Teachers as designers of learning – part 2.

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How do you know if successful learning is taking place in your classroom?

The 5-6 year old children in this photo were playing “addition snap”. It was an activity I introduced to them to encourage them to practice their basic facts. Each child flips their top card to reveal the number value. The winner is the first to add the two values together correctly. It was not uncommon for the children to choose to play this ‘game’ when they could have chosen to play with any of the wide range of toys available to them at the same time.

With reference to the previous post – Teachers as Designers of Learning, I want to explore 1. the rationale for introducing this game and 2. how I knew it was a successful learning activity.

The first part is pretty easy. I saw an opportunity to introduce this independent maths game based on my awareness of the work of James Gee. Although I had already been teaching using the principles that James Gee promotes, it gave me the confidence that I could reference his work if I was asked to justify my rationale for applying this approach to teaching and learning taking place in my classroom. At the same time, it wasn’t a radical innovation. There was very little input required from me. I knew that there existed a positive learning culture that would allow this game to be played independently. I had worked hard to establish that culture over the preceding weeks and months. I knew that the some students were developmentally ready and these students had already displayed some competence in basic addition facts knowledge. And I also knew that they would be motivated to practice and develop this knowledge.

All I had to do was introduce the idea briefly to the whole class and more specifically to a few targeted students. I then observed them taking on the task successfully and enthusiastically. Eventually this activity spread like a virus. I listened, encouraged and supported. Occasionally I offered guidance and correction but ultimately it became the students’ game. The feedback was positive. The children were motivated and getting better at adding numbers together. That was all the evidence I needed to confirm that it was a success. That is how I define the iterative process of evidence-based teaching. Implement, observe, reflect, modify…repeat.

The biggest value in this process for me was how it informed and improved my overall approach to teaching. Upon reflection, I realised that this learning activity fulfilled all the principles of effective learning as described by James Gee. That is, the learning…

  1. was authentic and clear
  2. gave opportunity to embed new knowledge
  3. was pleasantly frustrating/comfortably challenging
  4. was happening in a positive, supportive learning environment

Of course it was at this point that I started thinking about how I could apply this new learning experience into other aspects of my teaching practice. The process continues. Once again….implement, observe, reflect, modify….and so on.

After all, isn’t this what ‘evidence-based teaching’ is about? Or at least, should be about?

And please note how there was no use of computer technology in this learning. The point being, effective learning can happen without computers or other technology. It is the thinking that is going on behind the learning that is critical, not whether the learning is being done on a device. In fact, it is important to be critically cautious about the role of technology in education. That is, “it is important not to conflate engagement with technology with meaningful engagement with technology that increases agency and supports learning among young people”.

Ease Education: Teaching at a human scale.

You can also find Ease Education on Facebook and Twitter.

Student agency: what it is and what it isn’t.

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Exploring the real meaning of student agency

It is the beginning of a new year. And I’m asking a bunch of 6-7 years olds, who I have only known for 5 weeks, to tell me about their academic and social successes and goals. Their answers are cute, wacky and hilarious in equal measure. But their answers are also very revealing and informative. Not in the way that this process was “probably” intended to produce. Experience tells me that attempting to capture their ‘voice’ in this way is not meaningful or helpful. It’s as though I am speaking in a foreign language. Over the years I have taken these children’s responses as evidence and motivation to change my teaching practice. It has provoked me into thinking more freely and deeply about what student agency is, and what it isn’t. But teachers are asked repeatedly to go through this very process on a regular basis. And teachers oblige. No questions asked. Just lots of muttering and stressing.

This received interpretation of student agency has never been explained to me or to any other teacher that I have spoken to. Woe betide any teacher who dares to ask the ‘why’ question. So in fact, I can only guess that the process I have described in the preceding paragraph is actually about student agency at all. Yes, “probably”. I can only assume therefore, that this is how student agency has been interpreted. Or perhaps more precisely, misinterpreted. As you may have figured out by now, I totally get the idea of the how and why student agency is a good thing to have. A curious, engaged student is going to be a much better learner. The learner in the driver’s seat, directing their learning has got to be great. I have built my success of effective teaching and learning on this notion. Wacky nonsensical responses to my earnest questions were my provocation to get to this point. But to put it simply, for many a 6-7 year old, after a whole 5 weeks at school, the only meaningful goal at the beginning of the year would be to sit quietly on the mat for 5 minutes. How is it that we have lost sight of that? Water flows freely down hill. It can be guided and pooled. But working with it, not against is most effective. I like to think of water and learning as having similar qualities.

