Patterns in conversations and what they can teach us

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Going further with your conversations. These two questions are posed to an Early Childhood 3&4 year-old class at Hiroshima International School.

Our brains seek patterns. It’s the way we make sense of our world and it is also the way we learn. Conversational patterns are an important part of our world, particularly as they govern the nature of our interactions.  As we learn language initially from our earliest interactions, the ongoing conversations between parents and young children have a strong impact on not only our language development, but of our view of the world and our place in it.

We know that children of parents who speak to them a lot develop larger vocabularies. This seems like common sense. However, as Bari Walsh from Harvard Graduate School of Education (https://www.gse.harvard.edu/news/uk/15/02/smart-talk) explains, it’s not just talk that’s important. It’s conversation. In this sense, it is the quality of those words that’s important. This is not just about using ‘big’ words, it is about the quality of the larger conversations. Walsh explains that beside a wide assortment of words, using complex words, interactive words, and words to tell stories, explain and imagine are all important.

In terms of patters, the use of questions is very important in the interactions. To take the example of using words to wonder, if a child is in conversations on a regular basis where they are asked their thoughts on what things might be like (e.g. When looking at the sky at night, ‘I wonder what it would be like to walk on the Moon?’) and are given time and space to explore these ideas, they will sense patterns across conversations and these patterns will explain things about their world. From these patterns, they will learn that;

  • they are valued as individuals, as their thoughts add meaning to conversations
  • imagination is important, for why else would time be spent on such conversations
  • perceptions differ, but these differing perceptions don’t need to be right or wrong
  • people need time to gather their thoughts and patient listeners wait
  • ideas can be explored at varying degrees of depth
  • we make meaning by building on each other’s ideas

In this sense, it is not just the words that are important, it’s the way we use them. From the type of conversations, they encounter and the patters they see, children learn their place in the world. Conversation, in this sense, can be a valuable gift to a child.

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Lessons learned on the bikes

On a recent cycling trip, I was reminded of an important lesson that we just need to keep learning, over and over again.

It was a 450km cycling trip over 6 days, camping along the way. I accompanied the group of 6 high school students and 3 teachers for the first three days, my first extended cycling journey. Three days on the road (with some time driving the support van) gave me time to ponder the idea that most outcomes are decided in our heads.

On a long day’s ride, you start in the morning and keep going until you arrive, all the thoughts about ‘can I make it’ not meaning terribly much when the distance just needs to be covered. You tell yourself to keep peddling, and you do. Deciding your own outcome.

It was an apt metaphor for the two years of the IB Diploma Program in which the student cyclists are involved. A long, hard, challenging road, with trials along the way, the outcome worth it in the end, if you keep telling yourself that you can make it. And keep listening.

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Thinking multilingual

Life is an extended search for meaning, even when we don’t know we’re searching.

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When a building is not just a building. Words are like this.

Our basic unit of meaning is the word. Each word matches an image in our minds, and oftentimes, multiple images.  In this way, vocabulary and thought are inextricably linked. It would be hard to say, for example, how many images would be attached to the A-bomb Dome in Hiroshima for the average person, if such a person in fact exists.  What do people think of when they hear those words ‘A-bomb Dome’ spoken? How many subtle shades of meaning does the ruin of this building hold for those individuals who pass by?

Learning an additional language can help us to appreciate these subtle shades of meaning.

After growing up in a largely monolingual world, I found myself one day wandering in Japan.  For survival purposes I decided to learn a few of these strange new words. One of my early words was ‘omoshiroi’ which I had heard from time to time. A light, happy, content word that taught me a belated secret.

In the Japanese English dictionary, this word was listed as meaning both ‘fun’ and ‘interesting’. This really caught my attention at the time – ‘fun’ and ‘interesting’ to me meant different things, so  which one was it? How could one word mean both things at the same time? I was twenty-one years old and had just finished a university degree in English literature, so I knew much about the English language, yet as I was to discover, I knew nearly nothing about language.

Learning to see the world through multiple languages provides a unique opportunity for us to develop a sense of the wondrous variations in interpretation and perspective. The understanding that meaning is negotiable is inescapable.  Learning another language enables us to sense the depth of life – seeing two different socially constructed worlds at the same time. The analogy of bifocal vision works here. When we see the world with one eye it is 2D, but makes sense. Yet the use of another eye opens up a whole new 3D world that is similar, yet distinctly richer.

In this sense, for the individual who understands that meaning is negotiable, they would be asking not ‘What does the A-bomb Dome mean?’ rather, they would ask, ‘What could it mean?’  A powerful difference in perspective.

 

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A child’s world

As adults – teachers and parents – it’s nearly impossible to imagine the world of a child. The real question is, do we feel that it possesses enough worth to try and explore?

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My daughter, Abbie, wondering, but about what?

Do we take our children’s inquiries seriously, engaging them in conversations authentically, investigating their worlds, as they investigate ours?

I love what Reggio Emilia educators have to say – that we must actively seek out the worlds of children, not as limited versions of an adult world they will one day occupy, but as a legitimate ‘estate of childhood’ that is as rich and as meaningful as the world we are guiding them towards (Edwards, The Hundred Languages of Children: The Reggio Emilia Experience in Transformation, 2011). This is a challenge for an adult, a parent or teacher, interacting with a child’s inherent questioning of the world, as we can be tempted to simply explain, to fill the gaps we perceive in their understanding, when we should be taking these valuable opportunities to explore their worlds. It is a subtle, yet very powerful difference in the framing of the conversation with a child.

