Beliefs and biases – the biggest challenge faced by education

SpencerRowell

via Spencer Rowell

Some years ago I learned that a research based, evidence informed teaching pedagogy, that would vastly improve learning outcomes for all students, was readily available for all teachers to pick up and adopt immediately. Imagine it? A road map for effective teaching had been provided and was just waiting to be utilised. If only. The unfortunate reality is that this pedagogy is still only of interest to academics and a small group of dedicated teachers. And it’s this disconnection between the research and everyday practice that interests me the most these days. That is, my focus has gradually gone from exploring the features of “best practice teaching” to exploring the beliefs and attitudes of teachers that appear to be stopping them from taking up this amazing offer. My attention has shifted from education practice to one of human psychology. I wonder if it will ever be possible to get a sufficient number of teachers on board to create a “tipping point”? If so, what will it take to make that happen?

Experience tells me that, by and large, teachers are in the business of teaching because they care. It’s a “calling”. There is immense satisfaction in having a positive impact on a child’s education during their formative years. But these days I am more inclined to think that the potential to have a positive impact on student learning is, to a large degree, being squandered. So why is it that teachers would spurn the opportunity to make a positive impact on the students they are teaching? I am not the only teacher receiving the regular memo or attending professional development courses that implore teachers to help fix an education system that is failing so many students. The only difference seems to be that, upon receiving these requests, I started a personal inquiry into how I could make this happen. And let it be known that it was personal by default, not choice.

I found out as much as I could about this ‘magical’ pedagogy. I immersed myself in the research and began to trial it in my classroom. I had to. I had no choice. I had students in my class who were bright and articulate but were unable to engage in the standard learning programme that was expected to be delivered. The only alternative would have been to exclude them from the classroom. But that would be akin to giving up on them. Our judiciary system seems to work in that way. I definitely don’t want our education system to be the same. So I chose to meet these students where they were at. But I had to change my practice in order to get them to where they needed to be. It soon became apparent that this new approach worked for them and for every other student in my classroom. I liked what it was delivering. The children liked what it was delivering. It was delivering exactly as the research said it would. By that, I mean there was significant learning growth taking place. Better still. I had become aware of it and aware of what I was doing to make that learning happen. It was at that point that I felt compelled to share this experience; this new reality.

As well as benefiting the students, it has made my life as a teacher less stressful and more satisfying. But in other ways it’s been harder. Biases are hard to recognise, let alone shift. Teachers are not immune to this reality. It’s naive to think teachers would be any different to the general populace. When I started changing my teaching practice, based on the research and the evidence that was being presented to me, I naively anticipated my achievements would be fêted. Quite the opposite was the reality. It became apparent that applying a tried and tested, yet unfamiliar pedagogy, sets you on a collision course with the prevailing forces of the “status quo”. The default setting is to “shoot the messenger”. The silence, the lack of curiosity, the absence of critical discussion can be deafening. “How dare you challenge our beliefs about teaching or about the children in my care”, can be conveyed equally effectively, in subtle and less subtle ways. But regardless of how it is conveyed, it takes a personal and professional toll. Meanwhile, this incredible pedagogy that I witness on a daily basis never strays beyond the four walls of my classroom. Not for want of trying I hasten to add.

Once again, I sought solace in Hattie’s research. He says, “the biggest collective impact on student learning (effect sizes 1.3+) happens when teachers are able to share their learning and openly discuss their evidence”. That’s the theory. As you will have noted, making that happen in reality has proven to be a significant challenge. To do so teachers would need to leave their beliefs and biases at the door. And in order to do that, they would have to be aware of the existence of those biases in the first place. Maybe Hattie is as naive as I am. Back-slapping and high-fives is evidence of a cooperative environment. This should not been confused with a collaborative environment. Rigourous, managed debate, centred around evidence of learning growth is the hallmark of collaboration. Those with the most compelling evidence are the voices that need to be encouraged to share. An environment needs to be created that allows ideas to be tested in order for the best learning outcomes for all students to be achieved. Strong, confident, informed leadership is a prerequisite. And high expectations. Likewise, a no-fail and supportive approach needs to be in place to ensure all teachers are able to participate in the journey too.

It’s becoming increasingly clear to me that our education system, like our political system, is very resistant to making any material changes. It’s called inertia. Tinkering at the edges is currently as good as it gets. Fads and fashions come and go. Compliance and process are valued ahead of innovation and achievement. But the point needs to be made that unlike politicians,  teachers are in no need to be looking for votes. Teachers are well-paid professionals. They are impartial. They owe a duty of care to offer the best outcomes for all their students and need to be prepared to be challenged. Politely and professionally. They need to be reminded that they are in fact required to deliver best learning outcomes for all. To do so will require best teaching practice. Qualities of being caring and showing good intentions need to be converted into great learning outcomes for all.

At least I no longer assume that change will come automatically, be easy or, be championed by every teacher. There is unlikely to be a safe and easy pathway. But on the positive side I do think I have uncovered the circumstances that allows for the disconnection between research and practice. Beliefs and biases – that is now the focus of my attention. Wish me luck.

Ease Education: Teaching at a human scale.