So now let me describe

  • what student agency looks like in my classroom,
  • how I go about creating it,
  • why I see it as a worthwhile goal.

In my classroom at the beginning of the year, it is my ‘voice’ that is dominant. I am setting the culture, expectations, building relationships, providing a framework and a structure that is visible and consistent. It is more about psychology than teaching at this stage of the year. And I maintain the ‘benevolent dictator’ role throughout the year. I am the expert. I convey that message. I invite them to join me on a learning journey. That is not such an easy task if a student has not experienced this expectation before (or is still learning the skills of self-management). It takes time to convince a student to grasp this reality if they have only ever had teaching and learning ‘done to them’. I know what knowledge they need to know and how best to learn it. I know my impact. And as Graeme Aitken describes, the learning environment needs to be “teacher led, student sensitive”.

It is thanks to this approach that, as the year progresses, the students start to take “ownership” of their learning. The process of learning speeds up. Increasingly, the onus goes on the children to fill in the gaps that I have highlighted to them. I provide extra support to the children who need it – whether it is due to cognitive issues or social/emotional/attitude issues. Classmates are used to provide the extra support that is needed. The analogy being, the firehose has been turned off and in its place there are water fountains in the room for the students to drink from (the fountains being myself, other students, resources in the classroom, parents). My initial job is to get them to drink; to want to drink. Once that culture has been established, my job becomes easier.

It is from this point that the students who have mastered the essential knowledge are provided with opportunities to explore and be creative with this new knowledge and mastery. And that’s when the magic starts to happen. That’s when the ‘genuine’ student agency starts to kick in. The learning becomes a more organic and dynamic process – a learning conversation. The students get excited about their ability and potential. They seem to rediscover their curiosity. It becomes contagious. I then become a conductor – responding to their needs and wants – learning from the students. This is the formative assessment process at its most dynamic. And it is all built on from a foundation of strong relationships, high but appropriate expectations and, the teacher’s expertise.

So which interpretation of student agency do you prefer? If you are a regular reader of this blog, I think I know your answer. The next question has to be, “how is it possible to get education leaders to recognise this alternative interpretation?” I know teachers who understand implicitly what I am describing and would grasp the opportunity to implement this ‘alternative’ version ably and willingly. But they don’t. And I think I know why they don’t. Beliefs and biases are rife. It may go some way to explaining why the teaching profession fails to attract and retain good teachers. Maybe. Just reread this post and replace the words ‘student agency’ with the words ‘teacher agency’.

Ease Education: Teaching at a human scale.

You can also find Ease Education on Facebook and Twitter.

Evidence-based teaching, not disobedient teaching.

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I guarantee success for everyone. Ask me how.

Here’s some evidence of the learning growth taking place in my classroom. Hopefully you are curious about how I achieved it.

First of all let me tell you that I didn’t achieve this by tinkering at the edges of the current teaching model. Nor am I able to give you a 5 bullet point summary of how I achieved this. While it is completely achievable for every teacher to get similar results, it will require the application of a different mindset to what is currently being modeled and a need to apply the science of effective teaching as described by Hattie’s “Visible Learning” model.

Until recently I felt destined to live with the label given to me of “Disobedient Teacher”. I always felt that it was a price worth paying in order to get the best learning outcomes for all the students in my class. But things have changed. I now understand that I am simply practicing evidence-based teaching. But the unfortunate reality is, engaging in evidence-based teaching flies in the face of the prevailing orthodoxy. It means having to accept the disobedient label. That’s wrong. But it’s the current reality. If we are serious about improving learning outcomes for all students that needs to change.

The biggest change in my teaching practice and consequently, the biggest impact I have been able to have on student learning achievement has come about as a result of ensuring that every student is successful – appreciating that the cost of failure is too high. My target became more than just success for 80% of the students. Or 90%. Or 95 or 99%. 100% was the target. It’s amazing what happens when you put the students who are at risk of failing at the forefront of your teaching practice. Those questions that teachers should always be asking themselves such as, “how am I doing?” or “what’s my impact?” really become meaningful and informative. It’s an amazing feeling when you realise that your teaching practice is having a positive impact on all students, including the at-risk ones. But once again, teaching in this evidence-based way puts you in conflict with the status-quo. That’s because it’s hard to change teacher beliefs about their teaching and their students. It shouldn’t be, but it is.

