What can the movie Monster’s Inc reveal about effective teaching?

Monsters2

“We scare because we care.” An example of ‘deficit thinking’?

Monster’s Inc is such a clever movie. I never tire of watching it. The first time I watched it, I was struck by the premise of the movie – that laughter could generate more electricity than scaring could. Yeah, nah, that’s just a silly idea from a kids’ movie, I hear you say. But please don’t dismiss it so quickly. When I discovered that making a classroom a vibrant, happy, positive place was an essential part of creating a great learning environment, both my teaching experience, and the learning outcomes for the students, improved dramatically. I’m describing an environment that is based on a foundation of positive relationships – teacher/student and student/student. And once again, it is not just a vague, warm fuzzy feeling that I am referring to. It’s an environment in which students have agency. The students are directing and managing their learning. The teacher is able to sit back, orchestrate and learn from the students. It’s dynamic and agile. I often find myself referring to this manifesto to keep things on track.

I would encourage every teacher to move mountains in order to create this kind of learning environment. I have interpreted the Visible Learning teaching pedagogy as a ‘green light’ to do so; as a way of building student agency. There you go. That’s a licence for every teacher to change the way in which they teach. But to do so, really does require the teacher to operate from a growth mindset. Like in Monsters Inc, there needs to be a strong belief in the idea that laughter is in fact, more powerful than fear.

But really? Students can be trusted to engage in this process? Well, yes. And now we are starting to see the evidence to validate this. Economist Alexander Wagner conducted an experiment that concluded that 70% of people are good and motivated by altruistic reasons. (Refer to the link below). If that is true, then it has big implications for how we engage with students in their learning. I suggest that this knowledge is an essential resource for teachers to tap into. I witness the existence of this phenomenon everyday. I see the children in my class wanting to learn. I have practiced harnessing it, rather than stifling it. They are like sponges. They are curious and open to new ideas. Teaching under these conditions is a breeze. Teaching under these conditions is a positive experience. It becomes more about guiding and less about cajoling.

But what about that 30%, I hear you ask? I think I probably start the school year with about 30% who are not so altruistically inclined. Or at least, haven’t been given the opportunity to experience or demonstrate the merits of working altruistically. But that gets whittled down pretty quickly with the right pedagogy and motivators in place. It takes time, patience and consistency. Eventually almost all the children are on the proverbial bus together and participating in a supportive and collaborative learning journey – academic and social.

It is also worth noting that I have found it important and helpful to distinguish between students whose behaviours can be distinguished between behaviour that is:

  • challenging and provocative. eg. “This is boring”. I embrace comments like this. I reflect on these kinds of comments and try to determine their basis. It may well have some legitimacy. It’s an opportunity to find out more about the student and consider a modification to the teaching practice being utilised. In this scenario it is important to get the learning environment right.
  • under-developed social skills. If this is the case, there are strategies that are available to teachers that can help nudge the student towards displaying more socially acceptable behaviours. I would suggest that emotional competency is prerequisite to achieving full academic engagement. In this scenario it is important to provide positive and consistent messages and expectation.

Sometimes, both approaches will need to be taken in tandem.

If you still have some doubts about all this, I suggest you go and watch Monsters Inc (again). If nothing else, it will make you laugh.

Ease Education: Teaching at a human scale.

You can also find Ease Education on Facebook and Twitter.

Inspiration and scientific analysis for this blog post come from economist Alexander Wagner’s Ted Talk, “What really motivates people to be honest in business”. You can find the link below.

Continue reading

Why the education system is stuck and what can be done to unstick it.

CoverModified_02

Operating from a growth mindset. Building positive relationships.

It feels like all those years I have spent teaching up until now, have been like an apprenticeship. And it feels now like I have finally arrived at a point of mastery. It has all been worthwhile. By deliberately applying the best research to my teaching practice it has enabled some amazing results to be achieved. The students are leading their own learning as well as helping me with my learning. These are exciting times for me. But there is one problem. I thought my colleagues would be as equally excited. That there would be some level of curiosity. That I would start to hear comments like, “Wow, how come all the children are achieving so well academically and socially?” Or, “How come the children are all so engaged with their learning?” But the silence has been deafening. I have been wondering whether this is an example of the wilful blindness, that I have previously made reference to.

