Category Archives: motivation

Imposter syndrome & the emerging professional

I (Said) graduated from UofT’s Concurrent Teacher Ed. Program in 2014. Since then, I have had experience working as an occasional teacher and as a student affairs professional. I am currently working on my Master of Arts at OISE. I am sharing this to highlight that as a graduate student and emerging professional, the pressure to achieve is tremendous. Every year, I have felt my professional identity transform and evolve in numerous ways. Said “the teacher”, Said “the researcher”, Said “the professional”… it is overwhelming at times, especially when imposter syndrome takes over.

imposter-syndromeImposter syndrome is a collection of feelings of inadequacy despite signs of evident success. Those who experience it struggle with the fear of being exposed as a ‘fraud’ or ‘not smart enough’, especially among peers and other professionals. Therefore, any success is often attributed to luck, downplayed, and rationalized as a means to mask a supposed lack of knowledge or expertise. Beginning teachers may feel like they do not belong in the classroom, especially if working within a school culture that does not value their contributions and perceives them as inexperienced. What they must remember is that they were deemed qualified to teach and are worthy of their position.

Similarly, graduate students may feel intimidated at their institution, especially when working with faculty members considered leaders in their research fields. However, I have come to realize that my voice has value and that insight from the sharing of ideas and heated debates can spark new avenues of inquiry and inspire those around me.  Isn’t it wonderful how being part of a research team/community of scholars allows us the opportunity to discuss, dispute, disagree, dispel, dissertate and so much more? I refuse to be trapped in a self-imposed cage, and if I ever feel surrounded by 20-foot walls, I will build a 21-foot ladder.

As I embark on a journey in academia, I recognize that it is perfectly normal to feel slightly out of place, as any novice would. Instead of emphasizing my invented unsuitably for this exciting new endeavour, I have decided to do all that I can to gain more confidence in my professional and academic life. If you ever feel like you are ‘not enough’, please remember what Christopher Robin once told Winnie the Pooh. You are braver than you believe, stronger than you seem, and smarter than you think.

You Can’t Win Them All

Teaching can be very satisfying, but it isn’t easy. I (Clive) just received my course Clive Beckevaluation for last term and was reminded that “you can’t win them all.” I thought the course was my best ever, and most students rated it as “excellent.” But some just said it was “very good” (hmmm – why was that?) and one gave it a “good” or “moderate” on every item (what’s their problem?!).

 

One of the most important principles in teaching, I think, is that you can’t win them all. Some people don’t like it because it implies you aren’t going to try hard enough: it lets you off the hook. But on the one hand, it helps you be realistic and maintain your morale as a teacher; and on the other, it reminds you that everybody’s different. Different people want different things from a course and have different views on how to teach. Yes we should try to meet every student’s needs in a course, but no we shouldn’t be surprised or become dispirited when some students are not ecstatic about our teaching approach.

Gold StarBut come to think of it, if I found some good videos and varied the class format more, maybe I would get excellent from everyone…. Just joking!

 

Topics and Methods for Class Debates

In previous postings, I (Clive) have recommended debates as a way to give students a voice in university and school classrooms and also introduce some variety into class activities. Of course, the topics have to be interesting to the students if they are to get really involved; and the overly combative tone of traditional debating needs to be avoided so there are no hard feelings.

This term, in my graduate class of 22, I used two debating topics that worked very well. They were: (1) Teaching Values in School and (2) Formal Professional Development for Teachers. In each case we formed 4 groups (by numbering off from 1 to 4 around the class, including myself) and then assigned “positions” to the groups as follows:

Teaching Values in School

Group 1: On the whole, teachers should keep their values to themselves

Group 2: It is often appropriate for teachers to promote the values they believe in

Group 3: On the whole, schools should advocate general “human” values (e.g., treating women and men equally) even if they conflict with the values of the family

Group 4: On the whole, schools should honor and respect the values of the family, even if they conflict with general “human” values

Formal Professional Development for Teachers

Groups 1 & 3: Formal professional development has a very important role to play in teacher learning and school improvement. Examples of effective formal PD include….

Groups 2 & 4: Formal professional development does not play a major role in teacher learning and school improvement. Examples of more important methods and factors are….

Each group spent 20 minutes preparing their case, with each person in the group proposing and outlining an argument and/or example. Then each group in turn presented their case to the whole class, with every member of the group speaking. Finally, we returned to the whole class circle and went around with each individual saying what they thought about the topic (we didn’t have time to go all the way round the class, but this final activity also proved very valuable).

