Meeting the Teachers

Two years, that was the time I had been studying how to create a new system to learn. I read many theses, papers, books about how in USA schools were using technology to improve learning. One author got my attention. Seymour Papert, probably his connection with MIT was a plus, and his program LOGO and its physical partner LEGO were a fresh air because, on the contrary of others the learning and creation was upon the children, not the teacher. I wrote to him, asking some few questions and to my surprise, he answered. It was a stimulus to continue my quest to how to integrate technology into education.

From December 1993 to January 1994 I spend some time in USA searching software, books, and material to my new passion. I return home with many Disney characters-based software and some books about how we learn. Emotional Intelligence was a topic on that time, and schools and pedagogues were very keen on emotions, human, and of course rules.

My first presentation was about how our education system was failing the kids and society. It was shocking I saw on their face when I finished my introduction. I was dismantling their world and trying to sell mine in its place. It wasn’t entirely accurate, because what I wanted more was make them compromise with a new vision.

My first point was, children went to school to be prepared for the real world which is changing very, very fast but the school haven’t changed much for hundreds of years. Leaders from around the world had agreed that the current system of education was designed to supply workers to the factories. It was a system fit the mentality of mass production and mass control. This is the mentality that still runs deep in the schools.

“We educated children by batches and govern their lives by ringing bells. All day long, students do nothing but follow instructions.” Saying that a teacher for 30 years asked me: “What do you expect. We are doing that for 30 years, and our students are there. Some are successful, others don’t, but there is nothing to do with school.”

“Yes. I agree with you that the success or failure has nothing to do with school, but you know why? Because companies are investing billions to training professionals who if had have a good education would be much more valuable and less expensive to these same companies.”

“But we are here to form citizens.” This was one of the favourites sentences in that school “form citizens”.

“We are here to give these children tools and space where they can develop skills they will need in life. We are not a political class, a psychological therapist or mass production knowledge.” Silence. It was silence around me. Only the sound of the projector ventilator broken the heavy silence.

“Tell me I am wrong. All day you are saying: it’s time to the science class, take your book, silence, don’t talk, open your book on page 40, read the text, solve the problems. Stop talking. And in the end, we reward them for exactly doing what they’re told.”

“This is a disciple.”

“Sorry, but this is conditioning. Read Pavlov, and you will understand.” A new wave of disagreements.

“Ok, these values were fundamental in the past. They were desirable to factory workers because their success depends on following instructions and exactly doing what they were told.”

“But is like companies work today!” And exasperated teacher shouts at me.

“It is? How many times do you work for a company? Or even visited one? In today’s world people who can be creative, who can communicate their ideas and collaborate with others are the one who get promote, who get the job, which is desired by the companies. Following the order, waiting for the command is far from being something will lead you to the top.”

“But…”

“Sorry to interrupt, but are we developing such skills now? Can you figure out how the world will be in 20 years? These kids will live in a very different context. The globalisation of workers – they will be able to travel to other countries to work – already is a reality, but this requires the ability to work with people from different cultures, learning languages and customs and participating in a team that will have people physically and virtually connected. More, soon we will be working with robots. Are we preparing our children for that world?”

“Well, I don’t know. Our children are very creative. Did you see their work in Arts or Music?”

“Yes, they did an excellent work following instructions. More, they just fill a previous chosen image with colours you put in front of them. That remembers me a story. A teacher was concerned about one of her four-year-old girls. All drawings the little toddler made was black. No colour added. The teacher comments with the pedagogical coordinator, and soon they called the parents for a talk. They asked very complex and personal questions. The parents left the meeting anxious and very preoccupied with their little girl. A psychologist was contacted and visited the school to observe the girl.”

“What kind of family problems the little toddler had?” The school psychologist asked,

“The psychologist noticed that the girl was the last to begging the drawing, so only the black crayon was available in the box where the crayons were kept, that was the real reason all her creativity came in black and white.” All teachers laughed.

