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The Road to Recovery: Mental Wellbeing, it’s not your fault and your not alone!

Screen Shot 2563-03-19 at 08.20.18It has been just over a year since my last blog post, although my ‘write’ page is filled with dozens of half finished, just begun posts. My reason for beginning again has been inspired by a recent post by Sonya terBorg in which she explains her reasons for taking a break from blogging and her battle with Imposter Syndrome. There was a lot in the article that resonated and gave me the push to write this post and maybe complete the dozens of unfinished posts. This is a post I have been meaning to write for sometime now but needed that little push and courage.

I think back to the educator I was just over a year ago. I was motivated, driven, inspired and with a huge self-confidence in my approach to teaching and learning but even then not all was right. I kept myself extremely busy and had probably the most productive year of my career to date working as Homeroom Teacher, Team Leader, Chair of Committee for NEASC and IB self-study, football coach and much more. From the outside I seemed like a very driven colleague but on the inside things were not so bright. I began to feel anxiety, frustration, unappreciated, unsupported and many more self-pitying emotions. It felt like that no matter how much I tried the people I really wanted to make proud, or acknowledge my work, didn’t seem to notice or appreciate my efforts, or in the ways that I expected anyway. The more these negative feelings increased the harder I worked driven by a mission to prove some point.

It was around this time last year that I had accomplished all my assignments, the self study was finished, football tournaments over, curriculums and documentation completed as much as possible for my team and there was nothing in front of me, nothing to distract me from myself. It was at this time self- doubt crept in. I tried to keep things going but the motivation and drive was gone. I started projects but then could not complete. Things that would have usually been so easy turned into a mammoth task. My head was spinning and with it I spiralled into depression, self-doubt and shame. I started to compete with my old self and the more I tried, and failed, the deeper I seemed to fall. In my head was a voice that screamed, ‘why is no-one helping!, and I was too scared to reach out and admit I needed help. Or in the times I did I felt that the right kind of support was not there. For many we continue to suffer in silence and put on a brave face. That brave face becomes a weight and is so tiring to maintain.

The more things increased the more isolated I became. Social anxiety became I huge issue as my self-confidence no longer supported me. I began to hide away with feelings of being a fraud. I stopped blogging, stopped socialising, became quieter and afraid. I stopped answering messages and participating in chats as I felt afraid of being exposed. All my support and connections were falling away and I was soo tired all the time. All I could think about at times was when I could get my next sleep and how long for.

Education can be a scary place when educators feel like I did or do still at times. The vision of an educator is a driven, motivated, confident and sociable creatures. A problem solver, curious, creative, independent and collaborative but there were times when I was none of those things or at least not the way I was. During the last year I continued my fitness routine, ate well, slept well but nothing seemed to lift the haze.

What has changed? Well the simple fact is I have become to recognise that I had a problem and needed help. I could not do this on me own. I became more open about my feelings to those close and leaned on them when I needed. This was the greatest challenge, opening up, being able to say that I need help. The more I opened up to friends and colleagues the more I felt my burden shared and more surprisingly there are a lot of us out there experiencing the same things. We are not alone and that in itself is comforting. We all need support at times.

The good days are beginning to become more frequent but I cannot be naive, it is a process. I need to continue to open up when I need to, look for help when I can. I am not invincible. I can feel the change in my mindset and aspects of the old me beginning to return. Even writing this post I can feel a new sense of motivation and drive, a new beginning and who knows, I may even finish those posts I started. I must state that the purpose of my blogs has never to gain recognition but it was an excellent way of self-reflection, a way to improve practice and make connections with like minded educators.

For those that read this, I spent a lot of time debating whether I should. I didn’t want it to come across as self-pitying but as a way of getting things off my chest. It is quite scary to expose myself in this way but I feel better for doing so. Sometimes you have to forget about others and do whats right for you.

Final thought: I believe that schools and school leaders need to do more to support educators and let them feel safe that it is ok to need help. I know some schools and individuals try hard but we still have far to go. To everyone, not just teachers,  social and emotional support is something that we should continue to be proactive about and not reactive. Is it the saying it is much easier to fix broken children that fix broken adults? We need to all work hard to ensure that things don’t get broken in the first place and if they do then there is a community there ready to support them. All it sometimes takes is a smile and a good morning. The recognition that you care.

Agency Driven Curriculum.

