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I wonder…

Stream of consciousness post…

About ten years ago I slowly stopped giving my kids very sequential directions.  About five years ago I stopped giving rubrics.  And in the past few years, with some classes, towards the end of the year, I was able to stop giving them anything other than a topic.

About ten years ago I seemingly never did the same unit twice.  I was never happy…I always was looking for a giant way to improve things, and so each year I basically started fresh.  About five years ago, I started to do some of my units twice.  I had gotten to the point where I was very happy with the results, wanted to improve upon them, and using the old outlines as a guide, built upon them in an attempt to make the ultimate social studies units that would be remembered forever.  This year I started taking some of those ultimate units and doing something crazy…I did them for a third time.  I started with the previous outlines, that had been improved from the original outlines, and made them into ultimate + units…or so I thought.

I did about three of these units this year.  Units that rocked in the past, and units that I spent additional hours on picking out the more perfect sources, typing up the more perfect guides to completion, creating a more perfect outline for the kids for what we would be doing each day of the unit.  These units were rock solid.  I improved upon each part that produced too many questions or confusion the previous year, and since I knew what questions were going to come up from each source/image/video I was able to have planned follow-up questions ready, and I even had picked extra sources to have available to answer the questions that I knew would be asked. When we were talking about final products I told them about all the great ideas that had been done in the past, and when they had questions about essays or research papers I was able to give them very specific ideas to help them accomplish phenomenal looking results.

All three units described above that I did this year I am throwing out.

All three units had students learning, had students curious, and had students creating final products that I would be proud to share with the world…but still I am throwing them out.

Once you have done something once, the second time you do it you inevitably expect similar results.  Once you do something once, you inevitably go through similar procedures to accomplish your final results.  Inevitably, no matter how hard you try, you don’t deepen your learning, exploration, or the process, you inevitably streamline the procedures, on your way to results that you pretty much have already predetermined…yes?

Those hidden expectations is what makes teaching so difficult, since each class, each kid, will react differently to procedures(lessons, sources, assessments) that we have used in the past.  We often get upset when the kids do not react the same way that “last year’s kids” did.  I know that I was very upset over one particular unit.  I came into this year expecting it to be spectacular, and while it was good, it did not exceed my expectations.  I blamed the kids initially.  And then my thinking, and thinking….and thinking about it led to this post.  It was not the kids.  It was me.  It will be me in the future.

All three of the units originally started as haphazardly thrown together units that resulted in final products that thoroughly exceeded my preparation.  What I am learning, is that is it always seems to be these thrown together units that I want to do again.  What is it about them?  The units that I work hardest on before starting, I throw out.  The units that I work on the least I do again…working hardest on them the next year(s), only to then throw them out.

What I did each additional time I did them was to take the “wonder” out of the unit.  Curiosity is not enough to drive learning.  Wonder was the great missing emotion from these units the third time around.  Wonder is an emotion that does not come with fear.  It is an emotion that leads to deep and sometimes unanswerable questions.  When wonder is present, there is no fear in asking questions, taking risks, exploring, or answering your own or someone else’s questions that are sparked from it.  When wonder is present in research or a discussion there are no wrong answers.  “Curious” questions usually have a correct answer that makes them harder for kids to ask, and answer, because they have to overcome the fear of being wrong.  Wonder tends to be spontaneous, curiosity can build.  I took that special spontaneity out of the units by over planning.

My planning did create—force(?)–curiosity.   My planning did make them want to find out answers, but to questions that I inevitably–subliminally(?)–led them to or to questions that I directly gave them.  Questions that I had already decided on before we started.  Wonder leads to the search for deep open ended questions.  Curiosity leads to the search for answers.  When the units were unplanned and messy I had to work alongside the kids, searching, and ultimately wondering and being curious with them—in those units wonder seemed to be inevitable.  When I planned units in detail I tried to “make” them curious.  This might also answer why the units I teach that I know the least about, usually end up being our favorite.