Notice that the “opposing” positions were softened by using phrases such as “on the whole,” “it is often appropriate,” “not a major role” (rather than “not any role”). Also, the emphasis on giving examples to support one’s case was a big success – I hadn’t used this before.

So, this was my experience. If you have a chance to experiment with debates, let us know what topics you used and how it went – we can do a guest blog!

 

 

Making Group Work More Personal and Inclusive

I (Clive) have posted before about the importance – in educational settings – of giving all Shawn Bullockmembers of a group a chance to speak. It now seems that similar observations are being made outside the educational realm. In Sunday’s New York Times Magazine (Feb 28, 2016), findings along these lines were noted in two studies from the world of work.

In a 2008-2010 Carnegie Mellon/M.I.T. study, a team of psychologists headed by Anita Wooley found that work teams with “pretty average members” were unusually effective when inclusive “group norms” were established. Wooley reported: “As long as everyone got a chance to talk, the team did well. But if only one person or a small group spoke all the time, the collective intelligence declined” (p. 24).

oopIn a later Google study called Project Aristotle, begun in 2012, researchers built on the Carnegie Mellon/M.I.T. study. They linked “conversational turn-taking” to a sense of “psychological safety” within a group. They found that work teams were more effective when there was a social emphasis and everyone had a chance to contribute. They reject a sharp personal/work dichotomy, stating that “no one wants to put on a ‘work face’ when they get to the office” (p. 72).

It seems hard to explain why group effectiveness and social inclusion would be connected Teachers working togetherin this way. More theory is needed in the area. But meanwhile I think we should consider these findings as we attempt to enhance our group discussion practices.

 

 

5 Tips for Teaching the Tough Kids

I (Clare) found this post on Edutopia very interesting. I think that many of techniques would/could/should work with all students. As Josh Work notes every teacher remembers his/her first “touch kid” experience. Mine was with a young boy Tommy who seemed incorrigible. I wished that I had followed the advice provided below. Here is the link to the article.  Teaching the Tough Kids

Guest blogger Josh Work shares five techniques for dealing with middle school students who present ongoing discipline issues. His underlying theme is recognizing these kids as adolescents seeking ways to cope with stress or complicated lives. Source: 5 Tips for

Every teacher remembers his or her first “tough kid” experience. Maybe the student ignored your directions or laughed at your attempts to utilize the classroom discipline steps. We all have at least one story to share, and for some teachers, teaching a tough kid is a daily challenge. It seems that no matter what teaching techniques you try to pull out of your educator hat, nothing changes their behavior.

I’ve had the privilege of teaching some tough kids. I say “privilege” for a reason. Teaching these students pushed me to be a better educator and a more compassionate person. I’ve detailed below five methods that have reduced misbehavior in my classroom and, better still, helped transform these students into leaders among their peers.

1. Set the Tone

I firmly believe that a student’s misbehavior in the past does not necessarily equate to future indiscretions. At the beginning of the school year, I would walk down to the sixth grade teachers with my new class lists and ask questions. I would inquire about who works well together, who probably should not sit next to each other, and who caused them the most grief. Not surprisingly, teachers would share the names of the same students that were their “tough kids.” If I had the privilege of having any of these students in my class, I looked forward to it instead of dreading it.

Usually during the first week of school, I would try to have individual conferences with these tough kids. I’d take this as an opportunity to clear the air and wipe the slate clean. Often, these students can feel disrespected because their teachers already have preconceived ideas about how they are the troublemakers. Explain that you respect them and have high expectations for them this year. Lay the foundation for the student’s understanding that you believe in him or her, because you might be the only one who genuinely does.

2. Be a Mentor

Unfortunately, it has been my experience that some of the toughest kids to teach come from very difficult home situations. Inconsistent housing, absentee parent(s), lack of resources, and violence are only a few examples of what some of these students have to face every day. Kids that are neglected at home can act out in school to receive attention, good or bad. They want someone to notice them and take an interest in their lives.

Don’t forget how important you are in helping your students develop not just academically, but also socially. Make an effort to show you care about them, not just their grades. Be proactive instead of reactive. The key to being a good mentor is to be positive, available, and trustworthy. One year with a great mentor can have a lasting, positive impact on a tough kid’s life.

3. Make Connections

Part of being a great mentor is your ability to make connections with these tough kids. Since these students sometimes don’t have anyone encouraging them or taking an interest in their lives, have a real conversation about their future or dreams. If they have nothing to share, start talking about their interests — sports, music, movies, food, clothing, friends, siblings, etc. Find a way to connect so that they can relate to you. Start off small and show a genuine interest in what they have to say. Once you’ve made a positive connection and the student can trust you, you’d be surprised how fast they might open up to talking about their hopes, fears, home life, etc. This is when you need to exercise professional discretion and be prepared for what the student might bring up. Explain that you do not want to violate his or her trust but that, as an educator, you are required by law to report certain things.