So I have gone back to the drawing board. I’ve decided to see if I could discover the reasons for how this could be. Why is it that the children can be doing so well but I am still be unable to convince my colleagues of this? And as I started to search I began to realise that there is a bigger story to be told. That there is a key element that links my personal experience to how the world functions. I started to see the links between my personal experience and the existence of all the major and minor problems in the world and our inability to acknowledge them or address them successfully. Economic issues come to mind – how to address poverty. Or environmental issues – how to address climate change. There is a universality to these problems. Education is no different.

It seems as though the qualities that set humans apart from other animals; those qualities that have allowed us to achieve such remarkable achievements, are also the qualities that act as the barriers to progress and resolving problems. In respect to education, the research tells us that the biggest impact on learning is the human element – our social qualities, our ability to build relationships. Sure, you need to know the curriculum – some stuff about maths and the mechanics of reading is always going to be useful. But as I am discovering, that is not enough. Because “children don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.” And that’s why I want to explore how it is that humans have the potential to have the biggest positive impact on learning, but at the same time, also be the biggest barrier. My hope is that once we can acknowledge and understand this dissonance, we may have a better chance of creating the necessary changes and improvements.

A system that is entrenched and resistant to change

The education system we have may not exactly be the best one, but it kind of works – for most people. Or at least, that’s what we tell ourselves. Instead of trying to change the system, we become well practiced at ignoring its inadequacies and blaming the people it doesn’t work for. We label these people as flawed and unresponsive to an adequate system, rather than as an inadequate system being flawed and unresponsive to decent people. A system that has evolved over many centuries is hard to change, even if any rational person can see it is overdue for change. And it is within this narrow framework that teachers are invited to help those who are failing. So inevitably, the actions that result, amount to the equivalent of tinkering at the edges.

This inability to make the required wholesale changes is due to the existence of a condition called ‘path dependence‘. It’s really hard to deviate from a well worn path. The features that exist in the current education system were put in place to serve a function at the time it was created. These features persist even though everything around them has changed. This locked in way of thinking/doing things means that we simply end up hoping that the system we have inherited will evolve sufficiently to be able to deal with modern problems – such as the impact of technological disruption on employment that we are now starting to witness.

Try adopting a proven model?

But maybe there is some hope. If our education system is so deeply flawed maybe we could turn to one of those successful education models that exist already in northern European countries, like Denmark. What’s stopping us from adopting those models as a template of successful alternative pathways and importing them directly? Unfortunately, the reality is that templates don’t work well. A solution imposed from above is less likely to be effective. Change will be successful and sustainable only when it comes about organically and has ‘buy in’ from the users of the system. The end users need to have had a chance to contribute to the creation of the new system.

And you are correct if you are seeing a link between effective and sustainable teaching practice in the classroom and the implementation of effective and sustainable change to the education system at large. At both a macro and a micro level, creating user agency via problem solving, is the name of the game. We all need to be invited to put our thinking hats on and work together as problem solvers. Working together to solve problems is what humans do very well. That is the culture of collaboration that I have generated and get to witness the results of, everyday in my classroom. It is when children are invited to present their best ideas in an authentic and genuine way, that the magic starts to happen. But this kind of collaboration will only be achieved successfully if the environment is conducive. There needs to be a genuine free flowing of ideas. It is a high trust/growth mindset model of teaching. Therefore, it takes confidence and a high level of ability in relationship skills to attain this. These are the very human qualities that are most needed. Teachers need to be encouraged to think and care at the most human level. Because, once again, “children don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.”

