It’s possible to create a learning environment in which all students learn exponentially.

Can you read this?

“I don’t care that you have trouble spelling. But I do care that you are mindful, curious, thoughtful, empathetic and articulate.”

I am currently witnessing some amazing growth in the reading abilities of all the students in my classroom. And we are only a term and a half through the year. Normally, I don’t see this kind of growth until further into the year. Yes, I do say “amazing growth” and I do say “all”. Let me explain what’s happening. And before I do, let me also say that this is not the first time I have witnessed this. But it is the first time that I have set out to document it. The difference is that this year I have fully embraced the “Visible Learning” pedagogy. There is no more tentativeness. The training wheels are off completely. It is also worth noting that this amazing growth is not only evidenced in reading. I am seeing it replicated throughout all learning areas.

So what exactly am I seeing?

It is easy to track reading. There is a wide range of graded texts for the children to read. When a child shows competence at level 1 texts, they move on to slightly harder level 2 texts, and so on. It translates well into a box ticking and graph making exercise. The level of progress each child is making, relative to where they were at the start of the year, is easy for all to see. And from my vantage point, I can see that all children are improving, ‘more or less equally’. (Keep reading for a more detailed analysis of what I mean by ‘more or less equally’).

As well as seeing improved reading data, I am seeing major shifts amongst all the students in their attitude, effort, curiosity and confidence with reading. I see children reading a book with a friend when they could be playing with blocks instead. I see children offering to help a colleague to read a tricky part of a text and then advising me that their colleague had tried really hard and had done “their best”. I see a child examining a text closely and sounding out words and sounds; employing the reading knowledge and strategies that I have already shared with them. I see the child’s eyes light up with a strong sense of accomplishment. The same child, who up to a week before, was a reluctant reader and finding reading difficult.

So how exactly is this happening? (hint: student ‘agency’).

After many years at the chalk face I am now able to identify the deliberate acts that I am engaged in and the impact these actions are having on the students’ learning. The cause and effect relationship has become clear. (Unfortunately, this correlation is not naturally occurring within the education profession. That is, there is no automatic correlation between a teacher’s level of experience in the classroom and the level of a teacher’s expertise). Increasingly, more of my time these days is spent listening, observing and responding to the children. I take great interest in what they are doing. I show them that I care about what they are doing – emotionally and academically. I am nudging them gently in the direction that they need to go. I’m the expert. I know what they need to know in terms of knowledge and strategy. And most importantly, I connect with them at a human level.

I am focused on more than just passing on the knowledge and skills of reading. It’s about developing a learning culture that becomes self sustaining in the long term. It’s about demonstrating to the students that I genuinely care about them and their learning, and conveying high but realistic expectations. I know how to manage and organise the children effectively and more importantly, how to get the children to manage and organise themselves. I also know what motivates them. I know what they will work for. It’s about human psychology. That’s the foundation for all the great learning that is happening in the classroom. It is this human/cultural aspect of learning that I am most interested in these days. It is this aspect of learning (and in this case reading) that I spend so much time and effort cultivating.

In this kind of learning environment, the children are well versed in giving each other feedback. It’s a learning environment in which I have time and space to be able to give the children feedback, and advise them of what they need to do next. It’s instantaneous and it’s done verbally. The feedback could be about their reading skill, and/or, it could be about their attitude towards their reading/learning. Praise is always forthcoming. But only when it is deserved. We only celebrate excellence – in achievement and effort. That’s important. I am yet to meet a child who (at least eventually) does not respond positively to being challenged and encouraged to do better. Think back to the last time you completed a task that challenged you and required you to strive. That “I did it” feeling.

I also need to know what to expect of a child at their developmental age. The learning needs to be fun and engaging. The learning environment is prefaced on a growth mindset rather than a deficit mindset. Follow Maslow’s advice for strategies on how to get the best out of yourself as a teacher as well as your students. Or adopt my manifesto for creating a positive learning environment. The focus needs to be on finding the potential in the students rather than highlighting their limiting factors and deficiencies. Road blocks need to be removed. Stop finding excuses. Start being creative and curious. Become a problem solver instead. Some children will need more scaffolding and support than others. That’s because not all children enter your class at the beginning of the year from an equal starting point. Not all children come from the same social and economic background. Remember, we are looking at improving everyone’s outcomes equally.

‘More or less equally’?

As the year progresses two things start to happen. First of all, I find my role in the learning process changing. My input is required less and less. Or at least, I start to focus on providing support to those in greatest need. But overall, my role shifts to one that is more about guiding the students. I have been surprised this year with how quickly I have been able to make that happen. Secondly, I notice that student academic achievement starts to improve exponentially. The source of that growth is all due to that highly prized commodity called ‘student agency’. I assume that this what Hattie is trying to convey when he says,

The biggest effects on student learning occur when teachers become learners of their own teaching, and when students become their own teachers.

Student agency is an essential ingredient of effective learning. And it is an ingredient that is easily overlooked and by and large, absent from your typical learning environment. I have my theories for why this is the case. I think it comes back to the idea that effective teaching and learning is inherently, a human endeavour. We are naturally inclined to look for tangibles; the focus is on the knowledge and skills of teaching reading, maths, everything. Everything but human relationships. That’s what I remember of my time training to be a teacher. And just because human relationships/connections are not easy to see or measure, it doesn’t mean that they don’t exist or shouldn’t be valued.

It is this type of learning environment that will have the greatest impact on lifting that long tail of underachievement in New Zealand schools. It is the magic bullet to avoiding children failing in our education system. It is also the antidote to those ideologues who promote charter schools or those who think more and better discipline/homework/computers/sport… is the solution. But not only does this approach to teaching and learning have a positive impact on those underachieving students, it does so with no harm to other students. All children benefit. So says Russell Bishop. I would go a step further and suggest that it is a learning environment that allows all students to flourish. It is an approach that works for all students equally.

