Wednesday, 1 August 2018

Children self-educate if we let them!

In the late 1990s, Sugata Mitra initiated a series of ‘experiments’ on children to assess their ability to self educate. He placed a computer in a wall of a slum in New Dehli, turned the computer on and placed a video camera close by to watch what happened. He was astonished that children came and taught themselves, and others, how to work it and within days were surfing the web, downloading music and playing with programmes like Microsoft Paint. Because of this he added many more computers in the streets and the result was the same – every time children of all ages arrived and taught themselves, and other children, anything that a teacher might have wanted to teach about the computer! (For more information about Sugata Mitra’s research, see the TED Talk Kids can teach themselves, for which he won a TED prize!)

He concluded that children innately have curiosity, playfulness and sociability, all essential items for self-education!
This drew the children to turn the computer on, to play with the controls and to find out more and more.
As the children ‘played’ with the programmes they became more and more skilled until they went straight into Microsoft Paint, for instance, to ‘play’ every day. As they played they created more curiosity and the cycle continued.  Albert Einstein said, “Play is the highest form of research.”
As individual children played and learnt, they passed the learning on to others. Their learning became everybody’s learning because they excited each other and the learning spread.

So why is this important for schools? Well, my question is ‘Why don’t school lessons spread like ‘wildfire’ like these ones did? Schools need to allow children to self educate as much as possible, because then they will be excited to learn at their own pace. Here are some ideas….
·      Children are seldom given the opportunites at school to follow their own chosen interest – they are told what they are going to learn about and then told all the teacher wants them to know about the topic.
·      At school children are usually expected to perform tasks in only one way or use only one method for calculating Maths problems. The excitement of puzzling out new ways is very seldom encouraged. At most schools children are divided into classes by age and often aren’t even allowed to play with children of other ages at break times. Opportunities for multi age learning creates many more opportunities for leaning and teaching, and when younger children teach older children in particular, the excitement of teaching and learning is so much greater. Much of what happens at schools today revolves around evaluating children and their work. This creates an emphasis on the product and pleasing the teacher, rather than on the investigating and excitement of the learning.

As parents you can encourage self-education by asking the right questions in your homes. Give your children opportunities to find the answer themselves if possible rather than just telling them an answer. This process is longer but much more sustainable and once children realise they can teach themselves and catch the excitement of learning, that will be forever!  

Friday, 20 April 2018

Who teaches ethics in our unethical society?

In a country where many of our senior leaders flout the law every day, it is difficult to teach children to be law-abiding and to perform their civic duty. Many parents are absent from their children’s lives, either because one parent is really absent or because one or both parents outsource the parenting to others; grandparents, au pairs or other family members, to work full time. This means that schools are increasingly becoming the sole educators of good citizenship.
We regularly discuss the attributes of good citizenship in assemblies and newsletters, predominantly to encourage parents to teach their children how to negotiate an often negative world. Here are a few tips to use at home: 
·       Have a conversation with your children about when it is a good time to ‘tell tales’. Re-enforce for them that they are not ‘squealing’ – they have the right to be ‘righteously indignant’ if other children offend them by the way they behave, by the words they use, etc. Discuss the kind of things that are wiser for adults to know about – that by ‘looking the other way’ they can be hurt or implicated in the act. If all children played ‘policeman’, many others would be protected from so much.
·       Have a discussion with your children about the need to be honest with their peers and with the adults who care for them. Often when dealing with issues in which children put themselves at risk, schools find that the children’s friends knew what was going on but didn’t tell anybody. Sometimes this can result in serious consequences, like death.
·      Protect your children from the ‘laissez-faire’ attitude within society today as you don’t want your family to be affected by the culture of not caring. Insist 
-       on sending a note and phoning if your child is ill;
-       that your child be involved in the extramural programme and remains committed for the term;
-       that your child leaves home in the full, correct school uniform, 
-       on homework/projects being completed by the due date;
-       that work done at home, is neatly presented and written;  
-       that all loose papers are filed in the correct place;
-       that all books are covered and treated ‘gently’.
·      The newspapers are filled with articles about parents and children “at war” with opposing teams in school sports’ matches. Continue 
       to insist on good sportsmanship behaviour like:
-       enjoying the game and not winning at all costs;
-       having a good attitude, not retaliating 
     when other teams swear or get physical;
-       applauding all goals, whether your own or 
     the opposing team’s;
-       congratulating and thanking the other 
     team at the end;
-       playing the game wholeheartedly, right
     until the end.
·      When driving in traffic, remember that your attitude to other drivers and your adherence to traffic rules is continually watched by your children. Set an example of good citizenry by:
-       obeying traffic signs and speeds;
-       wearing your seat belts every time you drive;
-       stop at stop streets and in time at red traffic lights;
-       never park on pedestrian crossings or in restricted areas.

·      Beware of what your children are watching or seeing. Obviously 
     things are far more explicit
     in the world out there so keep checking:
-       the programmes, shows and movies your 
      children watch on television;
-       the sites your children visit on their cellphones, tablets and computers, and whatthe sites are, as some innocuous sounding 
      ones show the most terrible things;
-       that your “Parental Guidance” is still active on your computer with the necessary passwords to prevent children from accessing unsuitable sites.

