Open Plan Classrooms – What’s the verdict?

Too right!

It would appear that Open Plan Classrooms (OPCs) are making a comeback. Or probably more accurately,  they never really went away. You may have also heard of them being referred to as Modern Learning Environments (MLEs). I have no knowledge of their prevalence, past or present. But it is looking increasingly likely that your local school may be using, or planning to use this kind of space. So for that reason, I think it’s worth taking a look at what they are, and examine their potential impact on teaching and learning.

The intent behind these kinds of learning spaces is honourable. But as I have learned over the years, in all aspects of life, behind every good intention is a disaster lurking. The argument given in favour of these kinds of spaces is that they are designed to be flexible and to encourage creativity, critical thinking, and collaboration—among students as well as teachers. And of course, it is that creativity and collaboration that is so desperately needed in schools. It’s just that….

We now know that effective learning is achieved via effective pedagogy. And we now know what that looks like. The improvement that is needed in education will come via a cultural shift; in how we teach, rather than by changing the physical environment. As Hattie suggests in his “Visible Learning” research, unless teacher pedagogy is adapted to innovations (such as open space classrooms) there are no benefits to be gained.

I would take this a step further. From a personal perspective, I see open plan classrooms as being detrimental. I have made significant changes in the way I teach. Changes that put me in line with the research. As a result, I am seeing successful learning taking place in my classroom. Success that is obvious to me but somehow not obvious to others, it would seem. I hope that will change one day.

The success I see has been achieved by creating a flowing, open space that invites the children to settle into deep and engaging learning. But the biggest changes have come about as a result of the nature of my relationship with the children, the relationship between the children and the resulting ability to respond to their needs. They are the directors of their learning. I respond and provoke where necessary.

Moving into a large open plan space with more children and more distractions is likely to detract from that. I would argue that it is the intimacy; the ability to develop close relationships with the children that helps create an effective teaching and learning environment. Of course I don’t want to do anything that would dilute my ability to be effective. To make a move into an OPC I would need to be working alongside colleagues who understand and are sympathetic to these fundamental elements of achieving successful teaching and learning.

Proponents of OPCs say that with better organisational and financial support, teachers can be trained to use these spaces effectively. That’s what they always say. Until a majority of teachers are able to honestly assess the level of their effectiveness, this kind of teaching space gets a big “thumbs down” from me. It’s about the children.

Ease Education: Teaching at a human scale.

You can also find Ease Education on Facebook and Twitter.

For further reading on this topic, refer below…

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It’s possible to create a learning environment in which all students learn exponentially.

Can you read this?

“I don’t care that you have trouble spelling. But I do care that you are mindful, curious, thoughtful, empathetic and articulate.”

I am currently witnessing some amazing growth in the reading abilities of all the students in my classroom. And we are only a term and a half through the year. Normally, I don’t see this kind of growth until further into the year. Yes, I do say “amazing growth” and I do say “all”. Let me explain what’s happening. And before I do, let me also say that this is not the first time I have witnessed this. But it is the first time that I have set out to document it. The difference is that this year I have fully embraced the “Visible Learning” pedagogy. There is no more tentativeness. The training wheels are off completely. It is also worth noting that this amazing growth is not only evidenced in reading. I am seeing it replicated throughout all learning areas.

So what exactly am I seeing?

It is easy to track reading. There is a wide range of graded texts for the children to read. When a child shows competence at level 1 texts, they move on to slightly harder level 2 texts, and so on. It translates well into a box ticking and graph making exercise. The level of progress each child is making, relative to where they were at the start of the year, is easy for all to see. And from my vantage point, I can see that all children are improving, ‘more or less equally’. (Keep reading for a more detailed analysis of what I mean by ‘more or less equally’).

As well as seeing improved reading data, I am seeing major shifts amongst all the students in their attitude, effort, curiosity and confidence with reading. I see children reading a book with a friend when they could be playing with blocks instead. I see children offering to help a colleague to read a tricky part of a text and then advising me that their colleague had tried really hard and had done “their best”. I see a child examining a text closely and sounding out words and sounds; employing the reading knowledge and strategies that I have already shared with them. I see the child’s eyes light up with a strong sense of accomplishment. The same child, who up to a week before, was a reluctant reader and finding reading difficult.

So how exactly is this happening? (hint: student ‘agency’).

After many years at the chalk face I am now able to identify the deliberate acts that I am engaged in and the impact these actions are having on the students’ learning. The cause and effect relationship has become clear. (Unfortunately, this correlation is not naturally occurring within the education profession. That is, there is no automatic correlation between a teacher’s level of experience in the classroom and the level of a teacher’s expertise). Increasingly, more of my time these days is spent listening, observing and responding to the children. I take great interest in what they are doing. I show them that I care about what they are doing – emotionally and academically. I am nudging them gently in the direction that they need to go. I’m the expert. I know what they need to know in terms of knowledge and strategy. And most importantly, I connect with them at a human level.