“The other point our education system fail is not allowing autonomy to our children. All their school life is programmed by the government and the school. In the today’s world, if you are doing important work, then you are managing your own time. You are making decisions regarding what to do and when to do it.”

“What you are suggesting?”

“See, life in school is very different. We are sending dangerous messages to our children, that they are not in charge of their own lives. What they have to do is to follow whatever is laid down instead of taking charge and making the most of their lives.”

“But young children are incapable of making choices!” A teacher who was working for 40 years was outrageous with this critic.

“You learn to be independent, being independent. When you are a child you can make mistakes, your parents and teacher were there to support you. But what we do is sampling saying them. Sit here and do what I am saying when I am saying, how I am saying.”

“But without a disciple, we will have chaos!”

“Well, we have laws in the real world. Why not have laws at school? Not saying what to do but what is not acceptable?” Now they were cheering the idea.

“What kind of penalty?” A young teacher asked.

“This need be discussing with parents, teacher, children, not one person taking the decision. But there are more. We are feeling inauthentic learning. Most of the learning that happened in schools today is not authentic because it relays in memorisation and rote learning. The system defines a generic set of knowledge that all children must know. And then, every few months, we measure how much was retained by administrating exams.”

“Well, this is education.”

“Is it? We know that learning is not authentic because most of it is gone the day after the exam. Learn can be much deeper and more authentic. It can be much more than just memorisation and retention. But that’s the only thing we measure, and test scores rate the only thing we value.”

“How we can know if children are learning if we did not test them?”

“How we can know if the teacher is teaching? We are creating with this approach an extremely unhealthy culture for students, parents, and teachers. Children are going to endless hours of tuitions, staying up all night memorising useless facts that they will forget very soon.”

“But we were all taught like that. I, my husband, my sisters and brother and we are here. Professionals.”

“Yes, but you are here because you entered to work in education and there wasn’t much change on it. Your husband on the other hand probably had faced changes and had to adapt, or maybe someone young came to take his place. Probably, if you considered only his education and not his only effort to learn differently, he would be unemployed or with a meagre salary if he was entering the job market today.” Silence again.

“Passion. We are taking from our kids the passion for learning they were born. Schools had no room for passions and interests. We have an extremely standardise system, where each child must learn the same thing at the same time in the same way as everyone else. This doesn’t respect the basic fact of being human that each of us is unique and different in our own way.”

“So, you are saying we have to teach individually? But we do that already!”

“Did you? You respect the individual passion each child has? Individual teaching is not sat side by side your pupil and teach him the same thing you were teaching minutes before in front of the class. What this does is making you pupil being inferior to their pairs. You are stigmatising him as a failure who need special attention. It’s the famous tag “children with special needs.”

“But some children learn slower than others?”

“Yes, there are. But, if what you are teaching the children is not what they really want to know? Are you helping him to answer those crucial questions: ‘What am I good for?’, ‘What do I want to do?’, ‘How do I fit into this world? Of course, not, you are concerned about grades, information retained, behaviour. How much potential goes unrecognised in the current system?”

“I never thought about it.”

“None of us. Do you ever asked this important question: ‘how we learn?’ I read a specialist in education that said this is a silly question. We all learn in the same way, inside our brain. There the information is processed and stored. I disagree. Physically and psychologically we learn differently. People take a different path to proceed some data and understand its meaning, and no a general tool fits all styles of learning. The educational system is unfair to who take more time to learn, and this creates frustrations, angry, disinterest, and even bad behaviour.”

“You are saying that kids who behaviour is not good are misunderstood?”

‘Yes, I am saying we force those kids to hate themselves and us.”

“You are not fair.”

“It’s not about fair. It’s about the truth. Our kids spent more than five hours a day being lectured. And lecturing is a dehumidifier experience, as Sal Khan affirms, it’s 30 kids with fingers on their lips not allowed to interact with each other. And the difference in the levels of understanding aren’t considered, you will have in the class bored children because they are ahead or confused children because they are behind.”

