Will teaching phonics make your child a better reader?

Gg is for giraffe. But g is also for goat.
What is phonics?

English is a language based on an alphabet. The alphabet is made up of multiple letters. Each letter and group of letters make phonetic sounds. Teaching phonics refers to a method of teaching people how to read and write by teaching those phonetic letter sounds.

Most users of the English language will have little to no awareness of the role of phonetics in their everyday use of the language. I stumbled across phonetics by accident while studying linguistics at tertiary level. And then later on when trying to teach English as a second language. Up until that point, I didn’t know what phonics was because I wasn’t taught to read with phonics. It’s useful to note that not being exposed to phonics did not impact negatively on my ability to read and write. And I expect that that is the case for most people.

Why teach phonics?

Which brings us to the purpose of this post. Will your child be better at reading and writing if they are taught phonics? I am asking this question because there are proponents of phonics who argue that the failure to expose students to phonics in their early school years is the cause of the drop in reading standards. So, while I am pleased to see that there is acknowledgement of the issue of falling reading standards, I am unconvinced by the argument put forward by the phonics advocates. 

I make this bold claim based on the learning experiences I have gained during my three decade teaching career. Over this time I have applied myself rigourously in a search for the best teaching practice to be able to provide the best learning outcomes for all students. This site is a documentation of that search. I also believe I have experienced success at achieving pretty effective reading outcomes. For me, teaching phonics has been a part of that success. Yes, a part of.

Knowing how to teach

I believe the real solution hinges on being able to improve teacher competency. As I have said before, great teachers have great content knowledge and, they also know how to deliver that content effectively in order to achieve optimal learning outcomes for all students. Great teaching is about bridging the teaching and learning disconnect.

In other words, it’s about knowing what to teach, how to teach, and when to teach it. I have been in classes in which the teacher has chosen to focus on a particular letter/sound (or in maths, a number) for a whole week. This kind of approach to teaching is ineffective. But worst of all, it risks turning students off learning all together. Reading is a magical experience, if done right.

Experience in the classroom

Over the years I have got better at creating a language rich learning experience/environment. I have got better at giving children regular opportunities to experience the magic of language and text. Then, and only then, do I start asking them to decode words with me. Some students are already flying. They are already decoding competently so I am able to support them with the next stage of the reading process — comprehension and meaning. I never hold anyone back. I never make a student, who is flourishing with their reading, to follow a prescriptive phonics programme.

In this kind of learning environment, slowly but surely, the students who are struggling with decoding reveal themselves. At that point I start the process of figuring out what is at the heart of their lack of progress. Is it due to a lack of experience, knowledge or confidence with text? Or is it due to poor effort or attitude? Or maybe it is a combination of all those factors. I never assume that it is a lack of phonemic awareness that is the cause of their lack of reading success. I describe what the current incarnation of my reading programme looks like here.

The teaching and learning disconnect

This is the process of formative assessment in action. It’s a process that helps bridge the teaching and learning disconnect that I described earlier. It’s a way of looking for clues and evidence of the learning that is happening (or not happening) and then modifying my teaching practice to match those learning needs. And lo and behold, it is at this point that a child may reveal an absence of phonics knowledge. Hey presto, out comes my phonics hat. I then figure out a way to teach this child the phonics that they need to know. Those gaps are identified and filled. Problem solved.

Learning is dynamic. It is typically not a straightforward or linear process. Emotions, beliefs, attitudes all come into play and can be barriers to the learning process. Or you may have a student in your class who has excellent phonemic awareness but still can’t read. When a young student reads the word “one” as O for orange, N for nest and E for egg, you can safely assume that teaching phonics will only get you so far.

Ease Education: Teaching at a human scale.

You can also find Ease Education on Facebook and Twitter.

D iz 4 dyslexia

Dyslexia: a learning difference, not a learning disability

What is dyslexia?

Dyslexia is not a new condition but it is still largely misunderstood. It is perceived as a learning disability, rather than simply a learning difference. Nor is dyslexia a measure of intelligence or competency. Research shows that it is an issue of how the brain is wired and how it processes written language. The level of a person’s dyslexia can vary on a scale from mild to severe. It is encouraging to know that there are some well known high achievers with dyslexia. However, while these success stories can represent a validation that dyslexia does not equate to intelligence, this does not necessarily reflect the typical life experience of people with dyslexia.

In reality, the impact on the life outcomes of people with dyslexia tend to be both negative and overlooked. Typically, people with dyslexia underachieve at school. They are more likely to end up in jail and leave school early with no qualifications. For the students with dyslexia who transition successfully into post-school life, it is most likely because they are supported by a family with sufficient social and financial capital – to be able to afford remedial tutoring while at school and/or, able to provide access to a job upon leaving school. Which suggests that while dyslexia does not discriminate between economic or social boundaries, its impact is felt most severely on the economically disadvantaged.