I am focused on more than just passing on the knowledge and skills of reading. It’s about developing a learning culture that becomes self sustaining in the long term. It’s about demonstrating to the students that I genuinely care about them and their learning, and conveying high but realistic expectations. I know how to manage and organise the children effectively and more importantly, how to get the children to manage and organise themselves. I also know what motivates them. I know what they will work for. It’s about human psychology. That’s the foundation for all the great learning that is happening in the classroom. It is this human/cultural aspect of learning that I am most interested in these days. It is this aspect of learning (and in this case reading) that I spend so much time and effort cultivating.

In this kind of learning environment, the children are well versed in giving each other feedback. It’s a learning environment in which I have time and space to be able to give the children feedback, and advise them of what they need to do next. It’s instantaneous and it’s done verbally. The feedback could be about their reading skill, and/or, it could be about their attitude towards their reading/learning. Praise is always forthcoming. But only when it is deserved. We only celebrate excellence – in achievement and effort. That’s important. I am yet to meet a child who (at least eventually) does not respond positively to being challenged and encouraged to do better. Think back to the last time you completed a task that challenged you and required you to strive. That “I did it” feeling.

I also need to know what to expect of a child at their developmental age. The learning needs to be fun and engaging. The learning environment is prefaced on a growth mindset rather than a deficit mindset. Follow Maslow’s advice for strategies on how to get the best out of yourself as a teacher as well as your students. Or adopt my manifesto for creating a positive learning environment. The focus needs to be on finding the potential in the students rather than highlighting their limiting factors and deficiencies. Road blocks need to be removed. Stop finding excuses. Start being creative and curious. Become a problem solver instead. Some children will need more scaffolding and support than others. That’s because not all children enter your class at the beginning of the year from an equal starting point. Not all children come from the same social and economic background. Remember, we are looking at improving everyone’s outcomes equally.

‘More or less equally’?

As the year progresses two things start to happen. First of all, I find my role in the learning process changing. My input is required less and less. Or at least, I start to focus on providing support to those in greatest need. But overall, my role shifts to one that is more about guiding the students. I have been surprised this year with how quickly I have been able to make that happen. Secondly, I notice that student academic achievement starts to improve exponentially. The source of that growth is all due to that highly prized commodity called ‘student agency’. I assume that this what Hattie is trying to convey 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.

Student agency is an essential ingredient of effective learning. And it is an ingredient that is easily overlooked and by and large, absent from your typical learning environment. I have my theories for why this is the case. I think it comes back to the idea that effective teaching and learning is inherently, a human endeavour. We are naturally inclined to look for tangibles; the focus is on the knowledge and skills of teaching reading, maths, everything. Everything but human relationships. That’s what I remember of my time training to be a teacher. And just because human relationships/connections are not easy to see or measure, it doesn’t mean that they don’t exist or shouldn’t be valued.

It is this type of learning environment that will have the greatest impact on lifting that long tail of underachievement in New Zealand schools. It is the magic bullet to avoiding children failing in our education system. It is also the antidote to those ideologues who promote charter schools or those who think more and better discipline/homework/computers/sport… is the solution. But not only does this approach to teaching and learning have a positive impact on those underachieving students, it does so with no harm to other students. All children benefit. So says Russell Bishop. I would go a step further and suggest that it is a learning environment that allows all students to flourish. It is an approach that works for all students equally.

Having said all this, my interest lies now in figuring out how to upscale this teaching pedagogy. The evidence I am witnessing and describing is compelling. Dare I say, a deficit mindset and a lack of curiosity is not only holding back the ability of students to grow exponentially.

Ease Education: Teaching at a human scale.

You can also find Ease Education on Facebook and Twitter.

This blog post relies heavily on the work of Professor Russell Bishop. Refer to the link below…

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More of the same will not shift that long tail of underachievement.

Children flourish when they are provided with opportunities to practice and test themselves independently.

It’s an unfortunate reality that Maori and Pacific people make up the bulk of the tail of underachievement within the New Zealand education system. Not all, but the bulk. Teachers, like myself, are implored to address this inequity. And I do believe that there is enormous and genuine desire amongst teachers to address this inequality. That desire seems to be hard wired into people who sign up for teaching. But after all the meetings and reports and hand wringing, nothing changes. The tail remains the same. We look for the elusive solution while continuing down the same well worn path.

This is the state of the education system as I get to witness it everyday. Good intent rarely correlates with effectiveness. To paraphrase Einstein, doing more of the same and expecting different results, is an exercise in futility. Tinkering around the edges is not going to bring about the desired result. When looking for solutions there are two possibilities. Some solutions are hard to find because they are so small and easy to overlook. But in this case, I believe the solution is difficult to see because it is so big. What’s required is an ability and willingness to look beyond the obvious and implement a pedagogy that is based on evidence rather than on what feels right. That would seem so easy and obvious. But apparently not.

