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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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.

Children at Work.

 

 

 

As my confidence grows, the more willing I am to try out new ideas. This confidence has come about as a result of seeing a beautiful alignment between my teaching practice, Hattie’s Visible Learning research and the evidence that the students in my classroom are presenting to me. I tried something new the other day. In the past, I would have described such an action as a leap of faith. Nowadays, I see it simply as a minor adjustment to fine tune an already successful teaching environment. I saw a need. I addressed it. I evaluated it. And as well it being a successful intervention, I learned something new. I had a eureka moment!!

Based on my increasing awareness and belief in the value of play, I have elevated its presence and role in the classroom significantly. That’s because play is a great strategy for accessing enormous shifts in learning outcomes. I describe what I mean by that here. But I also value play because it is intrinsically valuable. Play develops creativity. Creativity needs to be encouraged. Creativity is a sign of intelligence. Encouraging creativity encourages independent thinking and emotional resilience and engaged learners and …..

But experience tells me that not all children come to school ready and able to reveal their creativity. There are times when it needs to be coaxed out of them. I’m not sure why that is. Perhaps they have not had opportunities to develop the skills necessary to be creative. Maybe they have grown up on a diet of passive digital companionship, or have never had to share toys, or have never been told ‘no’, or come from a family environment in which play is not valued. Whatever the reason, my job is to introduce all the children to the power of play. To give them access to the ‘gold’ that lies within their brain. I support them to scratch below the surface, to dig deeper. To do that, I set the tone, the pace, the expectations of what play looks like, feels like and sounds like in our classroom. I use language and actions that create an environment that leads to an easy uptake/flow of ideas, confidence, curiosity and collaboration.

So it was with this awareness – that not all children were getting full value of the play opportunities that I was providing them with – that I made an adjustment. In effect, I conducted a play session that was very deliberate and visible. I also limited the amount of equipment that could be used to ensure the need to share and collaborate. And the equipment I offered was very generic. ie. blocks that could be fitted together in a multitude of ways and could invite a multitude of interpretations and personalised stories. I watched and encouraged. Particularly the children who were the prime target of my intervention.

I invite you to check out the video above to see the children at work. You can hear the chatter and see the outcome of this 30 minute play time. Unfortunately, you won’t hear the elaborate stories that the children told me about their construction at the end of the session. Believe me, they were excellent. Some were more elaborate than others, of course. But the major success was that those children, who only last week, were telling me that they didn’t like playing with blocks or were not very good at it, had shown a major shift in attitude and ability. I will continue to provide these opportunities and encourage them.

In the video you can also see the unexpected learning moment that occured. Let me explain it a little. During this play session that I had deliberately set up, two children came to me and asked if they could instead, do a maths game that they had learned the other day. This was music to my ears of course. I watched them play the game. I was curious. Previous interactions had revealed to me that these children were really curious about numbers. BTW: Did you notice my little provocation at the end – even though they are only 5-6 years old, and even though the 10 + 5 = ? problem had been solved by straight recall of an addition fact, I extended an invitation to ‘count on from the biggest number’? I reckon it will stick soon. And when it does, they will be ‘showing off’ this new found talent to their colleagues but also helping their colleagues to master this talent.

Learning is contagious. It spreads like a virus when the learning environment is conducive. And this is the nub of the issue that I am trying so desperately to convey. This opportunity also provided me with evidence that contradicts the common misconception amongst teachers that kids don’t like to learn. It proved to me that, on the contrary, kids love to learn. It indicates to me, once again, that it is how we teach that beats a love to learn out of students. I also think that this is an example of what Hattie describes as that pedagogical holy grail when students become teachers and teachers become learners.

Finally, I suggest that opportunities for children to be creative can be offered in the classroom right now. I am hoping that I am offering evidence of why it should be done as well as how it could be done. We love the message that Ken Robinson promotes – we agree with him when he says that schools are failing children. But then we fall at the first hurdle or fail to even arrive at the start line. Teachers continue to find excuses for why it can’t be done. It’s the assessment requirements…it’s that class sizes are too big….it’s the blah, blah, blah…

Actually, it’s teachers who are holding up progress. Once again, it confirms my suspicion that I think we are talking about a human problem, not an education problem.

Ease Education: Teaching at a human scale.

You can also find Ease Education on Facebook and Twitter.

Defining effective pedagogy.

