Beliefs and biases – the biggest challenge faced by education

SpencerRowell

via Spencer Rowell

Some years ago I learned that a research based, evidence informed teaching pedagogy, that would vastly improve learning outcomes for all students, was readily available for all teachers to pick up and adopt immediately. Imagine it? A road map for effective teaching had been provided and was just waiting to be utilised. If only. The unfortunate reality is that this pedagogy is still only of interest to academics and a small group of dedicated teachers. And it’s this disconnection between the research and everyday practice that interests me the most these days. That is, my focus has gradually gone from exploring the features of “best practice teaching” to exploring the beliefs and attitudes of teachers that appear to be stopping them from taking up this amazing offer. My attention has shifted from education practice to one of human psychology. I wonder if it will ever be possible to get a sufficient number of teachers on board to create a “tipping point”? If so, what will it take to make that happen?

Experience tells me that, by and large, teachers are in the business of teaching because they care. It’s a calling. There is immense satisfaction in having a positive impact on a child’s education during their formative years. But these days I am more inclined to think that the potential to have a positive impact on student learning is to a large degree, being squandered. So why is it that teachers would spurn the opportunity to make a positive impact on the students they are teaching? I am not the only teacher receiving the regular memo or attending professional development courses that implore teachers to help fix an education system that is failing so many students. The only difference seems to be that, upon receiving these requests, I started a personal inquiry into how I could make this happen. And let it be known that it was personal by default, not choice.

I found out as much as I could about this ‘magical’ pedagogy. I immersed myself in the research and began to trial it in my classroom. I had to. I had no choice. I had students in my class who were bright and articulate but were unable to engage in the standard learning programme that was expected to be delivered. The only alternative would have been to exclude them from the classroom. But that would be akin to giving up on them. Our judiciary system seems to work in that way. I definitely don’t want our education system to be the same. So I chose to meet these students where they were at. But I had to change my practice in order to get them to where they needed to be. It soon became apparent that this new approach worked for them and for every other student in my classroom. I liked what it was delivering. The children liked what it was delivering. It was delivering exactly as the research said it would. By that, I mean there was significant learning growth taking place. Better still. I had become aware of it and aware of what I was doing to make that learning happen. It was at that point that I felt compelled to share this experience; this new reality.

As well as benefiting the students, it has made my life as a teacher less stressful and more satisfying. But in other ways it’s been harder. Biases are hard to recognise, let alone shift. Teachers are not immune to this reality. It’s naive to think teachers would be any different to the general populace. When I started changing my teaching practice, based on the research and the evidence that was being presented to me, I naively anticipated my achievements would be fêted. Quite the opposite was the reality. It became apparent that applying a tried and tested, yet unfamiliar pedagogy, sets you on a collision course with orthodoxy. The default setting is to “shoot the messenger”. The silence, the lack of curiosity can be deafening. “How dare you challenge our beliefs about teaching or about the children in my care”, can be conveyed equally effectively, in subtle and less subtle ways. But regardless of how it is conveyed, it takes a personal and professional toll. Meanwhile, this incredible pedagogy that I witness on a daily basis never strays beyond the four walls of my classroom. Not for want of trying I hasten to add.

Once again, I sought solace in Hattie’s research. He says, “the biggest collective impact on student learning (effect sizes 1.62+) happens when teachers are able to share their learning and openly discuss their evidence”. That’s the theory. As you will have noted, making that happen in reality has proven to be a significant challenge. To do so teachers would need to leave their beliefs and biases at the door. And in order to do that, they would have to be aware of the existence of those biases in the first place. Maybe Hattie is as naive as I am. Back-slapping and high-fives are examples of a cooperative environment. This should not been confused with a collaborative environment. Rigourous, managed debate, centred around evidence is the hallmark of collaboration. Those with the most compelling evidence are the voices that need to be encouraged to share. An environment needs to be created that allows ideas to be tested in order for the best learning outcomes for all students to be achieved. Strong, confident, informed leadership is a prerequisite. And high expectations. Likewise, a no-fail and supportive approach needs to be in place to ensure all teachers are able to participate in the journey too.