I believe that I have seen a different reality. I believe that  I’ve witnessed a learning environment that improves learning outcomes for all students. It’s real. I witness it on a daily basis. This new reality has come about because I have been willing to challenge all the assumptions that I have learned over the years about what I have been told that constitutes effective teaching; the received wisdom. I guess you could say that I’ve been prepared to be a little bit disobedient. It’s a tough gig at times. But I believe the cost of not being willing to venture into that uncomfortable place is too high. And when you see a child making rapid academic and social progress, after months of struggling, you get to enjoy that feeling of it all been worthwhile.

Lifting learning outcomes for all students needs to be the goal. I like John Hattie’s take on the current state of education. He says that, “any child with a pulse will learn.” Ouch. But don’t shoot the messenger, please. I have previously made the observation that in many cases students are learning in spite of or, despite the best endeavours of their teachers. (I was a beginning teacher once). Schools really need to stop taking credit for the learning that they are not responsible for. Fortunately, Hattie has provided us with a list of the essential ingredients for achieving effective learning. A pedagogical check list of the things that have the greatest impact. Unfortunately, that list does not seem widely known or understood by the teaching profession. Which probably goes a long way to explaining why we continue to walk down the same path.

I would also like to argue that this issue of underachievement is one that impacts on more than just our Maori and Pacific students. In the context that students may in fact, as Hattie suggests, be learning in spite of the education on offer, I think it gives weight to my argument that changing the way we teach at the broadest possible level is paramount. Because receiving a sub-par education is not just impacting negatively on Maori and Pacific students. It’s just that the consequences of leaving school with poor education outcomes is going to impact more negatively on those people and communities who are lacking in social and economic capital. Inevitably, a student who “fails” at school but has an abundance of social and economic capital is going to be more successful when transitioning into work or further education. In effect, a student’s access to reserves of economic and social capital acts as a buffer against failure at school.

The solution to this problem of under-achievement is there for us to embrace. It seems that progress will only be achieved when teachers are willing and able to be critical in their analysis of their impact on student learning. A high degree of scientific rigour needs to be embraced. And that scientific rigour needs to coincide with a willingness to embrace learning as a human endeavour. There is magic to be experienced when those two ingredients are combined. We need to bring out the best in our students. The model of teaching that currently prevails does not allow that. It only works for some. Most survive. A few thrive. And then there’s the rest.

In the meanwhile, doing more of the same will not shift that long tail of underachievement. That’s guaranteed.

Ease Education: Teaching at a human scale.

You can also find Ease Education on Facebook and Twitter.

Technology, creativity, and computer led creative destruction.

Music has become an increasingly large part of our daily routine in the classroom. Music sets the scene. It’s a part of what creates our learning culture. We dance to it. Sing along to it. Transition to it. Much of the music in the class now comes from a streaming website played through a computer or other device. I have an iPad full of recorded songs of a colleague playing the guitar. I got rid of the CD player a while ago. Superfluous. I shudder when I think of the clunkiness of cassette tapes and before that, vinyl.

I believe technology has been a wonderful enhancement to how I provide an effective learning programme. Music and dance are both a primal instinct. They help connect us to others and make us happy. Having music and dance in the classroom is a way of creating that essential happy and human learning environment. And we also know from Hattie’s research that technology per se, will not create effective learning. For technology to be really effective it needs to be used as more than just a replacement for pencils and paper or to give the students access to the latest apps to respond passively to. Creativity is a human endeavour first and foremost. Technology is at its most effective when it is used to amplify creative thinking. Creativity needs to be fostered and encouraged. Providing access to a computer will not be a guarantee of a pathway to creativity. Ken Robinson goes one step further by suggesting that schools are actually doing a good job at killing student creativity.

Out in the real world, beyond the silos and echo chambers that schools tend to be, technology is wreaking havoc on the economy and job market. Computers are hollowing out the mid-range jobs; those clerical and production line type positions. That’s because computers are now better at doing jobs that can be broken down into explicit procedures. At the same time, there is growth in jobs that don’t require high levels of education but are difficult to automate; low paid, service type jobs, like hospitality.

Fortunately, we teachers are in a lucky position. We are in a profession that computers will not make redundant. Even though computers may now be able to do a better job than teachers at delivering content, they can’t be trained up in the very human skills of creative thinking, cognitive flexibility, abstract reasoning, problem solving and empathy. But unfortunately, it is difficult to see these skills being embraced in the education sector in any serious way.

Even though it is not in my job description, I have embraced the reality of computer led creative destruction and applied those skills that can’t be learned by a computer, to my own learning journey. I read widely; beyond the field of education, that is. I apply those new discoveries in my classroom. I take on the task of being a problem solver very seriously. Even in the face of opposition. And while I don’t believe that teachers alone can solve the problems that technology led creative destruction bring, I do believe that we need to do better at preparing our students for the world beyond the classroom. I do believe that teachers would do well to look up from their lesson plans and check out the world around them a little more often and start to embrace their human qualities.

Ease Education: Teaching at a human scale.

You can also find Ease Education on Facebook and Twitter.

It’s about the learning experiences on offer that is critical, not the age that children start their formal education.

blocks

For 5 year olds building a tower of blocks together, it takes a lot of emotional skills. Skills that can be taught.

