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

ClassTimetable

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.

How effective is your teaching practice?

ReadingLevels_2017_01

Reading Levels #1, 2017

ReadingLevels_2017_02

Reading Levels #2, 2017

I made a claim on this site recently that I had managed to turn my classroom into a learning environment in which all students were able to experience enormous growth in their reading achievement. You can find that post, here. I decided to take it a step further and turn the reading data into graph form. I did this because I wanted to get a visual representation of what I was witnessing and help substantiate my claim. I focused on reading simply because it lends itself to data collection better than other subjects. But I’m describing a learning environment that is effective across all curriculum areas.

There are two critical components to this claim. They are as follows:-

  1. The inclusive nature of that growth. ie. all students are benefiting.
  2. Being able to identify the pedagogy being employed to create that growth.

Teachers are being asked constantly, to find ways to help lift the long tail of underachievement that exists within schools. That’s been part of my motivation to create the learning environment that I describe. But it’s also because this kind of learning environment is just better for everyone, including myself. It’s a constructive model of teaching. It’s success is greater than simply enabling students to reach the required standards.

All students who enter a classroom at the beginning of the year arrive with a wide range of academic and social dispositions. They all came to class with different social and educational backgrounds, and expectations. With the right pedagogy in place, the fact that all students come to class with these differences, is no longer a problem.

That’s because there exists a teaching pedagogy that can:-

  • close any gaps in the learning potential that may exist, amongst the students, when they enter the classroom at the beginning of the year. It is also able to avoid any of those gaps getting wider during the year.
  • support the teacher to identify the needs and set achievement goals that match each individual student. It allows for all new learning to be built on the learning already achieved. That bar of achievement needs to keep being raised, incrementally.
  • encourage students to work together. This means that the more capable students get to reinforce what they have learned, and at the same time, helping out the less able ones to improve their learning.

It is worth noting that the student’s actual reading results are only a part of the story. Of course we want all the students to manage to attain the required National Standard. But what we should be particularly interested in, is the trajectory of the students’ reading results; the level of growth/improvement. From looking at the graphs you will not be able to determine the boys from the girls, the students who are finding it straightforward from the ones who are getting the most support from me, the students whose first language is not English from the students whose first language is English, the students who are self managing from those who need support to manage themselves. All boats are rising more or less equally. Everyone’s a winner. No students are ‘flatlining’.

And there is some good news for students who have not reached the standard yet. Terms one and two tend to be settling in time. Establishing routines. Building a class culture. It is in the final two terms of the year that most progress is achieved. That’s when the learning has the potential to be super charged. It reflects the high levels of enthusiasm and growing levels of self confidence amongst the students. This student agency that I am describing is something that I put a lot of value on, and a lot of effort into generating. Once it is established, this agency then starts developing a life of its own. It becomes the force that generates the self sustaining improvements in reading amongst the students. It’s that “students become teachers and teachers become learners” scenario that I have previously discussed.

Ease Education: Teaching at a human scale.

You can also find Ease Education on Facebook and Twitter.

Notes about the graphs: see below….

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The problem is not with the existence of national standards, but the absence of effective pedagogy.

 

National Standards are not the problem. They are part of the solution.

I want to have another go at writing about the impact of National Standards on education in New Zealand. I am doing this in the hope that our political leaders will make informed decisions when determining education policy. My hope is that we will get policies that are based on evidence, rather than ideology. We all want to achieve the best education outcome for every student in New Zealand. That’s a given. It’s good for the individual but also good for society, and the economy as a whole. How to achieve that outcome is what seems to be up for negotiation. And that’s where the problem lies. Ideology trumps evidence. Good policy is always the loser in this scenario.

It is also worth noting that, as I have become better informed, my position on National Standards has changed markedly since they were introduced. Like the majority of my colleagues, in the beginning, I was also against them. As far as I can see, the problem with National Standards is actually in the failure of their implementation. Ideology and political expediency got in the way of good policy. In some respects, I would argue that teachers have been the recipients of a ‘hospital pass’. For the introduction of National Standards to be successful, it needed to coincide with the introduction of training programmes that would teach teachers how to be more effective. We are witnessing the result of having standards imposed over the top of a pedagogy that is well past its ‘use by date’. It was destined to fail. National Standards have become a political football at the expense of achieving better education outcomes.

I want to describe in more detail the negative consequences of implementing standards along side an outdated pedagogy. But first of all, it would be useful to look at the specific criticisms of National Standards.

The five arguments given, are as follows. They have:-

1.  Forced schools to focus much more on literacy and numeracy – which of course was the intent; to help improve literacy and numeracy. But critics say that it has resulted in the curriculum being narrowed.

