Thursday, June 23, 2016

Punk Learning

So I just finished an amazing book: Punk Learning by Tait Coles. This book has both inspired me to change my practice AND embolden me to realize that perhaps I am on the right track, despite what others may say about or to me. The premise of the book is that we should give control back to students (and teachers!) so that they can own their learning. That's a very simplistic summary, but I'll try to do the ideas justice when explaining some of the key thoughts.

At only 163 pages (and short ones, at that) this is a very quick read, but filled with a lot of thought provoking ideas. Long story short: if you're truly interested in doing good by your students, READ THIS BOOK! It's not a recipe for success, but it is definitely a code that you can live by.

I've broken my thoughts down into the mini-chapters from the book (only to help organize the thoughts in my head).

Choice (DIY culture), Mindset
Even before I read this book, I have wanted to give my students more choice and control of their own learning. Perhaps that's why I read the book in the first place. Remember, our jobs are to serve our students - to prepare them for the life they want. Check that. It's to help them become learners and find wonder in the world. It doesn't have to be in the future. It should be now. Punk learning is all about choice and DIY learning. We (adults and children alike) make meaning by asking our own questions (more on that later) and finding the answers. Punk learning is about a mindset, not just going against the grain, just because (which some people seem to think I am doing). You will be amazed by what students can do if you only give them the chance (and the tools!) to be the amazing people that they are inside.

The book suggests that we need to change our perceptions of anarchy. It's a good thing. An anarchist "offers a critique of the existing order." We should all strive for this. A saying I like to remind myself of often is: Adapt or Die. I'm not sure who or where to credit that as it's been so long since I've first heard it. But it's spot on. If you don't change you become irrelevant. Lately, I've been doing a lot of this (partly because of reading this book, but also because I feel that change is necessary for us to move forward). If you want to know all the things that are suggested to create anarchy in your classroom, I suggest you buy the book, but the one thing I will say is that make sure you ask yourself: "What am I doing this?" Nothing should ever be sacred when we're talking about the minds of children.

Famous Punks
A whole chapter is also devoted to discussing famous punks in history. Not just punk rockers (which are quoted extensively throughout the book), but those people who did things their own way and had an amazing impact on millions of others and, in some cases, across centuries. Coles suggests that we teach our students about these people - something I plan on doing (perhaps a weekly "spotlight" - though the caveat here would be to make sure it's not all white men). Among the punk learners mentioned there are: George Orwell, Charles Darwin and Jessie J. I believe there is tremendous value in this - not just discussing the famous people, but by showing that they became famous and amazing by breaking the rules, not by following them blindly.

Punk Learning Manifesto
Included is a Punk Learning Manifesto, which basically states that students should be valued and have control. That's a very simplistic interpretation, but the list given in the book is worth the cost, I'd say. Plus, the whole idea is to adapt and make it your own. So there really is no set manifesto. It should be what your students want it to be. That's something I can get behind. As Obi-Wan Kenobi once said: "Only a Sith deals in absolutes!" (I do know where that one comes from).

After a lot of theorizing and grand ideas, the book then gets down to a lot of very practical ideas The first is having students learn how to come up with some really good questions.  It is vital to students' learning that they ask good questions. We (should) all know that children are really good at asking questions. They have a natural curiosity that seems endless - until we school it out of them. So we need to leverage this tendency rather than squash it. Our best bet is to teach students to improve their questions and figure out which ones are the best to ask.

So three steps are suggested: 1) Get students to ask questions based on some sort of stimulus (video, article, etc), 2) Get students to analyze, critique and improve their questions, 3) Get students to decide which questions are the most important (for them) to ask.

See how all of those things start with the students doing and thinking?

