Teaching to the 100% – a model to help teachers and students move beyond surviving, to thriving.

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The teacher’s role of bringing out the best in everyone needs to be enshrined.

I was reminded recently about the impact my approach to teaching and learning has had in allowing all my students to achieve excellent learning outcomes on a consistent basis. This success all stems from my determination to ensure success for every child in my class. That is, 100%. But to get to this level of success I find myself having to forgo the familiar way of teaching, and instead, forge a pathway based on evidence and research.

The 100% target is quite an exacting standard to impose on a teacher but I have come to appreciate that it is only by having this target that best teaching practice will reveal itself. Solutions to seemingly intractable problems are available if one is willing to dig deeper and take on a long term problem solving approach. Unfortunately, this approach is neither common, nor encouraged. To do so requires blind determinationhigh levels of social and emotional competency and a willingness to explore the beliefs and biases that are a part of human nature. It’s hard. These human skills are not taught at teacher training school. And it’s easier to go with the flow, to not rock the boat. It’s easier to blame the students, or poor parenting skills, or social inequality. That is, blame anything and everything, other than teacher failure.

There would be very few classes I have taught since beginning teaching that have not included at least one child who is not “school ready”. The behaviour of this child (this is not a reference to a particular child, but a composite) is extremely disruptive and it displays behaviour that impedes the learning and (sometimes safety) of the other students. This type of child I categorise as the 1-5%. There are also students that I categorise as the 5-20%. The behaviour of students in this category may not be as severely disruptive or violent but they have a negative impact that is felt by the teacher and the other students. If left unchecked the behaviours displayed by these students will make the school year a less than pleasant one and will likely compromise the quality of learning that is able to take place in the classroom. And this is a failure that will end up costing us all. These are the students that help teachers make the decision to quit teaching.

The point I am trying to make here is that, the prevalent teaching model, even if it was effective, is only catering to 80% of the class. That is, every student’s learning is going to be compromised to some extent. I describe this as a model of surviving, rather than thriving. The day I decided to aspire to a thriving teaching model was the day my teaching practice changed forever. Targeting success for the 100% forced me to look for answers that were within my control; to keep questioning myself and asking those difficult ‘how and ‘why’ questions in order to get to a solution that dealt with the root cause. But once again, those questions are generally not welcome or well-received. Because to follow the best answers to their conclusion, ends up colliding with the status-quo.

I have discovered that the solution lies in focusing on social/ emotional learning first and foremost. The academic learning is not neglected but the social/emotional learning is given immediate priority. And the thing is, if you are a proponent of the power of student agency like I am, for that to happen, the teacher needs to be in control of the class to allow the students to be effective self-learners. Without that control, the teacher will have to rely on the “students learning despite me” model of teaching. To do so, the focus needs to be on the learning of all students. Built on a foundation of strong relationships, I ensure that behaviour and academic expectations for every child are high and consistent. Of course there is a need for variability. It’s progress in attainment that is the key metric being measured. Clear and consistent expectations are matched by my unwavering support and desire to see every student achieve success in self-managing. The students who are already self-managing rarely complain that they are given more self-directed learning time.

I am pleased to report that by the end of term one, the classroom culture is now strong and cohesive and there exists a secure platform in which to launch into effective academic learning. The social and emotional learning will be maintained continuously. I continue to give the students opportunities to practice engaging in pro-social behaviours. Slowly but surely all the students take on more active roles as directors of their own learning. I keep tweaking and modifying the learning environment based on the interactions that I observe and the evidence that it reveals. It is the future of learning.

Ease Education: Teaching at a human scale.

You can also find Ease Education on Facebook and Twitter.

A critique of ‘play-based’ learning.

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What can a tower of blocks reveal about pedagogy and creativity?

This tower of blocks was built on Monday by a group of 5 and 6 year olds. There were plenty of willing workers as well as plenty of discussion and negotiation. For this group of children it was the centre of their attention during the designated ‘play’ time on Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday. By Thursday attentions had turned to some other creative endeavour. On Friday afternoon I finally requested that the tower be ‘demolished’ and all the equipment returned to its correct place. Photos were taken and it was then taken down without complaint.

Throughout the whole week it was continually being repaired, remodelled, enhanced, adjusted. The ‘treasure’ in the middle of the tower was kept safe. At all times of the day, even if it wasn’t ‘play’ time, the children moved and worked around it. For me it turned out to be a wonderful learning opportunity – to observe the process and the interactions centred around this construction. I marvelled but was not surprised that the tower stayed up all week, or that it was built with such intent and purpose, or that it generated such high levels of student engagement.

Critically, at no stage during the week did I state explicitly how this tower should be managed. And this is the key element that I want to convey via this story. That is, it was the classroom culture, built up deliberately over time, that allowed for this scenario to take place. It did not happen by accident. It has taken time and it has taken deliberate, sustained and repeated actions by me. The ability to make great learning happen – whether it be academic, social or creative – is no accident. And the awareness of the deliberate actions that a teacher employs, to get the desired learning outcomes, is where the power lies. It is this culture that allows a super-charged learning environment to flourish.