2. Led schools to target much more attention on children who are just below the standard – good for those children, but this has resulted in neglecting the ‘above’ standard children and those children with special needs.

3. Forced schools and teachers to spend more time on assessing and testing – and as a result, less time is available for teaching and learning.

4. Enabled students to be identified if they are ‘above’, ‘at’, ‘below’, and ‘well below’ the standard. This is seen as a good thing. This level of transparency means that schools are able to identify the students who make up the body of the tail of underachievement and provide targeted support.  It also means that parents are able to act on this knowledge and employ extra tuition for their children. Which is all good if you are rich and can afford it. But the argument is that that is not an option for those children who who are not able to receive this level of home support.

5. Allowed parents and the government to have comparable data to judge how particular schools are achieving. Once again, this is good because it informs the Ministry of Education when it should intervene in a school and also, for parents who can afford to move their child to a ‘good’ school. But this is cold comfort for parents who can’t enact that choice, or for children whose learning is being hampered due to external factors such as poverty.

In all aspects of life, standards are good essential. Think water quality or air quality. Education should be no different. National Standards need to be thought of as targets. Targets to aim for. But it’s essential to note that a target is not a directive or prescription of how to reach that target. It is simply, a target. It has no direct influence on pedagogy – of how to achieve that target. It seems to me that teachers have interpreted the standards as being a prescription for how to teach. I’m arguing that children who are failing to meet the standards is, as a result of an outdated pedagogy, not the existence of standards.

There is also a real risk that standards have the potential to act as a ceiling on learning. Achieving standards has become the primary focus. And as a consequence of setting standards, we create an education model that wants to, in the words of Yong Zhao, “count everything and hold everyone to account”. This is one of the arguments used by those critical of National Standards. That, as a result of the introduction of the standards, education has become too narrow, “too impersonal, too linear, too focussed on the short term”. That, it’s become a model that stifles creativity and discriminates against many students. But hang on a minute. This is describing the learning outcomes that the education system has been serving up since the beginning of time, and well before the standards were ever introduced. Nothing has changed. Deficit thinking is the foundation of the current education system. Once again, this is an issue of relying on an outdated pedagogy, not the existence of standards.

There is a pedagogy available right now, that could be utilised by all teachers, that would allow all students to achieve their necessary standards. A constructive model, rather than a deficit model. My experience reveals that by implementing this pedagogy (best practice, evidence based teaching), all the criticisms of National Standards as outlined above, would be addressed. I have seen the staggeringly good results in my classroom of implementing best teaching practice. I see great results but I also see an abundance of curiosity and agency amongst the students, and myself. And that’s why I will continue to remain ambivalent to the criticisms of National Standards. In my classroom, I’m confident that all children will be able to attain the appropriate standard. That’s because I implement an evidence based pedagogy that provides a creative and vibrant learning environment. It is self fulfilling and self sustaining. No sweat. No drama.

Ease Education: Teaching at a human scale.

You can also find Ease Education on Facebook and Twitter.

I have written other posts on this issue of National Standards and how it relates to pedagogy. I have included links to them, below….

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It’s about the learning experiences on offer that is critical, not the age that children start their formal education.

blocks

For 5 year olds building a tower of blocks together, it takes a lot of emotional skills. Skills that can be taught.

Less than a year ago, I published a post entitled “5 years old is too early for children to start their formal academic education”. I read through it recently and realised that there were some aspects that no longer accurately reflected my current thinking. In that original post, I argued that 5 years old was too early for children to start their formal education.

Instead, I want to argue that it is not the age of the child that is critical, but the type of educational opportunity that is on offer, that needs to be the focus of our attention. It’s not about the age but whether the education on offer is developmentally appropriate for the child. And I also believe that there is a strong argument that for some children, being in a high quality learning environment, and receiving developmentally appropriate learning early on, could in fact, be a better option than not being in a formal education setting.

In that post, I also criticised the role of standardised testing in education. My belief at that stage, was in line with the majority of my teaching colleagues, ie. standards were harmful to education. But having since made some significant changes to my teaching practice, I have started to realise that those standards are not the problem that we have been led to believe. I would still prefer it if we could hold out for a year or two but I now realise that doing so won’t create the change in the way we approach learning in a school environment. And that’s where the real issue lies, I think. Parents need to reassured that their child will be receiving a developmentally, age appropriate education. “Children are resilient”, should not be the ‘go to’ phrase to explain away parent concerns.

So I have decided that, rather than edit the original post to bring into line with my current thinking and practice, it would be more useful to leave it as it is and write a new post that highlights how and why my thinking has changed. In that way, I will be staying true to another of my beliefs; that it is important to be open to criticism and to be willing to change your thinking when necessary. Because, ultimately, it is all about developing a stronger case for change.

