Teachers as designers of learning.

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With regard to my teaching practice, I am always looking for inspiration and/or validation in order to help me bridge the gap between research and best practice. For me, the process of bridging the gap is an ongoing, iterative one that looks something like this…

  1. implement small changes to my practice based on my observations, experience and new knowledge,
  2. reflect on the impact (evidence) of those changes,
  3. make small modifications to my practice as a result of the evidence,
  4. compare the evidence of those changes to what the latest research reveals.

My discovery of James Gee is an example of how new knowledge can offer both inspiration and validation. James Gee promotes the idea that a recipe for effective teaching and learning can be provided by gaining an understanding of how successful computer games work. He says we have a lot to learn from games – as a model for creating/designing good learning. I’ve always held an ambivalent attitude towards computer games but I have also been curious as to what it is about computer games that makes them so compelling and successful.

So, what can successful computer games teach us about good learning design? Here are some key principles…

1. Authenticity and clarity – learners need to feel that what they are doing or being asked to do, matters. The learning goals need to be clear and precise.

2. New knowledge versus practice – the correct balance between new knowledge delivery and, opportunities to apply and practise this new knowledge, is critical. A good learning environment invites learners to solve problems and provides opportunities to apply different strategies. Of course, problem solving can’t be done without first providing some foundation knowledge. The teacher needs to be discerning about the type and volume of knowledge that the learners are being provided with. All knowledge does not need to be provided at the beginning. Knowledge is best served in a ‘just in time’ way. In this way it acts as an invitation to the learner to bring their curiosity to the fore.

3. Scaffolding –  the learning needs to be sequenced well and be pleasantly frustrating/comfortably challenging. Not too hard and not too easy. To be effective, learning needs to be able to integrate the body and the mind. This allows for a deeper level of learning to take place. The quality of the learning environment/culture is also critical. The cost of failure needs to be low.

4. Teacher/student relationships – the teacher needs to know the students well. Good learning happens when the learners feel comfortable and empowered. Regular, timely, appropriate feedback is essential to allow for the learner to be ‘nudged’ towards mastery.

How many of the points listed above feature in your own teaching practice? Can you identify the barriers that are stopping you from creating the optimal learning environment?

I encourage you to view the video to see the full description of the features of effective game design/learning design as described by James Gee.

I’ve also made a summary of the key points. You can find that below.

Ease Education: Teaching at a human scale.

You can also find Ease Education on Facebook and Twitter.

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Great teachers…

Tower of blocks

Play-based learning – designated playtime can offer a gateway to effective learning. Ask me how.

Great teachers….

  1. know their material, and
  2. can support their students to be effective learners of that material.

That is, mastery of the material is not enough. To be effective, teachers need to be able to support students to be effective learners of that material. If, as Daniel Willingham says, “memory is the residue of thinking…you remember what you think about”, then the key task of teachers is to understand how effective learning takes place and use that understanding to get their students curious, thinking and engaged about learning. Raising the level of ‘genuine’ student agency is a key contributor to this goal.

Experience tells me that a large part of the reason for schools failing to support students to be effective learners is because insufficient consideration has been given to the second criteria. Teaching is a human business. It requires teachers to use skill and judgement in order to gather the small data. And with that data, teachers need to be skilled at interpreting it and working with it in order to enhance the collective learning experience. I believe that schools, in their current incarnation fail to recognise or value the potential of this human element in teaching. Think back to that teacher that inspired you to learn or turned you on to their subject. And also think of those teachers who managed to do the opposite. 

Surely, it’s the inspirational teachers that we want to have in classrooms, in front of students. But why are they such a rare breed?

According to SKR, it’s about permission.  He believes that “a lot of what goes on in schools isn’t mandated, it’s just habit”. In other words, schools don’t have to be the way they are. They could be what we want them to be. This tells me that there is a need for the way schools work to be reimagined. And there lies the potential role of leadership. Rather than enforcing the status quo, leaders need to become adept at managing the climate, making boundaries more malleable, tapping into talents and being open to the possibility that expertise will come in a range of different forms. Meaningful change comes from the grassroots. Leaders need to be open and responsive and skilled at managing the change.