Up scaling this reality from the micro level to the broader, societal level needs to be seen as an achievable goal. To do so, we need a shared vision and shared goals that will promote a self sustaining education system. And via an effective education system we can help create a society that is economically and socially prosperous. The goals need to be able to address these moral and ethical questions at the broadest level. And of course, we need education leaders to inspire us to seek out solutions that will enable us to achieve these goals. Politicians, policy makers and educators need to be held accountable for setting and achieving these goals. Those goals need to be in line with appropriate academic achievement and social well-being targets. National Standards need to be seen as part of the solution, not a cause of the problem. And most importantly, we need to be encouraged to participate in genuine and robust conversations about what needs to take place. Only then will there be a chance for any significant progress to be made.

The art of self delusion and conflict avoidance

But wait, there’s more. Beyond the problem of inheriting an inflexible system and needing to employ very human qualities to create a more desirable system, lies a greater challenge. Humans have many great qualities but unfortunately, honesty is not one of them. Honesty, when it counts, that is. Humans have a propensity for lying. Everybody does it. People are in the habit of lying in their daily lives. I’m not describing the lying of a sociopath, but rather, the self delusional type. Humans are social creatures. The constructive need and desire to fit in, can also be destructive when it takes the shape of saying and doing what you think is desirable rather than, what is correct. It is called a social desirability bias. It means that we tend to rationalise our decisions to suit our own internal narratives and intuition. It means we avoid telling the truth in order to fit in socially and to avoid conflict. You can test this theory by observing your responses when completing a survey. Note how your responses will change depending on whether your response is anonymous or not. That’s because, when we are revealing information about ourselves, we tend to lie.

An effective education system should not be measured by the level of compliance and self congratulation but in its ability to embrace a conflict of ideas and willingness to strive for long lasting improvement for everyone. Dealing with conflict in a constructive way is a very human skill that can be learned and practiced. If used appropriately, it is a skill that will enhance personal relationships and the benefits will flow on into the learning environment in the classroom.

______________________________________________________

Postscript: Still not convinced about the benefits of positive social relationships? According to this research, an emphasis on close personal relationships and face to face interactions is the primary cause of the positive life outcomes and longevity of the people of Sardinia.

Ease Education: Teaching at a human scale.

You can also find Ease Education on Facebook and Twitter.

Inspiration and scientific analysis for this blog post come from the clever people at Freakonomics. See below for the links.

Continue reading

Are you ready to think differently?

GrwthMindset

Who is the target audience here – teachers or students?

It was when I became aware of the importance of my mindset that I noticed the magic really starting to happen in the classroom. I started to realise that it was the changing of my own mindset that needed to be the catalyst for change. It was through this shift in my own thinking that I realised it would be possible to create shifts in the way the children would think and operate. And it was this process that led to learning outcomes for all students starting to improve. It was then that undesirable behaviours started to disappear. It was that shift in my mindset that allowed for the natural curiosity, that all children possess, to come to the fore.

Every day I am discovering that we are all wired to be kind and compassionate. This human condition is innate but sometimes lies dormant. It may need a spark to be activated. It’s a condition that needs to be created deliberately. If done correctly, an environment can exist in which kindness and compassion will flourish. An environment that will embody dignity and respect. But it does take time.

There needs to be lots of conversations. Conversations that highlight the reality that, the classroom belongs to everyone. The teacher needs to convey the sense that everyone is important and equal; that a common goal exists. That’s because people are naturally more likely to invest in themselves if they believe that their community is willing to invest in them. It’s possible that this kind of environment can be made to become self-sustaining. Success will lead to success. There will be a sense that everyone is moving towards a common goal. Collaboration will be prevalent.

It is the teacher that has the power to make this happen. The teacher is the catalyst. Teachers need to be able to see the children as amazing beings, worthy of investing in. They also need to be agile and flexible and have a problem solving attitude. Solutions to problems need to be simple and sustainable over a long time. If punitive approaches to behaviour are being relied on, then something needs to change. The root of the problem needs to be found. It can be found if there is a willingness to look with honesty and integrity.

