What is the appropriate age to introduce chapter books to children?

We are spoilt for choice when it comes to reading books to share with the children

When it comes to literature for children, we are spoilt for choice.

For me, one of the biggest pleasures of teaching is the opportunities it offers me to read to the children. The classroom environment can go from noise level 10 to noise level 1, within the time it takes to turn to the first page.

I have written about the power of narrative before. That stories (and play) allow us to explore complex questions in a broader way. They allow us to see life beyond the literal. To see in colour; beyond black and white. To dream. If you give them a chance, children will amaze you with their enthusiasm and their ability to understand and process complex ideas. Through the power of the narrative.

Our classroom is currently full of giants made out of blocks, drawings of snozzcumbers and speculation on the wonders of frobscottle. The children are responding appropriately to Roald Dahl’s ‘The BFG’. When I tell them that I really wonder what it would be like to ride in a giant’s pocket or the crevices of an ear, while he runs at giant speed to Giant Country, I really mean it. I was a child once. I remember those feelings  of wonderment and awe. I think that if teachers can connect with the children at that emotional level it can really enhance their teaching practice. And what about poor wee Sophie the orphan, snatched from her orphanage by a giant in the middle of the night. The children feel for her, genuinely. It’s called empathy.

So, in answer to the question, “What is the appropriate age to introduce chapter books to children?” I think you will know my answer already. Of course, I don’t read chapter books to 5 year olds, verbatim. I paraphrase and retell. I quiz and seek responses to gauge comprehension and interest. I show the pictures in each chapter to the children before I read it. I keep it short and sweet. And even before I attempt to read it, I do a pretty good sales job. (The BFG being released at the movies helped out a lot, of course).

But be prepared. Because you may be asked to identify the research that allows for the reading chapter books to 5 year olds. As though, the immediate feedback from those 5 year olds sitting in front of you, listening intently and going off and sharing drawings of snozzcumbers in their free time, is not sufficient evidence. It’s times like that, that you just have to choose what you ‘give a fig’ about.

Ease Education: Teaching at a human scale.

You can also find Ease Education on Facebook and Twitter.

Ask me what it’s like to have the best job in the world.

Putting the learner at the heart of the learning.

Putting the learner at the heart of the learning.

It was lunchtime and I was sitting at my desk in the classroom going over my reading plan. I was needing to replenish my instructional reading books for the students for the following week. Here’s how it works. The students read a variety of texts with me at a particular level until I feel that they are confident, competent and fluent enough to be able to move up a level. The texts get more complex incrementally. Each level has language structures and vocabulary that are familiar and constant. New words and concepts are introduced systematically.

A child came into the classroom to get a drink. She stopped and asked me what I was doing. Never do I decline such a genuine inquiry. I may postpone it but I will never decline it. That’s because I see these moments as my ‘bread and butter’. Every conversation is a learning opportunity. And that’s not just for me. And of course the lunch hour is a big time to fill for young children who are still focussed on finding out who they are. That’s why I like to be available during this time. So I am able to support and guide children through this time of high need. Typically it is just a reassuring smile that is required or a bit of match making. Unless you remove yourself entirely from the classroom and playground, it’s quite possible to be permanently engaged with the children. But that’s what I signed up for. And it’s immensely rewarding. That’s what energises me.

So anyway, I explained to the enquirer what I was attempting to do. I casually mentioned that I was seriously considering the possibility of bumping her instructional reading group up to the next level. “Oh really? What’s the book called”, she asked.

“I don’t know yet. But I can show it you when I get it, if you like. You can see if you think it’s suitable for you”, I replied.

Twenty minutes later I was back in the classroom for the end of lunch and the start of the afternoon session. The classroom was once again full of children returning from playing outside. And before I had a chance to sit down, a voice amongst the din, asked me if I had chosen her book yet. I advised that I had and invited her to take it from the box where I had put it. She did. And she proceeded to investigate. “Hmm. What does it say?” She stood there for a minute or two, oblivious to the busyness going on around her. “Why don’t you take on to the mat and check it out”, I suggested to her. She did. The rest of the children got on with the task of settling back into class for the afternoon. We sang. We chose the next ‘super seater’. She read. She explored.

“Yes, I think it will be a good  book for me”, she said. And she placed the book back in the correct place and rejoined her colleagues on the mat.

Ease Education: Teaching at a human scale.

You can also find Ease Education on Facebook and Twitter.

The future of education

For most of the last century, entry-level jobs were plentiful, and a university education was an affordable path to a fulfilling career. That world no longer exists. The growing shortcomings of our school model in todayʼs innovative world need to be acknowledged and addressed.

The future of education

I’ve seen the future of education and it is not, as we are often led to believe, dominated by computers, technology, homework or discipline. That’s because education, at it’s very heart, is a human endeavour. It’s about people and relationships. The future of education is about thinking, inquiring, creating and sharing. It’s an education system that will better prepare our children for the future and be better for our country as a whole – economically, environmentally and socially. Our schools need to be moving away from the highly tested and narrowly focussed system that prevails, towards an inquiry based system that is responsive to the wide range of needs of all learners.