And change doesn’t have to be wholesale. It can come about incrementally. Through trial and error. And when you look at the cost of failure, it’s easy to see that we don’t have much to lose. And let’s be clear, it’s innovation in teaching practice that’s required; that will make the biggest impact. That is, it’s the human element that we need to be looking for. Not gimmicks or fads.

Ease Education: Teaching at a human scale.

You can also find Ease Education on Facebook and Twitter.

Opportunity squandered?

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“Move along. There’s nothing to see here – just children playing”.

Just like a moth to a light, I feel compelled to critique* the quality of education that is being delivered in New Zealand schools. I am at the chalk face. I witness it first hand. I have immersed myself for over 20 years in trying to understand what effective teaching and learning actually is. I do know that teaching is a complex business. That’s because humans are complex. We all have our flaws. Noone is perfect. But acceptance of that reality should not be interpreted as an invitation to avoid seeking the truth or doing the right thing. If we care to look, we will see that the latest research is inviting teachers to be more human, be more emotionally connected, be more generous of spirit – to operate from a growth mindset and with honesty.

I am encouraged by the way Pasi Sahlberg invites teachers to take note of the small data – those formative interactions with students. You can find his interview from ULearn 2018 here. You should have seen the teachers at the conference all nodding in agreement. And then they return to their classrooms, and ‘sigh’, it’s business as usual.

…small data, “those tiny little clues that can reveal big trends or ideas”… Pasi believes that when we talk about evidence based education, and evidence based policies or teaching, that much of that evidence is actually teachers’ own professional wisdom and experience and comes from professional judgement in interpreting small data.

Experience tells me that the current (inherited?) operating model for schools is an unforgiving one. For teachers and students alike. Humanity and common sense are by and large absent commodities in school settings, in any tangible form. Teaching operates in a non-sustainable way. It encroaches on personal life and well-being.  And on top of that, it also fails to deliver any meaningful successful learning outcomes. It fails to help students or teachers achieve their potential. Potential is being squandered. This scenario will continue as long as teachers remain unaware of what their impact is.

So who is responsible for creating this broken system? And who is responsible for being the catalyst for change?

If we were to generalise the message of serial entrepreneur, Vicki Saunders, the answer to the above two questions is easy – a). men and b). women.

But like Vicki, I also know how it feels to be picked apart. I know everything that is at fault with my personality. I know how it feels to have created an exponential learning environment for all the children in my class and to have that success ignored. I know how it feels to be told that it is I, not the system, that is broken. I know the consequences of challenging the status quo. Unlike the business world, it is obvious that education has embraced the role of women in leadership. It would be safe to say that women are the dominant force in New Zealand schools – at least in the early childhood and primary sectors. To put it simply, Vicki’s response is too simplistic.

Yes, maybe we do have an education system that has been inherited from men. But I am also seeing an opportunity for change being squandered. I’m all for more successful women entrepreneurs in the world but what better opportunity to change the world for the better than to work at the grassroots level of education – the earlier the better. I know there exist female and male teachers who would embrace the opportunity to be part of the process of change. Teachers who have had the passion for teaching squeezed out of them, who question the status quo but voice it internally or in hushed voices. The common denominator amongst these people is their positive humanity and their ability to connect at an emotional level that in turn allows them to mine for the small data.

Based on the evidence I see in a school setting on a daily basis, the world will not automatically be a better place when women are put in charge. It is people with heart and rationality that we need to be leading the good change. I believe those two qualities are compatible, not mutually exclusive. That is, my rational brain tells me that teachers need to be invited to bring their compassion and heart to the classroom. It is from that position that the essential skills of teaching can be developed, enhanced and shared.

_______

*Critique – It is a struggle to do the right thing in the face of an unforgiving system. But it can be done. Please read this as an invitation to question and challenge the prevailing and failing model of how schools operate.

Ease Education: Teaching at a human scale.

