“I am attracted to ellipsis, to the unsaid, to suggestion, to eloquent, deliberate silence.“
– Louise Glück, American poet –
Whilst we enjoy the beautiful construction of poetry; the way words are used as tools to conjure image and emotion, it is often what the poet leaves out that matters most. In the unwritten word, there is an understanding and a trust that exists between the reader and the poet. So much can be communicated and there is so much power in the unsaid.
One of the subtle, and often overlooked traits that great teachers possess is knowing what not to say. Sometimes this involves reading the ‘glint’ in a student’s eye and choosing not to express disappointment about late homework. Sometimes it involves sensing the ‘vibe’ in the room and laughing with a momentarily disrupted class instead of trying to immediately refocus them.
‘Glints’ and ‘vibes’ and ‘unsaid words’ all sound quite ethereal, immeasurable and unscientific. That’s because they are. They are part of the invisible beauty of great teaching.
The English word “school” is derived from ancient Greek. The original Greek word scholē was used to describe any ‘place of leisure’. Later, it was also used to describe a place where lectures were given. It’s interesting how closely linked the concepts of learning and leisure have always been.
When we get schools right, students and teachers are fully and meaningfully engaged – they have fun and they learn.
Today, with the help of a skilled friend, I finished building a cubby house for my kids. It looks great and it’s very cool to have it done, but we made quite a few mistakes along the way and there were plenty of challenges to overcome. (It took three days when we thought it would take one!) It was my first proper building project and I learned a lot.
The thing is, none of the ‘mistakes’ felt like we’d ‘got it wrong’. I wasn’t deflated or demotivated or embarrassed. If anything, the mistakes were kind of exciting, and were very powerful learning experiences – they were meaningful mistakes.
Where students (and teachers) sometimes go wrong, is that they confuse learning states with performance states. In a learning state, mistakes are crucial and highly valuable. If we’re not making mistakes during learning, we’re not tackling difficult enough problems. In performance states, mistakes are bad. We don’t want our dentist to make a mistake when she’s drilling into our teeth. We do though, want her to have made as many mistakes as possible and learned from them all in dentistry school!
Schools are a place to learn – they should be a safe place to make mistakes, to take risks, to try new ideas and to stuff up sometimes. It’s easy to forget that schools are not about performance, they are are about learning. We must get better at encouraging, rewarding and even celebrating meaningful mistakes.
There is a comforting familiarity with the annual cycle of schooling. It feels like it makes sense doesn’t it? The system is particularly neat in southern hemisphere schools were the Gregorian calendar (created in 1582) starts and ends in synchrony with our ‘school year’. School finishes in December and we wind down for our six or seven-week summer vacation.
For the most part, we look forward to the long holiday. We feel we need it to recover from the year just gone and to rejuvenate and prepare ourselves physically and mentally for the coming year. But do we really need the long summer break? Is it the most effective and efficient use of schools’ time? And what about the educational, developmental and wellbeing impact on our students? Do teachers need a long holiday each year more than other professions? What would happen if we didn’t have such a long break?
Like too much of traditional schooling, we ‘go through the motions’ – we continue to do things the same way because that’s how they’ve always been done.
However, there are now more than 4,000 schools in the USA that have switched to ‘Year-Round’ scheduling – with no long summer break. It’s too early to tell what impact this development is having on learning. But it is exciting that schools are asking: is there another way? Is there a better way?