4. Take it Personally (In a Good Way)

Teachers need to have thick skin. Students may say things in an attempt to bruise your ego or question your teaching abilities. Remember, we are working with young children and developing adults. I’m sure you said some hurtful things that you didn’t mean when you were growing up. Students can say things out of frustration or boredom, or that are triggered by problems spilling over from outside of your classroom. Try to deal with their misbehavior in the classroom — they might not take you seriously if you just send them to the office every time they act out. These are the moments when they need a positive mentor the most.

Once trust has been established, remind these students that you believe in them even if they make a mistake. I’ve vouched for kids during grade team meetings only to have them get into a fight at lunch the same day. They make mistakes, just like we all do. It’s how we respond to their slip-ups that will determine if they’ll continue to trust us. Explain that you’re disappointed in their actions and that you know they can do better. Don’t write them off. Tough kids are used to being dismissed as hopeless. Instead, show them that you care and are willing to work with them. Helping a tough kid overcome personal issues isn’t something that happens overnight, but it is a worthwhile investment in his or her future.

5. Expect Anything and Everything!

All of our students come from a variety of cultures, nationalities, and home environments, and these five techniques that have worked for me might barely scratch the surface of how you interact with the tough kids in your classroom. If you have another method that has helped you reach out and connect to a tough kid, please share it below in the comments section.

Source: 5 Tips for Teaching the Tough Kids

Parents versus Friends

In the Toronto Globe & Mail on January 15th I (Clive) read an interesting excerpt from a book by Leonard Sax called The Collapse of Parenting. According to Sax, young people are IMG_3128increasingly looking to friends for support rather than their parents; and the problem with that is whereas parents tend to stick by their children through thick and thin, many young people just drop their friends after a dispute or perceived minor infraction. As a result, children are becoming more vulnerable and anxious (a phenomenon others have noticed).

I think teachers should discuss this set of issues with their students as part of ongoing way of life education (and also introduce them to children’s books or young adult novels that deal with friendship, family life, etc.). Why do young people turn to friends rather than parents? Are they taking this too far? Do they realize the dangers (whatever they are)? Are friends less supportive than family? Support from friends often comes at a price (loyalty, obedience, etc.), but does family support also have a price? Should we go to friends for some things and parents for others? These are tricky questions, but I think exploring issues in a safe environment is always better than leaving young people to grapple with them on their own. And we will learn a lot through the discussions too!

 

Promoting creativity in teacher education

I (Yiola) have been building in how to embed creativity in classroom practice in my Teacher Education course for a number of years. This year I invited Lina Pugsley, a graduate of the Creativity and Change Leadership Program and Masters of Science in Creativity student from SUNY Buffalo  State,  to share with us what creativity means and how to teach creatively and teach for creativity through weaving creativity skills into our classroom lessons.

Our class consisted of information sharing about what creativity is and its complexity. I appreciated that we took time to unpack some of the misconceptions (a major one being creativity equals the visual arts) and to solidify some of its characteristics (creativity is problem solving, its innovation, its incubation, its idea generating, its colourful, etc.)

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Lina presented us with a number of models and frameworks to think about ways of thinking about, teaching, and embedding creativity into our classroom practice.

Several great resources were shared and a number or creativity scholars introduced. From E. Paul Torrance to Ronald Beghetto, we were inspired!

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Once the theoretical and conceptual foundations were laid students in the class began to think more practically about what skills and strategies nurture creativity. This video set our curiosity in motion:

And, in creative fashion students explored, talked about and shared ways of bringing creativity skills into their teaching and lessons. We examined E. Paul Torrance’s 18 thinking skills from his book “Making the Creative Leap Beyond”

Some of the skills:
Be Original
Be Open
Visualize it Rich and Colourfully
Combine and Synthesize
Look at it Another Way
Produce and Consider Many Alternatives
Playfulness and Humour
Highlight the Essence
Make it Swing! Make it Ring!
Be Aware of Emotions
Be Flexible

 

The energy in the room was high. Students were interested and engaged.  They were encouraged to consider their personal teaching philosophy and to make creative thinking a priority in their teaching. It was an  inspiring experience. This particular teacher education course looks at methods in education. We explore planning, the learning environment, pedagogies and practices. Creativity, now in the 21st century, is a skill that students must acquire. It is not an innate skill that some are born with while others are not. Everyone has the capacity to develop their creativity skills and as teachers we need to learn how to create classrooms that foster, encourage, and celebrate creative thinking.in I believe the MA students gained a solid sense of what this is about.

