The Power of Caine’s Arcade

A child's version of that famous game

A child’s version of that famous game called ‘Twister’.

Once again I was reminded of why I think I have the best job in the world. These days I am always on the look out for people and ideas that inspire me. That’s the power of modern technology and the internet for you. The ability to connect and share ideas is so much faster and easier these days. It has enormous potential to be a force for good.

Anyway, I was listening to an interview with David Gauntlett about creativity. During the interview he mentioned the story of Caine’s Arcade. I checked it out and it blew me away. It reminded me so much of the creative magic that I get to witness in my classroom everyday. I had to show it to the children the following day. I wasn’t sure if it would interest them. But sure enough, they voted with their eyeballs. Later on that day, I even got taught how to play a version of twister that had just been completed. A game that would not look out of place in Caine’s Arcade.

I love how Caine’s Arcade has gone on to inspire others all over the world to find their creative spirit. I love how Caine’s Arcade shows the way in which people can connect via technology for a common good. But I especially love how Caine’s Arcade highlights the essence of creativity, intelligence and the human spirit. Such critical elements to life and society, but too easily overlooked and ignored. The best part of the movie is when Nirvan describes how much he appreciates Caine’s achievement. That’s the magic moment for me. “Who wouldn’t want to buy a Fun Pass?” he says. It was genuine appreciation. The appreciation I get to share every day with the children in my class.

So instead of only asking your children about their reading, numbers and writing, start asking about them about what they created today? See where that leads. You might find that you are setting them up for a successful future.

Ease Education: Teaching at a human scale.

You can also find Ease Education on Facebook and Twitter.

The journey to an inclusive, effective education system, starts here.

It has been revealed that a seclusion room was being used by a school in Wellington, New Zealand, as a form of punishment and as a behaviour management tool. The parents of a 6 year old autistic boy had no idea that their son, as well as other children, were being locked in this small, dark, cell-like room.

Being that I am an advocate for an education system that is genuinely child-centred, I feel compelled to comment on this awful situation. And please be warned, I will not be pulling any punches on this one. Let me start by saying that I am not at all surprised by this. I have long held the belief that teaching is the only profession that exists in which “the customer is always wrong”. While I have not witnessed the practice of ‘seclusion’, I am concerned that the practice of ‘exclusion’ is a relatively common practice throughout New Zealand schools. It is a practice that is both unethical and, ineffective. Reliance on exclusion, suggests that there is some something fundamentally wrong with the education that is being offered. I have learnt that managing behaviour becomes a non-issue when the learning environment is conducive to the needs of the children. I have documented how this can be achieved in a classroom setting.

There was shock and outrage when this story broke. As you would expect. First of all, I want to take a look at all of the responses to date.

The mother of the 6 year old boy describes this as “wrong on so many levels”. Of course she is right. We are talking about fundamental human rights being abused here.

The MInister of Education says she was horrified by the news. Good on her. That is the response you would hope for. I would also suggest that now is probably a good time to start funding special education appropriately in order to give these children, their parents and teachers a fair go. But don’t think I am letting teachers off the hook so easily. Because money won’t fix a broken culture. But more on that later.

A spokesperson for the Ministry says it would be seeking to eliminate this practice from New Zealand schools, in time.  Not immediately? I would like to see a time frame set down for this. Teachers need to know that things have to change. They need to start thinking about how they can change their teaching practice to be inclusive of all students. Yes, it is possible. I have documented how this can be achieved in a classroom setting.

The principal ducks for cover. Yep. I’m not surprised, actually.

A psychologist employed to investigate the use of the room following a complaint from a parent prepares a report. It documents the use of the room. It concludes that the use of the room is “outmoded and does not embrace inclusive and effective pedagogy”. Yes. Correct. Effective learning and positive emotional experiences can co-exist. I have documented how this can be achieved in a classroom setting.