The most dangerous experiment we can conduct with our children is to keep schooling the same at a time when every other aspect of our society is dramatically changing.” ~ Chris Dede

‘Is it our curriculum that allows for the scope of student-agency or is it student-agency that should drive the curriculum?’ This is a question that I have pondered on considerably in the past several months. I believe the distinction is important and has implications as to how we approach the curriculum and how we manage our time. The answer may also suggest what we value within education.

Through conversations with educators it seems that the current trend is that many are still working with the curriculum and timeframes that they have had previously. Within these already fixed curriculums and timeframes they are looking for greater opportunity to allow for student-agency. It is amicable but in this scenario student-agency may occur but it is very limiting and arguable unauthentic when the scope and timing of learning has already been predetermined by the teacher? This approach to the curriculum creates an unnatural learning environment, drastically limiting the opportunities for agency to flourish. We not only increasingly limit the choice of the learner but fail to recognise student voice and ultimately ownership of their learning. 

I would argue that rather than developing a curriculum that allows for agency we allow student-agency to develop the curriculum. If we dictate the how, when and where of learning we are sending a clear message that our learners are incapable of making these decisions on their own. As we follow our set path of learning objectives and routines we are sending a clear message to our learners that their wonderings, interests and self-inquiry have less value than the learning objectives of our curriculum.

I don’t think the answer is re-inventing the curriculum rather than re-imaging our approach to it. I believe that it is more about breaking it down and co-creating it with our learners in a way that is meaningful and purposeful to them. Creating a less structured curriculum that allows for flexibility of learning, authentic inquiry naturally leading to authentic student-agency. A more flexible approach to learning, coupled with strong academic advising structures allows our young learners to find their strengths and interests, and to change direction if needed. Flexibility does not mean that teaching isn’t without structure. Our learners are still dependent on their teachers for providing some element of structure so that they can put in context and make sense of their learning. What we are doing is transferring ownership so that you are working for the learners and not the learners working for you. Being flexible allows educators to respond to different learning abilities, needs and interests. Authentic learning environments should be in constant motion, filled with disruptions, discussion and new ideas. The more flexible a teacher’s approach, the better they are able to adapt to the room and the higher the chances are of increased student participation, engagement and ownership creating a more natural learning environment. It allows students to naturally explore subjects through their own questions, ideas, previous knowledge and level of intelligence. Real learning rarely follows a predictable and clearly linear pattern.

Please read my previous blog posts on how I have worked towards creating a less-structured and flexible approach to the curriculum:

From Learners to Leaders.

Adopting a Flexible Approach to the Curriculum

Teaching Learning Behaviours and Why the Process Matters.

Student agency is nurtured when teachers see learning as layers of choices that are made increasingly by students as they develop their ability to use the information in front of them to make them.Sam Sherratt

They see or seek the possibilities for layers of choices and providing the time, space and resources to ensure the layers are accessible to all.” Tania Mansfield

We often limit students’ agency and limit their imagination due to our own logical thinking. We are adults who come with our own culture, our own background and the wisdom of our world view. We often don’t recognize this as we plan provocation and provocative learning engagements.” – Kristen Blum

Developing a less structured approach to the curriculum is more than just an experiment but also has some grounding in research:

Consistent with Vygotskian developmental theory and programs that build on that theory, such as Tools of the Mind, less-structured time may uniquely support the development of self-directed control by affording children with additional practice in carrying out goal-directed actions using internal cues and reminders. That is, less-structured activities may give children more self-directed opportunities. From this perspective, structured time could slow the development of self-directed control, since adults in such scenarios can provide external cues and reminders about what should happen, and when. Findings offer support for a relationship between the time children spend in less-structured and structured activities and the development of self-directed executive function (EF). Children who spent more time in less-structured activities displayed better self-directed control. By contrast, children who spent more time in structured activities exhibited poorer self-directed EF. Executive functions (EFs) in childhood predict important life outcomes. Thus, there is great interest in attempts to improve EFs early in life. Time spent in less-structured activities would give children opportunities to practice self-directed executive functioning, and lead to benefits.’ – Less-structured time in children’s daily lives predicts self-directed executive functioning.