Does my child have dyslexia?

You will know if your child has dyslexia. To varying degrees, they will be struggling with reading, their writing will be illegible and their spelling will be atrocious. They will also be good at avoiding tasks that have a literacy component. This reality will belie how clever, engaging, articulate, curious, insightful or intelligent they are. Over the years I have met parents of children with dyslexia who recognise how they also displayed similar characteristics of dyslexia when they were at school. It takes one to know one, as they say.

Diagnosing dyslexia

If you are a parent of a child that displays the traits of dyslexia described in the previous paragraph, that is all you will need to know in order to do an assessment on your child. Of course there are diagnostic tests for determining whether a person has dyslexia. But unfortunately, they require an expert to implement, which means they are very expensive. A diagnostic test will give you an abundance of information about your child’s learning profile which may be interesting but is not essential. You may find that an official diagnosis will come as a relief and you will feel reassured to know that your child is not stupid. It may even empower you to find a solution. But in reality, an official diagnosis does not provide you with a solution or a way forward. So, what do you do if you think your child has dyslexia? Read on.

Dealing with dyslexia: 1. what are you up against?

As I have already indicated, statistics show that there are serious consequences of failing to address the needs of children with dyslexia. And as you have probably deduced by now, schools are not dyslexia friendly environments. I have argued consistently on this site that schools are failing many students, but students with dyslexia feel the impact of that failure even more acutely.

The prevailing teaching and assessment methods used in schools are 1. far from optimal and 2. heavily weighted towards a relatively narrow group of neuro-typical learners. I advocate for implementing a teaching and learning environment that works effectively for all students equally. And if we are serious about achieving that goal, teachers will need to change their teaching practice. It may seem obvious to point this out but, students with dyslexia have no control over the way their brains learn but in contrast, teachers do have control over the way they teach.

And while it is encouraging to see the attempts to upgrade the current remedial reading programmes, I believe that effective and sustainable change will only come when every classroom teacher is delivering a literacy programme that enables every student to develop to their fullest potential. I got to witness what that kind of success could look like in a classroom setting but at the same time I got to witness the resistance that comes with attempting to make the necessary shifts in teaching practice to achieve it.

Based on personal experience, it is easy for me to describe how a student with a learning difference like dyslexia could end up on the dust heap of social statistics. If you take a bright, articulate student and ply them with content that does not develop their learning strengths or support their learning weaknesses, it can be a recipe for disengagement and non-compliant behaviours. In this scenario, the student starts to believe they are stupid. I still remember the day, the moment, in my sixth year of school, that I started believing I was bad at maths.

And of course, this message doesn’t need to be made explicit by the teacher. A student with dyslexia will be in the bottom reading group or be kept behind during breaks to finish incomplete written work. It is at this point that the student enters the downward spiral. This is the point in which failure to cater appropriately to the learning difference from the earliest stages evolves into issues of behaviour – avoidance of demand, I would suggest. This takes a variety of forms such as the student starting to disengage with school and being “non-compliant” or the school steering the student into less demanding subjects.

In this scenario, the student’s poor behaviour starts to become the focus of the problem. Resources are poured into managing the behaviour. The onus to resolve it is put onto the student – the person with the least power in the teacher/student relationship. Meanwhile, the best solution is being ignored. Instead of focusing on the failure of the student, the focus needs to be put on the teaching and learning programme that allows this scenario to be created. This could be avoided by making small tweaks to the teaching and learning programmes on offer plus having a much better understanding of the science of behaviour.

Dealing with dyslexia (2) – practical steps

So, you have come to the conclusion that 1. your child is struggling at school due to some kind of learning difficulty and 2. your child’s school is unable to cater to their learning needs. What do you do now? Of course, knowing about the issue and acknowledging it, is an important start. And the earlier the better. It will mean you will have more chance of avoiding that dreaded downward spiral in which a child’s negative sense of their ability begins to have a negative impact on their behaviour and their social and emotional wellbeing. At this stage it would also be useful for you to develop an informed understanding of what an effective education should look like for your child. This process may encourage and support you to remove the shackles of what a perceived “good” education looks like. In doing so, it may also allow you to manage your child’s schooling experience more effectively and gain some autonomy.

Of course, finding an experienced literacy tutor who can guide your child through the reading and writing process in an engaging and supportive way will also be an important next step. In a future post, I will describe what you should be looking for when choosing a literacy tutor for your child.

Ease Education: Teaching at a human scale.

You can also find Ease Education on Facebook and Twitter.

