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 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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Is it ever ok for a teacher to use physical force to correct a child’s behaviour?

BluestoneProductions

Image via Bluestone Productions

The Scenario

Four distressed boys complain that a child dragged them through mud and grass and threw stones at them. When the child fails to explain his actions to the teacher, the teacher tells the child to go to the principal’s office. The child does not comply with that request so the teacher resorts to physical force to get the child to the principal’s office.

The Consequence

The teacher involved is found guilty of misconduct by a Teachers Disciplinary Tribunal. The report says the teacher was in a difficult position because the boy had a history of behavioural problems and might have hurt others. “….the combination of the student’s behaviour on that day and his known history placed the teacher in a difficult situation in determining the best intervention to protect other students from physical and emotional harm,” the tribunal said. The report said all parties agreed the teacher’s actions added to the student’s distress and that the teacher had used force to correct a student’s behaviour. This decision generates discussion within the teaching community. Teachers and school leaders are concerned about the ramifications of this decision. They argue that this decision may result in teachers being overly scrutinised in every situation in which physical restraint is used.

The Critique

There is so much wrong in the way the teacher handled this situation. And the report acknowledges that fact – “The teacher’s actions added to the student’s distress….” A teacher’s primary goal in this situation is to deescalate the situation. The first steps should always be to ensure that the harmful behaviour is stopped and to check on the well-being of the victims. Any physical intervention could only be justified if the the student didn’t stop the harmful behaviour at the teacher’s request. In no circumstances should the teacher be demanding an explanation from the student in the heat of the moment or demanding the child to go to the principal’s office. That is a recipe for escalation in any situation and even more so if the child has a history of behavioural issues. As I have described previously, a teacher’s best friend is rapport. If there is to be any training offered to teachers in how to manage difficult behaviour, it needs to be focused around the role of rapport. Teaching is about relationships. That’s what the research confirms for us.

The Conclusion

Unfortunately, there are teachers and adults who are lamenting the Tribunal’s decision as just another example of a world that is too “PC”. Instead, I suggest that we see this as an opportunity to inject some humanity into the education system. Teaching needs to be about engaging with students in creative and dynamic learning environments, rather than trying to fill compliant, empty vessels with facts and knowledge in order to pass assessments. Teaching is a human endeavour. Effective teaching and effective behaviour management hinge on strong, healthy, constructive relationships with all students. It is from that base that effective learning will take place for all students. For that to happen, teachers and adults will need to think differently. And although systemic change may be a long way off, it is possible and it is a goal worth pursuing.

Ease Education: Teaching at a human scale.

You can also find Ease Education on Facebook and Twitter.

Stop blaming the children. Start fixing the system instead.

NYC School

A climate of fear tends not to encourage the best learning.

I love sharing and reflecting on the magic taking place in my classroom. My hope is that it can inspire fellow teachers to reflect on the impact they are having on the social, emotional and academic well being of the students in their care. My hope is that it will eventually provoke an honest and considered conversation that will lead to better learning outcomes for all students within the education system. Yes, I appreciate that that’s a lofty goal.

But despite what we wish to tell ourselves, all is ‘not well at mill’. That’s why it’s critical that we move beyond the personal and speak in a way that puts the wider education interests of our children at the forefront. Not a day goes by that I don’t dispair at the enormity of the problem we are facing. Systems are notoriously difficult to change. But that should not stop us from facing up to the reality. Sure, celebrating success is essential but let’s not avoid tackling the core issues as well. Those unconscious biases run deep.

So as I continue along the path of delivering a reflective, evidence based teaching programme, I will also continue to be the conscience of educators. And just because you may not witness personally the issues that are being referred to, it does not mean they do not occur. Finding examples is easy. But addressing the problem? Not so easy. Maybe it helps to appreciate that it is not an issue solely for educators to deal with. That it needs to be seen as a human rights issue as well.

