A critique of ‘play-based’ learning.

Class1

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.

Children love to learn – here’s how I know.

Blocks

I see creativity, persistence, success, pride…

It was 2:30 pm on a Friday afternoon. There was just 30 minutes remaining until it was time to down tools and clock off for the weekend. All the essential afternoon tasks had been completed. I was feeling happy with the way the week had gone. It had been productive and insightful, as usual. But we still had 30 minutes until it was time to say our farewells.

I decided some years ago that I would always make the afternoon session of the day easy and pleasant. My focus became one of ensuring all children left the classroom at the end of the day with a smile on their face and a positive memory to go home with. It all came about with the creation of my teaching manifesto; a non-negotiable approach to teaching that ensures the learning taking place in the classroom is the most appropriate. ie. First and foremost, my teaching practice is prefaced on accommodating the wide range of social and emotional needs of all the children. Effective academic learning can only happen when this foundation exists.

So it’s before lunch that all the ‘serious’ learning takes place. After lunch it’s about listening to stories, some low key creative expression activities and some reflection time/culture building time. While I am referring to children who are only 5-6 years old, I think it would make good sense to apply this practice to older age groups too.

One of the options that I provide the children with occasionally is to have some unstructured drawing time. I have found this to be a worthwhile activity for a wide range of reasons. One of the key aspects has been to observe the growth in ability and confidence among the children with their drawing. Of course, there is a lot of cross-pollination. It becomes apparent very quickly who the ‘talented’ ones are. The inorganic process of reflection and feedback is wonderful to watch. But not all the children are so keen to draw and I feel no need to compel them. Some will decide to go to the library corner to read and socialise.

On this particular Friday afternoon, a group of students had gathered on the floor to draw. Well at least, that’s what I thought they were doing. I got an inkling that something else was happening when one of the students came up to me to confirm that 8 and 8 did in fact, make 16. Rather than draw, this group of 5-6 year olds were writing out number equations based on doubles. That they were engaged in discussing and solving number problems is very telling and inspires me to keep teaching in the way that I am. Their curiosity and engagement, their willingness to challenge themselves and be challenged by me, speaks volumes for the way the learning takes place in our classroom…”when students become the teacher and the teacher becomes the learner.”

Get the pedagogy right, and be prepared to be inspired and inspiring. As I have said before, learning is contagious. Children love to learn.

Ease Education: Teaching at a human scale.

You can also find Ease Education on Facebook and Twitter.

Stop blaming the children. Start fixing the system instead.

NYC School

A climate of fear tends not to encourage the best learning.

I love sharing and reflecting on the magic taking place in my classroom. My hope is that it can inspire fellow teachers to reflect on the impact they are having on the social, emotional and academic well being of the students in their care. My hope is that it will eventually provoke an honest and considered conversation that will lead to better learning outcomes for all students within the education system. Yes, I appreciate that that’s a lofty goal.

But despite what we wish to tell ourselves, all is ‘not well at mill’. That’s why it’s critical that we move beyond the personal and speak in a way that puts the wider education interests of our children at the forefront. Not a day goes by that I don’t dispair at the enormity of the problem we are facing. Systems are notoriously difficult to change. But that should not stop us from facing up to the reality. Sure, celebrating success is essential but let’s not avoid tackling the core issues as well. Those unconscious biases run deep.

So as I continue along the path of delivering a reflective, evidence based teaching programme, I will also continue to be the conscience of educators. And just because you may not witness personally the issues that are being referred to, it does not mean they do not occur. Finding examples is easy. But addressing the problem? Not so easy. Maybe it helps to appreciate that it is not an issue solely for educators to deal with. That it needs to be seen as a human rights issue as well.

I for one, am hopeful that the victims of historic abuse in state care will get the justice they deserve.

Or how can a 4 year old boy run over and killed by a lawnmower in a public park be described as no more than a tragic accident?

In a New York city school, a teacher was videoed terrorising the children in her care during a maths lesson. I note that John Hattie says that it is very difficult for teachers to stop a child from learning. I think the teacher in this video makes a very good attempt to prove that theory wrong.

