Monday, 23 September 2013

In Search of Symphony

I’ve read a lot this summer. Most of the reading has been Canadian Aboriginal literature in preparation for some new courses I’ll be teaching in the fall. I’ve also been browsing through some other books including Daniel Pink’s “A Whole New Mind” which I first read about 5 years ago. Chapter Six in Pink’s book is titled “Symphony” and for some reason I was drawn to this particular chapter at this point in time. Pink’s book describes 6 skills he believes are essential for people to thrive in what he calls the "Conceptual Age".  Pink states that for centuries, Western society has been governed by “an approach to life that is narrowly reductive and deeply analytical” but now we are in a new age where a completely new set of skills is required. Pink argues that “Symphony” is one of those skills, and describes it as “the ability to put together the pieces...the capacity to synthesize rather than analyze; to see relationships between seemingly unrelated fields; to detect broad patterns rather than to deliver specific answers; and to invent something new by combining elements nobody else thought to pair.” I believe this concept is extremely relevant to education. 

The Importance of Community

I've written before about the importance of building community in the classroom.  I’ve often felt that the classroom teacher should consider themselves as more of a coach or a conductor than an individual instructor. Coaches and conductors have a responsibility to develop players individually, but their true strength is combining a collection of varied abilities and talents to create something that is greater than the sum of its parts. Individuals play different instruments and players have different positions based on their strengths. The coach/conductor’s responsibility is to unite the individual strengths into a collective experience where all individuals are are contributing to the overall performance of the group. As Pink describes: “symphonic thinking is the signature ability of composers and conductors, whose jobs involve corralling a diverse group of notes, instruments, and performers and producing a unified and pleasing sound.” Coaches and conductors have the benefit of expected events such as games and concerts where the players easily understand the necessity of working together. A classroom teacher must intentionally create these opportunities, or a student could easily go through his or her school career with only a focus on their individual contributions and assessment. A suggested way for a classroom teacher to achieve this is to design tasks or challenges (related to the curriculum of course) where all students must collectively contribute towards a finished product. One lesson in Literature 12 this year involved the students creating a collective recording of one of the core poems on the curriculum. Under the guidance of local musical master (and Princess Margaret graduate) Mike Treadway, all students contributed parts of the poem in the style that they chose. Mike was able to brilliantly combine the contributions of every student into a cohesive finished product that the students took pride in and that brought the class together. The clip below contains 45 seconds of the finished 6 minute recording. Keep in mind that every sound you hear was made with the human voice. I apologize that the poem (and therefore the music) is quite creepy. 


Pink writes that “people who hope to thrive in the Conceptual Age must understand the connections between diverse, and seemingly separate, disciplines. They must know how to link apparently unconnected elements to create something new". Some of my best lessons last year came from working with people who don’t teach in my subject area. One example was when we tried "Geocaching" in Literature 12. For those unfamiliar with the term, geocaching involves using a GPS device to navigate your way to hidden objects and locations. It’s kind of like a giant outdoor scavenger hunt. I learned about geocaching by going to a workshop put on by one of our math teachers Mike Cooke, and I then collaborated with our adventure tourism teacher John Buckley to figure out a way to apply it to my literature class. It was a very successful lesson that was perfect for our unit on Romantic poetry (which focuses on nature and the environment), but I never would have been exposed to the idea if I hadn’t sought out teachers beyond my English department. I believe the future of education will involve far more cross-curricular design and collaboration. Our industrial model of organizing students in “batches” (thanks Ken Robinson) and processing them through the factory of our education system needs to change.

Geocaching: Students designed "stations" based on the various poems in the unit.
I think Coleridge himself would have appreciated the "Ancient Mariner" station!
Holistic Education

As I mentioned earlier, much of my reading this summer has involved Aboriginal literature and texts. The more I study literature and culture from an Aboriginal perspective, the more complexity unfolds, but I have noticed some themes running through a number of texts that relate to the concept of “symphony”. In regards to views on education I've observed that for many Aboriginal communities, learning is not something that happens in isolation. Education begins at birth and continues throughout a person’s lifetime. It doesn’t start at 5 years old and end at 18, and it certainly doesn’t begin at 8:30 am and stop at 3.  Every aspect of life is a learning experience. The whole person is considered in aboriginal educational tradition as well, which means a student's physical, emotional, spiritual, and intellectual realities must be addressed. This is truly a shift from  our current education system (at the high school level at least) which puts almost all of its emphasis on a student’s intellectual development. Pink’s research would suggest that an education system that is much more aligned with this type of holistic perspective would be more beneficial in preparing our students for the challenges they will face in the future. 

According to Pink, the Conceptual Age demands that individuals develop their symphonic capabilities. Our students need to be able to make connections between seemingly unlike ideas, imagine how separate pieces fit together, and combine existing ideas in new ways. Skills such as collaboration, creativity, and critical thinking are truly more valuable than memorization and regurgitation. We are doing our students a disservice if we don’t figure out a way to re-design our education system to reflect what they will need. Short term solutions could involve getting teachers to consider themselves as community builders, creating more opportunities for cross-curricular collaboration, and incorporating more holistic perspectives and concepts into current practice. Long term solutions will require actually dissembling current structures and pedagogy and having the courage to navigate into a new era. 

I'll leave off with a wonderful TED talk that I never would have looked at if I hadn't re-read the chapter on "Symphony". It turned out to be relevant to education and leadership in many ways, but under normal circumstances I would have dismissed it.

