I once spent a year living in the same street as the school in which I was teaching. It was a mixed blessing. One the one hand, I could work late and still be home at a reasonable hour on the other hand I probably worked way too late way too often. But that’s not the point of this story.
Living so close by meant I inevitably bumped into kids from the school over the weekends. At the supermarket, walking my dog, in a café…and the reaction was most often the same - especially from the younger kids: “Whaaaaat? A teacher? IN THE SUPERMARKET? OUT WITH FRIENDS? etc. I’m sure many of you have had the experience…slightly awkward, a few giggles, the out-of-context encounter that challenged their view of me as ‘the teacher’ whom they assumed probably lived at school (OK - yes, I almost did.)
Back then, I was ‘Miss Murdoch’. I referred to the classroom as ‘My Classroom’, the kids had to line up in two straight lines before being allowed to come in to the room after each break. They ate when the bells told them they could, we rarely ventured out of the room unless it was to go to ‘the art room’ or ‘ the gym’ where they would spend 45 minutes learning something that was quite disconnected from anything that happened in the classroom. They sat at little tables in little wooden chairs – occasionally ‘working’ on the floor for a special treat. They did activities that I planned and followed rules I devised for them. What a strange environment classrooms were (are?) in contrast to the lives lived outside of school. And what strange beings we teachers were (are?). Is it any wonder they were taken aback to see me doing everyday things that every day people do!
Now admittedly, that was a long time ago. Much has changed but I remain curious about the degree to which we allow ourselves to be authentic with our students and why we insist on maintaining some of the routines, rituals and practices that seem so disconnected from life outside of school. I recently heard a teacher in dialogue with her students referring to herself in the third person (‘So what Mrs X wants you to do now is….so Mrs X is showing you how to….’). Strangely inauthentic. Many of us have a ‘teacher voice’ we put on when we work with children that is quite different to the tone we might use outside of school. We sit on a chair while children sit at our feet (would we ever do that in a non-school context ? We would generally position ourselves alongside others as we talk with them) … there are a myriad of unconscious ways we talk, interact, position ourselves, curate our spaces and organise our days that seem so alien in contrast to the rest of our lives.
One of the 10 key practices I advocate for teachers to develop in order to nurture inquiry is the practice I simply call ‘Keep it Real’. It is a plea for authenticity.
Authenticity is a word we throw around a lot in education and , indeed, has become one of those words that can easily prompt an eye roll due to glib over-use. We talk about ‘authentic inquiry’ and ‘authentic contexts for inquiry’ but what do we really mean? Some musings on the matter below:
Bridge the divide
There remains a gulf between the lives many children lead outside of school and the lives we have them lead while they are at school. The gulf is much narrower in many early childhood settings and seems to widen as children get older. What can we do to bridge the strange divide between schools and the wider community?
BE authentic. You do you.
If we are going to talk about ‘authentic contexts’ for learning then perhaps we need to think first about how authentic WE are as we engage with learners. Is our ‘teacher identity’ getting in the way of a more powerful, personal connection with our students? How do they see us? How do we see ourselves? Do we interact with them in the same, respectful, reciprocal way we might with others outside of the school context? How authentic are WE? Don't be afraid to be the vulnerable, imperfect, HUMAN that you are.
Make the classroom a place that feels good to be in.
Is the environment in which we and students gather each day one that feels ‘authentic’? Does it allow for movement and flexibility? Is it comfortable? Are there places to retreat to as well as interact with others? Can learners choose where they will learn? Have you engaged learners in co-constructing expectations? Is this a room/space that you feel proud of? Like your home, do you enjoy walking into it in the morning because you have taken time to consider the aesthetic of the space? Like a family (ideally!) do you all share the responsibility for caring for this environment?
Recognise that inquiry opportunities are all around us.
And what about the learning itself? When we talk about ‘authentic contexts’ have we discussed with each other what we actually mean by that? When I think about ‘getting real’ with inquiry, I most often think of the power of purpose. As communities, schools abound with problems, challenges and opportunities for us to inquire. What can we do about the congestion at pick up time? How healthy is the food in the canteen? Should our uniforms be gender-neutral? Should we have uniforms? How can we better manage the waste we produce at school? How can we redesign some of the outdoor spaces so we can use them for learning? How can we integrate the art studio/gym/library/music room in a more meaningful/flexible way? Is the design of our learning spaces compatible with what we know about wellbeing? How might the playground be redesigned to cater for all age groups? The list is endless….By engaging kids in inquiring into real issues/challenges within the school, we immediately enhance the authenticity. The purpose is obvious, the stakes are higher, the audience is real. The challenge is to then see the conceptual connections within that context. (It becomes more than, for example, simply building the playground…it is about design, function, properties, etc)
Stay awake to possibilities
It seems to me that authenticity is also about our preparedness to ‘let go’ of a plan when a REAL opportunity to investigate something emerges unexpectedly. We have recently had a federal election here in Australia. The perfect context, it would seem, to explore concepts of democracy, power and decision making yet I encountered more than a few teachers who felt pressured to focus on other things that and been planned rather than go with this very natural avenue for inquiry.
Be the inquirer you are
The ‘process of inquiry’ is not some discrete, rarefied experience limited to school – we constantly inquire as we live our day to day lives. Whether it is choosing a paint colour, buying a car, wrestling with an ethical dilemma, teaching ourselves to play an instrument, learning a language or planning a holiday, we routinely ask questions, gather information from various sources, sort out and come to some conclusions. Share these authentic inquiries with students so they can see a greater fit between the processes they use to inquire in the classrooms and the ways we inquire every day.
Know your why
I know this phrase is becoming somewhat ubiquitous but bear with me. If authenticity is about a sense of purpose, then it really does pay to keep asking WHY. Powerful learning happens when we ‘know the why’ of what we are learning. Keep asking WHY at the planning table, encourage students to identify the why as they construct their own inquiries. And the ‘why’ must be more than addressing the curriculum – the why needs to connect with our lives beyond school, now and in the future.
No secret teachers’ business
More and more, we are coming to understand the power of inviting the learner in to the decisions we make about and for theirlearning. Sharing intentions (co constructing them), building criteria for assessment together, inviting learners to help design the pathway of inquiry, having the learner curate their portfolios, providing options that allow them to choose workshops/clinics to attend, making the learning as visible as possible in the learning space, student led conferences …these things recognise the learner at the centre and the reality that is this – it is their learning! Our failure to involve learners in the process of designing for their learning leads to ‘sham’ inquiry. It can look like inquiry, even sound like inquiry but lacks the authenticity experienced when the learner is in the driver’s seat. Inquiry - as an approach, IS already authentic. Just watch a young learner trying to figure out how something works or how to fix something they care about. They inquire. Linked to this is, of course the more authentic experience that emerges when we stop trying to map everything out to within an inch of its life and, instead, we are guided by what we notice in and discuss with learners regarding the 'next step’. Being authentic means accepting uncertainty and becoming more responsive to what is needed.
We talk a lot about authenticity - but to what extent do we allow ourselves to ‘get real’ in the classroom. And how ‘real’ can we be when we our schools exist in systems that retain structures and expectations that fly in the face of authenticity? What do you do to keep it real?