The Ken Robinson effect.

 

KenRobinson
Ken Robinson is coming to a town near you.

Sir Ken tells us that schools are killing creativity. Going by the number of views of his Ted Talk on the topic, it would be safe to assume that a lot of people agree with him. While I am aware that there exists some discomfort with his argument, in this post I simply want to focus on the intent of his message – that all is not well with the education system and that changes need to be made. I suggest that it is this message that has provided him with such a huge following rather than any potential solution he offers. He gave that talk in 2006. But I wonder if the narrative has changed much since then. What is his intent? What can he hope to achieve? What can the attendees at his presentations expect to learn? Is he promoting a full-bodied revolution of the education variety? Is he is attempting to rally the troops towards taking on some meaningful action against the system? I suspect not.

I anticipate the following scenario. Sir Ken tells teachers that the education system as it currently stands, is not fit for purpose. Teachers respond in affirmation and then head back to school and continue to deliver the same teaching programmes that they are told to deliver, until they are directed to do otherwise. What specific action would he suggest that teachers take, anyway? Agreeing with the concept that the education system, as it currently stands is failing so many, is the easy part. It’s what lies beyond that’s difficult.

Further down the page, the invitation holds another clue as to why I believe that it will take more than an audience with Sir Ken to create any significant change.

“With a change of government, the time could not be more perfect…”

To me, this statement reveals the single biggest barrier to achieving such a ‘critical’ goal of making schools a hive of creativity. That is, it’s the collective ‘deficit mindset‘ of teachers themselves that is holding things back. It’s just further evidence that education is being treated as a political issue rather than as an issue of policy and best practice. The NZ Curriculum offers a perfect foundation for a beautiful, joyful, successful education system; goals that are broad, simple, non-prescriptive. Hattie provides the template for delivering the goods. Creativity and academic achievement are not mutually exclusive.

So, check your mindset and get to work. Establish what you want to achieve. It could be, “I want all my students to be great readers.” If it’s not working, do something different. Just stop doing the same and expecting different results. You may find that you will have to do things that others are not. But the results will inspire you. Your students will thank you, even if your colleagues will not. If you are waiting for approval from an expert or the government of the day, I fear you will be waiting a long time.

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.

Reframing educational outcomes – counting what counts

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Look what I made. Now let tell the world about it.

There are times that I have to remind myself of the purpose of this blog. To “inform, illuminate and inspire” was my original intent. I hope I am doing that. Documenting my thoughts and observations of the learning journey taking place in my classroom has certainly been valuable for me. There are also times when I am reminded of why I love my role in the classroom so much. It wasn’t always like that though. It has taken a lot of reflection and determination.

The current education model wants to count everything and hold everyone to account. It’s a model that stifles creativity and discriminates against many students.

I have also been inspired by the marvelous research that keeps prompting my curiosity and validating my experience. My journey, has in fact, been about breathing life into that research. It’s easy to read it and agree with it. But it’s another thing entirely to put it into practice. What I am aspiring to achieve looks and feels very different to what we typically see. There really is an confirmation bias towards maintaining the habits that keeps us wedded to the status quo, even though it’s not really working. It seems easier to stick to the status quo rather than venture into the unknown. To do so would require a significant leap of faith to get better answers to the questions,

  • What will good education outcomes looks like?
  • Will children really learn?
  • What will the learning environment look like?

Yong Zhao is a source of inspiration and validation.  He speaks about the danger of standardised testing (ie National Standards) and the need to reframe a discussion around educational outcomes. He is the editor of a new book on education called Counting What Counts. The current education model wants to count everything and hold everyone to account, according to Yong Zhao. It is too narrow, too impersonal, too linear, too focussed on the short term. It’s a model that stifles creativity and discriminates against many students.

The use of technology to deliver content means that teachers will be freed up to be more human and to help children develop socially and psychologically.

