Communities of Learning | Kāhui Ako – education game changer or empty rhetoric?

Blocks

5 year olds at work

I define myself as a critical, impatient, optimist. I am critical. Everyday I am reminded that our education system is well and truly past its ‘best before’ date. I am impatient. I have experienced personally how it could be made better, for everyone, right now. But I’m also optimistic. That’s because I get to witness a special kind of magic in the classroom everyday, as a result of making radical changes to the way I teach. If I can be successful, then so can others.

And now perhaps, there is reason to be a little more optimistic. The year is 2018 – the year that New Zealand school teachers have been given consent to do the right thing. Communities of Learning (CoL) | Kāhui Ako have come to town. The introduction of this initiative is an acknowledgement that things could be better. The education sector is being encouraged to evolve and be more effective. Change is essential, we are told. Because the World has changed a lot since the current education system was created. Because failure is creating a social and economic burden on society and it’s failing some more than others. CoLs provide impetus and offer a pathway for that change.

Getting teachers to acknowledge and change their beliefs and biases about their teaching practice and about the children they teach, is the biggest challenge faced by education.

And the talk is good. Words and ideas like:- putting the learner at the centre of their education. And, empowering teachers to share, to lead, to challenge current thinking and practice, to enact best practice by implementing the best research and using the best data to make the best decisions for their learners. At least now, with the creation of these CoLs and what they represent, teachers can feel empowered to be brave and bold. But of course, while the talk may be good, there is no guarantee that the desired change will be achieved – of helping all students reach their full potential. And I should know. It is the raison d’être of this site – highlighting the need for change, the resistance to change and, providing experiences that give me hope that change is possible.

Over the years I have become fully aware of the meaning of inertia. Getting people to acknowledge, let alone, change their beliefs and biases is extraordinarily difficult. Getting teachers to acknowledge and change their beliefs and biases about their teaching practice and about the children they teach, is equally difficult. And while I understand that the CoLs are a new initiative and need to be given some time, I believe there is insufficient understanding and/or ‘buy-in’ among teachers. I don’t think the need for change has been articulated well enough and therefore, not universally understood.

This should come as no surprise. Education suffers from a vision deficit. Sure, schools are as good as any organisation at creating vision statements. But in reality, these vision statements can be interpreted as mere platitudes because they are not supported by the essential actions that will allow them to be realised. A worthy vision would generate a strong emotional connection and would require an emotional leap of faith. Imagine the response, both negative and positive, to a statement such as “no child left behind”. Unfortunately, I suspect that this kind of statement is likely to be interpreted as unhelpfully provocative. That’s because it would require a light to be directed into lots of dark and uncomfortable places. It would challenge all those beliefs and biases that drive current teaching practice.

But if education is to move forward, if the CoL initiative is to be successful, it is that kind of vision that is needed. With that kind of vision in place, the ‘means to attain the ends’ could be implemented. At the moment though, teaching works the other way around. Variations of the same ‘means’ are implemented in the expectation that different or better ‘ends’ will be achieved – education remains as a research/evidence free zone.

It is becoming increasingly apparent that education is in desperate need of leaders who are willing and able to set bold goals and turn talk into action. It needs people who can lead. And please note that leading is not the same thing as managing. It needs people who understand the task at hand is fundamentally about building relationships and human connections. It needs leaders who are able to inspire others to break with the status quo, transform boundaries, create and manage dissonance, hear and act on other perspectives, develop creative and thinking people. And most importantly, do the right thing for the children.

It is that kind of leadership that would allow and encourage teachers to remove the shackles; to be able to question the current way of working and be, as Jan Robertson says, “open minded and vulnerable”. Teachers would then be free and rewarded to choose to be a part of the process of ‘undoing’ the current failing model – a model that has hardly changed since it’s introduction. Unfortunately, the changes that have taken place so far are merely variations of tinkering at the edges. Teachers need to be invited to recognise the power and privilege they possess in their role; to recognise the huge influence they have over the children in their care. They need to be invited to recognise the huge potential they have in being a part of creating transformative change.

Of course, being prepared to take up this exciting opportunity will require a willingness to tolerate discomfort and dissonance. Challenging and disrupting the status quo is not easy. Finding the courage to speak up is not easy. The cost of speaking up – socially, emotionally and financially, is very high. Being critical makes you a target – the messenger to be shot. In contrast, being quiet, saying nothing, having low expectations of oneself and others is comfortable. But it is this comfort that maintains the status quo. I suggest that there is a test for determining whether it is appropriate or not to speak up. Is what you want to say accurate, defendable and said with love and good intent? Then you should feel free to say it. Besides, teachers are paid professionals. Being critical and being critiqued is an essential part of a professional teaching environment.

A vision without action is like a yacht without a sail. The intent of the CoL initiative may appear earnest and bold but success is far from guaranteed. Time will tell.

Ease Education: Teaching at a human scale.

You can also find Ease Education on Facebook and Twitter.

Inspiration and analysis for this blog post can be found at the links below.

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Children love to learn – here’s how I know.