Less than a year ago, I published a post entitled “5 years old is too early for children to start their formal academic education”. I read through it recently and realised that there were some aspects that no longer accurately reflected my current thinking. In that original post, I argued that 5 years old was too early for children to start their formal education.

Instead, I want to argue that it is not the age of the child that is critical, but the type of educational opportunity that is on offer, that needs to be the focus of our attention. It’s not about the age but whether the education on offer is developmentally appropriate for the child. And I also believe that there is a strong argument that for some children, being in a high quality learning environment, and receiving developmentally appropriate learning early on, could in fact, be a better option than not being in a formal education setting.

In that post, I also criticised the role of standardised testing in education. My belief at that stage, was in line with the majority of my teaching colleagues, ie. standards were harmful to education. But having since made some significant changes to my teaching practice, I have started to realise that those standards are not the problem that we have been led to believe. I would still prefer it if we could hold out for a year or two but I now realise that doing so won’t create the change in the way we approach learning in a school environment. And that’s where the real issue lies, I think. Parents need to reassured that their child will be receiving a developmentally, age appropriate education. “Children are resilient”, should not be the ‘go to’ phrase to explain away parent concerns.

So I have decided that, rather than edit the original post to bring into line with my current thinking and practice, it would be more useful to leave it as it is and write a new post that highlights how and why my thinking has changed. In that way, I will be staying true to another of my beliefs; that it is important to be open to criticism and to be willing to change your thinking when necessary. Because, ultimately, it is all about developing a stronger case for change.

In that original post, I tried to get to grips with the emotional and cognitive reality of a 5 year old. This is the age of the children in my class. Insights into the minds of 5 year olds would surely help me  be a better teacher. The insights I refer to came via a documentary I watched on television. It was pure gold. To recap, Professor of Neuroscience and Education Paul Howard-Jones reveals that 5 years old is a critical age in a child’s life. “The learning that takes place at that age is creating a blueprint for life as an adult.” He says that, “the foundation of the well-being of an adult is based on a child’s early emotional and cognitive development. A good foundation at an early age will lead to good interpersonal relationships and self-regulatory thinking.” Wow, that’s serious stuff. With serious implications. It makes me scared and excited in equal measure; the opportunity that it presents to me – as a teacher of 5 year olds.

For me, these insights were revelationary. I took these insights as part confirmation – that I was already in the process of creating a learning environment that prioritised the need to work at a ‘human scale’. But I also took these insights as part license – a signal to expand on this practice and explore the impact of these insights more fully. I am increasingly confident in my belief that it has been the applying of these insights into my classroom practice that explains why I am seeing the enormous improvement in learning that I am seeing. These insights gave me confidence to continue developing and implementing a teaching pedagogy that focused on creating a broad range of learning opportunities – emotional as well as academic. These insights seemed to give even more credence to the Ease Manifesto.

So for clarification, in my original post I wanted to convey the following points:-

  • it’s absolutely essential for a 5 year old entering a formal education environment to have a strong emotional and cognitive foundation before embarking on a rigourous academic journey.
  • for whatever reason, not all children are entering school with that foundation and that it is not my role to find fault in that, but to address it by creating a learning culture/environment where that foundation can be provided.
  • children can gain that foundation if the appropriate learning culture/environment has been established. It can be learned.
  • this approach helps lift the emotional and academic achievement of all the children in the class. That’s the primary goal of a public education system; having a learning environment that benefits all students equally.

But where my thinking now differs from that original post is that I no longer believe that the age children start their formal education is such a critical factor. Instead, I am concerned with how:-

  1. I see children arriving at school and being thrown into the “deep end” of academic learning. Read, write, count, jump! Worksheets for Africa. Busy work. And it’s all head stuff, too. Abstract. Teacher directed instead of being genuinely inquiry based. Hardly engaging stuff. Nowhere in the NZ Curriculum does it require teachers to require 5 year olds to focus on narrow, academic learning outcomes.
  2. the transition into formal education is managed. By and large, opportunities for the children to grow and develop pro-social skills in a traditional school setting are at best, cursory and abstract. The need for allowing students to develop their emotional and cognitive skills through deliberate practice, is ignored. “Transition” is a ticked box. It is easy to label and treat the children who lack that emotional and cognitive foundation as “naughty”. Instead, they need to be viewed as being underdeveloped in those areas and needing to be given more opportunities to learn.

We really do need to stop blaming children for problems for which solutions lie firmly in the hands of teachers. And while I am on the topic of blame, I would like teachers to see the national standards as just that, standards. They are not to blame for what is taking place in the classroom or a child’s emotional state. The standards are not a statement of how to teach. They are a target. They don’t advise on the volume of photocopied tasks that need to be completed. They can operate as a ceiling if you allow them to. But I think that kind of teaching was in practice before the standards were introduced.

Be a problem solver. Be honest in identifying the things you are doing that make a difference. Eliminate the things that are not making a difference. Do what is right for the children, not to keep your colleagues happy. Stand up to willful blindness. Engage the disengaged. Stop looking for excuses. Eliminate the need for the “naughty square”. The consequences of failing to address these issues are serious – individually and collectively.