He describes the current model of teaching as a deficit one. Rather than the 3 R’s being the foundation of learning, they have become the ceiling. We need a model that allows individuals to flourish. A system that motivates and engages students. A system that works for all students equally. Teachers are still seeing themselves as deliverers of information. But that approach is should be redundant. We now have the technology to do that. Technology needs to be used to allow students to be creators rather than consumers. The real value in technology is its ability to amplify the learning, to enable it to be shared and invite collaboration.

I agree with Yong Zhao when he says that technology will not replace teachers but it will play a key role in delivering information. And this is the part that I like the most. It is the raison d’etre of this site. The use of technology to deliver content means that teachers will be freed up to be more human and to help children develop socially and psychologically. Sound familiar? These are all topics that I have already discussed on this blog in previous posts.

Fortunately, I have seen both of the education environments that he describes. I know which one the little people in our classroom would prefer. And I know the one that would really allow them to thrive.

Ease Education: Teaching at a human scale.

You can also find Ease Education on Facebook and Twitter.

An interview with Yong Zhao can be found below.

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I am a teacher and I am a problem solver

 

Impressive.

“Look what I’ve made!”

I heard a good story recently. I’m not sure if it’s true but it sounded good. And if it is not true then it definitely needs to be made a reality.

The topic of the conversation was Disneyland. Apparently, the people responsible for the design of the layout at a Disneyland did not initially designate the location or direction of the paths. Instead, they presented a blank template of grass for visitors to walk on. The visitors voted with their feet. They wore paths in the grass by choosing their priority destinations. These informal paths informed the designers where the visitors were going. The designers created the final layout based on these informed observations.

If you are a regular reader of this blog, you will already understand why I like this story (or would love for this story to be true). In the world of urban design, these human made paths, that people create in urban settings, are called ‘desire lines’. I see them all the time. And the fact that you do see them is actually a reflection of the city designers failing at their job.

In our classroom, critical thinking is an action, not an abstract construct. For 5 year olds, it’s about how to share a box of blocks, it’s about building friendships and alliances, it’s about collaborating on a building a tower of blocks.

As much as possible, I try to run my classroom in a similar way. I know what I want/need the children to achieve. I know what the curriculum says. And I also know the children; what their interests are, how human psychology works, what developmental levels are appropriate for their particular age group. Even with the constraints of a cumbersome education system, you will still see my classroom operating in a dynamic and organic way. If I see a ‘desire line’ starting to develop, I investigate. Is it a problem? Does it need to be solved?

The day is full of ‘deliberate acts of teaching”. This level of deliberateness allows for spontaneity and authentic, student-led, inquiry learning.

It’s most likely these days that the children will be active participants in achieving the solution. As much as possible I try to accommodate their needs and wishes. Sometimes by accommodating their needs and wishes, it results in new problems being created and needing to be solved. But these are the problems teachers should be wishing to have in their classroom. Negotiation is an action, not an abstract construct, in our classroom. It’s their classroom and it’s their learning experience that’s important.

“the biggest effects on student learning occur when teachers become learners of their own teaching, and when students become their own teachers”.

It may sound chaotic and exhausting. But it’s not. It’s carefully choreographed and deeply rewarding. The day is full of ‘deliberate acts of teaching”.  Some of those acts of teaching are direct and teacher led.  As in, “you need to know this.” Some of those acts are deliberately provocative; to encourage the children to think and be curious. I use those moments to assess the children. I find these moments to be more informative than the regular formal testing that is done. They are also excellent for informing me about my teaching. Check out this example of what I am trying to describe.

“Does it work?” is the question that matters. I will do everything I can to remove any barriers that are stopping the children from achieving their learning goals.

At other times, my input into the learning process may not be so obvious to the children or to the casual observer. Even when the children are engaged in an independent activity of their choice, it has been curated and scaffolded to ensure the learning is meaningful and successful. This level of deliberateness allows for spontaneity and authentic, student-led, inquiry learning. We thrive on positivity, consistency and routine. And it’s sustainable. A ‘burnt out’ teacher is not an effective teacher.