 

An Enhanced Mindset: Principles to Practice

“With Great Power Comes Great Responsibility” – unknown

Screen Shot 2019-02-22 at 5.28.52 PM“Exciting times for education,” is a common phrase I have enjoyed using in recent times.  I feel positivity in the air and can feel the winds of educational change blowing across my face. The likes of Sir Ken Robinson has called for a ‘learning revolution‘. I for one am firmly convinced that the revolution is already in full swing. With learning communities around the world at various stages of readiness for the implementation of the Enhanced PYP, moving from ‘principles to practice’, I believe we are on the verge of a monumental shift in educational thinking, and philosophy with regards to the direction and purpose of education. A new generation of educator is asking more than ever, ‘What if’ with regards to what education could, should or ‘must’ be.

The changes won’t be easy and will feel uncomfortable for many community members, educators and learners alike. It will involve a cultural, social and structural change within many educational institutes. In the storm of this re-organising will come the inevitable re-distribution of power and responsibility to all stakeholders and members of the learning community. A reassignment of roles and  none more so than to the learners themselves, and with it will come great responsibility. The burden of power and responsibility can no longer be shouldered by the few but must be carried by the many. Throughout this process and beyond the concept of ‘learning community‘ becomes increasingly important and vital in establishing and maintaining the values, beliefs and culture of learning within all schools.

Education is a social or collective endeavour and a benefit to the community as a whole, as well as to the individuals within it. Everyone in the learning community has agency; they see themselves as contributors to its ongoing strength and success, and take action to bring about change.’ The Learning Community in the Enhanced PYP, May 2018

As the monumental shift in practice is a social and collective endeavour then the success or failure depends on the engagement of a collective learning community. It is my belief that the greatest challenge to any learning community will not be their ability to implement change on an immediate and superficial level but to ensure that the change becomes part of school culture, touching the hearts and minds of all learning community members, creating learning partnerships that are supportive and inseparable from each other.

Establishing partnerships among all stakeholders, and recognizing what each member independently and collectively brings to the community, is the first step in building relationships. Through these partnerships, members of the community come together to develop and to support a shared vision, mission, beliefs and values. The Learning Community in the Enhanced PYP, May 2018

I believe that the importance in sustainable and positive change is not just about a ‘shared vision, mission, beliefs and values‘ it is much more than that. It is about a shared mindset. The creation of an ‘Enhanced Mindset’ within all members of the learning community that not only recognises what we are doing but ‘WHY’ we are doing it. In short, and not to be understated, we have been given an opportunity to develop an educational system that benefits the whole of humanity by the creation of generations of autonomous learners self-driven by curiosity and a love of inquiry. As Warren Berger has recognised, ‘curiosity and inquiry’ will be the attributes most valued in the future world. It will be the ‘WHY’ that will be the question that drives positive and sustainable change within learning communities. Without really understanding and appreciating the the ‘why’ our actions can never really have true purpose or any real sustainability.

Screen Shot 2018-08-26 at 7.16.49 AMTo be able to support the development of a shared and ‘Enhanced Mindset’ amongst all learning community members it is important that the journey from ‘principles to practice’ not be rushed. The process of change must be organic and it must be allowed to develop and grow at its own natural pace. We should be going through a process of planting the seeds of change and then tending to them carefully over time. The process should provide enough opportunity for different members of the learning community to become involved, to digest, understand, and recognise the “Why’ at each stage of our preparation. There must be time allowed for all voices within the learning community to be heard, from staff, student, family and community partners. All these community members have a shared power to make a change and a shared responsibility to support the emerging values and beliefs of the school. To be able to achieve this it is vital that all members have an ‘Enhanced Mindset’ of what we are trying to achieve and more importantly, ‘WHY’. These voices must be heard throughout the process if sustainability the values and culture are to remain. Community members not working in isolation but as part of a unified learning community in which each and every member is fully aware that they are they agents of change and the power and responsibilities that brings. Over time the principles that we hold so dear will naturally become practice within our learning communities.

Teaching Learning Behaviours and Why the Process Matters.

“Imagination is more important than knowledge” ~ Albert Einstein

A revolution in modern education has brought with it an increasing change in mindset amongst many educators in regards to the purpose and direction of learning. Having broken away from the shackles of a traditional mindset in regards to education I have found myself questioning and evaluating my purpose as an educator, driven by the questions, ‘How can I best serve my learners?’, and ‘What if?’

During the last academic year in particular I have been inspired by my classroom neighbour and friend @artwithron. Ron is our school’s visual art teacher and a strong advocate of the philosophy of teaching artistic beviour (TAB).

