Monday, October 18, 2010

Our children transforming education in action

Last weekend I witnessed a wonderful process that I thought would be interesting to share with you for a lot of reasons. As I pointed out in previous posts there is a lot to learn from our kids. We, teachers have got so blinded in our old education system that it's hard for us to see and accept that there are things the we should be doing differently. We have done it the same way for decades. So why on earth would I want to change this. 'We survived, so our kids will too.' This is a typical quote I hear from teachers, almost day-by-day. However, I'm not goint to get into this, as this is all spelt out very clearly be Sir Ken Robinson here.
Instead, here's the lesson I saw the other day.

We had a 9-year guest kid, Máté, a boy over at our house. I have two daughters, almost 7 and 5.
The boy started to play with the two finger-boards he had brought along. This was the first time I saw such a thing, and it was new to my daughters too. He put on the table a wooden box- and he just played for fun, making all sorts of flips using his fingers. He even described what the terms were for each of these kick-flip and …. god knows what.
My daughters watched him with their mouth open, and after a few minutes they asked if they could try the same tricks with the fingerboards too. Máté gave them the two boards, built two 'tracks' for each of my daughters and off he let them try themselves out with the fingerboards.
Obvioulsy, this wasn't an easy thing to do, so after about 4-5 trials they gave it back to Máté and said: Would you show it to us, but as slowly as possible so that we can see how you are using your fingers to flip the finger-boards? Sure, Máté answered, but added that , 'well, I can't show you slowly, because it wouldn't work, but I can show you how I do it, and then we can watch a youtube video that shows this trick in slow motion. That is where I learnt it from too. Look, now watch my fingers: this is where I put my pointing finger and this is where I put my middle finger. Then you... ' So he continued explaining as he was showing the tricks.
Then he gave the two boards back to the girls who tried to do their best at it. Of course, it still didn't work, but this time they knew exaclty where to put their fingers. They tried on and on again. They did not look demotivated by their countinuous 'failure' to do it 'right'.
Then they asked for the youtube video, which I helped them find, showing what needed to be typed in, as they don't write in English yet ….. and you can imagine how this story continues.

The reason why I told you this story, is that this was the example of what good education is.
To translate this into teaching technical terms this is what happened.

  1. Interest raising: There was an example of a real life situation and need that raised the interest of the rest of the group.
  2. Test phase: the kids try themselves out in the thing they would like to learn. Their inner motivation is the driving force. This phase also serves to raise their self-awareness in terms of needs and identify points they need to improve on (in this case how to use their fingers)
  3. Model#1: children see a model of what they want pointing out their own needs. When the model was presented the children were focussed on the things they felt they needed to improve on.
  4. Focussed practice (in CELTA/DELTA terms this would be known as 'controlled practice' or 'restricted use' by Jim Scrivener's terms): Kids practice using their fingers as seen in the model.
  5. Model#2: children watched the same technique via another tool (a youtube video - here comes technology). This increased variety of sources, therefore became another motivating source to learn from. Kids had the opportunity to watch it as many times as they wanted to, until they felt comfortable with the skills they wanted to find out more about.
  6. Freer practice: the went on and tried again, using their fingers as shown in the slow-motion youtube video. Did it until they felt content with their performance at that particular stage of their learning.
Oh, these kids must have attended the DELTA or at least done a CELTA course, becuase they know exactly what the stages of the learning process are, plus they have excellent classroom managment skills, including knowledge of child-phychology: the effect of praise and positive reinforcement rather than pointing out negatives. Knowledge of when controlled practice was needed, basically all about teaching. WOW! How amazing!

Well, of course what they demonstrated in about 40 minutes is what a good lesson looks like, and they know all this, becuase they were born with this ability. Before we move on, however, here are some questions to reflect on:
  1. Was there a formal teacher present? No, I – Erika - only stepped in when they asked me to show them how to use technology and searching the English words they had already known: finger board, kick-flip. I only added 'slow motion'. My role was rather of a facilitator one.
  2. Who was the main source of knowledge? Máté, the child.
  3. Who was the main 'teacher'? Well, difficult question to answer, because the driving force was Máté and then the learning took place as a result of this. There was no teaching taking place in the traditional sense, where there's a teacher in front of the class explaining mathematical formulas and calculations, and sts listening, watching or staring, some out the window. The learning took place, because there was interest. (see Sugata Mitra's further demontsrations on this). So I would say there was no teacher present, if the roles attributed to a 'teacher' are the ones that are in practice in the public education world-wide.
  4. Was there a need for a teacher who pointed out what was wrong and what had to be improved? No. Kids observed themselves carefully and were fully – in line with their current aptitudes - aware of what they needed to improve on.
  5. Were kids demotivated by their mistakes/'failure'? No, because they did not perceive it as 'failure'. Instead it was 'something we need to find out and practise a lot'.
  6. Did the learning take place in a group or individually? In a group.
  7. Are they the same age? No. A group of 5 to 9 year-olds, in this case.
The answers to the questions above will help us further in our new – currently a dream, which will become true - educational transformation.
Kids can do this so naturally, so why don't WE, adults learn from them? It's high time we paid more attention to what kids can teach us before they go to school and all their innate knowledge, abilities and aptitudes are slowly or quickly, for that matter, anaesthetised and then killed.

Now if we took the staging model of a lesson from the kids, the one described above, it can be applied to anything. And the reason why I say anything, is that I do not believe we should separate teaching mathemetics from physics, from biology, etc, the list of subjects being taught today at any most public schools. In real life we do not use them separately, so why should we teach them separately?