Blocks

I see creativity, persistence, success, pride…

It was 2:30 pm on a Friday afternoon. There was just 30 minutes remaining until it was time to down tools and clock off for the weekend. All the essential afternoon tasks had been completed. I was feeling happy with the way the week had gone. It had been productive and insightful, as usual. But we still had 30 minutes until it was time to say our farewells.

I decided some years ago that I would always make the afternoon session of the day easy and pleasant. My focus became one of ensuring all children left the classroom at the end of the day with a smile on their face and a positive memory to go home with. It all came about with the creation of my teaching manifesto; a non-negotiable approach to teaching that ensures the learning taking place in the classroom is the most appropriate. ie. First and foremost, my teaching practice is prefaced on accommodating the wide range of social and emotional needs of all the children. Effective academic learning can only happen when this foundation exists.

So it’s before lunch that all the ‘serious’ learning takes place. After lunch it’s about listening to stories, some low key creative expression activities and some reflection time/culture building time. While I am referring to children who are only 5-6 years old, I think it would make good sense to apply this practice to older age groups too.

One of the options that I provide the children with occasionally is to have some unstructured drawing time. I have found this to be a worthwhile activity for a wide range of reasons. One of the key aspects has been to observe the growth in ability and confidence among the children with their drawing. Of course, there is a lot of cross-pollination. It becomes apparent very quickly who the ‘talented’ ones are. The inorganic process of reflection and feedback is wonderful to watch. But not all the children are so keen to draw and I feel no need to compel them. Some will decide to go to the library corner to read and socialise.

On this particular Friday afternoon, a group of students had gathered on the floor to draw. Well at least, that’s what I thought they were doing. I got an inkling that something else was happening when one of the students came up to me to confirm that 8 and 8 did in fact, make 16. Rather than draw, this group of 5-6 year olds were writing out number equations based on doubles. That they were engaged in discussing and solving number problems is very telling and inspires me to keep teaching in the way that I am. Their curiosity and engagement, their willingness to challenge themselves and be challenged by me, speaks volumes for the way the learning takes place in our classroom…”when students become the teacher and the teacher becomes the learner.”

Get the pedagogy right, and be prepared to be inspired and inspiring. As I have said before, learning is contagious. Children love to learn.

Ease Education: Teaching at a human scale.

You can also find Ease Education on Facebook and Twitter.

Why?

EqualityEquity

Removing barriers – systemic change that would benefit education.

Why do I teach in the way I do?

I feel strongly about many things. Things like, the need to protect the environment, and to mitigate against climate change. To improve economic equity and social justice. But these are big issues. And I recognise that my ability to have a constructive influence over these things is very limited.

I also feel strongly about the need to improve education outcomes for all students. As a teacher, I recognise that my ability to have a constructive influence on the students I am responsible for, is very real and immediate. Neither do I make any apologies for viewing education in the same way as other major world problems. As I have described before, failure costs a lot. This is no time for timidness.

Why do I teach in the way I do?

18 years ago, 10 years ago, 5 years ago even, I didn’t know what I didn’t know. I had no real idea of what I was trying to achieve. I simply modeled my teaching on what I was told was best practice. I just gradually became better at (what hindsight has allowed me to see more clearly) implementing a process. I was unaware of the impact I was having. But things have changed. I became curious. After 18 years of toil, I am better at understanding the impact I am having. I have come to appreciate that there is a science to teaching. That is, teaching effectiveness can be measured. Teaching is still a complex business, but knowing that success can be measured with the use of evidence, it means we now have very useful guidelines on the best way to proceed. At least, we should have.

Why do I teach in the way I do?

It’s quite simple really. I want to help ALL students be academically, socially and creatively competent. All my actions are predicated on that goal. If it works, I do it. If it doesn’t, I drop it. It’s about identifying and eliminating the barriers to achieving that goal, as much as it is about me teaching to a particular programme or delivering a specific lesson. Increasingly,  I am seeing signs that many of the barriers that teachers face are self-imposed barriers. Deficit mindsets reflect that we are witnessing a people problem as opposed to an education problem. After all, Hattie tells us that “the biggest effects on student learning occur when teachers become learners of their own teaching, and when students become their own teachers”. Evidence/research based teaching practice is about reflecting on, and changing your teaching practice, as a result of applying research and reflecting on the results that it produces.

To get to this point I have had to get used to feeling uncomfortable. A nagging sense of doubt has always been present. Doubt about the way I was teaching. And a willingness to tolerate being the odd one out. Engaging in evidence based teaching has resulted in that sense of doubt shrinking immensely. Although sadly, being the odd one out has not. But regardless of the growing certainty that I feel, I still encourage myself to maintain a slither of doubt.

Unfortunately, that sense of doubt that I describe, is not something that you will find in abundance in a typical education environment (or within any organisation for that matter). I suspect that is because typically, the traditional form of leadership is premised on characteristics of strength and expertise. Doubt conveys weakness and indecisiveness. Compliance and agreement is rewarded. Also, leadership in this traditional form seems to be focused on managing and containing, rather leading change and expanding. For change and expansion to take place there needs to be a willingness to engage in genuinely collaborative conversations  that look beyond the currently accepted best practice and be prepared to steer a path through uncharted territory of doubt. The right to question needs to be enshrined within the organisation.