You can also find Ease Education on Facebook and Twitter.

The link to the RNZ interview with Vicki Saunders that I refer to in this post can be found below.

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Student agency: what it is and what it isn’t.

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Exploring the real meaning of student agency

It is the beginning of a new year. And I’m asking a bunch of 6-7 years olds, who I have only known for 5 weeks, to tell me about their academic and social successes and goals. Their answers are cute, wacky and hilarious in equal measure. But their answers are also very revealing and informative. Not in the way that this process was “probably” intended to produce. Experience tells me that attempting to capture their ‘voice’ in this way is not meaningful or helpful. It’s as though I am speaking in a foreign language. Over the years I have taken these children’s responses as evidence and motivation to change my teaching practice. It has provoked me into thinking more freely and deeply about what student agency is, and what it isn’t. But teachers are asked repeatedly to go through this very process on a regular basis. And teachers oblige. No questions asked. Just lots of muttering and stressing.

This received interpretation of student agency has never been explained to me or to any other teacher that I have spoken to. Woe betide any teacher who dares to ask the ‘why’ question. So in fact, I can only guess that the process I have described in the preceding paragraph is actually about student agency at all. Yes, “probably”. I can only assume therefore, that this is how student agency has been interpreted. Or perhaps more precisely, misinterpreted. As you may have figured out by now, I totally get the idea of the how and why student agency is a good thing to have. A curious, engaged student is going to be a much better learner. The learner in the driver’s seat, directing their learning has got to be great. I have built my success of effective teaching and learning on this notion. Wacky nonsensical responses to my earnest questions were my provocation to get to this point. But to put it simply, for many a 6-7 year old, after a whole 5 weeks at school, the only meaningful goal at the beginning of the year would be to sit quietly on the mat for 5 minutes. How is it that we have lost sight of that? Water flows freely down hill. It can be guided and pooled. But working with it, not against is most effective. I like to think of water and learning as having similar qualities.

So now let me describe

  • what student agency looks like in my classroom,
  • how I go about creating it,
  • why I see it as a worthwhile goal.

In my classroom at the beginning of the year, it is my ‘voice’ that is dominant. I am setting the culture, expectations, building relationships, providing a framework and a structure that is visible and consistent. It is more about psychology than teaching at this stage of the year. And I maintain the ‘benevolent dictator’ role throughout the year. I am the expert. I convey that message. I invite them to join me on a learning journey. That is not such an easy task if a student has not experienced this expectation before (or is still learning the skills of self-management). It takes time to convince a student to grasp this reality if they have only ever had teaching and learning ‘done to them’. I know what knowledge they need to know and how best to learn it. I know my impact. And as Graeme Aitken describes, the learning environment needs to be “teacher led, student sensitive”.

It is thanks to this approach that, as the year progresses, the students start to take “ownership” of their learning. The process of learning speeds up. Increasingly, the onus goes on the children to fill in the gaps that I have highlighted to them. I provide extra support to the children who need it – whether it is due to cognitive issues or social/emotional/attitude issues. Classmates are used to provide the extra support that is needed. The analogy being, the firehose has been turned off and in its place there are water fountains in the room for the students to drink from (the fountains being myself, other students, resources in the classroom, parents). My initial job is to get them to drink; to want to drink. Once that culture has been established, my job becomes easier.

It is from this point that the students who have mastered the essential knowledge are provided with opportunities to explore and be creative with this new knowledge and mastery. And that’s when the magic starts to happen. That’s when the ‘genuine’ student agency starts to kick in. The learning becomes a more organic and dynamic process – a learning conversation. The students get excited about their ability and potential. They seem to rediscover their curiosity. It becomes contagious. I then become a conductor – responding to their needs and wants – learning from the students. This is the formative assessment process at its most dynamic. And it is all built on from a foundation of strong relationships, high but appropriate expectations and, the teacher’s expertise.

