Letting Children Lead The Learning

By Melissa Brighton, Year 4 teacher

**Melissa reflects on projects completed with Year 2 and 3.

Our 2016 Trivia Night was amazing because it was bigger than what we ever anticipated. Usually, the fundraising committee raises about $4,000 a year. In one night, we raised $6,000. In itself,  I believe, it said a lot about our community, the use of the students’ voices and how they changed the school’s concept of fundraising. This was because we saw that Year 2 and 3 students, that is, seven and 8-year-olds, were able to run the whole event. 

I remember a parent commenting a day or two after the event.  She had invited a friend along and her friend had immediately fronted up to the principal of her child’s school and said, “Look, this is what I’ve seen. Can we do it?” The principal pushed back with ‘No, children that age can’t do that! That’s ridiculous! Do you know how much work that would be?’ The man completely dismissed the woman and insisted, “No, it’s not possible.” The Wooranna Park parent needed to talk to me about her friend’s frustration, how disbelief greeted what she had witnessed children achieve.

The project around the Trivia Night was based on investigating ‘faith’. We picked up from where the kids had left off the year before, looking at how things had changed through time. From there, we moved onto examining how ideas change the world. And so, we created a smaller version of an upper primary Enigma Mission so it had lot more scaffolding built in. For instance, we developed little pack, and the children had certain things that they needed to do, with each pack containing key idea that the students needed to research. For example, we researched the idea of flight, concrete, medicine, the steam engine, and the combustion engine.

We gave the children the opportunity to read & highlight texts. We suggested websites through which they could research a concept or invention. Most of all, we framed the activities around ‘how did the concept or invention change the world?’ We gave the children a recording device and said, “Go and record stuff”. They would come back and play the recordings to us. It was amazing to observe what the kids were beginning to present through their own curiosity and interest. I took the footage and edited it.  For instance, we had a seven-year-old explaining the invention of penicillin which he presented in quite elaborate detail. That was just amazing! 

From there, we then posed the question, “Well, we’ve looked at ideas of how other people have changed the world … how could your own ideas make things happen?” At that moment, we moved onto the concept, supported by scaffolding, “Well, what could we do?” This was when they decided to raise money for a girl in their year with cerebral palsy.   They had considered other options like raising money for homeless people and building a new playground, but they decided that the fundraising would be for her. At that point we asked, “Okay, how are we going to do this?” 

This was when we started breaking off into smaller groups: we had a catering group,  a raffle group etc. So, the idea for the Trivia Night started to take shape as a team wrote questions for the MC, in four languages, so we the children also acted as translators for our families. 

The night was sold out: we had 120 people who had paid $10 a ticket. The children participated in many learning opportunities through the planning and the running of the event. We explored the use of Horizon mapping and multiplication through the layout. We explored the need to convince people to donate to our raffle and our silent auction through sending invitations to politicians using persuasive writing. We looked at procedural writing around the catering choices children were actually making and selling on the night. We visited the local shopping centers at Dandenong Plaza and Fountain Gate, where small groups of children actually hand-delivered letters. They’d created a family-feud-style round which included sending notes home to every family, asking them 10 questions, after which they used to collect data, and then graph it. Yes, the event just ran so smoothly! 

Documenting children making real decisions

Throughout it all, we made sure that the children were making the main decisions. They achieved this through scaffolding by setting up an exploration of what it meant to put on a trivia night. We use learning agreement time to give them opportunities to experience trivia-like games. We let the kids gravitate it towards those games. You could say we strategically placed ideas and stepped back to see what concepts the children grabbed hold of: we felt that it was never going to work if they didn’t have that agency. 

The children chose the planning groups that they wanted to be based on their interest. They chose who we would approach for assistance. They chose what recipes they would make. They chose what we were going to research in order to write our trivia questions.

We started with the best of intentions to document all work we witnessed around us but we never managed to find that extra hour a week to do it.  In hindsight, it would have been best to get the children to document what they are doing as went along, like getting them to create a folder and then asking them to place things in it. Do such things seems harder to do in the junior school years. The lack of time might be overcome with the increased number of professional practice days coming in this year. It gives us an opportunity to document our collection of materials over a full day. In previous years,  Sapna [Vats] has documented the project for our team, with the rest of the team giving her relief and some of our APT time each week. Through this, she was able to produce a beautiful book showing the theme of the project that year on how stories evolve through culture, space and  time

Our focus in the Trivia Night project was looking at the curriculum, as Janet always challenges us to do, through following the children’s interests. I think that the Trivia Night project is a really good example of how a team of teachers can approach a curriculum in a creative way.  By the end, we had covered so much: we had covered statistics and probability through games and raffles, and using money to run the event. How much are we going to sell a ticket? How many people will we invite? We worked on different genres of writing, including persuasive writing. Mapping was covered. We used the visual arts by creating beautiful landscapes, which were put onto cards and sold. 

