February 14, 2007

How to benefit from failure, Part Two

  I can fly 
  Originally uploaded by fyfey14.

"Play is not something you do after work."

This was the message last Wednesday at the Learning Pathways Conference, showing in particular how play can be the active ingredient in the education of our youngest learners in nursery and primary one (aged 3-5/6). This is the second part, moving on from part one with David Law of Speck Design, in how we can take advantage of failure.

How to benefit from failure No.2 :
When play is the active ingredient failure can be displayed

Teachers and learners working in some of our primary schools have actually started posting up the pupils' failures in their tasks before ending with their success. The visuals are required so that these young learners, for whom written learning logs and adult-like performance reviews are something of a mystery. From my secondary background this is quite a curious notion, reminding of a line from my favourite Taylor Mali poem:

I make them spell definitely beautiful, definitely beautiful, definitely
over and over and over again until they will never misspell
either one of those words again.
I make them show all their work in math.
And hide it on their final drafts in English.

You see, in the secondary curriculum, play is almost always something you see after the 'work' has been done. One is more noble than the other. Yet, for the reasons you will see below, failure has helped create this very exciting and liberating way of learning and teaching.

Having an active space to learn

Active learning needs an active space in which you can learn. At an active learning recently conference participants constructed their own 'dens' within the alcoves and corners of Hampden Stadium.
How many educators have an active space in which they can learn, a place that is their own with the space, facilities and creative surroundings in which to thrive? Maybe there's a case for integrating "Creative Room" to sit alongside "Staff Room" in our schools.

Everything, everywhere and everyone has potential for something

Deeper thinking is critical if we are to be able to adapt to our ever-changing environment; kids need to learn how to adapt their existing skills to different contexts.

An example: in the role play on running a pet shop opportunities to learn were found in the realia that was used: leashes (great for studying length), real money (for mathematics)... HMIe have complained before about the lack of sophistication in, for example, sorting activities, but the simplistic activities come often from simplistic raw materials. Using real material is more complex, because they're often multi-sensory.

Why use lego for construction activities? Why not use more interesting, complex natural materials: wood, metal, flowers, transitory materials... We don't always need a product that lasts forever. Construct and capture, take a photo (upload it to Bubbleshare so kids can learn from each other for years to come...)

Leave the criteria for sorting to the kids - let them find their own folksonomy: big flowers, medium, small, broken and these are for my gran. Instead of having costumes and roles in play which are predefined (nurses uniform where all you can be is a nurse) why not have plenty of off-cuts which allow kids to adapt and 'widgetise' their role, changing it to what they want it to be.

What's the role of the teacher in the playful, experimental, failure-filled classroom?

1. Define the space:
remove some tables and chairs so that kids cannot sit down at the table
and open a textbook? Let them play on the floor. What about sharing
classrooms, areas in the school? What about outside the school?

2. Use of time:
what importance do we give to active learning? Why is play done in the afternoon after maths and English? Why not do it at different times each day? Vary things.

3. Resources:
Don't offer Google and the world. Limit resources to what will focus experimentation. Primary ones in some schools have stopped using workbooks to get a
record of work, of achievement. The kids have learnt through play with
their work captured in photographs and their understanding heard or
seen in the way that they play. Some have offered to write their own
sheets/tests for others.

4. Methodology:

- Everything is scaffolded: choice of resources, use of space and time, effective questioning.
- Talking mats and talking tubs as stimuli
- 3D mindmap
- failure is displayed on wall displays - we'll learn from it and show how we've gone back to learn from that.

5. Integrating play into everything:

While you might run reading and phonics programmes separately from active learning activities at first - we're in a period of transition into the Curriculum for Excellence - make sure that these 'standard' programmes are interactive. Eventually, consider how active learning can work hand in hand with reading and phonics.

What role does active learning and failure have in A Curriculum for Excellence?

1. Children enjoy making progress in a curriculum that engages and motivates them
It's not new but how many early years kids really do get that? When you use a textbook to study time how do you engage those who don't like it when the book is brought out? Active play addresses some of that

2. Learning and teaching are at the heart of the curriculum - choice of resources, time, space and overall direction are critical

3. Space for learning in depth and having wider experiences

4. No artificial boundaries for children. Provide space for everyone to flourish

Problems with accepting play and failure as central to learning

It's still tricky for the teachers when formal observations come around - parents may have had their own notions of what learning is. However, when parents see the success they are keen that this way of working continues later into the Primary school.

Challenging behaviour is often a reason touted against these kind of playful initiatives - where there's no textbook to blackmail the pupils into work :-( What these nursery teachers have seen is that the potential flare ups as kids move into the structure (in the traditional sense of the word) of their advancing school years are actually better off than those who have followed the traditional nursery or Primary 1 schooling.

Teachers have to be open to the idea that the children may find interest in a topic (eg pirates) where the teacher had prepared their planning on something else (boats). But the questioning and research skills involved through active learning, together with the play aspect, mean that the learning is both deeper and wider.

Ultimately, the role of the teacher is central in this - falling back into 'your old ways' is easy to do. Active learning is not just more teacher-directed lessons in a playful way. There is a balance the teacher has to find between leading play and letting the children lead. It's not something, I would gather, that can be defined beforehand. Each project, each group of children and all the individuals in that group require individual decisions and adjustments to be made along the way. That, perhaps, is why it's difficult to spread these notions to other colleagues. Confidence of the teacher is central - what I've seen today are some very modest teachers doing some great work.

Where secondary teachers may find some problems is that this is a way of thinking, a way of life. You can't just do it for one class or topic and do the rest in the old-fashioned way. If you're a secondary teacher would you get rid of half of your tables and chairs to force yourself, continuously, to think in another way? Could you?

(The first photo is from the LTS Camera Club; this month's theme is play)


Feed You can follow this conversation by subscribing to the comment feed for this post.

Great post Ewan - thanks

This is a great series of posts. I find it interested because as this week I was "duped by a spoof" website, I received various responses from the educational community as I corrected myself and admitted my mistake. Some thought it was a great process of learning and others responded with "Vicki is so stupid" kinds of comments. I believe that the former are better teachers and that the only failure is in 1) expecting perfection, 2) not correcting mistakes when we realize we've made them, and 3) not learning from the mistake.

This is a great post! Thank you for pointing this out!

The comments to this entry are closed.

About Ewan

Ewan McIntosh is the founder of NoTosh, the no-nonsense company that makes accessible the creative process required to innovate: to find meaningful problems and solve them.

Ewan wrote How To Come Up With Great Ideas and Actually Make Them Happen, a manual that does what is says for education leaders, innovators and people who want to be both.

What does Ewan do?

Module Masterclass

School leaders and innovators struggle to make the most of educators' and students' potential. My team at NoTosh cut the time and cost of making significant change in physical spaces, digital and curricular innovation programmes. We work long term to help make that change last, even as educators come and go.

Recent Posts