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?


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.


Procrastination and the magic of ‘otherness’

Book Photo final

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.



A lesser place in your absence…


A surfer at Sunset Beach, Hawaii – not quite making it over. The waves would break just as well, even if she wasn’t there. Life can be like this. Schools shouldn’t.

Success can be determined in many ways, but for a school it needs to be by how valued a child feels, an individual’s sense of worth. An academic program needs to be designed to foster a learner’s voice in the process of learning, to not only be a valuable contributor to the process, but also to feel like a valuable contributor – to feel like the classroom would be a lesser place in your absence. This is what success should look like in a school.



Love, Respect & the Legitimacy of a Child’s World


‘To have respect for children is more than recognizing their potentialities in the abstract.’ The Hundred Languages of Children (2013) Image-Nana’s Christmas Pavlova, 2015 Yum.

Intersections of the worlds of adults and children are hazy places. As adults, in our schools and homes, we  live in these places every day, but often don’t see them, or at least don’t recognize them. Reggio Emilia, a glorious Italian city, has some great perspectives that may help clear some of the haze. The distinction between love and respect in the Reggio Emilia approach can challenge some fairly deeply embedded assumptions. Do we love children? As teachers and parents, the answer is an easy, yes, but is it enough?

Respect gives us a different perspective and an additional challenge as David Hawkins relates in The 100 Languages of Children (2013):

Respect for the young is not a passive hands off attitude. It invites our own offering of resources…Love without respect can blind and bind…To have respect for children is more than recognizing their potentialities in the abstract, it is also to seek out and value their accomplishments – however small these may appear by normal standards of adults…An environment of ‘loving adults’ who are themselves alienated from the world around them is an educational vacuum. (p. 79-80)

Hawkins states that ‘we too easily learn only what we are prepared to accept,’ words that challenge us to question our readiness to accept the legitimacy of a child’s world. How far will we go to lift the haze? Love this book.


What me I’ll be?

Profile with hen

I never would have thought that part of the ‘me I’ll be’ would involve raising chickens, among other surprises along the way.

When navigating life (and this takes some navigating) it’s always better to keep two versions of yourself in mind – the me you are and the me you’ll be. The exception to this of course is if you are buying clothes. You need clothes that fit the me you are!

I heard this explained to a man trying on a suit the other day. He said that the size he was trying on was a bit tight, but he would be losing a few kilos soon, so it would probably be alright. The fitter told him to buy a suit for his body today, because he could always come back and get another for his new minus 5kg self tomorrow, or the next day, week or year when this new self materialised. I thought this to be good advice for our physical selves, but what about our other selves?

I wonder, as grown-ups, how we imagine this uncertain future. There has been a lot of interest in fostering a creative spirit when children are young. I think that it takes a great deal of creativity to imagine this ‘me I’ll be’. Of the seemingly endless array of possibilities, how do we choose? How could we even know the options?

We often ask children what they want to be when they grow up. It’s a tough question and it is also the wrong question, or at least the wrong way to phrase it, I think. The question seems to assume that we will suddenly realize when we have reached grown-up status (I’m still waiting for confirmation) and that we will be ‘there’ at that point. The logic seems flawed considering our incremental development, the rate of change in today’s world and the focus on lifelong learning that is fostered, so often, in schools. If growth is about learning, are we ever grown-up?

We may need to rethink the way we ask this question to children and we also may need to keep asking a version of it to our possibly grown-up selves: What me do I want to be for the next step in my journey?

…at least until we confirm that we’ve finally grown up.


True Beauty

Abbie's Portrait

Self-portrait by Abbie Rentoule

The image above is one of my favorite pieces or art, a self-portrait by my wonderful younger daughter who is doing the IB Diploma Program. Students were tasked with creating a self-portrait that represented their individual identities, incorporating elements from their various cultural backgrounds.

My daughter explained to me that the idea of the golden cracks was taken from a form of pottery in Japan where broken fragments are reconstructed, not hiding the flaws, but accentuating them using gold leaf with the idea that true beauty is realized not through an ideal perfection, but through the uniqueness of imperfection. What a magnificent idea.

In my own experiences of art at school we drew and painted, but in a process devoid of any sort of deeper conceptualization. When I was in art class at school, I just drew bad pictures. You have to love a conceptually driven curriculum for this. It is the Japanese sakura and the Australian wattle that are represented in the background, in case you were wondering. I love it when our children amaze us.