A recent lesson with my Year Six class reminded me of the fear teachers face when confronted by the unknown. I thought the lesson would go quite smoothly, I have taught it before but this time things went in an unexpected and frightening direction.
The lesson in question is a writing task we set our students early in the year to gauge where our students are with their approach to writing, to identify strengths and areas for follow up in the coming weeks. We provide a stimulus image to the students, the photo of a haunted house depicted above. The image is presented to the whole class but this time I made the mistake of asking the students to keep their ideas about a possible story private. It seems this one action, this one dreadful mistake, led to the terrible result I will describe below.
Clearly the image is of a haunted house, we even refer to this task as the ‘Haunted House’ task. As in previous years I presented the image to my class, reminded them of our strategies for developing ideas for writing and gave them time to commence before wandering the room and checking on progress. Quickly the students engaged with the task, some moved to the projector for a closer look at the image, others began with mind maps of plot and characters, some listed key ideas for paragraphs, very quickly the class was progressing through the various stages of creative writing as best suited their needs. It was around this time when I noticed that for one student things had taken a most frightening turn towards an unexpected, unpredicted and unknown outcome.
This student had not noticed that the house in the picture was haunted, instead she saw a house in a community ravaged by the effects of financial collapse, a community in decay as a result of poverty and neglect. Her house had been at the centre of a vibrant neighbourhood full of families, with children playing in the yard and a sense of purpose and exuberance. By the time the photo was taken this had changed and now the neighbourhood was on the verge of collapse, its residents had moved out for the most part and those who remained did so under a burden of stress and isolation. Clearly she was heading towards a piece of dystopian fiction based on economic theories, possibly economic rationalism and the spectre of politicalisation lay heavy on her writing. This is not what I had prepared for, I did not immediately feel comfortable with the themes she was exploring, they were certainly not addressed in the teaching notes for the lesson and I have not studied economics since high school where I seem to recall less than stellar results. I was confronted by the frightening, the unexpected, the unpredicted and the unknown. Fortunately a few well-timed words saved the day and this young student's imagination was redirected towards a nice story about a haunted house.
Ok so I am lying. Parts of the story above are true but the feelings of fear and trepidation are not. I read the story and rejoiced that by suggesting my students postpone sharing their initial insights about the story behind the image, I had students who were not going to write the haunted house story with its predictable moments of fear, screaming and a fateful ending. The results were much more pleasing and while unknown, revealed a group of students with vibrant imaginations, deep knowledge of the world they live in and ability to weave the two into interesting and very readable narratives. I imagine very few teachers, if any would find a student taking a writing task in an unexpected direction confronting, after all writing is writing and the underlying skills, understandings and dispositions are the same regardless.
This ability to cope with the unknown does not extend to all areas of the curriculum. Confronted in a similar scenario during a science or technology lesson many teachers will discover themselves managing their fear of the unknown. When students imagine questions, inquiries, solutions or creations beyond our comfort zone, involving content we are unprepared for or with technologies we have not used this fear of the unknown can become the obstacle for learning. But why is this the case, the underlying skills, understandings and dispositions are the same regardless?
Confronting this fear of the unknown is essential if we are to allow our students to experience and participate in real inquiry. Our students need to be able to journey into the unknown if they are to experience true inquiry where the results are not already recorded, where the method for exploration is not pre-determined and where they are able to experiment with ideas. For this to occur they must be accompanied by a teacher comfortable with sharing this journey of discovery with students; teachers prepared to admit they don’t know the answer but who most importantly want to find it with their students as partners in learning. What our students need from us at these moments of confronting the unknown is not an encyclopedic knowledge of content or a talking ‘Dummies Guide to . . .’ they need a passionate learner, skilled in the methods of inquiry and able to impart those core skills to their students within an environment of collaboration. Surely these are the skills teachers are most comfortable with and so let us embrace the unknown safe in the knowledge that we are perfectly equipped to deal with whatever new learning it may throw our way.
by Nigel Coutts