Creating a learning culture that creates the best learning outcomes for everyone

Creating a positive learning culture starts with simple, meaningful, achievable expectations

I am increasingly aware that my teaching practice is not one that you will witness in a typical school environment. And since starting this blog I have come to the realisation that it is very hard to share this teaching practice beyond my own classroom. While I am resigned to this reality, I remain committed to delivering the evidence-based practice that I have refined over many years of experience. It’s impossible not to. The results I am seeing make it all worthwhile.

Of course I am not the only one who sees a need for change. I was invited to comment on Briar Lipson’s report called “New Zealand’s Education Delusion”. In short, Briar’s assertion is that 1. New Zealand’s education system is failing and 2. this failure is as a result of a shift to a child-centred teaching orthodoxy and 3. this failure will be remedied by replacing the relatively brief and non-prescriptive NZ Curriculum with a curriculum that is more prescriptive which will in turn allow for teachers to put themselves at the centre of teaching and learning.

Fortunately, you will be hard pressed to find an education academic who is not acutely aware of the failure in New Zealand education that she describes. The problem lies in finding agreement on the cause and the solution. The New Zealand Curriculum is lauded for its simplicity and capacity to give teachers the freedom and flexibility to support the delivery of high quality education outcomes. Nor is there a shortage of research that spells out what good teaching and learning looks like. If this is an accurate observation of the reality of the NZ education system, then the key ingredient to reversing the failure in New Zealand education has to be about improving teacher proficiency. Let me spell this out. Teacher proficiency is the biggest determiner of education outcomes. The failure that Briar’s report describes will be reversed when schools are full of competent teachers. And that is going to be hard to achieve when school leaders invariably are not able to distinguish effective teachers from non-effective ones. It is difficult to shift the status-quo.

My two decades of teaching experience reveals that the best learning outcomes are achieved when the teacher is able to find the right balance between ‘teacher-centred and student-sensitive” learning. It’s about designing and implementing learning that works and responding appropriately to the evidence. I have seen what it looks like. But as I have already suggested, making my experience common practice is easier said than done. Why? That is what I am mostly curious about now. For me, I am now starting to see it as a human problem rather than an education problem.

The reality is that the world operates on systems and behaviours that are typically akin to a “factory model”. Classrooms are no exception to this. In the classroom, under this model, you will typically see lots of control, supervision, compliance with rules, vigorous attention to detail and avoidance of mistakes. In my classroom, I keep it simple to ensure that everyone is successful. I prescribe generalised and meaningful non-negotiable expectations. Simple things such as “do your best, be authentic, be an awesome learner”. Expectations like this operate as foundations for inspired learning and behaviour. Whereas, rules tend to operate as ceilings and constraints. The model I prefer is built on mutual trust and support. But because not all children come to school able to fulfil those expectations immediately, my primary role is to help all students find their authentic selves and discover their academic and social potential. To achieve this I rely on patience, determination and skill, in equal measure.

This approach can be seen to be very teacher-directed but the intent is of course, to draw the students into eventually being the centre of their own learning. The expectations I impose and the way in which I teach are designed to generate inspiration, curiosity, innovation, empowerment, self management, self control, flexibility… The learning becomes a process rather than a predetermined outcome. My role is one of benevolent dictator, instructor, inquisitor, cheerleader, conductor, counselor, advocate, referee… This means that the learning journey we embark on is one based on teamwork and collaboration. Under my watchful eye and guidance.

Another feature of a classroom with a positive learning culture is one in which high levels of transparency and honesty exist. It is up to the teacher to set the tone and levels of tolerance for these qualities through modelling. While it is important for the teacher to have a positive emotional connection with the students, it is also critical for the students to experience and tolerate meaningful and authentic feedback. The good news is that if the teacher models the process well, the students will become trusted to deliver the feedback to one another. And you will find that feedback from a peer is the most powerful form. It is at this point that you will find the simple and authentic learning expectations that you set up at the beginning of the year will start to prove their real value. These expectations become embedded.

The prospect of creating a learning culture which I have described may make teachers and teacher leaders nervous. I suggest that that would be a suitable emotion to be feeling. But it shouldn’t be enough to stop teachers from taking a first step. The best learning will happen when students get a real sense of the freedom and responsibility that has been previously denied to them. The best learning will happen when students feel empowered to tolerate and learn from mistakes. But remember, this is a long term process. It won’t happen overnight and it needs a teacher who is competent and skilled to lead the students on this kind of learning journey.

Good luck and follow the evidence.

Can the cause and failure of NZ’s education be found in this report?

You can find a digital copy of Briar’s report on The New Zealand Initiative website and you can read my response to her report in The New Zealand Herald here.

Ease Education: Teaching at a human scale.

You can also find Ease Education on Facebook and Twitter.

