Just Google It

I recall wandering through the back streets of Barcelona in 2008 at 1am with a fellow traveler and her friend on one of my European adventures.  We were lost but didn’t want to admit it.  We were searching for somewhere to have a final drink.  The streets became tighter, darker and occupied by shadows intent on selling us their mind altering products.  I loved it.  Dangerous cities are more fun.

We didn’t have a map and our phones had been left at the hostel.  We travelled further.  If we had been 3G connected the simplicity of Google maps would have undoubtedly led us to a bar and definitely back to the hostel.  My companions started to get weary but I encouraged them to press on for a while more.

It was probably my imagination or the influence of the alcohol already consumed that night but the discovery of our destination was other worldly – we had stumbled across an Absinthe bar.

Hidden Giants has just completed an experiment that saw us venture into the murky world of teaching foreign languages.  Anyone who knows me, despite my love of travelling, will know my complete ineptness with other languages.  Secondary school French and German destroyed my passion for learning other languages.  I recall the constant sense of ‘getting it wrong’ or the lack of imagination within the way it was being taught.  I hated it.  Which is why I wanted to see if I could teach it?

Through the ongoing partnership with Perth and Kinross CLN I worked in collaboration with the p5/6 class of Dunning primary.  The project established an immersive, participatory, and interdisciplinary approach to the teaching and learning of French.   Over the course of 5 weeks the P6 class became immersed in a mystery surrounding a local historical artefact.  The class teacher and Hidden Giants established a series of creative lures to introduce the pupils to each weeks learning.  The stimuli would build on the learning from the previous week whilst introducing the class to another area of the French curriculum.

The approach was inspired by Narrative and Bricolage pedagogy highlighted in the 2014 Open Universities Innovating Pedagogies document.  Myself and the class teacher (Stewart) were inspired by the idea of immersing students in a scenario that required them to build the drama whilst hitting key learning objectives.  Stewart had a sense of what vocabulary and words he wanted the class to learn but was open to playing with the learning process.

As part of the project one of the creative lures was a strange dream I had supposedly had the night before which I had written down in French (with help from a friend) on a piece of scrap paper beside my bed.  The next day the pupils helped translate it for me.  The computer in the classroom was turned off and we didn’t want to resort to google anyway.  In an incredible, unprepared stroke of genius Stewart pulled a French dictionary from his draw.  What happened over the next 25minutes was one of the most engaged, collaborative, curious, child led, resilient, disciplined learning experiences I have ever witnessed.  The only voices I heard for 25 minutes were from the children industrially interpreting and translating my dream.

They were making discoveries, sharing new words, problem solving and drawing from previous learning experiences.   Myself and Stewart had not created a lesson plan or established the learning intentions we simply created a space that allowed the pupils full autonomy over their learning.  The learning that came from this one experience was amazing and could never be planned for.   The need to ‘let go’ is crucial in establishing a progressive pedagogy within primary schools.

Hidden Giants suggests primary education is littered with a suffocating mix of subjects that teachers are forced to deliver and then measure which leads to a tick box culture.  The function of the teacher is to get through everything and make it to the holidays without any casualties.  This ‘getting things done’ mentality means time is spent over planning to negate for the potential failure as there is simply not enough time to build resilience.  Within the French project we paid attention to the ‘how’ and ‘why’ before we focused on the ‘what’ we were delivering.  With a strong pedagogical approach you can teach almost anything – even French.

Mid way through the French project I happened to see a piece of theatre called ‘Lippy’ as part of the Arches behaviour festival.  It was a challenging, thought provoking and sometimes disturbing piece.  Even more disturbing was the fact I bumped into my mum and her friend.  This was unusual as it wasn’t the type of theatre you would tend to find my mum.

It was clear my mum’s friend did not enjoy the experience, “What did it all mean, it was so confusing.  I need to go home and google it” she offered as a critique.  If I’m honest there were some moments that had confused me but it was these moments that made the piece.   It struck me when my mum’s friend suggested she wanted to ‘google it’ that she was suggesting something that was impossible.  The answers to her questions don’t exist on google – they lie dormant in her as it would require her to take responsibility for the translation of the imagery, sound and complexities of the piece.

The current trend of being able to ‘google it’ removes humans instinctive curiosity (which requires persistence) to find the correct answer.  Within art the answer is often subjective.  Perhaps in more main stream art forms simplification of the message is wanted.  The more you travel towards contemporary or abstract art the audience’s ability to think and draw on experiences is required.  If we accept everything in art has meaning the journey to discover it is the lure that draws us back.  Art that makes me think is good art.  The more art/artists can disrupt and challenge the status quo the more it/they should have a place within our schools.

Finding or discovering meaning when there is not an obvious or known answer empowers and liberates the learner’s curiosity.  When your senses are heighten and there is autonomy over the direction in which you can travel the likelihood of deep and rich learning is greater.    If the answer is subjective we build a culture of acceptable failure.  The emphasis for the learner is based on exploration and not ‘getting it right’.

I saw an app recently that translates any text, anywhere, in any font into another language, i.e. if you’re in a French restaurant you hold your phone to the menu (written in French) and your screen will show the English translation.  Genius.  A technological marvel.  Someone is getting rich.  But what do we miss out on as a result of this handy devise?  I’m a vegetarian so restaurants and buffets can be tricky at the best of times but I look back over my travels and holidays and wonder what would have happened if I hadn’t been curious to discover what the odd sounding ingredient was on menus.  It was usually god awful but I always remember the experience.  Does technology remove authentic experience as it reduces the parameters for failure?  We remember experiences; we don’t remember things that are easy.

So what happens when you can’t just ‘google it’?  You enter into a world that demands you become curious, persistent and resilient.   I’m not advocating for technology to be banned in schools but what I’m suggesting is we pay attention to the journeys that technology can by-pass for it is these that can bring new meaning, leave a bad taste in your mouth, or end up talking to a group of locals in Barcelona drinking Absinthe till 5am speaking the worst Spanish known to man.   Messing things up is great, it’s how we learn, it’s how we make new discoveries.

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