I have discovered that positive change will only come from breaking rules – rules that should be broken. Rule breaking can be constructive if it is supported by quality evidence. Some will say that breaking rules is too risky. To which I reply – the risk and consequences of not embracing change is far greater. Others will say that breaking rules creates discomfort. And to that I say – that’s why we need leaders who can understand and manage that discomfort. The reality is that most of us don’t want to be challenged. We just want to take the path of least resistance. Agreement and consensus is the easiest option. Cooperation is too easily interpreted as collaboration. Diversity of thinking should be encouraged – that is, as long as the thinking is evidence-based.

My success in the classroom has not only come about due to my willingness to take risks. It stems from a child-like curiosity and a willingness to ask lots of those unwelcome “why” questions. I also require the students in my class to engage in a similar level of curiosity. That explains a lot. These days when I’m stuck, I put myself in the shoes of the students in front of me. Or better still, I ask those 5-6 year olds to come up with the solution. It’s a culture of learning that allows the students to move beyond being passive receivers of learning to being active agents of their own learning.

What are you waiting for? It can be done but don’t expect a 5 bullet point presentation to be the way forward. Be curious. Break some rules if you need to.

Inspiration for this blog post can be found at the link below.

Ease Education: Teaching at a human scale.

You can also find Ease Education on Facebook and Twitter.

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Getting to grips with this thing called “student agency”.

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Correlation: as ‘student agency’ increases, ‘blue’ time decreases and ‘green’ time increases.

“Student agency” is a phrase that you may have been hearing a lot lately in an education context. That’s because experts have determined that “student agency” is an essential ingredient in helping drive student success in learning – the equivalent of an educational “holy grail”. “Students as teachers, teachers as learners”, is the way Hattie describes it. I have already written a lot about the success I’ve been experiencing as a result of bringing this theory into reality

It will probably come as no surprise that I often find myself frustrated in the way I see this term being defined and interpreted. At present I see it being interpreted in its most literal sense. That is, student engagement (agency) is simply about wanting to see students occupied, involved and excited in the activities that teachers are serving up to them. But of course, that’s insufficient if improving the learning outcomes of all students is the intended goal. At best, this is a description of “student agency-lite”. The full potential of “student agency” to improve learning growth for all students will only be realised when it is understood and implemented at its deepest meaning and intent.

Full-bodied, meaningful student engagement is a combination of learning that involves sustained effort and deep, intentional thinking. In a school setting I too often see “student agency” being interpreted as bringing or pushing students into learning – getting the students excited about a topic, lesson or activity. Giving them “responsibilities”. Busy work. Lots of fanfare, inducements, prizes, bells and whistles – the works. In other words, lots of external motivation. Lots of energy expended, lots of exhausted teachers, lots of perspiration, limited inspiration. You get the picture. Oh so familiar. I feel exhausted just thinking about it. As you can imagine, reliance on this approach means that the excitement fades very quickly, and the deeper learning fails to fire.

Let’s take a step back to see if we can figure out what’s going on. Students are human. They work for external rewards. Just like you and I do. I teach because I get paid. But I also explore ways of teaching better and describing these experiences on this blog in my free time because I am internally motivated and intrinsically rewarded by the thrill of watching students progress as a result of my deliberate acts of teaching and also, hoping that this expertise could be monetised one day :). I can see that I have a bunch of intrinsically motivated learners in my class. That is, they are displaying high levels of student agency/engagement.

But it’s also important to understand that not all these children were at this point when they entered my class. I have had to engage in many deliberate acts of teaching in order to draw out the children’s natural curiosity and motivation – to try and develop this ephemeral thing called, “student agency”. (In case you are wondering how I know the students in my class are engaged in this way, then please note that I have a plan in process to collect some qualitative data to prove this point in the future). So, assuming I am making an accurate reflection, based on my own observations and the feedback of various other adults who have been in my classroom, what insights can I offer? Plenty, I hope.

