Uncertain Times

June 24, 2021
Andrea Tenger
Josephine Murray


School: Spearwood Alternative School

Year Group: 5/6  

Teacher: Josephine Murray

Creative Practitioner: Andrea Tenger

Creative Practice: Visual Art

When I first met Josie Murray, classroom teacher at Spearwood Alternative School, we talked about a very common subject; COVID-19. Western Australia had so far managed to avoid city-wide lockdowns and schools were open, but there was still a feeling of uncertainty and anxiety about what the future held. Her class ‘Bungana’, the eldest students; years 5 and 6, had been brave and resilient, but the year still seemed out of control and nothing was certain. From this conversation, an intention for our project was created:

Create authentic opportunities for the students to develop creative and critical thinking capabilities and higher order thinking skills (especially perspective and empathy) by giving them control of the Australian History content learning. Help them to reflect on this process and to make their thinking and learning visible.

Mind map of Andrea and Josie's conversation

We knew that giving control to the students would be challenging for them, so we created a safe environment that would allow them to participate in their own way, to experiment, take risks, share their own thoughts (and/or have them challenged) and where their emotions would be acknowledged.

What we didn’t know was how difficult it would be for us educators. Giving up control created uncertainty and we had to tolerate this uncertainty; we couldn’t predict what would happen. It was hard to watch how some students reacted to this open-ended, student-centred approach; they were overwhelmed, fearful and paralysed. They couldn’t make decisions and they struggled to even start an activity. We immediately wanted to step in and fix things; control both the lesson and the outcome. We wanted to look and feel like we were doing a good job. Keeping this hard-wired desire/need for control (and the certainty that it brings us) in check, became a constant. Everything we thought, said and did during the planning, delivery and reflection periods, had to support the students without changing or threatening our intention.

If you had been in class with us, you would have heard us saying the same things, over and over, like a mantra, for ourselves as much as the students; “What do you think?” “It’s up to you.” “I don’t know?” “Yes, this is hard.” “I’m feeling anxious too.” “You can do this!” “You can work it out.” “I trust you.” Our mantra during post session reflection and planning was “What are we doing FOR them that they can do for themselves?”

Andrea's planning notes

With time and practice, most of the students were able to take control of their learning and we were able to step back further. This created space for us to look closely and notice what happens when we give up control.

“As students realised that they wouldn’t be given information about activities or approaches that they could either work out for themselves or decide for themselves, they gradually started to relax into taking ownership. The thousand questions about the one sentence instruction, began to dry up and rather, they would use their imagination and questioning to work together for something they valued.” - Teacher

We were also able to notice our own learning;

“This opportunity has been, for me, about letting go. About trusting my kids to do the thinking and to take the reins. We had to do some trial and error, in terms of working out how much direction is right, but I certainly saw that I could be leaving more open to the kids own passions, imaginations and values. I also learned to slow down. We spent a lot of time in the early stages of our project really digging deep … and by going deep instead of trying to rush forward, we reaped the benefit in the end.” - Teacher

During a time when nothing was certain, we gave up control so that the students could be in charge of their own learning. This actually created more uncertainty, for all of us. But, we were able to persist, and not only did we gain some knowledge of Australian History, we also developed skills; creative and critical thinking, perspective and empathy; all of which will surely help us bravely face whatever happens next.