Do it for the kids.

Ease Education: Teaching at a human scale.

You can also find Ease Education on Facebook and Twitter.

The Collaboration Curse

numberpuzzle

Number Puzzle: a deep learning environment needs to be created and nurtured.

I originally started this site as a way of sharing some of the expertise that I believe I had gained over many years of being at the chalkface. It’s a hard earned expertise. Expertise gained from being open to new ideas and thinking – from within education and beyond, from being empathetic to the learners in my classroom, from encouraging myself to respond authentically to my own creative thinking and from being prepared to trial ideas in the face of opposition and resistance.

It recently occurred to me that I may be witnessing a case of “wilful blindness” within the education system. Strong words? Let me clarify.

I believe that this expertise has allowed me to create a supercharged learning environment that benefits all the children in my class. The other reason I started this site was born out of frustration of not being able to get my professional colleagues to see the results that I was seeing or to respond positively to my efforts; that my expertise was not being valued. It recently occurred to me that I may be witnessing a case of “wilful blindness” within the education system. Strong words? Let me clarify.

As a whole, for most children, our education system appears to work pretty well. Unsurprisingly, it seems to work better for those children on the higher end of the social equity ladder. For the rest, it has more of a lottery feel to it. But even for the students doing well enough, there is a deeper story to tell. Appearances can be deceptive. That’s because, in reality, any child with a pulse is going to achieve some level of learning throughout a school year.

It’s an issue relevant to all organisations and all aspects of society, not just education. It’s a human problem.

For many of my first years as a teacher, I felt that the children in my class were learning despite or, in spite of my efforts. My biggest hope was that I wasn’t doing them any harm. As it turns out, Hattie’s research shows that it’s pretty hard for a teacher to stop a child from learning. Whew! But teachers and schools taking credit for learning that would be taking place anyway? – that’s a biggie. That’s the belief system I am keen to challenge; that needs to be challenged. It’s an honest and earnest endeavour.

This should not be read as a criticism of teachers, but as a critique of a system. It’s an issue relevant to all organisations and all aspects of society, not just education. It’s a human problem. I wonder how many people chose to not know what was happening to children under the care of the Catholic Church. I wonder how many people chose not to know that children were being kept in seclusion rooms. I wonder how many people still believe that putting children in seclusion rooms is an appropriate practice. And this is in the face of evidence that tells us that controlling children in this way is unethical and ineffective.

…the reality of collaboration is much more complex. Collaboration is a process, not a place.

Defence against my claim of “willful blindness” within our education system will probably focus on the fact that it operates as an open, democratic, fair and equitable system. On the surface, everything is as you would want it. As well as that, schools are run by professionals. They are required to keep up to date with the latest research and technologies and be open to and willing to share new ideas and thinking. Collaboration is encouraged. Which is a good thing. The research tells us that collaboration is where it’s at. That’s because people in organisations can achieve things collectively that they cannot achieve individually. Collaboration can provide that spark that will light the fire of progress. It makes sense.

Well, that’s the theory. Because the reality of collaboration is much more complex. First of all, the openness that collaboration is supposed to foster is not going to be enough to drive change if all parties can’t agree that there is a need for change or improvement. I see the problems and the need for change. I speak to other teachers who recognise it. But that’s where it ends. They won’t say anything. They remind ‘blind’ out of fear, or in the belief that some things can not be changed. There may also be a genuine inability to see the need for change. This could be due to ignorance. Imagine if the entry standard for teachers entering the profession was raised to that required for law or medicine.

Effective collaboration requires seeking out people who are different to ourselves, who have a different way of thinking.

Secondly, collaboration will only be as effective as the working environment allows. I recognise that sharing my ideas and experience can be a source of cognitive dissonance. But isn’t that the point of it all? A conflict of ideas is a key component to creating change and progressing ideas. Having my ideas dismissed because they don’t fit with the thinking of the group is not collaboration. Collaboration does not take place in an echo chamber. Effective collaboration requires seeking out people who are different to ourselves, who have a different way of thinking. A level of professional conflict needs to be tolerated.

Thirdly, collaboration needs to viewed as a set of skills that needs to be learned and taught. Creating opportunities to work together in an ‘open’ way has wonderful potential but it is just the first step in the journey. Truth and knowledge on their own are insufficient to bring about change. That won’t happen until the skills and moral courage to use it are developed fully. To get to this point, organisations will need to make huge cultural shifts. School leaders need to step up.

Finally, the real role and value of collaboration needs to be fully understood and agreed to. The current interpretation of collaboration in an education setting is focused on open-plan classrooms. Needless to say, requiring teachers to work in open-plan spaces with more children is not a guarantee of effective collaboration. To expect so has to be seen as incredibly naive, if the first three points already raised have not been addressed satisfactorily. Until then, it is a case of the proverbial cart being put before the horse. It should be also be noted that according to Hattie’s research, it is collaboration, not the teaching space that has the highest positive impact on learning. And as far as I can see, an open plan space is not a definition of collaboration. Collaboration is a process, not a place.

