Beliefs and biases – the biggest challenge faced by education

SpencerRowell

via Spencer Rowell

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ease Education: Teaching at a human scale.

You can also find Ease Education on Facebook and Twitter.

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.

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.

The role of rapport in creating a super charged learning environment.

EaseEdCover.SilverBullet

Rapport: are you looking for the next best thing to a ‘silver bullet’?

Have you ever walked into a primary school classroom and seen all the children sitting on the floor in front of a teacher, except for one? And that one, is sitting on a special seat and looking like the proverbial “cat that got the cream”. That scene is probably replicated in the majority of primary schools throughout New Zealand. The child on said chair is more than likely enjoying the opportunity to be the ‘Star of the Day’ or ‘Teacher’s Helper’ (or any variation of label thereof). This is most likely an example of a strategy often employed by teachers as a way of managing student behaviour. It is used as both an inducement, and as a reward. It’s a pretty effective strategy because most children are motivated to sit in ‘that’ chair. Mostly.

For some students, inducements or rewards are just a bonus. They are already internally motivated and able to self regulate. For others, it will operate effectively at helping them move towards internal motivation and self regulation. For some children though, being chosen to sit on the special chair is not a sufficient motivator to get them to do, or behave as the teacher requests. That’s why it’s important critical to be able to determine the intent and impact of using particular behaviour management strategies. Is the intention to achieve compliance or self regulation? Of course, the target of any intervention should be about helping children to self regulate, rather than simply creating children who are compliant. That’s because self regulation and internal motivation are the foundation stones of effective learning.

I think it is also worth stepping back and seeing this from a wider angle. The real problem here is that this is not just a child’s problem. That is, for most normal human beings, self-regulation does not come easily. But so often I conclude that adults place higher expectations of self regulation on children than they do on themselves. As far as I can see, I suspect that the society we live in is run by adults who, by varying degrees, are poor at self regulation and display a considerable paucity of emotional intelligence. So while it is honourable to have these high expectations, these need to be matched equally with support, guidance and opportunities to learn how to self regulate. As I have said before, first and foremost, teachers need to be mindful of their own mindset.

Over recent years, I have become better at choosing and adapting the strategies I employ to manage behaviour. That’s come about as a result of applying a research/evidence based teaching practice. I am always seeking an honest answer to the question: “How am I/we doing?” The best solutions/pedagogy come about by responding to the needs of the children, rather than by blindly following the received conventional wisdom. In terms of managing behaviour effectively, expectations of how to behave and how to engage need to be clear and consistent. That’s why I am always looking for opportunities to reinforce these expectations. And that’s also why I am willing and prepared to play the ‘long game’. The research reveals to us that the best learning for all students is self generated and takes place over a sustained period of time.

The research is now also making it abundantly clear that the level of rapport in the learning environment is the closest thing teachers can have that represents a ‘silver bullet’. Based on my own personal experience of testing the research in the classroom, I can unequivocally claim that there is a clear and undeniable link between the level of rapport and the quality of the learning taking place. Is it the cause or simply a correlation? I’m not sure and it may be difficult to prove but I for one, would be very keen to find out. By implementing the research and making this self discovery, it has given me more confidence to play around with how I approach my role as a teacher. It has resulted in me embracing this teaching manifesto with open arms. One of my primary roles has now become one of creating a learning environment that is full of joy and empathy.

As a result, my teaching day looks very different to what it used to. The day starts with singing and dancing. In fact, singing and dancing feature regularly throughout the day. I have also managed to democratise the process of managing behaviour. Happy children are contagious. Empathy loves company, it would seem. A primary focus of mine these days is to have a conversation with the children about how we are all part of a learning environment that values respect and kindness; that we are a kind and caring community. The day is full of opportunities that I have created deliberately, to put these values into practice. Pro-social experiences is what I call them.

The intention is to make the learning more meaningful and more ‘visible’. If we are going to make academic learning visible as a way of improving learning, then the same should apply to social learning. As a result, the positive impact of the ‘Teacher’s Helper’ role has become super charged. Previously, I used to choose the ‘helper’. I would pick the children who I thought were deserving. Now I choose the helper “randomly” so that every child gets to take a turn on a regular basis. This is a significant change in thinking and practice. I now realize that every child wants to be good and appreciated. It’s just that they may not have learned the skills of managing themselves yet. There are social skills that they need to learn. My job is therefore, to give them opportunities to learn those skills. They need opportunities to practice. Just like I give them all equal opportunities to learn to read and write and count.