So which interpretation of student agency do you prefer? If you are a regular reader of this blog, I think I know your answer. The next question has to be, “how is it possible to get education leaders to recognise this alternative interpretation?” I know teachers who understand implicitly what I am describing and would grasp the opportunity to implement this ‘alternative’ version ably and willingly. But they don’t. And I think I know why they don’t. Beliefs and biases are rife. It may go some way to explaining why the teaching profession fails to attract and retain good teachers. Maybe. Just reread this post and replace the words ‘student agency’ with the words ‘teacher agency’.

Ease Education: Teaching at a human scale.

You can also find Ease Education on Facebook and Twitter.

Is your mindset holding back your students’ learning?

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Check your mindset.

Managing behaviour in the classroom is a topic that interests me and one that I have spent a lot of time exploring and trying to develop expertise in. That’s because I see it as a critical element in achieving the best learning outcomes for all students equally. If it’s true that the best learning takes place when students are the agents of that learning, then it makes sense that, for it to happen, students need to be able to self-manage.

It came as a surprise to me recently when I heard an “expert” on behaviour make a statement that contradicted my experience and knowledge. It required me to stop and reflect on my practice. Maybe I was getting something wrong. Was I guilty of contravening this advice? The message went something like this.

“It is not appropriate to punish a student’s bad behaviour by excluding that student from an event outside of the classroom; something like a sports event, or anything that the student would find enjoyable, or was good at”.

Let’s break it down. On the face of it, this seems to make good sense. There is an obvious lack of connection between the misbehaviour and the event the student would be excluded from. This is the same argument I use to explain why the giving certificates at a school assembly held fortnightly will have minimal impact on modifying behaviour in the classroom. So what I see here is a case of good science being applied randomly and/or inconsistently. This is a complex situation that needs to be understood fully in order to be effective. The science needs to be applied consistently to be effective.

However, alarm bells really started to ring for me when the following explanation for this rationale was provided.

“It’s not fair for a student, who may not be experiencing success in the classroom, to be excluded from an activity that may be the only place that the child gets to experience success”.

Unfortunately, I see this as an example of the deficit thinking that is prevalent in education, and society in general. To believe that the child will only ever experience success in a non-academic way is an example of how negative belief systems undermine efforts to improve learning outcomes for all students. It’s a case of the teacher being misinformed and putting the focus on achievement and results rather than on growth and improvement. It is in these situations that teachers need to be reflecting on in their teaching practice. As in, “what can I do to engage with that student more effectively? Or how can I help that student to be better at self-managing; to recognise that effort will result in improvement; that effort, whether it be on the sports field or in the classroom, will result in improvement?”

It’s quite possible that a teacher’s compassion for under-achieving students is actually doing students a disservice. The answer lies in getting along side your students, individually and collectively, building a relationship with them, understanding them and helping them to bring out their best. Students need high expectations, compassion and expertise in teaching and learning. Get the learning environment right. And get your mindset right.

Ease Education: Teaching at a human scale.

You can also find Ease Education on Facebook and Twitter.

For an example of how mindset can have an impact on learning outcomes, check out psychologist Carol Dweck in this Ted Talk below….(16 minutes in, though I would highly recommend listening to the whole show).

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Teaching computer programming to 5-6 year old children

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Teaching computer programming to children with Botley, the programmable robot.

Teaching computer programming

There is a lot of great technology available these days to teach computer programming to children. In the past I have had success with an iPad app called Kodable. More recently I have used Botley the programmable robot to introduce the concept of computer programming to young children.

Based on my experience, I am no longer amazed at how quickly 5 and 6 year old students can master coding. This observation has led me to appreciate that the current teaching model tends to act as a ceiling on learning – the teacher as “gatekeeper” rather than “catalyst”. This new appreciation has inspired me to modify and be more reflective of my teaching practice.

I’d like to describe how I approached the introduction of computer programming into the classroom. Initially, I introduced Botley to the whole class. Of course there was a lot of curiosity and enthusiasm for Botley so I had to figure out a way to give every student an opportunity to have a go. I decided the best approach was to bring Botley out during the “student-led” time of the day. This meant that I would be free to work uninterrupted with small groups at a time working with Botley.