Or in 2017, it came to light that a New Zealand school was utilizing a ‘seclusion room’ as a way of dealing with ‘difficult behaviour’. I wonder how the Ombudsman’s Inquiry into the issue is progressing? I don’t recall hearing a great deal of contrition being offered by the school when this issue came to public attention.

And back in 2015, a group of teenagers got to speak publicly to the New Zealand parliament to describe their negative experiences in the classroom. They described incidents of being bullied and mistreated by their teachers; of being told they were unteachable; that their work was described as ‘shit’, then ripped up and put in the bin; of being told to stay in at lunch time and do it again.

I also wonder whether classroom culture played some role in the death of Aryan Banerjee in a New Zealand school in 2015. Aryan was left unattended in the class to finish some writing while the teacher took the rest of the children out to play. Why was that? Was Aryan, in effect, being punished for not completing his writing? Is that best teaching practice? Is this a reminder that it is time to put a halt to the overused practice of exclusion in schools? In the end, the school managed to have it presented as a health and safety issue. In the end it would appear that the caretaker was made the ‘fall guy’ for failing to ensure door handles were on the toilet cubicle doors at the time.

It’s too easy to blame the children for failing. Instead, we need to be providing an education system that works for everyone. And the cool thing is, there are already successful working models in existence that we can rely on to lead the way.

Ease Education: Teaching at a human scale.

You can also find Ease Education on Facebook and Twitter.

Get the learning environment right and watch all those ‘negative’ behaviours disappear.

 

Things to be curious about are all around.

Teaching can be exhilarating and exhausting in equal measure. Getting a large group of people to work together collaboratively and cohesively, is a delicate balancing act that requires a high level of expertise. Being that humans are humans, there will always be a layer of complexity when they come together. This complexity requires well thought out and constructive solutions for managing behaviour in order to create the best outcomes for everyone involved.

The best solutions will be achieved by approaching the issue of behaviour with a growth mindset, as opposed to a deficit mindset. That is, viewing children positively and seeing them as having enormous quantities of potential waiting to be realised. It helps to have a good understanding of human psychology in order to appreciate what makes people behave in the way they do. In the case of children, it is really useful being able to view their world from their perspective.

It is also helpful to break down the issue of behaviour into two distinct scenarios.

1. Sometimes the behaviour reflects a child who is distracted or not engaged in their learning. If that is the case, then it’s probably time to rethink what is being taught and how it’s being taught.

2. Sometimes the behaviour reflects a child’s lack of self management skills or an emotional deficit. If this is the case, then there are ways and means of changing those behaviour patterns.

Let’s take a closer look at the first scenario.

Inappropriate behaviours will occur when children are asked to do tasks that are beyond their developmental or interest level. A teacher’s task is to locate that “sweet spot” (or in the words of Vygotsky – the ZPD – the zone of proximal development) and then nudge them along, but all the while, staying within the zone. Children are naturally curious. Although it is possible that a child may sometimes need to be helped to find that curiosity again. It’s also very easy to block a child’s curiosity. That scenario needs to be avoided at all costs.

For the most effective learning to happen, it needs to be child centred and teacher directed. The teacher’s job is to help the child along a successful learning pathway. With one hand on the curriculum document and the other holding a conductor’s baton, the teacher’s role is to conduct and manage the classroom, in order to help the children navigate and explore their learning successfully.

Most importantly, a teacher’s primary task is to create and maintain a positive and self sustaining learning culture that:-
– enables all children to lead and grow their own learning, and
– empowers the children to help each other do the same.

By investing heavily in this kind of learning environment, learning has the potential to grow exponentially and all children will be enabled to reach their potential. It requires the teacher to embrace and implement a growth mindset and convert this mindset into a growth learning model. The rewards are huge. The high trust environment and growth mindset is the essential foundation. Easy to say, hard to do. Years of contradictory practice and fear of the unknown seem to hold us back.

Now, let’s take a look at the second scenario.

