What if…?

What happens when we begin with a belief that children are competent and curious and creative? What if we believe they have the capacity to drive her own learning?

I’m a granny. Observing my grandchildren wonder, play and experiment with theories validates and reinforces my beliefs about children and about learning. For almost 10 years, I have also been another kind of granny, engaging virtually with children in disadvantaged settings in India, witnessing the capability of children in another context.

What might be learnt from the experience of being a granny… both kinds? I’ve learnt that if you believe they are capable, children will surprise you with what they can do and and how they can learn. Overcoming our inclination to jump in and take control often leads to extraordinary learning.

Teaching does not mean opening heads and pouring stuff in. It’s important to know when to step away and allow the learning to happen. Real, deep learning usually has little to do with covering curriculum or competitive grading. Indeed, ‘doing school’ can sometimes get in the way of learning.

That’s why, in 2015, when attending Learning 2, a conference by educators for educators, we chose the ‘Disrupt strand’.  We were invited to ask the question ‘what if?’ in the pursuit of ideas that might disrupt traditional models of school.

‘What if school were more like the conference?’ we asked ourselves… and the entire audience educators to whom we had to pitch our idea.

What if our learners had more voice and choice in their learning? What if they could opt to participate in workshops that piqued their curiosity or responded to their needs? What if they could present their own workshops? What if there were more opportunities for learners to collaborate, to create and to drive their own learning? Just like the conference.

Our pitch didn’t win, but we came back inspired and determined to set our action plan in motion…

What if we offered all our teachers the sort of conference we had just experienced? This was the seed which grew into the first Unleashing Learning, a conference by teachers for teachers. What if we created a conference (mostly) by students for students, with talks and workshops presented both by outsiders and by our Year 6 students?

What if we set ourselves a whole primary school goal of increasing ownership of learning? That year, we made this our focus. As a school, individually, in teams and groups, we have since continued to explore, research, adapt and tweak our practice to shift further from old models of ‘doing school’, towards more authentic, student driven learning.

This does not mean that we abdicate our responsibility as teachers, simply step back and let go, hoping that students will find will their own way! Although we might do that sometimes…

Everything we do is intentional. We start with the child, we try to listen to the learning and respond accordingly, rather than simply delivering pre-planned content. We experiment with ways of planning, documenting and responding to learning. We revisit and reassess what we mean and what we might mean by inquiry learning. We constantly re-examine our curriculum and reconsider how to align our beliefs with our practice. We agonise over the tension between what we believe and the demands of the system.

Our second Unleashing Learning conference was a celebration of all the ways in which learning has already been unleashed in our school, for both teachers and students. It was also a call to action. If we truly believe our learners have the capacity to drive their own learning, what are the possibilities?

What if we persistently question the status quo? What if we perpetually seek further ways to unleash learning? What if we never cease to ask ‘What if?’…

(From my talk at Unleashing Learning #2)

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