SOLO Taxonomy

Before this year I had only heard of SOLO taxonomy. I had watched a few videos but wasn't really sure about it. My new school this year is very big on SOLO and I have started trying to use it in class. So it was nice to see that Punk Learning talked a lot about SOLO. To put it simply, SOLO is a great tool to use with students that can be adapted for any type of learning. It outlines the different levels of understanding of ideas or concepts from Prestructural (I have no idea) to Extended Abstract (I understand fully and can use the idea to create new ideas). I'm not going to go into explaining all the levels and ideas around SOLO (one, because I don't have the time or space, but 2, I don't actually know everything... yet).  If you're not using it, I would suggest you look it up. It's definitely a useful tool.

There were some practical applications here that I hadn't even thought of. One suggestion is to have stations around the room on a certain topic, for example (from the book: forces.  Again, I won't go into details, but each station was designed so that it would help students move from one stage to the next. The brilliant part of the idea is that students choose which station to go to.  This gives students a way to access the material at their own levels (differentiation, anyone?). And students can easily make their own decisions about whether or not they should be at a particular station or not. This is because each station should have a list of success criteria for students to check. I'd like to try this, perhaps for our upcoming science inquiry (though again, that might depend on student choice).

The chapter on SOLO actually started with a comparison to Bloom's Taxonomy. I have, for a long time, been a big fan of Bloom's. I like that there are different kinds of questions, though I have always wondered why some of them were above each other. This book is pretty unimpressed with Bloom's, and gives good reasons. I don't think it's worth abandoning it, but I do think that SOLO is a good place to start. I still use different Bloom's questions (specifically Create questions) but then compare them to SOLO levels as well.

Zeitgeist (or the Spirit of the Times)

The next mini-chapter discussed zeitgeist and how we can embrace the idea in our classrooms. As many teachers will know, there are numerous things in which we are told we HAVE to do or have in our classrooms - non-negotiables, if you will. Many of these things may be rooted in something that was once a great idea, but over time they have been distorted and people do them just because (That's What We've Always Done, or TWWAD). We rarely question the reasons behind this and when we do, often we find that it's because we've been told to do them.

While there are many suggestions as to how to improve in this area, I think the main idea is simply this: ask yourself why you're doing something. We don't do this enough. If it helps the students and their learning, keep doing it. If it doesn't, stop.


One of the most powerful things I took out of this book was the idea of critiquing. We all know feedback is one of the most important factors for students when it comes to learning, and often that is interpreted as marking books (see above section regarding TWWAD). This is much more than that. If you want to find out more, buy the book (seriously, why haven't you already?), but the gist is Be Kind, Be Specific, Be Helpful (and Be Harsh if necessary). Students need to know what is good about what they've done and what they need to do to improve it. They need time to actually make the improvements and they can benefit from sharing their critiques. With a growth mindset, children will learn the value of getting this feedback and be able to improve on their own more readily.

Learning vs. Progress

And this brings me to the next point. What is really important at school and why do we measure what we measure? There is a huge trend today to look at data and report on data and compare students to a set of (arbitrary) standards. How has this happened and why do we need to keep doing it? My theory behind this whole thing is that the focus on standards has actually lowered them because students aren't learning the important things. But I digress. The whole point is that we measure progress (what level are you on?) through a set of standards, but we miss a lot of the important learning. We know when learning is going on, we know when students are engaged. What do we gain by putting a number or letter or whatever next to a student in a very specific subject?

Bookwork vs Writing/Recording for a Purpose

This section is actually very close to me these days as we've just had our books checked to see if they are up to standard. What's the point of books? Why do we focus on students writing in books when we never do (I bet someone out there will say they just love to write by hand, but they are the exception, NOT the rule)? Why do books have to be so neat? Personally, I think there is some value in using books (journals), but if we record it needs to be for a purpose. We shouldn't just fill up books so that we can send them home at the end of the year and say: "Look, we're teaching your children - see how much they did!" It's about quality, not quantity. It's about recording things when and how they need to be recorded. It's about brainstorming and being messy (learning is messy). I don't see how making your book neat makes you a good learner. I've started trying to emulate these ideas lately and have several big pieces of paper up in my class with brainstorms we've done (and we share a lot online through GAFE). I like the idea and am not really fond of the "rainbow vomit" (quoted from a former colleague) that many classrooms have up on the walls.

