The educational choices available to children are changing rapidly. Apps, online courses, digital games, recordings and videos are all easily accessible. But, despite appearances, human evolution has not suddenly gone into overdrive and the main aim for us as teachers remains the same. We are helping children to make sense of the world and then to make their mark on it. There are 5 essential ways in which we can do that for every child, whatever their circumstances.
Paying attention to what we are doing is something that we have to re-learn. Very young children pay great attention to the smallest of things. Washing their hands takes forever as they want to focus on the soap, doing up shoelaces can become a half-hour activity, an interesting pebble on the road can make a quick trip to the shops a very long one. So, what happens is that we then start teaching children to hurry up. ‘Hurry up, come on, quickly, now – put on your coat NOW!’ are part of every parent’s repertoire. And we have to do it because we know what the children don’t – that the bus won’t wait for us, that school starts at a certain time, that people will be kept waiting if we don’t hurry up.
So, paying attention has to be re-learnt and we need to lead the way. We have to pay attention to the children, what they are saying and doing and then we have to resist the temptation to do too many things at once. And, most importantly, we have to give our children enough time. Time to let things sink in.
We have so many ways of describing skills now; soft, hard, thinking, critical, communication – the list goes on. In some ways these descriptors are useful as they make us more aware of the particular skills of a child but there is still often a gap between knowing how a child is skilled and how that can be useful to the child. Let’s take a classic example; one of the main qualities people often think of as connected to nursing is a skill for caring, for showing compassion, for being a good communicator. Yes, that is important, but the main skill one needs to be a nurse is dealing competently, practically and non-judgmentally with bodily fluids. So, yes, we absolutely need to make sure that we are educating our children to become skilful in various ways, but we also need to think about how those skills are transferable.
The way we can access information is one of the biggest changes of the past 40 years. Gone are the days of one version of an encyclopaedia or whatever your teacher knew; now we have online data, crowdsourced reports, scores of different formats – everything is a click and a swipe away. So how can we help with this? First, we have to get children interested enough in a topic to want to find things out for themselves. Then we have to guide them through what is true and what might not be. And then, our main job is showing them that they can add to the tree of knowledge. It’s always growing, and they can lengthen the branches, help fruit to grow and even dig up the roots and plant the tree somewhere else.
Thinking in a creative way, thinking ‘out of the box’ and seeing new possibilities can and must be nurtured in our children. We can use our imagination in traditionally creative ways such as writing or art work or music and drama but perhaps even more importantly we can use it in ‘unseen’ ways. We can unlearn banal responses and consider what we really think; in other words we can ‘think for ourselves’. Again, this is a skill which we need more than ever when we are surrounded by seemingly wise thoughts in social media memes. The nature of memes is that they look definite, as if they are true. They might be and they might not. We can decide when we use our critical and creative thinking skills.
We can use imagination to find solutions to problems and we can use it to make our own every day realities more interesting and life enhancing. Whatever we do, if we have a positive image of ourselves doing it, the task becomes more meaningful and rewarding. And in a practical sense in the classroom, we can bring language to life. Imagining and play acting the situations where the language we are learning might be called for; in a restaurant, at an airport, meeting new friends and so on.
Support comes in many forms. First concrete support; providing a desk and materials for children to do their homework. This is something which teachers need to be aware of; do the children have that at home? It’s not a question of finance – not everyone can afford a separate room and the space for a desk – but it is a question of realising that a dedicated, quiet space is needed. For example, a cleared kitchen table at certain times of the day. It’s worth bearing this in mind if parents say that their children never focus on their homework. Look at the practicalities before any attitude issues.
The most important form of support we can give is ‘being there’ for our children. Knowing that someone wants you to do well, is there for you through your mistakes and your successes and empathizes with both. Someone who ‘has your back’ when you need help and is glad for you when you do well; that gives our children a powerful sense of security. And we can flourish when we feel secure.
What do you consider essential in your classroom?