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On deciding what we worship

Last week I was invited to present to the Ministerial Cross Sector Forum, to be part of a panel on Modern Learning Practice.

The slot was 4 minutes, and the brief was to consider:

  • what does modern learning practice look like in your context
  • what challenges or opportunities do you see for making this the ‘norm’ across our system

I presented alongside two representatives from the Ministry of Education, Barbara Cavanagh from ASHS, Lesley Murrihy from Amesbury and Karen Ramsey from Roskill South Kindergarten.

I said this...

I'd like to start with a story. A story, about my daughter, Isabella.

Isabella is 5. She started school in March. She loves school. She loves her teacher, her classroom, and her friends.

On the last day of term 1, she came home from school, and said "Dad, I got a present from my teacher - I got ten books!" She said this with wide eyed wonder and much excitement. On Saturday morning she got up, ate her breakfast, and then went and found her books and sat on the couch to read them.

Now these were new books, she'd not seen them before. So they were hard for her. She read slowly, sounding out letter blends and endings, stopping and starting. She asked her mother how to say a couple of the words. She was there for about 15 minutes.

After that she came over and told me she wanted to read some of the first book to me.

Which she did. And when she got to the end, she looked up at me and said with a big smile, "Dad, I read it all the way through... without stopping!"

And this story captures a simple truth I think.

The truth is this - that learning is in those moments when a child tries to do something they are unsure of.

It involves effort, and engagement and risk of failure.

There is a beauty in those simple connections, that to my mind, are quite awe inspiring.

We're here to discuss modern learning practice.

We can define modern - the range of shiny tools, provision of networks and infrastructure and learning environments
We can define practice - professional development, assessment and pedagogy, conferences and research.

But sometimes because of the focus on these two, I think we miss out on the learning.

So when we talk about modern learning practice, I think there are three challenges for us.

The first challenge is to constantly be aware of the words we use, and to be critical of them.

The reality is that we claim "teaching is changing" - and is becoming more 21st Century and modern - but we use evidence such as this:

Classroom management
The Old: Minimize negative interactions (fighting, bullying, etc.) and promoting compliance with rules and “expectations”

The Modern: Analyze and coordinate student social interactions

Don't these words describe the same thing - ways that we use to manage our classrooms to allow for learning.

How often do we use modern sounding words, that in reality mean the same thing as the non-modern words.

How often do we challenge those who use these words - to truly articulate what they mean.

The second challenge is to be aware that modern wants don't always translate to modern needs.

We live in a time and a place, that is not lacking. That is not to say our society is not without ills or issues, but the simple fact is that the education sector over the last ten years has enjoyed an abundance of modern goods.

But we still want more. This is a natural human tendency I suppose, but I think we need to be far more critical as a sector about what we ask for.

We have in my opinion, rushed for the modern.

Modern tools are important, I don't deny that.

And wanting modern tools is OK.

But we wouldn't see Juilliard as prestigious because all of the pianos might be Steinways.

Just as language matters, so do our tools. We must be critical and judicious in choosing and using them.

The third challenge is this: That we as leaders and policy makers - remain aware.

Aware of how our use of language defines what we mean and what we want to mean.

Aware of how our tools shape us, and shape our practice.

But most importantly aware of ourselves - our words and our actions - which is the ultimate point of my story.

I'm fully aware that the only reason I am able to tell you that story of Isabella and her reading, was because I was not checking Twitter, I was not using the iPad, I wasn't watching TV.

I was just sitting and listening to her.

But I had to, and I have to constantly choose to be aware, to be alive to the moment.

As a Dad, and as a teacher.

We have to be aware of how our words, our tools and our practices, are all about one thing - to allow space for us to be there to support and pay attention to the actual moment of learning.

To quote David Foster Wallace:

".. this is the freedom of a real education, of learning how to be well-adjusted.

You get to consciously decide what has meaning and what doesn't.

You get to decide what to worship."

Are we worshipping the modern?
Are we worshipping the practice?
Or are we worshipping and being in awe of the learning.

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