“I need you to take some time and think before you start writing your answer.”
“Have you thought about that?”
“Did you think about your arguments before writing them down? It is important to really think about what you read and plan your answers before you start writing.”
If I tallied the number of times I have said something like this over the past 25 years, it would be in the thousands.
What inevitably followed was the rundown in my brain as to what I didn’t do to get them there. We talked, we shared, we sat in pairs, we used stickies, chart paper, we peer assessed, self assessed and used success criteria damn it. I have a framework for that type of writing and they are used it. We are stuck in level two. I have the same discussion with educators almost on a daily basis. They ask, “What am I not doing?” The answer comes from within the question… “I”. I was not only doing all of the talking, I was doing all of the thinking.
A couple of years ago, a colleague I have known for 34 years presented an Indigenous learning model to a team of educators we were working with. I nodded appropriately and loved the simple beauty of it. I then watched the rest of our team bring it to life. Over the course of the learning, we did not race around the model to get to the ‘doing,’ we were held firmly in ‘the feeling’.
As educators, we want to get to ‘the doing’. We somehow convince ourselves it is about the curriculum, time, and how little time we have. “I use great strategies and provide engaging opportunities but they still aren’t getting it. I just don’t think we can get there.”
I took the learning model to a school and to a class of students in grade 9’s who have been struggling to say the least. I love hard and they make me work for it. When I ask to borrow a class to try to figure things out, there are many gracious educators who afford me this opportunity. I disrupt their plans and come in as a guest. The students are curious and wary, and I have 73 minutes to figure them out as I ultimately try to figure it out myself. I also have to build a space that is safe to risk in, in mere minutes. It happens between them. I could never build it with them in one class because I am not their teacher.
I invite them into the learning and the thinking, and I explain right off the top that I am not looking for a right answer. I am looking for their thinking. I ask them not to raise their hands (I believe when your hand is raised you stop listening and simply wait to share) when they wish to speak but rather to respond to a classmate when they want to build on the thinking. If it gets to a place where we are talking over each other, then I will manage it but imagine a class that wants to build on thinking so deeply that they are talking over each other – awesome problem.
They are tentative at first. They wait for me to tell them what I think. I actually believe they are waiting for me to tell them what to think. It is very quiet for a few minutes. I love this part. I used to feel nauseous. If the clock is an older model you can hear the ticking. It is the sound of changing conditions. I laugh when they apologize for raising their hands. They have a blank piece of legal paper and sharpie to hold their thinking, make connections and jot something down they may want for later. I am capturing their thinking in a giant sketch note on the whiteboard at the front. I have four pictures for them to think about and one question. The class is large and, have been known to be very intolerant of each other, therefore class discussions have devolved very quickly. I am on high alert for about 15 minutes and then, together, we just let go. They are unstoppable. I learn their names quickly as I can while I toss the thinking back to students who have shared their thinking that someone else has built on, “Has this added to your thinking?”. I specifically ask students if their thinking has changed, “Did this change your mind?”. When they get stuck I wait. When they meet the learning head on, I ask a question to move it a little farther. I cannot sketch fast enough. They get the hang of this knowledge building thing very quickly.
I spend the class moving around the room, leaning in and running back to the front to capture the thinking. I never physically sit down. I am beside them. They watch me at first but at some point during the thinking they focus their attention on each other. There are moments when deep thinking comes from an unlikely source and there is a long pause. They did not know that could happen. They begin to see each other differently and they begin to use each other’s names even though they sometimes have to ask what it is, “When Tom said that, I thought about this and now I don’t know.”.
We spend 50 minutes together thinking about the question and the 4 pictures. They are very satisfied with their thinking. I make sure.”are you satisfied with your thinking, do you want to think about it differently before you write your response to the question?” They are pooped.
They write the open response together. They clearly have a so what and specific details to support it. The magic happens in the way they want to explain it. They hold each other accountable,”No. that contradicts our ‘so what’, wait, I think if we explain it this way it makes more sense with that detail.” and “I think we are confusing our thinking and the reader isn’t going to really understand how important that detail is.”.
There is a moment, as an educator, that you want to faint, yell and dance all at once. They handed me this with such grace. It was a “they blew me away.” It happened because I got out of their way. I lingered because their thinking mattered so much more than mine. I didn’t frame their thinking, change their thinking to what I thought they should be thinking about, nor did I once say, “Have you thought about this?”.
I wanted to. I kept looking at the clock.
Lingering over coffee is a simple joy, lingering during learning is agony but can change you as an educator. The pressures are still there but you know the money is in time spent.
They were changed for having been in that room with each other and their thinking. They wrote a gold standard open response and can now build success criteria for critical thinking before they write a response and success criteria for an open response. They have felt what it feels like to think deeply with their peers and for themselves. They were invested and it came from them for 75 minutes (we went over by two minutes).
I set the conditions for thinking and listening. There are no rules. I just listened, handed it back and wrote it down so they could all see it and build on it. It was theirs. We spent a few minutes in visioning (the whale’s share in feeling), a couple of minutes in the connection to the question or understanding, and the rest in the doing or writing the answer. I did nothing but type, delete, type and delete as they created their class answer. I did smile now and then during this part as they self- and peer-assessed on the fly based on the thinking they had done.
The Indigenous model is about learning together, the sit beside is not just a literal plop down but a shift so massive, that it’s a beast in itself. The Indigenous learning model gives me the permission of time and continues to remind me to get out of their way and leave them in the feeling for as long as possible.