You can also find Ease Education on Facebook and Twitter.

Why?

EqualityEquity

Removing barriers – systemic change that would benefit education.

Why do I teach in the way I do?

I feel strongly about many things. Things like, the need to protect the environment, and to mitigate against climate change. To improve economic equity and social justice. But these are big issues. And I recognise that my ability to have a constructive influence over these things is very limited.

I also feel strongly about the need to improve education outcomes for all students. As a teacher, I recognise that my ability to have a constructive influence on the students I am responsible for, is very real and immediate. Neither do I make any apologies for viewing education in the same way as other major world problems. As I have described before, failure costs a lot. This is no time for timidness.

Why do I teach in the way I do?

18 years ago, 10 years ago, 5 years ago even, I didn’t know what I didn’t know. I had no real idea of what I was trying to achieve. I simply modeled my teaching on what I was told was best practice. I just gradually became better at (what hindsight has allowed me to see more clearly) implementing a process. I was unaware of the impact I was having. But things have changed. I became curious. After 18 years of toil, I am better at understanding the impact I am having. I have come to appreciate that there is a science to teaching. That is, teaching effectiveness can be measured. Teaching is still a complex business, but knowing that success can be measured with the use of evidence, it means we now have very useful guidelines on the best way to proceed. At least, we should have.

Why do I teach in the way I do?

It’s quite simple really. I want to help ALL students be academically, socially and creatively competent. All my actions are predicated on that goal. If it works, I do it. If it doesn’t, I drop it. It’s about identifying and eliminating the barriers to achieving that goal, as much as it is about me teaching to a particular programme or delivering a specific lesson. Increasingly,  I am seeing signs that many of the barriers that teachers face are self-imposed barriers. Deficit mindsets reflect that we are witnessing a people problem as opposed to an education problem. After all, Hattie tells us that “the biggest effects on student learning occur when teachers become learners of their own teaching, and when students become their own teachers”. Evidence/research based teaching practice is about reflecting on, and changing your teaching practice, as a result of applying research and reflecting on the results that it produces.

To get to this point I have had to get used to feeling uncomfortable. A nagging sense of doubt has always been present. Doubt about the way I was teaching. And a willingness to tolerate being the odd one out. Engaging in evidence based teaching has resulted in that sense of doubt shrinking immensely. Although sadly, being the odd one out has not. But regardless of the growing certainty that I feel, I still encourage myself to maintain a slither of doubt.

Unfortunately, that sense of doubt that I describe, is not something that you will find in abundance in a typical education environment (or within any organisation for that matter). I suspect that is because typically, the traditional form of leadership is premised on characteristics of strength and expertise. Doubt conveys weakness and indecisiveness. Compliance and agreement is rewarded. Also, leadership in this traditional form seems to be focused on managing and containing, rather leading change and expanding. For change and expansion to take place there needs to be a willingness to engage in genuinely collaborative conversations  that look beyond the currently accepted best practice and be prepared to steer a path through uncharted territory of doubt. The right to question needs to be enshrined within the organisation.

This of course highlights the merits of research/evidence based teaching practice. The quality of the questions will be revealed in the evidence. The questions will simply answer themselves. Isn’t that the premise of Hattie’s Visible Learning research?

The power of one word….why?

Ease Education: Teaching at a human scale.

You can also find Ease Education on Facebook and Twitter.

Children at Work.

 

 

 

As my confidence grows, the more willing I am to try out new ideas. This confidence has come about as a result of seeing a beautiful alignment between my teaching practice, Hattie’s Visible Learning research and the evidence that the students in my classroom are presenting to me. I tried something new the other day. In the past, I would have described such an action as a leap of faith. Nowadays, I see it simply as a minor adjustment to fine tune an already successful teaching environment. I saw a need. I addressed it. I evaluated it. And as well it being a successful intervention, I learned something new. I had a eureka moment!!

Based on my increasing awareness and belief in the value of play, I have elevated its presence and role in the classroom significantly. That’s because play is a great strategy for accessing enormous shifts in learning outcomes. I describe what I mean by that here. But I also value play because it is intrinsically valuable. Play develops creativity. Creativity needs to be encouraged. Creativity is a sign of intelligence. Encouraging creativity encourages independent thinking and emotional resilience and engaged learners and …..

But experience tells me that not all children come to school ready and able to reveal their creativity. There are times when it needs to be coaxed out of them. I’m not sure why that is. Perhaps they have not had opportunities to develop the skills necessary to be creative. Maybe they have grown up on a diet of passive digital companionship, or have never had to share toys, or have never been told ‘no’, or come from a family environment in which play is not valued. Whatever the reason, my job is to introduce all the children to the power of play. To give them access to the ‘gold’ that lies within their brain. I support them to scratch below the surface, to dig deeper. To do that, I set the tone, the pace, the expectations of what play looks like, feels like and sounds like in our classroom. I use language and actions that create an environment that leads to an easy uptake/flow of ideas, confidence, curiosity and collaboration.