Problems with a test based system.

A test based education system is focused on delivering content. It has a narrow focus. It produces winners and losers. It generates compliant thinkers in a time when we need critical thinkers who are able to challenge the status-quo and be problem solvers. It is a system not responsive to a changing world. In the words of Sir Ken Robinson, the current education system “has mined our minds in the way we have strip mined the Earth”. Our nation’s future economic, environmental and social well-being, is dependent on an education system that caters for all students and nurtures and develops all their talents equally. The future is a broad and inclusive education system that celebrates curiosity and thinking. Our World depends on it. And we need to move fast. Our children need to be prepared for an unpredictable future.

What’s the alternative?

Every day my classroom is filled with curious children who are engaged in meaningful interactions and discoveries. Interactions and discoveries that I am continually delighted to reflect upon but, no longer surprised by. Children are powerful and creative thinkers when given the opportunity. And these interactions and discoveries don’t take place by accident. They come about by creating a learning environment that is provocative and that entices lots of thinking out loud, creating and sharing. In the words of Yong Zhao, standardised testing regime, like National Standards, operates as a ceiling to learning rather than as a foundation.

Importantly, from a teacher’s perspective, it is an environment in which these learning discoveries are often self-generated. Discoveries that can be shared from child to child. That’s learning at its most powerful. These are discoveries that the children are making about the World around them, but also discoveries that teachers can make into learning about their own teaching. John Hattie, defines it as ‘Visible Learning’. What a great definition.

I witness too many of these daily discoveries and interactions for me to record and respond to. Needless to say, these are interactions and discoveries that will never find their way onto an A4 piece of paper with ‘National Standards’ written in bold at the top. But they are happening. And they are glorious. They are discoveries that cover all areas of the curriculum. It is a genuine and authentic form of inquiry learning. Real solutions to real problems. From language and literacy, to science and numeracy. But they also reach beyond the academic realm. Social learning is a key component of these discoveries. A happy, socially engaged learner is the foundation of a good learner – a life-long learner.

Play and imagination are key components of effective learning. Finland is a standout achiever in the education stakes. And the children in Finland don’t engage in formal, academic education until they are 7 years old. Peter Gluckman, Chief Science Adviser to New Zealand’s Prime Minister, says that through play, exploration and positive social interactions, children can learn to develop empathy, resilience and emotional stability – that is, interpersonal skills that will serve both them and our nation well, when they move into their teenage and adult years.

What’s stopping us?

Call for educational reform is not a new thing. By the end of his career, an exasperated John Holt felt that home-schooling was the only way children would get a decent education. I have faith that the system is flexible enough to change; that change is seen as necessary and desirable. I live in hope that a determination to make significant change will happen, sooner than later. But change in how schools deliver education needs to take place alongside economic, political and social change. A new world order needs to be established. Having the top 47 richest individuals with the equivalent wealth of 50% of the World population is neither desirable nor sustainable. Having only some people enjoying the spoils of the current economic model, while the rest are disenfranchised, is neither desirable nor sustainable. The economy needs to serve and benefit everyone.

For everyone to be able to see the future education that I witness in my class everyday, it will take a significant leap of faith. And trust. Teachers will be trusted to do their job. That’s because teaching will be valued and the best people will be recruited to be teachers and those teachers will be provided with the best possible professional development. They will work in an environment in which they feel free to innovate, take risks and be creative. Children will also be trusted to be curious, discerning and enthusiastic learners because they will be given the right environment and opportunities and will also feel safe to take risks.

In the words of Yann Martel, in our current education system, we have a story that won’t surprise us. It confirms what we already know. It won’t make us see higher, further or differently. It’s a flat story that only provides yeastless factuality. And unfortunately, it’s a system that also provides us with winners and losers. We need a system where everyone is enabled to flourish.

Ease Education: Teaching at a human scale.

You can also find Ease Education on Facebook and Twitter.

Reframing educational outcomes – counting what counts

Share this

Look what I made. Now let tell the world about it.

There are times that I have to remind myself of the purpose of this blog. To “inform, illuminate and inspire” was my original intent. I hope I am doing that. Documenting my thoughts and observations of the learning journey taking place in my classroom has certainly been valuable for me. There are also times when I am reminded of why I love my role in the classroom so much. It wasn’t always like that though. It has taken a lot of reflection and determination.

The current education model wants to count everything and hold everyone to account. It’s a model that stifles creativity and discriminates against many students.

I have also been inspired by the marvelous research that keeps prompting my curiosity and validating my experience. My journey, has in fact, been about breathing life into that research. It’s easy to read it and agree with it. But it’s another thing entirely to put it into practice. What I am aspiring to achieve looks and feels very different to what we typically see. There really is an confirmation bias towards maintaining the habits that keeps us wedded to the status quo, even though it’s not really working. It seems easier to stick to the status quo rather than venture into the unknown. To do so would require a significant leap of faith to get better answers to the questions,

  • What will good education outcomes looks like?
  • Will children really learn?
  • What will the learning environment look like?

