Monday, 20 April 2015

Just keep rowing

There is an old saying, "If you do what you've always done, you'll get what you've always got".  I recently attended a conference that featured a couple of well known international 'educational gurus', but I came away with a saying echoing around my head from an unexpected source.  Like Dory from the movie 'Finding Nemo', who sang repeatedly "Just keep swimming, Just keep....:"  I found myself repeating "Just keep rowing, just keep rowing, just keep rowing...." as I left.  Jamie Fitzgerald from T.V One's show 'First Crossings' cut to the chase using a very clear and evident example of how applying a Growth Mindset at the right time in the right place pays unimaginable dividends for those who are so bold as to depart from tradition and defaults.

I found myself in a familiar situation, recently, while teaching.  A group of learners, in one of my modules, had been causing concern over the past few weeks.  Disengaged, unfocussed, distracting others, and unproductive was how I described the group in an email, expressing my concerns, to a member of Senior Leadership Team.  I have been there before in previous schools, where an email is sent, usually, leading to an intervention visit from a school manager or specialist from higher up the food chain.  They would interrogate and negotiate with the learner/s in question and there would be an outcome that frequently left the learner and the teacher (me) in an awkward spot that usually resulted in one of the most destructive learning outcomes, the slow spoiling of the learner/teacher relationship.  Even when restoratively managed the term 'restorative practice' still implies that there is something left to restore, and in this situation it is a learner's feeling of being betrayed by the teacher to another level of authority.

So in doing what I have always done the potential of damaging these learning relationships was a real possibility.  I considered this in the light of Jamie's experience mid Atlantic where during a rowing race across that ocean the two-man crew encountered a big storm.  The usual thing to do would be to set a drogue or sea anchor and wait the storm out, and that is exactly what every other team in that race did.  Jamie's team, having never competed in that race before, knew no better, so they just kept rowing.  Jamie, after three days and very disillusioned, made a satellite call to his team leader in New Zealand.  He explained that they were rowing but were losing distance every day, every hour and every minute. In fact they were going backwards. His team leader said "whatever you are doing....keep doing it.  You are 30 nautical miles ahead  of the closest team".  Jamie went on to tell us that they eventually won that trans-Atlantic race, not by 30 miles but by 25 miles.

Jamie's boat, Mid Atlantic

So what did I do? A bit of a learning storm is a common occurrence and unfortunately in dealing with these storms can often default to a set script and process but not for me this time.  I was going to "just keep rowing".

I had an opportunity to spend some time with these learners.  This opportunity was afforded by the teaching model that we have at HPSS.  Two teachers, one class meant that I could easily work in a productive 'Pop-Up' work shop, aimed at solving the learning issues for this group of learners.

I front loaded this with a 'class-wide-co-constructed' SOLO rubric.  We thought a mid-term indication of our engagement and effectiveness in this class might be a good idea.  The following is the students thoughts on their engagement levels.

    1. Pre-structural:     Where am I?  What task?  How long 'til lunch time?
    2. Uni-structural:     I have an idea but don't really know where to start.
    3. Multi-structural:  I have a few ideas but need a bit of help to develop and connect them.
    4. Relational:           I am onto it.  I know what I am doing and how I will report what I know.
    5. Extended abstract: I have explored the topic thoroughly and I am discussing what I know using a variety of tools and perspectives to display my thinking and learning in an organised manner.        

The learners, each, quickly identified where they sat on this 'learner-constructed' rubric.  We made it 'safe' to be sitting at the early stages of the rubric, because there were a whole heap of reasons that explained why one required help.  Along with a couple of students with specific learning needs, without fail, each of my disengaged learners identified their correct position and moved to a new space for our workshop. What transpired will be a some learning that I will never forget.

If I was to get to the bottom of my perceptions regarding their disengagement, I would need to ask a few questions about the course and their thoughts were needed. "I have noticed that you guys seem to be disengaged with this course.....let's talk about what is going on for you".  The following map developed as I listened to their thoughts.

Right away the students identified many of the key elements that were contributing to the disengagement that I was seeing.  By allowing the learners voice to be heard, instead of my accusations and observations opened the doorway to a whole new level of discussion for me.  We agreed that this list of words represented a barrier to our learning and teaching process.

If these opinions are true then what needs to change?  How might we remove these barriers? What can they change? Then perhaps the most challenging question of all.  What can I change?  So often I have sought change that is centred around the learner, after all it is their behaviour that is the problem, isn't it?  How often do we consider that we are as much of the issue as the learner?  This is the  'just keep rowing' bit, where  I continue to work with the learner/s instead of seeking assistance in the usual way.

So after identifying the barriers, I then threw it back to the learners.  "How might we sort this out"?  Very quickly the students decided that they could change a few things about their own learning practice.

  • Come to class better prepared.
  • Listen more effectively.
  • Contribute to learning discussions.
  • Decide to be on task and engaged.
  • Ask for clarification.
More importantly they also suggested a few things that I could change and I think that this is the key.
Listening to the learner voice is often overlooked as a solution to those learning storms.  This is probably because, amidst a learning storm, we often see student learning issues as primarily a fault of the learner.

Their suggestions:
  • "Break it down for us into smaller units".
  • "Give us less to focus on at one time".
  • "Can we change the topic"? one asked.  "I hate what we are doing".
  • "Give us clear expectations".
  • "Can I work with a different person"?
  • "Can I share what I know in this way"?
We went on to have the most exciting session as we re-negotiated the entire task. My challenge to you, I guess, is to ask yourself....How might I work with my learners to resolve learning issues, without damaging relationships and without falling into the trap of doing things a certain way, just because that's the way it's always been done?

1 comment:

  1. I loved reading this Daniel - "I have noticed...", one of the most powerful tools in reflective practice that I have ever learned - the art of (conscious) observation.