For some time I have been an advocate for providing the students in my class with opportunities to “play” as a way of improving academic, social and creative learning outcomes. I too, was seduced by SKR’s argument to address the “creativity deficit” in schools. We are told that through play, children can develop social and cognitive skills, mature emotionally, and gain the self-confidence required to engage in new experiences and environments. And while I believe this argument is compelling, there is a ‘but’. I have recently come to realise that providing students with opportunities to ‘play’ or be ‘creative’ is, on it’s own, insufficient to generate the improved learning outcomes that we are told that we should be seeking for all children.

Why? Because the topic of conversation should be all about evidence and effective pedagogy. Teachers should be doing what works best to create high rates of learning for all students. Too often I see ‘play -based’ learning being introduced without a full understanding or awareness of its impact. The “why are we doing this?” question is not being asked or if it is being asked, it is not being answered satisfactorily. I fear that the potential value of ‘play-based’ learning, as a way of improving learning outcomes, is being squandered. As the above story reveals, I have certainly found value in offering students structured and deliberate ‘play’ time. That’s because it is intrinsically good but it works really effectively as a contingency. As in, “I want you to be creative and have lots of opportunities to play, but I also need you to be an engaged, self motivated learner who can manage your emotions.” External motivators eventually become internalised. That’s when my job is done. It’s at that point that the students take ownership of their learning and start teaching one another. I step back and watch the magic unfold. Teaching is really not as hard as you may have been led to believe.

Ease Education: Teaching at a human scale.

You can also find Ease Education on Facebook and Twitter.

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

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My new best friend

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

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

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

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

Ease Education: Teaching at a human scale.

You can also find Ease Education on Facebook and Twitter.

The science of teaching effectively

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Currency trading

I was chatting with a friend who has expertise in behavioural psychology. I was sharing my experience of what I believed to be the successful learning environment I had created in my classroom since adopting an evidence based approach to teaching. During our conversation I described how I had made an adjustment to the way I was approaching the start of the new school year. To provide some context to this conversation, after many years of looking at the research and matching that to the evidence I see in the behaviours and learning taking place in the classroom, I have elevated the role of play markedly over the years.

It is also worth pointing out that I am describing a creative, constructive kind of play. A kind of play, based on clear guidelines and expectations and purpose; in how the equipment is used and shared and packed up. Managed, structured, mindful. This explicit structure is, of course, the science of cognitive behaviour therapy in action  – a most powerful and effective behaviour management tool. “Show me how you can make a tower with those blocks”. “I like the way you have worked together with your friends to make that tower”. “Thank you for packing up so quickly and quietly”. That kind of language. That kind of modelling. And I observe. I offer guidance, encouragement, feedback and some provocation, when appropriate. And it is a result of being so explicit and deliberate, that this play time is so full of surprises and creativity. Full of learning and inquiry – for the children and myself. That’s right. “When students become teachers and teachers become learners“.

The small adjustment that I made this year, compared to previous years, was the giving of full and immediate access to the play equipment. The difference was that we launched straight into the play experience. Normally I would only offer up a minimum number of activities and any offering would be contingent on satisfactory completion of assigned learning tasks – play was being used primarily as a reward. A very useful and effective strategy. But could we do better, I wondered. This time there were no conditions attached – apart from the guidelines and expectations I have already spoken about. It was at this point that my friend suggested that I might like to do a search of ‘Pairing – Applied Behaviour Analysis’. So I did. And yes indeed. Unknowingly I have been employing another science based behavioural strategy into my classroom. In my ‘non-experts’ brain I saw it simply as a way of building rapport. A way to connect with the students with the intent of setting the groundwork for launching into our new learning journey together.

There are two primary reasons for putting a high value and priority on the role of play in the classroom. First of all I use it as an intrinsic part of creating a positive and pro-social environment in the classroom. But what I want to explain is my second justification for why and how I utilise ‘play’.  That is, in order to apply an evidence based teaching model in my classroom. The deliberate acts of teaching that I choose to engage in (such as providing access to play time), are based on my observation and assessment that a direct correlation exists between the activity and excellent learning outcomes – both academic and social. How so? What does Hattie’s research say about that? Of course, “play”, as I describe it, is not defined by Hattie as a *key effect size variable related to student achievement. It is just an input that I deem to be very effective and have chosen to use in order to go about achieving the best possible learning outcomes for the students in my classroom. I use it as leverage to get the learning outcomes I desire. It’s science based. It works for me but I will change it or modify it if I see new evidence or research that advises me to do so.