I for one, am hopeful that the victims of historic abuse in state care will get the justice they deserve.

Or how can a 4 year old boy run over and killed by a lawnmower in a public park be described as no more than a tragic accident?

In a New York city school, a teacher was videoed terrorising the children in her care during a maths lesson. I note that John Hattie says that it is very difficult for teachers to stop a child from learning. I think the teacher in this video makes a very good attempt to prove that theory wrong.

Or in 2017, it came to light that a New Zealand school was utilizing a ‘seclusion room’ as a way of dealing with ‘difficult behaviour’. I wonder how the Ombudsman’s Inquiry into the issue is progressing? I don’t recall hearing a great deal of contrition being offered by the school when this issue came to public attention.

And back in 2015, a group of teenagers got to speak publicly to the New Zealand parliament to describe their negative experiences in the classroom. They described incidents of being bullied and mistreated by their teachers; of being told they were unteachable; that their work was described as ‘shit’, then ripped up and put in the bin; of being told to stay in at lunch time and do it again.

I also wonder whether classroom culture played some role in the death of Aryan Banerjee in a New Zealand school in 2015. Aryan was left unattended in the class to finish some writing while the teacher took the rest of the children out to play. Why was that? Was Aryan, in effect, being punished for not completing his writing? Is that best teaching practice? Is this a reminder that it is time to put a halt to the overused practice of exclusion in schools? In the end, the school managed to have it presented as a health and safety issue. In the end it would appear that the caretaker was made the ‘fall guy’ for failing to ensure door handles were on the toilet cubicle doors at the time.

It’s too easy to blame the children for failing. Instead, we need to be providing an education system that works for everyone. And the cool thing is, there are already successful working models in existence that we can rely on to lead the way.

Ease Education: Teaching at a human scale.

You can also find Ease Education on Facebook and Twitter.

A close up and personal view of successful learning.

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Give a child some time and space and witness the magic.

A child enters the classroom at the beginning of the year. The child is lively, funny, gregarious, intelligent, precocious, articulate and creative. Everything that you would hope and expect from a normal 5 year old. But school environment doesn’t seem a good fit for this child. The child has trouble focusing, or staying on task for even a short periods of time. It becomes increasingly apparent that, without some specific and tailored input, this child is looking unlikely to attain the established academic standards.

The child’s teacher realises the challenge at hand, and gets to work establishing the deliberate acts of teaching that need to be implemented. A long term personal commitment is made to address the identified issues. Fortunately, the NZ Curriculum document is non prescriptive. It places no specific requirements on the teacher to teach in a particular way. It seems to encourage innovation and a problem solving approach to learning. Prior successes in similar circumstances reveal that a positive outcome for this child is all but assured. But it will be a challenge. It will be a test of skill and a test of confidence. For a while at least. Previous experience reveals that it could take a week, or it could take a year. Or somewhere in between. That’s because the best solutions are typically the easiest to deliver but also the slowest at delivering the best results. But the rewards will be huge. The pay back will be worth the effort.

As I argued recently, rapport may be the foundation stone of a super charged learning environment but there is more to it. Rapport on its own, it is no guarantee that effective learning will take place. It’s what’s done with the rapport that is the critical factor. Rapport gives the teacher a clear and well researched pathway. It’s a credit source that can be drawn on. It allows the teacher to engage with the child in an effective and productive way. It is premised on a healthy and constructive mindset. Rapport conveys a message from the teacher that, “I care”, and, “I will work hard.” But more than that, it’s a message that needs to implore the child to care just as much, and to work just as hard.