The effective teaching and learning model

As well as being the “gatekeeper” in terms of allocation of opportunity it meant I could give explicit instruction and observe which students were showing the greatest competence. Needless to say, displays of high levels of curiosity and enthusiasm did not always translate into competence. But by working in this way I could persevere until I found a student or students who grasped the concept the quickest. I could then use these students to replace me as the teacher/model. This is what I interpret Hattie to mean when he describes the most effective teaching and learning model as being, “teachers as learners and students as teachers”.

I find this to be the most effective teaching and learning model. This model can now be seen operating throughout all my teaching practice. I describe it as the “student-sensitive, teacher-led” teaching model. It means that I always start with some form of direct teaching and modeling to students of the content that I know:-

a). they need to learn (such as literacy or numeracy) or,

b). will be of high interest, and generate lots of curiosity and enthusiasm (such as science topics like computer programming).

I then observe the impact of that teaching input on the students and then make further teaching inputs based on those observations.

In the video below you can hear the interactions between the “teacher” and the “student” and the self-talk.

Ease Education: Teaching at a human scale.

You can also find Ease Education on Facebook and Twitter.

What a 6 year old’s letter reveals about how children learn best.

Letter

What’s in a letter?

I treasure this letter. It came to me from a 6 year old boy in my classroom. He wrote it at home and gave it to me when he arrived at school one morning. It’s been sitting on my desk at home ever since. Every time I sit down at my computer it’s there. I see it. I marvel at it. I contemplate what to do with it. I’m tempted to frame it. “What’s the big deal?” you ask. It’s just a letter. Children do this kind of thing all the time. Yes, but it’s because this letter reveals so much. In this letter, I recognise the impact I have had on him. It reflects the quality of the relationship I have built up with this child.

And in his letter I also see real learning. Learning in the way that is natural to children. I see his attempts to form the letters based on the way I have instructed him. I see the errors – the reversals that are entirely appropriate for a 6 year old, the crossing out and the corrections. It reveals deliberateness and purpose. The desire to write, to communicate, to explore and enter the adult word. Problem solving even. To me, this letter yells “I am an effective, engaged learner”. I mean, he could have just told me that he was planning to bring a cake. He didn’t have to write it. I can imagine the conversation between the child and his parents at home. The search for paper and a pen. The adult support that made it possible for this child to fulfill his desire to communicate in writing (when it was actually time for bed, perhaps).

I love this letter because it demonstrates and reflects so beautifully how a 6 year old’s learning should take place – but which is so commonly denied in a typical school environment. It’s a type of learning that reflects how children learn best. A type of learning that reflects the curiosity and natural developmental progressions of a child. I see examples of this type of learning taking place all the time in my classroom. Children choosing to write, to read books, to solve maths puzzles – to apply and test out their knowledge and skills.

Teaching is a word that has traditionally been, and continues to be, interpreted so narrowly. Teaching should be about providing children with a learning environment with plenty of space and time to grow and develop their own learning – to be curious, to test themselves, to make mistakes, to think critically. The most critical role of a teacher is to listen, respond, nudge – to not be a barrier to a child’s natural way of learning. From my personal experience, I marvel at the amazing learning that can be achieved when this approach to learning is embraced. When the learning is made visible. When the children are invited to lead their learning journey. When they are invited to share and acknowledge their accomplishments and discoveries. It allows for a highly sustainable, upward spiral of learning success to be perpetuated. Trusting the children to learn. Seeing is believing.

PS: The cake was delicious and enjoyed by everyone.

Ease Education: Teaching at a human scale.

You can also find Ease Education on Facebook and Twitter.

Evidence-based teaching, not disobedient teaching.

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I guarantee success for everyone. Ask me how.

Here’s some evidence of the learning growth taking place in my classroom. Hopefully you are curious about how I achieved it.

First of all let me tell you that I didn’t achieve this by tinkering at the edges of the current teaching model. Nor am I able to give you a 5 bullet point summary of how I achieved this. While it is completely achievable for every teacher to get similar results, it will require the application of a different mindset to what is currently being modeled and a need to apply the science of effective teaching as described by Hattie’s “Visible Learning” model.

