Seeing beyond the cupcakes – what ‘itime’ should really be about.

As many readers of this blog will know, I have a particular interest in how we can best provide opportunities for children to inquire into the things that matter to THEM as well as the things that we might bring to them. I strongly believe in the value of what we might call ‘shared inquiry’ but I acknowledge its restrictions in a context that allows a much more diversified and differentiated approach. In several of my partner schools, staff have worked hard to develop approaches to ‘personalised inquiry’ alongside more teacher initiated, shared inquiries. The work has been fascinating, complex, problematic and revealing - but the children tell us over and over again that they adore the chance to spread their wings, to investigate what intrigues them, to have more of a voice and to step outside the predictable content that dominates most of their school days. There is something deeply satisfying about walking into a learning space where some children are busily modifying recipes and preparing to cook, some are continuing with myth-busting style experiments, some are outside in the garden, some researching the relative fuel efficiency of various cars, some setting up an interview with a local author and another devising a digital survey to gather data about health and well being.  The classroom becomes a microcosm of the world simultaneously explored by painters, scientists, sociologists, historians, geographers, activists, writers, musicians, engineers, chefs, naturalists …. I could go on!

Our efforts have been fueled by our desire to ‘walk the talk’ about the development of skills and dispositions critical to the 21C learner. In an increasingly, digital world, it is more possible than ever before, for students to pursue pathways of interest or personal need.  Time to engage with our passions has many reported benefits for learning- none the least being increased motivation and engagement across the curriculum.

While the students have, in these sessions, much more autonomy over the content of their learning – the teachers’ emphasis is very strongly on skill development. Here is where itime is actually more about depth rather than breadth. There is a breadth of ‘content’ for sure , but it is the focused work on learning skills that gives it depth. Students do not simply choose a ‘project’ to work on – they are challenged to identify and strengthen their ‘learning assets’ through the process. They may well be spending time cooking a new kind of cup cake – but alongside this, they have chosen to work on skills in organization and time management. As they investigate the fuel efficiency of cars , they may have chosen to demonstrate their capacity to critically assess the trustworthiness of on-line sources. Students carefully prepare for each investigation by submitting a proposal and identifying how it will help them strengthen their learning skill set. They are required to reflect on and self assess their efforts. Their participation in the Itime workshops is not a given, they know they need to continue to demonstrate the responsibility that comes with this kind of freedom – and most do so in spades. In some of the upper primary classes I work in, the teachers also ask students to ensure their chosen investigations also connect to a broader conceptual theme. It’s complex and demanding work. Teachers, too, talk about the way this work has made them re-think what their students are capable of and how they have learned to be better inquiry teachers by focusing more strongly on building learning capacity and less on the ‘content’.

Earlier this year, a rather scathing article appeared in one of our major newspapers.   The headline was:

“My son's school taught him to cook and I was left with the maths”.

 The basic premise of the article is summed up in this line:

 “Like the (education) minister, I dream of a day when schools teach English and maths well and parents are left with the humbler responsibility of ensuring their child's culinary, cultural and creative development.”

My heart sank. I should add that I do not work with the school involved and have no knowledge of context or program being criticised. I have no idea whether the criticisms are valid (they may well be) or whether this  school uses any kind of inquiry based approach to learning – I don't know the back story and, although tempted, I am not going to make inferences. But I think there is a lot we, as teachers, can reflect on, in response.

This article (and the many sympathetic comments made in response) reminds me again of the challenge we have in communicating why we do what we do to parents.   Even in the classrooms I have described earlier, an outsider could be forgiven for thinking the students were simply having ‘free time’ at first glance. (To be fair, in some schools – that may indeed be the case. I have seen several well intended versions of ‘itime’ or ‘genius hour’ that are simply glorified project work or time-wasting ‘activity! ’)

I remain committed to ensuring that the spirit of inquiry, curiosity and creativity are nurtured within the school environment. I believe this is our professional responsibility as teachers, alongside and within our critical role in developing literacy and numeracy skills. It is also our responsibility to ensure that we communicate the value of and rigor in the contemporary work we do to parents and to the students themselves.

Taking on the challenge of ‘personalised inquiry’ is not for the faint hearted - nor for the ill informed teacher. We need to be crystal clear about the broader learning intentions of such things as passion projects or itime. This means, amongst other things:

  • taking time to develop clear criteria and guidelines with students
  • agreeing on ways to ensure accountability
  • explicitly identifying the skill sets accompanying the learning tasks students design
  • building self assessment and reflection into the process
  • using this as a context for assessment – particularly of transdisciplinary skills

And it is not enough to be well-informed and clear within the school . We need to find ways to invite and involve the wider community so they, too, understand that there is a lot more to it than making cupcakes.

In fact, the cupcakes are the least of it.

How can we ensure that attempts to provide more personal choice, voice, creative and investigative opportunities are truly adding value to student learning?

How do we build better partnerships with parents to strengthen communication and understanding around new learning for new times?

Just wondering….