All children are naturally curious. But unfortunately, there are plenty of reasons why children have had their curiosity quotient sucked out of them or are proficient at hiding it away. Adults are very good at ignoring or stifling this curiosity. It is the job of the teacher to unlock that curiosity, feed it and invite it to flourish. And may I hasten to add that this won’t happen by teachers rewarding compliance – compliant behaviour nor compliant thinking – which I dare say is the current prevalent practice. It’s those innately human skills that give teachers such potential to make great learning happen. If this wasn’t the case, learning would all be happening in front of a computer screen by now. Learning is a social activity and the teacher’s greatest facility is to inspire students and help them interact. Connect, inquire, respond, celebrate – repeat! This is actually just a synthesis of Hattie’s Visible Learning pedagogy. It’s an approach that teachers can utilise to help develop internalised motivation. Because deep learning is deeply satisfying. It’s contagious. Well that’s my experience. “Can we read another chapter of that book today?” “Can my friend and I play that number game?” Can I write a story?” It’s requests like these I hear everyday that are music to my ears.

Now let’s take a look at the weekly timetable above. I have started to notice that over the years a correlation between ‘student agency’, my effectiveness as a teacher and high rates of learning growth taking place in the class. As ‘student agency’ increases, the ‘blue’ time decreases and the ‘green’ time increases. The ‘blue’ time is when I do the fundamentals of literacy and numeracy. It’s about offering the foundation knowledge that all learners require to be successful learners. During this time there are high expectations on the children to engage and contribute to their own and their colleagues’ learning experience. And when they are not working directly with me (as a whole class, in a small group, or individually), they are expected to be engaged collaboratively and constructively in some developmentally appropriate and engaging learning activity – reading a range of books, completing number puzzles. So, even though it is teacher directed and led time, the students are required to be active in their learning and are given some degree of choice in how they want to engage.

The ‘green’ time is that time of the day when I invite the students to participate in independent and creative activities of their choice. There are a range of resources and activities available to the students in the classroom that are highly appealing and desirable. These activities hold a currency that have very persuasive qualities – even to the most reluctant, least curious learner. It’s just a matter of time, patience and consistency. Eventually, every student wants unfettered access to that ‘green’ time and the goodies that are available at that time of day. Eventually all learning behaviours – social and academic, become self-reinforcing and internalised. The appeal of play drives the students’ desire to move towards managing their emotions and taking ownership of their learning. At that point, my job is done. I can step back and be the conductor and the ‘head’ learner – roles that are so satisfying and rewarding. “So if you can do that, can you show your friend how to do it?” or, “Can you think of doing it a different way”? or, “Wow, I didn’t know you could do that/think like that.” Dynamic conversations and learning points. Formative assessment at it’s most effective.

As a result of making these changes, I have also noticed that I am once again able to use the ‘blue’ time to do more of the interesting stuff that typically gets dropped off the timetable due to a “crowded curriculum”. We are not having to spend all our time covering literacy and numeracy. In fact, the amount of time we are spending on these areas is decreasing. It’s a ‘win/win’. That’s because the learning is going so efficiently. I can’t push the students ahead any further. They are at all at their appropriate developmental level and the required national standard. As I have said before, national standards and creativity can co-exist. The interesting stuff I am talking about (for 5-6 year olds) are topics like – science (baking bread, planting seeds and experimenting with what they need to grow), literacy – (making snozzcumber jelly based on The BFG story). The sky’s the limit. Exciting, motivating, full of good learning opportunities for students and offering seamless links to literacy and numeracy. But just as importantly, these types of learning opportunities are manageable and sustainable from a teacher’s perspective.

And that still leaves plenty of time for the students to have enough ‘green’ time to simply ‘play’. But it is also worth highlighting the fact that even though this is ‘student-led’ time, this does not equate to a free-for-all. This kind of independent play time is premised on a code of conduct that has been co-created and is referred to on a regular basis. That takes lots of my input to keep it on track. It’s purpose is to build, maintain and reinforce high expectations and of course, that secret sauce called, ‘student agency’.

Finally, the biggest prize for getting to grips with this thing called, “student agency” is that ALL students will benefit. No student will be left behind. That may sound like a big claim but I am experiencing it first hand everyday. It’s hard to describe in words but you will know when it when you see it. Give it a go. But you will have to think differently.

Ease Education: Teaching at a human scale.

You can also find Ease Education on Facebook and Twitter.

Creativity – what could it look like in a school setting?

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Creativity is is not actually a single idea created in a single moment.

I’ve been spending some time thinking about the question – what could creativity actually look like in a classroom/school setting? And I’ve come to the conclusion that it’s not the absence of creativity in schools that we should be trying to address but the absence of student agency and effective teaching practice. And by agency, I mean every student being totally engaged with, and directing their own learning.