Of course, this all confirms the research. “Teacher/student relationship” is a key criteria for making learning effective. It really does make sense. And fortunately for me, I get to witness it everyday in the classroom.

Ease Education: Teaching at a human scale.

You can also find Ease Education on Facebook and Twitter.

 

How effective is your teaching practice?

ReadingLevels_2017_01

Reading Levels #1, 2017

ReadingLevels_2017_02

Reading Levels #2, 2017

I made a claim on this site recently that I had managed to turn my classroom into a learning environment in which all students were able to experience enormous growth in their reading achievement. You can find that post, here. I decided to take it a step further and turn the reading data into graph form. I did this because I wanted to get a visual representation of what I was witnessing and help substantiate my claim. I focused on reading simply because it lends itself to data collection better than other subjects. But I’m describing a learning environment that is effective across all curriculum areas.

There are two critical components to this claim. They are as follows:-

  1. The inclusive nature of that growth. ie. all students are benefiting.
  2. Being able to identify the pedagogy being employed to create that growth.

Teachers are being asked constantly, to find ways to help lift the long tail of underachievement that exists within schools. That’s been part of my motivation to create the learning environment that I describe. But it’s also because this kind of learning environment is just better for everyone, including myself. It’s a constructive model of teaching. It’s success is greater than simply enabling students to reach the required standards.

All students who enter a classroom at the beginning of the year arrive with a wide range of academic and social dispositions. They all came to class with different social and educational backgrounds, and expectations. With the right pedagogy in place, the fact that all students come to class with these differences, is no longer a problem.

That’s because there exists a teaching pedagogy that can:-

  • close any gaps in the learning potential that may exist, amongst the students, when they enter the classroom at the beginning of the year. It is also able to avoid any of those gaps getting wider during the year.
  • support the teacher to identify the needs and set achievement goals that match each individual student. It allows for all new learning to be built on the learning already achieved. That bar of achievement needs to keep being raised, incrementally.
  • encourage students to work together. This means that the more capable students get to reinforce what they have learned, and at the same time, helping out the less able ones to improve their learning.

It is worth noting that the student’s actual reading results are only a part of the story. Of course we want all the students to manage to attain the required National Standard. But what we should be particularly interested in, is the trajectory of the students’ reading results; the level of growth/improvement. From looking at the graphs you will not be able to determine the boys from the girls, the students who are finding it straightforward from the ones who are getting the most support from me, the students whose first language is not English from the students whose first language is English, the students who are self managing from those who need support to manage themselves. All boats are rising more or less equally. Everyone’s a winner. No students are ‘flatlining’.

And there is some good news for students who have not reached the standard yet. Terms one and two tend to be settling in time. Establishing routines. Building a class culture. It is in the final two terms of the year that most progress is achieved. That’s when the learning has the potential to be super charged. It reflects the high levels of enthusiasm and growing levels of self confidence amongst the students. This student agency that I am describing is something that I put a lot of value on, and a lot of effort into generating. Once it is established, this agency then starts developing a life of its own. It becomes the force that generates the self sustaining improvements in reading amongst the students. It’s that “students become teachers and teachers become learners” scenario that I have previously discussed.

Ease Education: Teaching at a human scale.

You can also find Ease Education on Facebook and Twitter.

Notes about the graphs: see below….

Continue reading

The problem is not with the existence of national standards, but the absence of effective pedagogy.

 

National Standards are not the problem. They are part of the solution.

I want to have another go at writing about the impact of National Standards on education in New Zealand. I am doing this in the hope that our political leaders will make informed decisions when determining education policy. My hope is that we will get policies that are based on evidence, rather than ideology. We all want to achieve the best education outcome for every student in New Zealand. That’s a given. It’s good for the individual but also good for society, and the economy as a whole. How to achieve that outcome is what seems to be up for negotiation. And that’s where the problem lies. Ideology trumps evidence. Good policy is always the loser in this scenario.

