Needless to say, my first experience of the primary classroom as a student teacher yesterday was an interesting one. While there were many things that struck me which I may touch on later, I wanted to tell one short story today.
The first class I sat in on was a 1st class who were working on 'measurement'. Their task was to measure a defined set of objects listed on a page (table, pencil, book…) by using other objects (paper clips, 2cm cubes, paddle pop sticks, their hands…), and as a consequence to write down a sentence on the paper in the format 'the table measures 7 pencils' (horrible sentence, I know). It was interesting, watching them choosing which object to use, laying them out and counting, and then writing their sentences.
Toward the end of the class several of the students completed the task, and I noticed that the teacher had suggested that they could get up and go measure the chalkboard. I was up the back of the class, where one girl had finished her last sentence and was at a bit of a loss as to what to do next. I squatted down next to her and we talked about a couple of her sentences and she explained what she had measured, and with what.
I was about to suggest that she could go and measure the board, when I thought "hang on, we can do better than that". I looked at the girl and asked her whether she could see anything in the classroom that she thought it would be interesting to measure. She paused for a moment and looked around for a few moments before her eyes came to rest on the back wall and she pointed out the most unexpected object, a small label taped to the wall. I took it off the wall for her and she set about using her plastic chips to measure it.
The point of the story is a simple one. In that moment, as she looked around for something to measure, there was a qualitative change in the engagement of that girl. Even with my paltry forty-five minutes of classroom experience I could see the change. Suddenly she was no longer ticking off the predefined items on her list, but had the creative freedom to shape her own education experience. While the freedom may have been incredibly constrained, it was enough to change the way she felt about the task.
Concepts like 'self-directed learning' fly fairly glibly off the tongue when you are in a university tutorial, trying to be heard over the house music emanating from Manning Bar. Its quite something else to see how meaningful these ideas become in the real world.