Yong Zhao is a source of inspiration and validation.  He speaks about the danger of standardised testing (ie National Standards) and the need to reframe a discussion around educational outcomes. He is the editor of a new book on education called Counting What Counts. The current education model wants to count everything and hold everyone to account, according to Yong Zhao. It is too narrow, too impersonal, too linear, too focussed on the short term. It’s a model that stifles creativity and discriminates against many students.

The use of technology to deliver content means that teachers will be freed up to be more human and to help children develop socially and psychologically.

He describes the current model of teaching as a deficit one. Rather than the 3 R’s being the foundation of learning, they have become the ceiling. We need a model that allows individuals to flourish. A system that motivates and engages students. A system that works for all students equally. Teachers are still seeing themselves as deliverers of information. But that approach is should be redundant. We now have the technology to do that. Technology needs to be used to allow students to be creators rather than consumers. The real value in technology is its ability to amplify the learning, to enable it to be shared and invite collaboration.

I agree with Yong Zhao when he says that technology will not replace teachers but it will play a key role in delivering information. And this is the part that I like the most. It is the raison d’etre of this site. The use of technology to deliver content means that teachers will be freed up to be more human and to help children develop socially and psychologically. Sound familiar? These are all topics that I have already discussed on this blog in previous posts.

Fortunately, I have seen both of the education environments that he describes. I know which one the little people in our classroom would prefer. And I know the one that would really allow them to thrive.

Ease Education: Teaching at a human scale.

You can also find Ease Education on Facebook and Twitter.

An interview with Yong Zhao can be found below.

Continue reading

5 years old is too early for children to start their formal academic education.

Update: My attitude to the starting age of formal education has changed a little since writing this post. I am now believe that it’s critical to ensure that the learning experiences on offer are appropriate to the age of the child.

_______________________________________________________________ 

The emotional and cognitive reality of a 5 year old.

5 is a critical age in a child’s life. “The learning that takes place at that age is creating a blueprint for life as an adult,” says Professor of Neuroscience and Education, Paul Howard-Jones. He says that, “the foundation of the well-being of an adult is based on a child’s early emotional and cognitive development. A good foundation at an early age will lead to good interpersonal relationships and self-regulatory thinking.” What a daunting proposition. What an opportunity. A chance to set up a child to be successful in life. If it’s approached it in the right way, that is. Working with children at that age is such a thrilling and rewarding experience. And such a serious endeavour. What a responsibility! That’s why I am always asking myself – “Are we getting it right? Are we doing the best for our children? Are we approaching it the right way?”

By and large, a 5 year old is still living in an egocentric world. A 5 year old’s social understanding is limited. It is around the age of 5 that a child is ready to be encouraged to think beyond itself; to develop key emotional and social skills, to understand the perspective of others, to develop empathy, to find one’s place within the group, to develop confidence in group situations, and to fit in socially. Whereas adults get to choose the level of social engagement they expose themselves to, children are typically not given much choice.

When children have just reached a formative age in terms of emotion and socialisation, we set them off on their academic journey. Before any appropriate pro-social learning has been started, let alone achieved.

5 year olds are better at working 1 on 1. Group situations can be very emotionally challenging for them. Having extra people around means having to share your time and compete for the attention of friends. Emotions of jealousy and rivalry are very difficult to process at this age. The adult’s job is to help them get these emotions under control and help them learn to self regulate. 5 year olds need to learn to understand that the consequences of not managing/controlling their feelings can result in losing friendships. They are able to learn this.

The problem with starting academic education too early (and defining education too narrowly).

5 years old is also the age that children in New Zealand start their formal academic education. That’s the age when we start to teach them to read and write and count. That’s the age we start to define them by a set of narrowly defined National Standards. Can you see the problem here? When children have just reached a formative age in terms of emotion and socialisation, we set them off on their academic journey. Before any appropriate pro-social learning has been started, let alone achieved. By starting them off on their academic journey so soon, we haven’t given them enough opportunities to develop emotionally or cognitively.

It’s naive to assume that meaningful learning is actually happening in high-pressure, worksheet-laden classrooms…

Many children are not developmentally ready to complete structured academic learning when they arrive at school. Nor should they be. Many children are still developing emotionally. That is where the teaching and learning needs to be focussed. The adoption of National Standards has made things worse by requiring the setting of unrealistic academic goals. This is turn, leads to teachers employing inappropriate classroom practice to achieve these goals.

