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Giving Students Space for Excellence

In an age where life seems to be becoming more and more fast-paced, I have challenged by the notion of excellence. With the amount of content educators cover many of us have compartmentalised ourselves like our subjects. We have created the discrete subjects of Maths, Literacy, Science, Humanities, Art and Physical Education and within these we have created smaller bite size pieces. I was awoken to this realization on my Blue Mile walk today that many of us have lost the ability to step back, look at the big picture and question ourselves is what I am teaching my students going to serve them in the world beyond school?

When we look at the world and how industries outside of education work, a lively interplay can be observed. Within this exchange life is not broken into these smaller subsections. Employees may have job titles and specific task they do but by using an integrated approach they work together to improve, become more efficient and complete a task at a higher level. In most cases life is integrated, flexible and offer opportunities to amalgamate passions; though in schools we tell them the content we need to teach is more important than the knowledge and passions they want to grow. It is essential that we encourage academic growth and achievement and help students move towards the goals that they set out. It is also important that we do the same for ourselves. Each one of us have 7 days a week and 168 hours in which to work towards these targets; however, many of us get distracted by the noise of the urgent, the content we need to teach, the event we need to attend, the demands delegated upon us and by the end of the year we find that we are no closer to the place we wanted to be. Is this a pattern we want to reciprocate for our students?

If we want to create an education experience that is authentic and engaging that allows students to create a product of excellence we need to look at how we divide our time. In bringing together subjects we allow ourselves the freedom to as Ron Berger puts it ‘to go deeper.’ As we reduce the breath and focus on depth excellence begins to occur. By going deeper the knowledge subsets develop, creating connections that we could not have seen by broadly teaching every outcome. A culture of feedback and cycles of improvement develop. Students become more critical and creative in thinking as they are not only preparing for a test, they are creating original work. This original work becomes something of beauty because it is knowledge in action.

It is like if we were going to over a month travel to Europe. In this time we were going to visit 46 countries. We may have covered a lot ground and taken a lot of blurry photos from the vehicle that we are travelling. In looking back over these photos we could say that we had been to Europe and point out that this is a castle, the Eiffel Tower and London Bridge but we couldn’t really talk about the cultural experience of being in Europe. Now imagine we still had those 30 days and instead of 46 countries we visited 10 of these our experience of Europe would be much richer as we would have been immersed in the culture. We would have tried speaking a bit to the local languages with mixed success, we would have engaged with many local shopkeepers, explored some of the local sites and most importantly learnt about what life is like there. As you can see the narrative and understanding we would have about Europe would be more accurate.

Ron Berger in his book ‘Ethics of Excellence’ suggests that once students have the narrative they then need to have a creative expression of this understanding. By doing this they will draft, reflect, enhance and improve the product so that it becomes an accurate expression of their understanding. This has been a strategy that he has taken into every area of education from pre-schoolers through to Harvard university students and he has found that it has rarely failed.

Going back to my walk along the Blue Mile. I became aware that when we begin to include beautiful things such as music, architecture, design, art, culture, languages, digital expressions, photography we become inspired to teach with greater richness. It is the same for students as they pick up our passions. They begin to embed them into their original works, their understanding of the content and tap into their own. Creating a joy of learning gives students both hope and happiness. They appreciate their work will be appreciated by a larger audience and critiqued appropriately because it is the best they could do with the skills, understanding and resources available at the time.

Below is an example of practice. This concept of excellence is appreciated in industry and has been taken on by schools across the globe. One such school is High Tech High lead by Larry Rosenstock. The following is a link to an abridged version of a full-length documentary created at the school based on this form of pedagogy.

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