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What is the best approach? Part 1.

What is the best approach?

Throughout the past four and a half years here in Argentina, this is a question that I have stopped to ask myself on various occasions. On most of those occasions I have had different answers. What I have come to realise is that yes, I do have an answer to that question today, but we live in such a rapidly changing world, the answer to that question may be completely different tomorrow. What has been so valuable to me has been the learning about being flexible, open to change, and the process of coming to terms with that fact. The goal posts will always in motion!

I came to Argentina knowing that I wanted to support children in vulnerable circumstances. For me, what arose and is evolving from engaging in that process, is a new way of looking at learning. A perspective that has forced me to search for alternative methods of engaging with children. It’s not necessarily a new form of education, but a style that is beginning to fit in with my view of the world. A style that allows me to feel comfortable about having the best interests of the child at the center of the approach.

What are the best interests of a child? I can’t help thinking of the big picture and what problems there are in the world. In my view, the biggest problems come from a lack of understanding of the position of others. Because of this, so many fantastic interactions and learning opportunities are squandered because of the barriers created by differences. Not to mention all of the national and international conflict that this has also created! It not only has relevance to the bigger picture, but also to the smaller local picture. From my perspective I see that if a child can be empathetic to the needs and wants of another, then that leads to better relationships, healthier individuals and communities, more collaboration, more general happiness, and thus, more learning.

I arrived in Argentina very rigid, with a black and white view of almost everything. After living here for a few years, my views have changed on so many subjects. Everything is not black and white and there are millions of shades of grey in between. I came with an idea of how things would go. In my head, I knew what the kids needed! Through our experiences and experimentation, I have come to believe that the medium was correct, nutritious food and creative activity, but the method of delivering it was not even close! I used to deliver it from a traditional teacher centered approach. I am the teacher, I know what you need, so I am going to teach it to you!

From what I have learnt during my time here within this context, this rigid approach is detrimental to the integral development of a child. I say this context, because the children within this community have much bigger barriers to learning than I have experienced before. Concentration times are much shorter, environmental distractions are much larger, and the education that these children receive in the schools is, to put it nicely, failing them. There are many reasons for this, which I won’t get into. What I can say is that most children are used to a lectorial style of learning, with a small emphasis on comprehension, therefore the majority of children don’t have great learning habits.

Firstly, the most important element of communication is listening, so, instead of bringing all of the materials and information to a class and delivering it, I had to begin listening to the children. I had to begin to gauge what is was that these kids needed, and form it into something that was contextually relevant, and absorbable by the children. With concentration times being so short, it has been imperative to get attention early and move from that point. I’ll give an example. I am truly interested in rhythm. When I first started teaching in the project I would work for days planning and creating elaborate rhythm lessons involving various groups playing different rhythms at the same time. They were good lessons, but culturally incoherent.

I was trying to implement rhythms that had no cultural relevancy whatsoever. I was bringing rock style rhythms (my musical context) to a community where all they listen to is reggaetón and cumbia (styles of music extremely popular within communities such as Monte Chingolo). I was going against the grain. The rhythms that I was trying to teach fought against the rhythms that naturally pulsed within the veins of the kids of this community. It was like playing thrash metal at a classical music festival!

This example plays nicely into any educational context, not just in Monte Chingolo. So, I was often swimming against the current in my lessons. There is always common ground -the point where what we want to teach, and what the kids want to learn, connects’. That is where the magic happens. It’s not a completely child centred approach, because we tried that for a year, and it didn’t work. We gave the children the space and freedom to choose, and because of the bad education habits, lack of confidence, and many other factors, the kids would always be choosing the space that was most comfortable for them. There was no confidence to step out of the comfort zone and try new things.

An example. We would offer three options on any given day. One day there might be a music class, a yoga class, and free play time. It worked ok for a while but then we began to notice a pattern. The same children were choosing the same classes all the time, and a certain group of kids would always choose free play and isolate themselves more and more from the rest of the other kids. They were the kids that most needed some sort of structure in their lives because in their home, there was absolutely none. No mother, a regularly absent father, alcohol, drugs, violence and isolation. So, within this context, this type of freedom that we were experimenting with, didn’t work. Maybe within an environment where children had a lot of structure in their lives this approach would work. Not here.

So, the art in the appropriate teaching style, was finding the ‘common ground’. It was learning the style of music that the kids have running through their veins and basing the lesson on that. It was making the lessons more dynamic in the sense that there is an exchanging of ideas between myself and the children, which means that I had to learn something in the lessons too! Doing so made us equals in the learning process. If the children felt that they could contribute to the lesson, they felt empowered! During this process the relationship grows.

I have learned the value of relationships in the learning process. The relationship between facilitator and learner, and also between learner and learner. I witnessed the importance of the child feeling comfortable and having confidence within the learning space. I saw the barriers for children when they weren’t comfortable or confident. This comes from within the context of ‘being a child’. Children are sensitive, they want to be accepted, they struggle with confidence, and need appropriate learning role models. It’s tough enough being a child, let alone a child within this difficult environment where most of their rights are being abused.

For children, having a connection with, and trusting in, the facilitator, oils the learning machine for children. Once the connection exists, it is much easier to facilitate lessons that push kids out of their comfort zone. Maybe even my rhythm lessons that I was talking about! I saw of a study the other day that showed a direct correlation between how long you live and the type of positive relationships that you had in your life. The better the relationships that you have, the longer you live. I don’t like referring to studies because you can truly skew the data to present how you want it to present, but the results of this study make sense to me. Human connection is at the centre of our existence as humans!