5 year olds are being expected to learn through rigorous instruction. As Erika Christakis says, “it’s naive to assume that meaningful learning is actually happening in high-pressure, worksheet-laden classrooms where teachers tightly control the content and pacing of instruction.” She says, “we also suffer from confirmation bias — we look for evidence to support what we already believe.” Teachers are encouraged to ignore the human element of education. So while National Standards are touted as a solution, they are in fact, a distraction from focussing on real solutions. That is, equal learning opportunities for all children.

There’s a well-established scientific consensus that young humans learn best through playful, relationship-based experiences.

Today’s children have got it tough. Our academic expectations of them are increasing. Our misplaced anxieties are demanding greater academic achievement at even earlier ages. This is compounded by the reality that children are also losing their free play time outside of school hours. Children have busy schedules. They have organised sports events, culture activities and playdates to attend. Parents are busy. Children are required to fit into their parents’ schedules. Or they are being supervised by technology. Tragically, it is not so unusual to have 5 year olds in the classroom who need support to be able to engage meaningfully when given free play.

So, what’s the alternative?

There’s a well-established scientific consensus that young humans learn best through playful, relationship-based experiences. That’s academic and social learning. They learn through playful, hands on experiences with materials, and with the support of engaging, caring adults.

Nor does ‘play’ mean an unstructured free-for-all.  Active, play-based experiences can incorporate language rich environments to help children develop ideas about literacy. Experience tells me that in the right environment, children will ‘miraculously’ develop an understanding and strong desire to read and write. 

Yes, a daunting proposition. But also a wonderful opportunity – a chance to set up a child to be successful in life.

Update: Since publishing this post, I have discovered that the same issues are being discussed in the media in Australia.  A teacher quit teaching and petitioned the government to address her concern that, “teachers are being forced to teach an age inappropriate and crowded curriculum which is pushing students too hard, too fast.” The petition asks parliament to “observe international evidence-based best practice and ensure children are six years of age or older to commence being formally taught an incremental age-appropriate national curriculum”, and “that all play for under 6-year-olds is play-based and data collection be minimised, as well as order an independent investigation into the true depth of child and teacher distress in primary schools related to the curriculum.”

Ease Education: Teaching at a human scale.

You can also find Ease Education on Facebook and Twitter.

Continue reading

I’ve seen a learning environment that lifts underachievement and benefits all students

There's an elaborate story there, waiting to be told.

I have learned to overestimate the value of child’s play.

In my last blog post I described how I had come to the realisation of how I was actually making a positive impact on the learning of the students in my class. I described how I was able to identify the deliberate acts of my teaching that were responsible for this. Finally, after many years of toil, I could finally say that the children were learning thanks to me, rather than in spite of me. ‘Visible learning‘ it’s called. It’s a bold claim. I realise that. But I know I could validate it. If I was asked too.

What I am also noticing in my classroom is that all the children are making relative progress. Every child’s boat is rising equally on the incoming tide. This is critical to understand, in light of what we know is actually happening within New Zealand schools. That long tail of underachievement just won’t budge. Currently, not all boats are being floated equally. And schools don’t feel able to deal with this. School and teacher representatives argue that there are economic and social issues at play which prevents them from addressing these learning issues. Of course, these are issues that are beyond the control of individual teachers and schools. But I would also suggest that there needs to be a much more pragmatic and problem solving attitude. There are changes that could be made right now that would make a significant difference. I am happy to share my successes. Just ask me.

I am acutely aware of the existence and impact of unconscious bias from teachers. It exists in all aspects of life. Why would teachers in the classroom be immune to this prevalent and very human condition?

It is also an unfortunate reality that Māori students are highly represented in this underachievement category. It is argued that this is due to an unconscious teacher bias towards Māori students. That teachers expect less from those students compared to students of other races.  As a teacher, I am acutely aware of the existence and impact of unconscious bias from teachers. It exists in all aspects of life. Why would teachers in the classroom be immune to this prevalent and very human condition?And it’s not just Māori students that are subject to this bias. But I would like to give teachers some benefit of the doubt on this one. I believe that teachers are well intentioned. You become a teacher because you think you can make a difference.

It’s about creating a system/learning environment that benefits all students.

But this study about the negative impact of unconscious bias, also reinforces for me my belief that the education system works from a deficit/punitive model. A few thrive. Most survive. But many others, such as Maori, fall by the wayside. I would suggest that it’s the enormous and unresponsive blob of a system that’s broken and that, by and large, teachers are quite simply doing what they are told. That’s what they are good at. The system is not working for teachers either. So I am suggesting that the system fails many but its impact on Māori students is most obvious and easy to identify.

So while I have not been focussing directly on Māori students, my approach has the impact of ‘floating everyone’s boat’ equally and that has had a positive impact on Maori students. And maybe that is the best way of approaching it; to avoid the potential backlash. Because the system is failing many, and it just so happens that Maori students happen to fall within this ‘many’ group. It’s about creating a system/learning environment that benefits all students. That is what I have been focussing on. Even the top students, the compliant and successful ones, are benefiting from this approach.