It is also worth noting that, as I have become better informed, my position on National Standards has changed markedly since they were introduced. Like the majority of my colleagues, in the beginning, I was also against them. As far as I can see, the problem with National Standards is actually in the failure of their implementation. Ideology and political expediency got in the way of good policy. In some respects, I would argue that teachers have been the recipients of a ‘hospital pass’. For the introduction of National Standards to be successful, it needed to coincide with the introduction of training programmes that would teach teachers how to be more effective. We are witnessing the result of having standards imposed over the top of a pedagogy that is well past its ‘use by date’. It was destined to fail. National Standards have become a political football at the expense of achieving better education outcomes.

I want to describe in more detail the negative consequences of implementing standards along side an outdated pedagogy. But first of all, it would be useful to look at the specific criticisms of National Standards.

The five arguments given, are as follows. They have:-

1.  Forced schools to focus much more on literacy and numeracy – which of course was the intent; to help improve literacy and numeracy. But critics say that it has resulted in the curriculum being narrowed.

2. Led schools to target much more attention on children who are just below the standard – good for those children, but this has resulted in neglecting the ‘above’ standard children and those children with special needs.

3. Forced schools and teachers to spend more time on assessing and testing – and as a result, less time is available for teaching and learning.

4. Enabled students to be identified if they are ‘above’, ‘at’, ‘below’, and ‘well below’ the standard. This is seen as a good thing. This level of transparency means that schools are able to identify the students who make up the body of the tail of underachievement and provide targeted support.  It also means that parents are able to act on this knowledge and employ extra tuition for their children. Which is all good if you are rich and can afford it. But the argument is that that is not an option for those children who who are not able to receive this level of home support.

5. Allowed parents and the government to have comparable data to judge how particular schools are achieving. Once again, this is good because it informs the Ministry of Education when it should intervene in a school and also, for parents who can afford to move their child to a ‘good’ school. But this is cold comfort for parents who can’t enact that choice, or for children whose learning is being hampered due to external factors such as poverty.

In all aspects of life, standards are good essential. Think water quality or air quality. Education should be no different. National Standards need to be thought of as targets. Targets to aim for. But it’s essential to note that a target is not a directive or prescription of how to reach that target. It is simply, a target. It has no direct influence on pedagogy – of how to achieve that target. It seems to me that teachers have interpreted the standards as being a prescription for how to teach. I’m arguing that children who are failing to meet the standards is, as a result of an outdated pedagogy, not the existence of standards.

There is also a real risk that standards have the potential to act as a ceiling on learning. Achieving standards has become the primary focus. And as a consequence of setting standards, we create an education model that wants to, in the words of Yong Zhao, “count everything and hold everyone to account”. This is one of the arguments used by those critical of National Standards. That, as a result of the introduction of the standards, education has become too narrow, “too impersonal, too linear, too focussed on the short term”. That, it’s become a model that stifles creativity and discriminates against many students. But hang on a minute. This is describing the learning outcomes that the education system has been serving up since the beginning of time, and well before the standards were ever introduced. Nothing has changed. Deficit thinking is the foundation of the current education system. Once again, this is an issue of relying on an outdated pedagogy, not the existence of standards.

There is a pedagogy available right now, that could be utilised by all teachers, that would allow all students to achieve their necessary standards. A constructive model, rather than a deficit model. My experience reveals that by implementing this pedagogy (best practice, evidence based teaching), all the criticisms of National Standards as outlined above, would be addressed. I have seen the staggeringly good results in my classroom of implementing best teaching practice. I see great results but I also see an abundance of curiosity and agency amongst the students, and myself. And that’s why I will continue to remain ambivalent to the criticisms of National Standards. In my classroom, I’m confident that all children will be able to attain the appropriate standard. That’s because I implement an evidence based pedagogy that provides a creative and vibrant learning environment. It is self fulfilling and self sustaining. No sweat. No drama.

Ease Education: Teaching at a human scale.

You can also find Ease Education on Facebook and Twitter.

