It’s all in how you look at it

© Norah Colvin

© Norah Colvin

Is the jar half full or half empty?

Many years ago I was employed to be an “agent of change” in a school. My job title was Resource/Remedial Teacher and my role was two-fold: to fix up the children who were “failing”, in reading especially, and to “teach” the teachers more effective strategies for teaching and learning. To say it was a difficult role is an understatement. Think of the old lightbulb jokes.

psychologist lightbulb

It is just as difficult for change agents.

But the job wasn’t without some rewards.

© Norah Colvin

© Norah Colvin

Easy fix

Teachers considered that one brief session each week in a small group of other children would not only be sufficient to “fix” a child’s learning difficulty, it would also fulfil any requirement to provide differentiated instruction for the learners in their classrooms. “He goes to remedial,” both explained the child’s lack of progress and released the teacher from the obligation to make any other concessions or attempts to support the child.

Improve teaching

It soon became obvious that the attitudes of teachers fitted into two opposing “camps”, with a smattering of differences along a continuum stretched between. There were those who focused on the children, what they knew, what they needed to know and how to help them learn. These teachers were creative and innovative in their approaches, trying out new ideas and constantly on the lookout for ways to engage, motivate and inspire children.

There were those who were focussed on what was to be taught, on their lesson plans, assessment and results. They expected the children to attend, respond and learn because that was what was expected of them. If the students failed to learn what was taught, the teachers questioned neither their methods nor the content for its suitability to student needs. Rather they found the fault to be with the students who were lacking in some way. Their view was of students as empty vessels to be filled, and if they did not fill from what they were offered, then it was the vessel, not the method of filling that was faulty.

© Norah Colvin

© Norah Colvin

So many times the teachers would complain that they had “taught” the work but the students hadn’t learned it.

In “my world”, if there was no learning there had been no teaching; and I found this attitude difficult to comprehend or accept. Nonetheless I tried to be understanding, patient and supportive, listening to and restating their complaints to ensure them I had understood. I would then make gentle suggestions like “Have you tried?” “Have you thought about?” Rarely was I successful in getting them to reflect upon, interrogate or make adjustments to their practices. I guess if they saw no fault with their practices, why should they change?

A current focus in assessment driven school programs is what the students can and can’t do, with the main focus on the “can’t”. I much prefer changing perspective to the “not yet” thinking and growth mindset of Carol Dweck.

success

 

This week at the Carrot Ranch Charli Mills is talking about perspective. She challenges writers to In 99 words (no more, no less) write a story that has a shift in perspective. It is right up my alley. Thanks Charli!

Inside

They slumped around the table, eyes transfixed on hands clasping coffee cups, bemoaning their lot, each desperate to outdo the other in frustration and despair.

“They just don’t get it.”

“I’ve tried everything.”

“They don’t listen —”

“They’re so rude —“

“In my day we wouldn’t dream —“

Outside

They welcomed the kiss of sun upon their cheeks, the freshness of air to their lungs; and breathed as one in wonder.

They found cloud-painted sky pictures, brightly coloured beetles in green grass stalks, claw-made scratches in the rough tree bark; and brimmed with wonder.

and dared to dream …

Thank you

Thank you for reading. I appreciate your feedback. Please share your thoughts about any aspect of this post or flash fiction.

29 thoughts on “It’s all in how you look at it

  1. Bec

    Hi Nor, a great discussion and a great FF. It is always frustrating to hear about people who refuse to be self-reflective, but I am sure that although you discuss the challenges of that role you managed to enact some lasting change. The FF makes me want to be outside..!

    Liked by 1 person

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  2. lucciagray

    Thought provocking post, Norah.
    I loved the ‘not yet’ assessment in the Ted talk.
    Some Spanish school reports say things like ‘in progress’ for skills/knowledge.
    When I correct students in class I say ‘try again’ or ‘are you sure?’ instead of a negative response. I also and try to praise / point out strong points instead of weak ones.
    The thing is you need to tell them somehow when something’s wrong. If they say ‘he like not’ I have to find a way for them to think about what they’ve said and correct it. It’s a challenge.
    i agree some (many?) teachers want students to ‘regurgitate’ perfect answers and get annoyed when they don’t.
    Then of course there’s all the learning styles, strategies and learner differences etc. theories that teachers should be aware of (and often dismiss), but that’s another (related) story…
    When I started teaching in the 1980s, there were two fabulous books called: How children learn and How children Fail by John Holt. They’re invaluable and really opened my eyes. It’s sad to see that in many schools no one seems to care about those ‘modern’ learning theories. Teachers seem much more concerned about digital textbooks and whiteboards than children learning.
    Sorry about the rant, but I’ve been teaching and involved in teacher training for the last 30 years and I don’t feel optimistic.
    http://www.amazon.co.uk/How-Children-Fail-John-Holt/dp/0140135561/ref=sr_1_3?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1438188616&sr=1-3