An analogy of the current prevailing teaching model is of a teacher pointing a fire hose at students and saying “open wide!” In contrast, the teaching model that defines high levels of student agency is of the water fountain that is available for students to drink from. Initially, the teacher’s task is to ensure that all children are taking on sufficient volumes of knowledge and are utilising it effectively. This task requires more than just curriculum knowledge. It requires skills of relationship – to know how much each child is willing and capable of absorbing and how willing and capable they are to apply that new knowledge. This is the human element of teaching – the teacher knowing every individual student’s capacity and being able to support them to build that capacity until learning becomes self-perpetuating. Students as self-directed learners etc.

It is at this point that creativity could flourish in a school setting. Students who are engaged and equipped with the essential knowledge can then springboard into creative pursuits. All that’s needed is a little bit of time, space and resources. How so? Because creativity is not actually a single idea created in a single moment. For example, take the creation of a unique dance. In a “creative” activity like producing a dance, most of the work is craft: the application of knowledge. You need to know how to dance – the technical qualities and features of a dance that the audience will recognise.

Nor are opportunities to be creative in the classroom limited to just the students. I am applying this same approach to creativity in how I teach. I have been teaching for a long time. I have built up a lot of experience. I know that the essential foundations of learning maths is familiarity with numbers – “come to the fountain and drink down some of this essential knowledge”. When I think the time is right, I start to introduce the idea of problem solving. Recently I have started to either,

  • ask the students to make their own problem and solve it, or
  • provide them with a problem with the answer and ask them to find as many different ways of getting to that answer.

It’s a very dynamic, oral-based process. Expectations are high. The children learn that they know better than anyone else what their ability/attitude level is. There are occasions of over or under reach which I need to remedy. Some need a bit of support. I help them fill in the knowledge gaps when necessary. Or better still, I get their student colleagues to help them do that. During this process I gain insights. I see light bulbs go on. It’s formative assessment at its most effective. I am looking to see who is working below, at or above their developmental level. I am in tune with every student’s academic and social level. And best of all, no one gets left behind.

Great effort. Now go do your work!

Ease Education: Teaching at a human scale.

You can also find Ease Education on Facebook and Twitter.

Some further reading on creativity can be found below…

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A critique of ‘play-based’ learning.

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What can a tower of blocks reveal about pedagogy and creativity?

This tower of blocks was built on Monday by a group of 5 and 6 year olds. There were plenty of willing workers as well as plenty of discussion and negotiation. For this group of children it was the centre of their attention during the designated ‘play’ time on Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday. By Thursday attentions had turned to some other creative endeavour. On Friday afternoon I finally requested that the tower be ‘demolished’ and all the equipment returned to its correct place. Photos were taken and it was then taken down without complaint.

Throughout the whole week it was continually being repaired, remodelled, enhanced, adjusted. The ‘treasure’ in the middle of the tower was kept safe. At all times of the day, even if it wasn’t ‘play’ time, the children moved and worked around it. For me it turned out to be a wonderful learning opportunity – to observe the process and the interactions centred around this construction. I marvelled but was not surprised that the tower stayed up all week, or that it was built with such intent and purpose, or that it generated such high levels of student engagement.

Critically, at no stage during the week did I state explicitly how this tower should be managed. And this is the key element that I want to convey via this story. That is, it was the classroom culture, built up deliberately over time, that allowed for this scenario to take place. It did not happen by accident. It has taken time and it has taken deliberate, sustained and repeated actions by me. The ability to make great learning happen – whether it be academic, social or creative – is no accident. And the awareness of the deliberate actions that a teacher employs, to get the desired learning outcomes, is where the power lies. It is this culture that allows a super-charged learning environment to flourish.

For some time I have been an advocate for providing the students in my class with opportunities to “play” as a way of improving academic, social and creative learning outcomes. I too, was seduced by SKR’s argument to address the “creativity deficit” in schools. We are told that through play, children can develop social and cognitive skills, mature emotionally, and gain the self-confidence required to engage in new experiences and environments. And while I believe this argument is compelling, there is a ‘but’. I have recently come to realise that providing students with opportunities to ‘play’ or be ‘creative’ is, on it’s own, insufficient to generate the improved learning outcomes that we are told that we should be seeking for all children.