The value of schooling

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Shifting perceptions of what learning looks like

In the previous post I argued that the shift to online learning during the Covid-19 lockdown revealed where the faults lie in the education system. It made me question once again the value of schooling. Effective learning will only take place when students are engaged with and curious about the teaching on offer. To achieve this teachers need to fulfill a number of requirements. They need to 1. design learning opportunities that are relevant and invite engagement, 2. reflect on how well the learning is happening, and 3. modify the learning programme based on the evidence – connect the teaching with the learning. And on top of that, it all needs to happen for all students of all abilities and all dispositions.

Unfortunately, this way of teaching is far from the current reality and I see little evidence of any significant progress of making this a reality.

So rather than being despondent and disempowered about the current state of education, I recommend that individuals become better informed about what good learning looks like and, learn how to navigate the system. It is possible that some parents have potential to play a bigger role in their child’s education than they realise. For that to happen, they need to identify the core aspects of effective learning and child development. With that knowledge it will be possible to identify the value that schooling is offering and contribute in the areas that are not being fulfilled. Here are some key considerations that could be useful.

How do I help my child learn?

The good news is that the average child’s learning will grow as they mature. This will happen without any input by you. But by exposing them to a range of positive and constructive life experiences and interactions you will improve that learning growth. And those experiences are readily available and within your reach. It doesn’t have to cost a lot. If you are looking for guidance, it may help to recall the key learning moments in your life – that internalised feeling of success and steps towards independence.

That is what you are trying to replicate for your child. Learning is the residue of thinking and manipulating and testing and problem solving. Learning can happen anywhere. Life doesn’t operate in a silo and neither should education. Make it known to your child that learning is all around us. Numeracy and literacy are practical applications not abstract concepts. “Hot housing” your child is unlikely to bring long term benefits to your child’s well-being or success.

What should my child be learning?

The NZ curriculum is a thin and non-prescriptive document and is accessible to anyone. It covers all subjects and all levels – from new entrant to the end of secondary school. It describes the content to be covered in general terms. It doesn’t prescribe how this content should be taught. It also has a “key competencies” section that advocates for social and emotional learning.

To help you decide what your child should be learning, look forward into the future and think of the knowledge and learning opportunities that will help your child to get to that future and be successful in life. Focus on the skills and knowledge that are transferable. But keep in mind that we are adults for a long time. The best learning takes time and is not forced. The kind of learning being described here and the “traditional” school experience (of getting good grades in order to enter university) do not have to be mutually exclusive.

Choose learning opportunities that provoke your child’s curiosity and invite exploration. Provide the essential knowledge that feeds that curiosity rather than force feed it. Trust them. Think back to how you learned best when you were at school. What would you like for your child to achieve and be able to do as an adult? What social and emotional competencies do you value?

How do I know if my child is learning?

Schools can provide standardised assessments in literacy and numeracy that they can share with you. But the best assessments are informal and achieved through interactions. Listen to your child. Get accustomed to finding out what is important to them. Develop a culture of honesty in which they feel invited to share the things they care about. Encourage them to open up. This may take time because they will be so used to feeling the need to respond to the prevailing expectations of education.

It is possible that the culture of learning that they have experienced is one based on fear of failure and motivated by threats and punishment. Provoke and observe how they respond and where their enthusiasm lies. The process is more important than the product. Encourage talking out loud rather than quiet reproduction. You will know your child is learning when you observe them growing in confidence, independence and curiosity.

How do I help my child enjoy learning?

You may need to free your child from the shackles of the schooling system slowly. So keep the learning time short. Or at least, ensure the time you spend transmitting knowledge is kept short. You may want to teach numeracy facts, spelling words and abstract problem solving, but keep it short and positive. Better still, connect that knowledge based learning with a practical activity. A positive learning relationship is an essential foundation of effective learning. You may need to manage behaviour by using rewards but if direct instruction time is short and positive, this may not be necessary.

The best learning is self generated. There is no need for a child to be working at levels above their chronological age. If your child is acing the numeracy tests, use it as a cue to go broader and deeper. Don’t be surprised that your child can achieve sufficient learning in a much shorter time frame than the typical six hour school day. Unfortunately, the reality of the typical classroom means that the amount of actual teaching time can be counted in minutes on one hand. Seriously.

Ease Education: Teaching at a human scale.

You can also find Ease Education on Facebook and Twitter.

Check out the links below for some personal experiences of how people managed the education of their children under lockdown and how it exposed the flaws in how we currently perceive “best education practice”.

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The teaching and learning disconnect

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Signs of learning?

The words teaching and learning are used interchangeably. They convey the idea of going to school, or some kind of educational institution and, getting an education. Being taught. Learning something. But in order to critique the education system effectively it is necessary to see that, despite the appearance of the words teaching and learning conveying the same meaning, the reality can be quite different.