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    1. Norah Post author

      Thank you very much for your comment Lucia. You have added a great deal to the conversation. I am pleased to hear you recommend two books that I read in the 70s and that greatly influenced my thinking about learning and education. There is much wisdom in those books by John Holt. When I found those two, and others e.g. by Illich and Friere and Neill, i felt like I had found where I belonged. Of course, Dewey was the father of it all (in “modern” times anyway.
      I haven’t lost my optimism, but I have inherited some fears. It is very true that the emphasis also seems to be on things other than the learners, which is where it should be firmly focussed. I really appreciate your sharing. 🙂

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      1. lucciagray

        It’s wonderful that you’re still optimistic. I’m afraid I’m having a teacher – crisis 😢 Too many words, paperwork, and things, as you say, and not enough on learners. I did my thesis on learning strategies. They really empower learners. But it seems education authorities and students just want to be ‘fed” = pass exams and get positive results. Fortunately, there are always some students who make your efforts worthwhile. Sorry if I sound like a grumpy teacher, i’m not! I try not to let these feelings spoil my daiy teaching practice. I teach adults now. I love reading about and listening to positive people like you 🙂 It makes me feel there’s still a chance things might improve.

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        1. Norah Post author

          It is sad that, in this test-driven climate we are now in, the students themselves are focused on the numbers as that is what they have been told is important. I was talking to a teacher the other day who asked some students if they enjoyed the hands-on group work in science. The students said they didn’t. They just wanted the teacher to “teach” them what they needed to know for the test. It is a very sad state of affairs. I can only hope the pendulum has swung as far as it can this way, and soon starts rolling back the other way. It would be great if it could just find the balance and stop there. 🙂 If I ever need another dose of educational optimism I have a listen to one of Ken Robinson’s TED talks, especially the one about schools killing creativity! It is more optimistic than that makes it sound! We all need to keep reinforcing our messages about education, stand united! Thanks for sharing your experiences. 🙂

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          1. lucciagray

            Yes. Me too. I love Ken Robinson’s talk. You’re right, everyone just seems to want qualifications 😦 I try hard to stay optimistic. Sometimes I manage. I love the optimism you transmit. 💖💗

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  3. Sarah Brentyn

    Ah, yes. “Change”. I have been on both sides of this. It’s brutal either way. Sometimes, I was told what I had to do and the speaker (or hired “pro”) was brilliant. Other times, he or she was unwilling to hear what teachers were saying. I don’t fully agree with this: “In ‘my world’, if there was no learning there had been no teaching.” That’s definitely true in some cases but in others, there was no learning because of other reasons. It was damn near impossible to teach certain kids and was heartbreaking. I often thought about ways I could try, reflected on what I was doing, and sometimes it really just didn’t help.

    But, I’ve been on the other side, too, where there were eager teachers but also ones who were telling me with their body language (or *ahem* other language) that whatever I was going to tell them would make no impact on them whatsoever and they did not want to be there. O_o

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    1. Norah Post author

      Thanks for sharing, Sarah. It’s great to hear your thoughts and perspectives from both sides of the ‘change’ equation. I will have to fossick back through your posts to find where you have talked about teaching. Although you have perhaps hinted in some posts I have read, I don’t think I “knew” you were a teacher.
      I take your point about the ‘other reasons’ that students may not learn, regardless of the effort expended by a teacher. For those students who learned, maybe “you” did teach them. Maybe they would have learned anyway. But if you think of yourself as a learner, you are never going to acknowledge that a teacher “taught” you something you never learned. For example, the teacher may have taught quadratic equations to the class. Some students may have “got it” without the explanations, some may have needed extra guidance, and maybe some, including “you”, never got it at all. I don’t think you would then say that teacher x taught you quadratic equations, maybe tried to teach or taught the class, but never taught “you”. Just a thought. I guess I have always been more on the “side” of the learner rather than the teacher (for a primitive way of looking at it) and that influences greatly the way I think about teaching and learning.
      Thank you for picking me up on this point. I enjoy our exchange of ideas for the challenge it provides and the opportunity to interrogate, clarify or adjust my thoughts: always great opportunities for learning. 🙂

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      1. Sarah Brentyn

        Interesting. Maybe you are teaching when it feels like you’re not. I’ve had opportunities outside of traditional classrooms to teach (workshops and such) as well and I know I’ve “helped” or “gotten through” to some kids though maybe not in the way I intended–they didn’t learn what I was teaching but did learn something else. ?

