Advocating for the Unknown - Holding Space for the Unexpected Moments of Authentic Learning

November 3, 2021
Zoe Street
Catherine McCunn

School: Mosman Park Primary School
Year Group: 1
Teacher: Catherine McCunn
Creative Practitioner: Zoe Street
Creative Practice: Multidisciplinary and place based

In our initial conversation about Creative Schools, Catherine, the Mosman Park year 1 teacher and I discussed what it meant to find authenticity in learning and the importance of students understanding why they are learning. Even though they are young, they know when something is not real. After all, children are the most curious humans with no hesitation to ask big questions.

So, in search of authentic learning experiences we decided to take our classroom outside. We explored stories through connecting to place, being able to touch, smell, hear and grow stories from experience, rather than starting with writing on a page. For many 6 and 7 year olds, there was a mixture of exhaustion (“it’s sooooooo hot”), confusion (“we’re outside and it’s not playtime, what’s happening???”) and wonderment (“wow look at this ant nest!”). We went out each lesson on inquisitive explorer missions, using our senses to explore all that’s around us. Using our listening to notice different bird calls, using our eyes to observe the tiny ants marching through the wooden playground, using our touch to find the leaves and bark from different types of trees that give us shade.

Catherine and I returned again and again to the question: ‘How do we create an authentic learning experience for these students?’ Some sessions left us feeling deflated, like we hadn’t achieved anything and the students were just running circles around us. Other lessons that we thought we’d planned down to a tee left the children bored and uninterested. There were also lessons with a beautiful balance of planning and flow where we knew we’d tapped into something special by creating the space for things to emerge, whilst having enough structure to have the kids engaged in a task.

Then one week, just after term 4 started, we had a lesson with an ah-ha moment. It was a hot October afternoon. We were outside amongst the trees, and there were 24 year 1 children chattering away, climbing the trees and exploring rock crevices, all of them with a small clay animal in hand. These creatures had  been made after weeks of inquisitive explorer missions outside and each had a home in a different part of the nature playground. The branch of a certain tree or specific location of a rock was now deeply treasured by these students. One student  came  up to me, tears streaming down his face. “Someone’s moved into my home” he cried. “What happens now, someone took my home.” Another 3 students came running to tell me, “our home is gone, it’s not there anymore.” It turned out that some pruning had taken place over the school holidays and the branch that their creatures called home had been removed. The rest of the lesson became about how we could find new homes for these displaced creatures.

In this lesson, we found authenticity from a group of students having personal experiences of what displacement could feel like. Their creatures, whom they had loved and cared for, had lost their homes without a moment's notice. You could see the grief and surprise on these children’s faces. They cared deeply for each branch and divet in the bark and placement of rocks. I realised that by being outside and observing a place every week and creating something that lived there, these kids had been building connections that we didn’t even know about. The authentic learning was happening in front of our eyes; we just didn’t always see it.

There is no way we could have simulated the experience of the kid’s creatures losing their homes in such a real way. We were all a part of the journey to find a way through this crisis. This could only happen by listening to what unexpected moments can bring. If we have everything planned and timed, we risk the danger of overlooking these moments of embodied, lived experience that I believe is at the heart of learning. What this asks of us, the educators, is to be brave and allow the unknown to always be present in how we hold spaces for learning, because I don’t think we can ever plan an authentic experience. I think we can just hold the space and wholeheartedly believe in a child’s ability to learn through the authenticity of their own lived experience.

With gratitude to the year 1 students at Mosman Park Primary and their teacher Catherine McCunn. I have learned so much from and with you all.