It’s possible that while teaching is taking place, learning may or not be happening as intended. It is possible that a correlation between the two does not actually exist despite the expectation or intention that it should. This reality has been previously referred to on this site in a variety of different ways. Phrases such as “evidence-based teaching”, “learning growth” and “know your impact” come to mind. It is the desire to determine and measure this correlation that drives the possibility of improvement in learning outcomes for students.

For me, evidence of the disconnection between teaching and learning became more pronounced during the Covid-19 lockdown. All learning institutions, including schools and universities were required to be closed for an extended period. Education was forced to go online. Technology became the medium. Of course, for online learning to be successful all students need to have access to a device, an internet connection, the school may need a suitable system in place and the users need to be familiar with how it works. Those financial and technical barriers automatically exclude many from even participating.

But even for those who were able to connect online, it was a tough sell getting those students to engage. The teaching and learning disconnect that I describe above is a hidden barrier. To learn, you need to be prepared to engage with the teaching that is on offer. What is on offer needs to be relevant and engaging. And it’s fair to say that if a student is not engaged in the teaching on offer while in the classroom, it is unlikely that said student will be jumping out of bed in the morning to complete the day’s online teaching. No amount of cajoling will be sufficient.

Students voted with their feet during the lockdown, in a way they can’t do when they are face to face with a teacher in the classroom. Only the curious, the most capable, the motivated, the ones aspiring to enter tertiary study or with specific career aspirations will make a successful transition to online learning. When lessons moved online, teachers no longer had the “stick” with which to motivate students. This reveals the problem with the system we have. It relies on threats and punishment to motivate. That is contradictory to what the science tells us about motivation.

This would suggest that universities fared the best during the lockdown. Universities have been offering access to lectures via online means for some time already. University students are used to not attending lectures face to face. And, university students typically fit the student profiles listed above. The engagement factor is not so critical for university students. Study is optional. University students want to be there. If they don’t, they drop out. These students have aced the school system. They are smart and motivated. To those students, their chosen course of study will be relevant and engaging for them or they have sufficient academic capacity to pass the course regardless.

The problem is that this teaching model, the one that works at tertiary level, is generally the same model being applied in all education settings. Achieving effective learning is about more than delivery of content regardless of whether it is taking place online or face to face. As well as having sufficient content knowledge, teachers need to be able to design learning that promotes engagement and motivation. Teachers need to understand that providing content to students is not a guarantee that learning is taking place. They need to be adept at capturing and measuring the impact their teaching is having on student learning. They need to be invited to experiment with this process and share their findings. For effective learning to be happening, there needs to be more dialogue than monologue. A dialogue that is responsive and in which the student is fully engaged with.

The failure of the prevailing education model falls most heavily on those on the outside; the poor and the non-compliant. It is a model that lacks responsiveness to the actual needs of the bulk of students and fails to engage with them effectively to promote learning. This model may not be perfect for university students either but at least the consequences of failure for those at that end of the education spectrum has less impact.

Can the Covid-19 crisis be an opportunity for reimagining and remaking of the education system? It is through observing the impact of this pandemic on education and how schools and institutions have responded that we can get a real sense of where the faults lie within the system. The lessons are there for us to learn, but will we? Systems are entrenched and are difficult to budge.

Ease Education: Teaching at a human scale.

You can also find Ease Education on Facebook and Twitter.

What the Coronavirus has taught me about effective teaching and learning.

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A safe pair of hands?

I expect by now, most teachers have received the request to teach their students how to wash their hands properly. A perfectly sensible request, at a critical time.

I was ahead of the game, of course. I had decided before then, that I wanted to do my best to keep the students and myself safe. So, from day one, I established a hand washing routine. I wanted success. And I knew we could achieve success (of every student washing their hands properly) if we did it right. This would not be a guarantee that we would remain virus free but at least we would do our best at keeping ourselves safe.

So, I established a routine. The routine meant I always had an adult supervising and modelling the correct way to wash and dry one’s hands. Some students needed support, some didn’t. It meant making the hand washing activity a fixed event in the daily classroom routines. There was no drama or cajoling. But there was lots of positive reinforcement and gentle correction.

Over time the students got a sense of “this is how we roll”. The expectation was reasonable and communicated well. A reasonable request was met with a reasonable response. Weeks later, the hand washing routine has become well established and has become integrated into the classroom routine. No sweat.

So what’s the point I am trying to make?

The situation I describe above has made me aware of the disconnect that currently exists between teaching and learning. Typically, the teaching model that I see being perpetuated is one that is intent on doing “teachy things” without sufficient awareness of the impact it is having on the recipients’ learning. As in, “I have shown/taught the students how to wash their hands….job done”.

In my approach, I have asked myself, “what do I want the students to learn/achieve”? I have then proceeded to design a teaching/learning model that best creates that learning. I then observe the outcome and modify the teaching/modelling as necessary. It’s powerful. It works. And it allows me to answer, pretty accurately and honestly, the two most powerful questions that a teacher can be asking…

“How effective is my teaching? and What is my impact?”

