What a 6 year old’s letter reveals about how children learn best.

Letter

What’s in a letter?

I treasure this letter. It came to me from a 6 year old boy in my classroom. He wrote it at home and gave it to me when he arrived at school one morning. It’s been sitting on my desk at home ever since. Every time I sit down at my computer it’s there. I see it. I marvel at it. I contemplate what to do with it. I’m tempted to frame it. “What’s the big deal?” you ask. It’s just a letter. Children do this kind of thing all the time. Yes, but it’s because this letter reveals so much. In this letter, I recognise the impact I have had on him. It reflects the quality of the relationship I have built up with this child.

And in his letter I also see real learning. Learning in the way that is natural to children. I see his attempts to form the letters based on the way I have instructed him. I see the errors – the reversals that are entirely appropriate for a 6 year old, the crossing out and the corrections. It reveals deliberateness and purpose. The desire to write, to communicate, to explore and enter the adult word. Problem solving even. To me, this letter yells “I am an effective, engaged learner”. I mean, he could have just told me that he was planning to bring a cake. He didn’t have to write it. I can imagine the conversation between the child and his parents at home. The search for paper and a pen. The adult support that made it possible for this child to fulfill his desire to communicate in writing (when it was actually time for bed, perhaps).

I love this letter because it demonstrates and reflects so beautifully how a 6 year old’s learning should take place – but which is so commonly denied in a typical school environment. It’s a type of learning that reflects how children learn best. A type of learning that reflects the curiosity and natural developmental progressions of a child. I see examples of this type of learning taking place all the time in my classroom. Children choosing to write, to read books, to solve maths puzzles – to apply and test out their knowledge and skills.

Teaching is a word that has traditionally been, and continues to be, interpreted so narrowly. Teaching should be about providing children with a learning environment with plenty of space and time to grow and develop their own learning – to be curious, to test themselves, to make mistakes, to think critically. The most critical role of a teacher is to listen, respond, nudge – to not be a barrier to a child’s natural way of learning. From my personal experience, I marvel at the amazing learning that can be achieved when this approach to learning is embraced. When the learning is made visible. When the children are invited to lead their learning journey. When they are invited to share and acknowledge their accomplishments and discoveries. It allows for a highly sustainable, upward spiral of learning success to be perpetuated. Trusting the children to learn. Seeing is believing.

PS: The cake was delicious and enjoyed by everyone.

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 future of education

For most of the last century, entry-level jobs were plentiful, and a university education was an affordable path to a fulfilling career. That world no longer exists. The growing shortcomings of our school model in todayʼs innovative world need to be acknowledged and addressed.

The future of education

I’ve seen the future of education and it is not, as we are often led to believe, dominated by computers, technology, homework or discipline. That’s because education, at it’s very heart, is a human endeavour. It’s about people and relationships. The future of education is about thinking, inquiring, creating and sharing. It’s an education system that will better prepare our children for the future and be better for our country as a whole – economically, environmentally and socially. Our schools need to be moving away from the highly tested and narrowly focussed system that prevails, towards an inquiry based system that is responsive to the wide range of needs of all learners.

Problems with a test based system.

A test based education system is focused on delivering content. It has a narrow focus. It produces winners and losers. It generates compliant thinkers in a time when we need critical thinkers who are able to challenge the status-quo and be problem solvers. It is a system not responsive to a changing world. In the words of Sir Ken Robinson, the current education system “has mined our minds in the way we have strip mined the Earth”. Our nation’s future economic, environmental and social well-being, is dependent on an education system that caters for all students and nurtures and develops all their talents equally. The future is a broad and inclusive education system that celebrates curiosity and thinking. Our World depends on it. And we need to move fast. Our children need to be prepared for an unpredictable future.

What’s the alternative?

Every day my classroom is filled with curious children who are engaged in meaningful interactions and discoveries. Interactions and discoveries that I am continually delighted to reflect upon but, no longer surprised by. Children are powerful and creative thinkers when given the opportunity. And these interactions and discoveries don’t take place by accident. They come about by creating a learning environment that is provocative and that entices lots of thinking out loud, creating and sharing. In the words of Yong Zhao, standardised testing regime, like National Standards, operates as a ceiling to learning rather than as a foundation.

Importantly, from a teacher’s perspective, it is an environment in which these learning discoveries are often self-generated. Discoveries that can be shared from child to child. That’s learning at its most powerful. These are discoveries that the children are making about the World around them, but also discoveries that teachers can make into learning about their own teaching. John Hattie, defines it as ‘Visible Learning’. What a great definition.

I witness too many of these daily discoveries and interactions for me to record and respond to. Needless to say, these are interactions and discoveries that will never find their way onto an A4 piece of paper with ‘National Standards’ written in bold at the top. But they are happening. And they are glorious. They are discoveries that cover all areas of the curriculum. It is a genuine and authentic form of inquiry learning. Real solutions to real problems. From language and literacy, to science and numeracy. But they also reach beyond the academic realm. Social learning is a key component of these discoveries. A happy, socially engaged learner is the foundation of a good learner – a life-long learner.

Play and imagination are key components of effective learning. Finland is a standout achiever in the education stakes. And the children in Finland don’t engage in formal, academic education until they are 7 years old. Peter Gluckman, Chief Science Adviser to New Zealand’s Prime Minister, says that through play, exploration and positive social interactions, children can learn to develop empathy, resilience and emotional stability – that is, interpersonal skills that will serve both them and our nation well, when they move into their teenage and adult years.

What’s stopping us?

