5 Things to Stop Pretending

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The other day some of my friends challenged me to come up with a list of five ways that we need to make school different. Only five! Here goes.

I was lucky to attend the recent On The Rise K-12 conference, featuring a keynote by Ron Canuel. Among the many great things he said during that speech was that we need to look at Kindergarten classes as a model for all classes. This got me thinking: what is it about Kindergarten that we want to see move up? If I had a magic wand, here’s where I’d put my energy.

1. The Environment: If we accept that the environment is, itself, a teacher, we need to take a hard look at what our environment is saying to students. Last week, I overheard two of my students talking about grade 1. The conversation went something like this:

“I don’t want to go to grade 1.”

“Me either, I want to stay in this class forever.”

“In grade 1 we don’t get to play any more. We just have to do work.”

“I don’t want to do work – I just want to play.”

It’s not the first time I’ve overheard this kind of conversation; every year around this time I start hearing Kindergarten students sharing their anxieties about grade 1. I don’t think that their perceptions are always founded in reality – they may very well be fueled by older siblings and friends who are trying to make grade 1 sound scary. But, if you look at the environment and try to figure out what it’s saying, it speaks loud and clear. Desks in rows send a message; chairs facing the same way create an audience for a performance. Photocopies and workbooks, long periods of time spent sitting, and play-time that is relegated to recess are a curriculum of their own. If we want to change school, we first need to change the classroom environment. It needs to look different for school to be different.

2. The Outdoors: When did we all agree that school is just what happens in a building? I feel like I missed a meeting. Why is it that we spend so much time inside? Is it in the curriculum that we have to be inside all the time? Every time I turn around there are more and more studies suggesting that time spent moving and time spent out-of-doors is time well spent in the pursuit of learning. If we want school to change we need to start thinking about it as a verb instead of as a noun.

3. The Arts: In his famous TED Talk, How Schools Kill Creativity, Ken Robinson reflects that every school system in the world is built on the same hierarchy of subjects: math and languages at the top, followed by science and social studies, and the arts at the bottom. He then discusses the hierarchy that exists within the arts themselves: music and visual art at the top, drama and dance at the bottom. As a dancer choreographer, and dance educator, it will not surprise anyone that I think this needs to change. One of the great strengths of Kindergarten is that we accept that students will demonstrate their understanding using all of the languages available to them: dance, drama, visual arts in all of their diversity, and music, just for starters. We accept that children will use all of their languages to speak to us: literacies versus literacy. We need to start doing that in every grade; the hierarchy of subjects needs a good hard shake.

4. Technology: I can’t claim to have this one figured out yet. Technology is revolutionizing the world and our work but in many classrooms it’s still an addendum, something to fill time, a carrot to increase compliance, or a behaviour management tool. It’s too often used for sedation; many children are mesmerized by screens and can be kept quiet for long periods of time if given something to watch or play on a screen; I’m sometimes guilty of that in my own parenting, I confess. Dean Shareski, during the keynote at another conference, advocated for students to be making media products (like videos and podcasts) in the same frequency as they’re producing writing now. I’ve started using Adobe Voice as a documentation tool and the students are also using it to capture their own learning and thinking. I’m also trying to de-privatize my practice by opening it up to the world beyond my school. These are baby steps… we need to do more.

5. Documentation: We assess through documentation in Kindergarten, preserving as much as possible the richness of a learning experience by photographing, taking video, audio recordings, and transcribing conversations. We keep the students’ voices in the mix; their thoughts matter as much as ours. We also have the great privilege of not having to assign letter or numerical grades at the end of an assessment period. We get to write essays about each child, which, while it may not be everybody’s idea of a good time, is so much more authentic than just a list of letters and numbers that erases the complexity and narrative of a child’s school experience. We need to learn to value the stories we tell about children. Assessment should be a dialogue, not a one way top-down street with a number at the end. I think if we want assessment to be about more than numbers, we need to stop assigning numbers. In the same way that we design lessons with the end in mind we need to think about education with the end in mind. If we want to change teaching and learning we need to change assessment.

6. Wait – just five, right?

It’s not enough but it’s a start. What are your five?

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