Instead the starting point of education could be the answers to the following question. What are the skills and knowledge our kids need to acquire/know at every stage of their life in order to bring out the best from within themselves in the social and cultural environment where they live? Quite a loaded question, isn't it?
So, let me give you a personal example. We live in a small town, very close to the capital Budapest, Hungary. My kids started to express an interest in going down to the shop on their own, and I have heard several parents from their class saying the same things. So let's take this as a starting point of a lesson at the age of 5-7.

So, what do they need to know in order to be able to do this? Let's draw up a quick list of what these are and then apply the staging above to the 'go shopping on your own' lesson.
They need to be able to:
  • cross the street together as group to get to the shop;
  • for this they need to know the traffic signs that are used for this purpose, getting around;
  • help each other in order to cross the streets;
  • draw up a shopping list, depending on what they need;
  • find out how much things cost so that they can add up the total costs;
  • substract to find out how much change they will need to get;
  • identify where the different types of items are placed in a shop;
  • organise themselves into a group before they leave the shop;
  • cross the streets again to get back to their original place safely, etc.
As you have proably noticed there are things listed above that are only part of a maths lesson (adding, subtracting, identifying groups), only part of environment lessons (knowing the street signs). Unfortunately, there are also skills listed above that not only are they not taught at shcool, such as helping each other to do/achieve something, but they are penalised for it. Helping each other is still regarded as cheating at school. Now this, I find, mind-boggling.
All in all, in transforming education, the point where we should start it the question highlihgted above. Listing the skills and knowledge our kids need to know at every stage of their life in order to bring out the best from within themselves in the social and cultural environment where they live.
This also implies that every social and cultural environment should draw up their own local needs of the kids, involving the kids themsleves in the process as well.
Can you imagine a school, where kids can wander between rooms (not classrooms!), sit in where they would liket to: in one of the rooms they are learning how to make bread, in the other one, how to use up all the extra CO2 that causes all the trouble (Gunter Pauli's talk on TEDx Danubia, Budapest to find out), or in another room how to apply water-colours on different kinds of paper depending on what texture they like best?
I can.


  1. Thanks for this great example of peer to peer teaching, and the network that supports it.

  2. Thanks for your comment, Vahid.

    I've seen this happen so many times in my 'teaching' career, and I have become a great believer in the success of this type of education. Wish I had a school where I could test the implementation and the operation of such education.
    I will continue working toward this, as much as I can, though.

    Love you the fact that you have four mother-tounges and the great profile picture!

  3. Now here's a real danger in blog reading. I never heard of finger boards before, so of course I had to search. I got caught and spent way too much time watching YouTube videos. Facinating. Thanks for introducing me to this topic.

    Yes, it's an exciting example of peer teaching. It also raises the issue of motivation. Can you imagine this level of engagement with Algebra, this many teens posting their own videos on how to conjugate verbs or construct paragraphs? Does any young person have this much peer pressure to get interested in history? Will mastering chemistry win them this level of applause and approval from their friends?

    That sounds more discouraging than I mean it to be. I'm still looking to make connections between what learners "need to know how to do" and what they enjoy. So far it's been hit-and-miss. Perhaps with more experience I'll recognize the patterns.

  4. Sorry,Jim, for not being able to reply earlier, been caught up between work and sickness in the family.

    Thank you for your comment, you raised some very important questions here and for all I think the key is the type of motivation, the first impulse that makes you interested in things.

    So to answer your questions, I can imagine this level of engagement with algebra, IF the "initial impulse" students (adults or kids) is to solve a real life problem. And this is where the problem start for us, as teachers. Current coursebooks on these subjects do not give us, teachers ideas on this, what are some real life exmples we could present kids with to raise their interest in working out the problem. An additional difficulty in finding such real life situations is that these must be relevant to the age-group you are teaching. So teachers, are faced with a difficult problem: finding these real life situations on their own.

    Of course, in some cases, for example in teaching fractions this can be "easy". Say, you have 20 kids in your class and bring in 20 apples. Ask them how you would divide it so that is fair to all? Answer obvious. Then, you say, but it would be great to share this many apples with the fellow class, where there are another twenty kids, so how should we share it equally, so that it is fair....
    Next lesson you bring in only four apples to divide up, kids then would be able to solve it on their own.

    In all the steps above it is important to start from the real life situation: cutting up apples, to drawing and then dividing them up (visual representation) and then using numbers to represent the process.

    As a next big leap and challenge, when kids got the hang of what fractions are about, would be to come in with 5 apples for a class of 20. Get kids to discuss in groups what could be done to make sure we divide them equally. Get them to draw five apples and twenty stick people on a big piece of paper, and try to visualise the "fair solution". (They can obviously, use computers, whatever tools they think they can find solutions from. Here it is up to the teacher of how you can manage this process)
    And so on...

    As far as conjugation is concerned, I would not think this approach (starting from motivation)would work at all, because only linguists are genuinely intersted in conjugations.

    With constructing paragraphs, again, I can see this level of engagement if the starting point is from looking at content that students would want to communicate, for example through a blog/ning platform/closed virtual classroom, where only the class members have access, where everyone writes a paragraph about something they would like the others to know about themselves. So again, the starting point is something real, somthing of theri genuine interst. Then through a process of analyis, comparison of each other's ways of contructing paragraph, including with the model of the teacher, etc would be the "teaching point". In this process it is key for them to realise why it is important to construct good paragraphs, maybe using some check questions (Which writing is the easiest to follow? Find minimum two features of his/her writing that make it easier for you to follow. etc.).
    (I'll stop now, because it's getting too long :-)

    With chemistry, again, yes, I can imagine, but as I said earlier this can only achieved in education on a large scale if teachers are given more help with such real-life problems.

    So yes, at the moment all teachers have a hard time finding the right initial impluse that gives opportunities to learn from each other, for students to find their own ways of learning. That's why a big transformation is needed in how we view education. Why are we teaching what we are teaching? - is the question we have to answer for ourselves.


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