I am not a fan of unnecessary process. I don’t care that “we have always done it this way”. “Does it work?” is the question that matters. I will do everything I can to remove any barriers that are stopping the children from achieving their learning goals. And maintaining happy and enthusiastic learners is something that I will move mountains to achieve. Happy learners make great learners. Of course, that’s social learning as well as academic learning.

Blaming the child for failing to respond appropriately to teacher direction is to ignore the real issue.

This matters. Because too often I see children excluded from the classroom or disengaged with their learning. Too often I see ‘bright’ children being labeled as naughty. Blaming the child for failing to respond appropriately to teacher direction is to ignore the real issue. “What will it take to get these children into the classroom, engaging with their learning and showing their true potential?” That is the question I continually ask myself. That is what motivates me. That is the question I want other teachers to start asking themselves. To stop blaming the child, the circumstances, the environment, the whatever. To reflect on what is being offered to the children – that what is being served up to them, may in fact, be boring. To stop making compliance the end game. To assume that, with the right input, all children will be willing and cooperative learners. It’s about being pragmatic; about being a problem solver.

This is not an attack on teachers. Teachers are decent, hard-working and well-meaning people doing what can be a difficult job in difficult circumstances. But somewhere along the line, they have been given some poor advice, or something. I really don’t understand why teachers feel compelled to perpetuate this reality. What will it take to move beyond this? Beyond this ‘deficit’ approach to learning?

So, I invite teachers to be scientific and strategic. Oh, and human. Once again, a teacher’s task is two-fold. 1. to get the children to the point where they are their own teachers, and 2. for teachers to reflect effectively about their teaching.

Get to it, I say.

Ease Education: Teaching at a human scale.

You can also find Ease Education on Facebook and Twitter.

Life doesn’t operate in silos, education shouldn’t either.

A pet shop was a favourite setting for some of the children's stories.

Writing is more than a new blank page everyday.

I have spent many years learning and practicing the craft of teaching. And if I wasn’t such a modest person I would probably say that I have mastered this teaching thing. Mastery takes time and perseverance. Experience and longevity does not have to mean resting on one’s laurels. For me, mastery is about creating a buffer; of space and time. A buffer that allows one to look outward. To reflect. To see and hear better through the static. To gain confidence in trusting oneself and trusting the children. To appreciate that doing the same thing over and over is unlikely to offer up any different results. To move beyond the deficit model that seems to be the foundation of our education system.

This deficit model casts a long shadow. It dims the light. Academics write about it. Their research and their words match my daily observations. Stories of the disengaged and the excluded are regularly in the media. Nor do you have to look hard to witness the deficit model fully operational in all aspects of modern society and public institutions. I know I risk the opprobrium of my colleagues for raising this issue. But it’s not a personal thing. It’s purely professional. I think there is an alternative. I have seen glimpses of it. I have no answer to those who say everything is fine and dandy, just as it is. Some form of acknowledgement that change is needed is essential. The system needs to cater equally to all learners. But gravity favours the status-quo. No one wants to be apart from the crowd for too long.

The New Zealand Curriculum supports schools to move away from ‘silo’ thinking: the treatment of subject areas as rigidly discrete entities, with no application to each other. It’s now almost universally accepted that, as life doesn’t work like that, education shouldn’t either. – New Zealand Education Gazette, 21 March 2016, Vol 95, Number 5, Pg 2.

It’s about being innovative. And be reassured that there is no risk to the students’ learning. There is nothing to lose. Everything to gain. The innovation I have tried out in the classroom so far, looks good. And more importantly, it feels good. For both the children and myself. It works like this. I see a need. I test an idea. I evaluate it. I modify it. I test it again. I evaluate the outcome. I share it with colleagues. I seek feedback from colleagues and parents. It’s agile and effective. The children have a critical role in this process. They are the feedback. I am constantly listening for their voice. Their enthusiasm for learning and their clever responses to my provocations are the feedback I crave. ‘Provoke, listen, respond’. This process provides the teacher with a strong sense of where the children are ‘at’ with their learning; their developmental level – both academically and emotionally.