Until recently I felt destined to live with the label given to me of “Disobedient Teacher”. I always felt that it was a price worth paying in order to get the best learning outcomes for all the students in my class. But things have changed. I now understand that I am simply practicing evidence-based teaching. But the unfortunate reality is, engaging in evidence-based teaching flies in the face of the prevailing orthodoxy. It means having to accept the disobedient label. That’s wrong. But it’s the current reality. If we are serious about improving learning outcomes for all students that needs to change.

The biggest change in my teaching practice and consequently, the biggest impact I have been able to have on student learning achievement has come about as a result of ensuring that every student is successful – appreciating that the cost of failure is too high. My target became more than just success for 80% of the students. Or 90%. Or 95 or 99%. 100% was the target. It’s amazing what happens when you put the students who are at risk of failing at the forefront of your teaching practice. Those questions that teachers should always be asking themselves such as, “how am I doing?” or “what’s my impact?” really become meaningful and informative. It’s an amazing feeling when you realise that your teaching practice is having a positive impact on all students, including the at-risk ones. But once again, teaching in this evidence-based way puts you in conflict with the status-quo. That’s because it’s hard to change teacher beliefs about their teaching and their students. It shouldn’t be, but it is.

I have discovered that positive change will only come from breaking rules – rules that should be broken. Rule breaking can be constructive if it is supported by quality evidence. Some will say that breaking rules is too risky. To which I reply – the risk and consequences of not embracing change is far greater. Others will say that breaking rules creates discomfort. And to that I say – that’s why we need leaders who can understand and manage that discomfort. The reality is that most of us don’t want to be challenged. We just want to take the path of least resistance. Agreement and consensus is the easiest option. Cooperation is too easily interpreted as collaboration. Diversity of thinking should be encouraged – that is, as long as the thinking is evidence-based.

My success in the classroom has not only come about due to my willingness to take risks. It stems from a child-like curiosity and a willingness to ask lots of those unwelcome “why” questions. I also require the students in my class to engage in a similar level of curiosity. That explains a lot. These days when I’m stuck, I put myself in the shoes of the students in front of me. Or better still, I ask those 5-6 year olds to come up with the solution. It’s a culture of learning that allows the students to move beyond being passive receivers of learning to being active agents of their own learning.

What are you waiting for? It can be done but don’t expect a 5 bullet point presentation to be the way forward. Be curious. Break some rules if you need to.

Inspiration for this blog post can be found at the link below.

Ease Education: Teaching at a human scale.

You can also find Ease Education on Facebook and Twitter.

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Exploring the wide-ranging consequences of ‘knowing your impact’.

DrSeuss

Be informed about your teaching – be curious!

I was asked the other day to list 5 things I do in my teaching life to manage stress. I thought long and hard and came up with these 5. In no particular order they are:-

  1. Knowing my impact.
  2. Knowing my impact.
  3. Knowing my impact.
  4. Knowing my impact.
  5. Knowing my impact.

I was quite a few years into my teaching career when I needed to make a difficult decision. I had to either learn to manage the stress and heavy workload that seemed an inherent part of a teaching career or, leave teaching all together. I’m glad I chose the former. I can’t recall the exact process but at some point I stopped doing things – things that were requiring lots of effort on my behalf but were not, I believed, making significant enough contribution to the learning growth of all the students in my class. I focused more on my relationship with the students and started to appreciate that they were my best resource – they could tell me what they knew and what they wanted to know. I started to become open to the possibility that I could inform my teaching practice by listening, observing and responding to them. I didn’t realise it then but this was the beginning of my journey down the path towards creating a classroom with high levels of student agency.