If all partners in the schooling system play their parts in moulding children, despite the reality of the world we live in, then our children are going to be positive role models in society themselves, and hopefully, they will continue the process with their children in the future. The world we live in is too important for us to give up on …. join the good-citizen crusade! 

Monday, 13 November 2017

Safety first

Every few weeks we read about some individual, who for some reason, decided to take a gun and mow down a few people in a public place. Often that public place is a school somewhere in the world....people minding their own business, children learning in a place that is supposed to keep them safe during the day while they aren't with their parents.
Few of these episodes have happened in South Africa so far, but we all know that every school is by nature a place where these things can happen tomorrow!
During enrolment interviews, parents often ask me about safety at our school. I laughingly tell them that the fence was put up to protect the copper piping in the school! Although that is the truth, the other truth is that schools are open to the public and any 'public' is not necessarily a good public. Every time we press the remote to open the front gate while all other school gates are locked during the day, we allow a person who could be masquerading as a parent, access to the school. Who determines what a parent looks like? And are all parents, just because they are parents, safe for all children?
Pinelands North has a safety plan, we take all precautions we can to protect our school community, we conduct drills every term, we care for the emotions of our people and we have put safety devices like cameras all over the school. Will this keep us safe?
Safety is our joint responsibility. If every adult who passes through the school, and every child who has access to the school daily, is vigilant about who is around them and what those people are doing, maybe we will stay safer than most schools not too far from us. The reality is though, that schools are not safe places, no matter how much time and effort we put into trying to protect the people therein.   

Monday, 30 October 2017

Managing a school while managing renovations! Almost an impossible task!

Since early July 2017, Pinelands North has had a company employed by the WCED to do scheduled maintenance in their schools, on our premises. First let it be known that we are thrilled that this has happened! I have been principal for more than twenty years at this school, and during this time we have never had this happen before. So, we are not complaining!
However, I have been reflecting on the journey we have taken together, and are still journeying together, and probably will still do into the new year! I would like to place on record, first and foremost, that the Governing Body of Pinelands North made an amazing decision in 2008. We decided to appoint a Business Manager to assist the school principal, after realizing that the principal's job was changing so rapidly that there was no way on earth a principal could manage all the business processes of the school too. We have never regretted making this decision! Our finances have completely turned around and, as principal, I have assistance in all the day-to-day facets of management that an educationalist doesn't need to worry about.
This renovation project is a perfect example! Our Business Manager is able to focus on who is doing what, and when, and how will we move smoothly onto the next phase, while the principal has been able to focus on the staff and pupil needs. We have been asked to ponder on paint colours, on the measurements of windows, on how the new toilets will look but also on how we will manage a school returning after the holiday, with only 2 'boys' toilets still functioning!
And yes, we have had a plan for every day from July until 16 December! The reality though is that in a school that has had superficial maintenance done on it, windows don't close if you paint them for the twentieth time, and paint does start peeling off doors if you put another coat on top of twenty others! Each time this happens, it sets the whole plan back a few days, no matter how much planning preceded the problem!
And then we have parents who become unnecessarily concerned about smells in classrooms which have been closed for a weekend......Heath and safety has been our prime concern at all times. The most 'unsafe' renovations have happened over weekends and holidays, while the school community isn't around.
The workmen have now become our friends, and their supervisors our confidantes. Between us we are managing a building site on which we have 450 pupils daily, and many staff. And yes, in the European Union countries they would have closed the school so that the renovations could be done. At Pinelands North we carry on with teaching, assessments, break time play and sports events. The Business Manager manages the renovation plan and the principal manages the usual school plan - together achieving more than could be achieved in countries just over the waters!

Monday, 9 October 2017

Raising children positively

Melissa and Leigh
When I was young and gave my parents a hard time, I was given a hiding. Most adults my age remember getting hit at school too. Disciplining children today is very different, and particularly at our school. Parents have asked me how best to support the school’s positive discipline strategies, and so here are a few of my thoughts after doing some reading on the matter:

Focus on the value you want to teach, not the behaviour that is worrying you. Only make family rules that are based on the values you want to teach. If your child lies to you about not having homework, don’t focus on the homework that hasn’t been done, but rather on the value of being honest.

The better your relationship with your child, the easier it will be to discipline. When a child does something wrong, focus on the behaviour, but make sure that they know you will always love them, regardless of the behaviour. Children who are anxious will immediately think that you will stop loving them and that aren’t good enough.

Acknowledge when you make mistakes so that children know it is normal to make mistakes. Children must see adults getting things wrong so that they don’t feel the need to be perfect.

Separate a child’s emotions from their behaviour. Tell them you understand that they might be angry or frustrated, but that throwing things at people is not the way to deal with the feeling. If they are very overwhelmed, acknowledge their feelings at that point and deal with the issue later when they are calmer. At times of high emotion, no-one can think clearly.

Don’t do emotional blackmail, threaten or lecture. Make sure that you tell the truth, and you are able to carry out the ‘threat’.