For some time I was aware of a need. So I decided I needed to be innovative with my writing programme. The rationale for doing so was clear in my head. I wanted the children to experience writing in its broadest and most engaging form. (You can imagine how happy I was to see the above item in a recent Education Gazette that validated this approach – suggesting a move away from ‘silo’ thinking that currently prevails in the classroom). I wanted to link as many different curriculum areas as possible to teaching writing. I wanted a literacy activity that would appeal to all students equally. I wanted an activity that provoked high level thinking.

Clever thinking

Never underestimate the complex thinking a 5 year old is capable of.

So the children each made a diorama. They built a diorama. They created their own stories. They shared their stories. They said it with pictures. They said it with spoken words and written words. Because children love stories. Want a quiet, calming activity? Pull out a good story to tell. The children wanted to tell their own stories. And they had the knowledge and tools to do it because they know what good stories sound like. Because of their prior knowledge. I helped them develop their knowledge of the features and structure of stories (ie character, setting, problem, solution, introduction, conclusion, celebration) and then went about supporting them to develop their own stories.

For those of you aware of the S.O.LO. taxonomy, all the learning was directed at the ‘extended abstract’ stage. Many showed ability at that level. Some needed support to work at that level. As you can probably imagine, I have long since stopped being surprised by the level of complex thinking that a 5 year old is capable of. Nor was I surprised by the level of engagement with this activity. Unfortunately, the deficit model seems to have a blind spot with regard to the connection between engaged learners and behaviour. Writing is more than a new blank page everyday. It’s broad and complex and fun. Well, it can be.

And if I wasn’t such a modest person, I would say that this is an example of the ‘visible learning’ that all teachers should be aspiring to.

Ease Education: Teaching at a human scale.

You can also find Ease Education on Facebook and Twitter.

A new school year and the importance of creating a positive classroom culture

Name tag/name mat- identity I belong really important – clues when chn bring parents/family members in to share means

Creating a positive classroom culture means giving students opportunities to feel like they belong and are valued. You’ll know you’ve got it right when the children want to share these experiences with one another and their families.

It’s a new school year and I’m pleased to report that things are going well. I am getting to know the children and the children are getting to know me. The ice is starting to melt. Order and structure is being established and learned.

My primary focus at the moment is on building positive relationships – between myself and the students, as well as between the students themselves. That’s because effective teaching and learning is premised on the quality of relationships and the quality of the interactions between the teacher and the students. I have already written about that. It’s all about making the learning ‘visible’.

Creating a classroom culture that is structured and ordered provides the social and emotional space that will allow a random group of individuals to grow into a kind and caring community.

I am glad that the research has been able to validate something that makes intuitive sense. And while the research seems to focus on the teacher/student relationship, I have taken it a step further by putting a lot of emphasis on building positive student/student relationships. In a vibrant, dynamic learning environment, children spend a lot of time interacting with each other. That could be via teacher prescribed, direct learning opportunities such as reading a book together or, self directed activities such as collaborating on building a tower of blocks or playing together at lunch time. And remember, this is all enshrined in our wonderful NZ Curriculum document. It defines learning in its broadest sense – academic and social learning.

When it comes to establishing a classroom culture, I think of myself as a ‘benevolent dictator’. Which may seem somewhat paradoxical when you consider all the emphasis that I put on the role of positive relationships. Creating a classroom culture that is structured and ordered provides the social and emotional space that will allow a random group of individuals to grow into a kind and caring community. That is the ultimate prize.

…all efforts put into building a positive classroom culture, are rewarded exponentially throughout the year.

By achieving that, it means that a teacher can be more effective – achieve better quality interactions. It makes it possible to be able to deliver dynamic, flexible and individualised learning programmes. But to do that, it is necessary to have a classroom that is structured and orderly. From order and rules comes spontaneity and joy – and of course, great learning.

