Two of my friends have hobbies where they can almost seem to lose themselves in the process of creating the best possible photograph, or the best possible painting. In both cases, the absorption is in decision making, working their way through subtle changes, seeking clarity in image, or the best placing of the next colour stroke. Absorption could, of course imply obsession, but, in both people, their interest in the broader world is what provides the stimulus for their focused behaviours, from which they capture images that express an aspect of them.
In both cases the process is key, leading to several iterations of a possible outcome through a process of evaluation and editing; these might be separate pieces, or might be a reworking of the available image. Both are adding depth, through adding to, or removing layers from, the original.
Over the recent past, in education, process has been pushed into the background, yet, at heart, it equates to the models above, by effectively being a progressive layering of information and opportunity that evolves into a personal iteration at a particular age. If one was to see teachers as artisans, working with a very specific raw material, then every single child is a work in progress, capable of being helped to make alterations to what they know and how they use and apply their knowledge in novel contexts.
The common factor between the hobbyist photographer and painter and the artisan educator is that they control elements that are seemingly in their control as long as they have mastered techniques. The educator’s raw material, being multi-dimensional, may not always be totally in their control, especially in the early stages, resulting in variance in outcomes. It is, after all, a human system dealing in human frailties.
A sculptor working with wood will evolve very different approaches to one who works with stone; similar skills, but different application.
The variation in children has always been broad, yet, quite often, every one is treated exactly the same and there is an argument, developed over the recent few years, to “teach to the top” and scaffold for those who need it. In quality artisan hands, this will work in exemplary fashion, but, in less experienced hands it is likely to produce clunky outcomes, as the inexperienced may lack the ability to spot when there’s a need to intervene and adjust to need. You only have to watch ITE trainees in their first attempts at teaching to see this writ large. I’d suggest that the early days NQT will be experiencing similar.
Teaching is absorbing; unpicking children’s thinking and actions can provide many hours of distraction. Focusing on their learning needs, providing appropriate challenge and resources can spill over into weekends and holidays, impacting on outside lives. No wonder that we worry about work-life balance!
My teaching career is littered with abandoned hobbies, sport, music, art, any one of which, at the time, provided a few hours of absorbed behaviour, leaving behind the work details, creating space. The cricket stopped after I “caught” a ball in my face, having slipped for a split second into wondering about a particular child at school; not a good idea when you are only four metres from the batsman! I played my bodhran for a variety of folk groups, including a barn dance band, until the developing demands of an upcoming Ofsted inspection kept taking practice nights away and I had to step out; once replaced, there’s no way back. Painting has occasionally made an appearance, usually in the middle of the summer holiday when there’s been enough time and a place to get materials out.
Equally, though, I wonder about children’s lives, whether in either their home life or their school experience, they learn to become absorbed, to be able to focus on and achieve one thing, at the expense of others, maybe, but doing something of quality that can become the start point for further development and which provides personal pride. Some attend groups outside school or may choose a continuous club provision in school. They may be “spotted” and shepherded into an extension club with more qualified coaches.
School timetables have moved more from blocked time to singular lessons, with a defined time slot, with any flexibilities sometimes compromised by internal organisation that precludes a teacher from offering an extra few minutes for a child to complete a task in class time. It also means that tasks are designed to fit the available time, so can result in reduced challenge.
If process is important, then time to think, to plan, to organise, to start, to continuously evaluate and edit (in-task) has to be available. The alternative is a diet of shrink-wrapped, ready-prepared, short-term experiences, which may or may not link.
I know that time is finite and that schools are challenged to put in place the maths and English curricula, but in reality other subjects “feed” the core, so should demand a place of value. Thinking, along with doing and talking, supports many facets of literacy. Having something of quality to think and talk about enhances English, and maths opportunities are everywhere.
When learners become absorbed in a task and can take some control over, and responsibility for, the outcome, they derive pride and pleasure from the production at any age, especially if they can also see the ways in which they can continue to improve. Teacher quality assurance, response and feedback, has also to be nuanced. It’s easy to put learners off taking part, because they begin to believe that they’re “not good enough”! Belief in one’s ability to continuously improve is a support for progress.
Process is essential. If we lose it, teachers will have to work twice as hard, to provide scaffolded experience as both process and outcome. They will have to provide both the process and model outcomes. Sometimes, in open activities, children can demonstrate that they have far greater insights than their teachers have previously thought. Task activities can be limiting.