A few weeks ago I visited a nearby waterhole. It’s a place that I like to visit regularly with my kids, however on this occasion it had been a while between visits. I noticed there was a new rope swing, and the boys and I immediately tested the water before proceeding to have a lot of fun swinging into the water. I told my nephew about our discovery, and he decided to come along the next day. For the last couple of weekends we have been visiting the waterhole and exploring the surrounding area.
My nephew, Jayke, has a number of fish tanks and has been very interested in the creatures that are living in the pools surrounding the waterhole. He has been bringing his snorkel and mask up to the waterhole, and he and my two boys have enjoyed swimming around, looking at all of the fish and yabbies, etc. living in all of the shallow pools.
What has been particularly remarkable for me is how much knowledge Jayke has of Australian fresh water ecosystems.
For example, Jayke can tell me which of the fish species are introduced and why, the range of temperatures in which the fish are capable of surviving, their diet, breeding habits, their predators, the preferred habitat of the native yabbie, legislation around which fish can and cannot be taken from the waterhole, how best to care for the fish, and much, much more. Jayke has learned none of this information from school, rather from a keen interest in maintaining his various fish tanks and caring for the creatures and mini-ecosystems within them. He will spend hours searching around the waterhole, and hours caring for his fish at home.
Spending this time with my nephew has reminded me of why it is that I decided to become a teacher, and how important it is to support young people in pursuing their interests.
A couple of years ago I dropped my eldest son off to an enrichment day at Kambora Public School. It was about an hour before the beginning of the official school day and I had to find a way to entertain my youngest son, then in year 1, for an hour or so before taking him to school. I decided to take him walking along the Cascades Trail. We got a little way down the track before stopping to look into a little creek which meanders over the trail. My young son crouched down, fascinated at all of the tadpoles and other things swimming around in the water.
We spent an hour there, exploring the creek, lifting up stones and talking about the creatures in the creek. In that short space of time my young son learned about life-cycles, ecosystems and waterways, and I was very much emotionally moved by the experience. I was overwhelmed with how naturally inquisitive my son was and how this inquisitiveness was a powerful driver of his learning. I remember thinking to myself, “This is what I want to do. I want to engage with young people like my son and help them make sense of the fascinating world around them.”
I don’t think that this enthusiasm for learning and powerful intrigue is tied to being a child, and in many ways I see a continuation of this inquisitiveness in my nephew (now 21) as he swims about in the waterhole with my son.
This is an obvious statement – I think that people will learn an awful lot about something if they are interested in it. I consider the stories of my nephew in the waterhole and my son by the creek as perfect examples of this. Not everybody is going to be interested in aquariums or creek beds. But I think one of the most important things that a teacher can do is find out what students are interested in, and support them in pursuing those interests. Who knows, maybe one may develop from a hobby into an enjoyable and fulfilling career.
I think that supporting children in this way is at least as important, perhaps even more so in some regards, than ticking off syllabus dot points. I’m not saying that the syllabus is unimportant, just that the natural interests of students are equally as important, and powerful drivers of their learning. I also think that the thoughtful teacher should be able to nurture such interests, and to wrap the syllabus around these interests in their learning experiences where ever possible. That’s another reason why I was stoked to hear about Genius Hour, and why genius hour is something I plan to make an honoured tradition in my future classes!