        I am a learner, too. I love learning. But I’m not sure I bring that into any classrooms. I’m in teacher mode. Or maybe I do? I don’t think I have any posts about teaching. And, now that I think about it, I’ve got it hidden down the bottom of my bio: https://sarahbrentyn.wordpress.com/about-me/ O_o But, when you have kids, you are always teaching. 😉

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        1. Norah Post author

          Thanks Sarah. I love hearing your thoughts. Obviously I had read that information about your teaching before but hadn’t really brought it to conscious level as you don’t talk about it much. In a recent comment you mentioned looking at live butterfly kits for the next school term. Are you teaching again now? Did you teach writing at university level, and were you a generalist or a specialist when teaching years 6 – 8?
          Whenever I am working with children in the classroom, I consider myself as much as a learner as I do them. I am constantly learning about their abilities, progress and needs, as well as their lovely personalities and interests. Those things I learn are important to my teaching. Perhaps there is a difference in the focus between early childhood teaching and university teaching. I think of my early childhood classroom as child-driven though I have the knowledge of where they are going and how to help them get there, they can’t just drive around in circles or on erratic paths. University students perhaps need to learn the content of the courses they enrol in. It is good to have these discussions. By “making” me think about them, you help me learn. Reflection was always a big part of my teaching process, and as an introvert, is a huge part of my life. Thank you for sharing your thoughts and opinions. 🙂

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          1. Sarah Brentyn

            😀 “generalist or a specialist” sounds odd to me here. I think I was a specialist then. ? You mean I taught only one subject? Yes. It’s called “Language Arts” here but is just “English” elsewhere. I’m always teaching (because I’m a parent) and I’m always learning from them, too. I’m not teaching outside the home right now. I’ve been thinking about teaching continuing ed. at local universities, though. Or even after school writing workshops at a jr. high or high school level. I would love that.
            I’ve never taught at an early childhood level (except summer school programs) and I don’t think I could do that for an entire school year. Yes, at the university level, they need to learn what I teach them. Period. Or else they fail and have to retake the course. If they don’t “get” 101, they can’t move on to 102. They just can’t do the work in 102 if they haven’t grasped the concepts in 101. It’s not doing them any favors by passing them if they don’t understand the work (or won’t do it). It’s so different from early ed. or even 6-8.

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            1. Norah Post author

              Thanks Sarah. Oh you are clever! (Oops, I’ve been listening to Carol Dweck – not meant to praise that way!) A language arts specialist. I specialised in literacy education. But I’m not sure they would be equal. I would love to share my love of literacy and literacy education with pre-service teachers, but I’d rather be sharing it with young children. You probably found the same with your sons. The delight in stories, books and reading has a quality similar to magic.
              I’m not a pour-in person so probably wouldn’t survive the university environment. But teaching and learning we always are – and what fun it is!

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  4. Pingback: Shifting Perspectives « Carrot Ranch Communications

  5. Charli Mills

    There are many words I’m fond of, but I really like the power of “yet.” Such a simple word to change a perspective. I can see you in the role of change agent because what you describe is what a good teacher does. You also use your creativity to build a learning moment around the prompt and your response. The structure of your flash works so well — those are phrases we can relate to, having heard them muttered often. Then you take us outside. Ah, wonderful!

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    1. Norah Post author

      Thank you, Charli. I’m pleased you enjoyed it. And I do love your prompts for the way they make me stretch, think out of the box, and make new connections. Sometimes the idea comes straight away. Other times I have to mull over it for a while. To think that I have missed only a couple in the almost seventeen months you have been writing your prompts indicates how highly I value the opportunity to learn this way, through writing. You are unfailingly encouraging and supportive. That is what has kept me in, plugging away. What an excellent teacher. Thank you. 🙂

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  6. TanGental

    Oh boy do I understand this; in a profession where knowledge appears to be king so many practitioners believe they have the answer. It was a weakness to show you don’t know. Absurd. To find people willing to admit error, improvement, alternative ways of working: they were the ones I wanted to work with. Nice balanced flash, too.

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    1. Norah Post author

      Thanks Geoff. I appreciate your comment. Thanks for sharing your thoughts.
      “Knowledge is King”. There are those who think they have to share it, constantly, and those who hold it tight, locked away, as if they are the gatekeepers and only a select few can enter. Blah! I’d rather work with you any day! Knowledgeable chap that you are! 🙂

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  7. Annecdotist

    Love how your flash shows those two different sides. Your post reminds me of working with psychiatric nurses: some were wonderful flexible thinkers who were always trying to find a new angle on a problem, others were … not! It’s a difficult position trying to motivate people who don’t want to change. But I think there’s something odd about that title of “change agent” (in all its manifestations) that perhaps separates it too much from ordinary interactions. I don’t know. Fortunately not something I needed to think so much about these days!

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    1. Norah Post author

      Perhaps the ways we are change agents now (through our blogs and other writing) are more subtle, and those who take the opportunity for change through our words do so through their own choice, not by being in a position where it is expected of them. We never know the effects of our words and actions upon others, I can only hope the effects of mine are positive rather than negative.
      It is a pity that those who belong to the “not” camp are often the ones wielding the power.
      Thanks for your supportive comment.

      Like

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  8. Celine Jeanjean

    It must be so difficult having to try and change a teacher’s mindset or approach. I love the idea of focusing on ‘not yet’ and on growth rather than on what a child can or can’t do. Education is so important, and so very complex, I really admire all those who teach and try to have an influence on students.

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    1. Norah Post author

      Thanks for your comment, Celine. “Not yet” is a fabulous way of looking at learning, all learning, isn’t it? It certainly helps me accept what I don’t yet know. 🙂

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