Call for educational reform is not a new thing. By the end of his career, an exasperated John Holt felt that home-schooling was the only way children would get a decent education. I have faith that the system is flexible enough to change; that change is seen as necessary and desirable. I live in hope that a determination to make significant change will happen, sooner than later. But change in how schools deliver education needs to take place alongside economic, political and social change. A new world order needs to be established. Having the top 47 richest individuals with the equivalent wealth of 50% of the World population is neither desirable nor sustainable. Having only some people enjoying the spoils of the current economic model, while the rest are disenfranchised, is neither desirable nor sustainable. The economy needs to serve and benefit everyone.

For everyone to be able to see the future education that I witness in my class everyday, it will take a significant leap of faith. And trust. Teachers will be trusted to do their job. That’s because teaching will be valued and the best people will be recruited to be teachers and those teachers will be provided with the best possible professional development. They will work in an environment in which they feel free to innovate, take risks and be creative. Children will also be trusted to be curious, discerning and enthusiastic learners because they will be given the right environment and opportunities and will also feel safe to take risks.

In the words of Yann Martel, in our current education system, we have a story that won’t surprise us. It confirms what we already know. It won’t make us see higher, further or differently. It’s a flat story that only provides yeastless factuality. And unfortunately, it’s a system that also provides us with winners and losers. We need a system where everyone is enabled to flourish.

Ease Education: Teaching at a human scale.

You can also find Ease Education on Facebook and Twitter.

Check out the article below from the World Economic Forum. It argues for the need for kindergarten age children to be playing.

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A new school year and the importance of creating a positive classroom culture

Name tag/name mat- identity I belong really important – clues when chn bring parents/family members in to share means

Creating a positive classroom culture means giving students opportunities to feel like they belong and are valued. You’ll know you’ve got it right when the children want to share these experiences with one another and their families.

It’s a new school year and I’m pleased to report that things are going well. I am getting to know the children and the children are getting to know me. The ice is starting to melt. Order and structure is being established and learned.

My primary focus at the moment is on building positive relationships – between myself and the students, as well as between the students themselves. That’s because effective teaching and learning is premised on the quality of relationships and the quality of the interactions between the teacher and the students. I have already written about that. It’s all about making the learning ‘visible’.

Creating a classroom culture that is structured and ordered provides the social and emotional space that will allow a random group of individuals to grow into a kind and caring community.

I am glad that the research has been able to validate something that makes intuitive sense. And while the research seems to focus on the teacher/student relationship, I have taken it a step further by putting a lot of emphasis on building positive student/student relationships. In a vibrant, dynamic learning environment, children spend a lot of time interacting with each other. That could be via teacher prescribed, direct learning opportunities such as reading a book together or, self directed activities such as collaborating on building a tower of blocks or playing together at lunch time. And remember, this is all enshrined in our wonderful NZ Curriculum document. It defines learning in its broadest sense – academic and social learning.

When it comes to establishing a classroom culture, I think of myself as a ‘benevolent dictator’. Which may seem somewhat paradoxical when you consider all the emphasis that I put on the role of positive relationships. Creating a classroom culture that is structured and ordered provides the social and emotional space that will allow a random group of individuals to grow into a kind and caring community. That is the ultimate prize.

…all efforts put into building a positive classroom culture, are rewarded exponentially throughout the year.

By achieving that, it means that a teacher can be more effective – achieve better quality interactions. It makes it possible to be able to deliver dynamic, flexible and individualised learning programmes. But to do that, it is necessary to have a classroom that is structured and orderly. From order and rules comes spontaneity and joy – and of course, great learning.

Let me tell you a story.

How would you react if you walked into your classroom after morning break to find all the children jumping out of hiding places in the classroom and yelling “surprise”? That’s what’s happened to me over the last few years. I don’t know how or why this situation has arisen. But it got me thinking. That a group of 5-6 year olds could agree unanimously to do such a thing? That they could do it without someone spilling the beans? That they assumed I would also enjoy their surprise? And of course I did (until they wanted to keep on doing it everyday, that is). I laughed with them. I congratulated them on their inventiveness and creativity. And of course, I interpreted it as a sign that we had successfully created a kind and caring community. We were all on the bus, all going in the same direction. Magic!

It’s not personal. It’s not judgemental. It’s just about setting everyone up to succeed.

So building positive relationships is not just an important focus for the beginning of the school year. It takes priority throughout the year. Just like regular maintenance will help keep a car on the road for longer, a classroom culture needs regular maintenance as well. It’s not a task that can be ticked off after the first few weeks of school. It’s ongoing. I have learned that all efforts put into building a positive classroom culture, are rewarded exponentially throughout the year. It really is worth it. Typically, the best solutions in life are the ones that take the longest and require the most input. There are no quick, easy steps to creating a positive classroom culture.

Children arrive at school in different states of readiness. Some children arrive at school knowing how to read, how to relate to others. Some, less so. I use the beginning of the year to address any needs – provoke, listen, respond. Who needs help to turn the pages of a book gently? Who needs help packing up the classroom equipment? Who needs help sharing the blocks? The beginning of the year is the time to determine the ‘lay of the land’ and model the desired behaviour. It’s not personal. It’s not judgemental. It’s just about setting everyone up to succeed. 

Yes, we have a treaty in our room. Yes, the students and I have co-authored it. Yes, we have referenced it to the Treaty of Waitangi. But still, even after all that, that treaty is just words on a piece of paper, stuck (with varying degrees of artistic flair) onto a classroom wall. So we need to breathe life into it. We need to embody its intent with the words and actions we use in our everyday interactions.

I wonder whether the teacher in this video had a well written, well considered and well presented treaty on her classroom wall? While I don’t want to be a scare-mongerer or a John Holt, I really want to be reassured that classrooms are great places for learning as well as places for the human spirit to flourish.

So, let’s celebrate the good parts of our education system and keep looking for ways to improve.

Ease Education: Teaching at a human scale.

You can also find Ease Education on Facebook and Twitter.