Having said all this, my interest lies now in figuring out how to upscale this teaching pedagogy. The evidence I am witnessing and describing is compelling. Dare I say, a deficit mindset and a lack of curiosity is not only holding back the ability of students to grow exponentially.

Ease Education: Teaching at a human scale.

You can also find Ease Education on Facebook and Twitter.

This blog post relies heavily on the work of Professor Russell Bishop. Refer to the link below…

Continue reading

Observations of a learning environment that lifts underachievement and benefits all students equally.

There's an elaborate story there, waiting to be told.

I have learned to overestimate the value of child’s play.

In my last blog post I described how I had come to the realisation of how I was actually making a positive impact on the learning of the students in my class. I described how I was able to identify the deliberate acts of my teaching that were responsible for this. Finally, after many years of toil, I could finally say that the children were learning thanks to me, rather than in spite of me. ‘Visible learning‘ it’s called. It’s a bold claim. I realise that. But I know I could validate it. If I was asked too.

What I am also noticing in my classroom is that all the children are making relative progress. Every child’s boat is rising equally on the incoming tide. This is critical to understand, in light of what we know is actually happening within New Zealand schools. That long tail of underachievement just won’t budge. Currently, not all boats are being floated equally. And schools don’t feel able to deal with this. School and teacher representatives argue that there are economic and social issues at play which prevents them from addressing these learning issues. Of course, these are issues that are beyond the control of individual teachers and schools. But I would also suggest that there needs to be a much more pragmatic and problem solving attitude. There are changes that could be made right now that would make a significant difference. I am happy to share my successes. Just ask me.

I am acutely aware of the existence and impact of unconscious bias from teachers. It exists in all aspects of life. Why would teachers in the classroom be immune to this prevalent and very human condition?

It is also an unfortunate reality that Māori students are highly represented in this underachievement category. It is argued that this is due to an unconscious teacher bias towards Māori students. That teachers expect less from those students compared to students of other races.  As a teacher, I am acutely aware of the existence and impact of unconscious bias from teachers. It exists in all aspects of life. Why would teachers in the classroom be immune to this prevalent and very human condition?And it’s not just Māori students that are subject to this bias. But I would like to give teachers some benefit of the doubt on this one. I believe that teachers are well intentioned. You become a teacher because you think you can make a difference.

It’s about creating a system/learning environment that benefits all students.

But this study about the negative impact of unconscious bias, also reinforces for me my belief that the education system works from a deficit/punitive model. A few thrive. Most survive. But many others, such as Maori, fall by the wayside. I would suggest that it’s the enormous and unresponsive blob of a system that’s broken and that, by and large, teachers are quite simply doing what they are told. That’s what they are good at. The system is not working for teachers either. So I am suggesting that the system fails many but its impact on Māori students is most obvious and easy to identify.

So while I have not been focussing directly on Māori students, my approach has the impact of ‘floating everyone’s boat’ equally and that has had a positive impact on Maori students. And maybe that is the best way of approaching it; to avoid the potential backlash. Because the system is failing many, and it just so happens that Maori students happen to fall within this ‘many’ group. It’s about creating a system/learning environment that benefits all students. That is what I have been focussing on. Even the top students, the compliant and successful ones, are benefiting from this approach.

There is a universality about teaching. It’s a human endeavour that should come from the heart. It should be backed up by good research and practice and collaboration.

It was an awareness of, and increasing discomfort with this supposed inability to improve the learning of all students, that inspired me to start changing the way I approached teaching and to document it on this blog. I even come up with a ‘manifesto’ to guide me in my new approach. This manifesto is not directed at Māori students in particular. But I think you will see that it is a ‘human’ response and see how it could be of benefit to all students, all cultures. I am experiencing many positive outcomes from my new positive/high trust approach to teaching. The children are flourishing. The parents are observing a positive difference.

In effect, all I am doing is just bringing all the good research to life in the classroom. It seems that so often that research is left languishing on the shelf. I am being innovative and trialling new ideas but still making sure to stay within the system. It’s about the children, first and foremost. But really, there is nothing new or scary or untested. It is already happening in a variety of places. There is a universality about teaching. It’s a human endeavour that should come from the heart. It should be backed up by good research and practice and collaboration. And although I am describing an experience of working with 5-6 year olds, I have no doubt that it’s an approach that will work just as well with older children.

The power of imagination will become critical. In an information society, no thought, debate or dream is wasted – whether conceived in a tent camp, prison cell or the table football space of a startup company.

So, what will it take to bring about the required change? At a personal level I am very optimistic. At a wider level, less so. That’s because I have got to this place by way of dogged determination and circumstance. It’s that I’ve had the conviction to follow through with ideas, even if it means going against the current. But it works because, from the children, I get immediate and positive feedback. That sustains me. However, in terms of convincing my colleagues, that is another matter altogether. Don’t ask me why this is. I have my theories but this is not the forum for that.

But I am still hopeful that change is inevitable. The world is changing. We live in an information age. No longer do we have to rely on the traditional hierarchical sources for knowledge and information. My inspiration is only a mouse click away. As Paul Mason says, “the power of imagination will become critical. In an information society, no thought, debate or dream is wasted – whether conceived in a tent camp, prison cell or the table football space of a startup company.”

To that I’d also like to add….or an idea conceived in a classroom of 5 year olds.

Ease Education: Teaching at a human scale.

You can also find Ease Education on Facebook and Twitter.