“Create a better life, a better future”: Laura’s Narrative
By: Laura Gini-Newman
Laura Gini-Newman is a recently retired educator with over 30 years of experience working as a university professor, classroom teacher, resource teacher, coach and instructional co-ordinator. She has taught History, Geography, Politics, Philosophy, Computer Science, Economics, and Mathematics. Laura has developed a new reasoning-focused approach for math learning that she has been sharing in her role as the math consultant with The Critical Thinking Consortium working with students, teachers and leaders to become better thinkers in mathematics and other subject areas across Canada, in the USA, the Caribbean, Central and South America, Europe and Asia. She has published and co-authored textbooks, papers and learning resources in philosophy, history, mathematics, Indigenous education and most recently applied positive psychology. She is a certified applied positive psychology practitioner and co-founder of FlourishCo, a Canadian company that supports the cultivation of a flourishing mindset and that works with individuals, communities and businesses to help them learn how to flourish in their work and lives. Prior to her career in education, Laura worked as an economist and accountant. She has taught at both the University of Toronto and York University. She is also a professionally trained facilitator. Laura volunteers with the Alma Foundation to help young disadvantage learners in remote Andean villages experience learning success.
Over the years as both a student and an educator in a Western system of learning, I have experienced my own journey of professional learning guided by the desire to keep students safe, to prepare them for a future in a world full of natural beauty, and to nurture in them a love of learning to which they wish no end. These goals grew out of my own learning experiences, and later in life, as a teacher, guided me on how I shaped the experiences of my students and how I now help other teachers shape those of their students. This journey has taken over 30 years and has yet to meet its end. In the stories I am about to share, I hope you will see how and what I have come to learn about learning—how, like in all living things, my learning persevered to thrive when faced with challenges, and how there continues to be no end to learning as it moves from one generation of students and educators to the next, and the next.
Better to Build It Yourself
There she sat, staring out the window, watching the tree branches sway in the wind, wishing they could carry her off to a different place; a place where she could explore the world beyond the four walls that confined her. She counted the leaves on each branch, the smaller ones first, then moving to the larger ones. Of course, it makes sense that the larger branches carry more leaves than the smaller branches, she thought. Do all trees do that in the same way? she silently asked herself.
Her thoughts, suddenly interrupted by her teacher’s voice, brought her attention back to the fact that she was in school. “Please no more worksheets, Mrs. Thompson,” she whispered to herself, not knowing that she would be heard by Mrs. Thompson who was approaching her. “No Sheyla,” Mrs. Thompson replied, “no more worksheets. I’d like you to spend some time looking at some new books I bought.” Hesitantly curious, Sheyla followed her teacher to a desk at the back corner of the room. Oh no, she thought, I’m being sent to the corner because I’m always bored during math work time and get distracted. Mrs. Thompson wants me to stop causing trouble. Fearful of getting into more trouble, she did what Mrs. Thompson asked of her—sit down and try some of the questions in the books on the table.
Mrs. Thompson left Sheyla to explore the books. As Sheyla turned to the first page, she was amazed by what she saw! An image of a big tree and small tree and the question: Do the number of leaves on all trees, big or small, grow at the same rate as the size of branches get larger? Sheyla couldn’t believe her eyes! The math book was asking the same question she just asked herself a few minutes ago. She was a little bit confused though. Isn’t math just filling in blanks with the right answer? What is the right answer here, she wondered? Is there a right answer?
As she continued to look through the pages of the book, she became even more curious. The book asked, what makes a tree branch larger: How long it is? How thick it is? How heavy it is? How old it is? How many smaller branches grow on the larger branch? Sheyla looked out the window once again, but this time, not because she needed to escape her boredom, but to see if she could figure out how to measure the size of one branch as compared to the size of others.
Sheyla started to draw a picture of her own of different sized trees with different sized branches. She told Mrs. Thompson that she would need to keep thinking about this after school. That she would need to go outside and look at different trees and count the number of leaves on branches of different lengths, of different thicknesses, and of older vs newer ones. That she would have to see if the leaves grew in number in a similar way, and if there was a pattern—another question that book asked her to think about. At that time, the recess bell rang. As Sheyla skipped her way out of the classroom, she told Mrs. Thompson there was so much for her to learn!
Mrs. Thompson smiled back at Sheyla, pleased that Sheyla was not only finding learning math enjoyable now but that she saw value in what she was learning. She felt certain that Sheyla would come to understand a great deal learning math this way.
The story of Sheyla’s experience parallels my own as a Grade 3 student. This experience sparked a lifelong passion for learning math and connecting it to the world in which I live.