A: “The Feeling” is when you invest yourself and your learners in the work. How do we get to the feeling – a place where we have an authentic need to find out more?
K: My motivation comes from not knowing. I am unsure when I actually understood that was the most crucial part of who I am as an educator. It’s a deep down, don’t know and need to figure it out. I believe students sense that. Not at first, but in a very short amount of time they understand I have nothing to tell them. It actually sounds uninvested when I say it like that. The feeling comes from dying to know what they are thinking.
A: Maybe it’s because we see thinking differently than knowing. Thinking as a process and as a perspective. Knowing is black and white.
K: Craving perspectives is a very strong feeling. I cannot imagine not bumping what I think up against someone else. It’s what we do to move ourselves and each other. “Knowledge is power” has been a thing for a really long time. I actually think knowing makes you the least powerful person in the room. When a classroom of students moves from blurting out a right answer to a question with one answer, to building knowledge and perspectives, it changes from knowing to learning.
A: There is a discomfort about it. One that I also enjoy because, you are right, an emotional state – you know that you are learning. It’s in the feels. How do we disrupt the one right answer default program?
K: The achievement chart places thinking in it’s own box…like it’s a separate thing. A teacher and I just talked about this on Friday. What if it was in every box? Would it change perception and eventually practice? Students need to think and bring themselves to the learning. If you give it all to them they haven’t built knowledge, they merely know what you know.
A: When we stay in the feeling, we can assess thinking. Even though there are no right answers we can look closely at the process. It’s challenging though. I tried sharpies on Friday. Write your thinking permanently because it’s messy. It will change and that’s ok. One child was in tears. Another got out her scissors to cut off the mistake. I asked them to own it – write their thinking for themselves so they could hold on to it in time to share it with others. There was fear in the room. They are only 8.
K: Were they scared to share their thinking because there was not an actual right answer to a specific question or was it that they had to trust they could actually think for themselves?
A: Yes, both.
K: I wonder if it’s learning in a group – everyone sees the perceived mistakes or change in thinking and then they might think I am wrong? Not building knowledge but looking dumb. Not knowing…they love a worksheet with their own blank black line – comfortable.
A: Imagine if that was your job. Fill in a blank black line. Ugh.
K: I can’t think of anything harder than that. At what point do we figure out that Google made can make that go away. I can read alone, study alone and build some perspective alone – I build knowledge when I get in a magical space with somebody else who has done the same and we throw it all down and mix it around. What kind of learning is the black line?
A: I can’t find myself on the line. My learning should be my learning.
K: This begs the question – what does this have to do with the curriculum and what I have to teach you for 198 days, ten months a year for 14 years?
A: The curriculum is not an instruction manual. It’s a banquet of perspectives and understandings to think about. We have the human condition to think about. We have questions of right and wrong and decisions to make. There are no right answers in the curriculum – just theories to be built upon depending on the current events and who is in the room.
K: We would have to value the perspectives in the room more than our own and be willing to listen deeply to them…we would have to be pretty damn open to building knowledge and not knowing We would have to learn right along with them for it to be authentic and believable.
A: I learned that day we talked about the Water Walkers. In fact, I was changed forever. Our colleague told us about the wound on her knee that festered and wouldn’t heal until she sealed it off from the tap water on the reserve where she lived.
K: I remember it clearly. I am not sure any article on water on Canadian reserves could have changed us more than her words. Her perspective stopped the whole room and we had to take time to think about the implications of her words and what we were comfortable knowing. We were uncomfortable and it made us think very deeply about the calls to action and about the basic human need for water. I learned.
A: We’ve talked about this before: making meaning, shaping the truth together, and changing what you believe. We can move toward what we don’t know. Move toward the tensions and the things we are bumping up against.
K: We don’t because we don’t like what it feels like – yet. When we do, the harder it is to make meaning and build knowledge the more exciting it feels.
A: I’m going back to what you said about what you said about the 8 year olds. They didn’t want to look bad.
K: Learning how to think out loud and in colour is something they have to see. They have to watch someone be uncertain, seek out perspectives and change their mind a lot. If they only see us value the right answer then why would they want to risk a sharpie – they want a pencil and an eraser. I wonder how we make them feel worse about one and done. Sigh.
A: Maybe you can only put your thinking out there for others to see if you are accustomed to reflecting on it. There are hidden parts of ourselves. Like the Mirror of Erised.
K: My thinking is very personal and it’s mine. How do I know it’s safe, valued or quite frankly going to get me level 4 when I share it?
A: You’d have to know that your thinking is just that – your thinking. It is and will always be different from the perspectives of others. You are right. It is a risk that everyone in the room has to take. It’s the only way to find out what more there is to an idea. Level 4 is when you find out about all of the complexities, you rethink, and then you change your mind.
K: We are going to have to think about the meanings of the words different and wrong. Are we are simply listening for what we are asking for? I am going to hold onto the child and the scissors and wanting to cut off their thinking because they thought it was a mistake.
A: You are talking about authority.
K: We gravitate to it. “Tell me I am right.”
A: Think about my dear Allan Luke. It’s all up for grabs. All of it! Truth is hard to find these days.
K: He reminds us that what is true changes so quickly that we better be able to think about it critically and not just accept it. I need permission to find my own truth. Allan Luke expects me to have skills to critically think about it and change my mind and crave the feeling of not knowing but wanting to figure it out.
A: Yes and not on your own. The reason for the fake news and echo chambers is the same reason for holding a stance of ‘not knowing’ and having a clear mind. We are learning in social networks. We are already in the longhouse.