A spokesperson for the school board acknowledges the report and admits that the school had “mucked up”. We’ll call him the ‘Fall Guy’. But more on that later.

The Ombudsman agrees with the Disability Rights Commissioner’s request to investigate the use of seclusion rooms in schools. The Commissioner says that “this practice has to stop now. It is unacceptable.” I like that. Unequivocal.

At this point I am hoping that the investigation will include:-

  • the use of exclusion as well as seclusion and,
  • the impact of these practices on all children in schools.

IHC director of advocacy says the practice belonged in the “dark ages” and schools should immediately stop it. But nor does this person want to put all the blame on teachers. It’s about resourcing, apparently. How have things come to this? Is this the kind of teachers that our universities are churning out? It would appear that they are producing soulless deliverers of content. Where are the empathetic critical thinkers? Unfortunately, this speaks volumes about the training of teachers in New Zealand as well as the governance system of New Zealand schools. But more on that later.

The head of Autism NZ says he knew of this issue but was unsure of the extent of the use of this form of ‘behaviour management’ system. Really? HE also says that teachers are not trained sufficiently to communicate with autistic children. He lets teachers off the hook again when he says that this has occurred because children with autism are not be able to articulate their experience. What the hell is going on here? Is this person an advocate for autism or not? Would he be so relaxed if it was his own child that was spending time in a seclusion room? Is this person suffering from an empathy deficit? And why would you need to train teachers to treat children humanely? I would have thought that empathy would be an entry level requirement for all teacher training courses.

The head of Autism NZ also points the finger at class sizes. Teachers will love him for that. The problem with the argument for smaller class sizes is that it has been found that even if class sizes are reduced, teachers continue with their ineffective teaching practices. Nothing changes. Once again, we need teachers who know the content but who are also empathetic, responsive, critical thinkers. He also recommends that better processes need to be put in place. But hang on a minute. The practice of seclusion and exclusion is taking place within a management environment that is already highly regulated and process driven. Schools undergo ERO reviews. Teachers are assessed against agreed standards on a regular basis. There are processes in place. But these processes, as they currently operate, have limited value. A bit like National Standards, these processes act as a ceiling. A bland, dry, box-ticking exercise. They don’t invite questioning, challenging, critiquing. You would hope that there are some teachers in the schools that are using a seclusion room, that feel uneasy about its use and, feel safe enough to address the issue with school management. That they would feel confident to share their concerns and know that their concerns would be taken seriously. You would hope so.

I think this reflects a governance issue in New Zealand schools that needs urgent attention. Schools are governed by an elected board. A board that is made up of community members with varying degrees of abilities and experiences. These may not be education related. School boards operate at arm’s length from the school’s daily operations and is reliant on the educational expertise of the principal. The ‘Fall Guy’ has learnt that lesson the hard way. It is the principals in New Zealand schools that hold all the power. And they operate in what is effectively a power vacuum. The ability of a teacher to address critical issues, such as the practice of seclusion, is completely dependent on the level of institutional trust established by the principal. I think the power imbalance that can exist in the classroom between the teacher and the students, can also be seen reflected in the power imbalance that can exist between the principal and the teachers. There’s got to be a better way of scrutinising principals. Until then, we will have to continue to wait until their stories make their way into the media.

When I trained to be a teacher I experienced high levels of cognitive and emotional dissonance. It’s only now, much later, that I can fully articulate that experience. I set about creating a learning environment that works for all, including myself. A humane environment. To do that, I have often had to ignore the received wisdom of those around me. I started to trust myself more. I started to trust the children more. And as I started to explore this uncharted territory, my trust was repaid. I discovered that children are capable of behaving with kindness, love, generosity, respect and sophistication of thought and judgement.

You are a long time being an adult. Please remember that when you see high academic standards being imposed inappropriately on children. Sure, it’s okay to have high expectations but the best learning takes place when it’s not forced. Play is good. Curiosity and inquiry needs to be encouraged from a child’s perspective. Behaviour doesn’t happen in a vacuum. Create the right learning environment and watch them all flourish. Behaviour can be managed positively. The best solutions are the easiest but take the longest.