From the perspective of an educator, this experience launched my learning about how to support students in the learning process. I have learned that:
- to nurture curiosity and in turn, the will or motivation to want to learn, learning needs to be valuable and possess an authentic purpose, and
- to allow us to engage positively in the learning process, learning needs to be future oriented so that it contributes to a better understanding of the natural and human world we live in.
It’s All in the Questions Asked
Cautiously I step into Hall 103A. I’ve arrived early hoping to find some comfort in this unfamiliar place before it takes on a life of its own. The space draws my eyes upward to the ocean of empty seats and engulfs me. My heart races. Is this fear, excitement, or both? I need to sit down.
Within minutes the space fills itself with a cacophony of sounds: whispering voices, some laughter, the creaky movement of tables and chairs, and then silence. We all watch as the person we fear holds our future in their hands steps up to the podium. A screen lowers to the floor and there looms our first assignment. Five ethical problems to be resolved.
Silence spreads through the space. I begin to read, as does everyone else. How culpable are we for the destruction of the Earth’s natural elements? How far should we go in our attempts to save the planet from ourselves? Should we give all the Earth’s living creatures legal rights?…
As my heart begins to meet my mind, I’m intrigued and I wonder, How culpable are we really? If we’ve done too much damage, can we be trusted to repair? What other voices are more worthy of being heard?
“Good morning,” interrupts the voice before me. “I see that you are all interested in knowing what the focus of your learning is going to be in this course. The Council of Human Ethics is accepting recommendations this year on what actions can be taken to secure a healthy planet for future generations. Your task will to be provide and defend one recommendation to the Council. I suggest you start immediately with your personal position and allow it to transform over the next few months as we explore the principles of ethics from a variety of cultural perspectives together.”
I sigh in relief. The space feels smaller now. It includes me. I matter. It includes others. We matter. Our future matters.
This short narrative tells of my first experience as a university student. We have all experienced the nervousness of our first day of school but nothing tops going into institutions deemed as places of higher knowledge where judgement is ramped. This experience, and others like this one, taught me much about how to create positive learning experiences, including:
- Framing learning around questions give learners decision making powers by inviting them to make sound decisions or choices. These questions offer a range of options to choose from and encourage that they be supported with evidence from lived experiences and new understandings.
- Providing the time needed for valuable and transformative learning to take place by offering the learning question and task at the start of the learning process.
- Providing authentic contexts that present a balanced representation of life—one focused on relationships between the natural and human world and between the heart, mind and soul.
I Can’t Do It, Can I?
It’s 4:00 pm and the sun is still shining. It has been a good day and I’m ready to head outside for a breath of fresh air and to feel the warmth of the sun on my face.
My students seem excited about what they will be learning in my economics class. Every one of them submitted their first piece of work, each eagerly wanting to know what I thought about their ideas. They didn’t even mention wanting to know their marks! Most didn’t even mind the math review we did today. Tomorrow, I’ll take them outside to sit under the maple tree to review graphing—help them see that what their learning is a tool to help them better understand and appreciate this beautiful world in which we live.
A sudden knock on the door jars me out my thoughts. I look towards the door to see that it’s Lori, one of my senior students. Her skin seems pale and her eyes glassy. She looks unwell. Perhaps she’s here to tell me she won’t be in class tomorrow.
“Lori, come in. Can I help you?” I’m concerned about how she is doing.
Lori comes to sit at the desk next to me. She goes on to explain her deep sadness and regret. She tells me she loves my class but needs to drop it. As I listen to her describe her terror of math, I become increasingly disheartened. In a nutshell, Lor has been convinced by others that she should never ever take another math course; that she is simply incapable of doing math.
I know this is not true. Lori has no physiological cognitive issues; there is no reason, beyond the fear and lack of confidence that have been created in her, for why she can’t do math and, in turn, study other subjects she is passionate about that require the application of math (like this one).
Lori and I discuss her concerns. She is eventually willing to take one last leap of faith—to believe in herself and trust that I will support and guide her. She agrees to work with me every day for two weeks after school for an hour. If she still feels the same way at the end of the two weeks, I promise that I will sign her course drop sheet.
For the next two weeks, I meet with Lori. We begin by creating two comprehensive lists: one of the math Lori feels confident that she understands and can use, and the other, the math that makes her feel anxious or fearful. With my guidance Lori connects ideas on both lists so that she can envision a positive starting point to her learning.
Lori then makes a list of everything that is important to her—what she places great value on in her life and what challenges she might be experiencing in these areas. Together, we place one challenge next to the math ideas it relates to.
At every subsequent meeting Lori chooses a challenge and uses math to help her resolve it, at first using what she feels confident about and then extending that to include ideas she originally, but no longer fears.