It’s becoming increasingly clear to me that our education system, like our political system, is very resistant to making any material changes. It’s called inertia. Tinkering at the edges is currently as good as it gets. Compliance and process are valued ahead of innovation and achievement. But the point needs to be made that unlike politicians,  teachers are in no need to be looking for votes. Teachers are well-paid professionals. They are impartial. They owe a duty of care to offer the best outcomes for all their students and need to be prepared to be challenged. Politely and professionally. They need to be reminded that they are in fact required to deliver best learning outcomes for all. To do so will require best teaching practice. Qualities of being caring and showing good intentions need to be converted into great learning outcomes for all.

At least now I no longer assume that change will come automatically, be easy or, be championed by every teacher. There is unlikely to be a safe and easy pathway. But on the positive side I do think I have uncovered the circumstances that allows for the disconnection between research and practice. Beliefs and biases – that is now the focus of my attention. Wish me luck.

Ease Education: Teaching at a human scale.

You can also find Ease Education on Facebook and Twitter.

How to set children up to be successful learners.

IMG_4181

“Books should love a child and help a child to feel powerful.”

The learning in my classroom of 5-6 year olds is going really well. So I thought I would try and capture this by describing two key elements of my reading programme that reflect the successful learning that I am witnessing. Some time ago I started noticing that I was having significant success in improving reading outcomes for all students. I put this down to the fact that I was willing to change my teaching practice. I continue to refine and change my practice as I see the need arising. For those not familiar with teaching reading to young children, the measure of success at reading for 5-6 year olds is on the child’s ability to decode a text – turn letters into sounds and then into words and then into fluent sentences. Thankfully, there is no standardised reading test for children of this age – yet.

The first element is based around how I have set up the practical aspects of my reading programme. It’s a programme that allows me to read with every child almost every day of the week. This means I can keep close track of each child’s progress in reading and be informed on a daily basis how each child is doing. Hattie’s research tells us that the best learning outcomes will be achieved when the child’s effort, attitude and achievement are ‘in sync’. This reflects the high levels of growth I am seeing in my classroom. This means that my job is more than simply delivering the key knowledge and skills of reading. By employing an evidence/research based approach I have discovered that there is a high emotional and human component to successful teaching (including reading). My job is get to know each child really well so that I can challenge and motivate them to do better, to make more effort, to be prepared to experience some cognitive dissonance and to invite them to place higher expectations on themselves.

If you were to enter my classroom during a reading session you could expect to see an environment in which there were high levels of student agency and engagement. You could expect to see the “student as teacher/teacher as learner” model of teaching in place. The students know that I have high expectations of them. I am telling them all the time that I want them to want to read well. I employ a growth mindset that taps into the natural curiosity and desire to learn that every child possesses. I also provide a very generous scaffolding service to ensure success for those who most need it.

In my reading programme I am always introducing a wide range of developmentally appropriate and engaging texts. The classroom is full of opportunities to receive and produce language – both written and oral. The children are given plenty of opportunities to read a wide range of texts. I read instructional texts to the children in a way that invites them to join the club of “decoders’. “I’ll let you in on a secret about reading”. Each child will read their instructional text with a range of their colleagues before they get to read it with me. And when they do get to read with me, they know that I am expecting them to bring their ‘A’ game along with them. As they read to me I am assessing their ability, attitude and effort. I develop next steps based on that assessment. Is it a technical skill or is it an emotional issue that needs to be addressed? It’s usually a mixture of both. It is a quick and efficient process. I have noticed that some students have learned to look for the tick or dot that I put against their name once they have finished reading with me. They want ticks. Ticks are success. Something so simple but so reinforcing.

As the year progresses, an opportunity to read with me becomes a highly sought after commodity. Underlying the requests to be allowed to read to me is, of course, “I want to show you how good I am at reading.” I never decline such an offer. But I will prioritise certain learners who I think need extra support. I do have external motivators in place to help the reluctant few in the beginning. Mostly, the motivator takes the shape of my ability to control access to the wonderful range of play resources in the classroom. Eventually, it all spirals up and up and the learning becomes intrinsically motivated. Great academic learning supporting great social learning. Inevitably, everyone becomes a great reader. The link between social and academic learning can not be understated.