The heart of the problem is that many children are not engaged with the learning that is currently being served up to them. Disengagement leads to underachievement (in the eyes of those measuring such things). This tail of underachievement gets longer. So we prescribe more of the same. Higher expectations. No excuses. Zero tolerance. Narrower targets. Less compassion. It kind of works. For some. At least when they are young and reasonably compliant. But of course there is going to be some collateral damage along the way – as we have witnessed with the use of seclusion practices. Eventually, the disengaged move on to join the ranks of the “not in education, employment or training”. If only we were tougher, they say. It’s time to get off this merry-go-round, I say.

I think it’s time to start examining the use of exclusionary practices in New Zealand schools and start looking at how we can have them removed completely. I invite teachers and parents, in fact everyone with an interest in this, to get a conversation started on this topic. Change is needed. 

Finally, in an education system that I advocate for, I believe this kind of tragedy would never happen. I would really like to know the circumstances of this case. Does it all just come down to a missing toilet door handle? I would really like to see justice for this family.

The media coverage that I have referred to for this blog post can be found here, herehere and here. Thanks RNZ and NZ Herald. Keep up the good work.

Ease Education: Teaching at a human scale.

You can also find Ease Education on Facebook and Twitter.

‘NaturePlay’ Film reveals the potential of a nature-based, play-based education system.

NaturePlay

NaturePlay

“NaturePlay – Take Childhood Back” is an award winning documentary film that focuses on the Scandinavian method of “Udeskole” – learning outdoors, and the cultural attitudes of “Friluftsliv” fresh air life behind it all. The film shows examples of positive outdoor education from other cultures with the intent of inspiring parents, educators and policy makers to remedy the growing “nature deficit” in the lives of modern children and within education systems

This beautifully rendered film is a visual and emotional feast. I challenge anyone to watch this movie and not feel a strong desire to embrace a new way of educating our children. The film spoke to me as an educator, as a parent, and most importantly, as a human. Because teaching, learning, educating is a human endeavour. ‘NaturePlay’ Film shows us a pedagogy that is unfamiliar to most but would bring huge benefits to our children, and society in general. It is a complete contrast to the deficit education model that currently burdens us. This alternative way of educating is an idea that needs to be embraced and shared. ‘NaturePlay’ film achieves that.
“Play is often talked about as if it were a relief from serious learning. But for children, play is serious learning. Play really is the work of childhood.”
– Fred Rogers

The film opens with Richard Louv reading from his book, “Last Child in the Woods”.

“Nature inspires creativity in a child by demanding visualisation and a full use of the senses”, he says. “In nature, a child finds freedom, fantasy and privacy.” Beyond these utilitarian values of nature he believes that at a deeper level, “inexplicable nature provokes humility.” Powerful indeed.

 

Based on what we commonly see served up as ‘education’ in most classrooms around the world, that’s quite a lot to grasp. And the task at hand may seem quite daunting too. If that’s so, it may help to take on this challenge by breaking down the idea of ‘NaturePlay’ into two parts – play and nature. That’s because in my teaching experience, I find myself constantly needing to explain to adults of the merit and necessity of play as a way of enhancing learning. So, that may in fact be, a necessary first step. It is from that point that we can convince the adults of the real value of Richard Louv’s words. To convince them that playing in nature, immersing children in nature, will have the impact of amplifying the learning. And more than that. It will grow better citizens, better prepared for life beyond the classroom. 
“Education is not preparation for life; education is life itself.”
– John Dewey
‘NaturePlay’ Film also examines the issue many educators are facing with regard to the issue of standardised testing. The film articulates how the Scandinavian’s are leading the way in creating great learning outcomes without needing to be overly reliant on standardised testing. We learn that teachers need to be good at observing people, rather than only being good at delivering curriculum content. They provoke, they listen, they respond.
NaturePlay

