Context of my inquiry
In my year as a teacher at Tirana International School, I grew with my students to be an enzyme that activated their own drive to learn and grow. I learned to tap into their capacity for self responsibility and self leadership. For instance, if at the start of the year I used to do arranged sitting to control side conversations that got in the way of learning, by the end of the year I did not need to. There was a degree of autonomy and trust that not only rendered them unnecessary. I no longer needed to scan the room to monitor engagement while working at someone's desk because students monitored themselves. I could focus entirely on the learner because I could hear everyone else was engaged in learning. Yes there were still occasional side conversations but they were no longer in the way of productive learning. Instead they were part of being human in the process and I welcomed them. By the end of the year I learned a lot about the dynamics between my students by watching them choose which peers they had good intellectual chemistry with to work together. When sharing anecdotes from my classes, Moira Laidlaw aptly paraphrased what was unfolding by saying, "When you tap into their energy you can build a universe together". Learning with my students how to tap into their energy meant that I went from leading a classical music orchestra to guiding a jazz band. There was a structure, but within that structure there was more freedom, spontaneity and attention to individuality. I grew to understand the meaning of Isaac Asimov's quote "The only education is self education" in an embodied way. Indeed, I believe only activated my students' desire to self educate. My inquiry now is to understand how did I and how did we do that.
Inquiry: Uncovering the How
How did I kick start and nurture this chain reaction of self education? How did the students teach me and help me in the process? How did they contribute to the jazz of learning that we played together? More broadly, how does a person act as an enzyme to the self leadership of members of his community?
Uncovering the How: Process and ingredients
I am currently reflecting, examining classroom artifacts and my teaching journal notes as well reading educational thinkers to help answer these questions.
I think often of Michelangelo's view of making sculptural art . He said that he only saw the statue that was already there and helped bring it out of the marble(1). It is a powerful coincidence that the Latin root of the word education, educare, means to call forth.
My goal is to make the findings of my "How" inquiry shareable as a concrete living recipe, where the word living is very important. A true educational how cannot be a list of steps, a checklist. It must leave room for individual process and context and meaning making. It must invite questions and reflection and the insertion of own insights. At this point in my effort to understand and share my "How", I have identified the following key ingredients:
- Living questions
The effective pedagogical and human choices that helped me catalyze student's drive to learn were born spontaneously out of living questions I carried with me. I believe it is those questions that are the most important ingredient of my How as opposed to the answers to them. The concrete answers will always depend on context but the internalized questions are reliable guides. What guided me were the questions "Who is this student and what does he/she need now?" and "Whose need am I meeting now, the student's the system's or mine?" They oriented me to each student like a sunflower to the sun, helping me embody many of the following pieces of the puzzle.
- Honoring the human dignity and sanctity of each student
At the end of the year, while reflecting on how she had grown a student said "You know we are human". I know I am human. I embrace my humanity and view it as an important tool for my practice, rather than something to be kept separate. This view of my humanity enables me to See and honor the humanity of each student. The deliberate capital S, resonates with Yamamoto's description of the mentor's Seeing of the mentee (2). In trying to articulate what honoring of student dignity looked like in my classes I am rereading Martin Buber's writing on the I-You relational dynamic (3).
Honoring my students human dignity went hand in hand with increasing the freedom I allowed in my room as much as possible. I learned that many of the typical constraints on how students can and cannot behave in the classroom are rooted in a need for control of the room. When I as a teacher chose to do away with that need and instead coached my students to learn to monitor themselves, many of those rules became a space for spontaneity that enhanced the joy and authenticity in the learning experience.
- Power dynamics
Traditionally, teaching has involved a power dynamic between the teacher and the student. The fact I assigned my students grades, alone, meant I too was involved in the power differential. At the same time, I grew to shed that power dynamic as much as possible by leveraging primarily the power of my humanity. I deferred to the power of my role very rarely and aimed to foster dynamics of human equality as much as I could. I believe this new power dynamics contributed significantly to the emergence of autonomy and co-creation in my classes.
I often included students in the decision making process and allowed them freedom to make their own decisions in the classroom as much as I could. The more they grew to trust my genuineness in this process, the more they stepped up to co-creation, offering ideas and getting involved in ways that enhanced learning.
At the end of the year I interviewed many students asking them to reflect on the year. One of the most consistent responses across students was "I have become more independent"
The independence was a result of the trust I placed in my students and how I choose to respond when once in a while some of them did not live up to it. I learned that just like we educators scaffold the learning of academic skills so we can scaffold the learning of trust. When a student failed to responsibly manage the freedom and trust provided, I saw it as a learning moment to help him or her take responsibility
1. Michelangelo, B. (1998) Complete Poems of Michelangelo. Sonnet 151. (p.96) Trans. John Frederick Nims. The University of Chicago Press
2. Yamamoto, K. (2001) To See Life Grow: The Meaning of Mentorship, Theory into Practice, Vol. 27, No. 3, Mentoring Teachers (Summer, 1988), pp. 183-189
3. Buber, M. (1996). I and Thou. Trans. Walter Kaufmann. New York: Simon and Schuster.