For more information on Lina’s focus and work check out here website at:

http://www.keepingcreativityalive.com

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Teacher Curse No One Wants to Talk About

I (Clare) read this really interesting article on Edutopia

I believe it has relevance for both teachers and teacher educators. Having to unpack and remember how we learned a topic/skill is hard. How do you break down the steps to learning so that our students can acquire the knowledge and skills.  This article has some highly useful examples and suggestions.  As a teacher educator I often make assumptions about my student teachers. They all have university degrees so they should be able to master the content easily. Wrong assumption! It takes time and good teaching. Here is the link to the full article. The Teacher Curse No One Wants to Talk About 

 

Knowledge is a curse.
 Knowing things isn’t bad itself, but it causes unhealthy assumptions — such as forgetting how hard it was to learn those things in the first place. It’s called the Curse of Knowledge.

In this post, we’ll identify how the Curse of Knowledge affects educators. Then we’ll outline seven ways to alleviate the curse. The ultimate goal is to improve instruction.

The Curse of Knowledge

The Curse of Knowledge has been variously described in articles by Chip and Dan Heath, Carmen Nobel, and Steven Pinker, and also in books such as The Sense of Style and Made to Stick. It has been applied to a variety of domains: child development, economics, and technology are just a few.

All of the resources describe the same phenomena — that a strong base of content knowledge makes us blind to the lengthy process of acquiring it. This curse has implications for all teachers:

  • We do not remember what it is like to not know what we are trying to teach.
  • We cannot relive the difficult and lengthy process that learning our content originally took.

As a result, we end up assuming that our lesson’s content is easy, clear, and straightforward. We assume that connections are apparent and will be made effortlessly. Assumptions are the root cause of poor instruction. And acknowledgment is the first step to recovery.

Lifting the Curse

Here are seven ways to make learning easier for your students.

1. Emotion

Barbara Fredrickson, a champion in the field of positive psychology, has studied the effects of mild positive emotions on desired cognitive traits like attentiveness and ability to creatively solve problems. In what she coined the broaden-and-build theory, Fredrickson found that pleasant and mild emotional arousal before experiencing content leads to greater retention. A quick joke or humorous movie can serve as the positive emotional stimulant. So learning is easier and the Curse of Knowledge is potentially circumnavigated when injecting a bit of emotion into your lesson.

2. Multi-Sensory Lessons

Though Howard Gardner’s influential work states that we each have a preferred learning modality, new research highlights the fact that effective lessons need not be unisensory (only kinesthetic, only auditory, etc.) but multi-sensory. Multi-sensory experiences activate and ignite more of the brain, leading to greater retention. So use a multisensory approach in your lessons to make learning easier.

3. Spacing

Blocked practice is ancient and is no longer considered best practice. An example of blocked practice is cramming. Though it feels like learning, blocked practice results in learning that is shallow, and the connections quickly fade. The preferred alternative is the opposite of blocked practice: spaced practice.

Exposing yourself to content and requiring your brain to recall previously learned concepts at spaced intervals (hours, days, weeks, or months) makes the content sticky and results in deeper retention with solid neural connections. As spaced practice is the way that you learned the content you teach, it makes sense to employ the same technique with your students. So thinking of your content as a cycle that is frequently revisited makes learning easier for your students while helping alleviate the curse.

For more information on spacing content, check out Make It Stick or 3 Things Experts Say Make A Perfect Study Session.

4. Narratives

Everyone loves a great story because our ancestral past was full of them. Stories were the dominant medium to transmit information. They rely on our innate narcissistic self to be effective learning tools — we enjoy stories because we immediately inject ourselves into the story, considering our own actions and behavior when placed in the situations being described. This is how we mentally make connections, and if students are listening to a story interlaced with content, they’re more likely to connect with the ideas. So connecting with content through a story is at the heart of learning and can help alleviate the stress associated with the Curse of Knowledge.

5. Analogies and Examples

An analogy is a comparison of different things that are governed by the same underlying principles. If understanding a process is what we’re after, looking at the result of the process proves informative. An analogy compares two unlike things by investigating a similar process that produces both. Said differently, an analogy highlights a connection, and forming connections is at the core of learning.

Whereas an analogy compares similar processes that result in different products, an example highlights different processes that result in similar products. Copious use of examples forces the brain to scan its knowledge inventory, making desirable connections as it scans. So learning is easier when analogies and examples are used to facilitate mental connections.

