How to set children up to be successful learners.

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“Books should love a child and help a child to feel powerful.”

The learning in my classroom of 5-6 year olds is going really well. So I thought I would try and capture this by describing two key elements of my reading programme that reflect the successful learning that I am witnessing. Some time ago I started noticing that I was having significant success in improving reading outcomes for all students. I put this down to the fact that I was willing to change my teaching practice. I continue to refine and change my practice as I see the need arising. For those not familiar with teaching reading to young children, the measure of success at reading for 5-6 year olds is on the child’s ability to decode a text – turn letters into sounds and then into words and then into fluent sentences. Thankfully, there is no standardised reading test for children of this age – yet.

The first element is based around how I have set up the practical aspects of my reading programme. It’s a programme that allows me to read with every child almost every day of the week. This means I can keep close track of each child’s progress in reading and be informed on a daily basis how each child is doing. Hattie’s research tells us that the best learning outcomes will be achieved when the child’s effort, attitude and achievement are ‘in sync’. This reflects the high levels of growth I am seeing in my classroom. This means that my job is more than simply delivering the key knowledge and skills of reading. By employing an evidence/research based approach I have discovered that there is a high emotional and human component to successful teaching (including reading). My job is get to know each child really well so that I can challenge and motivate them to do better, to make more effort, to be prepared to experience some cognitive dissonance and to invite them to place higher expectations on themselves.

If you were to enter my classroom during a reading session you could expect to see an environment in which there were high levels of student agency and engagement. You could expect to see the “student as teacher/teacher as learner” model of teaching in place. The students know that I have high expectations of them. I am telling them all the time that I want them to want to read well. I employ a growth mindset that taps into the natural curiosity and desire to learn that every child possesses. I also provide a very generous scaffolding service to ensure success for those who most need it.

In my reading programme I am always introducing a wide range of developmentally appropriate and engaging texts. The classroom is full of opportunities to receive and produce language – both written and oral. The children are given plenty of opportunities to read a wide range of texts. I read instructional texts to the children in a way that invites them to join the club of “decoders’. “I’ll let you in on a secret about reading”. Each child will read their instructional text with a range of their colleagues before they get to read it with me. And when they do get to read with me, they know that I am expecting them to bring their ‘A’ game along with them. As they read to me I am assessing their ability, attitude and effort. I develop next steps based on that assessment. Is it a technical skill or is it an emotional issue that needs to be addressed? It’s usually a mixture of both. It is a quick and efficient process. I have noticed that some students have learned to look for the tick or dot that I put against their name once they have finished reading with me. They want ticks. Ticks are success. Something so simple but so reinforcing.

As the year progresses, an opportunity to read with me becomes a highly sought after commodity. Underlying the requests to be allowed to read to me is, of course, “I want to show you how good I am at reading.” I never decline such an offer. But I will prioritise certain learners who I think need extra support. I do have external motivators in place to help the reluctant few in the beginning. Mostly, the motivator takes the shape of my ability to control access to the wonderful range of play resources in the classroom. Eventually, it all spirals up and up and the learning becomes intrinsically motivated. Great academic learning supporting great social learning. Inevitably, everyone becomes a great reader. The link between social and academic learning can not be understated.

The second element of my reading programme that helps it to be successful is something that I have already alluded to. That is, teaching reading needs to be more than about imparting the mechanical skills of reading. Teaching reading needs to be about inspiring and instilling a love of reading. That’s because sharing a passion for learning will always have a greater influence on a child’s success than direct instruction ever will. And I often wonder whether teachers fully appreciate the value of reading aloud as a way of developing great readers. In all my years in the classroom, I have never ceased to be amazed by the willingness of a child to be captured by a good story. A class of 5-6 year olds can go from noise and chaos to silence, the moment a book is opened. But it’s not always quiet. A good story can also be a time for questioning and discussion. Their enthusiasm and ability to understand and process complex ideas is impressive and informative. It often reveals an insight into a child that I previously had no awareness of. ie. formative assessment in action.

There is also the more ephemeral role that stories have on learning – their ability to engage children emotionally – within the classroom as well as beyond. Stories allow us to see life beyond the literal. To see in colour; beyond black and white. To dream. Yann Martel, author of ‘Life of Pi’, has this to say about fictional stories, “By imaginatively engaging with characters who we may not meet in real life, or by considering scenarios we may never actually find ourselves in, we can practice empathising with others and seeing from another point of view. We can learn from fictions in this way by being open to new experiences that we see in our mind’s eye. Narratives can teach us something new and encourage open heartedness. In reading we dream, and our dreams define how we live our lives.”

