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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ease Education: Teaching at a human scale.

You can also find Ease Education on Facebook and Twitter.

A critique of ‘play-based’ learning.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ease Education: Teaching at a human scale.

You can also find Ease Education on Facebook and Twitter.

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.

A close up and personal view of successful learning.

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Give a child some time and space and witness the magic.

A child enters the classroom at the beginning of the year. The child is lively, funny, gregarious, intelligent, precocious, articulate and creative. Everything that you would hope and expect from a normal 5 year old. But school environment doesn’t seem a good fit for this child. The child has trouble focusing, or staying on task for even a short periods of time. It becomes increasingly apparent that, without some specific and tailored input, this child is looking unlikely to attain the established academic standards.

The child’s teacher realises the challenge at hand, and gets to work establishing the deliberate acts of teaching that need to be implemented. A long term personal commitment is made to address the identified issues. Fortunately, the NZ Curriculum document is non prescriptive. It places no specific requirements on the teacher to teach in a particular way. It seems to encourage innovation and a problem solving approach to learning. Prior successes in similar circumstances reveal that a positive outcome for this child is all but assured. But it will be a challenge. It will be a test of skill and a test of confidence. For a while at least. Previous experience reveals that it could take a week, or it could take a year. Or somewhere in between. That’s because the best solutions are typically the easiest to deliver but also the slowest at delivering the best results. But the rewards will be huge. The pay back will be worth the effort.

As I argued recently, rapport may be the foundation stone of a super charged learning environment but there is more to it. Rapport on its own, it is no guarantee that effective learning will take place. It’s what’s done with the rapport that is the critical factor. Rapport gives the teacher a clear and well researched pathway. It’s a credit source that can be drawn on. It allows the teacher to engage with the child in an effective and productive way. It is premised on a healthy and constructive mindset. Rapport conveys a message from the teacher that, “I care”, and, “I will work hard.” But more than that, it’s a message that needs to implore the child to care just as much, and to work just as hard.

Expectations must be high. Teacher talk time needs to be short, prompt and focused. Expectations on students to listen and engage during that time also need to be high. The child’s opportunity to demonstrate an appropriate response and understanding is equally short and focused. This process is enhanced by ensuring that only activities with sufficient levels of context and relevance are on offer. Insight is gained through the regular dynamic interactions that take place between teacher and student or student and student. These interactions are prized possessions. They are utilized by the teacher. Formative assessments are made and are ongoing. Next steps are formulated. High fives are offered generously for every recognition of constructive effort expended. The child gradually becomes aware that their effort is linked to their achievement. Intrinsic motivation may be an abstract concept to a 5 year old but its presence is clear and invaluable. The child is now entering the pathway to becoming the director of its own learning.

The learning environment the teacher creates is positive, familiar, predictable and visible. It is that kind of environment, in which eventually, the learning pretty much takes care of itself. That’s because a similarly high level of expectation of self management and effort is placed on all children and is evident in all daily interactions – whether the interactions are teacher led or child led. Increasingly, as the year progresses, the teacher’s presence becomes less obvious in the classroom. The result is that every child manages to succeed. Some just needed a little less direct input than others.

And as for the target child? When the results are in, the child is indistinguishable from its peers. That’s the measure of success. That’s what makes teaching more than just a job.

Ease Education: Teaching at a human scale.

You can also find Ease Education on Facebook and Twitter.

The role of rapport in creating a super charged learning environment.

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Rapport: are you looking for the next best thing to a ‘silver bullet’?

Have you ever walked into a primary school classroom and seen all the children sitting on the floor in front of a teacher, except for one? And that one, is sitting on a special seat and looking like the proverbial “cat that got the cream”. That scene is probably replicated in the majority of primary schools throughout New Zealand. The child on said chair is more than likely enjoying the opportunity to be the ‘Star of the Day’ or ‘Teacher’s Helper’ (or any variation of label thereof). This is most likely an example of a strategy often employed by teachers as a way of managing student behaviour. It is used as both an inducement, and as a reward. It’s a pretty effective strategy because most children are motivated to sit in ‘that’ chair. Mostly.

For some students, inducements or rewards are just a bonus. They are already internally motivated and able to self regulate. For others, it will operate effectively at helping them move towards internal motivation and self regulation. For some children though, being chosen to sit on the special chair is not a sufficient motivator to get them to do, or behave as the teacher requests. That’s why it’s important critical to be able to determine the intent and impact of using particular behaviour management strategies. Is the intention to achieve compliance or self regulation? Of course, the target of any intervention should be about helping children to self regulate, rather than simply creating children who are compliant. That’s because self regulation and internal motivation are the foundation stones of effective learning.

I think it is also worth stepping back and seeing this from a wider angle. The real problem here is that this is not just a child’s problem. That is, for most normal human beings, self-regulation does not come easily. But so often I conclude that adults place higher expectations of self regulation on children than they do on themselves. As far as I can see, I suspect that the society we live in is run by adults who, by varying degrees, are poor at self regulation and display a considerable paucity of emotional intelligence. So while it is honourable to have these high expectations, these need to be matched equally with support, guidance and opportunities to learn how to self regulate. As I have said before, first and foremost, teachers need to be mindful of their own mindset.