Movement. I have witnessed a direct connection between moving and learning. Children, boys in particular (another blog), need to move to learn. The day that I shifted a music lesson from the chalkboard to the ground, everything changed. Instead of sitting in front of the board looking at the beats in a bar, I drew the numbers on the ground and had the kids pace them out. They absolutely loved it! What I know, as I am human also, humans remember enjoyable experiences! Voila! Creating with a pencil or a paint brush can also be classified as movement! I am still amazed at how engaged the kids are in any art class with our art teacher Soledad. It also has a lot to do with how Soledad teaches, also another blog!

Caregivers. At the start, our focus was 100% on the children. What we have come to learn is that it is impossible to support the positive development of children without the support of their caregiver/s! What we sometimes forget is that the child spends the majority of their life at home. The influence of the home, is massively…influential! We have had circumstances where the mother of a couple of children within the project was speaking very badly of us to her kids. It was literally impossible to build relationships and engage in learning with those children. So, it goes back to the relationship idea. Not only are the relationships in between facilitators and learners important but also with those who care for the children at home. This relationship triangle is fundamental to children’s development.

Fairness. Children have a very strong feeling of what is fair and what it not. When a child feels like they are not being treated fairly, their behaviour changes! So many times, I have seen a huge change in behaviour from one second to the next and it has been because of something simple that I have said indicating that I am treating one child differently to another. I used to promote equality to all of the children. You will all be treated the same. But, that was a complete lie and my actions where not in line with my words. An example. I knew that one child doesn’t eat at home, so when he said to me that he didn’t like the salad and only wanted to eat the shepherd’s pie, I let him eat what he wanted because I knew it was the only food that he was getting. I had said to the child beside him that she had to try and eat the salad because 1. I knew she would eat it and 2. It is good for her. If I was promoting equality, she had every right to complain about her having to eat the salad if the boy beside her didn’t have to.

A very big change for me happened when I realised that I believe in equity, not equality. Equality is treating everybody the same. Equity is giving everyone what they need to have access to the same opportunities. ‘Equity’ is basically the reason why I am here doing this project. So, I said to the children that I would never treat them all the same, but I would make sure that they had the same access to opportunities! It has been difficult to apply this but I saw some big changes in certain children when they began to understand this concept. A young boy in the project is obsessed with fairness, even though he has a slightly biased view of his rights compared to other’s. I am still trying to help him understand this, but there have been occasions where conversations around this topic have calmed him down during his outbursts over the unfairness of his treatment! It’s a process…

Confidence, confidence, confidence. The biggest barrier to learning that I have encountered over the last four and a half years is ‘lack of confidence’. Low confidence and self-esteem are unclimbable mountain passes when it comes to the learning journey. So many of the children within our project come from homes where their confidence is knocked on a daily basis. They are spoken to horribly and treated like they have no significance in this world. It isn’t done on purpose, it’s just that caregivers don’t understand the negative effects that their words and actions are having on the children.

A mother will be speaking to us, in front of her child, about how useless her child is at this or that and she speaks as if that is the way the child is and can never change. We can see the huge negative effects on how that child acts in any lesson around other children because of this treatment. If you are told that you are useless all your life, how are you going to act?

This year we have began to collaborate with a local percussion teacher. His name is Sergio. It is beautiful to watch how he extracts confidence in children. He will be teaching a rhythm to a child and even though that child is playing a completely different rhythm he smiles and says ‘yeah, that’s it, keep it going’. He will then continue to play the rhythm with the child smiling and encouraging until the child takes on the rhythm by assimilation.

An approach that I have taken up until this point (I’m in the process of changing this because of the positive effects that I have seen it have) would be to say, ‘no that’s not it, it’s like this’. This immediately tells the child that they are doing something wrong. What will the child do? They will shut down because that child has been told their whole life that they can’t do things. At this moment the learning opportunity is lost. With Sergio’s method, the kid is always hearing the positive. The thoughts in their head are, ‘I can’, ‘I’m doing it’, and the learning happens. This approach can be very helpful with particularly sensitive kids.

I am speaking about education from within the context of the community where we work. There is no silver bullet in education because every single learning context is different! So, what is the best approach for this context? It involves, being on the same level as the child, sharing the learning alongside the child, finding common ground, creating solid relationships with children and caregivers, incorporating movement in lessons, being equitable, and promoting confidence at every step of the process. These are a few of the lessons that I have learnt. There are more obstacles in learning than there have ever been, but there are also more opportunities!   

Children can look objectively at many situations because they don’t have all of these preconceived ideas about how the world should work. They are honest in their words and their actions. They are energetic and inquisitive. If the facilitator can make the subject interesting, they love to listen, because within that listening is the learning! They have a perspective of the world that is untainted. I am not putting children on a pedestal, saying that they are pure and perfect. I am pointing out the positive characteristics children demonstrate when it comes to learning. Kids are learning machines. It is important for me as a teacher is to remember that.

Thinking about all of the valuable things that I could learn from the kids has helped me change, and hopefully continue to change, my perspective on learning. I believe more and more that the best teachers, are the children. Everything that I have just talked about are lessons from kids. Every behaviour that a child presents is a way of communicating something. I am learning of the importance of listening to kids to try to understand and interpret what it is that a child is trying to communicate. Through that understanding or interpretation I am attempting to develop an approach to education that best serves the child.

In Part 2 of this blog I will present an education approach that we are beginning to apply at Food for Thought.