Persistence, patience and a determination not to be blind or silent will be my guiding light.

Furthermore, I utilize the process of collaboration in my classroom on a regular basis and can identify the impact it has on the children’s learning readily. The children in my class will collaborate as a result of my guidance and sometimes as a matter of choice. I value the control I have on my teaching space. Everything in my room and every activity I undertake is as a result of deliberate decisions and actions developed from years of experience. That deliberateness has another purpose too. It provides me with opportunities to develop high quality relationships with each student. That in turn, allows me to have meaningful learning conversations with the students. Those moments are precious and are responsible for creating that supercharged learning that I refer to.

A deep learning environment needs to be created and nurtured. That precious commodity could be undermined so easily. Working with a teacher who does not appreciate that, or who is unwilling to see the merit of that approach will only dilute and frustrate the learning experience. Bigger is not always better. And in the case of a better learning environment, I believe that creating an intimate learning environment should be the goal.

So, “where to from here?” I ask myself. “Is there a place for someone like me within the education system?” It feels as though I am at a crossroad. The issue for me is no longer just about developing expertise as a teacher. For me to feel any satisfaction as a teacher, it feels as though I need to move beyond that and start developing expertise as a change agent. I will need to develop skills around convincing colleagues and parents and bureaucrats to look more critically at what effective learning is, and how it can be best delivered. That’s an entirely different proposition to simply delivering the curriculum. But I think I always knew that.

One of the things that I am giving consideration to is to try and enhance my academic credibility. I could do that by quantifying the learning that I am seeing. That would take time and effort and it could be worthwhile. But I’m not entirely convinced that it will be enough. There is a stereotype around people who act as ‘whistleblowers’. The perception of people who challenge the status quo is that they should not be trusted; that eventually they will be punished/crushed for their radical ideas. But actually, I take heart from the research. It reveals that whistleblowers tend to be very loyal to the organisation/institution and care a lot about it.

I don’t like conflict but if I am going to continue to be a teacher and do what I think is the right thing, I will have to accept that tension and conflict will be a part of that process. Rather than trying to avoid it, I will need to focus on making a stronger case and being better at arguing it. By taking on the critics and collecting evidence, I can develop my argument and make it stronger.

Persistence, patience and a determination not to be blind or silent will be my guiding light. As Margaret Heffernan says, “we enjoy so many freedoms today – but freedom doesn’t exist if you don’t use it.” If you agree with this sentiment, I encourage you to act on it by sharing this blog post far and wide.

Ease Education: Teaching at a human scale.

You can also find Ease Education on Facebook and Twitter.

 

Inspiration for this blog post come Margaret Heffernan’s work which can be found at the following links.

Heffernan – Dare to Disagree – Is conflict good for progress?

Heffernan – Dangers of willful blindness

 

 

What ‘Under the Bridge’ documentary tells us about New Zealand society and its education system.

The ‘Under the Bridge’ documentary reveals a lot about New Zealand society and the New Zealand education system. But does it tell the full story?

The strong sense of community and aroha of the Papakura High School students really shines through. I was totally drawn in by the students whose stories were featured. They were earnest, genuine and compelling. I really wanted them to succeed.

Papakura High has a problem. The roll is falling. The locals are not sending their children there. They are choosing to send them to schools outside their local zone. Because they can. And that seems to be the message behind the documentary. That schools in poor communities (‘bad’ schools) are suffering at the hands of schools in richer communities (‘good’ schools). This is not a problem confined to Papakura High. This scenario is replicated throughout New Zealand.

For me, the documentary seemed to be implying that Papakura High School’s plight could be solved by fixing 1. poverty, 2. the school zoning system and 3. bungling bureaucracy. But hang on a minute. Isn’t there a glaringly obvious omission from this assessment? I mean,

  1. Where is the discussion on the role of teachers and educators in all of this?
  2. Why do we have an education system that allows parents to determine whether a school is ‘good’ or ‘bad’?

I suggest that providing Papakura High School with teachers who know what great learning actually is and then setting about raising the achievement standards of all its students would be a great way of lifting Papakura High’s roll.

If there is to be a follow up to the ‘Under the Bridge’ documentary, I’d like to suggest that the spotlight be turned on the teaching profession and the Ministry of Education. The students and community of Papakura High School deserve a better deal.

Ease Education: Teaching at a human scale.

You can also find Ease Education on Facebook and Twitter.

My submission to the Ombudsman’s inquiry into the use of seclusion rooms in New Zealand schools.

In 2016 it came to light via the media that some schools in New Zealand were using seclusion rooms as a way of managing student behaviour. Like many, I was shocked by this revelation.

I was very pleased to hear that the Ombudsman decided to hold an inquiry into the practice. For me, it wasn’t just the use of seclusion rooms that concerned me. During post-revelation discussions in the media, I became aware of enormity and systemic nature of the issue. I was also very concerned by,

1. the negative responses and attitudes of one the schools that were found to be using seclusion rooms and,
2. the poor quality of the debate in the media around the issues of managing behaviour of students in schools.

