How does Sugata Mitra's work have relevance to yours?
If children have interest, education happens.
Nothing like listening to a great podcast during a nice long run. Podcasts offer us breaks in reading, yet have the same power in regards to teaching us things that we may not know or want to further explore. I was recently listening to an excellent Ted Radio Hour podcast. An important question that was posed had to do with the way that people genuinely learn and how their minds and bodies assimilate lessons from the world around them.
The first part of the podcast centered on an incredible experiment conducted by Sugata Mitra, a professor of educational technology at the University of Newcastle. In 1999, he was asked to set up an experiment that would explore how people interact with computers in public spaces. Sugata is from India and decided that he would add a bit of a twist to this experiment by positioning the computer just 3 feet off the ground, in a hole, in the wall of a slum, in a small town. He ultimately wanted to see how poor kids with no English and no previous experience with a computer or the internet would interact with it using only a mouse. He simply had it installed and left it there, but was closely observing with cameras and audio through a remote desktop that he had set up. He was able to closely observe from afar.
Included in the podcast was actual audio of curious and excited voices, working together in a tone that seemed to indicate genuine collaboration in action. Within hours of leaving the computer, he could see that changes were taking place. Programs were starting to be used, English words starting to be written (an amazing feat considering he had not left a keyboard).
Astonished, he jumped up and rushed back to the place that the computer was installed and determined that the kids had figured out how to use the internal character map to begin to write out words. A colleague of Mitra’s said the explanation was simple, an older person with computer experience must have strolled by and taught the kids how to use the mouse to navigate around the computer. This person must have obviously taught them other things as well.
Mitra then decided to repeat the experiment in several different parts of India (which he later extended to several different poor areas around the world). The results were the same. Poor young kids who had access to these computers were able to teach themselves many things. In one experiment, he went back to a village two months after leaving the computer there and was told by the kids that they wanted a faster processor and better mouse! He asked how they had learned about this and they responded with “You’ve given us a machine that works only in English, so we had to teach ourselves English in order to use it”. Sugata said that it was the first time as a teacher that he heard the phrase, “We had to teach ourselves” used so causally. This was a huge turning point for him and his research.
Sugata felt that he had a chance to change the way we think about learning and the perceptions many educators hold about how we teach things to kids. Perhaps, as Sugata believed, much of what young people learn could happen on its own. He set out to prove whether or not he could achieve his aim. I won’t go into further details about Sugata and his work, but if you want to find out more, view his Ted Talk below or click on the Ted Radio link.
As I listened to the podcast, I couldn’t help but think about how learning takes place in PE. Is it possible for learning to happen on its own? Obviously our teaching environment could never be set up in a similar way that Sugata had created the computer experiment in poor areas of India and other parts of the world. However, to what extent are some of his ideas and beliefs repeatable in a PE environment?
Although I try to set up a learning environment that allows students choice and ownership over their learning, everything we do is firmly rooted in important student learning outcomes in any unit that I teach. I give them a specific direction and purpose before setting them free (in a clearly structured manner). I’ve seen kids be able to develop their skills and show understanding of important concepts when allowing them a certain extent of freedom within their learning. Setting them free does not mean that I am no longer actively involved in the process of their learning! This is where I think my best teaching happens.
As I think more about Sugata’s work, I am left wondering if it has more relevance to our teaching and to the learning of our students than we may believe?
I must stay focused on 'WHY' I want to understand this independence and ownership of learning in PE in order to better understand and evaluate the true effectiveness of my approach. My ‘why’ is all about creating long term behavioral change in regards to young people leading more physically active lives and making healthier choices. This is ‘why’ I teach PE and ‘why’ I will continue to do whatever I can to deepen my own learning about the most effective ways to teach young people.
So, I leave you with these three questions?
A) To what extent do you agree or disagree that unstoppable learning can happen in PE if we set up our teaching environment accordingly?
B) In what ways have you allowed student choice and ownership over learning in your PE program? What has been the result?
C) How do we know our programs are having the effect that we desire in PE?