Levels, Numbers for Assessment - Using Rubrics Instead (eg SOLO)

I touched on this idea above, and to be honest, there is not much that can be done about this on a country-wide level (at least not by me alone) anytime soon. The idea is simply this: How do levels (1A, Stage 2, Turquoise for reading) explain how or what a student is learning? Who decided that reading, writing and math are the skils that are most important and that the way we measure them is the best way to measure them.

Again, it is suggested that SOLO can be quite useful here. Because SOLO is such a general tool, it can be applied to many situations, and students can assess their own understanding of ideas, using the levels - even without the aid of a rubric. When you do add a rubric, however, it can become a powerful tool to help students identify what they know and what they need to improve upon. We've already started using rubrics on our writing projects (and in fact, writing in NZ is assessed using a rubric, but rarely is that shared with students - in my class it is though). While numbers that go up may look really good for a school in the eyes of a politician who has never spent a day teaching, they don't really tell the whole story.

How do you know if you're a punk learner?

Ask yourself this: are you doing something because you've been told to, or are you doing things so that the children can learn what they want and how they want? Do you get bogged down in what you have to do? Are you trying to impress someone so that they think you're a great teacher?

Showing creativity in ALL subject areas

Creativity is often given its place in schools: art, drama, music, etc (which is kind of ironic because most of those subjects aren't creative at all). We, as teachers, need to see that students can be creative in any endeavour. Creativity can come out of a simple problem of how to keep the class tidy, or how to sort out who gets the milk (two problems my class has had). Students need to be given the opportunity and time to mull over problems and to find innovative solutions to them. This isn't just students doing what they want - it is just letting students exercise their brains to deal with real world issues.

Chaos vs Control w.r.t. Student vs Teacher Centred learning

Ask yourself: what's better for learning: a room where all student actions are controlled by a teacher or one where students are chaotically doing their own learning? We, as teachers need to cede some control over to our students. This may look like chaos, but out of that chaos comes real, authentic learning. When we allow students to have control over what they learn then it becomes more meaningful to them. If we control them, then many students will become disengaged. This may look messy, but learning is messy.

Girl Power in Schools

The more I write, the more I realize how long this post is becoming (crazy, but it's just a testament to how great this book is!). One of the last chapters discussed girls in education. As I've mentioned in a few posts previously, I do think there are many issues facing girls in school (and sport). One important thing to remember is there is no such thing as a "boy book" or a "girl subject." Somehow society has put labels on things as being for boys or for girls. And this especially can cause girls to not do things they would otherwise want to do. One big takeaway from this is to expose children (both boys and girls) to famous women who have done the "boy" things and been successful (also, encouraging girls to try these things).

Keep on the Bus

One of the final messages of the book was that education can often be like a bus station (I actually had to return the book to the library so I don't have a copy to remind myself of it at the moment - but it was so good, I'll be buying a copy shortly). When you start out you're at the station and you get on a bus with lots of other people and you go the same way as them. But you want to be different, so you say, "OK, I'll go back and try again." So you go back to the bus station and get on a different bus, with new people. Then after a while you realize that you're just like them so you go back and start again. And again. Over and over. We should be staying on the bus though. Eventually, we'll find our own niche and our own way that works for us and our students. Punk learning isn't about following a formula. One punk teacher will be different from all the other punk teachers. It takes time, though. You won't wake up one morning and be a different teacher. It comes in slow steps over time.

My Conclusions
This book struck a massive chord in me. Many things I'm doing but have been marginalized because of them. This just strengthens my resolve to try even more to be better. And by better I mean better at producing competent students who can learn on their own and are empowered. I feel that in the short time that I've read this book, I've been able to take many of the tools I've learned from it and applied them in my classroom (it's taken me a good two weeks to write this post). My advice to anyone else: do what's best for your students. Teach them how to ask questions and teach them how to find their own, meaningful answers. Don't listen to the people who tell you that this is how it has to be done. Have conversations. Get better. Never settle. Always questions why you're doing things.

And go read this book. It will change your perspective.

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