So it was with this awareness – that not all children were getting full value of the play opportunities that I was providing them with – that I made an adjustment. In effect, I conducted a play session that was very deliberate and visible. I also limited the amount of equipment that could be used to ensure the need to share and collaborate. And the equipment I offered was very generic. ie. blocks that could be fitted together in a multitude of ways and could invite a multitude of interpretations and personalised stories. I watched and encouraged. Particularly the children who were the prime target of my intervention.

I invite you to check out the video above to see the children at work. You can hear the chatter and see the outcome of this 30 minute play time. Unfortunately, you won’t hear the elaborate stories that the children told me about their construction at the end of the session. Believe me, they were excellent. Some were more elaborate than others, of course. But the major success was that those children, who only last week, were telling me that they didn’t like playing with blocks or were not very good at it, had shown a major shift in attitude and ability. I will continue to provide these opportunities and encourage them.

In the video you can also see the unexpected learning moment that occured. Let me explain it a little. During this play session that I had deliberately set up, two children came to me and asked if they could instead, do a maths game that they had learned the other day. This was music to my ears of course. I watched them play the game. I was curious. Previous interactions had revealed to me that these children were really curious about numbers. BTW: Did you notice my little provocation at the end – even though they are only 5-6 years old, and even though the 10 + 5 = ? problem had been solved by straight recall of an addition fact, I extended an invitation to ‘count on from the biggest number’? I reckon it will stick soon. And when it does, they will be ‘showing off’ this new found talent to their colleagues but also helping their colleagues to master this talent.

Learning is contagious. It spreads like a virus when the learning environment is conducive. And this is the nub of the issue that I am trying so desperately to convey. This opportunity also provided me with evidence that contradicts the common misconception amongst teachers that kids don’t like to learn. It proved to me that, on the contrary, kids love to learn. It indicates to me, once again, that it is how we teach that beats a love to learn out of students. I also think that this is an example of what Hattie describes as that pedagogical holy grail when students become teachers and teachers become learners.

Finally, I suggest that opportunities for children to be creative can be offered in the classroom right now. I am hoping that I am offering evidence of why it should be done as well as how it could be done. We love the message that Ken Robinson promotes – we agree with him when he says that schools are failing children. But then we fall at the first hurdle or fail to even arrive at the start line. Teachers continue to find excuses for why it can’t be done. It’s the assessment requirements…it’s that class sizes are too big….it’s the blah, blah, blah…

Actually, it’s teachers who are holding up progress. Once again, it confirms my suspicion that I think we are talking about a human problem, not an education problem.

Ease Education: Teaching at a human scale.

You can also find Ease Education on Facebook and Twitter.

Defining effective pedagogy.

MathsExerciseBook

Needless to say, tidy handwriting has no correlation to ability in maths

‘Pedagogy’ is a word you will see often on this site and occasionally I get asked what it means. The dictionary definition reads: “the method and practice of teaching”. But of course, I’m not going to leave it at that. I want to give a more practical, concrete definition of the word. To do so, I have provided the image (above) of a page from my year 6 maths exercise book from when I was attending an Auckland primary school in the 70’s. From looking at this exercise book it would be safe to say that a lot of time was spent copying down maths rules and completing maths problems that were written up on the blackboard. That was the pedagogy being utilised by my teacher at that time. I was a very compliant student and took pride in my handwriting ability. I wonder if every other 10 year old child in that class was able to produce beautifully written notes like that.

When I flick through the pages of this book it leads me to conclude that my aptitude and attitude in the subject of maths peaked around this time. In hindsight, I don’t think I was necessarily bad at maths. I would suggest that adding unequal fractions at 10 years old was a developmentally appropriate achievement. I can recall the proud moment in that year when I mastered this skill. I also recall being very scared of the teacher. And also, scared of being wrong. I have strong memories of being reprimanded for not being able to understand the concept of unequal fractions when it was first introduced by the teacher. There was a mysterious quality about maths that I never managed to unravel. Mostly it was about relying heavily on rules that we were required to learn by rote. But what did all those numbers actually mean? I don’t recall having opportunities to apply and test that knowledge. The learning that we were doing was taking place at a surface level only. And that sums up the difference between effective and non-effective pedagogy; the ability to go deeply into learning and do the high level – creating, generalising, predicting – type of thinking that I describe here.

Now I would like to apply this examination of effective pedagogy to the question of the merit of open plan classrooms. I have argued before that it is how teachers teach rather than where they teach that should be the main consideration. So here is an opportunity to speculate on whether my experience of maths pedagogy as a child would have been any better had my classroom at the time been an open plan classroom? Possibly yes and possibly no. Yes, because I could have been lucky and my teacher at the time could have been required to share a teaching space with a teacher who knew how to teach maths to 10 year olds in an effective way. So I could have been exposed to an effective teacher who employed effective pedagogy. Or maybe not. Maybe it would have been business as usual. Maybe all the teachers in the shared space were engaged in delivering the same pedagogy. And besides, even if there was a teacher in the space that was a practitioner of effective pedagogy, I have very good reason to suspect that it would not have made a significant difference to my maths. Why? Because to do so, the school environment would have needed to be very different. It would have needed to be one in which all the teachers were encouraged and willing to, in the words of Hattie…

“hold collaborative discussions with colleagues and students about the evidence of student achievement, thus making the effect of their teaching visible to themselves and to others.”

