Let the children boogie – What teachers can learn from Bowie & Jean-Jacques Rousseau

bowie

Having hit David Bowie pretty hard since his death this year and this corresponding to another reading of Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s Emile or On Education. These are the things Rousseau & Bowie have taught me about facilitating children’s education. I try to have them as my compass but sometimes it’s hard in the current climate.

1. Try not to interfere negatively with or suppress children’s natural tendencies & aptitudes.

2. Try only to teach something when the child is ready to learn it.

3. Try not to make rote-learning the dominant mode of education for a child.

4. Try to let children primarily learn in context and through experience and ‘projects’.

5. Do not treat a child’s attempted acquisition of moral knowledge differently from their acquisition of other types of knowledge. Hold both in high regard.

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Children’s Writing And Mindfulness

Writing reflects our way of tying to observe our thoughts and mind.

This article has been a long time coming. To try and approach the complex issues of the relationship between mindfulness and writing has been interesting but difficult. Any attempt to understand writing and mindfulness must begin with the relationship between writing and thought.

Thinking is the business of the brain. Mindfulness is a way of potentially observing our own minds from the ‘inside’, to see how we know what we know or how we do what we do, and so it is with writing. Writing, therefore, is naturally a mindful experience. To practice writing is to practice mindfulness.

We have an enormously complex and efficient theory of the world in our head, so coherent and comprehensive that it enables us to write and understand sentences we have never heard or read before in our lives. Writing, like mindfulness, is  a way to directly gaze into our own mind to explore what this theory is; to examine how it works. Children, (as with most adults) traditionally, find it very hard to observe their own thinking ‘as it comes’ but they can observe the products of their thoughts through what they write very easily. This is what makes writing one of the most powerful tools a child can have.

It’s important to look at the relationship between mindfulness and writing.

The uses of writing for children (and indeed adults) is often;

  • To establish or reflect personal relationships with others. – Interactional ‘me and you’
  • To express our perception of ourselves. – Personal ‘awareness of self’
  • As a record of our present moment. Perpetuating ‘how it is’

The uses of mindfulness for children (and indeed adults) is often;

  • To establish or reflect personal relationships with others. (Compassion)
  • To examine our perception of ourselves. (Self-examination)
  • To be in the present moment.

Just as mindfulness is a way of separating our ideas from ourselves in a way that is easy for us to examine, so it is with writing.

Stimulus ->           //         -> Reaction

Stimulus -> Space/Time -> Response

As the above diagram shows mindfulness can provide space between stimulus and response. The same can be said of writing for children. Children can be rehearsed or otherwise performed in their mind. It not only provides opportunity to try out and even refine things they want to say on paper, but can also give rise to new ideas they did not think they were capable of – or know were there.

Writing, like mindfulness, is a tool that helps organise and develop the possibilities of our own minds. Writing can be an extension of a meditative practice. To make sense of and reflect on the world.

Writing is the slowest of all the uses of language. It is at times painfully slow! The average rate of writing being around 10-12 words a minute for children. The remarkable thing is that thought can slow down enough to produce itself in words. Not only is this is mindfulness in practice but also a way mindfulness can benefit children’s writing.

Observing the products of thought is in many respects the same way that meditators  attempt to observe thought itself. Writing for children is an extremely efficient way of gaining access to knowledge that they can’t observe directly.

I would argue that is is more efficient than speaking in many respects because of its relative permanence to the present moment and because its easy to stand back and observe it as an independent entity. Exactly what is required from meditation on our thoughts.

The beautiful and magical thing that writing can do for children is more than just reflect on underlying thought. Writing liberates it and develops it.

By observing the action of writing, children can learn things about themselves they may not have known for themselves and share this with themselves & others. This allows them to explore their brain’s potential. It may be better to regard this as potential, rather than a settled state or finished structure, a potential that may constantly expand…

Discussing & Encouraging The Usage Of Different Concepts Of ‘Thought’ With Children.

The meanings of ‘thought‘.

In writing this blog post I have already raised a wry smile. I doubt if I’ll be able to communicate a precise definition and therefore a meaning for the world ‘thought‘.

To discuss the meaning of the word would be a lengthy and a rather semantic exercise and would actually bring us no further towards understanding what actually goes on in the brain when we think.