I have written other posts on this issue of National Standards and how it relates to pedagogy. I have included links to them, below….

Continue reading

Get the learning environment right and watch all those ‘negative’ behaviours disappear.

 

Things to be curious about are all around.

Teaching can be exhilarating and exhausting in equal measure. Getting a large group of people to work together collaboratively and cohesively, is a delicate balancing act that requires a high level of expertise. Being that humans are humans, there will always be a layer of complexity when they come together. This complexity requires well thought out and constructive solutions for managing behaviour in order to create the best outcomes for everyone involved.

The best solutions will be achieved by approaching the issue of behaviour with a growth mindset, as opposed to a deficit mindset. That is, viewing children positively and seeing them as having enormous quantities of potential waiting to be realised. It helps to have a good understanding of human psychology in order to appreciate what makes people behave in the way they do. In the case of children, it is really useful being able to view their world from their perspective.

It is also helpful to break down the issue of behaviour into two distinct scenarios.

1. Sometimes the behaviour reflects a child who is distracted or not engaged in their learning. If that is the case, then it’s probably time to rethink what is being taught and how it’s being taught.

2. Sometimes the behaviour reflects a child’s lack of self management skills or an emotional deficit. If this is the case, then there are ways and means of changing those behaviour patterns.

Let’s take a closer look at the first scenario.

Inappropriate behaviours will occur when children are asked to do tasks that are beyond their developmental or interest level. A teacher’s task is to locate that “sweet spot” (or in the words of Vygotsky – the ZPD – the zone of proximal development) and then nudge them along, but all the while, staying within the zone. Children are naturally curious. Although it is possible that a child may sometimes need to be helped to find that curiosity again. It’s also very easy to block a child’s curiosity. That scenario needs to be avoided at all costs.

For the most effective learning to happen, it needs to be child centred and child led. The child’s job is to discover and follow their own learning pathway. With one hand on the curriculum document and the other holding a conductor’s baton, the teacher’s role is to conduct and manage the classroom, in order to help the children navigate and explore their learning successfully.

Most importantly, a teacher’s primary task is to create and maintain a positive and self sustaining learning culture that:-
– enables all children to lead and grow their own learning, and
– empowers the children to help each other do the same.

By investing heavily in this kind of learning environment, learning has the potential to grow exponentially and all children will be enabled to reach their potential. It requires the teacher to embrace and implement a growth mindset and convert this mindset into a growth learning model. The rewards are huge. The high trust environment and growth mindset is the essential foundation. Easy to say, hard to do. Years of contradictory practice and fear of the unknown seem to hold us back.

Now, let’s take a look at the second scenario.

Children and adults alike have different levels of self managing skills and social intelligence. But just like literacy and numeracy (or driving a car), these are skills that can be learned. Like any human being, students in the classroom will respond positively to appropriate cues and motivators. Vygotsky is useful here, too. Guiding children to make incremental improvements applies to social learning as much as it does to academic learning.

And of course, that high trust environment and growth mindset is once again, an essential ingredient. Rather than focusing on achieving compliance, focus should instead be on using communication and negotiation to encourage reasoning, respect and cooperation. Rather than simply telling or instructing, give children opportunities to practise and model the appropriate behaviours. We learn best by using these skills and seeing the positive impact on our daily lives. Children are no exception. It’s a win/win scenario.

Hopefully you will have noticed by now that these two solutions are long term strategies and will require persistence and consistency if they are to be implemented successfully. Hopefully, you will also appreciate that “the best solutions are the easiest to implement but take the longest to achieve”.

Ease Education: Teaching at a human scale.

You can also find Ease Education on Facebook and Twitter.

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. It’s not a money issue or an organisational issue. It’s a pedagogy issue. Until more teachers are able to honestly assess the level of their effectiveness and implement an effective pedagogy, this kind of teaching space will get a “thumbs down” from me. Sorry, but 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…

Continue reading

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…

Continue reading

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.