Finally, I think there is a wider issue at play here too. New Zealand writer of children’s stories, Joy Cowley, takes umbrage with the idea that boys are not interested in reading. She believes that it’s a case of boys “are not interested in reading the books they are given.” According to her, “books should love a child and help a child to feel powerful.” These days I actively seek out books that have a boy hero in them in order to avoid what Joy Cowley describes as a case of “oestrogen strangling testosterone”. (Is that not an apt description of the education sector as a whole?) These kinds of books do exist but you have to seek them out. I suggest that the test as to whether you have got the right book is when a bunch of 5 year olds ask you to keep on reading a story that lacks any pictures for them to look at.

Ease Education: Teaching at a human scale.

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An RNZ interview with Joy Cowley can be found at the link below…

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The science of teaching effectively

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I was chatting with a friend who has expertise in behavioural psychology. I was sharing my experience of what I believed to be the successful learning environment I had created in my classroom since adopting an evidence based approach to teaching. During our conversation I described how I had made an adjustment to the way I was approaching the start of the new school year. To provide some context to this conversation, after many years of looking at the research and matching that to the evidence I see in the behaviours and learning taking place in the classroom, I have elevated the role of play markedly over the years.

It is also worth pointing out that I am describing a creative, constructive kind of play. A kind of play, based on clear guidelines and expectations and purpose; in how the equipment is used and shared and packed up. Managed, structured, mindful. This explicit structure is, of course, the science of cognitive behaviour therapy in action  – a most powerful and effective behaviour management tool. “Show me how you can make a tower with those blocks”. “I like the way you have worked together with your friends to make that tower”. “Thank you for packing up so quickly and quietly”. That kind of language. That kind of modelling. And I observe. I offer guidance, encouragement, feedback and some provocation, when appropriate. And it is a result of being so explicit and deliberate, that this play time is so full of surprises and creativity. Full of learning and inquiry – for the children and myself. That’s right. “When students become teachers and teachers become learners“.

The small adjustment that I made this year, compared to previous years, was the giving of full and immediate access to the play equipment. The difference was that we launched straight into the play experience. Normally I would only offer up a minimum number of activities and any offering would be contingent on satisfactory completion of assigned learning tasks – play was being used primarily as a reward. A very useful and effective strategy. But could we do better, I wondered. This time there were no conditions attached – apart from the guidelines and expectations I have already spoken about. It was at this point that my friend suggested that I might like to do a search of ‘Pairing – Applied Behaviour Analysis’. So I did. And yes indeed. Unknowingly I have been employing another science based behavioural strategy into my classroom. In my ‘non-experts’ brain I saw it simply as a way of building rapport. A way to connect with the students with the intent of setting the groundwork for launching into our new learning journey together.

There are two primary reasons for putting a high value and priority on the role of play in the classroom. First of all I use it as an intrinsic part of creating a positive and pro-social environment in the classroom. But what I want to explain is my second justification for why and how I utilise ‘play’.  That is, in order to apply an evidence based teaching model in my classroom. The deliberate acts of teaching that I choose to engage in (such as providing access to play time), are based on my observation and assessment that a direct correlation exists between the activity and excellent learning outcomes – both academic and social. How so? What does Hattie’s research say about that? Of course, “play”, as I describe it, is not defined by Hattie as a *key effect size variable related to student achievement. It is just an input that I deem to be very effective and have chosen to use in order to go about achieving the best possible learning outcomes for the students in my classroom. I use it as leverage to get the learning outcomes I desire. It’s science based. It works for me but I will change it or modify it if I see new evidence or research that advises me to do so.

So let’s dig a bit deeper. How does promoting play in my classroom work as a strategy to access the key variables that are at the top of the list of strategies for improving learning? As I have already indicated, I want to build up a strong, trusting relationship with each child in my class. I want to convey to them that I am in control, that I understand their needs and will respond to those (emotional and academic) needs quickly and competently. I want to convey that I am interested in them, that I understand them and I have their best interests at heart. I also want them to know that I am the one that controls access to those wonderful toys that they want to get their hands on. (Teacher credibility – effect size 0.9).