Checking the dictionary brings us no further to the goal either. Dictionaries offer synonyms – similar meanings clothed in different words – or examples of the use of words – they do not tell us anything about their real or imagined referents.

In fact, the dictionary may seem to add to the confusion. For example, it tell us that the word thought can be used in a multiplicity of ways, some of them even quite oppositely to others!

A short selection from the dictionary notes: formulate in the mind, reason about; reflect, ponder, meditate; decide, judge, intend, plan; believe, suppose; expect, anticipate, hope, remember, call to mind, visualise, conceive, fancy, invent, speculate.

This brings me to the title of this blog post. I do not know why we as educators are so reluctant to acknowledge the ‘mystery’ of thought. Especially since our world seem so full of it in so many ways. Children are rarely exposed to this selection of thought. Although I’m sure children more than anyone could understand them and respect them!

Instead we tend to encourage them to believe that only knowledge exists – not thought. The educated person knows everything that it is necessary to know, or at least knows where to look it up. Why do we associate ignorance with stupidity, and value dogma over doubt? Is it our sense of authority as a place of knowledge (school) that means we can’t show uncertainties and encourage all the varieties of thought to flourish?

mindful mind skills

To encourage this array of ‘understanding the mind’ and the variety of thoughts – the use of these mindfulness skills could be extremely beneficial.

All of the above refer to something brain does that is not directly observable. Thought is exclusively the business of the brain. I also regard thought as an activity of mindfulness. I do not propose you can therefore distinguish mindfulness from reasoning, perception, comprehension or problem solving, or any of the other categories of brain activity.

Place & Time: The Vital Role Geography & History Have In Promoting Mindfulness In Schools

Place & Time

This principally includes how History shapes culture, events, consciousness and identity and the lessons which it offers to our understanding of present and future; and geographical study of location, other people, other places and human interdependence, locally, nationally, and globally. Like the arts, this subject seeks to give children an understanding of:

  • Who they are,
  • Change and continuity,
  • Cause and effect,
  • Why society is arranged as it is,
  • The interaction between humankind and the physical environment.

In opening up children’s understanding of these matters the subject may range beyond the boundaries of what is conventionally included – for example Forest Schooling, which can make up a school’s curriculum.

Place and Time not only provides links to other curriculum areas but lies at the heart of the children’s everyday lives, showing how the past can impact upon the present and ultimately, the future. The subject aims to equip children with the basic skills required to be confident and capable members of the community, as well as to appreciate the importance of the role they play in respecting and preserving the society they are a part of. Lastly, ‘Place & Time’ provides a platform from which children can communicate their ideas and query the existing world around them. For many, Place & Time will be the first time that ‘big questions’ about the world have been asked and is an opportunity for such questions to be debated and philosophised.

The approach to history is for children to know that things have not always been as they are now, and by implication that they need not remain the same in the future. This is the teaching of Impermanence in its clearest form. They will also learn of some of the best examples of wisdom that have taken place in history and learn from these historical examples. Children, through history, also come to recognise that whilst many things have changed and will continue to change there is a degree of Interdependence with the past; that of seeing connections between what happens in the modern day and how things were done in the past; including the principle of cause and effect (Karma); particularly through local study. Through the discipline of social history and the interpretation of primary resources children can practise empathy, compassion, morality and patience. With a better understanding of primary resources they also practise treating things with care and doing no harm. 

The study of human geography emphasises the interdependence of people across the planet. The children learn about how other children in the world live and about the sufferings that occur. They learn to appreciate how fortunate they are to live in a stable affluent society. Physical geography encompasses valuing nature, conservation and recognising threats to our world. Studying the rainforest inspires children to raise money for a conservation project, and charity work on a local and global scale should be encouraged. Understanding and possible application of the 10 One Planet principles should also be encouraged and central to both local and global human geography study.

The Three Aims That Mindful Schools Should Adopt

The idea around the three aims of ‘The Mindfulness Pedagogy’ is that every school should have these three principal aims integrated in their school’s vision or ethos and should be understood with clarity by children, teachers & parents.

  1. Well-being of staff & children in the school. To nurture in children a sense of well-being, self-esteem & self-examination.
  2. Create a mindfulness environment school-wide. To help children build and then enjoy a community and to understand the concept of interdependence.
  3. Explore the relationships between learning & mindfulness. To help children become enthusiastic & life-long learners & achievers.