The second element of my reading programme that helps it to be successful is something that I have already alluded to. That is, teaching reading needs to be more than about imparting the mechanical skills of reading. Teaching reading needs to be about inspiring and instilling a love of reading. That’s because sharing a passion for learning will always have a greater influence on a child’s success than direct instruction ever will. And I often wonder whether teachers fully appreciate the value of reading aloud as a way of developing great readers. In all my years in the classroom, I have never ceased to be amazed by the willingness of a child to be captured by a good story. A class of 5-6 year olds can go from noise and chaos to silence, the moment a book is opened. But it’s not always quiet. A good story can also be a time for questioning and discussion. Their enthusiasm and ability to understand and process complex ideas is impressive and informative. It often reveals an insight into a child that I previously had no awareness of. ie. formative assessment in action.

There is also the more ephemeral role that stories have on learning – their ability to engage children emotionally – within the classroom as well as beyond. Stories allow us to see life beyond the literal. To see in colour; beyond black and white. To dream. Yann Martel, author of ‘Life of Pi’, has this to say about fictional stories, “By imaginatively engaging with characters who we may not meet in real life, or by considering scenarios we may never actually find ourselves in, we can practice empathising with others and seeing from another point of view. We can learn from fictions in this way by being open to new experiences that we see in our mind’s eye. Narratives can teach us something new and encourage open heartedness. In reading we dream, and our dreams define how we live our lives.”

Finally, I think there is a wider issue at play here too. New Zealand writer of children’s stories, Joy Cowley, takes umbrage with the idea that boys are not interested in reading. She believes that it’s a case of boys “are not interested in reading the books they are given.” According to her, “books should love a child and help a child to feel powerful.” These days I actively seek out books that have a boy hero in them in order to avoid what Joy Cowley describes as a case of “oestrogen strangling testosterone”. (Is that not an apt description of the education sector as a whole?) These kinds of books do exist but you have to seek them out. I suggest that the test as to whether you have got the right book is when a bunch of 5 year olds ask you to keep on reading a story that lacks any pictures for them to look at.

Ease Education: Teaching at a human scale.

You can also find Ease Education on Facebook and Twitter.

An RNZ interview with Joy Cowley can be found at the link below…

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Effective teachers are those that know the impact they are having on their students.

BehaviourAnalysisTextBook

My new best friend

When the students arrive at school they are randomly assigned to one of two classes – class A and class B. The students in class A and the students in class B are the same year level and in socio-economic terms, from the same catchment. The students in class A and B have equal access to school resources and funding. Both classes have a selection of children who have ‘behavioural issues’ and are disengaged with their learning. At the beginning of the year all the students are assessed. They are assessed again in the middle of the year and at the end of the year. These assessments reveal that, by the end of the year, the students in class A have made significantly greater improvement in their learning than the students in class B. The conclusion can be drawn, being that the teacher is the only variable, that students in class A have been the benefactors of more effective teaching inputs. ie. their teacher is more effective.

The next step of course is to find out what the teacher in class A is doing, bottle it and share it. Problem solved! Every child ends up getting a great education. As if it was that simple, eh. In an ideal world…

In an ideal world every teacher would be open to changing their practice, based on the best data and evidence available to them. Only then will there be any hope of solving the problems that face education. All the problems that teachers like to use as an excuse for the failure of their students are external and beyond a teacher’s control. That is not to suggest that campaigning to address society’s inequities is not a worthy goal. But the reality is that teachers adjusting their practice and beliefs is the only thing they can do to make a difference to their students’ achievements. In the words of John Hattie, “know thy impact”.

The measure of a good day in the classroom needs to be more than the absence of a bad day. Measure, reflect, repeat!

Ease Education: Teaching at a human scale.

You can also find Ease Education on Facebook and Twitter.

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.

“What is lacking today is not knowledge about leadership, but the courage to convert such knowledge into actual performance. But courage does not come just by wishing – it only happens as a consequence of one’s level of consciousness, one’s inner experience, one’s self identity.” Jagdish Parikh

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).

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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.