And I want to get to know the students really well so I can find their individual strengths and weaknesses, their beliefs about themselves, what interests them and what motivates them. When that is visible to myself and the students themselves, I can challenge and motivate them to do better, to make more effort, to be prepared to experience some cognitive dissonance and place higher expectations on themselves. That ‘growth mindset’ thing. I am mining for that precious resource called ‘student agency’. “Look at how well you have achieved as a result of all that effort you have put in. Well done, your next step is to do this…” (Self report grades – though Hattie now calls this student expectations – effect size 1.33).

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Hattie effect size variables

All the while I remain mindful of the need to match my expectations of the students with their level of cognitive development as defined by Piaget. Some children have developed fine motor skills and the cognitive ability to write before the age of 7. Many have not. That’s essential knowledge if a teacher is going to be most effective. The students need to be scaffolded appropriately. If the demands placed upon them are beyond their developmental level, fear will dominate and hinder their learning. (Piagetian programmes – effect size 1.28). There is also the role of providing descriptive timely and formative feedback to students. What is the goal? Where are you in relation to it? What can you do to close the gap? The advantage of formative feedback as opposed to summative feedback is its immediacy and timeliness. (Providing formative evaluation – effect size 0.9)

This is why I believe that what I am doing in the classroom, as I have described it, is having a positive impact on the learning taking place in my classroom. But the problem is that these actions are only benefiting the students in my classroom. While the effect sizes of the actions I have described so far are high, the impact is only concentrated on such a small group of students. The next step is to imagine all students having similar access to really effective evidence based teaching. Especially those students who make up that “long tail of underachievement“.

And that’s where things get tricky. I would love the opportunity to share my success. But the unfortunate inevitability of working in an evidence based way is that it is likely, in the early stages at least, to look different to what other teachers are doing. Teaching in a deliberate and evidence based way tends to result in labels such as ‘disobedient’ being used; as a result of following the science, following the research, following the evidence. “Are you telling us that you are a better teacher than us?” “What, you are letting the children play? When are they going to do some serious learning?” All those essential and valuable societal constructions that maintain order and structure also have the impact of being a brake on progress and innovation. They keep us stuck. ollowing the science, following the research, following the evidence

So even though Hattie’s research tells us that the biggest collective impact on student learning happens when teachers are able to share their learning and openly discuss their evidence (effect sizes 1.62+), it turns out that it is an idea that is easier to say than implement. It has become clear to me that the open and high trust environment that I endeavour to generate scientifically in the classroom leads to effective learning outcomes for my students. I no longer have any doubts about that. Does it then, need to be said, that the same science applies in equal measure to adults? But the upscaling that Hattie says is necessary, will only happen when teachers are prepared to challenge their assumptions and honestly assess the evidence that is in front of them. Different voices and viewpoints need to be elicited and taken seriously. A sliver of doubt needs to be present when considering the options available to teachers when attempting such a important task of improving learning outcomes for all students. Rigourous analysis and debate needs to be encouraged. And that kind of analysis and debate can operate within a culture of respect and kindness. Of course. They are not mutually exclusive. But an open, high trust environment is the essential prerequisite.

This is where I am stuck. Here lies the problem. The use of applied behavioural analysis for children or evidence based teaching practice for teachers, means there is no hiding. It means that statements such as, “my child’s behaviour is different/unique/more difficult”, “if only class sizes were smaller” or “the students in my class are different/come from more difficult backgrounds” don’t cut it anymore. It is at this point that our cognitive biases are exposed – “I believe what I perceive and no amount of convincing will tell me otherwise” or “I will happily ignore the evidence and what the research tells me”.

I appreciate that it is normal human behaviour to not want to hear that it is possible to change behaviour or change learning outcomes due to the implications that it (I guess) highlights our own inadequacies and failings. It would mean we would have to take responsibility for the outcome/situation. It is safer to seek an easier target. In the end, I may just have to settle for “John Hattie is deluded if he thinks we can realistically break through the current impasse”. I reckon he needs to walk a few steps in my shoes.

If you have any suggestions or ideas or you want to share your own experiences, please get in touch. Your input is most welcome…particularly if it is grounded in science and evidence. 😉

*Effect size – 0.4 is the average effect size. That is described as the ‘hinge point’. That is the effect size that a typical student’s unimpeded cognitive growth will develop at. Which proves the point that students may in fact be learning despite a teachers imput, or that any growth above that could be coming from parental/home imput. Sobering thought, eh!?

Ease Education: Teaching at a human scale.

You can also find Ease Education on Facebook and Twitter.

More links to Hattie’s effect size analysis can be found below.

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