1. Well-being of staff & children in the school. To nurture/develop in children a sense of well-being, self-esteem & self-examination.

“Real education can only begin out of a foundation of self-awareness. Know the truth of yourself.”  John Gatto

Well-being

Through the promotion of the school as a community for children, we should aim to attend to children’s capabilities, needs, hopes and anxieties in the here and now and promote their mental, emotional and physical well-being and welfare. We should believe in a strong sense of self and a positive outlook on life are not only desirable in themselves; they are also conducive to learning and to engage wholeheartedly in all kinds of worthwhile activities and relationships. Well-being also means attending to future fulfilment and not just present needs and capabilities. This means “holding everyone to their highest possible potentials” (Stephen Batchelor – Co-author of the Elephant’s footprint).

Empowerment & Autonomy

We should also aim to empower children through the acquisition of knowledge, skills, personal qualities and an understanding of compassionate living to discover and lead rewarding lives and right livelihoods and find meaning for themselves in a continuously changing world. We should have confidence that children will be able to discriminate in their choice of activities and relationships and to see beyond the surface appeal of appearance, fashion & celebrity to what is of abiding value, and retain their own centre when faced with shifting values & relationships.

2. Create a mindfulness environment school-wide. To help children build and then enjoy a community and to understand the concept of interdependence.

Encouraging compassion through self-knowledge

To promote respect for self and through that for peers and adults and all living things; for other generations, diversity and difference, for language, culture and custom, for ideas and values and for those habits of willing courtesy and kindness between persons. To ensure that respect is mutual. To understand the interchange of learning & human relations through the promotion of the concepts like impermanence & interdependence.

Promoting interdependence & sustainability

To develop children’s understanding of humanity’s dependence for well-being and survival on reasonable relationships between individuals, groups, communities and nations, and on a sustainable relationship with the natural world, and help children to move from mere ‘understanding’ to positive action in order that they can make a difference and be in no doubt they have the power to do so.

Developing communal responsibility

To help children to become active citizens by encouraging their participation in decision-making within the class and school community and to advance their understanding of kindness, compassion, human rights, diversity, conflict resolution and social justice. To develop a sense that human interdependence and the fragility of the world require a concept of citizenship and a ‘one world’ attitude.

Celebrating culture and the community

To establish the school as a cultural site, a focal point of community life and thought. To enact within the school the behaviours and relationships on which community most directly depends, and in so doing encourage this ‘community’ to be lived outside the school. To appreciate that education is a major embodiment of a culture’s way of life, not just a preparation for it, and that school is a place of culture – that is, a place where a personal and collective culture is developed.

3. Explore the relationships between learning & mindfulness. To help children become enthusiastic & life-long learners & achievers

 ‘It is about maximising children’s learning potential through good teaching and the proper application of evidence about how children develop and learn and how happy teachers teach more effectively.’

 ‘Any school which strives to educate the whole person should also ensure proper academic standards.’ – The Elephant’s footprint

Exploring, knowing, understanding and making sense

To enable children to encounter and be able to explore the wealth of human experience through introduction to and active engagement in, the different ways through which we make sense of our world and act upon it: intellectual, ethical, spiritual, creative, social, emotional and physical; through language, mathematics, science, the humanities, the arts, religion and other ways of knowing and understanding. Learning is grounded in a mixture of amazement and curiosity which constitutes childhood wonder. Further to this we would encourage children to know & celebrate how the learning strategies they employ are closely related to many mindful principles. (See other post)

Fostering skilful behaviours

To foster in children skilful behaviours on which learning and a rewarding ethical life most depend: mindfulness practices,  mindful speaking & deep listening, inquiry & debate, literacy, mathematics, science, information technology, the creative and performing arts; but also in practical activities: communication, compassion, creativity, invention, mindfulness, problem-solving & reflection.

Exciting the imagination

To excite children’s imagination in order that they can advance beyond present understanding, extend the boundaries of their lives, contemplate a world possible as well as actual, understand cause and effect, develop the capacity for empathy, and reflect on and regulate their behaviour; to explore and test language, ideas and arguments in activity and form of thought. To experience the delights – and pains – of imagining, and of entering into the imaginative world of others, is to become a more rounded person.

