Learning To Read Play

I have been reading the book Visible Learners: Promoting Reggio Inspired Practices in All Schools by Mara Krechevsky, Ben Mardel, Melissa Rivard and Daniel Wilson. In an early discussion with a colleague we focused on the following quote in the forward by Deborah Meier.

I have enjoyed following the Reggio Emilia work but am sometimes put off by the amount of documentation involved. In Visible Learners I came to understand how documentation serves many different purposes, all focused on making the student and his or her learning more visible. It is this visibility that enables parents and teachers, teachers and students, and teachers and other colleagues to join together better in making the world more visible to the student. We can see with our eyes and be blind to what is in front of us far too easily in most classrooms…

Deborah Meier, Forwards to Visible Learners

This raised the question how do we use documentation to make learning visible and further, do we use documentation to see deeper, to ‘see what is in front of us’.

I thought back to four years ago when I first joined the Early Years teaching team. One of my driving questions that pushed me to make the shift to Early Years was the question of how do we learn through play. On one level it is obvious. When in a healthy, nurturing environment, children intrinsically play. This is their natural mode to engage and explore with the world. But how was I to meaningfully leverage play for learning without taking it over and turning it into something else. I think I was focused on the rhetoric of play for identity. To teach through play, I decided I needed to learn how to read play.

The people I reached out to with the question, where do I go to learn to read play, kept coming back to me with the same answer, check out Fairy Dust Teaching. I signed up for their Deep Play: The Architect of the Brain workshop. In that I found this graphic depicting the stages of play.

On the left it lays out stages of play. On the right it provides provocations to engage and scaffold the play, and if done right, without taking over the play. In the centre is described the cognitive actions that are being activated in the different stages. This is what I was looking for. But how do I utilize this knowledge other than in a passive, reflective way? How do I make the implicit explicit. For that I created the following document.

click here to view

On the left are the stages of play. On the right are prompts to the teacher pointing to provocation I can put forth. This became my training wheels as I began to intentionally learn to both read a child’s play and to engage in play with them – scaffolding without taking over. It gave me a tool to engage in the learning moving it forward. In this way the documentation became truly formative, using the documentation to inform the next step. It was also a tool to develop shared understandings, I could share the documentation with co-teachers and parents. Starting with this document we began to create a shared language to discuss play in our reflections and planning.

A Play Story

Here is a narrative of one play journey we were a part of as we learned to read and scaffold play.

Assessment phase: Looking at what is there to do?

There was a student who was new to the school and new to India. This was her first time out of her home country. She spent a long time in the Assessment phase, looking at what is there to do. She would roam around the play spaces moving between the blocks to the dolls to the water table, to the books.

Fascination stage: what can I do with it?

One day she became fascinated with a pair of scissors. These were the colourful plastic kind that cut zig zags and wavy lines. She cut designs, and patterns. She cut strips of paper just to cut strips of paper. She cut card paper, she cut tissue paper. She tried to cut cardboard. It didn’t work.

Occupation stage: how can this fit my plans?

Then, a few days later, the scissors became a hairdresser’s scissors, and she began sitting her peers down, interviewing them as to how they wanted their hair cut as other peers started lining up for their turn, as you would do at a hairdresser. The discussions, the rich vocabulary and the connections she was now making with her peers were beautiful and enriching. I remember one conversation where a student of African origin noted how her hair was “scrunchy and bouncy” like her mom’s and her sister’s hair was but her friend, who was of European origins, hair was straight and “not scrunchy.” This student noted that her hair was like her mom’s and her sister’s. This student driven inquiry into ethnicity and similarities and differences was beautiful and honest.

Articulation Stage: how can this be transformed?

This began to spur on grade level wide projects. The hairdresser was so busy, she now needed a cashier. Money was starting to be cut out and labeled. She was so busy she needed an assistant who would counsel customers on the hair styles they wanted so when they got to the hairdresser they already knew what they wanted. The play dough pizza shop was starting next door exchanging the same money. Then, the lockdown started and it all stopped. I wish I had been wise enough then and comfortable enough in the Zoom classroom to help create the space for this to continue. This is the current nature of my challenge. Any ideas are welcome.