That last sentence – that’s the killer app. Experience tells me that the prerequisite cultural environments in which open, honest conversations between teachers and students in the classroom and between teachers themselves, about what’s working and what’s not, don’t really exist in the real world. Getting teachers to engage in meaningful and honest conversations of this kind is incredibly difficult. I can attest to that. It will take leaders who are confident and trusting, to create and sustain the necessary cultural environment to allow for these conversations to take place. In the absence of a conducive culture, any efforts to teach in an evidence based way and engage in meaningful conversations about that evidence tends to result in one being labeled as ‘disobedient’ or ‘not a team player’. Inevitably, breaking free from a traditional way of teaching – a familiar pedagogy, is not easy. The system is resistant to change. This explains why I no longer view this as a teaching problem, but as a people problem.

Pedagogy – there are a multitude of ways of doing it. But some ways are more effective than others.

Ease Education: Teaching at a human scale.

You can also find Ease Education on Facebook and Twitter.

Failure costs a lot: an argument for changing the way we teach.

Toys

A magnificent story was unfolding in front of my eyes.

Imagine you are the first person ever to have circumnavigated the globe and your return home is met with disbelief, rather than excitement and curiosity. “That’s not possible”, they say. “The world is flat”. Unfortunately, that’s a fairly apt description of how it can feel to be working at the leading edge of innovation and best practice in the education sector. That’s not to say that pockets of interest and curiosity don’t exist. But those conversations tend to be conducted in hushed voices.

Even though there seems to be a growing awareness of a need for change in the way the education system works, inevitably it is incredibly difficult to shift systems and mindsets. The naysayers and the unfamiliar remain unconvinced, and at times, hostile to any requests to explore the issue. I have learned that there is little to be gained by offering a solution prior to developing any consensus that a problem actually exists. But the reality is that neither the research nor the evidence lies. The argument for change is a very compelling one. But the first hurdle to clear may in fact be the need to establish a consensus that change does indeed need to happen.

It is my desire to be curious and innovative that sustains me. It’s why I have dedicated myself to this challenge. There are of course, times when this challenge has the feeling of a curse. The good news is that I realise that I am no longer unsure about the way forward. Once again, the research supports my actions and the evidence I witness everyday in the classroom is all the validation I need. The genie is out of the bottle, so to speak. That’s why I feel optimistic that, over the long-term, change will happen. But I am less optimistic in the short term. It can be frustrating.

I believe the most compelling reason for changing the way we teach is very simple. Failure costs a lot. Every disengaged student and every student who leaves school under-educated bears a personal cost as well as a cost to society. This has to be a reason to take the issue seriously. And what’s even more troubling about this is the fact that teachers are reminded regularly of the existence of this long tail of under-achievement and are implored to improve the learning outcomes for these students.

Success at eliminating this tail of under-achievement is attainable to us. But only if we are prepared to implement a research based/evidence based teaching model. And all the best research and evidence directs us to a model that is premised on putting human relationships at the front and centre. Being knowledgable is no substitute for being nice. That’s because we now know that the most effective learning takes place when the children are leading it. A teacher’s primary function is therefore, to provide a learning environment that enables this.

An effective learning environment is one in which a high degree of trust exists between the teacher and the students, as well as among the students themselves. An environment that fosters collaboration. The teacher does this by listening to the students with an open heart, walking in their shoes, and by offering unconditional support. I teach 5-6 year olds so I keep asking myself, “how would a 5 year old be thinking and feeling at the moment?” It means that students need to be met where they are at, not where the teacher is at, or where the teacher thinks they should be at. It’s a ‘judgement free’ zone. It’s a flexible and organic environment that caters to every child’s individual needs and circumstances. It means that, to a large extent, a student’s difficult home life can be parked at the entrance to the classroom door every morning. It means that the teacher can offer an engaging and stimulating learning environment that encourages children to think, share, create and make cognitive connections.

The teacher needs to do everything and anything necessary to keep all students engaged and learning. The teacher is required to be a problem solver and do what works for the children. Inevitably, this means creating a learning environment that caters to the students that are most challenged academically and socially. “Get the learning environment right for them and you will get it right for everyone” is the saying. That may seem paradoxical. Some parents may need convincing. But remember, the most effective learning environment is one in which the students are leading it. It’s an environment in which all students can achieve at their best – academically, socially, creatively. And nor is there any need to sacrifice creativity for academic learning. There is no place for siloed thinking in teaching. Too often I see the current teaching model acting like a glass ceiling; students are being hampered from achieving their best by the barriers that teachers inadvertently place in front of them.

The positive impact of putting the most challenging children at the forefront of teaching practice is that it provides the teacher with the most immediate and effective feedback and therefore the best learning opportunities. It provides excellent feedback to the questions of “how am I doing as a teacher?” and “how effective am I being as a teacher?” And as it turns out, creating a learning environment for the most challenging children is a very low risk strategy. That’s because the research also tells us that there is very little that a teacher can do to inhibit a child’s learning. The sad reality for teachers is that children learn despite us. That’s why teachers need to focus on what deliberate teaching strategies they can implement in order to get ALL their students working as close as possible to their developmentally appropriate stage. The other benefit of taking this approach is that it can operate as a pilot project. Successes and failures can be learned and managed on a small scale before being shared and implemented at a wider level.