6. Novelty

New challenges ignite the risk-reward dopamine system in our brains. Novel activities are interesting because dopamine makes us feel accomplished after succeeding. Something that is novel is interesting, and something interesting is learned more easily because it is attended to. So emphasis on the new and exciting aspects of your content could trip the risk-reward system and facilitate learning.

7. Teach Facts

Conceptual knowledge in the form of facts is the scaffolding for the synthesis of new ideas. In other words, you cannot make new ideas with out having old ideas. Disseminating facts as the only means to educate your students is wrong and not encouraged. However, awareness that background knowledge is important to the creation of new ideas is vital for improving instruction. Prior knowledge acts as anchors for new incoming stimuli. When reflecting on the ability of analogies and examples to facilitate connections, it is important to remember that the connections need to be made to already existing knowledge. So providing your students with background knowledge is a prerequisite in forming connections and can make their learning easier.

Making It Easier

The Curse of Knowledge places all of our students at a disadvantage. As educators, it’s not enough to simply recognize that we are unable to remember the struggle of learning. We need to act. By incorporating facts, highlighting novelty, liberally utilizing examples and analogies, cycling our content, telling content-related stories, making our lesson multi-sensory, and harnessing the power of emotion, we can make learning easier for our students.

 

By incorporating facts, novelty, examples, analogies, and emotion; and cycling content, telling content-related stories, and making lessons multisensory, we can make learning easier for our students.

Source: The Teacher Curse No One Wants to Talk About

Neil Gaiman: Why our future depends on libraries, reading and daydreaming

I (Clare) read this amazing article from Neil Gaiman. Here is the link to the article: www.theguardian.com/books/2013/oct/15/neil-gaiman-future-libraries-reading-daydreaming It is a must read for all those interested in literacy — including policy-makers!

Image_Neil-Gaiman-013It’s important for people to tell you what side they are on and why, and whether they might be biased. A declaration of members’ interests, of a sort. So, I am going to be talking to you about reading. I’m going to tell you that libraries are important. I’m going to suggest that reading fiction, that reading for pleasure, is one of the most important things one can do. I’m going to make an impassioned plea for people to understand what libraries and librarians are, and to preserve both of these things.

And I am biased, obviously and enormously: I’m an author, often an author of fiction. I write for children and for adults. For about 30 years I have been earning my living though my words, mostly by making things up and writing them down. It is obviously in my interest for people to read, for them to read fiction, for libraries and librarians to exist and help foster a love of reading and places in which reading can occur.

So I’m biased as a writer. But I am much, much more biased as a reader. And I am even more biased as a British citizen.

And I’m here giving this talk tonight, under the auspices of the Reading Agency: a charity whose mission is to give everyone an equal chance in life by helping people become confident and enthusiastic readers. Which supports literacy programs, and libraries and individuals and nakedly and wantonly encourages the act of reading. Because, they tell us, everything changes when we read.

And it’s that change, and that act of reading that I’m here to talk about tonight. I want to talk about what reading does. What it’s good for.

I was once in New York, and I listened to a talk about the building of private prisons – a huge growth industry in America. The prison industry needs to plan its future growth – how many cells are they going to need? How many prisoners are there going to be, 15 years from now? And they found they could predict it very easily, using a pretty simple algorithm, based on asking what percentage of 10 and 11-year-olds couldn’t read. And certainly couldn’t read for pleasure.

It’s not one to one: you can’t say that a literate society has no criminality. But there are very real correlations.

And I think some of those correlations, the simplest, come from something very simple. Literate people read fiction.

Fiction has two uses. Firstly, it’s a gateway drug to reading. The drive to know what happens next, to want to turn the page, the need to keep going, even if it’s hard, because someone’s in trouble and you have to know how it’s all going to end … that’s a very real drive. And it forces you to learn new words, to think new thoughts, to keep going. To discover that reading per se is pleasurable. Once you learn that, you’re on the road to reading everything. And reading is key. There were noises made briefly, a few years ago, about the idea that we were living in a post-literate world, in which the ability to make sense out of written words was somehow redundant, but those days are gone: words are more important than they ever were: we navigate the world with words, and as the world slips onto the web, we need to follow, to communicate and to comprehend what we are reading. People who cannot understand each other cannot exchange ideas, cannot communicate, and translation programs only go so far.

Image_A-boy-reading-in-his-scho-004The simplest way to make sure that we raise literate children is to teach them to read, and to show them that reading is a pleasurable activity. And that means, at its simplest, finding books that they enjoy, giving them access to those books, and letting them read them.