John Hattie would be proud of me I reckon.

Ease Education: Teaching at a human scale.

You can also find Ease Education on Facebook and Twitter.

Planning: what is it good for?

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It’s the beginning of the school year and my thoughts have turned to planning. Because good planning is essential to effective teaching, right? I mean, you wouldn’t want to drive over a bridge or fly in a plane that had been built without a robust plan being in place to guide the construction process. The same applies to teaching. If you want to teach students to read, it’s essential to have a robust plan to guide you how to do it. But there is a caveat to that statement.

If you are familiar with this site, you will be aware that it is devoted to exploring the impact that an “evidence-based” approach to teaching and learning can have. And too often, in an education setting, I see a disconnection between the plan and the actual learning taking place in the classroom. In the case of plans for a bridge or plane, if the plans were shoddy or not followed correctly, the consequence would be clear and obvious for all to see. We would have the evidence.

But in teaching, that is not necessarily the case. In teaching, plans are drawn up but the outcomes of implementing those plans are less apparent. There seems to be a disconnection between the planning and the outcomes. Of course this has something to do with the fact that the evidence in a teaching context is less tangible – unlike being able to see that the bridge did not collapse or the plane did not crash.

I want to use my experience in teaching 5 year olds as an example. When it came to teaching writing, in the beginning I just copied what my colleagues were doing. I implemented their plans. But soon after, out of necessity, I started to do something different. I started to look at my customers. And my customers were not happy. Nor were they getting better at writing. For example, some children were distressed by the challenge of producing written words on a page. It made me think. I did some investigations. I discovered that it is quite normal for 5 year olds not to be developmentally or cognitively ready to begin formal writing. I discovered that having a good grasp of oral language and an ability to read made a significant difference to a child’s ability to turn ideas into words on a page. I also figured out the mechanics of writing and constructed a plan to teach those mechanical aspects.

In the end, I managed to create a plan to teach writing based on the actual needs of the students in front of me. I modified my writing plan over time, based on the feedback and evidence I was receiving from the students. I tested my teaching against the actual competencies of the students. In the end I could see that their achievements were as a result of my deliberate inputs. My planning became a dynamic document. I was using the evidence to inform my planning. Plan, deliver plan, observe, modify plan, deliver….

I would like the role of planning in a teaching context to be seen in this light. Planning needs to be seen as part of effective pedagogy. Just because the result of poor planning in a classroom may not be life threatening, it does not mean that failure doesn’t exist.

Ease Education: Teaching at a human scale.

You can also find Ease Education on Facebook and Twitter.

Follow the evidence, do the right thing – at your peril.

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Some behaviours are worth imitating but be mindful of the negative impact of overimitation

I’m curious about a behavioural science phenomenon called “overimitation”. As you would expect, it describes the behaviour of imitating too much. You can find a deeper explanation of this theory and how scientists tested it out here. Of course, social imitation brings benefits to society. But overimitation is the problem. There will be situations when it is going to cause things to go awry. For example, if you hear that a bunch of other people are doing a bad thing, you are also more likely to do that thing, without even realising it.

What’s this got to do with teaching and learning?

It’s because it reminds me of a story that I heard many years ago. A story that reveals the implications of overimitation.

A lead teacher decided that the school should invest significant amounts of money and resource into an external programme because it was thought that it would have significant benefits to the learning of all the students. The programme was very prescriptive in its requirements and required significant levels of teacher and parent input.

The uptake of the programme was almost universally supported. Barbara* was the only dissenting voice. She tried to make the point that there was little, if any, scientific evidence to support the programme and that it was increasing her work load without providing sufficient learning benefits to the children.

In the end, Barbara felt that it was just easier to suppress her rational thoughts and join in the imitation behaviour. Being ostracised is a powerful motivating force for social creatures, as humans are. Interestingly, some years later when the team leader had moved on, new discussions regarding the benefits of this “essential” programme surfaced. Strangely enough, when the teachers were invited to speak freely, not one spoke in favour of retaining the programme. It was immediately and completely abandoned. “I never said I wanted to do the programme”, said the teachers in unison. Really.

Barbara described how she felt vindicated by this decision but also noted that she was never acknowledged for her willingness to take an evidence-based approach to the issue in the first place. The change came about by accident rather than design. Barbara went along with the ‘group think’ because it was “safer” and expedient to do so. For me, this is just another example of how it has come to be that we have a school system that is stuck.

The footnote to this story is that Barbara is no longer a teacher. That’s unfortunate. Because schools need more teachers like Barbara. Informed, effective and, gone.

_________________________

*Barbara is not the teacher’s real name – in keeping with the policy that all content on this site will be identity free. You will not find any reference on this site to individuals past or present.