Being co-researchers with children

Because I’ve worked in junior and senior school at Wooranna Park, I’ve become aware of some big differences in our projects. Different theorists influence us but it would be true to say that the Reggio Emilia approach was very much alive in our minds in the project.  I suppose the term is a bit of an umbrella with lots of different strands of it supporting the main goal, a celebration of learning. And I think that’s one of the main things… the fact that the children were so amazed at what they achieved. 

I’ve had other really successful projects but the in Trivia Night we had a research project which included our teaching research question at the same time as a students research questions. This wasn’t the case in 2015 when we looked at stories evolve through culture, space and time. In that project, the students had literature-based research question and our teacher research focus was on engaging students with multi-modal literacy so that they developed an understanding of what we mean by multimodality. So we looked at storytelling through different parts of the world. We looked at the idea that stories are designed, some quite often for the purposes of passing information from generation to generation. During Anzac Day, we read stories about Anzac Day and we talked about the fact that the purpose of the story is to remember, it’s not to entertain, it’s to remember,  so how does that change the story? They unpacked Carnivale in South America. We looked at modifying paintings and Kathputli puppets in India. We looked at dances, traditional dances. We looked at Aboriginal Dreamtime stories. And so we took a trip around the world using the Dragonboat as our platform which stopped at different places, different culture. We also talked about how stories changed over time, and the mode of storytelling changed over time. Our production that year was the Wizard of Oz and so we used the fact that it was a movie that went from black and white to colour. 

As the 2015 project was deeply about storytelling, we made sure the students explored many forms of storytelling based on their preference: they created story using traditional and modern body paintings, Claymotion animations and dance.  We had a group that created their own hieroglyphic story using the traditional ancient Egyptian gods and researching the traditional symbolism and they created their own story. On our project showcase night, we invited the audience to come with us on a trip through the different forms of storytelling.

I think the important part of all this is the teacher as a researcher. How are you progressing yourself as an educator and what are we doing to make it more than just another project for the students? 

Target Teaching

Within this context, I feel like target teaching is essential for making sure that there’s no gaps or holes in their learning and if something isn’t covered in a project, we should nonetheless ask how are we covering it.  How are we making sure that we’re keeping ourselves accountable for these kids’ future? 

For examples: we’ve had children who were writing persuasive letters but were still not getting the use of full stops. Now, I really don’t need to teach everybody about full stops when half of them get it already? So, focusing on those that need the attention on the skill by explicitly teaching them in an environment they’re with other who need the same thing is a positive move. I found that they don’t need an hour long workshop on it. We’ve tried something different in the last couple of years which has been really, really interesting to observe. We’ve found that half an hour target teaching with small groups is more effective than an hour in a workshop because the teaching is explicitly tailored to the particular student needs.

That is, if you have two groups of ten instead of one group of twenty you general address the need far better. I had this illustrated to me rather dramatically one day when I had a child start crying in one of the small group. This is not something she had ever done before in our classroom.  “What’s the difference here?” Then I realized when I’d completed a workshop with her, that she was a really, really skilled avoider. What would happen in a workshop was that she would strategically place herself behind someone or she would just not get her work finished. But in a targeted teaching session, she was forced to sit and actually engage with her lack of skills. She wasn’t able to use those same strategies that she’d always got away with using and it was really interesting to see what she did when those were taken away from her.  She ended up making a lot of progress that year. On the surface, though, she was a student that you would quite often see as being compliant and because you’ve got 20 kids in one room she was easy to miss.

In my opinion, all children require some target teaching to ensure that they are working at their best. I believe that it’s the best way to address the questions, ‘what’s the next logical step for this child? What’s that next step in the learning? Base on this view, I believe all children need to be extended. I think that quite often people do ask, “What target teaching does this child need because they can’t do something?.” But what about what they can do . We fall into a trap of, “Oh, they’re okay. They’re okay.” No, they’re not, because they could be great. So why is okay acceptable?