As far as I understand, the focus of the inquiry is solely about the use of seclusion rooms in New Zealand schools. However, in my submission, I have suggested that the use of seclusion rooms in schools is symptomatic of a wider range of cultural failures within the New Zealand education system and wider society.

 

My real hope is that the inquiry could also be;

1. an opportunity to examine and critique the way schools rely on outdated, unethical and ineffective methods to manage the behaviour of students and,

2. a catalyst for making some essential changes to the way that schools and teachers manage the behaviour of students.

While I have not witnessed the use of seclusion rooms during my time as a teacher in New Zealand schools, I am concerned that the practice of ‘exclusion’ is a relatively common practice. In schools, these spaces are commonly referred to as ‘naughty spaces’. Children are sent there to ‘learn a lesson’. These lessons must be quite difficult for some children to learn because a casual observation will reveal that it is the same children who spend the most time there. The (unspoken?) intent of these places is punishment. This is distinct from the use of a behaviour management strategy such as ‘time out’.

Exclusion is based on authoritarian approaches to ‘behaviour management’ and research shows that it is a totally counterproductive practice. It is unethical and ineffective. It reflects a strong and very unhelpful emphasis on controlling children. We really need to shift our thinking from ‘behaviour management’ and ‘control’ to supporting children with their behaviour development. Providing children with opportunities to learn to manage their emotions needs to be given as much priority as the teaching of literacy and numeracy.

The use of and the reliance on exclusion to manage behaviour also indicates that there is something fundamentally wrong with the education that is currently being provided. Over many years of practice, I have learnt that managing behaviour becomes a non-issue when the learning environment is conducive to the needs of all children. The education we provide our children needs to be academically and emotionally engaging. I have already documented how this can be achieved in a classroom setting.

I also suspect that there is a correlation between the use of exclusionary practices in schools, the long tail of underachievement in education and incarceration rates in prisons. Cultural bias in New Zealand schools is a reality. That is why we need an education system that encourages and supports all students equally.

I don’t know about the specifics of the legalities in NZ, but in Australia the practice of ‘the naughty square’ is actually illegal. Unfortunately, this does not seem to hinder their use in Australia. It is the education of teachers, rather than the writing of laws, that will have the greatest positive impact.

Ease Education: Teaching at a human scale.

You can also find Ease Education on Facebook and Twitter.

The essential ingredients for creating effective learning are no secret.

Stack of blocks

There’s always a detailed story behind any tower of blocks like this.

During all my years in the classroom, I have always sought to be a more effective teacher; to be able to provide more effective learning opportunities; to empower the children to be more effective learners. The improvement that I believe I am now making has been a gradual process. A process of compiling a series of ‘aha’ moments would be an appropriate metaphor. And this process has been deliberate and measured. Initially it was premised on becoming increasingly familiar with the research of John Hattie.

This research identifies and ranks the impact/effectiveness of all available teaching interventions/variables. Quite simply, it is a list of the essential ingredients for creating effective learning. On this list, we can see and compare the impact of say, class size or computers or homework…all the usual suspects are on the list. And all these variables are ranked according to their impact. I have placed a link to this list at the bottom of this post. I suspect that what you believe has the greatest impact on learning may be challenged. You may also want to check out John Hattie talking about his findings in this Ted Talk.

Personally, I believe that Hattie’s findings are the educational equivalent of the Holy Grail. My confidence in the value of this research is based on another key element. Not only have I become very familiar with Hattie’s research over the years, I have also gone about applying this research in a classroom setting. I have deliberately targeted and applied the variables at the top of the list and then observed the impact that it has on the students. This is allowed me to compile that list of ‘aha’ moments.

In effect, these are the moments that allow me to identify and measure the level of impact that I am having on each student. This in turn has allowed me to be selective and deliberate in how I work with the children. I am getting better at declining or abandoning ideas and processes that are imposed upon us and that act as barriers to achieving effective learning. This has had the effect of allowing me to discover the existence of a range of buttons and levers at my disposal. And slowly, I am gaining mastery of those buttons and levers. This mastery has come about by practise and making mistakes.

Over time, these buttons and levers become visible to the students. They also become familiar and proficient with the buttons and levers. Eventually they start taking control of the buttons and levers. They begin to determine how they would like to see the buttons and levers operating. That’s when the learning environment gets really dynamic. And the cool thing is that it works for all children equally. Their personality or background makes no difference. Nor is there any special equipment or programme required. Really, it’s just myself and the students, in a classroom.

The outcome of this experience for me is to validate my interpretation of Hattie’s research. To me, it seems that the variables that Hattie cites as creating the most effective learning environment, are all based on themes of humanity and relationship. The essential ingredients to achieve the dynamic learning environment that I describe above, depend on to a large extent on the existence of those human and emotional qualities. Teaching as a human endeavour! Who would have thought?