Expectations must be high. Teacher talk time needs to be short, prompt and focused. Expectations on students to listen and engage during that time also need to be high. The child’s opportunity to demonstrate an appropriate response and understanding is equally short and focused. This process is enhanced by ensuring that only activities with sufficient levels of context and relevance are on offer. Insight is gained through the regular dynamic interactions that take place between teacher and student or student and student. These interactions are prized possessions. They are utilized by the teacher. Formative assessments are made and are ongoing. Next steps are formulated. High fives are offered generously for every recognition of constructive effort expended. The child gradually becomes aware that their effort is linked to their achievement. Intrinsic motivation may be an abstract concept to a 5 year old but its presence is clear and invaluable. The child is now entering the pathway to becoming the director of its own learning.

The learning environment the teacher creates is positive, familiar, predictable and visible. It is that kind of environment, in which eventually, the learning pretty much takes care of itself. That’s because a similarly high level of expectation of self management and effort is placed on all children and is evident in all daily interactions – whether the interactions are teacher led or child led. Increasingly, as the year progresses, the teacher’s presence becomes less obvious in the classroom. The result is that every child manages to succeed. Some just needed a little less direct input than others.

And as for the target child? When the results are in, the child is indistinguishable from its peers. That’s the measure of success. That’s what makes teaching more than just a job.

Ease Education: Teaching at a human scale.

You can also find Ease Education on Facebook and Twitter.

The role of rapport in creating a super charged learning environment.

EaseEdCover.SilverBullet

Rapport: are you looking for the next best thing to a ‘silver bullet’?

Have you ever walked into a primary school classroom and seen all the children sitting on the floor in front of a teacher, except for one? And that one, is sitting on a special seat and looking like the proverbial “cat that got the cream”. That scene is probably replicated in the majority of primary schools throughout New Zealand. The child on said chair is more than likely enjoying the opportunity to be the ‘Star of the Day’ or ‘Teacher’s Helper’ (or any variation of label thereof). This is most likely an example of a strategy often employed by teachers as a way of managing student behaviour. It is used as both an inducement, and as a reward. It’s a pretty effective strategy because most children are motivated to sit in ‘that’ chair. Mostly.

For some students, inducements or rewards are just a bonus. They are already internally motivated and able to self regulate. For others, it will operate effectively at helping them move towards internal motivation and self regulation. For some children though, being chosen to sit on the special chair is not a sufficient motivator to get them to do, or behave as the teacher requests. That’s why it’s important critical to be able to determine the intent and impact of using particular behaviour management strategies. Is the intention to achieve compliance or self regulation? Of course, the target of any intervention should be about helping children to self regulate, rather than simply creating children who are compliant. That’s because self regulation and internal motivation are the foundation stones of effective learning.

I think it is also worth stepping back and seeing this from a wider angle. The real problem here is that this is not just a child’s problem. That is, for most normal human beings, self-regulation does not come easily. But so often I conclude that adults place higher expectations of self regulation on children than they do on themselves. As far as I can see, I suspect that the society we live in is run by adults who, by varying degrees, are poor at self regulation and display a considerable paucity of emotional intelligence. So while it is honourable to have these high expectations, these need to be matched equally with support, guidance and opportunities to learn how to self regulate. As I have said before, first and foremost, teachers need to be mindful of their own mindset.

Over recent years, I have become better at choosing and adapting the strategies I employ to manage behaviour. That’s come about as a result of applying a research/evidence based teaching practice. I am always seeking an honest answer to the question: “How am I/we doing?” The best solutions/pedagogy come about by responding to the needs of the children, rather than by blindly following the received conventional wisdom. In terms of managing behaviour effectively, expectations of how to behave and how to engage need to be clear and consistent. That’s why I am always looking for opportunities to reinforce these expectations. And that’s also why I am willing and prepared to play the ‘long game’. The research reveals to us that the best learning for all students is self generated and takes place over a sustained period of time.

The research is now also making it abundantly clear that the level of rapport in the learning environment is the closest thing teachers can have that represents a ‘silver bullet’. Based on my own personal experience of testing the research in the classroom, I can unequivocally claim that there is a clear and undeniable link between the level of rapport and the quality of the learning taking place. Is it the cause or simply a correlation? I’m not sure and it may be difficult to prove but I for one, would be very keen to find out. By implementing the research and making this self discovery, it has given me more confidence to play around with how I approach my role as a teacher. It has resulted in me embracing this teaching manifesto with open arms. One of my primary roles has now become one of creating a learning environment that is full of joy and empathy.