This of course highlights the merits of research/evidence based teaching practice. The quality of the questions will be revealed in the evidence. The questions will simply answer themselves. Isn’t that the premise of Hattie’s Visible Learning research?

The power of one word….why?

Ease Education: Teaching at a human scale.

You can also find Ease Education on Facebook and Twitter.

An 18 year apprenticeship in teaching.

Building with blocks

Intelligence comes in many guises

The thought occurred to me numerous times, while undertaking a postgraduate primary teaching course at the University of Auckland way back in the year 2000, that I had made a huge mistake. It wasn’t all bad. There were many things to like. There were lots of nice people to engage with – students and lecturers. And the course itself offered some wonderful pedagogical and philosophical insights into the world of education.

Having a fire hose operating at full volume directed at you, feels like an apt description of that year as a teacher in training. But it wasn’t the workload and enormous volume of content that concerned me. I had expected as much. There was something more pressing that had me doubting my decision. There existed within me a dissonance that I was unable to articulate at the time. In hindsight, I can see that it was no accident that at some point during that year, I purchased a copy of John Holt’s 1967 book, “How Children Learn”.

In part, I had chosen teaching because of my previous experience of teaching children during my time as an ESOL teacher in Japan. I didn’t know the theory of teaching but I did know that I enjoyed relating to children. I had become inspired by that experience. I got a sense that teaching could be a calling for me, rather than just a job. It was that sense that sustained me throughout the year. The feedback I was receiving certainly wasn’t it. I had a strong feeling that my ability to engage with the children in front of me would compensate for my inability to produce a lesson plan that bore any resemblance to plans we were told to produce.

It occurred to me recently that it feels like I have just completed an 18 year apprenticeship in teaching. To some, that may suggest that I am simply, ‘a slow learner’. At about the 10 year mark I finally got round to reading that book that I had purchased all those years ago. It was perfect timing really. I was on the verge of being burnt out. But also because I discovered Holt’s book to be revelatory. It articulated all the doubts I had had about what I was being told was important about teaching during that training year. That an education focused on lesson plans, instead of the children in front of you, is not an education system that is working effectively.

Fast forward to the present and you will see Hattie and Bishop producing research to validate what Holt had already articulated. 18 years on, and having finally completed my apprenticeship, I find myself feeling relieved that what I also knew intuitively to be true, has been validated. That is, the cornerstone of effective learning is relationship. That the children need to be at the front and centre of their learning experience. That teachers need to trust children to be the best determiners of their ability. That they are able and willing to learn. According to Sir Ken Robinson, two of The Beatles, Paul McCartney and George Harrison, were told by their music teacher that they were lacking in sufficient musical talent.

Hattie and Bishop have laid out the road map for teachers to follow. This map indicates to us to follow the research and teach to the evidence that results from best practice. But while the best way forward may have been presented to us, there is still a long way to go to making this the new accepted practice. At present, personal experience tells me that teaching as Hattie and Bishop prescribe, is more likely to result in a teacher being labeled as “difficult” rather than as a teacher to be celebrated.

 

Ease Education: Teaching at a human scale.

You can also find Ease Education on Facebook and Twitter.

Children at Work.

 

 

 

As my confidence grows, the more willing I am to try out new ideas. This confidence has come about as a result of seeing a beautiful alignment between my teaching practice, Hattie’s Visible Learning research and the evidence that the students in my classroom are presenting to me. I tried something new the other day. In the past, I would have described such an action as a leap of faith. Nowadays, I see it simply as a minor adjustment to fine tune an already successful teaching environment. I saw a need. I addressed it. I evaluated it. And as well it being a successful intervention, I learned something new. I had a eureka moment!!

Based on my increasing awareness and belief in the value of play, I have elevated its presence and role in the classroom significantly. That’s because play is a great strategy for accessing enormous shifts in learning outcomes. I describe what I mean by that here. But I also value play because it is intrinsically valuable. Play develops creativity. Creativity needs to be encouraged. Creativity is a sign of intelligence. Encouraging creativity encourages independent thinking and emotional resilience and engaged learners and …..

But experience tells me that not all children come to school ready and able to reveal their creativity. There are times when it needs to be coaxed out of them. I’m not sure why that is. Perhaps they have not had opportunities to develop the skills necessary to be creative. Maybe they have grown up on a diet of passive digital companionship, or have never had to share toys, or have never been told ‘no’, or come from a family environment in which play is not valued. Whatever the reason, my job is to introduce all the children to the power of play. To give them access to the ‘gold’ that lies within their brain. I support them to scratch below the surface, to dig deeper. To do that, I set the tone, the pace, the expectations of what play looks like, feels like and sounds like in our classroom. I use language and actions that create an environment that leads to an easy uptake/flow of ideas, confidence, curiosity and collaboration.

So it was with this awareness – that not all children were getting full value of the play opportunities that I was providing them with – that I made an adjustment. In effect, I conducted a play session that was very deliberate and visible. I also limited the amount of equipment that could be used to ensure the need to share and collaborate. And the equipment I offered was very generic. ie. blocks that could be fitted together in a multitude of ways and could invite a multitude of interpretations and personalised stories. I watched and encouraged. Particularly the children who were the prime target of my intervention.