Thanks for reading. Would love to hear your thoughts below!
An overview of student learning in the net games unit
The grade 4 net games unit that I taught over the past several weeks has come to a conclusion this week. Although there were many disruptions over the 7 weeks due to my students missing a few classes because of having to rehearse for the school's elementary production and the unit being interrupted during the Christmas holiday break, I must say that it was very rewarding seeing how the students progressed. I had blogged about some of the things happening during this unit just before the holidays, but I'll give a brief overview of the structure of this unit before closing with examples of some excellent reflections written by my students over the past couple of days in PE.
The Immersion Phase
During the first 3 classes of this unit, I allowed the students to explore a different net game each class (badminton, tennis, and ping pong). During this exploration phase, I gave the students specific challenges to try out and allowed them to create their own challenges. The key question that I had them think about during the immersion phase was 'What do you find most difficult about each of the net games being played?'. We began with tennis during the immersion phase and these were some of the answers they came up with to this question. Many of their answers prompted lots of important discussions about what they thought and how they felt. A perfect launch point for addressing specific learning outcomes in this unit.
I repeated a similar process for ping pong and badminton and the students generally agreed that they faced challenges and difficulties similar to what they had experienced with tennis. It was at this point in the unit, after our third class, that I made the student learning outcomes explicit to them. I genuinely believe that by giving them this immersion experience, I was able to draw out what they felt was important to know and do in this unit. The visual below was introduced to them next.
It was at this point that I presented the biggest challenge in the unit to date. I told them that I wanted them to select one net game that they felt that they wanted to work on the most for the rest of the unit. We had very important discussions about perseverance and the distinct possibility that they would experience failure. Once they selected their net game, they chose their personal goal related to this sport and were set off on their personal learning journeys the rest of the unit.
Does this mean I simply washed my hands of responsibility, sat in the corner and did nothing? That I left them to their own devices to figure out how to play the net game on their own? Far from it! I was actively involved in their learning the rest of the unit. I had mini-coaching sessions with all of the kids at numerous times during the following 6 weeks. During this time, the students created their own activities and games, asked lots of questions, and helped each other out. I let kids struggle to that point that they were frustrated. I did so because I felt it was necessary for them to overcome obstacles in order to truly learn.
Learning with the Heart, the Head, and the Hands
Once the students had chosen which net game they would work on and had some time to further explore, learn, and discover, I then went into the next phase of the unit which was to break down the specific learning outcomes into 3 categories. I wanted them to understand the importance of learning with the heart (affective: thoughts and feelings), the head (thinking: rules, strategies and safety), and the hands (the actual physical skills necessary to develop). This was one of the most interesting parts of the unit to teach and I had to ensure the students understood these ideas, but also to get them to identify which category could pose the biggest challenge to them.
The Next Few Weeks
I've got to be completely honest here and say that the next few weeks were not all happy, glowing, warm and fuzzy moments. We experienced tears, frustrations, some kids refusing to work with others, boredom, and outright non-stop bickering. However, I was able to address each of these situations and help to push each student forward with their learning. A couple of the kids complained about being bored. This was a direct result of not pushing themselves enough or me not challenging them hard enough. I was able to get these kids back on track all of the time. Despite these tougher moments, the students, for the most part, showed lots of perseverance during this unit.
I could observe longer and stronger rallies taking place over the 6 weeks. As the kids deepened their skills and were able to sustain longer rallies, I could see their confidence grow. Teaching the students about the importance of a positive mindset plays a critical role in my PE program. Many kids felt as though their mindsets had improved and that they were able to better accept mistakes and failure which was critical to their learning.
Their Final Reflections
I usually just show a few assessment examples when I blog, but I've decided to include a few more this time. So many great reflections that I want to share with you. I'm very proud of how this unit went, but can still see room for improvement in the way I delivered it. For now, check out the reflections below. There were 2 sides to the assessment sheet, so I have included both front and back for each student.