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Needless to say, tidy handwriting has no correlation to ability in maths

‘Pedagogy’ is a word you will see often on this site and occasionally I get asked what it means. The dictionary definition reads: “the method and practice of teaching”. But of course, I’m not going to leave it at that. I want to give a more practical, concrete definition of the word. To do so, I have provided the image (above) of a page from my year 6 maths exercise book from when I was attending an Auckland primary school in the 70’s. From looking at this exercise book it would be safe to say that a lot of time was spent copying down maths rules and completing maths problems that were written up on the blackboard. That was the pedagogy being utilised by my teacher at that time. I was a very compliant student and took pride in my handwriting ability. I wonder if every other 10 year old child in that class was able to produce beautifully written notes like that.

When I flick through the pages of this book it leads me to conclude that my aptitude and attitude in the subject of maths peaked around this time. In hindsight, I don’t think I was necessarily bad at maths. I would suggest that adding unequal fractions at 10 years old was a developmentally appropriate achievement. I can recall the proud moment in that year when I mastered this skill. I also recall being very scared of the teacher. And also, scared of being wrong. I have strong memories of being reprimanded for not being able to understand the concept of unequal fractions when it was first introduced by the teacher. There was a mysterious quality about maths that I never managed to unravel. Mostly it was about relying heavily on rules that we were required to learn by rote. But what did all those numbers actually mean? I don’t recall having opportunities to apply and test that knowledge. The learning that we were doing was taking place at a surface level only. And that sums up the difference between effective and non-effective pedagogy; the ability to go deeply into learning and do the high level – creating, generalising, predicting – type of thinking that I describe here.

Now I would like to apply this examination of effective pedagogy to the question of the merit of open plan classrooms. I have argued before that it is how teachers teach rather than where they teach that should be the main consideration. So here is an opportunity to speculate on whether my experience of maths pedagogy as a child would have been any better had my classroom at the time been an open plan classroom? Possibly yes and possibly no. Yes, because I could have been lucky and my teacher at the time could have been required to share a teaching space with a teacher who knew how to teach maths to 10 year olds in an effective way. So I could have been exposed to an effective teacher who employed effective pedagogy. Or maybe not. Maybe it would have been business as usual. Maybe all the teachers in the shared space were engaged in delivering the same pedagogy. And besides, even if there was a teacher in the space that was a practitioner of effective pedagogy, I have very good reason to suspect that it would not have made a significant difference to my maths. Why? Because to do so, the school environment would have needed to be very different. It would have needed to be one in which all the teachers were encouraged and willing to, in the words of Hattie…

“hold collaborative discussions with colleagues and students about the evidence of student achievement, thus making the effect of their teaching visible to themselves and to others.”

That last sentence – that’s the killer app. Experience tells me that the prerequisite cultural environments in which open, honest conversations between teachers and students in the classroom and between teachers themselves, about what’s working and what’s not, don’t really exist in the real world. Getting teachers to engage in meaningful and honest conversations of this kind is incredibly difficult. I can attest to that. It will take leaders who are confident and trusting, to create and sustain the necessary cultural environment to allow for these conversations to take place. In the absence of a conducive culture, any efforts to teach in an evidence based way and engage in meaningful conversations about that evidence tends to result in one being labeled as ‘disobedient’ or ‘not a team player’. Inevitably, breaking free from a traditional way of teaching – a familiar pedagogy, is not easy. The system is resistant to change. This explains why I no longer view this as a teaching problem, but as a people problem.

Pedagogy – there are a multitude of ways of doing it. But some ways are more effective than others.

Ease Education: Teaching at a human scale.

You can also find Ease Education on Facebook and Twitter.

The Ken Robinson effect.

 

KenRobinson
Ken Robinson is coming to a town near you.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ease Education: Teaching at a human scale.

You can also find Ease Education on Facebook and Twitter.

Failure costs a lot: an argument for changing the way we teach.

Toys

A magnificent story was unfolding in front of my eyes.

Imagine you are the first person ever to have circumnavigated the globe and your return home is met with disbelief, rather than excitement and curiosity. “That’s not possible”, they say. “The world is flat”. Unfortunately, that’s a fairly apt description of how it can feel to be working at the leading edge of innovation and best practice in the education sector. That’s not to say that pockets of interest and curiosity don’t exist. But those conversations tend to be conducted in hushed voices.

Even though there seems to be a growing awareness of a need for change in the way the education system works, inevitably it is incredibly difficult to shift systems and mindsets. The naysayers and the unfamiliar remain unconvinced, and at times, hostile to any requests to explore the issue. I have learned that there is little to be gained by offering a solution prior to developing any consensus that a problem actually exists. But the reality is that neither the research nor the evidence lies. The argument for change is a very compelling one. But the first hurdle to clear may in fact be the need to establish a consensus that change does indeed need to happen.