Finally, for this education model to be successful, the same ingredients that make learning successful for students, need to be carried over into the teacher realm as well. This means that it’s essential that schools operate in a way that encourages genuine collaboration. Teachers need to feel safe and trusted. All teachers need to be invited to share their knowledge and understandings and be prepared to participate in critical reflection in light of evidence about their teaching. In the words of Hattie,

This requires teachers to gather defensible and dependable evidence from many sources, and hold collaborative discussions with colleagues and students about this evidence, thus making the effect of their teaching visible to themselves and to others.

I think it is safe to say that schools are still, by and large, ‘evidence free zones’. For too many, the world is still flat. And it is hard to convince otherwise. Where to from here, I wonder? Trying to establish a consensus for change may be the best approach. In the meanwhile I will continue to place high expectations on myself and all the students in my care. Especially the ones who are at risk of failing. I will also remain an impatient optimist and continue to be a practitioner of evidence based teaching. Care to join me? Anyone?

Ease Education: Teaching at a human scale.

You can also find Ease Education on Facebook and Twitter.

Let’s talk about how teachers teach, not where teachers teach.

MLE

Image via Stuff.co.nz

In this post I want to revisit the topic of open plan classrooms. I have written about this topic before, but since then, I have learned that a comprehensive research project is being undertaken to try and determine the impact of open plan classrooms on learning outcomes for students. According to the lead researcher, Dr Imms, the focus of the research is to study the practices teachers could use to make the most of flexible learning environments*. Dr Imms says the research can “help us to learn how we can optimise these spaces and how can we make sure teachers are getting the support they need to be able to utilise the spaces they’ve been given as best they possibly can.”

My first response to this was “Say What?” The implication seems to be that these new learning environments are being built first and then an effort is being made to 1). find out how good they actually are and 2). try to work out how these spaces could be used most effectively. And you can be assured that open plan classrooms are going to have an impact on a growing number of people. That’s because as new schools are being built or refurbished, some element of an open plan environment is going to be incorporated into the design. It is inevitable that over time, the traditional single cell classroom will be making way to an open and bigger teaching space. It sounds like a case of when, not if. It seems to me that the intent behind these kinds of teaching spaces is honourable but the reality is far more complex and uncertain than we are led to believe.

So with an eye on this new and ongoing research project, I want to look further into the implications of this move towards open plan classrooms. In my original post on the topic, I reiterated what Hattie’s research says (and which I have come to support through my personal experience in the classroom) that, unless teacher pedagogy is adapted to innovations such as open plan classrooms, there are no benefits to be gained. Dr Imms’ research project contradicts that position to a certain degree. While he concludes that high quality teaching can also occur in traditional classrooms, there is a greater incidence of poor-quality teaching in those rooms. I think this is an important point. That is, effective learning can take place in single cell classrooms. But nonetheless, he believes there is evidence to suggest a strong correlation between open plan teaching environments and high-quality teaching and learning.

I think there may be a simple explanation for the correlation that he describes. Imagine you have a single cell classroom operating with a really ineffective teacher and put that teacher into a shared space with a more effective teacher, then it is quite possible that the learning outcomes for children of the ineffective teacher will rise. That’s going to be a likely outcome because outlier teachers at the extreme end of the bell curve will be pulled towards the middle of the curve. That’s got to be a good thing. The problem I see though, is that the converse could quite easily happen as well. I think it’s possible that in such a scenario, a very effective teacher could lose their effectiveness. It’s a case of those teachers being pulled back towards the middle of the curve. Ideally, the entire shape of the curve needs to move. So while some correlation between open plan classrooms and improvements in learning may have been identified, it has a “by luck rather by design” feel to it.

Which once again, brings us to the key point. Hattie’s research asks us to consider the question; “what is the best pedagogy that teachers can use to get the best learning outcomes for all their students, regardless of the style of their classrooms?” Which leads us to conclude that, in terms of creating the most desirable learning outcomes for all students, it is not the type of space that matters. But unfortunately, that question is still not being asked with any real conviction. The focus needs to be on identifying the teachers who know what makes leaning effective and empowering them to up-skill their colleagues. It’s as though open plan spaces are being offered as the next best thing. It is likely that these spaces will improve the outcomes for the students most seriously effected by poor quality teaching. But for the rest, it’s business as usual.

Compared to trying to change the way teachers teach, building new learning spaces is a doddle. Implementing desperately needed changes to a system that is so resistant to change is always going to be hard. It would require teachers working collaboratively and sharing their expertise. However, genuine collaboration is incredibly difficult to achieve. But that’s not a teaching problem. It’s a people problem. We need to be having a conversation about how teachers teach, not where they teach. After all, children completing photocopied worksheets is the exact same activity whether it’s taking place in a traditional classroom or in an open plan classroom.