So let’s dig a bit deeper. How does promoting play in my classroom work as a strategy to access the key variables that are at the top of the list of strategies for improving learning? As I have already indicated, I want to build up a strong, trusting relationship with each child in my class. I want to convey to them that I am in control, that I understand their needs and will respond to those (emotional and academic) needs quickly and competently. I want to convey that I am interested in them, that I understand them and I have their best interests at heart. I also want them to know that I am the one that controls access to those wonderful toys that they want to get their hands on. (Teacher credibility – effect size 0.9).

And I want to get to know the students really well so I can find their individual strengths and weaknesses, their beliefs about themselves, what interests them and what motivates them. When that is visible to myself and the students themselves, I can challenge and motivate them to do better, to make more effort, to be prepared to experience some cognitive dissonance and place higher expectations on themselves. That ‘growth mindset’ thing. I am mining for that precious resource called ‘student agency’. “Look at how well you have achieved as a result of all that effort you have put in. Well done, your next step is to do this…” (Self report grades – though Hattie now calls this student expectations – effect size 1.33).

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Hattie effect size variables

All the while I remain mindful of the need to match my expectations of the students with their level of cognitive development as defined by Piaget. Some children have developed fine motor skills and the cognitive ability to write before the age of 7. Many have not. That’s essential knowledge if a teacher is going to be most effective. The students need to be scaffolded appropriately. If the demands placed upon them are beyond their developmental level, fear will dominate and hinder their learning. (Piagetian programmes – effect size 1.28). There is also the role of providing descriptive timely and formative feedback to students. What is the goal? Where are you in relation to it? What can you do to close the gap? The advantage of formative feedback as opposed to summative feedback is its immediacy and timeliness. (Providing formative evaluation – effect size 0.9)

This is why I believe that what I am doing in the classroom, as I have described it, is having a positive impact on the learning taking place in my classroom. But the problem is that these actions are only benefiting the students in my classroom. While the effect sizes of the actions I have described so far are high, the impact is only concentrated on such a small group of students. The next step is to imagine all students having similar access to really effective evidence based teaching. Especially those students who make up that “long tail of underachievement“.

And that’s where things get tricky. I would love the opportunity to share my success. But the unfortunate inevitability of working in an evidence based way is that it is likely, in the early stages at least, to look different to what other teachers are doing. Teaching in a deliberate and evidence based way tends to result in labels such as ‘disobedient’ being used; as a result of following the science, following the research, following the evidence. “Are you telling us that you are a better teacher than us?” “What, you are letting the children play? When are they going to do some serious learning?” All those essential and valuable societal constructions that maintain order and structure also have the impact of being a brake on progress and innovation. They keep us stuck. ollowing the science, following the research, following the evidence

So even though Hattie’s research tells us that the biggest collective impact on student learning happens when teachers are able to share their learning and openly discuss their evidence (effect sizes 1.62+), it turns out that it is an idea that is easier to say than implement. It has become clear to me that the open and high trust environment that I endeavour to generate scientifically in the classroom leads to effective learning outcomes for my students. I no longer have any doubts about that. Does it then, need to be said, that the same science applies in equal measure to adults? But the upscaling that Hattie says is necessary, will only happen when teachers are prepared to challenge their assumptions and honestly assess the evidence that is in front of them. Different voices and viewpoints need to be elicited and taken seriously. A sliver of doubt needs to be present when considering the options available to teachers when attempting such a important task of improving learning outcomes for all students. Rigourous analysis and debate needs to be encouraged. And that kind of analysis and debate can operate within a culture of respect and kindness. Of course. They are not mutually exclusive. But an open, high trust environment is the essential prerequisite.

This is where I am stuck. Here lies the problem. The use of applied behavioural analysis for children or evidence based teaching practice for teachers, means there is no hiding. It means that statements such as, “my child’s behaviour is different/unique/more difficult”, “if only class sizes were smaller” or “the students in my class are different/come from more difficult backgrounds” don’t cut it anymore. It is at this point that our cognitive biases are exposed – “I believe what I perceive and no amount of convincing will tell me otherwise” or “I will happily ignore the evidence and what the research tells me”.

I appreciate that it is normal human behaviour to not want to hear that it is possible to change behaviour or change learning outcomes due to the implications that it (I guess) highlights our own inadequacies and failings. It would mean we would have to take responsibility for the outcome/situation. It is safer to seek an easier target. In the end, I may just have to settle for “John Hattie is deluded if he thinks we can realistically break through the current impasse”. I reckon he needs to walk a few steps in my shoes.

If you have any suggestions or ideas or you want to share your own experiences, please get in touch. Your input is most welcome…particularly if it is grounded in science and evidence. 😉

*Effect size – 0.4 is the average effect size. That is described as the ‘hinge point’. That is the effect size that a typical student’s unimpeded cognitive growth will develop at. Which proves the point that students may in fact be learning despite a teachers imput, or that any growth above that could be coming from parental/home imput. Sobering thought, eh!?

Ease Education: Teaching at a human scale.

You can also find Ease Education on Facebook and Twitter.

More links to Hattie’s effect size analysis can be found below.

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