It is my desire to be curious and innovative that sustains me. It’s why I have dedicated myself to this challenge. There are of course, times when this challenge has the feeling of a curse. The good news is that I realise that I am no longer unsure about the way forward. Once again, the research supports my actions and the evidence I witness everyday in the classroom is all the validation I need. The genie is out of the bottle, so to speak. That’s why I feel optimistic that, over the long-term, change will happen. But I am less optimistic in the short term. It can be frustrating.

I believe the most compelling reason for changing the way we teach is very simple. Failure costs a lot. Every disengaged student and every student who leaves school under-educated bears a personal cost as well as a cost to society. This has to be a reason to take the issue seriously. And what’s even more troubling about this is the fact that teachers are reminded regularly of the existence of this long tail of under-achievement and are implored to improve the learning outcomes for these students.

Success at eliminating this tail of under-achievement is attainable to us. But only if we are prepared to implement a research based/evidence based teaching model. And all the best research and evidence directs us to a model that is premised on putting human relationships at the front and centre. Being knowledgable is no substitute for being nice. That’s because we now know that the most effective learning takes place when the children are leading it. A teacher’s primary function is therefore, to provide a learning environment that enables this.

An effective learning environment is one in which a high degree of trust exists between the teacher and the students, as well as among the students themselves. An environment that fosters collaboration. The teacher does this by listening to the students with an open heart, walking in their shoes, and by offering unconditional support. I teach 5-6 year olds so I keep asking myself, “how would a 5 year old be thinking and feeling at the moment?” It means that students need to be met where they are at, not where the teacher is at, or where the teacher thinks they should be at. It’s a ‘judgement free’ zone. It’s a flexible and organic environment that caters to every child’s individual needs and circumstances. It means that, to a large extent, a student’s difficult home life can be parked at the entrance to the classroom door every morning. It means that the teacher can offer an engaging and stimulating learning environment that encourages children to think, share, create and make cognitive connections.

The teacher needs to do everything and anything necessary to keep all students engaged and learning. The teacher is required to be a problem solver and do what works for the children. Inevitably, this means creating a learning environment that caters to the students that are most challenged academically and socially. “Get the learning environment right for them and you will get it right for everyone” is the saying. That may seem paradoxical. Some parents may need convincing. But remember, the most effective learning environment is one in which the students are leading it. It’s an environment in which all students can achieve at their best – academically, socially, creatively. And nor is there any need to sacrifice creativity for academic learning. There is no place for siloed thinking in teaching. Too often I see the current teaching model acting like a glass ceiling; students are being hampered from achieving their best by the barriers that teachers inadvertently place in front of them.

The positive impact of putting the most challenging children at the forefront of teaching practice is that it provides the teacher with the most immediate and effective feedback and therefore the best learning opportunities. It provides excellent feedback to the questions of “how am I doing as a teacher?” and “how effective am I being as a teacher?” And as it turns out, creating a learning environment for the most challenging children is a very low risk strategy. That’s because the research also tells us that there is very little that a teacher can do to inhibit a child’s learning. The sad reality for teachers is that children learn despite us. That’s why teachers need to focus on what deliberate teaching strategies they can implement in order to get ALL their students working as close as possible to their developmentally appropriate stage. The other benefit of taking this approach is that it can operate as a pilot project. Successes and failures can be learned and managed on a small scale before being shared and implemented at a wider level.

Finally, for this education model to be successful, the same ingredients that make learning successful for students, need to be carried over into the teacher realm as well. This means that it’s essential that schools operate in a way that encourages genuine collaboration. Teachers need to feel safe and trusted. All teachers need to be invited to share their knowledge and understandings and be prepared to participate in critical reflection in light of evidence about their teaching. In the words of Hattie,

This requires teachers to gather defensible and dependable evidence from many sources, and hold collaborative discussions with colleagues and students about this evidence, thus making the effect of their teaching visible to themselves and to others.

I think it is safe to say that schools are still, by and large, ‘evidence free zones’. For too many, the world is still flat. And it is hard to convince otherwise. Where to from here, I wonder? Trying to establish a consensus for change may be the best approach. In the meanwhile I will continue to place high expectations on myself and all the students in my care. Especially the ones who are at risk of failing. I will also remain an impatient optimist and continue to be a practitioner of evidence based teaching. Care to join me? Anyone?

Ease Education: Teaching at a human scale.

You can also find Ease Education on Facebook and Twitter.