‘Nothing in education is more powerful than authentic, student directed, student centered learning experiences constructed from the bottom up. The TAB art education concept allows students opportunities to take ownership of their art experiences from conception to completion with teacher acting as classroom manager, environmental designer, art expert, facilitator, and student mentor.’ Clyde Gaw

Having been a regular visitor to Ron’s classroom I have been witness to the whole process and outpouring of independent creativity and exploration of the students. Ron spends less time teaching the specific skills of art rather than allowing students to recognise themselves as artists. The students were completely in control of the process from idea to creation. I began to wonder if these same principles could or should be transfeered to other areas of the curriculum e.g. spend more time exploring the process of becoming a writer rather than specific skills involved. In particular skills that had little significance or importance to the creation of writing.

Screen Shot 2018-10-29 at 2.10.45 PMWe were provided an opportunity within the year to allow the students to create and design their own learning environment. We discussed the various areas of learning and the resources that we would need. This provided the chance I needed to allow the students to see themselves as part of the process rather than a passive bystander. A writing table was created with discussions around what resources we would need as writers rather than what resources we would need to learn. Most of these would have been the same but it is how we approached the problem that was significant. It allowed the students to see themselves as writers and involved in the process rather than just learners. Yes we would need letter sound cards and displays, yes we would need whiteboards to write but these were now resources that we would require as a writer rather than just for learning. We were encouraging the students to develop the mindset of a writer rather than just as a learner. For myself in particular this is a very important point. I believe that when we are discussing changes in modern education the most important step is the change in mindset of both educators and learners and how we approach stituations rather than complete change. A change in values and of what is important to the learning process. These would obviously be different when considering the individual learner so it is vital that we create flexible learning opportunities that allow for personalised goals.

With development of technology within the modern world it is clear that the acquisition and demonstration of traditional skills is becoming increasingly less important than the adoption of positive learning behaviours. When developing these learning behaviours it is therefore important that the students become part of the process, mapping out, recognizing and implementing what is important to them. Involving the students within the process allows opportunities for them to personalize and take ownership whilst developing a natural curiosity and motivation to learn. The process and the active participation within it therefore becomes much more important than teacher expectations. There should be no end goal in learning other than the joy of learning. By helping to develop positive learning behaviours within our students we are helping to support a life-long learning journey.

Screen Shot 2018-10-29 at 2.12.23 PMIf we take creative writing as an example we clearly see that correct letter formation or even a good understanding of letter sounds can play little importance in the grand scale of things in the creation of a classic novel. In fact I am sure that if Oscar Wilde or Lord Byron had become preoccupied with handwriting rather than a creative outpouring then much of the creative endeavour may have been lost. This is not to say that good letter formation or spelling play their part but arguably play an insignificant role in the creation of great literature compared to creativity. Unarguably great literature would survive messy handwriting and bad spelling but without the love of writing or the spark of imagination it would be lost.

It is not the writers main concern to produce neat and accurate spelling but the story or idea itself. This is only part of the process as the work then goes to draft, numerous editing before the final piece is made available. This is not to mention the increase and availability of auto-correct and voice recognition technology that allows writers to create great work without the need of neat writing or correct spelling. So what do we really want our learners to become? Creative and imaginative writers or part of the editing team? The answer matters as the skills required for each position are different.

The acquisition of knowledge and skills should no longer be the driving force of modern education but the development of a love of learning. Forced conscription to traditional ideals can quickly dissolve the love of learning but if a love of learning is developed then the acquisition of knowledge and skills will occur naturally. Desire to learn should come naturally and motivation should be intrinsic and seem from deeper roots. If the children enjoy what they are learning they need no artificial motivation. Conformity to learning only leads to conscription and will not lead to authentic student action. Teaching skills as standalone and outside of the learning process develops a mindset of conformity. It also does not support the transfer of skills to a real-life experience. Allowing our learners to become part of the process rather than passive observers of it creates a learning environment that allows personalization, ownership and creativity of learning to happen. This in turn supports our learners in taking positive action.

Quality learning is risky and stressful and requires much more energy and effort from students than the passive learning that is so common in schools’ (Baird & Northfield, 1992).

Adopting a Flexible Approach to the Curriculum

Edna Sackson – ‘What if we liberate ourselves from the traditional curriculum prison and explore new vistas?’ 

Tania Mansfield – ‘What if we were brave and daring? What if we put learners and learning before curriculum and standards and paperwork?’

This blog post has been inspired by conversations I have read online recently regarding ‘time’, or the perceived lack of, and the development of flexible units of inquiry. I have come to believe that these conversations are closely connected with one directly effecting the other.