Sunday, 8 September 2013

Resources and Resourcefulness

As a high school teacher I often feel I work inside an extremely restricted environment. Problems include: fixed timetables and block rotations, crowded physical classroom space, academic course loads, one hour and fifteen minute classes, heavy curriculum content, and subject area specializations. Our entire system appears to be designed to prevent creativity and thwart attempts to make learning more engaging and relevant for my students. At the same time, I also believe we don’t capitalize on many opportunities we could take advantage of. We are not as “contained” as we think. A useful exercise to use with teachers and staffs can get people thinking along the lines of achievable methods to increase educational opportunities for their students. It begins with the premise of focusing on what is available and not what we can’t have. It fundamentally deals with resourcefulness as opposed to resources. 

Teachers begin by brainstorming everything that they personally bring to their classrooms. Like students, we all have different strengths. I, for example have a background in home economics and I often use these skills to enhance my English classrooms. This background allows me to organize events such as the Medieval Banquet in my Literature 12 class. I also have a class 4 drivers license and have experience transporting teams around as a basketball coach. This allows me to consider field trips where I can drive my students places on our school bus. Obviously different teachers will have a different collection of tools they can use, the point is, are they making use of those unique abilities? 

Teachers are then asked to list strengths their students could potentially bring to a class. A group of 30 high school students for example will include artists and musicians, video experts and specific backgrounds such as experiences in cadets or construction. Surveying students at the beginning of the semester will enlighten you to many potential resources you have to enhance your class. Students can present material in different ways or bring added expertise to enhance a lesson. Of course the trick is to build and establish an environment where students are comfortable  sharing their strengths and talents and backgrounds, and are willing to contribute towards the learning of the group. This past semester for example, when we were studying Robert Burns in Literature 12, I knew that I had a student with actual experience playing in the local pipe band. He was willing to come in and do a short demonstration on “Scottish Day”. I often ask artistic students to graphically represent key content from courses such as historical events. Another example below are the “stocks” that are required for Shakespeare’s play “King Lear”. A student in my class who was also skilled at woodworking came up with those in about 20 minutes and brought them to class one morning. Just a small example, but they really added to the fun and experience of the play when we performed it. I have used those stocks many times since. Using the talents of 30 people as opposed to one (the teacher) greatly enhances the potential of experiences in a class.

Student illustrations of historical events 
Post-pipe-performance haggis!
Wooden stocks we use each semester for productions of "King Lear"
The next step is to look at your entire school. Resources in the school include both people and physical space and equipment. Brad Gibson is our art teacher and he teaches directly across the hall from me. Besides his obvious artistic ability, Brad excels at dramatic and musical performance (two talents that I personally cannot contribute to the learning experiences of my students!) Brad regularly drops in and provides short and entertaining performances that enhance my classroom.  For the past 6 years he has brought down the house at every Medieval banquet and left students speechless with his monologues. What an incredible resource I have right across the hall! 
Brad gets the crowd going at the Medieval Banquet
In addition to resourceful people there are also spaces available that we seldom take advantage of. While my subject area is English, I consider the entire school to be my classroom including the foods lab, gymnasium, common area, library, sports fields and parking lots outside. I know which rooms are available during which blocks and I know which teachers are willing to trade with me if I need their space for a certain purpose. Different rooms provide different opportunities such as increased space or specific equipment and learning opportunities. Of course this requires a respectful dialogue between staff and consideration if your class is using a room that wouldn’t normally be used for a particular subject. It requires a staff with teachers that don’t compete with one another, but work collectively to provide a multitude of experiences for all students in the school.  Imagine if the entire staff considered the entire school to be their classroom? 

Math in the foods room
Physics in the library
Social studies on the tennis courts outside
Finally, teachers can look outside the walls of the school and into the community. Penticton is not a large town but there are still many many resources available, and perhaps (because of our small size) a greater willingness to partner with local schools in order to help students. Right across the road from us is an extended care home, we have a lake within 10 minutes walking distance and it only takes a short bus ride to get all the way to the other side of town. 
Working with seniors at the extended care home across the street
If teachers can be creative enough to have students make learning connections on the way to and from various locations then little instructional time is lost and so many more opportunities become available. The entire community becomes a potential learning environment. Of course, as well as environments there are also people in the community who can provide expertise or experience to students on innumerable topics.

It is true that as teachers we often feel that the walls are literally and metaphorically blocking our freedom.  There are, however, still numerous resources that we could be taking advantage of, but aren’t. I do believe at its core, that our existing educational structure is fundamentally flawed, and I dedicate part of my time to various groups that are working towards a complete re-design of everything that we consider as “education”. But while that process is going on (a process that may not even see major changes by the end of my own career) there are things we can do within the current structure to provide more meaningful opportunities for our students than we have traditionally provided in a classroom setting. 
Students filming a project at a nearby park
In the past, the number one criteria for an engaging teacher was the ability to lecture in an effective and entertaining way, supplemented by accurate and accessible written resources. Now, the successful teacher doesn’t have to depend on the ability to “perform” in the classroom; they don’t have to be a “performer” at all but they do need to be creative and resourceful and able to make use of opportunities that haven’t traditionally been considered. They need to become experts at constructing a learning experience that allows students to engage with the outcomes using a wide variety of resources and alternate locations. We often become mentally trapped in our routines and past experiences and we then limit ourselves with barriers that may not actually exist.