I need to wonder with my kids.  I need to get kids in on my ah-ha moments, get them to watch me wonder and experience me not knowing the answers and be apart of my searches—not the results.  I wonder if just tweeking lesson plans to planning for the search, rather than the answers would work.  If my unit plans were planned to take us through the process, and not just a plan to get to the predetermined end.  What I thought were my best unit plans were ultimately plans on how to get the kids to certain answers and final products.  I had already chosen the end for them…and the path…and where to stop along the way.  They were forced to experience my finished journey that worked for me.  How can I still fulfill my teacher duties and create unit plans that don’t have any predetermined answers, topics, sources, assessments…how can I create a unit plan that actually mimics the way I would wonder, be curious, and explore a topic.  The way a real free-thinking historian would. A unit plan that is just about the process…one that is messy.

I wonder…

I wonder if having any kind of unit plan cheats our kids and subliminally creates an unnatural learning experience.  If you just throw out a topic and explore it the way a real historian/scientist/artist/writer/X/Y/Z would, my guess is that you would cover all of the skills and the peripheral content information that is listed in the official curriculum document naturally.

The blog posts that I write with a point, for “an audience,” don’t result in new learning for me.  They may be enjoyable to write, but for me, the learner, they do not start with “wonder”… This blog post was not written for an audience, it was written for me.  What is interesting is that the posts that I write for me exploring and wondering about the problems I have always seem a bit unorganized, scattered, and messy, but they all have something in common…I have no idea what their point is before I start writing, and each results in a big thinking shift for me(although maybe not for the reader!).

Hmmm…

I want my classes to be described in the following way:

Temperment = free-thinking
Emotion = wonder
Mood = curious

I wonder how to “plan” for that…

8 comments

  1. Paul, these are very interesting thoughts indeed. As a teacher I must agree with you about getting upset when kids don’t react like the previous class. As for Wonder I believe that’s the teacher’s ability at fostering that environment that is free from the “fear” of getting things wrong. From what I have been reading in your posts you seem like that kind of teacher. I see how you are concerned that planning may “force” curiosity; my question is why is that so bad? After all, I believe that asking questions is a key driver for true learning.

    1. I wasn’t clear when I wrote that about forcing curiosity…what I meant was “forcing” them to be curious about certain things. Leaving no real room for their curiosity, but simply making them curious about what I was curious about.
      I don’t think I could be more confusing if I tried!

  2. Since I am teaching a new class (World History) with a new style (PBL) I should have all great lessons because I feel a bit unprepared for all of them 🙂

    I am focusing on developing the overall scope and sequence of themes and PBL questions and projects. I know I will have to scaffold a bit in the beginning of the year, but I hope by the end to be as wide open as you mention. I must confess it is a bit scary though.

    Thanks for this reminder to not over think it!

  3. I’ve found that I teach best with a lot of thought about the material, but little deliberate planning.
    I may go into a class with 3 words as my lecture notes for a week’s classes. I have to know the material cold to be able to give extemporaneous lectures, but those seem to go better than the ones that I’ve put 20 hours into preparing slides for.

    1. I like doing a similar thing with kids…give them that basic factual knowledge, spend time with it, then give them that “3 word” prompt that they can explore. Guess it goes without saying that it is easier to “wonder” if you have something to “wonder” about.

  4. Solid post Paul. There’s an old expression, “working your thoughts out on paper.” It only makes for a good read, however, if the thinker is open and honest. Well done.

  5. I agree with gasstationwihtoutpumps. When I first started teaching I had solid lesson plans. And as I got comfortable I relying on my knowledge of the material. I often start with thought provoking visuals, videos, articles etc. that relate to the topic. That way the lesson always starts with a discussion. Its also more interesting for the kids as well, and it shows that you really do care about what they think.

  6. Great post. The more we make our classes student centred, the less we can and should plan the results. A difficult path to follow as it requires letting go when we have been so much ‘in charge’. A different way of thinking and behaving.

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