There is a scene in the 2006 film Ten Canoes that pretty much sums up what we get wrong in schools. It isn’t a pivotal scene, just one of many where a group of Yolngu men, on their way to gather goose eggs, tell each other stories. These tales act as important lessons about the nature of the world to the youngest member of the tribe.
More than the stories themselves, it was how they were being told that struck me when I first watched the film. There was no classroom with bells neatly allotting set times; there were no chairs and tables creating controllable spaces of input and output. But, most importantly, the stories were told while walking.
Classrooms have more or less looked the same since the industrial revolution, with kids sitting in neat rows copying notes. There was a minor revolution with the rediscovery of round tables sometime in the mid-80s, but aside from a lot of strained necks for those with their backs to the teacher, not much has changed. Our students for the most part still sit, while we do all the walking and talking.
Not long after I watched Ten Canoes, a rare glimpse of mid-winter Melbourne sun made possible my own experiment. Fuelled by the certainty that I was not only disrupting the context of the modern classroom but also making a unit on Aboriginal stories more authentic, I escorted my Year 8 English class to Merri Creek.
We need to walk with our students through the discomfort and the confusion we all have about the world, looking for questions as much as answers.
As we walked, we talked about the Aboriginal history of the area, and I confessed to how little I really knew about the Wurundjeri-willam tribe whose ancestral land we were on. I pointed out the bluestone that was mined until very recently to make the cobbled streets of Melbourne, and one of the students made a comparison to the ongoing issues of mining coal on traditional lands today.
When we finally arrived at a nice curve in the creek, they all sat on rocks by the bank while I read them a story from the collection of short stories we were studying, Growing up Aboriginal in Australia. It was a great lesson – “the best” according to more than a few in the class.
Later, however, I reflected that even though I had taken them out of the classroom, even though they had listened more attentively than ever before to one of the short stories, they had still spent much of the lesson sitting down. We might have walked, but it was only to get somewhere.
Researcher Sarah Truman from Melbourne University has written about the importance of a different sort of walking: walking-with.
“Walking-with engenders a speculative middle that attends to what emerges in the fissures and seams of an event,” she writes. “Walking-with is responsibility to the entangled relations of which we are part.” In other words, walking itself can be a form of inquiry-based learning that encourages students to consider how they engage with the world. It isn’t merely the journey, but the end in itself.
Too often we try to explain and answer; to provide clarity that will lead to outcomes that will see growth on a matrix or a higher score on a NAPLAN test. Instead, we need to walk with our students through the discomfort and the confusion we all have about the world, looking for questions as much as answers.
Our ancestral teachers, from Aristotle and Socrates to the Elders of Aboriginal and Torres Straight Island nations, knew how important it was to move while learning.
Primary schools, where movement has not yet been eradicated from the classroom, use a task called a Gallery Walk. The basic idea is that complex information (a story or a report) is broken into parts and divided among a group. One person becomes an expert on that fragment, and all fragments are placed around the walls of a large space. Then, like a tour group in a museum, the entire class moves from station to station, with the expert at each stop telling their part of the whole.
I’ve used it myself with Year 10s who were struggling to understand Othello. I was surprised by how enthusiastically they took to the task – and by how much of the information they subsequently recalled throughout the term.
Our ancestral teachers, from Aristotle and Socrates to the Elders of Aboriginal and Torres Straight Island nations, knew how important it was to move while learning. But we modern educators need reminding. There may be a time and place for sitting and writing, but if you really need to think, you better get on your feet.