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.

Effective teachers are those that know the impact they are having on their students.

BehaviourAnalysisTextBook

My new best friend

When the students arrive at school they are randomly assigned to one of two classes – class A and class B. The students in class A and the students in class B are the same year level and in socio-economic terms, from the same catchment. The students in class A and B have equal access to school resources and funding. Both classes have a selection of children who have ‘behavioural issues’ and are disengaged with their learning. At the beginning of the year all the students are assessed. They are assessed again in the middle of the year and at the end of the year. These assessments reveal that, by the end of the year, the students in class A have made significantly greater improvement in their learning than the students in class B. The conclusion can be drawn, being that the teacher is the only variable, that students in class A have been the benefactors of more effective teaching inputs. ie. their teacher is more effective.

The next step of course is to find out what the teacher in class A is doing, bottle it and share it. Problem solved! Every child ends up getting a great education. As if it was that simple, eh. In an ideal world…

In an ideal world every teacher would be open to changing their practice, based on the best data and evidence available to them. Only then will there be any hope of solving the problems that face education. All the problems that teachers like to use as an excuse for the failure of their students are external and beyond a teacher’s control. That is not to suggest that campaigning to address society’s inequities is not a worthy goal. But the reality is that teachers adjusting their practice and beliefs is the only thing they can do to make a difference to their students’ achievements. In the words of John Hattie, “know thy impact”.

The measure of a good day in the classroom needs to be more than the absence of a bad day. Measure, reflect, repeat!

Ease Education: Teaching at a human scale.

You can also find Ease Education on Facebook and Twitter.

Why?

EqualityEquity

Removing barriers – systemic change that would benefit education.

Why do I teach in the way I do?

I feel strongly about many things. Things like, the need to protect the environment, and to mitigate against climate change. To improve economic equity and social justice. But these are big issues. And I recognise that my ability to have a constructive influence over these things is very limited.

I also feel strongly about the need to improve education outcomes for all students. As a teacher, I recognise that my ability to have a constructive influence on the students I am responsible for, is very real and immediate. Neither do I make any apologies for viewing education in the same way as other major world problems. As I have described before, failure costs a lot. This is no time for timidness.

Why do I teach in the way I do?

18 years ago, 10 years ago, 5 years ago even, I didn’t know what I didn’t know. I had no real idea of what I was trying to achieve. I simply modeled my teaching on what I was told was best practice. I just gradually became better at (what hindsight has allowed me to see more clearly) implementing a process. I was unaware of the impact I was having. But things have changed. I became curious. After 18 years of toil, I am better at understanding the impact I am having. I have come to appreciate that there is a science to teaching. That is, teaching effectiveness can be measured. Teaching is still a complex business, but knowing that success can be measured with the use of evidence, it means we now have very useful guidelines on the best way to proceed. At least, we should have.

Why do I teach in the way I do?

It’s quite simple really. I want to help ALL students be academically, socially and creatively competent. All my actions are predicated on that goal. If it works, I do it. If it doesn’t, I drop it. It’s about identifying and eliminating the barriers to achieving that goal, as much as it is about me teaching to a particular programme or delivering a specific lesson. Increasingly,  I am seeing signs that many of the barriers that teachers face are self-imposed barriers. Deficit mindsets reflect that we are witnessing a people problem as opposed to an education problem. After all, Hattie tells us that “the biggest effects on student learning occur when teachers become learners of their own teaching, and when students become their own teachers”. Evidence/research based teaching practice is about reflecting on, and changing your teaching practice, as a result of applying research and reflecting on the results that it produces.

To get to this point I have had to get used to feeling uncomfortable. A nagging sense of doubt has always been present. Doubt about the way I was teaching. And a willingness to tolerate being the odd one out. Engaging in evidence based teaching has resulted in that sense of doubt shrinking immensely. Although sadly, being the odd one out has not. But regardless of the growing certainty that I feel, I still encourage myself to maintain a slither of doubt.