I don’t think there is such a thing as a bad book for children. Every now and again it becomes fashionable among some adults to point at a subset of children’s books, a genre, perhaps, or an author, and to declare them bad books, books that children should be stopped from reading. I’ve seen it happen over and over; Enid Blyton was declared a bad author, so was RL Stine, so were dozens of others. Comics have been decried as fostering illiteracy.

No such thing as a bad writer…
It’s tosh. It’s snobbery and it’s foolishness. There are no bad authors for children, that children like and want to read and seek out, because every child is different. They can find the stories they need to, and they bring themselves to stories. A hackneyed, worn-out idea isn’t hackneyed and worn out to them. This is the first time the child has encountered it. Do not discourage children from reading because you feel they are reading the wrong thing. Fiction you do not like is a route to other books you may prefer. And not everyone has the same taste as you.

Well-meaning adults can easily destroy a child’s love of reading: stop them reading what they enjoy, or give them worthy-but-dull books that you like, the 21st-century equivalents of Victorian “improving” literature. You’ll wind up with a generation convinced that reading is uncool and worse, unpleasant.

We need our children to get onto the reading ladder: anything that they enjoy reading will move them up, rung by rung, into literacy. (Also, do not do what this author did when his 11-year-old daughter was into RL Stine, which is to go and get a copy of Stephen King’s Carrie, saying if you liked those you’ll love this! Holly read nothing but safe stories of settlers on prairies for the rest of her teenage years, and still glares at me when Stephen King’s name is mentioned.)

And the second thing fiction does is to build empathy. When you watch TV or see a film, you are looking at things happening to other people. Prose fiction is something you build up from 26 letters and a handful of punctuation marks, and you, and you alone, using your imagination, create a world and people it and look out through other eyes. You get to feel things, visit places and worlds you would never otherwise know. You learn that everyone else out there is a me, as well. You’re being someone else, and when you return to your own world, you’re going to be slightly changed.

Empathy is a tool for building people into groups, for allowing us to function as more than self-obsessed individuals.

You’re also finding out something as you read vitally important for making your way in the world. And it’s this:

The world doesn’t have to be like this. Things can be different.

I was in China in 2007, at the first party-approved science fiction and fantasy convention in Chinese history. And at one point I took a top official aside and asked him Why? SF had been disapproved of for a long time. What had changed?

It’s simple, he told me. The Chinese were brilliant at making things if other people brought them the plans. But they did not innovate and they did not invent. They did not imagine. So they sent a delegation to the US, to Apple, to Microsoft, to Google, and they asked the people there who were inventing the future about themselves. And they found that all of them had read science fiction when they were boys or girls.

Fiction can show you a different world. It can take you somewhere you’ve never been. Once you’ve visited other worlds, like those who ate fairy fruit, you can never be entirely content with the world that you grew up in. Discontent is a good thing: discontented people can modify and improve their worlds, leave them better, leave them different.

And while we’re on the subject, I’d like to say a few words about escapism. I hear the term bandied about as if it’s a bad thing. As if “escapist” fiction is a cheap opiate used by the muddled and the foolish and the deluded, and the only fiction that is worthy, for adults or for children, is mimetic fiction, mirroring the worst of the world the reader finds herself in.

If you were trapped in an impossible situation, in an unpleasant place, with people who meant you ill, and someone offered you a temporary escape, why wouldn’t you take it? And escapist fiction is just that: fiction that opens a door, shows the sunlight outside, gives you a place to go where you are in control, are with people you want to be with(and books are real places, make no mistake about that); and more importantly, during your escape, books can also give you knowledge about the world and your predicament, give you weapons, give you armour: real things you can take back into your prison. Skills and knowledge and tools you can use to escape for real.

As JRR Tolkien reminded us, the only people who inveigh against escape are jailers.

Tolkien’s illustration of Bilbo’s home, Bag End. Photograph: HarperCollins

Another way to destroy a child’s love of reading, of course, is to make sure there are no books of any kind around. And to give them nowhere to read those books. I was lucky. I had an excellent local library growing up. I had the kind of parents who could be persuaded to drop me off in the library on their way to work in summer holidays, and the kind of librarians who did not mind a small, unaccompanied boy heading back into the children’s library every morning and working his way through the card catalogue, looking for books with ghosts or magic or rockets in them, looking for vampires or detectives or witches or wonders. And when I had finished reading the children’s’ library I began on the adult books.

