A “Relationship First” approach to teaching and learning.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ease Education: Teaching at a human scale.

You can also find Ease Education on Facebook and Twitter.

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