Let me tell you a story.

How would you react if you walked into your classroom after morning break to find all the children jumping out of hiding places in the classroom and yelling “surprise”? That’s what’s happened to me over the last few years. I don’t know how or why this situation has arisen. But it got me thinking. That a group of 5-6 year olds could agree unanimously to do such a thing? That they could do it without someone spilling the beans? That they assumed I would also enjoy their surprise? And of course I did (until they wanted to keep on doing it everyday, that is). I laughed with them. I congratulated them on their inventiveness and creativity. And of course, I interpreted it as a sign that we had successfully created a kind and caring community. We were all on the bus, all going in the same direction. Magic!

It’s not personal. It’s not judgemental. It’s just about setting everyone up to succeed.

So building positive relationships is not just an important focus for the beginning of the school year. It takes priority throughout the year. Just like regular maintenance will help keep a car on the road for longer, a classroom culture needs regular maintenance as well. It’s not a task that can be ticked off after the first few weeks of school. It’s ongoing. I have learned that all efforts put into building a positive classroom culture, are rewarded exponentially throughout the year. It really is worth it. Typically, the best solutions in life are the ones that take the longest and require the most input. There are no quick, easy steps to creating a positive classroom culture.

Children arrive at school in different states of readiness. Some children arrive at school knowing how to read, how to relate to others. Some, less so. I use the beginning of the year to address any needs – provoke, listen, respond. Who needs help to turn the pages of a book gently? Who needs help packing up the classroom equipment? Who needs help sharing the blocks? The beginning of the year is the time to determine the ‘lay of the land’ and model the desired behaviour. It’s not personal. It’s not judgemental. It’s just about setting everyone up to succeed. 

Yes, we have a treaty in our room. Yes, the students and I have co-authored it. Yes, we have referenced it to the Treaty of Waitangi. But still, even after all that, that treaty is just words on a piece of paper, stuck (with varying degrees of artistic flair) onto a classroom wall. So we need to breathe life into it. We need to embody its intent with the words and actions we use in our everyday interactions.

I wonder whether the teacher in this video had a well written, well considered and well presented treaty on her classroom wall? While I don’t want to be a scare-mongerer or a John Holt, I really want to be reassured that classrooms are great places for learning as well as places for the human spirit to flourish.

So, let’s celebrate the good parts of our education system and keep looking for ways to improve.

Ease Education: Teaching at a human scale.

You can also find Ease Education on Facebook and Twitter.

The desire to enjoy teaching

Listen out for those rich learning conversations

Listen out for those rich learning conversations

To really start enjoying teaching I had to stop giving a fig.

I had to stop spending time that I didn’t have, doing things that weren’t enhancing my teaching experience, and worrying that I wasn’t doing things the same as everyone else. I’d like to think that this is a process that leads to innovation. I’d like to think that it is this kind of approach that brings about change. When you have your eyes on a big prize, you don’t want to be distracted. Like, it’s easy to forget that women in NZ haven’t always been able to vote.

To really start enjoying teaching, I needed to start trusting myself. That felt an achievable first step because I had already been teaching for over a decade. Experience does matter. But I also started to listen to the children and trust what they were telling me. I started to give them a voice.

The external demands on teachers are incessant. But I realised that the children needed to be my focus. As much as possible, I tried to ignore all those things that acted as a barrier to me being able to get the best outcomes for the children. Once again, experience helps. I now know really well what a child should be able to achieve and what is developmentally appropriate. Children don’t need to be pushed to do stuff – not if it’s interesting, that is. And now I know that we can expect that great learning takes place in many different ways.

I now have a clear set of guidelines of what an innovative, vibrant, compassionate learning culture looks and feels like. I created these guidelines based on widely available research. The ‘provoke, listen, respond’ feedback loop is great because it provides an ongoing validation process of the research and of the teaching and learning that is going on in the classroom. It’s an organic but robust teaching pedagogy. I particularly like it because it is an emotional as well as academic process. After all, we are human – social and emotional creatures.

