past obstacles in their paths, can be incredibly rewarding and instructive. With all of current emphasis on self-reliance, and grit, and, (as I read today), moxie, we often forget that sometimes kids just need our help and support. If our goal is to have them develop as inquisitive and productive learners, shouldn't we be around to clear out some of the underbrush and let them find their own path? Yesterday we went for a hike in Capilano Canyon. There were recently fallen trees and a heron waiting for an unsuspecting fish to come along. There were hills to climb and bridges to cross. There was a cascading falls coming off Cleveland dam and down the spillway where weeks before there had only been a trickle. And there was running and skipping and lots of laughs. My own children always remind me that these are the real and authentic types of learning experiences that we need to share with our students whenever we can!
Can we do anything less as educators?