Children and adults alike have different levels of self managing skills and social intelligence. But just like literacy and numeracy (or driving a car), these are skills that can be learned. Like any human being, students in the classroom will respond positively to appropriate cues and motivators. Vygotsky is useful here, too. Guiding children to make incremental improvements applies to social learning as much as it does to academic learning.

And of course, that high trust environment and growth mindset is once again, an essential ingredient. Rather than focusing on achieving compliance, focus should instead be on using communication and negotiation to encourage reasoning, respect and cooperation. Rather than simply telling or instructing, give children opportunities to practise and model the appropriate behaviours. We learn best by using these skills and seeing the positive impact on our daily lives. Children are no exception. It’s a win/win scenario.

Hopefully you will have noticed by now that these two solutions are long term strategies and will require persistence and consistency if they are to be implemented successfully. Hopefully, you will also appreciate that “the best solutions are the easiest to implement but take the longest to achieve”.

Ease Education: Teaching at a human scale.

You can also find Ease Education on Facebook and Twitter.

Open Plan Classrooms – What’s the verdict?

Too right!

It would appear that Open Plan Classrooms (OPCs) are making a comeback. Or probably more accurately,  they never really went away. You may have also heard of them being referred to as Modern Learning Environments (MLEs). I have no knowledge of their prevalence, past or present. But it is looking increasingly likely that your local school may be using, or planning to use this kind of space. So for that reason, I think it’s worth taking a look at what they are, and examine their potential impact on teaching and learning.

The intent behind these kinds of learning spaces is honourable. But as I have learned over the years, in all aspects of life, behind every good intention is a disaster lurking. The argument given in favour of these kinds of spaces is that they are designed to be flexible and to encourage creativity, critical thinking, and collaboration—among students as well as teachers. And of course, it is that creativity and collaboration that is so desperately needed in schools. It’s just that….

We now know that effective learning is achieved via effective pedagogy. And we now know what that looks like. The improvement that is needed in education will come via a cultural shift; in how we teach, rather than by changing the physical environment. As Hattie suggests in his “Visible Learning” research, unless teacher pedagogy is adapted to innovations (such as open space classrooms) there are no benefits to be gained.

I would take this a step further. From a personal perspective, I see open plan classrooms as being detrimental. I have made significant changes in the way I teach. Changes that put me in line with the research. As a result, I am seeing successful learning taking place in my classroom. Success that is obvious to me but somehow not obvious to others, it would seem. I hope that will change one day.

The success I see has been achieved by creating a flowing, open space that invites the children to settle into deep and engaging learning. But the biggest changes have come about as a result of the nature of my relationship with the children, the relationship between the children and the resulting ability to respond to their needs. They are the directors of their learning. I respond and provoke where necessary.

Moving into a large open plan space with more children and more distractions is likely to detract from that. I would argue that it is the intimacy; the ability to develop close relationships with the children that helps create an effective teaching and learning environment. Of course I don’t want to do anything that would dilute my ability to be effective. To make a move into an OPC I would need to be working alongside colleagues who understand and are sympathetic to these fundamental elements of achieving successful teaching and learning.

Proponents of OPCs say that with better organisational and financial support, teachers can be trained to use these spaces effectively. That’s what they always say. It’s not a money issue or an organisational issue. It’s a pedagogy issue. Until more teachers are able to honestly assess the level of their effectiveness and implement an effective pedagogy, this kind of teaching space will fail to achieve what it is supposed to do. Sorry, but it’s about the children.

Ease Education: Teaching at a human scale.

You can also find Ease Education on Facebook and Twitter.

For further reading on this topic, refer below…

Continue reading

It’s about the learning experiences on offer that is critical, not the age that children start their formal education.

blocks

For 5 year olds building a tower of blocks together, it takes a lot of emotional skills. Skills that can be taught.

Less than a year ago, I published a post entitled “5 years old is too early for children to start their formal academic education”. I read through it recently and realised that there were some aspects that no longer accurately reflected my current thinking. In that original post, I argued that 5 years old was too early for children to start their formal education.