I also added another element to the ‘helper’ role that contributes to the task of moving students to being internally motivated and self managing. I invite the ‘helper’ to come to the front of the class and invite them to seek feedback from fellow students. It means that everyone gets to hear positive comments about the person standing in front of them. At the beginning of the year I will most likely prompt the process by providing a model starter sentence along the lines of…”what I really like about Jane is….” But eventually it becomes a genuine child-centred activity. I note that some teachers choose to take a more hands on approach.

It is so amazing to hear what they come up with. Things such as, “She is a kind and caring friend and we are lucky to have her in the class.” “She is a good friend to play with and when I am hurt she takes me to the sick bay.” “She plays nicely with me and is a good reader.” Mostly it is variations on the same ideas of kindness and friendship. In effect, I have put these ideas and words in their mouth. Often when I hear their descriptions, I will reinforce their observation by agreeing with them. Sometimes I hear stuff that surprises me. Stuff that requires me to change my perceived view of that child. This process allows me to develop quite a different perspective of the children. It allows me to triangulate. That’s formative assessment at its best; quick, informative feedback.

I also notice that the children are incredibly honest. If they think another child is not so deserving of praise, I will hear a discussion and some murmurings. I think it is important for the child in question to hear that feedback directly and for the children to get a sense that their concerns are being heard. I hear this described as ‘Reintegrative Shame’. At the same time, children are incredibly forgiving. In these situations I will ask if we can give the person a chance to ‘join the fold’; to choose to get back on track, the answer is always a resounding ‘yes’. Being a helper comes with special privilege and expectations. And the good thing is, those expectations can be continually and gradually ramped up. This ‘system’ also provides opportunities to ‘induce’ improvement in other areas – those next steps – both academic and social.

I invite you to embrace the power of rapport. Play around with it. Notice the impact. How you choose to go about achieving it is not the critical factor. But build up those teacher/student relationships as well as the student/student relationships. And do let me know of your success stories or questions you may have. Love and laughter are essential ingredients for creating a great learning environment and great learning outcomes for the students.

Ease Education: Teaching at a human scale.

You can also find Ease Education on Facebook and Twitter.

Inspiration and analysis for this blog post come from “The Parking Ticket Experiment | The Science of Empathy”. Note the impact of language in creating an empathetic environment.

You may also be interested in reading about how effective teaching and effective interrogation share the common ingredient of rapport.

You can find the links below.

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

Monsters2

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ease Education: Teaching at a human scale.

You can also find Ease Education on Facebook and Twitter.

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

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It’s possible to create a learning environment in which all students learn exponentially.

Can you read this?

“I don’t care that you have trouble spelling. But I do care that you are mindful, curious, thoughtful, empathetic and articulate.”

I am currently witnessing some amazing growth in the reading abilities of all the students in my classroom. And we are only a term and a half through the year. Normally, I don’t see this kind of growth until further into the year. Yes, I do say “amazing growth” and I do say “all”. Let me explain what’s happening. And before I do, let me also say that this is not the first time I have witnessed this. But it is the first time that I have set out to document it. The difference is that this year I have fully embraced the “Visible Learning” pedagogy. There is no more tentativeness. The training wheels are off completely. It is also worth noting that this amazing growth is not only evidenced in reading. I am seeing it replicated throughout all learning areas.

So what exactly am I seeing?

It is easy to track reading. There is a wide range of graded texts for the children to read. When a child shows competence at level 1 texts, they move on to slightly harder level 2 texts, and so on. It translates well into a box ticking and graph making exercise. The level of progress each child is making, relative to where they were at the start of the year, is easy for all to see. And from my vantage point, I can see that all children are improving, ‘more or less equally’. (Keep reading for a more detailed analysis of what I mean by ‘more or less equally’).

As well as seeing improved reading data, I am seeing major shifts amongst all the students in their attitude, effort, curiosity and confidence with reading. I see children reading a book with a friend when they could be playing with blocks instead. I see children offering to help a colleague to read a tricky part of a text and then advising me that their colleague had tried really hard and had done “their best”. I see a child examining a text closely and sounding out words and sounds; employing the reading knowledge and strategies that I have already shared with them. I see the child’s eyes light up with a strong sense of accomplishment. The same child, who up to a week before, was a reluctant reader and finding reading difficult.

So how exactly is this happening? (hint: student ‘agency’).