I invite you to check out the video above to see the children at work. You can hear the chatter and see the outcome of this 30 minute play time. Unfortunately, you won’t hear the elaborate stories that the children told me about their construction at the end of the session. Believe me, they were excellent. Some were more elaborate than others, of course. But the major success was that those children, who only last week, were telling me that they didn’t like playing with blocks or were not very good at it, had shown a major shift in attitude and ability. I will continue to provide these opportunities and encourage them.

In the video you can also see the unexpected learning moment that occured. Let me explain it a little. During this play session that I had deliberately set up, two children came to me and asked if they could instead, do a maths game that they had learned the other day. This was music to my ears of course. I watched them play the game. I was curious. Previous interactions had revealed to me that these children were really curious about numbers. BTW: Did you notice my little provocation at the end – even though they are only 5-6 years old, and even though the 10 + 5 = ? problem had been solved by straight recall of an addition fact, I extended an invitation to ‘count on from the biggest number’? I reckon it will stick soon. And when it does, they will be ‘showing off’ this new found talent to their colleagues but also helping their colleagues to master this talent.

Learning is contagious. It spreads like a virus when the learning environment is conducive. And this is the nub of the issue that I am trying so desperately to convey. This opportunity also provided me with evidence that contradicts the common misconception amongst teachers that kids don’t like to learn. It proved to me that, on the contrary, kids love to learn. It indicates to me, once again, that it is how we teach that beats a love to learn out of students. I also think that this is an example of what Hattie describes as that pedagogical holy grail when students become teachers and teachers become learners.

Finally, I suggest that opportunities for children to be creative can be offered in the classroom right now. I am hoping that I am offering evidence of why it should be done as well as how it could be done. We love the message that Ken Robinson promotes – we agree with him when he says that schools are failing children. But then we fall at the first hurdle or fail to even arrive at the start line. Teachers continue to find excuses for why it can’t be done. It’s the assessment requirements…it’s that class sizes are too big….it’s the blah, blah, blah…

Actually, it’s teachers who are holding up progress. Once again, it confirms my suspicion that I think we are talking about a human problem, not an education problem.

Ease Education: Teaching at a human scale.

You can also find Ease Education on Facebook and Twitter.

The science of teaching effectively

MasterBuilding

Currency trading

I was chatting with a friend who has expertise in behavioural psychology. I was sharing my experience of what I believed to be the successful learning environment I had created in my classroom since adopting an evidence based approach to teaching. During our conversation I described how I had made an adjustment to the way I was approaching the start of the new school year. To provide some context to this conversation, after many years of looking at the research and matching that to the evidence I see in the behaviours and learning taking place in the classroom, I have elevated the role of play markedly over the years.

It is also worth pointing out that I am describing a creative, constructive kind of play. A kind of play, based on clear guidelines and expectations and purpose; in how the equipment is used and shared and packed up. Managed, structured, mindful. This explicit structure is, of course, the science of cognitive behaviour therapy in action  – a most powerful and effective behaviour management tool. “Show me how you can make a tower with those blocks”. “I like the way you have worked together with your friends to make that tower”. “Thank you for packing up so quickly and quietly”. That kind of language. That kind of modelling. And I observe. I offer guidance, encouragement, feedback and some provocation, when appropriate. And it is a result of being so explicit and deliberate, that this play time is so full of surprises and creativity. Full of learning and inquiry – for the children and myself. That’s right. “When students become teachers and teachers become learners“.

The small adjustment that I made this year, compared to previous years, was the giving of full and immediate access to the play equipment. The difference was that we launched straight into the play experience. Normally I would only offer up a minimum number of activities and any offering would be contingent on satisfactory completion of assigned learning tasks – play was being used primarily as a reward. A very useful and effective strategy. But could we do better, I wondered. This time there were no conditions attached – apart from the guidelines and expectations I have already spoken about. It was at this point that my friend suggested that I might like to do a search of ‘Pairing – Applied Behaviour Analysis’. So I did. And yes indeed. Unknowingly I have been employing another science based behavioural strategy into my classroom. In my ‘non-experts’ brain I saw it simply as a way of building rapport. A way to connect with the students with the intent of setting the groundwork for launching into our new learning journey together.

There are two primary reasons for putting a high value and priority on the role of play in the classroom. First of all I use it as an intrinsic part of creating a positive and pro-social environment in the classroom. But what I want to explain is my second justification for why and how I utilise ‘play’.  That is, in order to apply an evidence based teaching model in my classroom. The deliberate acts of teaching that I choose to engage in (such as providing access to play time), are based on my observation and assessment that a direct correlation exists between the activity and excellent learning outcomes – both academic and social. How so? What does Hattie’s research say about that? Of course, “play”, as I describe it, is not defined by Hattie as a *key effect size variable related to student achievement. It is just an input that I deem to be very effective and have chosen to use in order to go about achieving the best possible learning outcomes for the students in my classroom. I use it as leverage to get the learning outcomes I desire. It’s science based. It works for me but I will change it or modify it if I see new evidence or research that advises me to do so.