Things have progressed a long way since then – since I first started to recognise that I could have an impact. That the students were learning thanks to me, not despite me. These days my class is filled with wonderful examples of students leading their academic and social learning experience. Like the time recently during student-led ‘green time’ when some students were having trouble sharing some equipment. Their first response was to come to me and ask for my assistance in resolving the problem – a problem that all humans, big and small get to experience. Because I knew that the equipment they were wanting to play with was highly sought after, I had plenty of leverage. So I simply invited them to:-

a) put the equipment away and choose some other activity or,

b) sit down and find a solution amongst themselves.

And so I watched them out of the corner of my eye while they discussed the problem for 5-10 minutes. Then they returned to me and a spokesperson explained to me what they had decided to do. Problem solved. And that was how it remained.

Of course, it won’t be the last conflict that they will experience. But next time these students and myself will have a successful experience to draw on. This is a very powerful and sustainable approach to teaching and learning.  Not only do I know my impact but I can also say quite legitimately that these particular students are getting to know their impact.

So hopefully you can see that the consequences of teachers knowing their impact is far greater than simply providing better learning outcomes for students. It’s also a way for teachers to manage what can potentially be a stressful job. That’s got to be an incentive to change your teaching practice. Surely?!

Ease Education: Teaching at a human scale.

You can also find Ease Education on Facebook and Twitter.

Getting to grips with this thing called “student agency”.

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Correlation: as ‘student agency’ increases, ‘blue’ time decreases and ‘green’ time increases.

“Student agency” is a phrase that you may have been hearing a lot lately in an education context. That’s because experts have determined that “student agency” is an essential ingredient in helping drive student success in learning – the equivalent of an educational “holy grail”. “Students as teachers, teachers as learners”, is the way Hattie describes it. I have already written a lot about the success I’ve been experiencing as a result of bringing this theory into reality

It will probably come as no surprise that I often find myself frustrated in the way I see this term being defined and interpreted. At present I see it being interpreted in its most literal sense. That is, student engagement (agency) is simply about wanting to see students occupied, involved and excited in the activities that teachers are serving up to them. But of course, that’s insufficient if improving the learning outcomes of all students is the intended goal. At best, this is a description of “student agency-lite”. The full potential of “student agency” to improve learning growth for all students will only be realised when it is understood and implemented at its deepest meaning and intent.

Full-bodied, meaningful student engagement is a combination of learning that involves sustained effort and deep, intentional thinking. In a school setting I too often see “student agency” being interpreted as bringing or pushing students into learning – getting the students excited about a topic, lesson or activity. Giving them “responsibilities”. Busy work. Lots of fanfare, inducements, prizes, bells and whistles – the works. In other words, lots of external motivation. Lots of energy expended, lots of exhausted teachers, lots of perspiration, limited inspiration. You get the picture. Oh so familiar. I feel exhausted just thinking about it. As you can imagine, reliance on this approach means that the excitement fades very quickly, and the deeper learning fails to fire.

Let’s take a step back to see if we can figure out what’s going on. Students are human. They work for external rewards. Just like you and I do. I teach because I get paid. But I also explore ways of teaching better and describing these experiences on this blog in my free time because I am internally motivated and intrinsically rewarded by the thrill of watching students progress as a result of my deliberate acts of teaching and also, hoping that this expertise could be monetised one day :). I can see that I have a bunch of intrinsically motivated learners in my class. That is, they are displaying high levels of student agency/engagement.

But it’s also important to understand that not all these children were at this point when they entered my class. I have had to engage in many deliberate acts of teaching in order to draw out the children’s natural curiosity and motivation – to try and develop this ephemeral thing called, “student agency”. (In case you are wondering how I know the students in my class are engaged in this way, then please note that I have a plan in process to collect some qualitative data to prove this point in the future). So, assuming I am making an accurate reflection, based on my own observations and the feedback of various other adults who have been in my classroom, what insights can I offer? Plenty, I hope.