Instead, I want to argue that it is not the age of the child that is critical, but the type of educational opportunity that is on offer, that needs to be the focus of our attention. It’s not about the age but whether the education on offer is developmentally appropriate for the child. And I also believe that there is a strong argument that for some children, being in a high quality learning environment, and receiving developmentally appropriate learning early on, could in fact, be a better option than not being in a formal education setting.

In that post, I also criticised the role of standardised testing in education. My belief at that stage, was in line with the majority of my teaching colleagues, ie. standards were harmful to education. But having since made some significant changes to my teaching practice, I have started to realise that those standards are not the problem that we have been led to believe. I would still prefer it if we could hold out for a year or two but I now realise that doing so won’t create the change in the way we approach learning in a school environment. And that’s where the real issue lies, I think. Parents need to reassured that their child will be receiving a developmentally, age appropriate education. “Children are resilient”, should not be the ‘go to’ phrase to explain away parent concerns.

So I have decided that, rather than edit the original post to bring into line with my current thinking and practice, it would be more useful to leave it as it is and write a new post that highlights how and why my thinking has changed. In that way, I will be staying true to another of my beliefs; that it is important to be open to criticism and to be willing to change your thinking when necessary. Because, ultimately, it is all about developing a stronger case for change.

In that original post, I tried to get to grips with the emotional and cognitive reality of a 5 year old. This is the age of the children in my class. Insights into the minds of 5 year olds would surely help me  be a better teacher. The insights I refer to came via a documentary I watched on television. It was pure gold. To recap, Professor of Neuroscience and Education Paul Howard-Jones reveals that 5 years old 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.” 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.” Wow, that’s serious stuff. With serious implications. It makes me scared and excited in equal measure; the opportunity that it presents to me – as a teacher of 5 year olds.

For me, these insights were revelationary. I took these insights as part confirmation – that I was already in the process of creating a learning environment that prioritised the need to work at a ‘human scale’. But I also took these insights as part license – a signal to expand on this practice and explore the impact of these insights more fully. I am increasingly confident in my belief that it has been the applying of these insights into my classroom practice that explains why I am seeing the enormous improvement in learning that I am seeing. These insights gave me confidence to continue developing and implementing a teaching pedagogy that focused on creating a broad range of learning opportunities – emotional as well as academic. These insights seemed to give even more credence to the Ease Manifesto.

So for clarification, in my original post I wanted to convey the following points:-

  • it’s absolutely essential for a 5 year old entering a formal education environment to have a strong emotional and cognitive foundation before embarking on a rigourous academic journey.
  • for whatever reason, not all children are entering school with that foundation and that it is not my role to find fault in that, but to address it by creating a learning culture/environment where that foundation can be provided.
  • children can gain that foundation if the appropriate learning culture/environment has been established. It can be learned.
  • this approach helps lift the emotional and academic achievement of all the children in the class. That’s the primary goal of a public education system; having a learning environment that benefits all students equally.

But where my thinking now differs from that original post is that I no longer believe that the age children start their formal education is such a critical factor. Instead, I am concerned with how:-

  1. I see children arriving at school and being thrown into the “deep end” of academic learning. Read, write, count, jump! Worksheets for Africa. Busy work. And it’s all head stuff, too. Abstract. Teacher directed instead of being genuinely inquiry based. Hardly engaging stuff. Nowhere in the NZ Curriculum does it require teachers to require 5 year olds to focus on narrow, academic learning outcomes.
  2. the transition into formal education is managed. By and large, opportunities for the children to grow and develop pro-social skills in a traditional school setting are at best, cursory and abstract. The need for allowing students to develop their emotional and cognitive skills through deliberate practice, is ignored. “Transition” is a ticked box. It is easy to label and treat the children who lack that emotional and cognitive foundation as “naughty”. Instead, they need to be viewed as being underdeveloped in those areas and needing to be given more opportunities to learn.