“What we can do?”

“It’s what I intend to show you when my lab began to work. And there are more. Our kids have access to information coming from the internet. Technology made possible to anyone learn anything. But the schools never took those tools and introduced them into the stream of learning. On the contrary, fearing to lose the control, they transformed those potent tools in another subject to be learned with the same strategy they teach maths or languages. These resources are being lost.”

“I can’t visualise how we can change. It’s impossible to consider all you said and imagine a new way to do things.”

“Well, if we work together maybe we can discover a new way or adapt what other countries are doing to our reality.”

“Maybe…”

This was my first contact with the teaching staff. It was a long night, and after my conclusion, questions and debates made me believe in the possibility to change things. I was wrong.

Opening a door for a new way to learn and to teach, was my target in 1995. I had no experience in teaching children, and my graduation in Engineering and Business did not impress educators at all levels. The second point was, I intended to let the kids learn by themselves using technology as the primary tool. Not only computers, but even they were also the central point. I believed in collaborative learning, in stimulating all sensors, all minds. Context and critical thinking were more essential than knowing answers. My motto was “It’s more important know what to ask than the answers.”

First, I wanted a place very different from a classroom or a typical computer lab. In the end, because I had limited space and budget, I ended with a mix between an art atelier, a stage, and a computer lab. Colour, questions, images, and challenges were everywhere in the space. Kids called it “Helen’s lab”, I called area to learn.

Of course, I faced a lot of opposition. My system was disruptive, taking the teacher from the centre of the class, putting all tools in kids’ hands. More complicated, my pupils in 1995 were children between one year and a half to six years. Nobody, either the headteacher/owner of the school believed I should apply my ideas. Everybody thought soon or later, I will fit the old style. Whiteboard, lecture, questions, answers, and tests.

I began my experiment with software, most science and math programs. I understood that they were, in many ways, a reproduction of what kids were doing in the classroom, but, the ability they had to jump from one topic to another without the teacher imposing the same pace to all was well received by the kids. They, the kids, were finally having something to say about what they wanted to learn.

The headteacher saw my space (my classes) as a marketing piece, I saw as an educational change. In 1995, kids came to the computer lab to spend thirty minutes doing whatever they wanted on the computer. Painting, maths, science, watching movies, or writing. The result was so overwhelming welcomed by the parents that soon I was the head of technology and science. Some teachers were giving me positive feedbacks. Some children were more confident to make questions, answer, even the one who was shy or with disabilities were participating much more in the classes. With these feedbacks, next year, I had much more time, confidence, and everybody trust to push changes.

First, I put all school on the same network, now was possible to teachers and all people around the school send messages to each other. And not only messages, files, images, videos. The collaborative environment had escaped from the computer lab to all school.

Each class had a computer, a sound system, and widescreen television. The kids weren’t more put one behind other in what I called “military arrangement”, but they had the freedom to arrange their groups whatever they were working. The curriculum (unfortunately the government had some guide the school needed to follow) was integrated. How? Not more subjects, but a target to be learned. I add the history of science, art, music, maths, like in real life they were choosing how and what to learn.

The school pupils’ number increased, enabling the transformation from a nursery to a Primary School. I still was the head of science and technology. Now, not I had a technology lab but also a science lab. Most of the teacher were seeing a microscope, precision scales, test tune, and much other science lab equipment for the first time. Keen to unite both laboratories under the same perspective, given to the children the control over the material and learning, the science lab was introduced to all school, and the children could explore it whenever they wanted, including in breaks or lunchtime.

Suddenly, children were asking questions about time, changes, climate, recycling, facts they hear on the night news breaking the barrier between the school and the real world. More, they were bringing to school their passions: instruments, tools, stories, projects, dreams. I was beginning my experience; the change was coming.

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