Creating a learning culture that creates the best learning outcomes for everyone

Creating a positive learning culture starts with simple, meaningful, achievable expectations

I am increasingly aware that my teaching practice is not one that you will witness in a typical school environment. And since starting this blog I have come to the realisation that it is very hard to share this teaching practice beyond my own classroom. While I am resigned to this reality, I remain committed to delivering the evidence-based practice that I have refined over many years of experience. It’s impossible not to. The results I am seeing make it all worthwhile.

Of course I am not the only one who sees a need for change. I was invited to comment on Briar Lipson’s report called “New Zealand’s Education Delusion”. In short, Briar’s assertion is that 1. New Zealand’s education system is failing and 2. this failure is as a result of a shift to a child-centred teaching orthodoxy and 3. this failure will be remedied by replacing the relatively brief and non-prescriptive NZ Curriculum with a curriculum that is more prescriptive which will in turn allow for teachers to put themselves at the centre of teaching and learning.

Fortunately, you will be hard pressed to find an education academic who is not acutely aware of the failure in New Zealand education that she describes. The problem lies in finding agreement on the cause and the solution. The New Zealand Curriculum is lauded for its simplicity and capacity to give teachers the freedom and flexibility to support the delivery of high quality education outcomes. Nor is there a shortage of research that spells out what good teaching and learning looks like. If this is an accurate observation of the reality of the NZ education system, then the key ingredient to reversing the failure in New Zealand education has to be about improving teacher proficiency. Let me spell this out. Teacher proficiency is the biggest determiner of education outcomes. The failure that Briar’s report describes will be reversed when schools are full of competent teachers. And that is going to be hard to achieve when school leaders invariably are not able to distinguish effective teachers from non-effective ones. It is difficult to shift the status-quo.

My two decades of teaching experience reveals that the best learning outcomes are achieved when the teacher is able to find the right balance between ‘teacher-centred and student-sensitive” learning. It’s about designing and implementing learning that works and responding appropriately to the evidence. I have seen what it looks like. But as I have already suggested, making my experience common practice is easier said than done. Why? That is what I am mostly curious about now. For me, I am now starting to see it as a human problem rather than an education problem.

The reality is that the world operates on systems and behaviours that are typically akin to a “factory model”. Classrooms are no exception to this. In the classroom, under this model, you will typically see lots of control, supervision, compliance with rules, vigorous attention to detail and avoidance of mistakes. In my classroom, I keep it simple to ensure that everyone is successful. I prescribe generalised and meaningful non-negotiable expectations. Simple things such as “do your best, be authentic, be an awesome learner”. Expectations like this operate as foundations for inspired learning and behaviour. Whereas, rules tend to operate as ceilings and constraints. The model I prefer is built on mutual trust and support. But because not all children come to school able to fulfil those expectations immediately, my primary role is to help all students find their authentic selves and discover their academic and social potential. To achieve this I rely on patience, determination and skill, in equal measure.

This approach can be seen to be very teacher-directed but the intent is of course, to draw the students into eventually being the centre of their own learning. The expectations I impose and the way in which I teach are designed to generate inspiration, curiosity, innovation, empowerment, self management, self control, flexibility… The learning becomes a process rather than a predetermined outcome. My role is one of benevolent dictator, instructor, inquisitor, cheerleader, conductor, counselor, advocate, referee… This means that the learning journey we embark on is one based on teamwork and collaboration. Under my watchful eye and guidance.

Another feature of a classroom with a positive learning culture is one in which high levels of transparency and honesty exist. It is up to the teacher to set the tone and levels of tolerance for these qualities through modelling. While it is important for the teacher to have a positive emotional connection with the students, it is also critical for the students to experience and tolerate meaningful and authentic feedback. The good news is that if the teacher models the process well, the students will become trusted to deliver the feedback to one another. And you will find that feedback from a peer is the most powerful form. It is at this point that you will find the simple and authentic learning expectations that you set up at the beginning of the year will start to prove their real value. These expectations become embedded.

The prospect of creating a learning culture which I have described may make teachers and teacher leaders nervous. I suggest that that would be a suitable emotion to be feeling. But it shouldn’t be enough to stop teachers from taking a first step. The best learning will happen when students get a real sense of the freedom and responsibility that has been previously denied to them. The best learning will happen when students feel empowered to tolerate and learn from mistakes. But remember, this is a long term process. It won’t happen overnight and it needs a teacher who is competent and skilled to lead the students on this kind of learning journey.

Good luck and follow the evidence.

Can the cause and failure of NZ’s education be found in this report?

You can find a digital copy of Briar’s report on The New Zealand Initiative website and you can read my response to her report in The New Zealand Herald here.

Ease Education: Teaching at a human scale.

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