Over the years the issue of constant interruptions to our learning and teaching has at times frustrated me and sometimes made me very annoyed. I've been told that it's just part of being in the classroom and that it happens 'in every school.' Don't get me wrong - I've been just as guilty as some, at times, of being the one interrupting and sometimes for a very irrelevant reason, particularly when I've been part of the senior leadership team and may have momentarily forgotten my manners and/or what it's like to be in the classroom full time and interrupted without good reason.
We all know what it's like. You're in the middle of something that is exciting, the students are engaged, they're sharing the teaching and learning and the discussions are amazing and then it happens...... The door opens, or the phone rings - for the 40th time that day, or the intercom goes - for the 30th time that day...!!!!!!! (A slight exaggeration but most of you will know exactly what I mean and it's not restricted to any particular country or situation / level - it's a global 'phenomenon'. (Maybe that's not the right word so please insert in there what you think fits your situation - and also feel free to share that in the comments following this post!).
In my second year of teaching - a little while ago - I started to question what we were valuing in our schools if we were allowing these constant interruptions that had little or nothing to do with learning and teaching to continue. Fortunately, I had just arrived in a new school where our Principal felt the same way. As a staff we began to question our practices and routines in the school. We had senior students who were 'monitors' in the school which, while it did give them leadership opportunities, some of them - particularly those who had the role of taking the daily notice book around the school - could be out of class for up to two hours...a day. We questioned how this was valuing the learning and teaching in our school. Yes, it was helpful to the running of the school but there were many more leadership opportunities in the class room if that was the reason for the creation of these jobs. It was not making the learning important. We can't waste a minute of learning time - it's too precious but wasting it was precisely what was happening.
Imagine if the same students were out of the classroom every day for two hours a week - that's 10 hours a week of learning that is lost and cannot be recovered or made up. You can do the math on how many hours that would be a term, etc. (Another side of this argument - hours out of class due to family holidays is about to rear it's head in this post).
The discussion around this involved the whole staff - not just the teaching staff - and it was incredibly powerful. We decided that there would no longer be non-essential interruptions and that we would use as many digital tools as possible to cut down on unnecessary interruptions, e.g. email, school website, intranet for daily notices, etc. The intercom was only used in an emergency and there were no telephones in the classrooms. The difference was palpable - and noticed by everyone, from staff to students. We were a school whose staff and students very obviously, and publicly, valued learning and teaching time. If there were any non-essential interruptions, students would comment on their learning time not being valued.
So, if I'm arguing that we need to value learning and teaching and not interrupt it unnecessarily, then what are my thoughts on the following article which appeared in some of New Zealand's media over the past week? (I researched this a little further and there are an incredible amount of articles about this issue on the net).
I'd love you to read the article, form some opinions - you will already have many on this issue - and then I'll carry on.
Pupils pay heavy price for cheap holidays
If I'm so against unnecessary interruptions, then where so I stand on the issue of parents taking students out of school for family holidays during term time because it's cheaper? (And, is this in fact the only reason why they do it. I don't believe it is - work opportunities, learning opportunities and family commitments all play their part too).
Where do I stand then? Well, it depends - and I'm not fence-sitting here, truly. If it's just a holiday in the island sun then I'm pretty much against it as I also am if it is going to interrupt NCEA (in New Zealand) or other Senior exams, courses etc globally. However, if the family holiday is an 'experience of a lifetime' and includes opportunities for amazing learning and putting into practice what is being learned in the classroom then isn't this what we want as teachers and learners? Don't we want to flatten the classroom walls and develop our eLearning / Blended learning environments to extend well beyond those walls?
The opportunities of being able to explore the globe and really understand some of the main issues that relate to what we've been learning in the classroom surely shouldn't be passed up. What if your inquiry has been about global poverty and ways to combat this issue and one of your students has the opportunity to travel to a very poor country where this is their main issue, because his/her family is involved in an organisation helping alleviate poverty in that country. How powerful would that learning be? Doubly powerful if the digital tools now at our disposal are used to communicate the issues with the class back home through videos, blogs, etc., and create discussion and debate.
If it's travelling through different countries and experiencing different cultures then isn't that learning too? We are arguing that eLearning is 'anytime, anywhere' learning which includes Blended and Mobile learning but then we want to restrict it to what happens in school by way of us saying that students can't be out of school during term time. To me, this doesn't make sense. I want my students to be engaged, critical, creative thinkers who have empathy for others and who want to make a difference to their world. Don't these experiences help them to become connected global citizens. For me, that's part of my goal as an educator.
There is an argument - which is valid - that they can wait until they are older and travel then when they've finished school or university. I would argue that the earlier we help develop our global citizens the better and it's even more effective if we can link any classroom learning to the world outside the classroom which makes it relevant and real learning. It has a purpose and it 'flattens the classroom'. If we are saying that educational trips can't be taken, what message are we sending to the wider community - that the only 'real' learning can happen in the classroom? I think this is the opposite of what we want. I know it's the opposite of what I want.
So let them travel and learn and become global citizens as early as possible - within reason. Please don't take them out at crucial assessment times in their senior years and I'm not sure how the 'week in the sun on the island' is supporting the goal of global citizenship but use the tools we have to really connect through digital learning and teaching tools. Apply the pedagogy of eLearning and I think we can really develop something special with our students and expose them to real and relevant learning which can only strengthen what we are trying to achieve in our classrooms.