Right now I am sitting on a train on my way to see my daughter, who is attending high school on the other side of Sweden. The things that happen when your dream is to study marine biology!
But sitting on this train has got me thinking about the phrase I often use... "learning journey" and also reflect on a facebook interaction yesterday evening with Mats Olsson about "following instructions" and their connection to the Swedish preschool curriculum.
of course in the curriculum there is, thankfully, nothing about children needing to be able to follow instructions... but as I explored the idea yesterday I had to come to terms with the fact that we do indeed 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.....
So we need to explore the words "follow" as well as "instructions" - what do theses words mean to us and how do we put them in practice. Do we make children follow instructions - sit still, listen quietly etc - a kind of traditional classroom sort of obedience to the sense of following instructions.
Or are the instructions a kind of guideline, where the children are encouraged to question the instructions to be able to understand their purpose? And to make informed choices about whether they are instructions that are worth following...
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 calm...an adult controlled peacefulness, not a natural organic kind where the children self regulate and interact skilfully with each other.
I mean some instructions help us keep safe, or healthy, they can be instructions that help us cook food, or get to a place....
Talking of getting places... back to the train and the learning journey.
I got to see my first sprinkling of snow from the train today. I love the first snow of the season, deep inside there is this child that just needs to get out and connect with it... touch, make footprints... you know what I mean. So being on the train meant I could not do what I wanted. Its felt rather disappointing. But I am old enough, and wise enough, to know there will be another chance to meet the snow.
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 tests 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 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 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 maybe we 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. 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... and that 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...
The thing is that 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 too.
I have a T-shirt that says on it "The journey is the destination" - and I bought it because for me it was about learning. This learning journey is not about getting to 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, and also a tinge of insignificance as you look around at the vastness and the number of other mountains.
Only once have I ever been so high on a mountain that I started to feel dizzy - due to the fact there is less oxygen (altitude sickness)... but the view from there was amazing, doing anything physical was hard. But with this feeling of being small in the world, there is also this feeling of enormity in a kind of being one with the world sort of empowerment. It was not just the altitude!!, because sometimes I get that on smaller mountains, or with sunsets, or the beauty in the micro-world. That Dirk Gently "everything is connected" sort of thing.
For me this is 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... 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 just about following the children. We need to connect.
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 with their preschoolers - children who, 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 - those that keep us safe, healthy and encourage social well-being (ie not to hit to solve conflicts, not to use sticks to hurt others, to have empathy). We actually had instructions to help the children with empathically supporting each other - if you saw someone was upset you went over to see how they were, you asked if there is something you could do to help (not automatically assume they want a hug, or say sorry) you then did what they asked to the best of your ability (if you did not like to hug, you could put a hand on their shoulder instead and guide them to someone who does like hugging), you stay with the person, or find someone who can 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, 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 of 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 it is 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.
I have more examples of how I have played with the idea of following instructions over the years... not to teach how to follow instructions, but to be aware and learn about all sort of things, mostly social awareness. But that is for another time... or one of my presentations... as they usually pop up i those.