*The terms flexible learning environment (FLE), modern learning environment (MLE) and innovative learning environment (ILE) are all synonymous with the term open plan classroom (OPC). These terms are interchangeable. To keep things simple, I will simply refer to these learning spaces as open plan classrooms.

Ease Education: Teaching at a human scale.

You can also find Ease Education on Facebook and Twitter.

You can find links to media articles relating to Dr Imms’ research below.

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What can the movie Monster’s Inc reveal about effective teaching?

Monsters2

“We scare because we care.” An example of ‘deficit thinking’?

Monster’s Inc is such a clever movie. I never tire of watching it. The first time I watched it, I was struck by the premise of the movie – that laughter could generate more electricity than scaring could. Yeah, nah, that’s just a silly idea from a kids’ movie, I hear you say. But please don’t dismiss it so quickly. When I discovered that making a classroom a vibrant, happy, positive place was an essential part of creating a great learning environment, both my teaching experience, and the learning outcomes for the students, improved dramatically. I’m describing an environment that is based on a foundation of positive relationships – teacher/student and student/student. And once again, it is not just a vague, warm fuzzy feeling that I am referring to. It’s an environment in which students have agency. The students are directing and managing their learning. The teacher is able to sit back, orchestrate and learn from the students. It’s dynamic and agile. I often find myself referring to this manifesto to keep things on track.

I would encourage every teacher to move mountains in order to create this kind of learning environment. I have interpreted the Visible Learning teaching pedagogy as a ‘green light’ to do so; as a way of building student agency. There you go. That’s a licence for every teacher to change the way in which they teach. But to do so, really does require the teacher to operate from a growth mindset. Like in Monsters Inc, there needs to be a strong belief in the idea that laughter is in fact, more powerful than fear.

But really? Students can be trusted to engage in this process? Well, yes. And now we are starting to see the evidence to validate this. Economist Alexander Wagner conducted an experiment that concluded that 70% of people are good and motivated by altruistic reasons. (Refer to the link below). If that is true, then it has big implications for how we engage with students in their learning. I suggest that this knowledge is an essential resource for teachers to tap into. I witness the existence of this phenomenon everyday. I see the children in my class wanting to learn. I have practiced harnessing it, rather than stifling it. They are like sponges. They are curious and open to new ideas. Teaching under these conditions is a breeze. Teaching under these conditions is a positive experience. It becomes more about guiding and less about cajoling.

But what about that 30%, I hear you ask? I think I probably start the school year with about 30% who are not so altruistically inclined. Or at least, haven’t been given the opportunity to experience or demonstrate the merits of working altruistically. But that gets whittled down pretty quickly with the right pedagogy and motivators in place. It takes time, patience and consistency. Eventually almost all the children are on the proverbial bus together and participating in a supportive and collaborative learning journey – academic and social.

It is also worth noting that I have found it important and helpful to distinguish between students whose behaviours can be distinguished between behaviour that is:

  • challenging and provocative. eg. “This is boring”. I embrace comments like this. I reflect on these kinds of comments and try to determine their basis. It may well have some legitimacy. It’s an opportunity to find out more about the student and consider a modification to the teaching practice being utilised. In this scenario it is important to get the learning environment right.
  • under-developed social skills. If this is the case, there are strategies that are available to teachers that can help nudge the student towards displaying more socially acceptable behaviours. I would suggest that emotional competency is prerequisite to achieving full academic engagement. In this scenario it is important to provide positive and consistent messages and expectation.

Sometimes, both approaches will need to be taken in tandem.

If you still have some doubts about all this, I suggest you go and watch Monsters Inc (again). If nothing else, it will make you laugh.

Ease Education: Teaching at a human scale.

You can also find Ease Education on Facebook and Twitter.

Inspiration and scientific analysis for this blog post come from economist Alexander Wagner’s Ted Talk, “What really motivates people to be honest in business”. You can find the link below.

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Why the education system is stuck and what can be done to unstick it.

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Operating from a growth mindset. Building positive relationships.

It feels like all those years I have spent teaching up until now, have been like an apprenticeship. And it feels now like I have finally arrived at a point of mastery. It has all been worthwhile. By deliberately applying the best research to my teaching practice it has enabled some amazing results to be achieved. The students are leading their own learning as well as helping me with my learning. These are exciting times for me. But there is one problem. I thought my colleagues would be as equally excited. That there would be some level of curiosity. That I would start to hear comments like, “Wow, how come all the children are achieving so well academically and socially?” Or, “How come the children are all so engaged with their learning?” But the silence has been deafening. I have been wondering whether this is an example of the wilful blindness, that I have previously made reference to.

So I have gone back to the drawing board. I’ve decided to see if I could discover the reasons for how this could be. Why is it that the children can be doing so well but I am still be unable to convince my colleagues of this? And as I started to search I began to realise that there is a bigger story to be told. That there is a key element that links my personal experience to how the world functions. I started to see the links between my personal experience and the existence of all the major and minor problems in the world and our inability to acknowledge them or address them successfully. Economic issues come to mind – how to address poverty. Or environmental issues – how to address climate change. There is a universality to these problems. Education is no different.