So let’s dig a bit deeper. How does promoting play in my classroom work as a strategy to access the key variables that are at the top of the list of strategies for improving learning? As I have already indicated, I want to build up a strong, trusting relationship with each child in my class. I want to convey to them that I am in control, that I understand their needs and will respond to those (emotional and academic) needs quickly and competently. I want to convey that I am interested in them, that I understand them and I have their best interests at heart. I also want them to know that I am the one that controls access to those wonderful toys that they want to get their hands on. (Teacher credibility – effect size 0.9).

And I want to get to know the students really well so I can find their individual strengths and weaknesses, their beliefs about themselves, what interests them and what motivates them. When that is visible to myself and the students themselves, I can challenge and motivate them to do better, to make more effort, to be prepared to experience some cognitive dissonance and place higher expectations on themselves. That ‘growth mindset’ thing. I am mining for that precious resource called ‘student agency’. “Look at how well you have achieved as a result of all that effort you have put in. Well done, your next step is to do this…” (Self report grades – though Hattie now calls this student expectations – effect size 1.33).

HattieKeyEffects

Hattie effect size variables

All the while I remain mindful of the need to match my expectations of the students with their level of cognitive development as defined by Piaget. Some children have developed fine motor skills and the cognitive ability to write before the age of 7. Many have not. That’s essential knowledge if a teacher is going to be most effective. The students need to be scaffolded appropriately. If the demands placed upon them are beyond their developmental level, fear will dominate and hinder their learning. (Piagetian programmes – effect size 1.28). There is also the role of providing descriptive timely and formative feedback to students. What is the goal? Where are you in relation to it? What can you do to close the gap? The advantage of formative feedback as opposed to summative feedback is its immediacy and timeliness. (Providing formative evaluation – effect size 0.9)

This is why I believe that what I am doing in the classroom, as I have described it, is having a positive impact on the learning taking place in my classroom. But the problem is that these actions are only benefiting the students in my classroom. While the effect sizes of the actions I have described so far are high, the impact is only concentrated on such a small group of students. The next step is to imagine all students having similar access to really effective evidence based teaching. Especially those students who make up that “long tail of underachievement“.

And that’s where things get tricky. I would love the opportunity to share my success. But the unfortunate inevitability of working in an evidence based way is that it is likely, in the early stages at least, to look different to what other teachers are doing. Teaching in a deliberate and evidence based way tends to result in labels such as ‘disobedient’ being used; as a result of following the science, following the research, following the evidence. “Are you telling us that you are a better teacher than us?” “What, you are letting the children play? When are they going to do some serious learning?” All those essential and valuable societal constructions that maintain order and structure also have the impact of being a brake on progress and innovation. They keep us stuck. ollowing the science, following the research, following the evidence

So even though Hattie’s research tells us that the biggest collective impact on student learning happens when teachers are able to share their learning and openly discuss their evidence (effect sizes 1.62+), it turns out that it is an idea that is easier to say than implement. It has become clear to me that the open and high trust environment that I endeavour to generate scientifically in the classroom leads to effective learning outcomes for my students. I no longer have any doubts about that. Does it then, need to be said, that the same science applies in equal measure to adults? But the upscaling that Hattie says is necessary, will only happen when teachers are prepared to challenge their assumptions and honestly assess the evidence that is in front of them. Different voices and viewpoints need to be elicited and taken seriously. A sliver of doubt needs to be present when considering the options available to teachers when attempting such a important task of improving learning outcomes for all students. Rigourous analysis and debate needs to be encouraged. And that kind of analysis and debate can operate within a culture of respect and kindness. Of course. They are not mutually exclusive. But an open, high trust environment is the essential prerequisite.

This is where I am stuck. Here lies the problem. The use of applied behavioural analysis for children or evidence based teaching practice for teachers, means there is no hiding. It means that statements such as, “my child’s behaviour is different/unique/more difficult”, “if only class sizes were smaller” or “the students in my class are different/come from more difficult backgrounds” don’t cut it anymore. It is at this point that our cognitive biases are exposed – “I believe what I perceive and no amount of convincing will tell me otherwise” or “I will happily ignore the evidence and what the research tells me”.

I appreciate that it is normal human behaviour to not want to hear that it is possible to change behaviour or change learning outcomes due to the implications that it (I guess) highlights our own inadequacies and failings. It would mean we would have to take responsibility for the outcome/situation. It is safer to seek an easier target. In the end, I may just have to settle for “John Hattie is deluded if he thinks we can realistically break through the current impasse”. I reckon he needs to walk a few steps in my shoes.

If you have any suggestions or ideas or you want to share your own experiences, please get in touch. Your input is most welcome…particularly if it is grounded in science and evidence. 😉

*Effect size – 0.4 is the average effect size. That is described as the ‘hinge point’. That is the effect size that a typical student’s unimpeded cognitive growth will develop at. Which proves the point that students may in fact be learning despite a teachers imput, or that any growth above that could be coming from parental/home imput. Sobering thought, eh!?

Ease Education: Teaching at a human scale.

You can also find Ease Education on Facebook and Twitter.

More links to Hattie’s effect size analysis can be found below.

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Defining effective pedagogy.