I have especially been interested by the conversations surrounding Edna Sackson’s blogpost, Liberating the Programme of Inquiry, and Tania Mansfield’s response, Those Beautiful Questions. Both these educators are asking some truly ‘beautiful questions’ that are pushing the boundaries and challenging the traditional ideas about our approach to education. Both represent a growing number of modern educators that are beginning to ask ‘What if…’ with regards to teaching and learning. It is an exciting time to be an educator as traditional barriers in education are being seen to be taken down. We seem in the midst of an educational revolution led by educators and administrators that dare to ask, ‘What if….’. It is a time to be ‘brave and daring’.

‘Time’ seems to be a continual challenge for many educators. The beginning of each school year signals the start of a new race to meet numerous deadlines of learning outcomes, expectations and assessment. With all the other distractions that school life brings (e.g. holidays, sports events, celebrations etc) it seems that we are in a constant race against the hands of time and many of us feel that we are always on the losing side. This yearly up hill struggle provides needless stress for both educators and students alike. I was once part of this yearly struggle but things became much easier when I came to the conclusion that ‘time’ is not the issue but rather how I approached the curriculum. Authentic learning is not somethings that we can compartmentalize into convenient timeframes and boxes. To attempt to do so creates an unnatural learning environment.

The timetable below represents my traditional approach to inquiry. As you can see the 4 units of inquiry have been placed neatly into set timeframes. Approaching inquiry in this manner also has an effect on the specific subject learning within each of the inquiries e.g. Maths and Language etc. So not only are we putting self imposed timeframes on the inquiries themselves but also to the other areas of the curriculum that are connected to each specific inquiry. Are we really saying that authentic inquiry and learning has a clear start and end date? This approach seems too neat, tidy and regulated for any real authentic, deep or personalised learning to occur. Approaching the curriculum in this manner also begins the clock ticking on many of the self-imposed deadlines.

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I feel our traditional approach to teaching and learning has always been to neatly arrange our curriculums within specific blocks of learning. If we are continually working within a set timeframe we are placing unnecessary pressure on both educators and our students to complete tasks and meet objectives. We are also restricting authentic learning and exploration as our students learn at an unnatural time and pace. We create timetables that are ‘repetitive and predictable’ allowing little flexibility for new and authentic inquiries that may occur.

The arrival of the Enhanced PYP has gone some way in offering some flexibility in the implementation of the programme, but it is going far enough?

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The PYP states, ‘Greater flexibility on starting points and time frames for your units of inquiry will create a range of learning opportunities, for example, one unit could run throughout the whole year, while others could be revisited once or numerous times, with some overlap where appropriate.

This year I have made greater attempts in creating a more flexible approach to inquiry. This has been my third year working with this specific curriculum and each year I have been able to make moderate changes to allow the inquiries to flow more naturally and offer greater opportunities for student agency. Many of these changes have so far only been able to occur on a personal level as we are still to have these conversations on a whole school level.

Below I have placed an example of my own implementation of the inquiries for this year.

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Even this approach seems to suggest a beginning and a start time to inquiry when in reality the inquiry for many of our students has already begun long before they enter the classroom and will continue long after. If we take ‘How We Express Ourselves’ as an example. I would be naive to believe that most, if not all, children had not developed a sense that stories are a means of communicating meaning and that they can be told in a variety of ways. In most instances they may not be actually aware that they acquire this information but it is there. In all sense and purposes their inquiry has long begun and it will continue long after the date that is penciled into our yearly calendars. So what are we need to ask ourselves what we are actually doing within these timeframes of inquiry. We need to consider that we are using these time periods to assess, develop and push our students understanding of subjects that may be all too familiar with already. We need to be clear that we are not the ones that have started or will finish our students personal journeys of learning but are on hand to steer and support when the time demands it. This is also the case for each of inquiries for the year. 

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So if we begin to think more in terms of continuous inquiry, rather than ones with a beginning and an end, then our curriculum begins to look at lot more similar to the image above. All transdisciplinary themes, all inquiries and all learning running simultaneously throughout the year. This will in turn allow for a flexible curriculum that allows for new opportunities for learning. Approaching the curriculum in this manner provides the opportunity for our students to choose the when, where and how they learn. It is important that for modern education and the need for student agency that we provide our students with these flexible systems that allow for choice in learning.