The continuation of the quote above reads,

…But the careful and shared documentation that is described on these pages makes it harder to maintain the view that such documentation is a luxury—a time-consuming form of public relations. In fact, such documentation can, in the long run, be a time-saver when learner and teacher get a clearer picture of what is going on. Continue reading

Attempting to Find a Sociocultural Perspective on Agency


IB education is rooted in sociocultural theory and practice.  In the simplest terms this position holds that knowledge is constructed first and primarily through social interaction and is then internalised by the individual. The vehicle through which knowledge is constructed is discourse, or our varied interactions with others (Mercer 2000).  This discourse happens in  the narrative of culture and is mediated through the conversations we have, the songs we sing, the books we read, the choice of toys we set out for a child’s play.  The list could go on. 

When reading a book to a child we may transfer knowledge such as how to read the word the. Sociocultural theory and practice would ask, what else is being taught.  What about the roles of different individuals or the relationships between individuals? Are these being modeled and established through the text?  These everyday seemingly benign acts are acts in a dialectic exchanging and establishing cultural patterns and rules.  The child then internalises these patterns and rules and they become habit and character.  

In a multicultural learning context, this raises an interesting question of what values, traditions, patterns and rules are being carried by the choice of a song, a book, a toy.  This is where the cultural in sociocultural comes into importance.  The importance of this to the IB and the PYP can be seen in the document entitled The Learner, (The International Baccalaureate Organization, 2018) which states ‘teachers create learning environments and experiences that are both adaptable and appropriate to young students, and they understand the important influence of their sociocultural contexts.’  

How often do we think of a toy or a choice of a classroom or bedtime story as an act of cultural transmission?  Probably very seldom as they are afterall everyday acts aimed at achieving simple goals.  Perhaps we don’t think of it because cultural values can be hidden or camouflaged in our actions.  If we can not see them, how can we question them?  We have all heard the statistic that upto 90% of all communication is non-verbal.  Similarly, the sociocultural theory holds that a large percentage of what is taught is implicit and subtle.

A few years ago, while teaching a P4 class, I began to get a sense that different students in my class were responding to the read-alouds I was choosing in different ways. Some students were uncomfortable with some of the texts I read, albeit subtly so, and they and I did not know why.  I wondered if there was something deeper going on than just everyday preferences, the likes and the dislike of different students. A sentiment by Bronwyn Davies came to mind.

Children’s stories are far from being transparent and innocent; they are powerful vehicles in the government of children: the mode of shaping them into particular kinds of governable subjects appropriate to their times.  This analysis has important implications for teachers working with children learning to read. (Davies, 2005)

In response to my queries, I applied tools of linguistic analyses from Systematic Functional Linguistics (SFL) to an American book I had read in class titled The First Drawing by Mordicai Gerstein and an Indian book I had read titled All About Nothing by Nina Sabnani.  The sample below is a short section of my analyses and is meant to raise more questions than it answers.  It is meant to provide an example of how the benign everyday words we choose can implicitly carry deep cultural values. The analysis is called a transitivity analysis identifying ‘who does what, to whom, where, when and how’ (Coffin et. al., 2009) and who or what holds agency. 

In The First Drawing, (Gerstein, 2013) the protagonist, a young child living in a cave thirty thousand years ago, has become frustrated that no one else can see the images in the shadows and jumps up and traces them out on the cave wall with a burnt stick. In that act, it is said, the child invented the first drawing.  In the following, the red indicates the who or what that is doing the action.










And you look at what you have done.

You have created the world’s first drawing.


Here, the child is the agent responsible for the act of invention.


In the Indian text, All About Nothing, (Sabnani, 2000) the main character Muchu, has awoken from a dream.  He doodles circles on his page.  It is his daughter who asks “Oh, is this a new number, Bapu?”  At this point he begins to realise an invention has occurred.  Again, red indicates the who or what that is doing the action and blue indicates who or what the action is being done to.  What do you notice?