MathsExerciseBook

Needless to say, tidy handwriting has no correlation to ability in maths

‘Pedagogy’ is a word you will see often on this site and occasionally I get asked what it means. The dictionary definition reads: “the method and practice of teaching”. But of course, I’m not going to leave it at that. I want to give a more practical, concrete definition of the word. To do so, I have provided the image (above) of a page from my year 6 maths exercise book from when I was attending an Auckland primary school in the 70’s. From looking at this exercise book it would be safe to say that a lot of time was spent copying down maths rules and completing maths problems that were written up on the blackboard. That was the pedagogy being utilised by my teacher at that time. I was a very compliant student and took pride in my handwriting ability. I wonder if every other 10 year old child in that class was able to produce beautifully written notes like that.

When I flick through the pages of this book it leads me to conclude that my aptitude and attitude in the subject of maths peaked around this time. In hindsight, I don’t think I was necessarily bad at maths. I would suggest that adding unequal fractions at 10 years old was a developmentally appropriate achievement. I can recall the proud moment in that year when I mastered this skill. I also recall being very scared of the teacher. And also, scared of being wrong. I have strong memories of being reprimanded for not being able to understand the concept of unequal fractions when it was first introduced by the teacher. There was a mysterious quality about maths that I never managed to unravel. Mostly it was about relying heavily on rules that we were required to learn by rote. But what did all those numbers actually mean? I don’t recall having opportunities to apply and test that knowledge. The learning that we were doing was taking place at a surface level only. And that sums up the difference between effective and non-effective pedagogy; the ability to go deeply into learning and do the high level – creating, generalising, predicting – type of thinking that I describe here.

Now I would like to apply this examination of effective pedagogy to the question of the merit of open plan classrooms. I have argued before that it is how teachers teach rather than where they teach that should be the main consideration. So here is an opportunity to speculate on whether my experience of maths pedagogy as a child would have been any better had my classroom at the time been an open plan classroom? Possibly yes and possibly no. Yes, because I could have been lucky and my teacher at the time could have been required to share a teaching space with a teacher who knew how to teach maths to 10 year olds in an effective way. So I could have been exposed to an effective teacher who employed effective pedagogy. Or maybe not. Maybe it would have been business as usual. Maybe all the teachers in the shared space were engaged in delivering the same pedagogy. And besides, even if there was a teacher in the space that was a practitioner of effective pedagogy, I have very good reason to suspect that it would not have made a significant difference to my maths. Why? Because to do so, the school environment would have needed to be very different. It would have needed to be one in which all the teachers were encouraged and willing to, in the words of Hattie…

“hold collaborative discussions with colleagues and students about the evidence of student achievement, thus making the effect of their teaching visible to themselves and to others.”

That last sentence – that’s the killer app. Experience tells me that the prerequisite cultural environments in which open, honest conversations between teachers and students in the classroom and between teachers themselves, about what’s working and what’s not, don’t really exist in the real world. Getting teachers to engage in meaningful and honest conversations of this kind is incredibly difficult. I can attest to that. It will take leaders who are confident and trusting, to create and sustain the necessary cultural environment to allow for these conversations to take place. In the absence of a conducive culture, any efforts to teach in an evidence based way and engage in meaningful conversations about that evidence tends to result in one being labeled as ‘disobedient’ or ‘not a team player’. Inevitably, breaking free from a traditional way of teaching – a familiar pedagogy, is not easy. The system is resistant to change. This explains why I no longer view this as a teaching problem, but as a people problem.

Pedagogy – there are a multitude of ways of doing it. But some ways are more effective than others.

Ease Education: Teaching at a human scale.

You can also find Ease Education on Facebook and Twitter.

The Ken Robinson effect.

 

KenRobinson
Ken Robinson is coming to a town near you.

Sir Ken tells us that schools are killing creativity. Going by the number of views of his Ted Talk on the topic, it would be safe to assume that a lot of people agree with him. While I am aware that there exists some discomfort with his argument, in this post I simply want to focus on the intent of his message – that all is not well with the education system and that changes need to be made. I suggest that it is this message that has provided him with such a huge following rather than any potential solution he offers. He gave that talk in 2006. But I wonder if the narrative has changed much since then. What is his intent? What can he hope to achieve? What can the attendees at his presentations expect to learn? Is he promoting a full-bodied revolution of the education variety? Is he is attempting to rally the troops towards taking on some meaningful action against the system? I suspect not.

I anticipate the following scenario. Sir Ken tells teachers that the education system as it currently stands, is not fit for purpose. Teachers respond in affirmation and then head back to school and continue to deliver the same teaching programmes that they are told to deliver, until they are directed to do otherwise. What specific action would he suggest that teachers take, anyway? Agreeing with the concept that the education system, as it currently stands is failing so many, is the easy part. It’s what lies beyond that’s difficult.

Further down the page, the invitation holds another clue as to why I believe that it will take more than an audience with Sir Ken to create any significant change.