There is a universality about teaching. It’s a human endeavour that should come from the heart. It should be backed up by good research and practice and collaboration.

It was an awareness of, and increasing discomfort with this supposed inability to improve the learning of all students, that inspired me to start changing the way I approached teaching and to document it on this blog. I even come up with a ‘manifesto’ to guide me in my new approach. This manifesto is not directed at Māori students in particular. But I think you will see that it is a ‘human’ response and see how it could be of benefit to all students, all cultures. I am experiencing many positive outcomes from my new positive/high trust approach to teaching. The children are flourishing. The parents are observing a positive difference.

In effect, all I am doing is just bringing all the good research to life in the classroom. It seems that so often that research is left languishing on the shelf. I am being innovative and trialling new ideas but still making sure to stay within the system. It’s about the children, first and foremost. But really, there is nothing new or scary or untested. It is already happening in a variety of places. There is a universality about teaching. It’s a human endeavour that should come from the heart. It should be backed up by good research and practice and collaboration. And although I am describing an experience of working with 5-6 year olds, I have no doubt that it’s an approach that will work just as well with older children.

The power of imagination will become critical. In an information society, no thought, debate or dream is wasted – whether conceived in a tent camp, prison cell or the table football space of a startup company.

So, what will it take to bring about the required change? At a personal level I am very optimistic. At a wider level, less so. That’s because I have got to this place by way of dogged determination and circumstance. It’s that I’ve had the conviction to follow through with ideas, even if it means going against the current. But it works because, from the children, I get immediate and positive feedback. That sustains me. However, in terms of convincing my colleagues, that is another matter altogether. Don’t ask me why this is. I have my theories but this is not the forum for that.

But I am still hopeful that change is inevitable. The world is changing. We live in an information age. No longer do we have to rely on the traditional hierarchical sources for knowledge and information. My inspiration is only a mouse click away. As Paul Mason says, “the power of imagination will become critical. In an information society, no thought, debate or dream is wasted – whether conceived in a tent camp, prison cell or the table football space of a startup company.”

To that I’d also like to add….or an idea conceived in a classroom of 5 year olds.

Ease Education: Teaching at a human scale.

You can also find Ease Education on Facebook and Twitter.

Identifying the deliberate acts of teaching that make learning effective.

bl - black, pl - plane

bl – black, pl – plane

I make a wide range of developmental ‘play’ activities available to my class of 5 year olds. I also provide as many opportunities as possible for the children to engage independently with these activities. I have already explained the critical contribution of developmental play in enhancing learning. Needless to say, these activities are very popular and motivating.

Over the years, I have used the children’s feedback to help determine the types of activities that interest them the most and provide the best learning opportunities. I have had to find a way to make this time valuable for the students but also sustainable and manageable – from a teacher’s perspective. We’ve had to come up with some effective rules around engagement, sharing and tidying up. These rules are designed to allow the children to be self managing. Fortunately, most students achieve this goal with ease. If students aren’t there yet, they are on the way.

However, despite the availability of these popular activities, it is not uncommon to see students choosing to do independent ‘academic’ tasks instead. The child in the photo, was deeply engrossed in a reading task – identifying and matching blends. I have also documented previously how children use the time to write independently; letters to parents declaring their love, lists of birthday party invitees – all meaningful learning – and self-driven. This is a critical observation from a teacher’s point of view. It contradicts the view that children need to be coerced to learn; that they will always take the path of least resistance. They will only just want to play – (and said as if ‘play’ was a bad thing).

The ‘sweet spot’ in effective teaching is when students become their own teachers. That this child deliberately and independently chose to do this reading activity, indicates to me that this student wants to be a better reader and takes reading seriously. But nor was it an accident that this child chose this activity. From trial and error, over many years, I have learned what activities 5 year olds are interested in and/or how to get them interested. It’s a dynamic process and it doesn’t come about by accident.

The ‘sweet spot’ in effective teaching is also when teachers are reflecting on the impact of their teaching. My teaching day is full of deliberate acts of teaching – whether that be through direct teacher instruction or providing self-directed learning activities. Increasingly, I am more and more comfortable with the latter.

And the thing is, for the first time in my teaching career, I can identify the deliberate acts of teaching that are having a positive impact on the students’ learning. The learning has become visible. No longer are the children simply learning in spite of me, or despite of me. I now do the things that work. I’ve stopped doing things that don’t work. I now do things because they achieve the desired results. I am a problem solver.

I know, those are bold statements. But please, trust me on that.

Ease Education: Teaching at a human scale.

You can also find Ease Education on Facebook and Twitter.

I am a teacher and I am a problem solver

 

Impressive.

“Look what I’ve made!”

I heard a good story recently. I’m not sure if it’s true but it sounded good. And if it is not true then it definitely needs to be made a reality.