It was saying something

but he couldn’t hear…

Muchu’s head buzzed furiously.

It felt as if it would burst.

 It almost did.

There was one loud bang inside.

 And then, oh, it was all so clear.


Similarly, in the introduction to the same story it says,


So Zero stayed hidden.  It waited impatiently to pop out of someone’s head.


In the American text the protagonist is the agent.  In the Indian text the protagonist is not exactly the agent responsible for the invention.  The agent is referred to vaguely as ‘something’ and then ‘his brain’ though not quite Muchu himself.  He is the agent only when he is trying to hear what his brain is saying.  In the introduction, Zero itself is explicitly the agent responsible for the act of invention.

So what’s the big deal?  In the American text, the child fights against adults who can not see the images.  Through dogged determination, prevails and in the end the naysayers come to see that the child is correct.  The child/protagonist is the agent that does not bow to the naysayers.

In the Indian text the protagonist is not fighting the naysayers.  If anything, he himself is the naysayer.  He is awaking from a blissful dream and chanting a mantra and so is attuned with nature and in a state of harmony.  It is in this state that he is the conduit for the invention to come through.

These are two very different ways of representing knowledge and learning.  As is my cultural practise, when a student challenges a statement I make I get excited, now we are learning.  The child is being an agent in their own learning, much as the child in The First Drawing.  I engage in a respectful dialectic with the child or the class as a whole and we celebrate the new learning.  But what if the student is from a culture more in line with that reflected in All About Nothing?  Manchu asserts agency by tuning himself to nature, listening and being a conduit for knowledge to manifest.  When a student sits listening without externally engaging, I may think, from my cultural perspective, that they are not taking agency.  Is it that, in their cultural perspective, agency takes a very different form.

Of course, in this small sample one needs to be very careful about generalising the examples to broader cultural patterns, but the examples do raise questions.  Would we raise more questions if we looked at other samples of the text?  I think the answer is yes and hints at the ubiquity to which cultural messages and values permeate childerens’ texts.  What if a teacher filled a classroom and read aloud texts from one cultural context?  What about toys?  Would the provocations in the classroom  draw on and connect back to the child’s own experiences and to the world around them?  

The Enhance PYP documents, released in 2018, begin with a discussion on student agency. In defining agency, The Learner document states, 

‘PYP students with agency use their own initiative and will, and take responsibility and ownership of their learning. They direct their learning with a strong sense of identity and self-belief, and in conjunction with others, thereby building a sense of community and awareness of the opinions, values and needs of others.’ (The International Baccalaureate Organization, 2018)

Referring to the examples above of the two potential narratives on agency, if a student learns ‘with a strong sense of identity and self-belief’ should we not accept a cultural multiplicity of agencies?  Do the words ‘awareness of the opinions, values and needs of others’ not point to the essential importance of seeking out and striving to understand the cultural multiplicities of agency?  I would suggest we need to start by knowing that we don’t know. Then we can be open to seeing and learning.

One answer to the question posed above,  what if a teacher filled a classroom and read aloud texts from one cultural context? is, why is the teacher making those choices?  Of course the teacher has a role to make certain choices as an adult entrusted with guiding the students, but the choice to share choice can provide the students’ voice and as a consequence allow a path for a diversity of implicit, fundamental cultural values and practices to enter the learning environments.  This is embracing sociocultural theory and practice.  This lays bare the fact that the teacher is as much the student and that the teacher also does not know.

Further, if the current lockdown has taught us anything, it is that teaching is a partnership, not just a partnership between the students and the teachers but also a partnership with the parents.  Are the parents not making choices in the classroom?  They are after all the cultural teachers for their children. While the choices may be very implicit, they are important and the parents will make the right choices.


Coffin, C. Donohue, J., North, Sarah. (2009) Exploring English Grammar: From Formal to Functional, Abington, Routledge.

Gerstein, M. (2013) The First Drawing, New York, Little Brown and Company.