“With a change of government, the time could not be more perfect…”

To me, this statement reveals the single biggest barrier to achieving such a ‘critical’ goal of making schools a hive of creativity. That is, it’s the collective ‘deficit mindset‘ of teachers themselves that is holding things back. It’s just further evidence that education is being treated as a political issue rather than as an issue of policy and best practice. The NZ Curriculum offers a perfect foundation for a beautiful, joyful, successful education system; goals that are broad, simple, non-prescriptive. Hattie provides the template for delivering the goods. Creativity and academic achievement are not mutually exclusive.

So, check your mindset and get to work. Establish what you want to achieve. It could be, “I want all my students to be great readers.” If it’s not working, do something different. Just stop doing the same and expecting different results. You may find that you will have to do things that others are not. But the results will inspire you. Your students will thank you, even if your colleagues will not. If you are waiting for approval from an expert or the government of the day, I fear you will be waiting a long time.

Ease Education: Teaching at a human scale.

You can also find Ease Education on Facebook and Twitter.

Failure costs a lot: an argument for changing the way we teach.

Toys

A magnificent story was unfolding in front of my eyes.

Imagine you are the first person ever to have circumnavigated the globe and your return home is met with disbelief, rather than excitement and curiosity. “That’s not possible”, they say. “The world is flat”. Unfortunately, that’s a fairly apt description of how it can feel to be working at the leading edge of innovation and best practice in the education sector. That’s not to say that pockets of interest and curiosity don’t exist. But those conversations tend to be conducted in hushed voices.

Even though there seems to be a growing awareness of a need for change in the way the education system works, inevitably it is incredibly difficult to shift systems and mindsets. The naysayers and the unfamiliar remain unconvinced, and at times, hostile to any requests to explore the issue. I have learned that there is little to be gained by offering a solution prior to developing any consensus that a problem actually exists. But the reality is that neither the research nor the evidence lies. The argument for change is a very compelling one. But the first hurdle to clear may in fact be the need to establish a consensus that change does indeed need to happen.

It is my desire to be curious and innovative that sustains me. It’s why I have dedicated myself to this challenge. There are of course, times when this challenge has the feeling of a curse. The good news is that I realise that I am no longer unsure about the way forward. Once again, the research supports my actions and the evidence I witness everyday in the classroom is all the validation I need. The genie is out of the bottle, so to speak. That’s why I feel optimistic that, over the long-term, change will happen. But I am less optimistic in the short term. It can be frustrating.

I believe the most compelling reason for changing the way we teach is very simple. Failure costs a lot. Every disengaged student and every student who leaves school under-educated bears a personal cost as well as a cost to society. This has to be a reason to take the issue seriously. And what’s even more troubling about this is the fact that teachers are reminded regularly of the existence of this long tail of under-achievement and are implored to improve the learning outcomes for these students.

Success at eliminating this tail of under-achievement is attainable to us. But only if we are prepared to implement a research based/evidence based teaching model. And all the best research and evidence directs us to a model that is premised on putting human relationships at the front and centre. Being knowledgable is no substitute for being nice. That’s because we now know that the most effective learning takes place when the children are leading it. A teacher’s primary function is therefore, to provide a learning environment that enables this.

An effective learning environment is one in which a high degree of trust exists between the teacher and the students, as well as among the students themselves. An environment that fosters collaboration. The teacher does this by listening to the students with an open heart, walking in their shoes, and by offering unconditional support. I teach 5-6 year olds so I keep asking myself, “how would a 5 year old be thinking and feeling at the moment?” It means that students need to be met where they are at, not where the teacher is at, or where the teacher thinks they should be at. It’s a ‘judgement free’ zone. It’s a flexible and organic environment that caters to every child’s individual needs and circumstances. It means that, to a large extent, a student’s difficult home life can be parked at the entrance to the classroom door every morning. It means that the teacher can offer an engaging and stimulating learning environment that encourages children to think, share, create and make cognitive connections.

The teacher needs to do everything and anything necessary to keep all students engaged and learning. The teacher is required to be a problem solver and do what works for the children. Inevitably, this means creating a learning environment that caters to the students that are most challenged academically and socially. “Get the learning environment right for them and you will get it right for everyone” is the saying. That may seem paradoxical. Some parents may need convincing. But remember, the most effective learning environment is one in which the students are leading it. It’s an environment in which all students can achieve at their best – academically, socially, creatively. And nor is there any need to sacrifice creativity for academic learning. There is no place for siloed thinking in teaching. Too often I see the current teaching model acting like a glass ceiling; students are being hampered from achieving their best by the barriers that teachers inadvertently place in front of them.

The positive impact of putting the most challenging children at the forefront of teaching practice is that it provides the teacher with the most immediate and effective feedback and therefore the best learning opportunities. It provides excellent feedback to the questions of “how am I doing as a teacher?” and “how effective am I being as a teacher?” And as it turns out, creating a learning environment for the most challenging children is a very low risk strategy. That’s because the research also tells us that there is very little that a teacher can do to inhibit a child’s learning. The sad reality for teachers is that children learn despite us. That’s why teachers need to focus on what deliberate teaching strategies they can implement in order to get ALL their students working as close as possible to their developmentally appropriate stage. The other benefit of taking this approach is that it can operate as a pilot project. Successes and failures can be learned and managed on a small scale before being shared and implemented at a wider level.

