Thinking We Know More Than We Do

The April 10 episode of The Current on CBC radio included an interview with cognitive scientist Steve Sloman, the co-author of The Knowledge Illusion.  I had to stop what I was doing (washing dishes in my kitchen) and furiously scribble down snippets of what he said that really struck me.

Some of the fragments on my scrap of paper include:  “we use other people to think”, “in order to accomplish things, we work together”, “to do our best work, we have to rely on our communities”.  These thoughts stuck out to me – some of my best learning and teaching experiences have come about through collaboration, and I am so grateful when I find a colleague with whom I can “bounce ideas off”, until we come up with a big, beautiful plan.

I also see this kind of collaboration happening everyday in my kindergarten classroom.  During centres, the students constantly build from each other’s ideas, and they really do rely on their classroom community to do their best work.  It leads me to wonder why we don’t see – or encourage –  as much of this collaboration, this using “other people to think”, as students get older.

Another thing Sloman emphasized was that we need to admit our lack of knowledge and make use of the people around us.  Great leadership and followership should be looking to many people, not one person.  This also struck a chord – how often do I want to be the person who “knows”, and feel a pang of anxiety if I don’t and have to ask someone else for help?

Interestingly, this may be a widespread issue among teachers, this lack of ability to admit that we don’t know everything.  Years ago, when my brother was in the banking industry, he was receiving training in customer service.  The instructor commented that the most difficult customers were generally teachers.  The rationale was that teachers are used to being the smartest person in the room, as well as authority figures.  Teachers, the instructor continued, carry this attitude into other areas of life, and are  difficult to advise because they are less likely to accept the knowledge of people around them.

Sloman’s interview was a great reminder to me that it’s okay not to know everything, that I need to use the people around me for their knowledge, and that together we can do far better work than we can do individually.

Great leadership and followership should be looking to many people, not one person. by Terelyne Vadeboncoeur

Vimy 100

5:30 came and a great light lit the place, a light made up of innumerable flickering tongues, which appeared from the void and extended as far to the south as the eye could see, a light which rippled and lit the clouds in that moment of silence before the crash and thunder of the battle smote the senses. Then the Ridge in front was wreathed in flame as the shells burst, confining the Germans to their dugouts while our men advanced to the assault.

– Private Lewis Duncan to his aunt Sarah, April 17, 1917 (as found in Vimy by Pierre Burton)

Beginning yesterday, Canadians are commemorating the historic Canadian victory at Vimy Ridge.  Being able to take this patch of land – the best defended German position on the Western Front, where British and French armies had failed – was a huge accomplishment for the four divisions of the Canadian Corps.  In April 1917, it had been not quite 50 years since Confederation,  and Canadians have always seen this victory as a “coming of age” for our country.

And an expensive coming of age it was – 3 598 perished in four days of fighting, while another 7 000 were wounded.  With the Canadian population sitting at about eight million at the time, the losses in the battle were overwhelming.

Land still scarred from battle.

In a gesture of gratitude after the First World War, the French government gifted land that included Hill 145 to Canada.  The Canadian government, with architect Walter Allward, set about building a national memorial for the 11 285 Canadian soldiers lost in France who have no known grave.  This magnificent memorial has captured the imaginations of Canadians for almost a century, and many citizens consider seeing the Vimy memorial a “bucket list” item, or a pilgrimage experience.

How does Vimy fit into the classroom?  History and geography are obvious.  In the lead up to Remembrance Day in the fall, my students chose soldiers from Saskatchewan who were lost in the war, used primary sources to get to know them, and then wrote tributes about the men to share with our school community.  Our “Bring the Boys Home” project made men who’d been dead for 100 years very real for my group of 12 and 13 year old students.

We were also fortunate to be able borrow a “Giant Floor Map” from Canadian Geographic.  Being able to “walk” the Western Front, get an idea of the location of the well-known battle sites, and visualize the topography, contributed to a better understanding of the First World War.

Other than the obvious history and geography content, talk of Vimy is also a good jumping off point for conversations on topics that range from the meaning of sacrifice to the importance of relationships between people and countries.  My students and I have spent a lot of time thinking about how we behave in everyday life, and about the leaders we choose, and how those actions can make a difference so that a tragedy of the magnitude of a world war never happens again.

We will remember them.

We will remember them by keeping the peace they gave their lives for.

We will remember them when we work together for the greater good.

We will remember them when we treat others with respect and caring.

We will remember them.

The Power of Talk

I teach kindergarten half-time.  Working with the youngest students in the school is busy, especially during centres time.  Although they develop so much independence over the school year, there are often things they still need help with, whether it’s holding a craft while they tape or staple, solving a conflict with a peer, or helping to clean up a spill.  Then there’s the time that’s needed for various assessments, whether it’s writing observations, direct questioning and testing, or helping students add to their digital portfolios.  This is where my ideal centres world and my lived centres world don’t always match.

But one day last week, my ideal centres world got to come out for a few minutes.  I had time to sit on the floor with four students and build with Kinex.  The time to talk with them about their learning was valuable – I got to hear their thinking about the building process and do a mini-lesson with counting, as well as have them clarify some of their statements.  But equally valuable was the social talking we did – about grandparents, an upcoming trip to Hawaii, and Easter.

Task-driven talk drives much of my time in the classroom.  It’s important to make as much time as possible for social talk that builds and extends relationships with my students.

Would He Want to Be Here?

I’m going back to a prompt from a couple of weeks ago . . .

Would I want to be a student in my own classroom?

I’m doubtful this is the right question to ask.  Of course I’d want to be a student in my own classroom . . . I plan learning activities and have discussions around topics that I’m interested in and passionate about.  I’m totally engaged and learning, and so are all the students who are similar in learning styles and interests to me.

My yardstick for my classroom is usually my son, and whether he’d want to be in my classroom.  He’s 15, and school has never been his favourite place.  He’s also not one of those kids who will sit quietly and endure something he’s not enjoying, which means that there’s also been quite a bit of conflict in his school life. And when we talk about it and he tells me why he feels frustrated and unfulfilled at school, I know he has a point.  The one-size-fits-all, sit-down-and-shut-up,  do-what-I-tell-you model that so many classrooms follow doesn’t work for kids like him, if it works for anyone at all.

My son would thrive in a classroom where he had some choice – a choice of where he sits, what he learns, the way in which he completes assignments, the order in which he completes activities.  He’d also be successful with a teacher who he feels cares about him. Because he’s so often “that kid”, there haven’t been many teachers in his life who have made the effort to get to know him – his interests or his fears.  Those who have developed a relationship with him have seen him blossom.

And that’s my question, always –  “Would he want to be here?”  If I can reply that I’m working on relationships with my students, that I’m giving them choice,  that I’m helping them follow their passions, I think I’m doing okay.  And from okay, I can work towards great.

There are few things as enlightening, and humbling,  for a teacher than having your own child struggle in the school system.  My son has been a great catalyst for me to become more innovative so I can better meet the needs of students like him.  I am so thankful to him for making me a better teacher.