After many years at the chalk face I am now able to identify the deliberate acts that I am engaged in and the impact these actions are having on the students’ learning. The cause and effect relationship has become clear. (Unfortunately, this correlation is not naturally occurring within the education profession. That is, there is no automatic correlation between a teacher’s level of experience in the classroom and the level of a teacher’s expertise). Increasingly, more of my time these days is spent listening, observing and responding to the children. I take great interest in what they are doing. I show them that I care about what they are doing – emotionally and academically. I am nudging them gently in the direction that they need to go. I’m the expert. I know what they need to know in terms of knowledge and strategy. And most importantly, I connect with them at a human level.

I am focused on more than just passing on the knowledge and skills of reading. It’s about developing a learning culture that becomes self sustaining in the long term. It’s about demonstrating to the students that I genuinely care about them and their learning, and conveying high but realistic expectations. I know how to manage and organise the children effectively and more importantly, how to get the children to manage and organise themselves. I also know what motivates them. I know what they will work for. It’s about human psychology. That’s the foundation for all the great learning that is happening in the classroom. It is this human/cultural aspect of learning that I am most interested in these days. It is this aspect of learning (and in this case reading) that I spend so much time and effort cultivating.

In this kind of learning environment, the children are well versed in giving each other feedback. It’s a learning environment in which I have time and space to be able to give the children feedback, and advise them of what they need to do next. It’s instantaneous and it’s done verbally. The feedback could be about their reading skill, and/or, it could be about their attitude towards their reading/learning. Praise is always forthcoming. But only when it is deserved. We only celebrate excellence – in achievement and effort. That’s important. I am yet to meet a child who (at least eventually) does not respond positively to being challenged and encouraged to do better. Think back to the last time you completed a task that challenged you and required you to strive. That “I did it” feeling.

I also need to know what to expect of a child at their developmental age. The learning needs to be fun and engaging. The learning environment is prefaced on a growth mindset rather than a deficit mindset. Follow Maslow’s advice for strategies on how to get the best out of yourself as a teacher as well as your students. Or adopt my manifesto for creating a positive learning environment. The focus needs to be on finding the potential in the students rather than highlighting their limiting factors and deficiencies. Road blocks need to be removed. Stop finding excuses. Start being creative and curious. Become a problem solver instead. Some children will need more scaffolding and support than others. That’s because not all children enter your class at the beginning of the year from an equal starting point. Not all children come from the same social and economic background. Remember, we are looking at improving everyone’s outcomes equally.

‘More or less equally’?

As the year progresses two things start to happen. First of all, I find my role in the learning process changing. My input is required less and less. Or at least, I start to focus on providing support to those in greatest need. But overall, my role shifts to one that is more about guiding the students. I have been surprised this year with how quickly I have been able to make that happen. Secondly, I notice that student academic achievement starts to improve exponentially. The source of that growth is all due to that highly prized commodity called ‘student agency’. I assume that this what Hattie is trying to convey when he says,

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

Student agency is an essential ingredient of effective learning. And it is an ingredient that is easily overlooked and by and large, absent from your typical learning environment. I have my theories for why this is the case. I think it comes back to the idea that effective teaching and learning is inherently, a human endeavour. We are naturally inclined to look for tangibles; the focus is on the knowledge and skills of teaching reading, maths, everything. Everything but human relationships. That’s what I remember of my time training to be a teacher. And just because human relationships/connections are not easy to see or measure, it doesn’t mean that they don’t exist or shouldn’t be valued.

It is this type of learning environment that will have the greatest impact on lifting that long tail of underachievement in New Zealand schools. It is the magic bullet to avoiding children failing in our education system. It is also the antidote to those ideologues who promote charter schools or those who think more and better discipline/homework/computers/sport… is the solution. But not only does this approach to teaching and learning have a positive impact on those underachieving students, it does so with no harm to other students. All children benefit. So says Russell Bishop. I would go a step further and suggest that it is a learning environment that allows all students to flourish. It is an approach that works for all students equally.

Having said all this, my interest lies now in figuring out how to upscale this teaching pedagogy. The evidence I am witnessing and describing is compelling. Dare I say, a deficit mindset and a lack of curiosity is not only holding back the ability of students to grow exponentially.

Ease Education: Teaching at a human scale.

You can also find Ease Education on Facebook and Twitter.

This blog post relies heavily on the work of Professor Russell Bishop. Refer to the link below…

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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.

Observations of a learning environment that lifts underachievement and benefits all students equally.

There's an elaborate story there, waiting to be told.

I have learned to overestimate the value of child’s play.

In my last blog post I described how I had come to the realisation of how I was actually making a positive impact on the learning of the students in my class. I described how I was able to identify the deliberate acts of my teaching that were responsible for this. Finally, after many years of toil, I could finally say that the children were learning thanks to me, rather than in spite of me. ‘Visible learning‘ it’s called. It’s a bold claim. I realise that. But I know I could validate it. If I was asked too.