The International Baccalaureate Organization (2018) The Learner, Cardiff, The International Baccalaureate Organization.

Mercer, N., (2000) Words and Minds: How We use Language to Think Together, London, Routledge.

Sabnani, N. (2000) All About Nothing, Chennai, Tulika.

Technology in the Classroom, a 180

There are few trends in education that generate more focus and discussion than the use of technology.  This is with good reason.  Technology is fundamentally changing the way we live and learn and this trend is only going to continue, if not intensify.  There is no lack of thoughtful blog posts out there on the benefits and uses of technology in the classroom by people much more knowledgeable on the topic than I so I will not even attempt such a post here.  What I want to do here is take a step back and look at the idea of technology in a broader sense.  The Oxford English Dictionary defines technology as:

  1. The application of scientific knowledge for practical purposes, especially in industry.
  2.  Machinery and devices developed from scientific knowledge.
  3. The branch of knowledge dealing with engineering or applied sciences. 

Think back for a moment to when I mentioned technology in the first sentence of this post.  What did you think of?  It was computers and Skype and blogs and… right?  It is funny how the everyday use of the word technology has taken on an additional point of definition not found in the  dictionary definition here.  Technology in the everyday use is positioned with an orientation looking forward, viewed as new technologies.  Perhaps we are orientated this way by the threads of the Enlightenment narrative of perpetual progress.

Here I want to ask, what happens if we go back to the dictionary definition of technology when we ask, what are the benefits of technology in the classroom?  What happens if we make a 180 degree turn and view teaching and exploring technology in the classroom as also having an orientation to the past?  Not in a sense that is pejorative towards new technologies, just in a sense that opens up new, or maybe I should say old, possibilities.

I will look at two examples, both of which I carted halfway around the world in my suitcase when I returned to India last August.  First a record player and second my parents old rotary telephone that they kindly lend me.   The  ideas here bare  some influence from the responses given to me by my P4 (Grade 1) students when I asked the same question to them.


Record Player

  • Things can take more time.  The music doesn’t start with the quick click of a button.  You need to take the record out of the sleeve, place it on the turntable, start the record player, cue up the needle and lower it.  Then, and this always surprises the students, you can turn it over and repeat the whole process again.
  • You can see the science happen.  In computers and cell phones the science behind the technology happens behind a hard, shiny, tightly sealed case.  We essentially have to take it on faith that there is technology going on because we cannot observe any of the actions with our senses, other than the result of the music appearing.
  • Music/sound is vibration.  This is closely related to the previous point but deserves to stick out on its own. Grooves shake a needle, that shaking gets turned into sound.  Then you can crank the music up and put your hand over the speaker and, vibrations.  True, you can do this with computer speakers but it is just so much cooler with a record player.
  • Things are fragile.  Luckily, we have not learned this in a tangible way yet, no one has scratched a record – but we have come close.  Yes, an ipad that a six year old may play music from is fragile, but not in the same way a thin needle riding around in a thin groove is.  If a student is asked to flip the record, they need to slow down.  The fragility is also something for the teacher who has bought the record player and carted choice records around the word to remember.  How will I react if a student scratches my Nat King Cole album?
  • Music my Grandfather listened to is not so bad.  One of the highlights of the year so far was playing Benny Goodman in the background while the students grouped popsicle sticks into bundles of ten, as I walked by a six year old I heard her humming along, she new the song.  She said “my dad likes this.”  I envision a day when they are twenty and they hear  Louis Armstrong and pause, and have a momentary flashback to being six, then carry on.  I have to admit, one of the reasons I wanted a record player in my classroom was that so when the kids bound out for recess, I can pause, slow down, and listen to Fred Astaire.


