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  • Skribentens bildSuzanne Axelsson

Learning Journeys

There are many ways to go on a journey. You can set off and see where the road takes you, create new paths, travel with others or follow given instructions to get to a destination.

Sometimes I think the education is a bit like a train track... sure the learning journey is there, but there is a clear starting point and a clear destination. There is no flexibility in how we get there. we get on the train, the train follows the track... and if there are no delays we arrive on time at the chosen destination. Standardised testing is very much a train track of learning.

There is no opportunity to explore what is between the stations... you just get glimpses. There is a certain level of freedom on the train, but we are still confined to the train and what the train has to offer (or what we bring onboard).

The tracks instruct the train where to go, there is no freedom to choose.

In the Swedish preschool curriculum there is, thankfully, nothing about children needing to be able to follow instructions... but I have had to come to terms with the fact that we, as a species, do in fact need to be able to understand instructions, we need to know how to follow them - for instance if we check the road for cars after we cross it instead of before we increase the risk of accidents instead of ensuring our safety. If we wash our hands before going to the toilet instead of after.....

There is a need to explore the words "follow" as well as "instructions" - what do these words mean to us in our own context and how do we put them in practice? Do we make children follow instructions - sit still, listen quietly etc? - a kind of traditional classroom obedience considered as following instructions of the teacher to create calmness for study.

Or are instructions a kind of guideline, where the children are encouraged to question the instructions so they can understand their purpose? And to make informed choices about whether they are instructions that are worth following...

A few years ago I wrote

"Real Play for real peace.... NOT adult controlled for the appearance of order."

I think many instructions are put in place for the appearance of order and adult controlled peacefulness, not a natural organic kind where the children self regulate, interact skilfully with each other, and are engrossed by what they are doing..

When I write the appearance of order and calm I mean that they children might be sitting still and be quiet, but it does not mean they are at peace and able to learn. Many might find the how-to-behave instructions anxiety inducing, or inhibiting their ability to learn. Finding instructions that empower each child to find their own route is, I feel, what we should be searching for and sharing.

Some instructions help us keep safe, or healthy, they can be instructions that help us cook food, or get to a place when we are lost.... instructions as a concept are not either bad or good - but like with most things in life, it depends on the intention of the person giving the instructions and the freedom the receiver has to question, say no or follow them.

The learning journey I prefer to follow is one we, teachers and learners, choose together. We might plan a destination, of what we want to learn, but go slow enough to discover other things on the way, make changes, do detours, return to where we started to set off again in a new direction... and the decision to use many forms of "learning transportation".

And of course our own legs can take us off the beaten track... explore uncharted areas, make discoveries and learn what we thought was unimaginable...

When I was in Israel I talked with Nona Orbach about the idea of teaching being like a map... that being an educator is a little like being a map reader. We can plan and follow the route, but we need to be open and flexible enough to listen to the learners... to hear what direction they are interested in taking, to be aware when we need to speed up, slow down or back track so that we can fully understand or fully appreciate. That we might need take an extra trip, or end up having to re-plan the route because we discover that the one we thought was right was so terribly ill suited for the learners on this journey. We follow the needs, interests and developments of the learners - not the learners themselves - but the learning, the play and take notice so that we can be play-responsive educators. It might mean that we only get part way there because we suddenly discover things that we can go into deeper... the goal is the learning not the destination... and the learning can be done in a myriad of ways. The journey is the learning... the destination is... well maybe that is the grades or the product or a show, or an exhibition or... not all destinations are bad, or a problem...

If we get too fixed on the destination we lose opportunities of learning on the way. It becomes like a train track... efficient at getting us there, but does not leave much room to stop, explore and go at our own pace. We can still get to the destination and enjoy the journey, it does not have to be one or the other.

The map is there to keep us safe by understanding the context, it is the knowledge of the children, of the resources and the processes, of being able to make informed decisions, but with the freedom to take new routes, go off road or navigate uncharted territory.

This learning journey is not about having to get somewhere specific... it is about the process... of discovery - and seeing the new and then realising that there is more to explore...

Like getting to the top of a mountain... a huge challenge, to feel the joy, the wonder, the awe, admire the view and also feel a tinge of insignificance as you look around at the vastness and the number of other mountains before making a decision of which mountain to conquer next... or maybe some other adventure, or maybe just sitting there a while and absorbing everything?

Only once have I ever been so high on a mountain that I felt the dizziness of altitude due to the air being thinner (less oxygen)... the view from there was amazing, but doing anything physical was hard. But with this feeling of being small and powerless in the world, there is also this feeling of enormity in a kind of being one-with-the-world sort of empowerment. It is not the altitude that can create this feeling, because sometimes I get that on smaller mountains, or with sunsets, in the forest or the beauty in the micro-world. That Dirk Gently (Netflix series) "everything is connected" sort of thing.

For me this is like learning... not separate subjects, but how they all piece together to reveal the mosaic. A connectedness. Inspirational and empowering. But also times when it is challenging and overwhelming.

I think as we do these learning journeys we have to follow our interests and curiosity... as educators too. If we are not interested in the journey the children will know, the learning will not be the same. It is not about following the children but about connection.

The curriculum is, in a way, a set of instructions for us teachers... (as is the school law and local policies)... we need to follow them. But we also need to learn how to interpret them. What are those instructions in theory? How are they put into practice... ? Are there many ways to put them into practice? Which ways are desirable... which ways should be avoided... and why? Can following the instructions of the curriculum be detrimental - especially if too literally?

I often feel that in many parts of the world that educators no longer have the freedom to plan learning journeys with their classes, and even worse in preschool - where children, I feel, really should not be following the instructions of "this is the way we learn" - children should be using the medium of play, exploration and discovery to learn.

Instructions can be a part of that - instructions that keep us safe, healthy and encourage social well-being (ie no hitting to solve conflicts, not to use sticks to hurt others (but other uses are fine)). I actually had instructions to help the children to empathically support each other - if a child saw that a peer/friend was upset the should go over to see how they are, I encouraged them to ask if there is something they could do to help (not automatically assume they want a hug, or say "sorry" as an automatic response) and to then do what they asked to the best of their ability (if a child did not like to hug, they could put a hand on their shoulder instead and guide them to someone who does like hugging), the children were encouraged to stay with the person, or find someone who could stay with the person until they feel ready to play (usually this took a few moments between children, longer when they sat with me).

These are instructions I asked the children to follow (not must-do instructions, but the kind that guide them, so that they could practice being socially empathic and supportive, but always on their own terms. And these instructions helped them understand that just saying sorry has no value if you do not mean it (the instruction that you must say sorry if you hurt/offend another child is one I think does not really work) and also they learned that not everyone feels better in the same way, or can offer support in the same way, but that we all do our best to help in the way we can.

So in this sense following instructions is a good thing. But do children need to learn how to follow instructions? Well I don't think that should be a goal in itself... instructions can be a tool to help children learn something else... but instructions are not a learning destination, more of a form of transport.

Too much following instructions will make it like being on the train tracks, with little freedom.

What kind of learning journey do you personally want? And want for the children? What roles do rote, recitation, instruction, discussion and dialogue have in that journey. Is rote always bad, or can rote exist in play... the idea of learning ideas and skills through constant repetition? Can rote free the brain for other more creative pursuits? And if that is the case what kind of information is useful to learn as rote and what is not? Those of you that have followed me for a long time know that dialogue is my preferred form of learning and teaching.

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