Over recent years, I have become better at choosing and adapting the strategies I employ to manage behaviour. That’s come about as a result of applying a research/evidence based teaching practice. I am always seeking an honest answer to the question: “How am I/we doing?” The best solutions/pedagogy come about by responding to the needs of the children, rather than by blindly following the received conventional wisdom. In terms of managing behaviour effectively, expectations of how to behave and how to engage need to be clear and consistent. That’s why I am always looking for opportunities to reinforce these expectations. And that’s also why I am willing and prepared to play the ‘long game’. The research reveals to us that the best learning for all students is self generated and takes place over a sustained period of time.

The research is now also making it abundantly clear that the level of rapport in the learning environment is the closest thing teachers can have that represents a ‘silver bullet’. Based on my own personal experience of testing the research in the classroom, I can unequivocally claim that there is a clear and undeniable link between the level of rapport and the quality of the learning taking place. Is it the cause or simply a correlation? I’m not sure and it may be difficult to prove but I for one, would be very keen to find out. By implementing the research and making this self discovery, it has given me more confidence to play around with how I approach my role as a teacher. It has resulted in me embracing this teaching manifesto with open arms. One of my primary roles has now become one of creating a learning environment that is full of joy and empathy.

As a result, my teaching day looks very different to what it used to. The day starts with singing and dancing. In fact, singing and dancing feature regularly throughout the day. I have also managed to democratise the process of managing behaviour. Happy children are contagious. Empathy loves company, it would seem. A primary focus of mine these days is to have a conversation with the children about how we are all part of a learning environment that values respect and kindness; that we are a kind and caring community. The day is full of opportunities that I have created deliberately, to put these values into practice. Pro-social experiences is what I call them.

The intention is to make the learning more meaningful and more ‘visible’. If we are going to make academic learning visible as a way of improving learning, then the same should apply to social learning. As a result, the positive impact of the ‘Teacher’s Helper’ role has become super charged. Previously, I used to choose the ‘helper’. I would pick the children who I thought were deserving. Now I choose the helper “randomly” so that every child gets to take a turn on a regular basis. This is a significant change in thinking and practice. I now realize that every child wants to be good and appreciated. It’s just that they may not have learned the skills of managing themselves yet. There are social skills that they need to learn. My job is therefore, to give them opportunities to learn those skills. They need opportunities to practice. Just like I give them all equal opportunities to learn to read and write and count.

I also added another element to the ‘helper’ role that contributes to the task of moving students to being internally motivated and self managing. I invite the ‘helper’ to come to the front of the class and invite them to seek feedback from fellow students. It means that everyone gets to hear positive comments about the person standing in front of them. At the beginning of the year I will most likely prompt the process by providing a model starter sentence along the lines of…”what I really like about Jane is….” But eventually it becomes a genuine child-centred activity. I note that some teachers choose to take a more hands on approach.

It is so amazing to hear what they come up with. Things such as, “She is a kind and caring friend and we are lucky to have her in the class.” “She is a good friend to play with and when I am hurt she takes me to the sick bay.” “She plays nicely with me and is a good reader.” Mostly it is variations on the same ideas of kindness and friendship. In effect, I have put these ideas and words in their mouth. Often when I hear their descriptions, I will reinforce their observation by agreeing with them. Sometimes I hear stuff that surprises me. Stuff that requires me to change my perceived view of that child. This process allows me to develop quite a different perspective of the children. It allows me to triangulate. That’s formative assessment at its best; quick, informative feedback.

I also notice that the children are incredibly honest. If they think another child is not so deserving of praise, I will hear a discussion and some murmurings. I think it is important for the child in question to hear that feedback directly and for the children to get a sense that their concerns are being heard. I hear this described as ‘Reintegrative Shame’. At the same time, children are incredibly forgiving. In these situations I will ask if we can give the person a chance to ‘join the fold’; to choose to get back on track, the answer is always a resounding ‘yes’. Being a helper comes with special privilege and expectations. And the good thing is, those expectations can be continually and gradually ramped up. This ‘system’ also provides opportunities to ‘induce’ improvement in other areas – those next steps – both academic and social.

I invite you to embrace the power of rapport. Play around with it. Notice the impact. How you choose to go about achieving it is not the critical factor. But build up those teacher/student relationships as well as the student/student relationships. And do let me know of your success stories or questions you may have. Love and laughter are essential ingredients for creating a great learning environment and great learning outcomes for the students.

Ease Education: Teaching at a human scale.

You can also find Ease Education on Facebook and Twitter.

Inspiration and analysis for this blog post come from “The Parking Ticket Experiment | The Science of Empathy”. Note the impact of language in creating an empathetic environment.

You may also be interested in reading about how effective teaching and effective interrogation share the common ingredient of rapport.

You can find the links below.

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