When discussing the concept of ‘child centered’, ‘negotiated’ or ‘independent’ learning the question I am often asked is ‘Where do I start?’. Often what people want is some directions as to what they can actually do in a lesson to start handing over the reigns to children, but surely it is anachronistic to expect a pedagogy aimed at putting learners in control to produce a set of instructions for teachers to learn how to do it…
I have talked to school leaders who have implemented such approaches to learning, and there are models out there for how it has been done. Neil Hopkin, the first head I worked with, has documented in video form how he and his team approached developing such an approach. Fromthe other side of the world, Esme Capp presented at a course I attended on the approach she took. The message I have taken from both is that such an approach cannot be mandated for from the top, but needs to be built with staff at all levels of a school in a way that recognises the staff themselves as learners and fits with their needs as well as those of the children, and the local community.
This is all very well for those in a position to make whole school changes, but not very immediate or helpful for the teachers who are asking me where to start. I have struggled to advise enthusiastic teachers about how they might get started in planning to unplan, but my thinking took a twist this week during a PSHE seminar I was running with 4th year BEd students.
Whilst talking about how to ensure the success of an open ended role play activity, the students expressed that they might build in some instructions to control the outcomes and make them fit the desired learning outcomes. This jarred with my views on keeping things child led, so I explained how I would ‘plan’ it, which basically involved leaving it open but thinking through all the possible outcomes and spotting the possible lines that the children could take that might result in barriers to the desired learning, or failure of the activity. I framed this as a SWOT analysis, a model designed to assess the internal and external factors that might affects the success of a project.
That model is not how I have approached such activities in the past, but I realised that it was a really useful device for expressing the thinking that I have put in to such activities. Then it struck me; teachers don’t need plans for this, what they need is models for thinking.
Putting learners in control doesn’t take traditional lesson planning, nor does supporting teachers to give over control, but it does take plenty of thinking. Many of the teachers who ask me how to start are looking for some structure, something on which to hang their feeling that the best learning happens when the children do the hard work. This is part of what I think is so great about Ewan McIntosh’s work on using ‘Design Thinking‘ to conceptualise how classroom learning can happen; it gives a structure on which to hang that learning, recognise where it is going, and support that direction without taking over control.
“since the Ancient Greeks, we’ve always had inspirational teachers, students and technological advances – the holy grail for policy-makers is how to make innovative practices scaleable”
Standardising plans and instructions for teachers doesn’t facilitate inspiration, it sucks it away. The really valuable thing about great teachers isn’t great planning, it is great thinking. I wonder if we should be concentrating more on finding ways to model that thinking, not just by hoping that teachers come into contact with good examples and absorb it by osmosis, but by looking at how that thinking can scaffolded and scaled.