Finally, for this education model to be successful, the same ingredients that make learning successful for students, need to be carried over into the teacher realm as well. This means that it’s essential that schools operate in a way that encourages genuine collaboration. Teachers need to feel safe and trusted. All teachers need to be invited to share their knowledge and understandings and be prepared to participate in critical reflection in light of evidence about their teaching. In the words of Hattie,

This requires teachers to gather defensible and dependable evidence from many sources, and hold collaborative discussions with colleagues and students about this evidence, thus making the effect of their teaching visible to themselves and to others.

I think it is safe to say that schools are still, by and large, ‘evidence free zones’. For too many, the world is still flat. And it is hard to convince otherwise. Where to from here, I wonder? Trying to establish a consensus for change may be the best approach. In the meanwhile I will continue to place high expectations on myself and all the students in my care. Especially the ones who are at risk of failing. I will also remain an impatient optimist and continue to be a practitioner of evidence based teaching. Care to join me? Anyone?

Ease Education: Teaching at a human scale.

You can also find Ease Education on Facebook and Twitter.

Let’s talk about how teachers teach, not where teachers teach.

MLE

Image via Stuff.co.nz

In this post I want to revisit the topic of open plan classrooms. I have written about this topic before, but since then, I have learned that a comprehensive research project is being undertaken to try and determine the impact of open plan classrooms on learning outcomes for students. According to the lead researcher, Dr Imms, the focus of the research is to study the practices teachers could use to make the most of flexible learning environments*. Dr Imms says the research can “help us to learn how we can optimise these spaces and how can we make sure teachers are getting the support they need to be able to utilise the spaces they’ve been given as best they possibly can.”

My first response to this was “Say What?” The implication seems to be that these new learning environments are being built first and then an effort is being made to 1). find out how good they actually are and 2). try to work out how these spaces could be used most effectively. And you can be assured that open plan classrooms are going to have an impact on a growing number of people. That’s because as new schools are being built or refurbished, some element of an open plan environment is going to be incorporated into the design. It is inevitable that over time, the traditional single cell classroom will be making way to an open and bigger teaching space. It sounds like a case of when, not if. It seems to me that the intent behind these kinds of teaching spaces is honourable but the reality is far more complex and uncertain than we are led to believe.

So with an eye on this new and ongoing research project, I want to look further into the implications of this move towards open plan classrooms. In my original post on the topic, I reiterated what Hattie’s research says (and which I have come to support through my personal experience in the classroom) that, unless teacher pedagogy is adapted to innovations such as open plan classrooms, there are no benefits to be gained. Dr Imms’ research project contradicts that position to a certain degree. While he concludes that high quality teaching can also occur in traditional classrooms, there is a greater incidence of poor-quality teaching in those rooms. I think this is an important point. That is, effective learning can take place in single cell classrooms. But nonetheless, he believes there is evidence to suggest a strong correlation between open plan teaching environments and high-quality teaching and learning.

I think there may be a simple explanation for the correlation that he describes. Imagine you have a single cell classroom operating with a really ineffective teacher and put that teacher into a shared space with a more effective teacher, then it is quite possible that the learning outcomes for children of the ineffective teacher will rise. That’s going to be a likely outcome because outlier teachers at the extreme end of the bell curve will be pulled towards the middle of the curve. That’s got to be a good thing. The problem I see though, is that the converse could quite easily happen as well. I think it’s possible that in such a scenario, a very effective teacher could lose their effectiveness. It’s a case of those teachers being pulled back towards the middle of the curve. Ideally, the entire shape of the curve needs to move. So while some correlation between open plan classrooms and improvements in learning may have been identified, it has a “by luck rather by design” feel to it.

Which once again, brings us to the key point. Hattie’s research asks us to consider the question; “what is the best pedagogy that teachers can use to get the best learning outcomes for all their students, regardless of the style of their classrooms?” Which leads us to conclude that, in terms of creating the most desirable learning outcomes for all students, it is not the type of space that matters. But unfortunately, that question is still not being asked with any real conviction. The focus needs to be on identifying the teachers who know what makes leaning effective and empowering them to up-skill their colleagues. It’s as though open plan spaces are being offered as the next best thing. It is likely that these spaces will improve the outcomes for the students most seriously effected by poor quality teaching. But for the rest, it’s business as usual.

Compared to trying to change the way teachers teach, building new learning spaces is a doddle. Implementing desperately needed changes to a system that is so resistant to change is always going to be hard. It would require teachers working collaboratively and sharing their expertise. However, genuine collaboration is incredibly difficult to achieve. But that’s not a teaching problem. It’s a people problem. We need to be having a conversation about how teachers teach, not where they teach. After all, children completing photocopied worksheets is the exact same activity whether it’s taking place in a traditional classroom or in an open plan classroom.

*The terms flexible learning environment (FLE), modern learning environment (MLE) and innovative learning environment (ILE) are all synonymous with the term open plan classroom (OPC). These terms are interchangeable. To keep things simple, I will simply refer to these learning spaces as open plan classrooms.

Ease Education: Teaching at a human scale.

You can also find Ease Education on Facebook and Twitter.

You can find links to media articles relating to Dr Imms’ research below.

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