Why? Because the topic of conversation should be all about evidence and effective pedagogy. Teachers should be doing what works best to create high rates of learning for all students. Too often I see ‘play -based’ learning being introduced without a full understanding or awareness of its impact. The “why are we doing this?” question is not being asked or if it is being asked, it is not being answered satisfactorily. I fear that the potential value of ‘play-based’ learning, as a way of improving learning outcomes, is being squandered. As the above story reveals, I have certainly found value in offering students structured and deliberate ‘play’ time. That’s because it is intrinsically good but it works really effectively as a contingency. As in, “I want you to be creative and have lots of opportunities to play, but I also need you to be an engaged, self motivated learner who can manage your emotions.” External motivators eventually become internalised. That’s when my job is done. It’s at that point that the students take ownership of their learning and start teaching one another. I step back and watch the magic unfold. Teaching is really not as hard as you may have been led to believe.

Ease Education: Teaching at a human scale.

You can also find Ease Education on Facebook and Twitter.

What a 6 year old’s drawing can reveal about pedagogy and creativity.

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Let me tell you what’s impressive about this picture.

I’m always looking for evidence to prove that I have created the optimal learning environment for every 5 and 6 year old in my classroom. I want the best learning outcomes – academic, social, cultural – for everyone. I make changes if I think they will help me achieve that goal. I can do that because the wealth of experience I have built up over many years has given me confidence to make changes in order to keep improving. It’s a creative process that I find immensely rewarding. I read somewhere that creativity can be defined as, “simplifying the complex”. That sounds about right.

So what about this picture then? Isn’t it incredible? But it’s not just the picture itself that I find impressive. There is a whole back story to this picture that needs to be told. It’s actually, as you will probably guess, a story of pedagogy. A key element to this story is that I had no direct input into the creation of this artwork. My contribution was through a range of deliberate but indirect pedagogical actions. Let me explain.

First of all, it wasn’t that long ago that the artist in question was neither a willing or able drawer of pictures. Quite the opposite was true. At the moment this picture was celebrated with the whole class, it was met with authentic wonderment and awe by myself and the students. This is important to note because there is enormous power to be mined in this acknowledgement/sharing process. ie. “My colleagues and teacher genuinely appreciate my work and effort”. During this moment of sharing, I also ensured that the significance of that student’s learning journey was acknowledged. The message for everyone is, “Look at the progress I have made with a bit of effort. I wasn’t always this good. Effort pays off.” Diligence, perseverance… There is a lot of ‘visible learning’ pedagogy driving this seemingly minor investment in time. It’s also about placing high value and expectations on the students’ creative achievements.

Secondly, I have never taught the skills of drawing or creativity directly. But I have provided plenty of time, space and resources for the students to explore their interests and talents. During these periods of uninterrupted time, the children can choose from a range of available tasks and equipment. (It is not unusual to see students choose to complete numeracy puzzles or read books during this time). I have observed, over time, an increasing level of interest in drawing. The talented students (ie. the ones who had already tapped into their curiosity and creativity) become magnets to the newly curious. A wonderful sharing of ideas and talents develops and evolves.

Story reading is play. And so is storytelling. Both feed curiosity and feed on curiosity. Listening to stories tunes the ear and trains attention. – Scott G. Eberle Ph.D.

Another aspect of my indirect input into the creation of this calibre of artistic creativity is how large parts of our day are given over to storytelling – narratives. This has a very positive impact. It means the children are being constantly surrounded by words and ideas. Discussions start and evolve. Curiosities are piqued. I respond by providing more pictures and texts for the students to explore. During reading time or any ‘free time’, students choose to immerse themselves in these images and texts. They pour over them, absorbing the content like sponges, and utilising their incredible powers of observation. Their curiosity and ideas are contagious. They spread like wild fire.

So hopefully by now you can see that, by placing a high value on nurturing a positive learning environment, it will allow for students to become their own teachers. In turn, the teacher’s role then becomes one of keen observer, navigator, conductor and learner. It’s all in the pedagogy.

Ease Education: Teaching at a human scale.

You can also find Ease Education on Facebook and Twitter.

Beliefs and biases – the biggest challenge faced by education

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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.

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.

You can also find Ease Education on Facebook and Twitter.

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

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

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I see creativity, persistence, success, pride…

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ease Education: Teaching at a human scale.

You can also find Ease Education on Facebook and Twitter.