Rotary Phone 

  • Again, things take time.  I have borrowed my parents old phone and it still has a sticker on it with emergency phone numbers.  A student asked “why is 911 the number for an emergency if the 9 takes so long to dial?  Why isn’t the number 111?”  The best answer I could come up with was “because we didn’t think it took a long time to dial 9.”
  • Sometimes you need to remember numbers.  No speed dial here.  We all remembered seven digit numbers.  Do kids practise memorising numbers that long today?
  • When you talk to your friend, you need to stop and maybe even sit down.  I talk on the go.  In the cereal aisle, going up an escalator…  Does this make the conversations more functional, what if I stopped, would I talk, would I listen more.

Teaching with an Invisible Basketball

This clip comes from the first movie in the Air Bud series.  The school’s basketball coach has been fired for being, well, a bully.  A new coach, the janitor, is brought in.  It turns out this new coach is a long forgotten NBA star.

What the new coach does next has become a go to for me when I want to bring a class of students from being focused on their own individual actions (as we all generally are) to being focused on the actions of others.  That is, when I want to work on building a community.  I have done this activity with students as old as Grade Five.  Today I tried it with a group of Grade One students.  Standing with the students in a circle I picked up my invisible basketball and told the students we were going to pass it around.  I find it works best if you ask the students to be quiet.  I then asked them how they would know who the ball is being passed to.  Eye contact would be essential we agreed.  I then asked them how they would know where the ball was going.  How they would know if it was thrown high or low or if it was thrown fast or slow.  Paying attention to the actions of the person throwing the ball would be essential we all agreed.

We then proceeded to pass the ball, to marginal success.  I have no doubt that our next try will find greater success as we all learn to pay better attention to what the other members of the class are doing.  As the coach in Air Bud says “before you play with [the basketball] you have to learn to play with your teammates.

I have also used this activity when coaching football (that is soccer for the North Americans.)  It is a great way to get the kids to focus on the other players.  To focus on what are they doing with their leg, what they are doing with their feet… and not just focus on the football.

Paradigm Shifts in Education: Thomas Kuhn and Ken Robinson

“Nobody has a clue – despite all the expertise that’s been on parade for the past four days – what the world will look like in five years’ time. And yet we’re meant to be educating them for it. So the unpredictability, I think, is extraordinary.”

Sir Ken Robinson, TED Talk, Do Schools Kill Creativity, 2006 0:56 (View the transcript here)

WARNING-page0001This quote comes from the most watched TED talk of all time with thirty million views at current count. (That is eight million views more than the next most watched TED Talk.)  There is one sense in which it is fair to say that this statement is self-evident or universally true. That is, we never know what the future is going to look like and one of the biggest mistakes we could make is to assume that we do. This normal accumulation and progression of knowledge is not what I believe Robinson is talking about. The key to understanding this statement could come in another quote from the same talk, “the whole world is engulfed in a revolution.” This revolution one could equate to a paradigms shift in Thomas Kuhn’s sense of the term.  In brief, prior to Kuhn’s narrative or theory of scientific progress the prevailing view of scientific progress was one where knowledge accumulated, mistakes would be identified and corrected and knowledge would continually grow. There will be changes and corrections in the future but things will continue to progress along rather predictable lines. In Kuhn’s model, as scientific knowledge accumulates eventually there comes a time when new knowledge cannot be fit in with the preceding body of knowledge. The preceding body of knowledge and the new knowledge become ‘incomprehensible’ to each other and a revolution of thought, understanding, narrative and practice happens.

Kuhn’s prime example is found in his book The Copernican Revolution where he argues, that the discovery that the Earth orbits the Sun fundamentally contradicted the Medieval narrative that the Earth was the centre of the universe and this fact was believed to reflect the fact that humans were the prime focus of God’s attention, having been made in his image and all. There was the whole Ptolemaic astronomy  to explain how this picture of the universe worked. When the discoveries of Kepler, Copernicus, Galileo and others accumulated, the picture of the universe drawn from their findings led to a view that was fundamental incomprehensible with the medieval view.  This triggered a revolution of the Enlightenment.