It seems as though the qualities that set humans apart from other animals; those qualities that have allowed us to achieve such remarkable achievements, are also the qualities that act as the barriers to progress and resolving problems. In respect to education, the research tells us that the biggest impact on learning is the human element – our social qualities, our ability to build relationships. Sure, you need to know the curriculum – some stuff about maths and the mechanics of reading is always going to be useful. But as I am discovering, that is not enough. Because “children don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.” And that’s why I want to explore how it is that humans have the potential to have the biggest positive impact on learning, but at the same time, also be the biggest barrier. My hope is that once we can acknowledge and understand this dissonance, we may have a better chance of creating the necessary changes and improvements.

A system that is entrenched and resistant to change

The education system we have may not exactly be the best one, but it kind of works – for most people. Or at least, that’s what we tell ourselves. Instead of trying to change the system, we become well practiced at ignoring its inadequacies and blaming the people it doesn’t work for. We label these people as flawed and unresponsive to an adequate system, rather than as an inadequate system being flawed and unresponsive to decent people. A system that has evolved over many centuries is hard to change, even if any rational person can see it is overdue for change. And it is within this narrow framework that teachers are invited to help those who are failing. So inevitably, the actions that result, amount to the equivalent of tinkering at the edges.

This inability to make the required wholesale changes is due to the existence of a condition called ‘path dependence‘. It’s really hard to deviate from a well worn path. The features that exist in the current education system were put in place to serve a function at the time it was created. These features persist even though everything around them has changed. This locked in way of thinking/doing things means that we simply end up hoping that the system we have inherited will evolve sufficiently to be able to deal with modern problems – such as the impact of technological disruption on employment that we are now starting to witness.

Try adopting a proven model?

But maybe there is some hope. If our education system is so deeply flawed maybe we could turn to one of those successful education models that exist already in northern European countries, like Denmark. What’s stopping us from adopting those models as a template of successful alternative pathways and importing them directly? Unfortunately, the reality is that templates don’t work well. A solution imposed from above is less likely to be effective. Change will be successful and sustainable only when it comes about organically and has ‘buy in’ from the users of the system. The end users need to have had a chance to contribute to the creation of the new system.

And you are correct if you are seeing a link between effective and sustainable teaching practice in the classroom and the implementation of effective and sustainable change to the education system at large. At both a macro and a micro level, creating user agency via problem solving, is the name of the game. We all need to be invited to put our thinking hats on and work together as problem solvers. Working together to solve problems is what humans do very well. That is the culture of collaboration that I have generated and get to witness the results of, everyday in my classroom. It is when children are invited to present their best ideas in an authentic and genuine way, that the magic starts to happen. But this kind of collaboration will only be achieved successfully if the environment is conducive. There needs to be a genuine free flowing of ideas. It is a high trust/growth mindset model of teaching. Therefore, it takes confidence and a high level of ability in relationship skills to attain this. These are the very human qualities that are most needed. Teachers need to be encouraged to think and care at the most human level. Because, once again, “children don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.”

Up scaling this reality from the micro level to the broader, societal level needs to be seen as an achievable goal. To do so, we need a shared vision and shared goals that will promote a self sustaining education system. And via an effective education system we can help create a society that is economically and socially prosperous. The goals need to be able to address these moral and ethical questions at the broadest level. And of course, we need education leaders to inspire us to seek out solutions that will enable us to achieve these goals. Politicians, policy makers and educators need to be held accountable for setting and achieving these goals. Those goals need to be in line with appropriate academic achievement and social well-being targets. National Standards need to be seen as part of the solution, not a cause of the problem. And most importantly, we need to be encouraged to participate in genuine and robust conversations about what needs to take place. Only then will there be a chance for any significant progress to be made.

The art of self delusion and conflict avoidance

But wait, there’s more. Beyond the problem of inheriting an inflexible system and needing to employ very human qualities to create a more desirable system, lies a greater challenge. Humans have many great qualities but unfortunately, honesty is not one of them. Honesty, when it counts, that is. Humans have a propensity for lying. Everybody does it. People are in the habit of lying in their daily lives. I’m not describing the lying of a sociopath, but rather, the self delusional type. Humans are social creatures. The constructive need and desire to fit in, can also be destructive when it takes the shape of saying and doing what you think is desirable rather than, what is correct. It is called a social desirability bias. It means that we tend to rationalise our decisions to suit our own internal narratives and intuition. It means we avoid telling the truth in order to fit in socially and to avoid conflict. You can test this theory by observing your responses when completing a survey. Note how your responses will change depending on whether your response is anonymous or not. That’s because, when we are revealing information about ourselves, we tend to lie.

An effective education system should not be measured by the level of compliance and self congratulation but in its ability to embrace a conflict of ideas and willingness to strive for long lasting improvement for everyone. Dealing with conflict in a constructive way is a very human skill that can be learned and practiced. If used appropriately, it is a skill that will enhance personal relationships and the benefits will flow on into the learning environment in the classroom.

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Postscript: Still not convinced about the benefits of positive social relationships? According to this research, an emphasis on close personal relationships and face to face interactions is the primary cause of the positive life outcomes and longevity of the people of Sardinia.