Unfortunately, that sense of doubt that I describe, is not something that you will find in abundance in a typical education environment (or within any organisation for that matter). I suspect that is because typically, the traditional form of leadership is premised on characteristics of strength and expertise. Doubt conveys weakness and indecisiveness. Compliance and agreement is rewarded. Also, leadership in this traditional form seems to be focused on managing and containing, rather leading change and expanding. For change and expansion to take place there needs to be a willingness to engage in genuinely collaborative conversations  that look beyond the currently accepted best practice and be prepared to steer a path through uncharted territory of doubt. The right to question needs to be enshrined within the organisation.

This of course highlights the merits of research/evidence based teaching practice. The quality of the questions will be revealed in the evidence. The questions will simply answer themselves. Isn’t that the premise of Hattie’s Visible Learning research?

The power of one word….why?

Ease Education: Teaching at a human scale.

You can also find Ease Education on Facebook and Twitter.

An 18 year apprenticeship in teaching.

Building with blocks

Intelligence comes in many guises

The thought occurred to me numerous times, while undertaking a postgraduate primary teaching course at the University of Auckland way back in the year 2000, that I had made a huge mistake. It wasn’t all bad. There were many things to like. There were lots of nice people to engage with – students and lecturers. And the course itself offered some wonderful pedagogical and philosophical insights into the world of education.

Having a fire hose operating at full volume directed at you, feels like an apt description of that year as a teacher in training. But it wasn’t the workload and enormous volume of content that concerned me. I had expected as much. There was something more pressing that had me doubting my decision. There existed within me a dissonance that I was unable to articulate at the time. In hindsight, I can see that it was no accident that at some point during that year, I purchased a copy of John Holt’s 1967 book, “How Children Learn”.

In part, I had chosen teaching because of my previous experience of teaching children during my time as an ESOL teacher in Japan. I didn’t know the theory of teaching but I did know that I enjoyed relating to children. I had become inspired by that experience. I got a sense that teaching could be a calling for me, rather than just a job. It was that sense that sustained me throughout the year. The feedback I was receiving certainly wasn’t it. I had a strong feeling that my ability to engage with the children in front of me would compensate for my inability to produce a lesson plan that bore any resemblance to plans we were told to produce.

It occurred to me recently that it feels like I have just completed an 18 year apprenticeship in teaching. To some, that may suggest that I am simply, ‘a slow learner’. At about the 10 year mark I finally got round to reading that book that I had purchased all those years ago. It was perfect timing really. I was on the verge of being burnt out. But also because I discovered Holt’s book to be revelatory. It articulated all the doubts I had had about what I was being told was important about teaching during that training year. That an education focused on lesson plans, instead of the children in front of you, is not an education system that is working effectively.

Fast forward to the present and you will see Hattie and Bishop producing research to validate what Holt had already articulated. 18 years on, and having finally completed my apprenticeship, I find myself feeling relieved that what I also knew intuitively to be true, has been validated. That is, the cornerstone of effective learning is relationship. That the children need to be at the front and centre of their learning experience. That teachers need to trust children to be the best determiners of their ability. That they are able and willing to learn. According to Sir Ken Robinson, two of The Beatles, Paul McCartney and George Harrison, were told by their music teacher that they were lacking in sufficient musical talent.

Hattie and Bishop have laid out the road map for teachers to follow. This map indicates to us to follow the research and teach to the evidence that results from best practice. But while the best way forward may have been presented to us, there is still a long way to go to making this the new accepted practice. At present, personal experience tells me that teaching as Hattie and Bishop prescribe, is more likely to result in a teacher being labeled as “difficult” rather than as a teacher to be celebrated.

 

Ease Education: Teaching at a human scale.

You can also find Ease Education on Facebook and Twitter.

The science of teaching effectively

MasterBuilding

Currency trading

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).

HattieKeyEffects

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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