As a result, my teaching day looks very different to what it used to. The day starts with singing and dancing. In fact, singing and dancing feature regularly throughout the day. I have also managed to democratise the process of managing behaviour. Happy children are contagious. Empathy loves company, it would seem. A primary focus of mine these days is to have a conversation with the children about how we are all part of a learning environment that values respect and kindness; that we are a kind and caring community. The day is full of opportunities that I have created deliberately, to put these values into practice. Pro-social experiences is what I call them.

The intention is to make the learning more meaningful and more ‘visible’. If we are going to make academic learning visible as a way of improving learning, then the same should apply to social learning. As a result, the positive impact of the ‘Teacher’s Helper’ role has become super charged. Previously, I used to choose the ‘helper’. I would pick the children who I thought were deserving. Now I choose the helper “randomly” so that every child gets to take a turn on a regular basis. This is a significant change in thinking and practice. I now realize that every child wants to be good and appreciated. It’s just that they may not have learned the skills of managing themselves yet. There are social skills that they need to learn. My job is therefore, to give them opportunities to learn those skills. They need opportunities to practice. Just like I give them all equal opportunities to learn to read and write and count.

I also added another element to the ‘helper’ role that contributes to the task of moving students to being internally motivated and self managing. I invite the ‘helper’ to come to the front of the class and invite them to seek feedback from fellow students. It means that everyone gets to hear positive comments about the person standing in front of them. At the beginning of the year I will most likely prompt the process by providing a model starter sentence along the lines of…”what I really like about Jane is….” But eventually it becomes a genuine child-centred activity. I note that some teachers choose to take a more hands on approach.

It is so amazing to hear what they come up with. Things such as, “She is a kind and caring friend and we are lucky to have her in the class.” “She is a good friend to play with and when I am hurt she takes me to the sick bay.” “She plays nicely with me and is a good reader.” Mostly it is variations on the same ideas of kindness and friendship. In effect, I have put these ideas and words in their mouth. Often when I hear their descriptions, I will reinforce their observation by agreeing with them. Sometimes I hear stuff that surprises me. Stuff that requires me to change my perceived view of that child. This process allows me to develop quite a different perspective of the children. It allows me to triangulate. That’s formative assessment at its best; quick, informative feedback.

I also notice that the children are incredibly honest. If they think another child is not so deserving of praise, I will hear a discussion and some murmurings. I think it is important for the child in question to hear that feedback directly and for the children to get a sense that their concerns are being heard. I hear this described as ‘Reintegrative Shame’. At the same time, children are incredibly forgiving. In these situations I will ask if we can give the person a chance to ‘join the fold’; to choose to get back on track, the answer is always a resounding ‘yes’. Being a helper comes with special privilege and expectations. And the good thing is, those expectations can be continually and gradually ramped up. This ‘system’ also provides opportunities to ‘induce’ improvement in other areas – those next steps – both academic and social.

I invite you to embrace the power of rapport. Play around with it. Notice the impact. How you choose to go about achieving it is not the critical factor. But build up those teacher/student relationships as well as the student/student relationships. And do let me know of your success stories or questions you may have. Love and laughter are essential ingredients for creating a great learning environment and great learning outcomes for the students.

Ease Education: Teaching at a human scale.

You can also find Ease Education on Facebook and Twitter.

Inspiration and analysis for this blog post come from “The Parking Ticket Experiment | The Science of Empathy”. Note the impact of language in creating an empathetic environment.

You may also be interested in reading about how effective teaching and effective interrogation share the common ingredient of rapport.

You can find the links below.

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

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“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.

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

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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.

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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.

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