I find that this happens to us particularly when we’re very busy or when we face external pressures. It’s in these situations that we most stress out about the kids that aren’t doing so well. But what are we doing for those children that have the potential to study medicine? We need to make sure that we’re constantly looking at extending all children, for example, extending their vocabulary.

I’ve taught one child for three years straight because I’ve gone up from two to three to four. I know that if he’s bored, he’ll try and think of questions that will stump the teacher. His goal for that session becomes winding you up. But if you give him something that he could really sink his teeth into, he’s okay. But I’ve also seen him sit there in workshops designed for fractions, and I’ve had him sit at the back with me converting fractions to decimals to percentages. So why are we teaching it in a workshop? Because he doesn’t need that. If we don’t have targeted teaching opportunities for him, how are we finding out what he’s capable of?

Reflective teaching 

Having said this about targeted teaching, I still think it’s hard to explicitly teach a teacher to be reflective. Because I think it’s anxiety-provoking. You’ve got to be honest and say “I’ve done this well, I’ve done this well, but what haven’t I done? What can I do?” Again, for me it’s about that teacher as researcher. What are you focusing on? We ask this question of student teachers all the time? And I think Professional Development Plans can be very superficial if they’re not done properly. How can I be a better teacher? What can I do? 

I already see changes from when I started teaching to now. Different demographic areas where children need plays a role. But I know from first hand experience that Wooranna Park offers me many possibilities of fulfilling my aspirations as a teacher. When I left the school to take a permanent position in my second year of teaching, I left, I suppose for security more than any other reason.  I was offered an ongoing position and I know how hard that can be achieve. So I felt like I’d be kind of silly not to take it. 

And it was really interesting to have done so because I worked in a place which believed it was being innovative because they were team teaching. But by that stage I developed a good understanding of Wooranna Park’s pedagogy and saw something very, very different. For example, I had experience teaching very differently from the traditional idea of being on a term planner. I mean, what do you do in a meeting when you know that certain children ‘don’t get it’ but if we don’t ‘move on’, we’re going to be behind for the rest of the term so we need to move on anyway. There’s no room in that kind of teaching to ‘why are you teaching?’ It can no longer be for the kids.

I also missed the grounding that Learning Agreements gave me. For me, not having Learning Agreements made me understand the place of Learning Agreement and why we have them. More than just exploring skills and concepts, they actually bring me as a teacher to the foundation of the purpose of the learning. And they allowed me to understand, “Okay, they’re not getting this. Oh, where do I start with something? ” So the way I think of Learning Agreements now is something like a circular approach. If you’re teaching something you haven’t taught before, put it in Learning Agreement time Let the children explore the content with you, let that exploration inform your first workshop or target teaching session would go. 

As I sat through meetings at the tradition school with its term planner in which Week 1 we planned to do graphing and week 2 we went on to something, I realised I had no place to start to ask “Where do I start?” Instead, it had  pre- and post-testing every single week and that was a fifth of your math teaching if you really want to think of it like that. A fifth of it is assessment because every single Monday you post-tested last week work and pretested the week to come. I looked at that and thought, “Well, why aren’t we having kids exploring things?” Because really, I’m only testing how well they do on six questions.

When I participate in Learning Agreement time with students, I explore concepts and skills before starting a topic and which I then can workshop. And once I’ve workshopped it, where is the chance to repeat, to practice, and to consolidate my learning? The answer is Learning Agreement. It informs my next workshop because then I can have a look at how the children are going independently. 

That’s what I think so many schools don’t understand because there is no opportunity for repetition. They talk a lot about number fluency but number fluency is not just speed, but if it’s not just speed where is it? Again, I think that’s where Learning Agreement time.  And the big circle of being informed before and after explicit teaching as we do at Wooranna Park is simply not done in other schools. And it was interesting to see how and why I’m so against pre- and post-testing because I don’t understand how your first time you’re doing something. How are we developing what they understand? What if they know how to do this but they’ve never seen it the way that question is structured? They know how to do it but they don’t have the materials available to them. And that was the other thing that actually stood out to me in the traditional school. It didn’t have all materials available in a classroom that the students could use. There was no selection in materials and students are told, “We’re doing this workshop. This is what we have.”