What I am also noticing in my classroom is that all the children are making relative progress. Every child’s boat is rising equally on the incoming tide. This is critical to understand, in light of what we know is actually happening within New Zealand schools. That long tail of underachievement just won’t budge. Currently, not all boats are being floated equally. And schools don’t feel able to deal with this. School and teacher representatives argue that there are economic and social issues at play which prevents them from addressing these learning issues. Of course, these are issues that are beyond the control of individual teachers and schools. But I would also suggest that there needs to be a much more pragmatic and problem solving attitude. There are changes that could be made right now that would make a significant difference. I am happy to share my successes. Just ask me.

I am acutely aware of the existence and impact of unconscious bias from teachers. It exists in all aspects of life. Why would teachers in the classroom be immune to this prevalent and very human condition?

It is also an unfortunate reality that Māori students are highly represented in this underachievement category. It is argued that this is due to an unconscious teacher bias towards Māori students. That teachers expect less from those students compared to students of other races.  As a teacher, I am acutely aware of the existence and impact of unconscious bias from teachers. It exists in all aspects of life. Why would teachers in the classroom be immune to this prevalent and very human condition?And it’s not just Māori students that are subject to this bias. But I would like to give teachers some benefit of the doubt on this one. I believe that teachers are well intentioned. You become a teacher because you think you can make a difference.

It’s about creating a system/learning environment that benefits all students.

But this study about the negative impact of unconscious bias, also reinforces for me my belief that the education system works from a deficit/punitive model. A few thrive. Most survive. But many others, such as Maori, fall by the wayside. I would suggest that it’s the enormous and unresponsive blob of a system that’s broken and that, by and large, teachers are quite simply doing what they are told. That’s what they are good at. The system is not working for teachers either. So I am suggesting that the system fails many but its impact on Māori students is most obvious and easy to identify.

So while I have not been focussing directly on Māori students, my approach has the impact of ‘floating everyone’s boat’ equally and that has had a positive impact on Maori students. And maybe that is the best way of approaching it; to avoid the potential backlash. Because the system is failing many, and it just so happens that Maori students happen to fall within this ‘many’ group. It’s about creating a system/learning environment that benefits all students. That is what I have been focussing on. Even the top students, the compliant and successful ones, are benefiting from this approach.

There is a universality about teaching. It’s a human endeavour that should come from the heart. It should be backed up by good research and practice and collaboration.

It was an awareness of, and increasing discomfort with this supposed inability to improve the learning of all students, that inspired me to start changing the way I approached teaching and to document it on this blog. I even come up with a ‘manifesto’ to guide me in my new approach. This manifesto is not directed at Māori students in particular. But I think you will see that it is a ‘human’ response and see how it could be of benefit to all students, all cultures. I am experiencing many positive outcomes from my new positive/high trust approach to teaching. The children are flourishing. The parents are observing a positive difference.

In effect, all I am doing is just bringing all the good research to life in the classroom. It seems that so often that research is left languishing on the shelf. I am being innovative and trialling new ideas but still making sure to stay within the system. It’s about the children, first and foremost. But really, there is nothing new or scary or untested. It is already happening in a variety of places. There is a universality about teaching. It’s a human endeavour that should come from the heart. It should be backed up by good research and practice and collaboration. And although I am describing an experience of working with 5-6 year olds, I have no doubt that it’s an approach that will work just as well with older children.

The power of imagination will become critical. In an information society, no thought, debate or dream is wasted – whether conceived in a tent camp, prison cell or the table football space of a startup company.

So, what will it take to bring about the required change? At a personal level I am very optimistic. At a wider level, less so. That’s because I have got to this place by way of dogged determination and circumstance. It’s that I’ve had the conviction to follow through with ideas, even if it means going against the current. But it works because, from the children, I get immediate and positive feedback. That sustains me. However, in terms of convincing my colleagues, that is another matter altogether. Don’t ask me why this is. I have my theories but this is not the forum for that.

But I am still hopeful that change is inevitable. The world is changing. We live in an information age. No longer do we have to rely on the traditional hierarchical sources for knowledge and information. My inspiration is only a mouse click away. As Paul Mason says, “the power of imagination will become critical. In an information society, no thought, debate or dream is wasted – whether conceived in a tent camp, prison cell or the table football space of a startup company.”

To that I’d also like to add….or an idea conceived in a classroom of 5 year olds.

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.