So actually, it’s not really true that I have stopped giving a fig. I am now just better at discriminating – identifying the things that are important and the things I really care about.

I’d also like for us to be able to discuss the things that, we as individuals, have little control over; the external barriers to learning – such as child poverty. There are plenty of external factors that undermine a teacher’s ability to deliver an effective education programme. Those same factors are likely to be the ones that diminish the ‘joy quotient’ that motivates teachers to turn up to class everyday and try to make a difference.

So, being able to distinguish from those things that we can and can’t control is critical. It’s critical that we don’t allow ourselves to get bogged down or distracted by the things that we can control. The things you shouldn’t give a fig about. By doing that we can start to work towards a consensus on the kind of education we want our children to be getting in the 21st Century. An education that is truly innovative; something that is possibly beyond what is currently on offer.

Ease Education: Teaching at a human scale.

You can also find Ease Education on Facebook and Twitter.

Will we ever agree on what the best education system for our children should be like?

 

"Look what I made."

“Look what I made.”

I overheard a conversation between a 10 year old and a 5 year old in my classroom recently. The 10 year old and the 5 year old were ‘playing’ with the geoshape blocks. The older child was admiring the younger child’s creativity and ability to build ‘stuff’. The admiration was genuine. I can assure you of that. It was also expressed with a strong sense of incredulity. Like in, ‘how do you do that’? I know that feeling. I often see myself struggling to be as creative as a 5 year old.

I hear these kinds of interactions and see this kind of creativity frequently. I now use these interactions to provide me with insight to, and as a validation of, my approach to teaching. It reassures me that the ‘provoke, listen and respond’ model of teaching is really appropriate for 5 year olds. I have made it my mission to nurture the creativity that these children bring to the classroom.

I am inspired by the likes of Glen Keane who explains the importance of holding on to your childhood. It was Picasso who said, “when I was young, I could draw and paint like Raphael. It’s taken me a lifetime to learn to draw like a child.” I am now applying this philosophy to my teaching; by putting myself in the shoes of the child – to create a child-centred learning experience. That’s what I can offer the children in my classroom.

But if only it could be that easy. There is resistance. But why? Why would you want to deny children the best education possible? And there lies the problem. We will never get full agreement on what the best education looks like. Although, I would argue that an education system that treats people with dignity and equity should be a non-negotiable. But society does not always treat people fairly, so is it any surprise to see that the education system can miss the mark, too?

That’s why I like to think of my classroom as a microcosm of a society that I would like to live in. It’s not always easy. There are conflicts and inconsistencies all around. The system sometimes suffers from rigidity. Children come through the door with different life experiences. They are people. And people are emotional/social creatures – fallible; with vast quantities of joy as well as complexity.

An opportunity to explore the factional views of education (and dare I say, ‘humanity’) presented itself recently in a ‘Humans of New York’ story about a young woman describing her experience as a preschool teacher. The responses to her story were informative. Some were very positive and understanding. Others, less so. The situation was not helped by the fact that the young woman’s story was a little lacking in context and therefore leaving it open for interpretation. Needless to say, I identified with the story intuitively, and understood what was intended –  a desire to provoke, listen, respond. To give the children the best learning opportunities possible; based on sound research.

The arguments that are dismissive of child-centred learning* can be summarised as follows. That children:-

  • need structure and strict guidelines of how to behave.
  • would just play all day if they were not forced to study academic subjects like maths and literacy.
  • need to learn to do stuff that they don’t like in order to be better prepared for life after school.
  • need to learn that life is tough and exposure to this reality early on in their life, they will learn resilience and gain mental fortitude.
  • are inherently naughty and we need to ensure that they learn to be compliant.

They represent a view of children that defines them in negative and narrow terms. Unfortunately, ‘deficit thinking’ of this kind, is prevalent throughout society and has a strong influence on our education system. I would also argue that it helps to explain the high rate of child homicide in New Zealand.

