Teaching in primary schools can be reaaaaaally challenging...to put it politely!
The mental gymnastics of juggling class schedules, playground politics, classroom dynamics, reward and sanction policies, and marking (oh, the marking!)... It had me laid up on the couch, wine-in-hand, contemplating my career choices.
But maybe there’s a way to share the cognitive load with children as a means of providing a deeper, richer learning experience…
You have probably already heard of Design Thinking. It’s an increasingly popular process, originally practiced in the creative industries, but is now making its way into other disciplines as an innovative and collaborative approach to solving complex problems (you can read more here).
It might sound interesting, but where does it fit into primary schools? Well before I expand any further, let’s return to my brief foray in the primary school classroom…
Okay. Imagine being a supply teacher sent to a primary school and handed over a class of 28 five year-old kids and 1 teacher aide...except you’ve only worked as a high-school art teacher. Needless to say, I was definitely out of my comfort zone. This wasn’t the room of brooding, snarly teenagers that I was used to, but a wild tribe of explorers at the edge of the universe, jumping out of their skin at the novelty of having a different teacher for a day.
One school day felt like 20 hours instead of 7. The volume of task-sheets, marking, and consumption of resources was extraordinary. As each hour was divided into different subjects (I’m sure that 1 adult hour = 3 child hours), these seemingly arbitrary boundaries crept up on the children (despite fair warning), abruptly swapping their oil pastels for pencils and a task sheet on subtraction. As you can imagine, their disappointment was showcased with an emotional display of pouting lips, red faces, rigid arms and a few tears.
After a few more days holding down the fort, I was awestruck by the incredible amount of energy, time and preparation that goes into creating the primary-school classroom ecosystem...and also how one unsuspecting supply teacher can throw that delicate ecosystem into total chaos. (Not quite Lord of the Flies, but you get the idea...). What also struck me was, while the kids were learning and fulfilling their daily targets in neat chunks, I was engaged in several complex cognitive processes.
Which leads us back to Design Thinking.
Without realising, many primary school teachers are already using design thinking. In a day where almost anything can happen, the primary school teacher is always ready to empathise, improvise, experiment, prototype and iterate new ideas and strategies. But aside from engaging with teacher aides, most of these cognitive processes are fulfilled by the teacher and then delivered to and received by the children in a compartmentalised and easily digestible fashion.
So what if some of this cognitive load was shared with the children? As Dr. Zachary Stein writes:
"The all too common idea that learning is something that requires professional guidance and state-sanctioned materials is profoundly misguided. Every child learns to walk, speak, eat and to do any number of other things through educational interactions that are unforced, easy, involve no expertise or commodities, and are often quite joyful. Your mind does not need to be coerced to learn - learning is a natural state. Schooling, on the other hand, is quite unnatural, and that is why all known public school systems have required some forms of coercion."
Children (and all humans) are, quite simply, built to learn. It the most profoundly human activity that we do, as much as breathing or eating. As adults, it is undeniable that we observe children doing it naturally, seizing upon learning opportunities with agency, without adult intervention and especially without a schooling framework. Given any opportunity, children naturally become the drivers of their own learning, automatically engaging in activities that are tailored to their interests, their abilities and with the right amount of challenge to keep them engaged, whilst keeping the joy of learning alive.
So rather than waiting until high school or even after school, why don’t we engage children in this mindset as early as possible? Imagine if, when children enter the schooling system, they are presented with a problem that they need to solve: How will we learn these sets of skills? How will we measure it? And thus, embark on the journey of discovery, development, prototyping and delivery, with children working together in the co-creation of their own education, whilst also carving out their own path of inquiry that fulfills their interests and needs. As children become agents in their own learning, teachers move into the role of facilitator and experienced guide. Rather than teachers delivering knowledge, children become the discoverers of knowledge. Rather than measuring knowledge acquisition, children reflect on their contributions, attitude and resilience, as a designer and co-creator.
To the tired, over-worked, over-stimulated primary-school teacher, this idea might seem utopian and unrealistic. But it is crucial to remember that you are already designers! Design-thinking processes are something we often already do, especially as teachers. So why not share this adaptive system with our children. As we face towards an uncertain, more complex, unfamiliar and rapidly evolving world, children today are situated in a crucial historic moment. Let’s use the educational spaces we have to transform education and give our children the skills they need to face the unprecedented challenges of the future.
Written by Helen, former-arts-teacher-turned-community-manager @Newschool