The topic of the conversation was Disneyland. Apparently, the people responsible for the design of the layout at a Disneyland did not initially designate the location or direction of the paths. Instead, they presented a blank template of grass for visitors to walk on. The visitors voted with their feet. They wore paths in the grass by choosing their priority destinations. These informal paths informed the designers where the visitors were going. The designers created the final layout based on these informed observations.

If you are a regular reader of this blog, you will already understand why I like this story (or would love for this story to be true). In the world of urban design, these human made paths, that people create in urban settings, are called ‘desire lines’. I see them all the time. And the fact that you do see them is actually a reflection of the city designers failing at their job.

In our classroom, critical thinking is an action, not an abstract construct. For 5 year olds, it’s about how to share a box of blocks, it’s about building friendships and alliances, it’s about collaborating on a building a tower of blocks.

As much as possible, I try to run my classroom in a similar way. I know what I want/need the children to achieve. I know what the curriculum says. And I also know the children; what their interests are, how human psychology works, what developmental levels are appropriate for their particular age group. Even with the constraints of a cumbersome education system, you will still see my classroom operating in a dynamic and organic way. If I see a ‘desire line’ starting to develop, I investigate. Is it a problem? Does it need to be solved?

The day is full of ‘deliberate acts of teaching”. This level of deliberateness allows for spontaneity and authentic, student-led, inquiry learning.

It’s most likely these days that the children will be active participants in achieving the solution. As much as possible I try to accommodate their needs and wishes. Sometimes by accommodating their needs and wishes, it results in new problems being created and needing to be solved. But these are the problems teachers should be wishing to have in their classroom. Negotiation is an action, not an abstract construct, in our classroom. It’s their classroom and it’s their learning experience that’s important.

“the biggest effects on student learning occur when teachers become learners of their own teaching, and when students become their own teachers”.

It may sound chaotic and exhausting. But it’s not. It’s carefully choreographed and deeply rewarding. The day is full of ‘deliberate acts of teaching”.  Some of those acts of teaching are direct and teacher led.  As in, “you need to know this.” Some of those acts are deliberately provocative; to encourage the children to think and be curious. I use those moments to assess the children. I find these moments to be more informative than the regular formal testing that is done. They are also excellent for informing me about my teaching. Check out this example of what I am trying to describe.

“Does it work?” is the question that matters. I will do everything I can to remove any barriers that are stopping the children from achieving their learning goals.

At other times, my input into the learning process may not be so obvious to the children or to the casual observer. Even when the children are engaged in an independent activity of their choice, it has been curated and scaffolded to ensure the learning is meaningful and successful. This level of deliberateness allows for spontaneity and authentic, student-led, inquiry learning. We thrive on positivity, consistency and routine. And it’s sustainable. A ‘burnt out’ teacher is not an effective teacher.

I am not a fan of unnecessary process. I don’t care that “we have always done it this way”. “Does it work?” is the question that matters. I will do everything I can to remove any barriers that are stopping the children from achieving their learning goals. And maintaining happy and enthusiastic learners is something that I will move mountains to achieve. Happy learners make great learners. Of course, that’s social learning as well as academic learning.

Blaming the child for failing to respond appropriately to teacher direction is to ignore the real issue.

This matters. Because too often I see children excluded from the classroom or disengaged with their learning. Too often I see ‘bright’ children being labeled as naughty. Blaming the child for failing to respond appropriately to teacher direction is to ignore the real issue. “What will it take to get these children into the classroom, engaging with their learning and showing their true potential?” That is the question I continually ask myself. That is what motivates me. That is the question I want other teachers to start asking themselves. To stop blaming the child, the circumstances, the environment, the whatever. To reflect on what is being offered to the children – that what is being served up to them, may in fact, be boring. To stop making compliance the end game. To assume that, with the right input, all children will be willing and cooperative learners. It’s about being pragmatic; about being a problem solver.

This is not an attack on teachers. Teachers are decent, hard-working and well-meaning people doing what can be a difficult job in difficult circumstances. But somewhere along the line, they have been given some poor advice, or something. I really don’t understand why teachers feel compelled to perpetuate this reality. What will it take to move beyond this? Beyond this ‘deficit’ approach to learning?

So, I invite teachers to be scientific and strategic. Oh, and human. Once again, a teacher’s task is two-fold. 1. to get the children to the point where they are their own teachers, and 2. for teachers to reflect effectively about their teaching.

Get to it, I say.

Ease Education: Teaching at a human scale.

You can also find Ease Education on Facebook and Twitter.

When students become teachers and teachers become learners.

 

I gave a pair of 5 year old children some place-value blocks, a number flip chart and a brief explanation of how a number on the flip chart can be represented by the blocks. I then turned away to scan the classroom and to observe the other children doing their own maths activity. About 1 minute later I heard a child’s excited voice say, “Look, I’ve made 132”. I went to investigate. Yes indeed. The child had made 132 with the place-value blocks. I turned the camera on to capture the moment. You can hear my voice in the video prompting the child to repeat what he had already told me. Trust me on that. He was excited. He knew what he was talking about. He was aware of his achievement. I know that I had previously talked about the concept of place-value to the children. But it was more in a quick, “isn’t this interesting and useful thing to know”, kind of way.