A learning environment that is genuinely child-centred is physically and culturally distinct. Respect and dignity are cornerstones of such an environment. It acknowledges children as being naturally curious and creative. It is a physical environment that is engaging and allows children to learn through exploration. Such an environment is not synonymous with an absence of structure or discipline, as some would like to have us believe.

Life is complex. We are human. We are social and emotional creatures. We are fallible. But firstly, we need to look beyond the ‘deficit thinking’ model. Children are not intrinsically naughty. They just haven’t learned or been taught the appropriate behaviours yet. And as I have previously noted, most of the inappropriate behaviours that I witness, occur when children are asked to do tasks that are beyond their developmental or interest level. So, the potential to reduce unwanted behaviours is clearly and firmly within the adult’s power to eliminate before they occur.

Secondly, a genuinely child-centred learning experience is a perfect opportunity for children to learn how to engage socially; to learn about rules and boundaries. It’s a perfect opportunity for teachers to teach the essential social skills; just like we teach the skills of literacy and numeracy. And I’m not necessarily talking about prescriptive lessons, but about creating opportunities to learn through experience, over a sustained period of time. Modelling and learning through experience, are always going to be more effective than telling.

In a classroom context, there are clear expectations of how we operate and engage. How we pack up. How we talk to one another. How we move about in the classroom. Respect and kindness are the foundation stones of the classroom culture. So when we witness behaviour that falls outside of that expectation, it is addressed with calmness and consistency. The child is supported to get back on track.

The ultimate goal here is to get to the point where the children are able to self-regulate. This is not always straightforward and may take some time. (Just ask any adults who misplace their phone or get speeding tickets on a regular basis). The existence of motivation to change is essential. It’s important to recognise that the teacher has the ability to provide the child with the rewards that generate the necessary motivation. Dependence on external rewards may be essential initially, but as the rewards for self regulation become increasingly internalised, these external rewards can be removed. (There’s plenty more to say on this topic, but it will have to wait for another day).

*Defining ‘child-centred’ learning is problematic. You may note that I sometimes preface that expression on this site with the word, ‘genuine’. Words and actions don’t always match. But being that you are on this site and are interested in this topic, I assume that you are familiar with what I am describing ,when I use the phrase, ‘child-centred’.

Ease Education: Teaching at a human scale.

Ease Education can also be found on Twitter and Facebook.

What a difference a day makes to a child turning 5 in New Zealand.

Children at work.

This is what children look like when they are at work.

Watching children engaged in meaningful, unstructured play is a sight to behold and is something that needs to be valued and encouraged more, in our schools. But for some strange reason, from the moment a child starts school, we deem it inappropriate for them to continue with ‘play-based’ learning – the learning model that is the foundation of the New Zealand early childhood curriculum.

I have come to the conclusion that our education system, as it currently operates, puts too much emphasis on formal learning, too early on. But not only that. I think the system is too rigid and narrowly focused, and does not give children the comprehensive education they need and deserve. In a desire to create smart, intelligent learners, we have inadvertently ignored the human and creative aspects of learning that will help children be resilient and emotionally prepared for the post-school world.

Our school system needs to be designed to fit around the needs of students rather than requiring students to fit into the system. A play based education system that is fun and encourages creativity, is the foundation of effective learning. Play is a means by which children are able to develop their physical, intellectual, emotional, social, and moral capacities. And I would suggest that this approach to learning applies equally to people of all ages – not just young children in their early schooling years.

What may come as a surprise to some, is that there is a mandate for making learning broad and focused on the holistic needs of children. The two curriculum documents that are the basis for the NZ education system are exemplary in the way they take a broad and humanistic approach to learning. Unfortunately, the introduction of National Standards has not helped because now, all year 1-8 students are required to be formally assessed in the three core subjects of reading, writing and mathematics. The introduction of these standards has added a layer of complexity and contradictory pressure on teachers. Nonetheless, I still believe that we can manage those pressures. In fact, it is essential that we do.