Enacting right-speech & deep listening

Right speech & deep listening can help children grasp that learning and reflecting on mindfulness practices is communal and that understanding builds through joint activity. To help children recognise that knowledge is not only transmitted but also negotiated and re-created. To continue to advance our pedagogy in which dialogue is central: between self and others, between present and past, between different ways of making sense.

By listening to our pupils we will become better schools. All schools should advocate children’s voices. We should recognise the importance of listening to our learners and their opinions about their school and their education.

This Is How You Integrate Mindfulness & Learning

mindful mind skills

‘It is about maximising children’s learning potential through good teaching and the proper application of evidence about how children develop and learn and how happy teachers teach more effectively.’

‘Any school which strives to educate the whole person should also ensure proper academic standards.’

– The Elephant’s footprint

Exploring, knowing, understanding and making sense

To enable children to encounter and be able to explore the wealth of human experience through introduction to and active engagement in, the different ways through which we make sense of our world and act upon it: intellectual, ethical, spiritual, creative, social, emotional and physical; through language, mathematics, science, the humanities, the arts, religion and other ways of knowing and understanding. Learning is grounded in a mixture of amazement and curiosity which constitutes childhood wonder. Further to this we would encourage children to know & celebrate how the learning strategies they employ are closely related to many mindful principles.

Learning Strategies* Mindful Principles
Managing Distractions, Noticing & Present Moment Right Mindfulness, Right Effort & Meditation
Responding (Not Reacting), Thinking Aloud, Thinking Time & Responsibility Right Mindfulness & Right Concentration
Meta-learning, Reflection, Revising & Planning Impermanence, Interdependence, Meditation, Wisdom
Making Links, Questioning & Trying Things Out. Right Effort, Patience, Meditation
Listening, Empathy & Collaboration Interdependence, Loving Kindness, Right Speech, Right Action,  The Middle Way, Patience

 *Based on Guy Claxton’s (Co-author of the Elephant’s Footprint) work on learnacy. [http://www.buildinglearningpower.co.uk/images/blpia_extract.pdf]

Fostering skilful behaviours

To foster in children skilful behaviours on which learning and a rewarding ethical life most depend: mindfulness practices,  mindful speaking & deep listening, inquiry & debate, literacy, mathematics, science, information technology, the creative and performing arts; but also in practical activities: communication, compassion, creativity, invention, mindfulness, problem-solving & reflection.

Exciting the imagination

To excite children’s imagination in order that they can advance beyond present understanding, extend the boundaries of their lives, contemplate a world possible as well as actual, understand cause and effect, develop the capacity for empathy, and reflect on and regulate their behaviour; to explore and test language, ideas and arguments in activity and form of thought. To experience the delights – and pains – of imagining, and of entering into the imaginative world of others, is to become a more rounded person.

Enacting right-speech & deep listening

Right speech & deep listening can help children grasp that learning and reflecting on mindfulness practices is communal and that understanding builds through joint activity & potentially promotes wisdom. To help children recognise that knowledge is not only transmitted but also negotiated and re-created. To continue to advance our pedagogy in which dialogue is central: between self and others, between present and past, between different ways of making sense.

By listening to our pupils we will become a better schools. If a school is an advocate of children’s voices. They will recognise the importance of listening to their learners and their opinions about their school and their education and indeed the children are invited to input into their ‘community curriculum’.

What children have to say:

Managing Distractions

Ignoring chats when you’re supposed to is one aspect of managing distractions. It’s when I try to put a stop to anything that might cause me to stop learning. It’s an important skill to practice because it helps you learn better. (For example if someone is doing funny faces try and ignore them. Try focusing your mind on your own work).

Noticing

Noticing is an important skill because many amazing things happen in the day and it’s sad to miss things.

Perseverance

This skill is important to practice. It is when we keep trying even when things look difficult.

Present Moment

Focusing on what is happening now. It is an important skill because if you don’t focus on the here and now you can be confused or you can miss out on what is happening in the now.

Reflecting

Is a very important skill because it allows us to look at something we have done and gives us a second chance for example; My dad was once shouting down the phone and I shouted “Stop shouting.” I reflected on this in the afternoon and realised that it wasn’t a very good idea to shout myself.

Meta-Learning.

Meta-learning is knowing how you learn best and what you find is the easiest way for you to learn. For example some people are tactile learners, they need to you use their hands. Some are visual and some like to listen best. It is also about knowing who is best to work with on certain topics and who is maybe better to avoid due to distractions.