We really do need to stop blaming children for problems for which solutions lie firmly in the hands of teachers. And while I am on the topic of blame, I would like teachers to see the national standards as just that, standards. They are not to blame for what is taking place in the classroom or a child’s emotional state. The standards are not a statement of how to teach. They are a target. They don’t advise on the volume of photocopied tasks that need to be completed. They can operate as a ceiling if you allow them to. But I think that kind of teaching was in practice before the standards were introduced.

Be a problem solver. Be honest in identifying the things you are doing that make a difference. Eliminate the things that are not making a difference. Do what is right for the children, not to keep your colleagues happy. Stand up to willful blindness. Engage the disengaged. Stop looking for excuses. Eliminate the need for the “naughty square”. The consequences of failing to address these issues are serious – individually and collectively.

Do it for the kids.

Ease Education: Teaching at a human scale.

You can also find Ease Education on Facebook and Twitter.

The Collaboration Curse

numberpuzzle

Number Puzzle: a deep learning environment needs to be created and nurtured.

I originally started this site as a way of sharing some of the expertise that I believe I had gained over many years of being at the chalkface. It’s a hard earned expertise. Expertise gained from being open to new ideas and thinking – from within education and beyond, from being empathetic to the learners in my classroom, from encouraging myself to respond authentically to my own creative thinking and from being prepared to trial ideas in the face of opposition and resistance.

It recently occurred to me that I may be witnessing a case of “wilful blindness” within the education system. Strong words? Let me clarify.

I believe that this expertise has allowed me to create a supercharged learning environment that benefits all the children in my class. The other reason I started this site was born out of frustration of not being able to get my professional colleagues to see the results that I was seeing or to respond positively to my efforts; that my expertise was not being valued. It recently occurred to me that I may be witnessing a case of “wilful blindness” within the education system. Strong words? Let me clarify.

As a whole, for most children, our education system appears to work pretty well. Unsurprisingly, it seems to work better for those children on the higher end of the social equity ladder. For the rest, it has more of a lottery feel to it. But even for the students doing well enough, there is a deeper story to tell. Appearances can be deceptive. That’s because, in reality, any child with a pulse is going to achieve some level of learning throughout a school year.

It’s an issue relevant to all organisations and all aspects of society, not just education. It’s a human problem.

For many of my first years as a teacher, I felt that the children in my class were learning despite or, in spite of my efforts. My biggest hope was that I wasn’t doing them any harm. As it turns out, Hattie’s research shows that it’s pretty hard for a teacher to stop a child from learning. Whew! But teachers and schools taking credit for learning that would be taking place anyway? – that’s a biggie. That’s the belief system I am keen to challenge; that needs to be challenged. It’s an honest and earnest endeavour.

This should not be read as a criticism of teachers, but as a critique of a system. It’s an issue relevant to all organisations and all aspects of society, not just education. It’s a human problem. I wonder how many people chose to not know what was happening to children under the care of the Catholic Church. I wonder how many people chose not to know that children were being kept in seclusion rooms. I wonder how many people still believe that putting children in seclusion rooms is an appropriate practice. And this is in the face of evidence that tells us that controlling children in this way is unethical and ineffective.

…the reality of collaboration is much more complex. Collaboration is a process, not a place.

Defence against my claim of “willful blindness” within our education system will probably focus on the fact that it operates as an open, democratic, fair and equitable system. On the surface, everything is as you would want it. As well as that, schools are run by professionals. They are required to keep up to date with the latest research and technologies and be open to and willing to share new ideas and thinking. Collaboration is encouraged. Which is a good thing. The research tells us that collaboration is where it’s at. That’s because people in organisations can achieve things collectively that they cannot achieve individually. Collaboration can provide that spark that will light the fire of progress. It makes sense.

Well, that’s the theory. Because the reality of collaboration is much more complex. First of all, the openness that collaboration is supposed to foster is not going to be enough to drive change if all parties can’t agree that there is a need for change or improvement. I see the problems and the need for change. I speak to other teachers who recognise it. But that’s where it ends. They won’t say anything. They remind ‘blind’ out of fear, or in the belief that some things can not be changed. There may also be a genuine inability to see the need for change. This could be due to ignorance. Imagine if the entry standard for teachers entering the profession was raised to that required for law or medicine.