Ease Education: Teaching at a human scale.

You can also find Ease Education on Facebook and Twitter.

A “Relationship First” approach to teaching and learning.

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Can ‘play’ have a role in effective teaching and learning?

“My child says he loves being in your class because you allow him to play all day”. How’s that for some feedback about your teaching of students at the early years of their schooling life? And how do I respond to this kind of feedback being that I do put a lot of emphasis on the value of play as a way of creating an effective learning environment? Initially, I used to hate hearing this kind of feedback. But eventually I started to relax a little because as it turned out, in most cases, this kind of feedback came with a strong sense of relief and gratitude. The parent had noticed a shift in their child’s attitude towards school. That is, the child had become noticeably more enthusiastic about attending school or was showing heightened curiosity or improved competency with their learning.

Sometimes this feedback even comes with a hint of curiosity. That’s even better because it provides me with an opportunity to explain the why and how of my teaching practice. Typically, the fact that a child feels that he/she is playing all day (despite the fact that he/she is not playing all day) is actually an indicator to me that the child has settled into school life and I am offering a constructive and effective learning experience. (As if effective learning and fun can’t be mutually inclusive?)

And while I think the research would support me when I say that happy learners make great learners, that of course, is not the end of the story. While I make the socio-emotional component of the children in my classroom a top priority, that is just one of many of my roles as a teacher of young students. That’s because I am equally focused on ensuring that the child’s academic learning growth is making progress appropriate to their developmental age. It’s just that I have come to the conclusion, based on the evidence of what I am seeing in the classroom everyday, that the second part of this learning process is more likely to be achieved if the first part is well established. The reality of modern life also compels me to take this approach. That is, increasingly, more children seem to be starting their school life struggling to manage their emotions. Which in turn equates to behavioural issues that need to be attended to.

Unfortunately, the reality also exists that some parents and teachers are resistant to the deliberate emphasis that I place on ‘play’. Awareness of this reality has required me to reflect deeply on my overall teaching practice to reassure myself that I am delivering the best academic outcomes for all the students under my care. That is, have I got the “instructional core” covered? And that’s why I am always actively trying to prove and improve my responses to the following questions:-

  1. Do I have sufficient knowledge of the content appropriate for the children that I am teaching?
  2. Do I have sufficient skills and expertise in designing and delivering that content to ensure that the children can grow their understanding of this content?

Over recent years I have come to appreciate that through being inquisitive about my teaching practice, with reference to the latest educational research, and a willingness to make small, iterative changes, I have been able to create rich learning opportunities that are generating the high levels of learning growth that I am witnessing. My confidence is two fold. I know I can deliver effective learning and I know I can inspire students to become more responsible for their own learning. That is a powerful combination. I think this may be an interpretation of what Hattie is referring to when he says, “the biggest effects on student learning occur when teachers become learners of their own teaching, and when students become their own teachers”.

As I have said before on this site, I am the controlling force in the classroom. I choose what and how I teach. That choice is based on years of deliberate practice and reflection. These days I would also add to this list – a willingness and tolerance for uncertainty – a willingness to enter into a responsive dialogue with the students. The more confident I become, the more willingness I have to trust the best learning to be led by the students themselves. And of course, some students are quicker to adapt to this approach. Some are more resistant for a variety of reasons. One of the reasons I have noted is the attitude of the child’s parents. Some parents are still expecting a very traditional “firehose” type transmission of knowledge.

I think this may also go some way to explaining the scepticism and confusion that exists towards the use of ‘play’ (or any learning time devoted to the new and recently favoured “practice” of inviting students to identify and build their own knowledge or follow their own interests independently) in the classroom. Clearly, this is not what Hattie is referring to. In my case, I use play as a means to an end. I use it as a tool to give me access to opportunities to achieve effective learning. If I was given permission, I would also use it as a way to enhance the learning experience. That is, I would be more willing to use it as an opportunity to respond to the questions and inquiries that ‘play’ opportunities present. Because in my experience, ‘play’ can lead to significant and genuine scientific inquiries.

A child in the process of ‘playing’ may pose a question without awareness of its significance. In these situations it would be great to leverage off that curiosity and help them explore and share their inquiries with the other children in the class. Imagine the impact on children if they knew that the questions they were posing themselves in response to their ‘play’ opportunities would be met positively by the teacher? “The teacher likes my questions. Wow!” It would certainly allow me to get closer to the nexus of effective learning that Hattie identifies for us. Actually, I have noticed this type of learning experience happening in an informal, organic way. But it would be great to go about this process more deliberately.