Accessed through The Creative Commons.  Photo Credit, Tim Wilson, 2010 http://www.flickr.com/photos/timwilson/5238535722/in/photolist-4rrjFS-8YRP78-8KqVhd-nWn3U4-61e2YL-8YRP4i-eRAAC6-8hEZUX-mo6ZcN-61kKao-mo6YVf-4roGB6-4roGAi-eRAJvP-aiMukm-7CQYJ9-eK48As-93iqR3-8YUSaq-Hp9XF-66dedQ-66ddUG-66dcYh-66ddiE-668YDg-66deyU-5G2d8z-cY8mi9-7FY7Ja-8ZHXQr-ehezvu-9FYEM6-9FYEA6-6rtfr1-bFJJ5c-ebCo7F-pXCdP-7Fzvej-pDGBCo-6rp7Rv-4hdcti-dhuoVc-9Fb953-6rLf7L-mjGwEK-7EZNoF-e3sav3-7D2B83-61efd1-8U1dYz

Accessed through The Creative Commons. Photo Credit, Tim Wilson, 2010 http://goo.gl/MwZfd2

That is, I would argue, the sense of “revolution” that Sir Ken Robinson refers to and is the reason why “nobody has a clue… what the world will look like in five years’ time.” The emerging narrative will be incomprehensible with the past. I think he is still overstating it when he uses the time frame five years, for effect I am sure, because we do have an idea – for one thing computers will get smaller and more easily integrated into daily classroom practice. (In fact, Robinson made this statement nine years ago in 2006, four years before the release of the I Pad.)


Flippin report cards

The Flipped Classroom The term flipped classroom has been in vogue in teaching circles over the last couple of years. In short, it means traditional school work becomes homework and homework becomes school work. For example, traditional school work such as listening to lectures and taking notes becomes homework where the students might watch lectures posted on a You Tube channel or read the lecture posted on a class blog. Then when they return to school the next day what would traditionally be homework such as answering comprehension questions become class work. The difference is that this process is not done in isolation, instead the students answer the questions together, collectively in a dialectic challenging and supporting each other. In this way they can be said to be enacting the sociocultural perspective on education where knowledge is not a product of the individual but is socially or jointly constructed – but that’s a whole blog post on its own. (Click here for an example of the flipped classroom in action by one of the teachers from Colorado who many credit with the idea) The Flipped Report Card report card graphic-page0001I got to thinking about this after I found myself sitting in Darjeeling last Christmas recovering from an acute case of report card fatigue.   I know I am not the only one who gets this.   As report card time approaches, teachers begin to write math comments, science comments, behavior skills comments… We all get better at it as time goes on, we get more organized and we get more systematic in our approach but we are still faced with report card season. As I sat there I had the crazy thought that there had to be a way to spread the work of report cards out equally over the semester and more importantly, there had to be a way to integrate the report cards much more effectively into the daily life of the class so they are an active part of the learning process and not some detached third person reflection. I thought, why not have the students write their own report card comments at the beginning of the semester, revisit them together with the student mid-semester and then finalize them together at the end. In this way, the report cards would become:

  1. part of goal setting.
  2. authentic writing opportunities that are published at the end of the semester.
  3. an opportunity for the students to take ownership over their learning.
  4. a way for the students to become involved with the contents of their report cards and a way to ensure that there are no surprises at the end of the semester.
  5. a way for the students to have a greater ability to explain the content of the report card to their parents and to engage in a meaningful discussion as to its contents.
  6. to take more ownership for the results of their reports.

When I returned to school after the holiday I gave the idea a try. I told my Grade Five class to write the learning skills comment that they wanted to go home in their report card at the end of the semester. I also gave each student a copy of the behavior skills rubric that I used to help generate their marks and told them they are welcome to copy statements off of the rubric. One caution is that you would need to ensure that the students are writing their comments based on the expectations taken from the curriculum that they will be assessed by. I conferenced with each student mid-semester and again at the end of the semester. I only had to make a few alterations to the comments the students wrote about themselves, on average they were pretty spot on. A few students were too easy on themselves and a few students were too hard on themselves.

This year, I have moved to a Grade One class. How to modify this to work with this age group, will be the topic of another post – mostly because I haven’t figured that one out yet.