NaturePlay

Listening to the children allows the teacher to determine the learning that is going on. This can be recorded but most importantly, it can be used to inform the direction of new learning. Testing is used as a tool for the teacher. But it is a formative form of testing. It is quite different than the prevalent summative/standardised form of testing and is much more informative. 
But to do so requires a culture shift. A culture of trust and of strong relationships between teachers and the children. This allows for high quality learning interactions between the teacher and students. Over use of standardised testing diminishes that highly prized commodity – trust.
“Our care of the child should be governed, not by the desire to  make him/her learn things, but by the endeavour always to keep burning within him/her that light which is called intelligence.”
– Dr Maria Montessori

‘NaturePlay’ Film highlights the enviable and enlightened education system that the Danes enjoy. It seems that this has not come about by accident. It has arisen through desire and intention. For the last 20 years, Denmark has been focused on improving life quality. They have set about reducing health costs by promoting increased physical activity. This reflects a shift in thinking across all government departments, not just education. And the demand for change is broad and comes from above at the policy level and below at the community level. Kindergartens in Denmark are encouraged to expose their children to nature. Even regular urban kindergartens go outside regularly. The children will go to a forest and go on day trips as much as they can. In Denmark it is believed that exposure to nature is a good thing. It’s part of a good upbringing. 

I found the interview with the Danish playground architect to be fascinating. We learn that a variety of nature playgrounds are available for all children around Copenhagen. These are not the standardised playgrounds with rubberised matting found in most cities. These playgrounds are made up of different surfaces, natural props, hills, and trees. These are designed for children to explore and to test and develop their fine and gross motor skills. If the children can’t get to nature, we’ll bring it to them. How wonderful. What’s stopping you approaching your local city council with a request for something similar?

But the piece de resistance in terms of playgrounds, has to be the ‘Junk Yard’. It is a playground to gazump all playgrounds. I expect it would put fear in the heart of every modern parent. This playground is NOT TIDY. It is a junk yard in words and application. It has space to explore, materials with which to cut and saw and hammer, animals to care for and staff to supervise. In the Junk Yard, the children are encouraged to experiment; to find out for themselves how things work. They are allowed to fail. Failure is seen and promoted as an essential learning experience. Risk is good. Children need opportunities to explore their own limits. This playground encourages imagination, creativity and freedom. It has places to hide. Yes, hide. Because children need places where they can hide from us. Children need alone time just like the rest of us. They need some time away from an adult’s prying eyes.

NaturePlay

NaturePlay

But it gets even better. The ‘Junk Yard’ is not just a free for all. It is an environment that also encourages cooperation, planning and persistence. Having a plan and seeing it through. Responsibility is also a key component. A code of conduct encourages that. Rules are discouraged because that makes for too much rigidity. The only rule is – be nice to one another. Be respectful. Wow. It is quite possible that most children you know will need to be guided into this kind of learning. It may not happen overnight. They may need to be trained up to look after themselves and look after one another. But this type of behaviour can be modelled. And of course teachers need to be trusted to use their judgement when required.

“Breaking an arm is a rite of passage” says a wise person in the film. I feel cheated that I never did so when I was young. But I did fall off bikes and get lost and stray from home for hours at a time and build stuff and cut myself and step on a nail and fall out of a tree. Like the Danish educators, I share the knowledge that the risk of children staying inside is far greater than letting them go outside. I implore parents who want what is best for their children – to listen to their heart and recall those happy times of being engaged in play and recall the joy and the learning that took place. And act accordingly. Seek those educational opportunities for your children. Oh, and watch ‘NaturePlay’ Film.

‘NaturePlay’ Film is available for pre-ordered screenings.

Ease Education: Teaching at a human scale.

You can also find Ease Education on Facebook and Twitter.

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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Observations of a learning environment that lifts underachievement and benefits all students equally.

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.

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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.