In the meanwhile, I will pursue what I describe as the “relationship first” model of teaching. I will continue to put effort into building a relationship with the students in my class. It would be wonderful if every child came to my classroom ‘school ready’. It would be wonderful if the students would sit quietly in front of me and absorbing all the content I delivered to them without fuss. It would be wonderful if every student came from a home that was educationally nourishing. It would make for a wonderful teaching life. So, while it may seem counterintuitive, or not fully understood or embraced – to put the relationship first, I have found this approach to be most successful, productive and rewarding – professionally and personally.

All too often (in all aspects of society – not just schooling) I see relationship being made conditional on behaviour and learning. I have chosen to flip this thinking because I believe access to good learning comes from a foundation of strong relationship. Tough love is not the answer. Clarity and consistency of realistic expectations is. Unfortunately, this approach is still contested and I expect it will remain so until the end of time. But that won’t stop me pointing out that failure to deal with this will end up costing us all a lot.

Where does the resistance come from, I wonder? Where are the leaders who will help break down this resistance? Organisations are rewarded for maintaining status quo and this is perpetuated through fear, inertia and inability to see evidence of effective teaching. Human beliefs and biases will always be a significant barrier.

Ease Education: Teaching at a human scale.

You can also find Ease Education on Facebook and Twitter.

Teaching to the 100% – a model to help teachers and students move beyond surviving, to thriving.

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The teacher’s role of bringing out the best in everyone needs to be enshrined.

I was reminded recently about the impact my approach to teaching and learning has had in allowing all my students to achieve excellent learning outcomes on a consistent basis. This success all stems from my determination to ensure success for every child in my class. That is, 100%. But to get to this level of success I find myself having to forgo the familiar way of teaching, and instead, forge a pathway based on evidence and research.

The 100% target is quite an exacting standard to impose on a teacher but I have come to appreciate that it is only by having this target that best teaching practice will reveal itself. Solutions to seemingly intractable problems are available if one is willing to dig deeper and take on a long term problem solving approach. Unfortunately, this approach is neither common, nor encouraged. To do so requires blind determinationhigh levels of social and emotional competency and a willingness to explore the beliefs and biases that are a part of human nature. It’s hard. These human skills are not taught at teacher training school. And it’s easier to go with the flow, to not rock the boat. It’s easier to blame the students, or poor parenting skills, or social inequality. That is, blame anything and everything, other than ineffective teacher practice.

There would be very few classes I have taught since beginning teaching that have not included at least one child who is not “school ready”. The behaviour of this child (this is not a reference to a particular child, but a composite) is extremely disruptive and it displays behaviour that impedes the learning and (sometimes safety) of the other students. This type of child I categorise as the 1-5%. There are also students that I categorise as the 5-20%. The behaviour of students in this category may not be as severely disruptive or violent but they have a negative impact that is felt by the teacher and the other students. If left unchecked the behaviours displayed by these students will make the school year a less than pleasant one and will likely compromise the quality of learning that is able to take place in the classroom. And this is a failure that will end up costing us all. These are the students that help teachers make the decision to quit teaching.

The point I am trying to make here is that, the prevalent teaching model, even if it was effective, is only catering to 80% of the class. That is, every student’s learning is going to be compromised to some extent. I describe this as a model of surviving, rather than thriving. The day I decided to aspire to a thriving teaching model was the day my teaching practice changed forever. Targeting success for the 100% forced me to look for answers that were within my control; to keep questioning myself and asking those difficult ‘how and ‘why’ questions in order to get to a solution that dealt with the root cause. But once again, those questions are generally not welcome or well-received. Because to follow the best answers to their conclusion, can result in colliding with the status-quo.

I have discovered that the solution lies in focusing on social/ emotional learning first and foremost. The academic learning is not neglected but the social/emotional learning is given immediate priority. And the thing is, if you are a proponent of the power of student agency like I am, for that to happen, the teacher needs to be in control of the class to allow the students to be effective self-learners. Without that control, the teacher will have to rely on the “students learning despite me” model of teaching. To do so, the focus needs to be on the learning of all students. Built on a foundation of strong relationships, I ensure that behaviour and academic expectations for every child are high and consistent. Of course there is a need for variability. It’s progress in attainment that is the key metric being measured. Clear and consistent expectations are matched by my unwavering support and desire to see every student achieve success in self-managing. The students who are already self-managing rarely complain that they are given more self-directed learning time.

I am pleased to report that typically, by the end of the first term, the classroom culture becomes strong and cohesive and there exists a secure platform in which to launch into effective academic learning. This social and emotional learning that I describe will be maintained continuously. I continue to give the students opportunities to practice engaging in pro-social behaviours. Slowly but surely all the students take on more active roles as directors of their own learning. I keep tweaking and modifying the learning environment based on the interactions that I observe and the evidence that it reveals. It is the future of learning.

Ease Education: Teaching at a human scale.

You can also find Ease Education on Facebook and Twitter.