T.A or A.T.

I have been thinking about the difference between the job titles, Teacher’s Assistant (T. A.) and Assistant Teacher (A. T.). When you look at it through the lens of the adjective noun structure of the English language it looks like this:

ta or at imageTherefore, a T.A. is an assistant and the adjective that describes their role is that they are an assistant to the teacher. An A.T. is a teacher and the adjective that describes their role is as an assistant teacher. These are terms that seem to be batted around as synonyms. I think the difference would play an important, albeit implicit, role in framing the practices between the T.A./A.T. and the teachers.

Bloomin Questions


People riding on a commuter train in Yangon, Myanmar  2012

People riding on a commuter train in Yangon, Myanmar 2012

Bloom’s Taxonomy or those six different categories of questions that are usually displayed in a pyramid, has been around since the 50’s.  As a result it is at least as disputed as it is accepted.

One can be wary of Blooms, and other taxonomies, because they can box or compartmentalizing ideas.  As the sometimes philosopher, Joni Mitchel has said:

Every bristling shaft of pride
Church or nation
Team or tribe
Every notion we subscribe to
Is just a borderline
Good or bad we think we know
As if thinking makes things so!
All convictions grow along a borderline

page0002Joni, from Borderline

When defining or categorizing something, in this case questions, we run the risk of cementing our habits and locking our definitions in between borderlines. The irony is that these borderlines around questions may deter our questioning of questions.page0003

The popularity of Bloom’s Taxonomy and the borderlines it has created around the space of questions means that it has played a part in defining how we understand and how we use questions.  Taking a post-structuralist view, language or definitions around words and grammar, create our page0004understanding and that understanding becomes our identity.


Recently I was asked to give a talk for the PTA and decided to run with the Blooms.  The powerpoint along the side is the product of that and what got me thinking about Bloom’s recently.



Teaching about the Causes of Conflict

I have been holding onto this lesson all year because it works best when the students stumble upon it. Last week as we were talking about the distribution of resources and the causes of conflict, they stumbled upon it and I got to teach it.

I introduced the idea of 80 20. That is, 80% of the worlds population has 20% of the world’s resources and 20% of the world’s population has 80% of the world’s resources.  (A crude distinction if for no other reason as what counts as a resource can be debated.  None the less it is an often quoted statistic and one that can fuel thought.)

To demonstrate this I chose ten students and asked them to stand in a line in front of the class. I then divided them into a group of eight and IMG_2025a group of two. I then gave the group of eight two books, the group of two eight books and promptly told them it was time for silent reading. The two students with eight books happily sat down and started flipping through books, not exactly reading but browsing, trying to decide which book they felt like reading. The eight students with two books stood there almost dazed wondering if it was a joke. I just kept insisting it was time for silent reading and they should read.

It took about twenty seconds before students from the group of eight started making their way towards the two students with the eight books and eying the books and making subtle indications that they wanted some. This is the second time I have taught this lesson and both times I have been amazed at how quickly the two students assume an air of entitlement. They placed themselves between the books and the group of eight and continued to browse.

It only took about kids photo-page0001another thirty seconds until leaders began to emerge out of the eight and we started hearing calls of “this isn’t fair!”  One student in particular was becoming viscerally incensed by the injustice. He was calling out to the teachers for help and when this came to no avail he started rallying the other seven. Two girls among the seven quietly got hold of one of the two books that were given to the eight and slipped to the back and started reading while the others were getting worked up in their call for justice. The boy who was increasingly leading the charge began reaching for books.  Another boy among the eight began encouraging him on and then moved to position himself on the other side of the two students with the eight books and while they became increasingly distracted by the attempts to grab books, the other boy reached around, took a book at a time and passed them to other members of the eight.

There came the moment where I said “OK, lets stop… if you have ever wondered about how wars start, maybe this is part of your answer.”

This is a very rare moment in my class where I have created conflict.  Perhaps to teach, to really teach and not preach, about the causes of war we have to allow these rare exceptions where we allow conflict.