All children are naturally curious. But unfortunately, there are plenty of reasons why children have had their curiosity quotient sucked out of them or are proficient at hiding it away. Adults are very good at ignoring or stifling this curiosity. It is the job of the teacher to unlock that curiosity, feed it and invite it to flourish. And may I hasten to add that this won’t happen by teachers rewarding compliance – compliant behaviour nor compliant thinking – which I dare say is the current prevalent practice. It’s those innately human skills that give teachers such potential to make great learning happen. If this wasn’t the case, learning would all be happening in front of a computer screen by now. Learning is a social activity and the teacher’s greatest facility is to inspire students and help them interact. Connect, inquire, respond, celebrate – repeat! This is actually just a synthesis of Hattie’s Visible Learning pedagogy. It’s an approach that teachers can utilise to help develop internalised motivation. Because deep learning is deeply satisfying. It’s contagious. Well that’s my experience. “Can we read another chapter of that book today?” “Can my friend and I play that number game?” Can I write a story?” It’s requests like these I hear everyday that are music to my ears.

Now let’s take a look at the weekly timetable above. I have started to notice that over the years a correlation between ‘student agency’, my effectiveness as a teacher and high rates of learning growth taking place in the class. As ‘student agency’ increases, the ‘blue’ time decreases and the ‘green’ time increases. The ‘blue’ time is when I do the fundamentals of literacy and numeracy. It’s about offering the foundation knowledge that all learners require to be successful learners. During this time there are high expectations on the children to engage and contribute to their own and their colleagues’ learning experience. And when they are not working directly with me (as a whole class, in a small group, or individually), they are expected to be engaged collaboratively and constructively in some developmentally appropriate and engaging learning activity – reading a range of books, completing number puzzles. So, even though it is teacher directed and led time, the students are required to be active in their learning and are given some degree of choice in how they want to engage.

The ‘green’ time is that time of the day when I invite the students to participate in independent and creative activities of their choice. There are a range of resources and activities available to the students in the classroom that are highly appealing and desirable. These activities hold a currency that have very persuasive qualities – even to the most reluctant, least curious learner. It’s just a matter of time, patience and consistency. Eventually, every student wants unfettered access to that ‘green’ time and the goodies that are available at that time of day. Eventually all learning behaviours – social and academic, become self-reinforcing and internalised. The appeal of play drives the students’ desire to move towards managing their emotions and taking ownership of their learning. At that point, my job is done. I can step back and be the conductor and the ‘head’ learner – roles that are so satisfying and rewarding. “So if you can do that, can you show your friend how to do it?” or, “Can you think of doing it a different way”? or, “Wow, I didn’t know you could do that/think like that.” Dynamic conversations and learning points. Formative assessment at it’s most effective.

As a result of making these changes, I have also noticed that I am once again able to use the ‘blue’ time to do more of the interesting stuff that typically gets dropped off the timetable due to a “crowded curriculum”. We are not having to spend all our time covering literacy and numeracy. In fact, the amount of time we are spending on these areas is decreasing. It’s a ‘win/win’. That’s because the learning is going so efficiently. I can’t push the students ahead any further. They are at all at their appropriate developmental level and the required national standard. As I have said before, national standards and creativity can co-exist. The interesting stuff I am talking about (for 5-6 year olds) are topics like – science (baking bread, planting seeds and experimenting with what they need to grow), literacy – (making snozzcumber jelly based on The BFG story). The sky’s the limit. Exciting, motivating, full of good learning opportunities for students and offering seamless links to literacy and numeracy. But just as importantly, these types of learning opportunities are manageable and sustainable from a teacher’s perspective.

And that still leaves plenty of time for the students to have enough ‘green’ time to simply ‘play’. But it is also worth highlighting the fact that even though this is ‘student-led’ time, this does not equate to a free-for-all. This kind of independent play time is premised on a code of conduct that has been co-created and is referred to on a regular basis. That takes lots of my input to keep it on track. It’s purpose is to build, maintain and reinforce high expectations and of course, that secret sauce called, ‘student agency’.

Finally, the biggest prize for getting to grips with this thing called, “student agency” is that ALL students will benefit. No student will be left behind. That may sound like a big claim but I am experiencing it first hand everyday. It’s hard to describe in words but you will know when it when you see it. Give it a go. But you will have to think differently.

Ease Education: Teaching at a human scale.

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