Effective collaboration requires seeking out people who are different to ourselves, who have a different way of thinking.

Secondly, collaboration will only be as effective as the working environment allows. I recognise that sharing my ideas and experience can be a source of cognitive dissonance. But isn’t that the point of it all? A conflict of ideas is a key component to creating change and progressing ideas. Having my ideas dismissed because they don’t fit with the thinking of the group is not collaboration. Collaboration does not take place in an echo chamber. Effective collaboration requires seeking out people who are different to ourselves, who have a different way of thinking. A level of professional conflict needs to be tolerated.

Thirdly, collaboration needs to viewed as a set of skills that needs to be learned and taught. Creating opportunities to work together in an ‘open’ way has wonderful potential but it is just the first step in the journey. Truth and knowledge on their own are insufficient to bring about change. That won’t happen until the skills and moral courage to use it are developed fully. To get to this point, organisations will need to make huge cultural shifts. School leaders need to step up.

Finally, the real role and value of collaboration needs to be fully understood and agreed to. The current interpretation of collaboration in an education setting is focused on open-plan classrooms. Needless to say, requiring teachers to work in open-plan spaces with more children is not a guarantee of effective collaboration. To expect so has to be seen as incredibly naive, if the first three points already raised have not been addressed satisfactorily. Until then, it is a case of the proverbial cart being put before the horse. It should be also be noted that according to Hattie’s research, it is collaboration, not the teaching space that has the highest positive impact on learning. And as far as I can see, an open plan space is not a definition of collaboration. Collaboration is a process, not a place.

Persistence, patience and a determination not to be blind or silent will be my guiding light.

Furthermore, I utilize the process of collaboration in my classroom on a regular basis and can identify the impact it has on the children’s learning readily. The children in my class will collaborate as a result of my guidance and sometimes as a matter of choice. I value the control I have on my teaching space. Everything in my room and every activity I undertake is as a result of deliberate decisions and actions developed from years of experience. That deliberateness has another purpose too. It provides me with opportunities to develop high quality relationships with each student. That in turn, allows me to have meaningful learning conversations with the students. Those moments are precious and are responsible for creating that supercharged learning that I refer to.

A deep learning environment needs to be created and nurtured. That precious commodity could be undermined so easily. Working with a teacher who does not appreciate that, or who is unwilling to see the merit of that approach will only dilute and frustrate the learning experience. Bigger is not always better. And in the case of a better learning environment, I believe that creating an intimate learning environment should be the goal.

So, “where to from here?” I ask myself. “Is there a place for someone like me within the education system?” It feels as though I am at a crossroad. The issue for me is no longer just about developing expertise as a teacher. For me to feel any satisfaction as a teacher, it feels as though I need to move beyond that and start developing expertise as a change agent. I will need to develop skills around convincing colleagues and parents and bureaucrats to look more critically at what effective learning is, and how it can be best delivered. That’s an entirely different proposition to simply delivering the curriculum. But I think I always knew that.

One of the things that I am giving consideration to is to try and enhance my academic credibility. I could do that by quantifying the learning that I am seeing. That would take time and effort and it could be worthwhile. But I’m not entirely convinced that it will be enough. There is a stereotype around people who act as ‘whistleblowers’. The perception of people who challenge the status quo is that they should not be trusted; that eventually they will be punished/crushed for their radical ideas. But actually, I take heart from the research. It reveals that whistleblowers tend to be very loyal to the organisation/institution and care a lot about it.

I don’t like conflict but if I am going to continue to be a teacher and do what I think is the right thing, I will have to accept that tension and conflict will be a part of that process. Rather than trying to avoid it, I will need to focus on making a stronger case and being better at arguing it. By taking on the critics and collecting evidence, I can develop my argument and make it stronger.

Persistence, patience and a determination not to be blind or silent will be my guiding light. As Margaret Heffernan says, “we enjoy so many freedoms today – but freedom doesn’t exist if you don’t use it.” If you agree with this sentiment, I encourage you to act on it by sharing this blog post far and wide.

