Wednesday, November 4, 2015

Stop pretending that you know!


I have been grappling with what the Knowledge explosion has meant for the curriculum, in other words, what we teach and how we teach it. +Rose Hipkins and Jane Gilbert independently drew my attention recently to how frequently as teachers we still say things like 'learning about electricity' ... Learning facts is no longer enough. As teachers, we need to be careful when we still treat knowledge as something we have and our students do not, something that we have to impart to our students. I find that often I still catch myself thinking and doing things that suggests that my theory-in-action and espoused theory are not quite as aligned as I would like. The question that I keep asking myself at the moment (and my students...); Google knows 'about' stuff, what can you do with this knowledge that Google can't? In other words, what value do I add that Google does not? And I'm not talking about fruitlloop websites here, I'm talking scholarly articles, encyclopaedias, scientists, government organisations etc.

Then, to add another layer to my ongoing subject teacher identity crisis (see this blog post here), I am increasingly becoming aware of students whose expertise far exceed mine in different areas. And this is, as it should be. My students, and yours, are incredibly diverse and bring with them enormous cultural capital, experiences and knowledge. I am not the (only) font of knowledge. For example, I have a student with a huge interest in quantum particles and another with a knack for asking incredibly insightful questions and representing his research with infographics. I have a passionate basketballer and an aspiring race car driver who spends huge amounts of time volunteering at the racecourse.

On top of this is the fact that the internet has made the boundaries that we have put between silos of disciplines increasingly artificial. We filter forward rather than out.
Expertise was topic based - Books focus on specific topics because they have to fit between two covers. So, in a book-based world, knowledge looks like something that divides into masterable domains. … topics don’t divide up neatly. They connect messily. While people of course still develop deep expertise, the networking of those experts better reflects the overall truth that topic boundaries are often the result of the boundaries of paper.” - Too Big to Know by David Weinberger
What does it mean to be a teacher in an age of Knowledge explosion? An age where Google knows better than me, and in many contexts, the students know better than me, even in academic contexts? What does it mean to be a teacher and teach a curriculum, when new disciplines, new fields have been discovered, and others have been disestablished since 'someone' decided what students should learn at what level? Why year elevens should learn linear equations? Why year twelves should learn this, and year nines that? What does it mean to be a teacher in the post-normal times, where the world of people is more complex, more connected, more uncertain? To be a teacher in a world where the existing ways of thinking has produced climate change and inequality? Problems that can only be solved by crossing the boundaries of different disciplines?

It's all a bit daunting isn't it? Fortunately, I am finding that I am increasingly comfortable with uncertainty. The more I think about the future, my future, the world's future, the more I realise that pretending like there is an answer out there that I just have to find, to know, is not helpful. The world and its people are too diverse to assume an answer. I can not 'know' it all, and it is important that I stay humble and stop acting the 'knower' when I can not know. If I approach this uncertainty with an attitude that I or someone else has the answer, I shut myself down to innovation, deep empathetic problem solving and collaboration. There genuinely are situations where we can not know the answer, and it is important that I acknowledge when I am dealing with a situation where I can, and can not be the 'knower'.

But... what does that look like in practice, in a classroom?! Well, this week it looked like 50 students doing their own inquiry into 'create a robot to address a need'. Students started the inquiry independently on Friday with a reliever. From there, Steve, my co-teacher and I, split the class into two groups, those who were able to self manage and make a decent start, and those who did not. Those who struggled to self manage were then supported to work in a quiet space with regular teacher checkins. Those students who were able to self manage then self selected based on their needs into one of three workshops ran by other students. For these workshops, I invited three students to plan a lesson (with a lesson planning template and SOLO rubric) that would help their peers improve their inquiries. In other words, I wanted the three students running the workshops to use their expertise. One student ran her session about data collection from experiments. Another about how to use questions to find unique perspectives in your inquiry and how to present these through infographics. Another on how misconceptions in science can be addressed through different types of video formats with examples from quantum theory. These are year tens...

As I sat and eavesdropped on the conversations from my students, I was reminded just how important it was that I stop thinking that I 'know' more than my students. I know different things than my students, not more. I am an expert in some areas, but they are too. They are 'knowers' too, and it is about time that I move alongside my students, rather than standing in front of them. In front I might just be in their way. So for the time being, I have ditched the labels teacher-centred and student-centred, and instead, I am experimenting with what it means to be a collaborator - building collective intelligence, not just finding new ways to transfer what I know.