It seems that we need to be able to ask good questions to support them and above all, we need to be prepared to take the time to consider all forms of their expression, to find out more about their constantly shifting, uniquely personal, and utterly complex childhood worlds.

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Curiosity and Language Learning

cyber bullying

An image by an anonymous Grade 5 student, depicting a complex message that words could not yet convey.

Attempting to explain relationships between concepts that language ability does not accommodate – yet.

This image depicts a very precise message on the surface – cyber bullying hurts. It also depicts the vulnerability of the child, sitting at his computer, in an otherwise safe place, most likely at school or home. The child is defenseless, arms by his side, unaware – the attack came fast and hard. The child is alone, the attack without witness, a large empty space surrounds him to further hint of this isolation.  The  impact from the blow, painful – the viewers attention drawn immediately to the clenched teeth and closed eyes of the victim; powerless, resigned, alone. The anonymity of the bully’s arm adds to this feeling of isolation and powerlessness. However, this anonymity works both ways, a faceless interaction, devoid of any confirmation of intent – leading to a whole new line of inquiry into the other side of the screen, out of the picture, the origin of the arm; an inquiry into communication during online interactions. Did the bully know? It’s a complex picture.

I was a mentor to a group of Grade 5 students working on the culminating task for the International Baccalaureate (IB) Primary Years Program (PYP) Exhibition. During the Exhibition inquiry process, in small, collaborative groups, students conduct an inquiry into a issue important to them and as you may be able to guess, this image came from a group inquiring into cyber bullying. During the mentoring process, I was amazed at the adventurous spirit in which the students were able to experiment with new language to describe cyber bullying. This was most obvious in the range of new vocabulary that they could draw from, but also in the more complex types of sentence structures that they were attempting to use to explain the complex issues they were uncovering. The students were attempting to explain relationships between concepts that their language ability could not accommodate – yet.

One of my students drew this picture for me on a thank-you card at the end of the Exhibition. Considering the inquiry that those students had pursued, it was a powerful image and the students, at different times and in different ways, had explained all of the connotations of the above picture. The students were intensely curious about this topic and it was this curiosity that drove the experimentation with new language. They were also passionate, but passion is not always coupled with curiosity (and this can be a dangerous mindset later in life). That it was curiosity that drove their need to use new language is a critical point when considering language learning in our schools. How seriously do we consider the role of curiosity when considering the development of language?

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The mystery of identity

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How much do we choose to reveal?

This hauntingly beautiful creature gave me a bit of a fright last summer on a trip to Australia – Don’t worry, there was a fence and I was also assured that she had long ago lost her appetite for tourists. Apparently iPhones and loud clothes are quite hard to digest. The encounter did get me thinking, though, of the role of a teacher in knowing their learners.

The image reminds me of our first contact with our new, fellow learners. They invariably choose to reveal small parts of their identities to us and we, likewise, choose to reveal a select smattering of who we are, to them. Our intentions are also hidden beneath the surface, assumed, rarely stated. As education tries to shift to place the learner at the centre of the educational process, the development of an understanding of the learner as an individual is no longer just a nice byproduct of the teaching and learning process, it has become the driving force behind it, the starting point for all learning journeys in an inclusive, differentiated classroom.

In recognition of the complexity of individual identities, particularly given the delicate and fluid nature of our self-awareness, the three following questions can be helpful when trying to critically piece together the puzzles of student identity in the classroom:

  • What is revealed? (The identity)
  • What is the origin of my interpretation? (The critique)
  • Why has this piece been revealed? (The intention)
  • How do we know the truth? (The caution)

Above all, keep challenging those assumptions and searching for the missing pieces.

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Procrastination and the magic of ‘otherness’

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Look at your reading selection. These happened to be sitting on my desk as I was writing. It’s an indication of the range of different directions that your brain is pushing you. 

Today, I realized how much fun you can have searching for ‘procrastination’ images  on Google. It’s funny how an afternoon can get away from you like that. I have finally started to write this post about procrastination and the fact that I am actually writing it suggests that I may have something useful to say on the topic.

The secret lies in the mysterious otherness quality that is attached to tasks which we are occupied by in place of the important one(s) we are avoiding.  By definition, we must be doing something ‘other’ at these times. Interestingly, even the most mundane task such as cleaning your room can take on that special otherness quality.  As long as it has been tainted by otherness, any task is worthy of our complete attention, for prolonged periods of time. Why not focus our otherness inspired attention on different types of creative pursuits?

This otherness quality is a product of a creative mind searching for distraction.  It is our creative spirit that makes us search for this distraction, so feed it, don’t fight it. Plan for it, don’t be consumed by it. Surely, we can use otherness to our advantage. In my experience, our brains seek change, different types of activity, different types of thinking. If your brain is seeking change, feed it. Create a list of varied options focused on your creative pursuits. Let your shifts in focus be productive. Control them. Using writing as an example, whether you’re working on a blog or a book, write a couple and bounce back and forth, shift between genres, audiences and pace. For non-fiction, shift between the practical and the theoretical (Yes, that is for you @amyburvall). There will be times when your brain will rebel against one and the magical otherness will taint the other with such a sweetness that you will be unable to resist. Later, you will bounce back, as otherness is a fickle task-master. Yes, revel in the magic of otherness, one of life’s most overlooked miracles.

 

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