Ease Education: Teaching at a human scale.

You can also find Ease Education on Facebook and Twitter.

 

Inspiration for this blog post come Margaret Heffernan’s work which can be found at the following links.

Heffernan – Dare to Disagree – Is conflict good for progress?

Heffernan – Dangers of willful blindness

 

 

My submission to the Ombudsman’s inquiry into the use of seclusion rooms in New Zealand schools.

In 2016 it came to light via the media that some schools in New Zealand were using seclusion rooms as a way of managing student behaviour. Like many, I was shocked by this revelation.

I was very pleased to hear that the Ombudsman decided to hold an inquiry into the practice. For me, it wasn’t just the use of seclusion rooms that concerned me. During post-revelation discussions in the media, I became aware of enormity and systemic nature of the issue. I was also very concerned by,

1. the negative responses and attitudes of one the schools that were found to be using seclusion rooms and,
2. the poor quality of the debate in the media around the issues of managing behaviour of students in schools.

As far as I understand, the focus of the inquiry is solely about the use of seclusion rooms in New Zealand schools. However, in my submission, I have suggested that the use of seclusion rooms in schools is symptomatic of a wider range of cultural failures within the New Zealand education system and wider society.

My real hope is that the inquiry could also be;

1. an opportunity to examine and critique the way schools rely on outdated, unethical and ineffective methods to manage the behaviour of students and,

2. a catalyst for making some essential changes to the way that schools and teachers manage the behaviour of students.

While I have not witnessed the use of seclusion rooms during my time as a teacher in New Zealand schools, I am concerned that the practice of ‘exclusion’ is a relatively common practice. In schools, these spaces are commonly referred to as ‘naughty spaces’. Children are sent there to ‘learn a lesson’. These lessons must be quite difficult for some children to learn because a casual observation will reveal that it is the same children who spend the most time there. The (unspoken?) intent of these places is punishment. This is distinct from the use of a behaviour management strategy such as ‘time out’.

Exclusion is based on authoritarian approaches to ‘behaviour management’ and research shows that it is a totally counterproductive practice. It is unethical and ineffective. It reflects a strong and very unhelpful emphasis on controlling children. We really need to shift our thinking from ‘behaviour management’ and ‘control’ to supporting children with their behaviour development. Providing children with opportunities to learn to manage their emotions needs to be given as much priority as the teaching of literacy and numeracy.

The use of and the reliance on exclusion to manage behaviour also indicates that there is something fundamentally wrong with the education that is currently being provided. Over many years of practice, I have learnt that managing behaviour becomes a non-issue when the learning environment is conducive to the needs of all children. The education we provide our children needs to be academically and emotionally engaging. I have already documented how this can be achieved in a classroom setting.

I also suspect that there is a correlation between the use of exclusionary practices in schools, the long tail of underachievement in education and incarceration rates in prisons. Cultural bias in New Zealand schools is a reality. That is why we need an education system that encourages and supports all students equally.

I don’t know about the specifics of the legalities in NZ, but in Australia the practice of ‘the naughty square’ is actually illegal. Unfortunately, this does not seem to hinder their use in Australia. It is the education of teachers, rather than the writing of laws, that will have the greatest positive impact.

______________________________________________

Update: 16 November 2017

The Ombudsman’s office has completed its investigation and reported its findings. While the report criticises the use of seclusion rooms, it only covers the child and the school in which the original complaint was made. The parents of the boy who made the complaint are “disappointed the Ombudsman only investigated the use of the seclusion room in regards to their son, and not other children or the wider use of seclusion in New Zealand schools. I think by narrowing it to only our son it didn’t overall give a look to other evidence that may have been relevant”.

However, according to the Ministry of Education, “schools now had clear guidance on restraint and seclusion. Late last year we released guidance on effective behaviour management to minimise physical restraint and advised all schools that the use of seclusion must be stopped immediately”.

An RNZ article on the Ombudsman’s report can be read here.

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.