Ease Education: Teaching at a human scale.

You can also find Ease Education on Facebook and Twitter.

Inspiration and scientific analysis for this blog post come from the clever people at Freakonomics. See below for the links.

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Are you ready to think differently?

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Who is the target audience here – teachers or students?

It was when I became aware of the importance of my mindset that I noticed the magic really starting to happen in the classroom. I started to realise that it was the changing of my own mindset that needed to be the catalyst for change. It was through this shift in my own thinking that I realised it would be possible to create shifts in the way the children would think and operate. And it was this process that led to learning outcomes for all students starting to improve. It was then that undesirable behaviours started to disappear. It was that shift in my mindset that allowed for the natural curiosity, that all children possess, to come to the fore.

Every day I am discovering that we are all wired to be kind and compassionate. This human condition is innate but sometimes lies dormant. It may need a spark to be activated. It’s a condition that needs to be created deliberately. If done correctly, an environment can exist in which kindness and compassion will flourish. An environment that will embody dignity and respect. But it does take time.

There needs to be lots of conversations. Conversations that highlight the reality that, the classroom belongs to everyone. The teacher needs to convey the sense that everyone is important and equal; that a common goal exists. That’s because people are naturally more likely to invest in themselves if they believe that their community is willing to invest in them. It’s possible that this kind of environment can be made to become self-sustaining. Success will lead to success. There will be a sense that everyone is moving towards a common goal. Collaboration will be prevalent.

It is the teacher that has the power to make this happen. The teacher is the catalyst. Teachers need to be able to see the children as amazing beings, worthy of investing in. They also need to be agile and flexible and have a problem solving attitude. Solutions to problems need to be simple and sustainable over a long time. If punitive approaches to behaviour are being relied on, then something needs to change. The root of the problem needs to be found. It can be found if there is a willingness to look with honesty and integrity.

Of course, this all confirms the research. “Teacher/student relationship” is a key criteria for making learning effective. It really does make sense. And fortunately for me, I get to witness it everyday in the classroom.

Ease Education: Teaching at a human scale.

You can also find Ease Education on Facebook and Twitter.

 

How effective is your teaching practice?

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Reading Levels #1, 2017

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Reading Levels #2, 2017

I made a claim on this site recently that I had managed to turn my classroom into a learning environment in which all students were able to experience enormous growth in their reading achievement. You can find that post, here. I decided to take it a step further and turn the reading data into graph form. I did this because I wanted to get a visual representation of what I was witnessing and help substantiate my claim. I focused on reading simply because it lends itself to data collection better than other subjects. But I’m describing a learning environment that is effective across all curriculum areas.

There are two critical components to this claim. They are as follows:-

  1. The inclusive nature of that growth. ie. all students are benefiting.
  2. Being able to identify the pedagogy being employed to create that growth.

Teachers are being asked constantly, to find ways to help lift the long tail of underachievement that exists within schools. That’s been part of my motivation to create the learning environment that I describe. But it’s also because this kind of learning environment is just better for everyone, including myself. It’s a constructive model of teaching. It’s success is greater than simply enabling students to reach the required standards.

All students who enter a classroom at the beginning of the year arrive with a wide range of academic and social dispositions. They all came to class with different social and educational backgrounds, and expectations. With the right pedagogy in place, the fact that all students come to class with these differences, is no longer a problem.

That’s because there exists a teaching pedagogy that can:-

  • close any gaps in the learning potential that may exist, amongst the students, when they enter the classroom at the beginning of the year. It is also able to avoid any of those gaps getting wider during the year.
  • support the teacher to identify the needs and set achievement goals that match each individual student. It allows for all new learning to be built on the learning already achieved. That bar of achievement needs to keep being raised, incrementally.
  • encourage students to work together. This means that the more capable students get to reinforce what they have learned, and at the same time, helping out the less able ones to improve their learning.

It is worth noting that the student’s actual reading results are only a part of the story. Of course we want all the students to manage to attain the required National Standard. But what we should be particularly interested in, is the trajectory of the students’ reading results; the level of growth/improvement. From looking at the graphs you will not be able to determine the boys from the girls, the students who are finding it straightforward from the ones who are getting the most support from me, the students whose first language is not English from the students whose first language is English, the students who are self managing from those who need support to manage themselves. All boats are rising more or less equally. Everyone’s a winner. No students are ‘flatlining’.

And there is some good news for students who have not reached the standard yet. Terms one and two tend to be settling in time. Establishing routines. Building a class culture. It is in the final two terms of the year that most progress is achieved. That’s when the learning has the potential to be super charged. It reflects the high levels of enthusiasm and growing levels of self confidence amongst the students. This student agency that I am describing is something that I put a lot of value on, and a lot of effort into generating. Once it is established, this agency then starts developing a life of its own. It becomes the force that generates the self sustaining improvements in reading amongst the students. It’s that “students become teachers and teachers become learners” scenario that I have previously discussed.

Ease Education: Teaching at a human scale.

You can also find Ease Education on Facebook and Twitter.

Notes about the graphs: see below….

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