Time to think

20160505_212235-1.jpgI’ve been doing quite a lot of walking/running recently and it provides me not only with a well-needed brain break from the computer, leg-stretch from a chair and eye break from a screen but also time for my brain to slow down and stop thinking. Well, maybe not stop thinking but it helps me to filter my thoughts, get them in some sort of order through disordering them, breaking them up and somehow putting them back together again. I don’t necessarily gain any answers but they get “un-piled”!

Data has been top of mind in my work in the last few weeks. What is data? Despite myself, but also because I am a competitive soul, I can’t go for a walk or a run anywhere without trying to do it faster than the time before. I find myself calculating how many minutes it takes me to walk a kilometre, how many kilometres I can walk in an hour, was it faster than last time, slower, was the terrain similar, how much should I take off for stopping to take a photo, should I take anything off? If I hadn’t had to wait 45 minutes in the gully while everyone went through the hole in the rock, and then another 20 minutes for people to cross the river and climb the 3m rope climb how long would I really have taken to walk/run 23km and how would that equate to a half marathon…? But it is clear that those calculations are not just based on pure numbers, on data, they are based on human action, on nature, on the terrain, on feelings, on emotions, on abilities and competencies and relationships. Relationships between people and the environment, on rational and irrational fears, on prior experience and knowledge and understanding.

Take this weekend, for example. As part of the event I participated in we had to squeeze through a hole in a rock wall to get out of a gully. ‘Squeeze’ is an interesting concept – it was clearly not that small a hole as plenty of large-ish men got through with relative ease. My prior knowledge and experience of caves and caving meant that I was unafraid, eager, in fact to face the “challenge”. People around me who didn’t have that knowledge were fearful, anxious, uncomfortable. Feelings that were made more acute by the wait and the conversations and the “chinese whispers” passed back – the “fishermen’s tales” – “the hole is tiny!!” with hand gestures that indicated the smallest of gaps. But with support from those of us who did know, with encouragement, explanations and modelling of how to do it, with patience and with care everyone got through.

If this had been a test for which we were being assessed, I would have got top marks. My prior knowledge meant that the test was easy, my experience and my preparation meant that I had no problems slipping through. I may have also gained extra credit for being a “leader”. For others it was not the case, they may have been ‘judged’ not to have got top marks because they hesitated, or didn’t slide so gracefully through, or took too much time.

Personally, I think their achievement was all the greater. The obstacles they overcame to get through; emotional, physical, rational, irrational made their achievement more meaningful. Give me a situation where I have no prior knowledge, no confidence, no experience, irrational fear and I wonder how I would have fared.

So, how do you measure that sort of data when you assess people in academic tests? How do you compute immeasurable data such as emotions, human nature, social background, with knowledge and experience to make meaning, build connections and create pathways for learning?

This evening, I was talking with some friends. Both teachers and ex-colleagues. One of them is a drama teacher and some of her students do extremely well. Students who don’t do so well in other subjects. Students whose motivation for coming to school sometimes is simply because they have drama that day. Part of her inquiry this year is looking at why those students are motivated and engage in drama but not in other subjects. She said that one of the things she does is talk to her students about who they are, about their families, what they like doing, what their parents do, how many siblings they have, where they are in the family, what they do when they aren’t at school, where the family comes from, who they live with, who they spend the most time with; she finds out what makes them tick. She builds a relationship with them, trust, respect, interest, she cares. That’s what makes those kids come to school. That’s what makes those kids do well in drama.

So, in schools we need to look at our students, not just as they are in front of us, but who they are in their family, their community, their social groups, what they do in the classroom, of course, but what they do on the sports field, in the arts, in the community. Build on their experience and use all of that information, that data to gain insights, and generate meaningful action to personalise learning for them, give them and their whanau a voice, a stake in their decision-making and the pathways they choose.  That is the rich data. It’s not all about test scores. It’s about who we are, it’s about building relationships, making connections, trust, respect, humanity.

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Being lonely …

I picked this link up from a Facebook post and it resonated with me for a couple of reasons. First of all, I just went to listen to a colleague presenting her doctoral thesis in which she was talking about Gifted and Talented girls and how they develop.  She interviewed several successful young women about how they perceived their development and achievement and the things that influenced them and encouraged them.  One of the comments that some of them made that struck me was that they often felt “lonely”, apart from their peers because they were “different”.  They even said that they sometimes purposely chose to isolate themselves from socialising because they were so focussed on succeeding in both their academic lives and their artistic or sporting lives.  They are single minded in their determination to succeed but it made me wonder about how that might be detrimental to their personal and social development.  We talk about academics in their “Ivory Towers”, alienated from the real world, unable to connect to the people and the real world about them.  Is there also an “Ivory Tower” of success, a place where the very high achieving in all sorts of spheres, business, sporting, politics, academic, the arts exist, lonely in their talent domain, unable to truly communicate with the rest of us?

I suppose that traditionally, it has been men in that world that we have seen as being lacking in social, inter- and intra-personal skills; women are the world’s communicators, the carers, those with emotional intelligence, empathy and the ability to build bridges, negotiate and bring out the best in people.  But what if this generation of women, the product of the femimists of the 1970s and 1980s, Generation Y, a generation that has grown up with more opportunities, a greater acceptance that they have a place in leadership, higher expectations of what they can achieve, has also morphed, just a little and taken on the traditional qualities that identify successful men of the past?  Competitiveness, singlemindedness, determination, isolation, and more limited communication skills, social skills – loneliness?

It is true that young women are putting off having children until much later, often into their late 30s and even early 40s so that they can concentrate on their careers. Medical advances have made this much more possible too.  I know that when I was asked at the age of 18 about what I wanted to do with my life, my answer was that I wasn’t really sure but that I wanted to “do stuff” first and have children later.  Maybe being the child of parents who were in their 30s (unusual in the 1960s) influenced my ideas.  Maybe having a father who told me that it was no point studying for A Levels or going to University because I was a girl and would just get married and have babies triggered my innate sense of anarchism and led me to revolt? But I also know that I was very certain that I did want to have children at some point.  As it happened, I did “do stuff”, then had children and now I am sort of having a career! Not really a conventional route, but then can we ever really plan out our lives with any certainty?

It concerns me when I listen to my students telling me their plans.  Don’t get me wrong, I think it is great to have plans, to have some direction, some idea of what you want to do, to give you the motivation to progress.  I am constantly wracked with concern about the apparent lack of direction and motivation of my very talented eldest son.  I also know that he will find his direction, he will work out what he wants to do, he just has to go on his journey and find out for himself.  You see my dilemma?  The parent of a gifted son and the teacher of gifted girls!  How do I reconcile those two opposites?  However, I am worried about how certain some of my high achieving students are about how their lives “are going to be”.  It worries me that their lives won’t live up to their expectations, or that their plans will limit their potential, will stop them taking chances, close doors of opportunity that could be open to them if they could just be a little more flexible and be a little less focussed on the outcomes and think more about the journey.