I asked the students how they felt about being able to choose one net game to work on for most of the unit and the vast majority said that they really liked it. There were a couple of students who said that they would have preferred to play different games rather than sticking to just one game. We listened to their reasons which made perfect sense. Those who really enjoyed picking the one net game to focus on also explained their reasons.
I'm very happy with the way that this unit turned out and even more pleased with the progress that the students seemed to make. Check out a short video of my students explaining their thoughts below.
Whether you think that you can, or that you can't, you are usually right.
I'm finishing up my grade 4 net games unit this week and much of what I have focused on with my students is trying to instill in them the importance of developing more healthy mindsets. The Henry Ford quote above is simple, yet there is such powerful underlying truth to it. Throughout this unit, I have had to address mindset quite a number of times as many students experienced anger and frustration at not being able to execute the basic skills necessary to push them forward with their learning.
I worked hard to get them to understand that the beliefs that they hold about themselves can greatly affect the rate of progress that they make in the unit. It was imperative to me that they have a realistic perspective on things and to know that despite mistakes and failure, switching their mindsets into the correct gear was pivotal in helping them better persevere through this difficulty. Together we celebrated even the smallest of successes which I hope helped in creating more of an 'I think I can' attitude in this unit. As educators, we must ensure that we design opportunities to address mindset with our students. To me, it's so worth it to generate powerful discussions about mindset on an ongoing basis in PE.
“One day at a time: It sounds so simple but it isn’t easy: It requires incredible support and fastidious structure”
Taking it one day at a time
If you are a blogger or use social media platforms such as Medium to share your ideas, thoughts, inspiration, and/or art, chances are you’re already a highly motivated person who constantly strives to deepen their craft in whatever arena that you have chosen to pursue as an expression of your life’s work. When referring to your work, I don’t necessarily mean the full-time job in which you receive your salary, but more so whatever it is you are passionate about and want to share with people who you may or may not know.
In my own personal case, much of what I share on my blog or on Medium directly connects to the full-time job that I do which is teaching. Those of you who regularly share your life’s work will clearly understand that it is the act of getting it out there that forms the basis of your pursuit and journey towards mastery. My pursuit of mastery in teaching has transformed itself countless times since I began my blogging journey a few years back.
Even though my ultimate desire is to be the very best educator I can be, the path that I venture down now is more deeply rooted in the process of being a lifelong learner. Committing myself to this journey has helped to open many doors and create new paths that fork in multiple directions. Regardless of which door I walk through or path that I decide to explore, I’m becoming a better teacher along the way. This has allowed me to provide a more enriched learning experience for those who matter most in my life; my family and the different people who I teach (my students and the teachers who I train).
Russell Brand’s quote that I highlighted as a starting point for this Medium post is one of the most noble forms of truth that there is. Although taking it one day at a time sounds so simplistic in nature, putting this valuable advice into action is an extremely challenging thing to do for a variety of reasons. One of the main causes of not taking things one day at a time is often a result of being too end-product focused in our lives and work.
However, producing our best requires us to understand that it is necessary to find support and use this base not only to better ourselves but to also strive to improve the work and lives of those who have extended a helping hand to us. When looking at successful people who have been a source of inspiration to us, it’s not hard to see that their success hasn’t occurred by mere chance. They take initiative to manage their time effectively and build upon their toolkit of essential skills which allows them to move forward with regularity. It’s fastidious structure, organization, and a continual commitment to being their best that forever shines through even in the face of adversity and failure.
There are many people who inspire me on a daily basis that continues to shape the person and the educator that I am. I always try my best to let them know, in my own way, just how special a role that they play in my life and my work. It’s these people who will push me to produce my best work, not only in 2015 but for years to come. I have nothing but immense gratitude for each and every one of them.
How can you slow the pace down and focus more on taking things one day at a time? This question is intended for me just as much as it is for anyone who is reading this post. Slowing down certainly doesn’t imply stifling productivity either as it will serve to ultimately allow us all to produce our best work possible now and in the future. May you all be your very best in 2015.
KAUST Faculty, Pedagogical Coach. Presenter & Workshop Leader.IB Educator. #RunYourLife podcast host.