What comes first, school or well being?
Updated: Sep 28, 2019
Recently I read a blog post by Grant Lichtman with the same title as this blog. His came first BUT I thought this is a really important topic and I wanted to further the discussion. (Peter Gamwell asked this question and became the title of the article)
As soon as I read the title of the blog, I thought it was a shame that we even had to ask this question. I believe the answer is painfully obvious in that if we can take care of our students' well-being the school takes care of itself. And even then, the fact that we asked about "school" and not "learning" is a bummer to me too! We talk about playing the game of life, but the game within the game is the game of school. In my experience, it takes one semester for kids to feel like they know how to play the game of school.
I teach grade nine science (I LOVE IT!) and the difference between my students in first semester and second semester is astounding! In first semester they come in to class and they're nervous and curious, by second semester, they don't ask any questions and they just want to know what they need to know to pass. They've learned to play the game.
The entire system is aligned towards maximizing efficiency of the group, as if students and teachers were a colony of ants, not towards the well-being of any individual.
But I digress. In my personal opinion, the most important part of a person's well being, is their sense of agency. Drs. Paul Napper and Anthony Rao wrote a book called The Power of Agency. In their book they present 7 principles that help a person live life on their own terms. It's not about reducing stress, anxiety and overwhelm, but it's about living a life that addresses the things that cause stress, anxiety and overwhelm. They're more eloquent about it than I am, but the point I'm trying to make is that I try to incorporate each principal in my classroom on the daily.
I try to provide opportunities to my students to help develop and strengthen their own sense of agency, and I think project based and inquiry based learning is the best way for me to do this. This type of learning allows students to have control of their learning. It gives them the chance to make choices about their learning and their education. They get to work through difficult situations, they have to collaborate with classmates and community members, they get to decide what they learn. This doesn't mean they just show up to class and do what they want, but I use the Ontario Science Curriculum as a vessel to get my students to develop their sense of agency and to push them outside of their comfort zone in a safe and controlled environment so that when they make mistakes we can talk about strategies to move forward in a more productive way.
All of this is happening while my students are learning about different aspects of science. I like to think that I have a holistic view of my students. When they ask me if they can do something, I like to joke that "It's your life, I'm just in it." But it's not really a joke. I want them to learn science, and I want them to love science class, but I want them to develop skills that are going to help them in the other 22 hours and 45 minutes of their day. That's my purpose. Knowing how many electrons are in a coulomb, or the definition of a primary consumer, or even what Rutherford's Gold Foil Experiment is, is secondary to learning to collaborate, think critically, become digitally fluent, make ethical decisions (see OCDSB Exit Outcomes). The former can all be looked up on the internet instantly if they find themselves in a situation where they need to know it. The latter take years and years of practice to develop and I could argue that learning those skills never ends, so why not give them an "early" start?
When students develop those skills (OCDSB Exit Outcomes), that confidence, the learning starts happening. Developing those skills helps reduce stress, anxiety and overwhelm and students develop ways to live life on their own terms.
When students leave my class, I want them to be a little bit closer to living a life on their own terms so that they can start learning on their own terms.