As a matter of interest, while the majority of children in New Zealand start their formal education at 5 years old,  in Finland, formal education starts at 7 years old. That does not seem to stop their students still managing to rank highly in international student survey rankings. Go figure!

So, what is developmental play, why should it be encouraged and why will I make sure that the children in my class get lots of opportunities to play?

Play is an essential part of early childhood. Exploratory play and inquiry based learning encourages children to learn, develop and grow whilst they have fun. Through play, children are encouraged to explore, investigate and develop ideas and hypotheses. They can test their ideas and find new ways of building, creating, drawing, thinking. The use of open ended resources promote exploratory and investigative play as well as inquiry based learning. Creativity and imagination is developed through new ways of thinking. Social skills are learned through collaboration with others and language and communication skills improve. Perseverance is developed as children keep exploring and investigating their surroundings. Children will become more confident and develop a stronger sense of identity through play.

Ease Education: Teaching at a human scale.

You can also find Ease Education on Facebook and Twitter.

Check out the article below from the World Economic Forum. It argues for the need for kindergarten age children to be playing.

Continue reading

Redefining the meaning of ‘good learning outcomes’.

Can you identify the learning going on here?

Can you identify the learning going on here? You bet.

We now know that creating great learning outcomes for students is no accident. The research tells us that 1. the learning needs to be made ‘visible’ and that 2. specific strategies need to be used to make that happen. I wrote about that in detail here.

But fortunately, we don’t teach in a vacuum. A classroom is a complex and dynamic environment full of humans people from different backgrounds and with specific emotional needs. Managing that environment effectively helps achieve the desired learning outcomes that we seek. Of course, effective management is built on a strong emotional relationship between the teacher and the student.

Over the years I have made some major changes in the way I manage behaviour. First of all, I have made myself more knowledgeable in the study of human behaviour. That knowledge has led me to reflect on how I create an environment that caters for the needs of all the children in the classroom (including myself), the parents and society as a whole. As a result, my teaching practice has changed dramatically. You can see that summarised in, 10 Easy Pieces.

I have looked closely at the NZ Curriculum document and been encouraged to see that helping children to become confident, resilient and connected citizens are highly valued goals. So in effect, I have presented those skills to the children as being highly desirable and made the learning of those skills ‘visible’. It may come as no surprise to many that a classroom culture that celebrates those core values and opens up the definition of what good learning outcomes look like, will also be an environment that achieves good academic learning outcomes. The reality is, when you get the emotional quotient right, the rest will follow. I think this is what the resistance to National Standards has always been about. Have we as a community, as teachers,  lost sight of this? Or maybe it never really existed in the first place.

The obvious problem with the narrowing down of the curriculum, in terms of managing behaviour, is the need for compliance. “Take this medicine, it is good for you”. It is a system/environment like this, that tends to bring out the undesirable behaviours. This environment will not be conducive to allow great learning to happen; learning that is natural and meaningful, that is. What the teacher is asking the student to do, may in fact be boring or not developmentally appropriate. (I will write more about this in a future post). This is not ‘putting the child at the centre of the learning experience’.

Experience tells me that you will be hard pressed to find a child who does not arrive at school in their first year, enthusiastic for learning. That’s why the ‘provoke, listen, respond’ philosophy is so effective. It allows the teacher to harness that enthusiasm and to be flexible and make adjustments when appropriate. Trust your children to be keen and enthusiastic learners. Children are our greatest resource in the classroom. They are full of knowledge, wonderment and joy. Tap into that. Let them be your ‘guide on the side’.

In my next post, I am going to share some specific behaviour strategies that are recognised as being effective at creating a positive and sustainable learning environment. Stay tuned. They’re effective. And can be applied to any age group or setting.

Ease Education: Teaching at a human scale.

You can also find Ease Education on Facebook and Twitter.