Whereas a good math space needs to have the space setup 24/7, and the students need to choose what they need. We’re doing something at the moment in Grade 4 where the students are creating their own nets to create a 3D toy. It shocked me because I saw them playing with the materials in Learning Agreement time the other day and I went, “Oh, I haven’t told them to get those out? I didn’t even think of that.” Because they found the geo-shapes that you can put together to make nets, they were experimenting with make the shape. But if they hadn’t been available to them, there would not have been any scaffolding.

So, being away and then coming back changed everything. I was able to learn a lot about explicit teaching as well. Doing an hour of a grammar worksheet every week and an hour of spelling on a worksheet every week does teach you a lot about what not to do! Nonetheless, it does give you strategies that you can implement  because you don’t fix something that’s not broken. And students still need to explicitly learn how to spell and how to use grammar correctly. So what can you take from those things and utilize? How can you effectively explain those things properly without making it boring as anything!

Teachers as researchers

I know that because of my many conversations with Janet she impresses upon staff about how your real job is to research kids’ learning. That’s what you are, you know, a researcher of children’s learning. They need someone that enjoys their work because sometimes going home isn’t great, and parents aren’t happy. And if you can give them a safe space for six hours a day then I think in order to do your work effectively the children need to know that you enjoy their company just as much as they enjoy being there. Every child wants to feel special and every child wants to feel unique. And I think most children should get that from home, but some kids don’t.

Then there’s the problem in education when approaches are either out or in, there’s no in between. But what about balance instead of saying, “No, it’s not working. Let’s scrap it.” Well, what parts are working? What should we keep? Consequently, look how quickly our curriculum has changed. No one seems to take the time to really look at what we need.

If that’s not enough,  I think we are always trying to copy someone else. We’re always trying to go, “Oh, okay, they’re doing it great. Let’s just do what they do.” And I think that’s the a problem when other schools visit us and come here. I know, for instance, the tradition school I worked at had visited here. And so they knew very well who I was and where I was from when they hired me. But their first comment was, “Oh, but the noise. I love it, but the noise.” And so people pick and choose from different types of models that they want to copy and to look at Finland, and at Reggio Emilia. You can’t just implement these models in Australia because in both of those communities education different cultures value different things. So we can look at Finland as much as we like. We can look at Reggio Emilia as much as we like, but we really need to answer the question of what works within the context of each and everyone of our own classrooms.  

The importance of parental engagement

A key thing for me is working to make our parent engage with the learning process. I think parental engagement is the most important thing because of the fact that a lot of our families who were educated in very different educational systems, even here in Australia.  You know, they went to school 20 years ago, or they were educated inSerbia, or India and they don’t understand what we’re doing. For them to be able to support their children, they need the model explained for them as well. They need to know, what can math look like? Where is the learning in this activity? Let’s face it, people fear things that they don’t understand and people fear things that are different. And I think sometimes we believe what we’re doing is the best for their children, but we need to show them why we believe that.

I like SeesawTM,  even though it’s hard to keep on top of it properly. I don’t think I’m doing as good of a job this year as I did last year. But I think it’s the incidental moments that we communicate that are important. So, for example, I’ve filmed debates and speeches. When I’m reading one-on-one with children to do start reading assessment. If we’re not sharing these anecdotal stories of assessment, then we are reduced to a number on the report. So I’m trying really hard to share what I have done today when child read with me.  I’m sharing what I’m noticing about their reading, because that’s more important than anything else. At the same time, I sharing with parents what they might do to help their child at home with their reading. I think that’s important.

I’ve got really strong beliefs that I suppose have developed over time. And they seem to get stronger and stronger each year. It’s only my second year in a senior school. Last year, I was just treading water, trying to work things out. I couldn’t see how concepts fitted together. But this year, I’ve got target teaching  and I’m starting fit things together with all of the specialist programs, and all of these wonderful opportunities that our kids are getting. 

Just today,  I was doing a reading assessment, and I could just the girl was hugely anxious. I just said, “Let’s just stop for a second. I’m not going lie to you. You’re already ahead. Nothing that you’re going to tell me right now is going to change this assessment. I don’t care how many questions you get right or wrong, so let’s just stop worrying. This isn’t about that.” And I showed her the actual reading assessment.

“See, how it tells you what type of questions you’ve got. These are inference out, IN means inference. At the end it tells me how many. Do you know what I’m going to get from this? I’m going to find out which questions you get wrong, and I’m going to give you target teaching on that. It’s got nothing to do with doing Grade 5, it’s got nothing to do with going to Uni. It’s got nothing to do with anything except for the fact that it tells you what you need next.” Her response was, “OK”.

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