Revising

Revising is an important skill that we practice. Sometimes our teacher sends us back to look over our work because it could be wrong or need changing (but not always) it gives us a second chance to think again (revise it).

Planning

This skill is important because if you don’t plan, you don’t know what you are doing! And the thing that you want to do is more likely to fail!

Trying Things Out

Not saying no. This skill is important because it’s when I take a risk with something You’ve never done before. You might miss out on something you really like or are good at.

Questioning

Sometimes it is good to question the things we read or hear. This can help us get a better understanding or change our opinion on something.

Reasoning

Having a reason for doing or saying something. Explaining why my answer is right is reasoning in maths.

Making Links

This skill is important because it helps us make a web of knowledge and helps us use our knowledge in different subjects. For example today we were learning about shapes and space, we learnt that half a sphere is called a hemisphere. We soon made a link between this maths knowledge our geography knowledge. Because the globe is made up of two hemispheres.

Interdependence

Doing something with others. This is important because when we are older we have to work well with all different types of people. Understanding that we all share the space and are connected.

Listening

Listening and not talking. This skill is important because it helps me learn from other people’s ideas. It also helps me understand other people’s opinions & points of view.

Collaboration

This is when we work hard as a class to achieve something. This is an important skill because if we work well together we can achieve more.

Empathy

Trying to know how someone else is feeling. This skill is important because how I react to someone can make that person feel happier.

Responding not reacting

Mind before mouth. This skill is important because you might hurt someone else and regret it afterwards.

Can The Testing Of Children Ever Be Compassionate?

They knew me. They encouraged me. They helped me through tough times. They cared for me & I learned. 

I can’t claim that every child looks forward to our mental maths test or spelling tests. Many will run up the stairs into class and it will be the first thing they ask about. When I tell them there will be one today and will give a little ‘yes!’ and clench their fist.

The UK education system and particularly the changes to the primary curriculum have given the ill-informed impression of order and uniformity in how children learn. There is an unhealthy assumption that children perform in neat, straight lines of progress, roughly in line with some bizarre ‘master child’ who is deemed to be the archetypal ‘average’ learner. – What a thought and what a poor child!

There seems to be no room for sickness, bereavements, neglect, abuse or parental involvement. Nor is there appreciation for difference, diversity of talent or aptitude.

For tests to be effective, they should focus on being ‘checkpoints’ for the understanding of key foundation concepts only. Used exclusively as low-stakes internal processes, not external end points. They certainly are not an adequate or reliable way of assessing depth, criticality or enjoyment of a subject.

Our school is clear that there should never be the assumption that everything that is worth learning can be tested in an examination. There is compelling evidence in the field of cognitive psychology that regular low stakes testing can help build secure knowledge of concepts in the memory, and certainly for those elements of knowledge schema to aid the more interesting and complex ideas involved in learning. It’s just a question of how this is done in a compassionate way.

I would suggest:

  • We only mention examinations in terms of an aside – something that will happen but isn’t central to the importance of what is being learned.
  • We always go beyond the syllabus if that’s where the children’s learning is heading.
  • We focus on what makes learning really memorable in the long term.

The first point is actually hugely important. If we can have this attitude towards testing, not only will it benefit the child and their understanding of what real learning is, but it also gives the teacher for the first time organic and reliable evidence of what the children really know. Not what they have learnt simply for a test & to soon be disregarded.

The third point is particularly profound. The principle should always be that learning is something to be loved for its own sake, and that when a child has a passion it is the duty of a school to allow it to thrive.

Luckily my school is very clear on this and our use of assessing children’s progress. First and foremost we ensure we know the children incredibly well as individuals. This is the most effective way of assessing what learning a child has undertaken in a school year. We also acknowledge that learning can be represented in many forms and that written work is not the only valid means of checking a child’s understanding. Other interactions with their learning are held in just high regard. Interactions such as verbal discussion or other creative means. There is also the understanding that it may take more than one attempt to get through a ‘checkpoint’ and the border remains open to further attempts throughout their time at school and is fine to carry on from one class into the next. To give children only one shot at success is an act of gross irresponsibility and is certainly not compassionate towards the child.

They knew me. They encouraged me. They helped me through tough times. They cared for me & I learned. 

Written in response to Dr Debra Kidd Teaching Notes From The Front Line.