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.