 

They were good librarians. They liked books and they liked the books being read. They taught me how to order books from other libraries on inter-library loans. They had no snobbery about anything I read. They just seemed to like that there was this wide-eyed little boy who loved to read, and would talk to me about the books I was reading, they would find me other books in a series, they would help. They treated me as another reader – nothing less or more – which meant they treated me with respect. I was not used to being treated with respect as an eight-year-old.

But libraries are about freedom. Freedom to read, freedom of ideas, freedom of communication. They are about education (which is not a process that finishes the day we leave school or university), about entertainment, about making safe spaces, and about access to information.

I worry that here in the 21st century people misunderstand what libraries are and the purpose of them. If you perceive a library as a shelf of books, it may seem antiquated or outdated in a world in which most, but not all, books in print exist digitally. But that is to miss the point fundamentally.

I think it has to do with nature of information. Information has value, and the right information has enormous value. For all of human history, we have lived in a time of information scarcity, and having the needed information was always important, and always worth something: when to plant crops, where to find things, maps and histories and stories – they were always good for a meal and company. Information was a valuable thing, and those who had it or could obtain it could charge for that service.

In the last few years, we’ve moved from an information-scarce economy to one driven by an information glut. According to Eric Schmidt of Google, every two days now the human race creates as much information as we did from the dawn of civilisation until 2003. That’s about five exobytes of data a day, for those of you keeping score. The challenge becomes, not finding that scarce plant growing in the desert, but finding a specific plant growing in a jungle. We are going to need help navigating that information to find the thing we actually need.

Libraries are places that people go to for information. Books are only the tip of the information iceberg: they are there, and libraries can provide you freely and legally with books. More children are borrowing books from libraries than ever before – books of all kinds: paper and digital and audio. But libraries are also, for example, places that people, who may not have computers, who may not have internet connections, can go online without paying anything: hugely important when the way you find out about jobs, apply for jobs or apply for benefits is increasingly migrating exclusively online. Librarians can help these people navigate that world.

I do not believe that all books will or should migrate onto screens: as Douglas Adams once pointed out to me, more than 20 years before the Kindle turned up, a physical book is like a shark. Sharks are old: there were sharks in the ocean before the dinosaurs. And the reason there are still sharks around is that sharks are better at being sharks than anything else is. Physical books are tough, hard to destroy, bath-resistant, solar-operated, feel good in your hand: they are good at being books, and there will always be a place for them. They belong in libraries, just as libraries have already become places you can go to get access to ebooks, and audiobooks and DVDs and web content.

A library is a place that is a repository of information and gives every citizen equal access to it. That includes health information. And mental health information. It’s a community space. It’s a place of safety, a haven from the world. It’s a place with librarians in it. What the libraries of the future will be like is something we should be imagining now.

Literacy is more important than ever it was, in this world of text and email, a world of written information. We need to read and write, we need global citizens who can read comfortably, comprehend what they are reading, understand nuance, and make themselves understood.

Libraries really are the gates to the future. So it is unfortunate that, round the world, we observe local authorities seizing the opportunity to close libraries as an easy way to save money, without realising that they are stealing from the future to pay for today. They are closing the gates that should be open.

According to a recent study by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development, England is the “only country where the oldest age group has higher proficiency in both literacy and numeracy than the youngest group, after other factors, such as gender, socio-economic backgrounds and type of occupations are taken into account”.

Or to put it another way, our children and our grandchildren are less literate and less numerate than we are. They are less able to navigate the world, to understand it to solve problems. They can be more easily lied to and misled, will be less able to change the world in which they find themselves, be less employable. All of these things. And as a country, England will fall behind other developed nations because it will lack a skilled workforce.

Books are the way that we communicate with the dead. The way that we learn lessons from those who are no longer with us, that humanity has built on itself, progressed, made knowledge incremental rather than something that has to be relearned, over and over. There are tales that are older than most countries, tales that have long outlasted the cultures and the buildings in which they were first told.

I think we have responsibilities to the future. Responsibilities and obligations to children, to the adults those children will become, to the world they will find themselves inhabiting. All of us – as readers, as writers, as citizens – have obligations. I thought I’d try and spell out some of these obligations here.

I believe we have an obligation to read for pleasure, in private and in public places. If we read for pleasure, if others see us reading, then we learn, we exercise our imaginations. We show others that reading is a good thing.

We have an obligation to support libraries. To use libraries, to encourage others to use libraries, to protest the closure of libraries. If you do not value libraries then you do not value information or culture or wisdom. You are silencing the voices of the past and you are damaging the future.