By the end of the two-week period, Lori comes to better understand herself as a learner and an individual. She learns about what matters to her, and that to be motivated to learn she needs to see how what she is learning supports what matters to her. She learns that she understands herself—what she is capable of and where she needs support—better than anyone else, and that she needs to take the lead in her learning, make important decisions about how to move her learning forward, and to communicate this to someone who won’t judge her for it. She has learned to be a confident advocate for, and designer of her own learning experiences.
Now, weeks later, Lori is still in my class, glowing with confidence and playing an active role in her own learning. I’m convinced that she will be an economist but who knows, maybe one day I’ll find that Lori has become a mathematician.
The experiences of students, like Lori, have shaped my own understanding of what it means to learn in so many ways. I often think about why anyone truly wants to learn anything, and the answer seems to always come down to purpose and value. When we want to understand something, and invest our time and energy in doing so, it’s because it helps us understand or accomplish something else. It helps us, and all our relations, create a better life, a better future. My experience with Lori taught me that learning can support a student’s journey of self-awareness and self-actualization if learning is:
- connected to what a student values and sees value in; driven by life goals and supported by the curriculum,
- absent of judgement and driven by assessment, mostly self-assessment, not evaluation,
- positivity (not fear)-based, focused initially on student strengths that they use to fill their own learning gaps over time,
- driven by a desire to overcome challenges or problems of personal relevance, and
- constructed by the student for the purpose of overcoming these challenges.
How Can We Best Make a Difference?
Marie breathes in the crisp morning air as she makes her way to Brighthouse, her Hutterite colony’s school. She was up early this morning, checking in on the chickens that provide fresh eggs for her, and other surrounding communities. Morning is her favourite time of day. She feels a sense of renewal as a new day begins with the morning dew feeding the trees and plants and the sun smiling brightly to awaken all that feel her warmth.
It’s the beginning of a new day of learning for my students too, Marie contemplates. Today, like on all other days, they will continue to shed barriers and fears and grow new understandings and confidence.
As Marie enters her classroom, she ensures the desks, smaller ones for her Grade 1-4 students and the rest for her Grade 5-8 students, are arranged so that the older students can help guide the younger ones. One of her goals is to help her students balance learning with each other and independently.
Noticing that in a few minutes, her students would arrive, Marie quickly moves the question students have been inquiring into to the front of the classroom. Is plastic the best material to use in the colony’s bottle manufacturing plant?
The community has been manufacturing plastic bottles for some time now, but its members are worried about the effects of using plastic on the environment. Students have been hearing their families discuss this issue at the dinner table, or at the community centre. They have expressed a desire to participate in the discussions. They want to be able to help.
Marie thinks this is a perfect fit with what her students are going to learn about in school. She has recorded all the connections to the curriculum from Grades 1 to 8 and is so excited: there are so many! There is so much math that her students can use to help the community make financial decisions related to finance, production and sales; so much science involved in understanding materials and how they interact with one another and the environment; geography to understand what and how the community environment is shaped; and history as they explore the different types of drink containers used in the past—their shapes and materials used. Of course, so that students can participate in the community council meetings, they will also need to learn to communicate their ideas in a clear and persuasive manner.
Marie smiles with deep contentment as her students make their way into the classroom. They don’t even notice her standing by the door as they make their way in. They are already sharing ideas about what the community bottles might look like, and how they can be made. Marie knows that this level of excitement will not only be sustained but will continue to grow as students actively participate in their community’s decision-making.
Over the years I have worked with teachers in a diverse range of settings. This was my first experience working with a teacher in Manitoba who taught in a Hutterian school. This experience challenged me to look at curriculum in the form of a continuum of learning cover which the understanding of key concepts deepened over time. Where students could learn about proportions in math, the composition of matter in science, change and continuity in history or geography, or persuasion as a form of communicating, each year iteratively revisiting and enriching this understanding. Ultimately this experience transformed how I would help all teachers plan the implementation of their curriculum; what I now refer to as sustained critical inquiry, or a cascading curriculum planning.
In doing so, I have learned that:
- learning opportunities should be driven by the living of life and that the curriculum should support, not be the primary goal, of learning,
- learning through the curriculum is an integrative sustained process that weaves together the understanding of the relationships between key concepts across various areas of study,
- for learning of the curriculum to become a set of deeply internalized, integrated rich understandings, it needs to be personally constructed within a flexible structure that is both manageable, accessible, and safe for every learner; that is not to be consumed as a pre-package body of information common to every student, and
- learning should be future and action oriented contributing to building a better future for all.