Wendy and Kieran
Routines create safety. Children love routines as boundaries make them feel safe. When things are unpredictable, children want home to be as predictable and safe as possible. Be predictable yourself too – children want the adults in their lives to act predictably. Ensure that the adults who live in your home react in the same manner to all ‘rules’. Children are very clever at manipulating situations if they perceive that the adults in the home think differently.

Give children choices whenever possible. If two things are given as options children still feel as if they have some ‘power’ over their responses. Giving warnings of time also work like this – when you want your children to tidy up, warn them 5 minutes before so that they have some measure of accountability over how the action is carried out.

React appropriately and don’t over react to small things. Save your energy for the important ‘fights’ and let the others go.

Don’t over or under estimate your children. Over estimating children can make them feel like a failure and add to their stress, and underestimating children kills their confidence.

And finally, remember that humans aren’t perfect. Life wouldn’t be worth ‘doing’ if we were perfect when we were born. Mistakes help us learn and grow, and a gentle ‘leader’ helps us still believe in ourselves when we make mistakes. Be gentle on your children and on yourself, and if you are overwhelmed by the ‘disciplining’ job, ask for help – there is plenty around. Contact for the details of some courses you could attend.   

Thursday, 5 October 2017

Good Principal Wanted

Having been the principal of Pinelands North for more than twenty years this year, and realizing that I only have about seven years to retirement, has made me reflect on my appointment and on the teaching fraternity’s view of principalship as a whole.
Few teachers aspire to be principals in the current education climate in South Africa. The wide area of responsibility, little support from education officials and the low salaries compared with other positions in education means that most people who have reached deputy principal level would prefer to stay in that position rather than move up.
They say that a principal’s job is a lonely one. It certainly is as principals often fall into the middle ground between the pupils and the teachers, the parents and education officials, and between the education department and the school community.
The requirements of the job at a school like ours currently means that the principal needs to still be a teacher, but must also be a counsellor of children and adults, a finance and debt collecting whizzkid, a negotiator, a maintenance advisor and project manager, and a human resource manager. Most of those skills are not taught! Certainly not taught while the future principal is a deputy principal and ‘principal in waiting’!
I have also been reflecting on the confidence the Governing Body of this school put in me when they appointed me! I was a woman and very few women had been principals of co-ed schools in 1997, and Pinelands North had had four men over the forty something years up until then. I was also only thirty-seven years of age, had only officially been a deputy for eighteen months, and I wore short skirts and had spiky hair!  
Principals who will lead schools into the future will need even more skill than I currently need. They will lead the school to a destination that is currently not known, using skills that are currently not available and they will still need to walk into the future, bravely and confidently!
Apparently in Finland currently, those people who become principals are usually History or Maths teachers, or they teach Physical Education! In his book “Top Class” Ari Pokka suggests reasons for this: organizing timetables requires logical mathematical thinking, managing, analyzing and interpreting is an historical skill, and organizing large groups of people is often done by physical education teachers!
So, while I am still fit and agile (and not yet 65), we should grow our own ‘timber’- we have seven years to recruit an amazing human being who can lead this wonderful school towards it’s hundredth birthday!   

Monday, 30 January 2017

New Standards for children and screen time

Matt uses his iPad during class every day

In Time magazine of 7 November 2016, there was an interesting parenting article that confronts our current knowledge about the positive and negative affects of young children using technology. The American Academy of Pediatrics used to warn that any amount of time spent on technology, even educational apps, would lead to poor reading, or bad language skills. They have recently changed their stance against screen time, and instead published some pointers to help parents. The article really made sense so I decided to share some of their thoughts on how to help your children have a better relationship with technology.
Firstly, Dr David Hill, spokesperson for the AAP’s Council on Communications and Media, says that babies as young as 18 months get great pleasure from technology that connects them to people. Therefore when one parent is away on business, or grandparents live far away, a good idea is to use videochat for them to connect with the absent family. Not mentioned in the article but something I have seen used very effectively for a similar reason, is to load family photographs onto an unused cellphone and give it to the young child. Particularly when photographs include those of the child themselves, this entertains the child for a long while, reinforces family bonds and memories.
Ethan and mom, Rose, working on the library computer
The second suggestion Dr Hill has is that parents should watch good programmes with their children between the ages of 2 and 5. If the parent engages with the child while watching good content on a podcast, the learning, which results from this, can be used everywhere else.
Thirdly he warns parents that they should make sure they know what their older children are watching. He reminds us again that we need to ensure that programmes with violence or explicit sex are not available to children of any age because they learn from what they see.
Finn researching for a school project
‘Be a good example yourself’, he reminds us! So, turn off your phone at certain times, don't leave the television on continually and watch good content. He also reminds us to lead by example when operating on social media – if our children see us insulting someone online they will think that that’s acceptable behaviour. This point reminds me that we should also ensure that we show our children that we can manage without technology while on holiday for instance. Read your own paper novels as well as literature found on your Kindle, too.

Finally he asks that we keep open minds and be sensible about limiting screen time, and allowing children to engage with the right content. If these points are born in mind, no technology will damage your child in their formative years.