This means, I need to know my students really well. It means I need to build a strong and trusting relationship with them. My job is to observe them closely to see what their strengths and weaknesses are, in emotional and academic terms. I have Piaget to help me know what these children are capable of and to help me to help them to achieve it. It means I also need the children to know what I expect from them in terms of behaviour and in terms of learning and achievement. This needs to be made explicit and visible. Over time this all helps to provide a really strong culture of learning and collaboration.

I love seeing the children in my class at the very edge of their learning development. I just can’t squeeze any more learning out of them. And they all love it. Eventually. Some get on board quicker than others. But they love the challenge. They love knowing that they are at that edge. I always thank them profusely for their outstanding effort. And then I ask them to do it again tomorrow. By the middle of the year, this is the norm. This is when the magic really starts to happen. They want to know how they are doing. The roles reverse. They start directing their learning and I start learning from them. Those buttons and levers.

This all helps to explain why I am better at knowing the level of impact I am having on each child. I can now state unequivocally that the children are no longer learning in spite of me, but because of me. They are responding to my deliberate and persistent interventions. Their learning is not a happy accident. And that’s one of the tragedies of teaching – a school taking credit for the learning that children would be achieving anyway.

My dream is to be able to share my discovery of these powerful buttons and levers with my colleagues and show them how they work. My dream is to give all children access to those buttons and levers and the great learning that results.

Ease Education: Teaching at a human scale.

You can also find Ease Education on Facebook and Twitter.

Want to take a look at that list of essential ingredients? – check out the links below…

1. A ranking of influences according to their impact.

Hattie Ranking: 195 Influences And Effect Sizes Related To Student Achievement

2. Key influences on student achievement.

Hattie’s influences on student achievement

Standards and creativity can co-exist in the classroom

Tower of Blocks

That’s no ordinary tower of blocks.

These days I see myself as a problem solver. I now understand that my job is about trying to make sense of what is taking place in my classroom and trying to figure out what levers to pull and which buttons to push in order to help the students be effective learners. Instead of explaining away failure with excuses and deficit thinking, I approach teaching with a view to discovering how I can be most effective. This insight has really encouraged me to be creative. And I read somewhere recently that creativity is about making the complex, simple. I like that. The classroom is a dynamic and complex place. Full of humans with competing demands and interests. I need to remove that complexity, remove the unnecessary, remove the barriers to effective learning.

But most importantly, I need to find the humanness. And liberate that spirit. It always exists but sometimes it is hidden and you have to dig around for it. I am now more aware than ever, that I can make a difference. I can make a difference through my deliberate acts of teaching. And that is achieved by building strong relationships with the students. From trusting relationships come good learning conversations. That’s the hierarchy. The foundations must exist for effective learning to take place; to unleash the real learning.

When National Standards were implemented into New Zealand schools I reacted negatively. My original position, like many with a vested interest in education, was to criticise and resist the introduction of this kind of regime. It seemed as though the introduction of National Standards was part of a shift towards an international trend towards standardised testing in primary schools. The arguments against standardised testing are compelling. Yong Zhao describes the standards as “too narrow, too impersonal, too linear and too focussed on the short term. It’s a model that stifles creativity and discriminates against many students.” Ken Robinson describes the need for an education system that is responsive to the needs of a modern world. He argues that the education being offered and delivered by schools currently, is only good at “killing creativity”. How could I support a regime that was going to be a barrier to that?

You can imagine my shock then, when I discovered, that it was John Hattie who was responsible for the introduction of the standardised testing regime into New Zealand primary schools. I had been a big fan of the Visible Learning approach to education for some time. I had been endeavouring to apply the findings of his research into my classroom on a daily basis. How had this situation arisen? Is it a ‘situation’ at all, I wondered? Were these academics actually contradicting one another?

I now realise that standards and creativity can co-exist in the classroom. I believe my experiences and observations in the classroom over the past few years can validate this. I am becoming increasingly aware that it is not the standards that are the problem. The real problem is in the way that teachers approach learning (in general) and how they approach the achieving of those standards (specifically). It’s about pedagogy. It’s not the standards that are acting as a ceiling to effective learning and creativity. That ceiling is being imposed by the prevalent teaching practices. The teaching practices that you will see in the majority of classrooms throughout the world. They are pretty much the same teaching practices that you and your parents and grandparents were subjected to during your time at school.

I no longer fear those “evil” standards. I embrace them. Teachers need to see themselves as problem solvers. There are many variables that teachers, as individuals, can have no impact on. But too often those factors are used to explain away the inability to lift student achievement. John Hattie asks teachers to keep asking this one critical question – “What impact am I having on my students’ learning?” By implementing John Hattie’s “Visible Learning” pedagogy in the classroom over the past few years, I have discovered that high levels of academic achievement and creativity can co-exist in the classroom. Instead of being mutually exclusive, they can in fact, create a learning environment that grows exponentially.

The good news is that a template for achieving exceptional learning outcomes for all students has been provided for us. It’s all about the pedagogy.

Ease Education: Teaching at a human scale.

You can also find Ease Education on Facebook and Twitter.