We have an obligation to read aloud to our children. To read them things they enjoy. To read to them stories we are already tired of. To do the voices, to make it interesting, and not to stop reading to them just because they learn to read to themselves. Use reading-aloud time as bonding time, as time when no phones are being checked, when the distractions of the world are put aside.

We have an obligation to use the language. To push ourselves: to find out what words mean and how to deploy them, to communicate clearly, to say what we mean. We must not to attempt to freeze language, or to pretend it is a dead thing that must be revered, but we should use it as a living thing, that flows, that borrows words, that allows meanings and pronunciations to change with time.

We writers – and especially writers for children, but all writers – have an obligation to our readers: it’s the obligation to write true things, especially important when we are creating tales of people who do not exist in places that never were – to understand that truth is not in what happens but what it tells us about who we are. Fiction is the lie that tells the truth, after all. We have an obligation not to bore our readers, but to make them need to turn the pages. One of the best cures for a reluctant reader, after all, is a tale they cannot stop themselves from reading. And while we must tell our readers true things and give them weapons and give them armour and pass on whatever wisdom we have gleaned from our short stay on this green world, we have an obligation not to preach, not to lecture, not to force predigested morals and messages down our readers’ throats like adult birds feeding their babies pre-masticated maggots; and we have an obligation never, ever, under any circumstances, to write anything for children that we would not want to read ourselves.

We have an obligation to understand and to acknowledge that as writers for children we are doing important work, because if we mess it up and write dull books that turn children away from reading and from books, we ‘ve lessened our own future and diminished theirs.

We all – adults and children, writers and readers – have an obligation to daydream. We have an obligation to imagine. It is easy to pretend that nobody can change anything, that we are in a world in which society is huge and the individual is less than nothing: an atom in a wall, a grain of rice in a rice field. But the truth is, individuals change their world over and over, individuals make the future, and they do it by imagining that things can be different.

Look around you: I mean it. Pause, for a moment and look around the room that you are in. I’m going to point out something so obvious that it tends to be forgotten. It’s this: that everything you can see, including the walls, was, at some point, imagined. Someone decided it was easier to sit on a chair than on the ground and imagined the chair. Someone had to imagine a way that I could talk to you in London right now without us all getting rained on.This room and the things in it, and all the other things in this building, this city, exist because, over and over and over, people imagined things.

We have an obligation to make things beautiful. Not to leave the world uglier than we found it, not to empty the oceans, not to leave our problems for the next generation. We have an obligation to clean up after ourselves, and not leave our children with a world we’ve shortsightedly messed up, shortchanged, and crippled.

We have an obligation to tell our politicians what we want, to vote against politicians of whatever party who do not understand the value of reading in creating worthwhile citizens, who do not want to act to preserve and protect knowledge and encourage literacy. This is not a matter of party politics. This is a matter of common humanity.

Albert Einstein was asked once how we could make our children intelligent. His reply was both simple and wise. “If you want your children to be intelligent,” he said, “read them fairy tales. If you want them to be more intelligent, read them more fairy tales.” He understood the value of reading, and of imagining. I hope we can give our children a world in which they will read, and be read to, and imagine, and understand.

  • This is an edited version of Neil Gaiman’s lecture for the Reading Agency, delivered on Monday October 14 at the Barbican in London. The Reading Agency’s annual lecture series was initiated in 2012 as a platform for leading writers and thinkers to share original, challenging ideas about reading and libraries.

Appreciating multiple perspectives: One Example

There are multiple sites of learning, multiple forms of education, and multiple kinds of learners. From time to time, I (Yiola) have shared posts on Muay Thai as an alternative site of education with a focus on the teacher/student relationship. Muay Thai is a beautiful martial art that originates from Thailand. Most would likely watch Muay Thai and cringe, call it brutal and see it as violent.  It would seem to be a sport that gains  popularity through the thrill of watching and cheering and betting and celebrating in celebrity style the fighters. In the video I share here, World Champion Simon Marcus shares his perspective on the sport.

The way he describes his experience is remarkably peaceful and remarkably personal.  He talks about himself as student of the art and how his teachings bring out his best personal self, where he finds his “most peaceful” moment. He talks about his gratitude for his teacher and the respect for his learnings.

One may perceive the fight as brutally violent while another perceives the fight as moment of peace and clarity ~ a fine example of multiple perspectives. “A Brutal Ballet” indeed.

Education is about knowing yourself, knowing your ability and opening yourself to exciting possibilities for development, growth and achievement. Teaching is about being open to multiple perspectives and appreciating the multiple ways our students find knowledge, achievement and peace… and finding ways to embrace and invite multiple perspectives into our learning environments.