One of the joys of my role is the opportunity to work closely with teachers from many different schools, all interested in how they might build a culture of thinking. At many schools, I work closely with groups of teachers as they identify and interrogate the big questions of education that matter most to them in their classroom practice. One such colleague is Joanne Elmes, a Year 1/2 primary school teacher at Asquith Public School in Sydney.
In the story below, Joanne reflects on her developing Action Research question in light of an interesting 'experiment' she performed with her students. It's a question for all of us to ponder: what if I stopped rescuing my children?
“I wonder what would happen – if I gave over the power to my class for the day.
Sit on the floor with them – wait before jumping in – leave it all to them?”
This was the challenge issued by a colleague during a Cultures of Thinking training day. The topic – my action research question: What would my classroom be like if my students truly listened to each other?
I took up the challenge – not for a whole day. One hour was enough.
My grade 1 / 2 composite class filed in from computers with their crunch and sip – chatting away – to sit on the carpet at the front of our room. I had written the day’s plan on the whiteboard – but was not waiting out the front as usual – rather, I joined them on the carpet. Some students sat around me – discussing what they had done in computers. One boy was visibly upset (why not elaborate on why he was upset) – we sat to the side and had a quiet chat. I was waiting for someone to notice that I wasn’t telling them what to do – but nobody did. I hoped someone would say something about what was on the whiteboard that we should be doing. But nobody did.
We sat and chatted. And I waited and watched. One group of boys started to get a bit rowdy. I waited and watched and desperately wanted to jump in before anyone got hurt. I waited. And waited. Eventually one of the boys came over and said that another boy had pushed him. I asked him to take a seat at the front of the room and asked the boys and girls for their attention.
“Steven has something to say,” I said.
Steven looked a bit confused – he wanted to tell me – not the class. He wanted me to rescue him – but I had decided not to. I asked Steven to address the class with his problem. Then asked the class for a response and what they thought should happen. Someone noted that Steven had been pushing first and that maybe it wasn’t all the other boy’s fault. Someone commented that “boys are always like that” – another boy pointed out that not all the boys were sitting in that group.
Every time a student directed a question to me – I directed it back to the class.
“Can we put our crunch and sip away?” someone finally asked. I redirected the question to the class.
“Can we do some dancing?” someone else asked. I redirected the question back to the class. “Yes we should do some dancing!” they responded.
I got the music ready while the children found a space around the room. When I was ready, I waited for them to be ready. I waited and waited. Eventually one girl exclaimed in frustration – “Will you all be quiet – I want to dance!” We continued to wait. Once again, I called for the class’s attention telling them that Silvia had something to say.
“Silvia – tell the class how you are feeling.”
Silvia clearly expressed her frustration and annoyance at some children who were doing the wrong thing. She directed her attention to two girls that were being very silly. “We’re sorry,” they said.
“That’s ok,” said Silvia, “But don’t do it again,” as she had clearly been trained to say.
As we waited the two girls went back to the same silliness. I asked Silvia if it was OK. “Not really,” she replied, “maybe if they had changed their behaviour it would be – but they haven’t. And now I’m really angry.”
Once again, we stopped for Silvia to share her feelings with the class. By now the two girls really were sorry and most of the rest of the class were bored and annoyed. Luckily the bell for recess went. I waited.
“Can we go?” someone asked.
“What do you think class?” I asked.
What was the result of such an experiment? What did I learn from the experience? Not to let 5 to 8 year olds run the classroom – sure. We wouldn’t get through the curriculum at that pace.
More importantly – as much as the students wanted me to rescue them – as much as they wanted me to tell them what to do and how to behave – I wanted to do that for them.
It’s easier and quicker for me to play the game of ‘Guess What's in the Teacher's Head’. If I leave the decision making and the thinking up to them – they might not get it right. And it takes so much time. But – is that building a Culture of Thinking? – probably not. So now my action research question has changed – now I want to know - What would my classroom be like if I don’t constantly rescue my students by doing their thinking for them? What if instead I allow them the time and the opportunity to reach their own conclusions?
I’ll keep you posted on the results.
To follow Joanne's journey of building a culture of thinking in her classroom, visit her blog here.