I want to share this learning moment because I think it reveals a lot about effective teaching pedagogy.

132 was the child’s number. He chose it. That is, I didn’t instruct him to make 132. I simply said, “now it’s your turn to make a number”. The tone of his voice clearly indicated to me a sense of achievement and success. He knew he had achieved something significant. According to Education professor John Hattie,

“the biggest effects on student learning occur when teachers become learners of their own teaching, and when students become their own teachers”.

The child who had made 132 with the blocks had become his own teacher. I, the teacher, had just learned something new about teaching. Well actually, confirmed/validated a teaching practice that I was already in the process of exploring. 

From a teaching perspective, what did I confirm/validate?

Place value is a key concept in working with numbers but is not a concept I would expect all 5 year olds to pick up so quickly and easily. Nor should they. Children develop differently; in different areas and at different paces. In fact, I am surprised that this needs to be spelt out. That is not to say that the concept of place value should not be introduced to 5 year olds. The video shows that it is unwise to underestimate the capability of a 5 year old. It reinforces the value of the ‘provoke, listen, respond’ philosophy. And it supports the idea of provoking children at the highest order of thinking.

…all children are different and need to be provided with learning opportunities that cater best to their individualised needs.

A key element of the maths activity shown in the video is the concrete nature of the task. It’s about manipulating and experiencing and testing. Getting a sense of what numbers mean. Visual, physical, tactile. All too often I see children being asked to complete tasks that are way too abstract and paper based. By providing more physical activities like this you can, at the very least, save on your school’s photocopying budget.

Interestingly, the child’s working buddy was more interested in fitting the blocks together in a creative pattern than creating and solving his own place value problem. He was engaged, but not in the way I had intended. But that’s cool. It was good for me to see that too. This learning opportunity only went on for a few minutes anyway. If that child was ‘into’ that task, I anticipate that he would have been inspired and been able to learn place-value from his peer. Maybe another day. No big deal. But once again, all children are different and need to be provided with learning opportunities that cater best to their individualised needs. Flexible, dynamic, organic. I have said it before in previous blog posts, the current education system only works for some students. Many students are disengaged. And this increases as students get older.

…we are talking 5 year olds here. They should still be playing. We are asking them to engage in formalised learning way too early…

The time I allocated for this task was short. Enough time to give the children a chance to develop and practice. But not enough time to be bored and disengaged. I always make a note of activities that don’t provoke a positive response from the children. I try to be flexible. I won’t give up on a task immediately. I will try a different approach. And some things are not negotiable. For example, during whole class sharing opportunities, the expectation is that children will listen actively and respectfully. I took the children outside to fly a kite the other day. They just wanted to play on the playground. Maybe I’ll try again. I used to love flying kites when I was a child. How could modern day children be so unenthusiastic about flying kites?

I want to develop confident, curious learners who can take risks and learn from their mistakes.

When the children are engaged in an activity that is genuinely interesting to them, negative behaviours are not an issue. Obvious really, eh. Based on personal observations and reflections, the same concept applies to adults too. And of course, we are talking 5 year olds here. They should still be playing. We are asking them to engage in formalised learning way too early anyway. Before it’s developmentally appropriate. 7 years old seems to be the magic number. It would seem that Bryan Bruce and I have been reading the same research. See for yourself, in his documentary about the New Zealand education system.  

I try to provide a balance between independent learning and guiding students through some specific learning tasks. (Once again, bearing in mind that they are still only 5 years old). I want to develop confident, curious learners who can take risks and learn from their mistakes. I take my role as the gatekeeper of what and how the children get to learn, very seriously. Of course I need the children to meet the National Standards that have been imposed from above. But I also want them to be curious and engaged. I am discovering that with the right input, the children seem to be able to have their cake and eat it too. With the right type of activities and input from me, the children seem to find their own pathway to success. I think the place-value experience highlights this proposition very well.

The best learning is authentic and based on the real needs and demands of the children…

I have also made significant changes in the way the classroom is set out. I have started to make a wide range of maths activities and puzzles available to the students.  Dare I say, it was the case up until a few years ago, that a lot of the maths activities that are now available to the children, used to be sitting on a shelf off-limits to the children. What was I thinking? Nowadays, the maths equipment is readily available to the children just like the books in the library corner, the toys and the blocks in the ‘play’ area, the art and crafts equipment, the writing equipment etc.

They are now available for the children to use whenever they are not engaged with me on a specific teacher directed task. And please let it be said that I am no longer surprised when I see children choose to read in the library corner, or complete a maths puzzle, or write a story, or listen to a story on the listening post – ahead of playing on the computer or playing with the variety of blocks and toys available to them. The best learning is authentic and based on the real needs and demands of the children – there’s a reference to that, “children as their own teachers” expression again. Life does not operate in a silo, neither should a classroom. 

Being a mass provider of knowledge is no longer the appropriate form of teaching.

I want to work in an education system that is equipping students with the ability to function in their lives once they leave school; prepared for a world that is looking increasingly unfamiliar and uncertain. In order to flourish in life after school, we need people to be able to apply social and emotional skills, as well as academic skills. Being a mass provider of knowledge is no longer the appropriate form of teaching.  Students need to be treated as individuals who have different learning needs. I want to be allowed and encouraged to go deeply and broadly.

Excuse my passion. I’m in bit of a hurry. We should all be. I can see a different future, and that excites me.

For some academic validation of the opinions expressed above, check out this article on The Conversation.

Ease Education: Teaching at a human scale.

You can also find Ease Education on Facebook and Twitter.

Life doesn’t operate in silos, education shouldn’t either.

A pet shop was a favourite setting for some of the children's stories.

Writing is more than a new blank page everyday.

I have spent many years learning and practicing the craft of teaching. And if I wasn’t such a modest person I would probably say that I have mastered this teaching thing. Mastery takes time and perseverance. Experience and longevity does not have to mean resting on one’s laurels. For me, mastery is about creating a buffer; of space and time. A buffer that allows one to look outward. To reflect. To see and hear better through the static. To gain confidence in trusting oneself and trusting the children. To appreciate that doing the same thing over and over is unlikely to offer up any different results. To move beyond the deficit model that seems to be the foundation of our education system.

This deficit model casts a long shadow. It dims the light. Academics write about it. Their research and their words match my daily observations. Stories of the disengaged and the excluded are regularly in the media. Nor do you have to look hard to witness the deficit model fully operational in all aspects of modern society and public institutions. I know I risk the opprobrium of my colleagues for raising this issue. But it’s not a personal thing. It’s purely professional. I think there is an alternative. I have seen glimpses of it. I have no answer to those who say everything is fine and dandy, just as it is. Some form of acknowledgement that change is needed is essential. The system needs to cater equally to all learners. But gravity favours the status-quo. No one wants to be apart from the crowd for too long.

The New Zealand Curriculum supports schools to move away from ‘silo’ thinking: the treatment of subject areas as rigidly discrete entities, with no application to each other. It’s now almost universally accepted that, as life doesn’t work like that, education shouldn’t either. – New Zealand Education Gazette, 21 March 2016, Vol 95, Number 5, Pg 2.

It’s about being innovative. And be reassured that there is no risk to the students’ learning. There is nothing to lose. Everything to gain. The innovation I have tried out in the classroom so far, looks good. And more importantly, it feels good. For both the children and myself. It works like this. I see a need. I test an idea. I evaluate it. I modify it. I test it again. I evaluate the outcome. I share it with colleagues. I seek feedback from colleagues and parents. It’s agile and effective. The children have a critical role in this process. They are the feedback. I am constantly listening for their voice. Their enthusiasm for learning and their clever responses to my provocations are the feedback I crave. ‘Provoke, listen, respond’. This process provides the teacher with a strong sense of where the children are ‘at’ with their learning; their developmental level – both academically and emotionally.

For some time I was aware of a need. So I decided I needed to be innovative with my writing programme. The rationale for doing so was clear in my head. I wanted the children to experience writing in its broadest and most engaging form. (You can imagine how happy I was to see the above item in a recent Education Gazette that validated this approach – suggesting a move away from ‘silo’ thinking that currently prevails in the classroom). I wanted to link as many different curriculum areas as possible to teaching writing. I wanted a literacy activity that would appeal to all students equally. I wanted an activity that provoked high level thinking.

Clever thinking

Never underestimate the complex thinking a 5 year old is capable of.

So the children each made a diorama. They built a diorama. They created their own stories. They shared their stories. They said it with pictures. They said it with spoken words and written words. Because children love stories. Want a quiet, calming activity? Pull out a good story to tell. The children wanted to tell their own stories. And they had the knowledge and tools to do it because they know what good stories sound like. Because of their prior knowledge. I helped them develop their knowledge of the features and structure of stories (ie character, setting, problem, solution, introduction, conclusion, celebration) and then went about supporting them to develop their own stories.

For those of you aware of the S.O.LO. taxonomy, all the learning was directed at the ‘extended abstract’ stage. Many showed ability at that level. Some needed support to work at that level. As you can probably imagine, I have long since stopped being surprised by the level of complex thinking that a 5 year old is capable of. Nor was I surprised by the level of engagement with this activity. Unfortunately, the deficit model seems to have a blind spot with regard to the connection between engaged learners and behaviour. Writing is more than a new blank page everyday. It’s broad and complex and fun. Well, it can be.

And if I wasn’t such a modest person, I would say that this is an example of the ‘visible learning’ that all teachers should be aspiring to.

Ease Education: Teaching at a human scale.

You can also find Ease Education on Facebook and Twitter.