In that original post, I tried to get to grips with the emotional and cognitive reality of a 5 year old. This is the age of the children in my class. Insights into the minds of 5 year olds would surely help me  be a better teacher. The insights I refer to came via a documentary I watched on television. It was pure gold. To recap, Professor of Neuroscience and Education Paul Howard-Jones reveals that 5 years old is a critical age in a child’s life. “The learning that takes place at that age is creating a blueprint for life as an adult.” He says that, “the foundation of the well-being of an adult is based on a child’s early emotional and cognitive development. A good foundation at an early age will lead to good interpersonal relationships and self-regulatory thinking.” Wow, that’s serious stuff. With serious implications. It makes me scared and excited in equal measure; the opportunity that it presents to me – as a teacher of 5 year olds.

For me, these insights were revelationary. I took these insights as part confirmation – that I was already in the process of creating a learning environment that prioritised the need to work at a ‘human scale’. But I also took these insights as part license – a signal to expand on this practice and explore the impact of these insights more fully. I am increasingly confident in my belief that it has been the applying of these insights into my classroom practice that explains why I am seeing the enormous improvement in learning that I am seeing. These insights gave me confidence to continue developing and implementing a teaching pedagogy that focused on creating a broad range of learning opportunities – emotional as well as academic. These insights seemed to give even more credence to the Ease Manifesto.

So for clarification, in my original post I wanted to convey the following points:-

  • it’s absolutely essential for a 5 year old entering a formal education environment to have a strong emotional and cognitive foundation before embarking on a rigourous academic journey.
  • for whatever reason, not all children are entering school with that foundation and that it is not my role to find fault in that, but to address it by creating a learning culture/environment where that foundation can be provided.
  • children can gain that foundation if the appropriate learning culture/environment has been established. It can be learned.
  • this approach helps lift the emotional and academic achievement of all the children in the class. That’s the primary goal of a public education system; having a learning environment that benefits all students equally.

But where my thinking now differs from that original post is that I no longer believe that the age children start their formal education is such a critical factor. Instead, I am concerned with how:-

  1. I see children arriving at school and being thrown into the “deep end” of academic learning. Read, write, count, jump! Worksheets for Africa. Busy work. And it’s all head stuff, too. Abstract. Teacher directed instead of being genuinely inquiry based. Hardly engaging stuff. Nowhere in the NZ Curriculum does it require teachers to require 5 year olds to focus on narrow, academic learning outcomes.
  2. the transition into formal education is managed. By and large, opportunities for the children to grow and develop pro-social skills in a traditional school setting are at best, cursory and abstract. The need for allowing students to develop their emotional and cognitive skills through deliberate practice, is ignored. “Transition” is a ticked box. It is easy to label and treat the children who lack that emotional and cognitive foundation as “naughty”. Instead, they need to be viewed as being underdeveloped in those areas and needing to be given more opportunities to learn.

We really do need to stop blaming children for problems for which solutions lie firmly in the hands of teachers. And while I am on the topic of blame, I would like teachers to see the national standards as just that, standards. They are not to blame for what is taking place in the classroom or a child’s emotional state. The standards are not a statement of how to teach. They are a target. They don’t advise on the volume of photocopied tasks that need to be completed. They can operate as a ceiling if you allow them to. But I think that kind of teaching was in practice before the standards were introduced.

Be a problem solver. Be honest in identifying the things you are doing that make a difference. Eliminate the things that are not making a difference. Do what is right for the children, not to keep your colleagues happy. Stand up to willful blindness. Engage the disengaged. Stop looking for excuses. Eliminate the need for the “naughty square”. The consequences of failing to address these issues are serious – individually and collectively.

Do it for the kids.

Ease Education: Teaching at a human scale.

You can also find Ease Education on Facebook and Twitter.

Standards and creativity can co-exist in the classroom

Tower of Blocks

That’s no ordinary tower of blocks.

These days I see myself as a problem solver. I now understand that my job is about trying to make sense of what is taking place in my classroom and trying to figure out what levers to pull and which buttons to push in order to help the students be effective learners. Instead of explaining away failure with excuses and deficit thinking, I approach teaching with a view to discovering how I can be most effective. This insight has really encouraged me to be creative. And I read somewhere recently that creativity is about making the complex, simple. I like that. The classroom is a dynamic and complex place. Full of humans with competing demands and interests. I need to remove that complexity, remove the unnecessary, remove the barriers to effective learning.

But most importantly, I need to find the humanness. And liberate that spirit. It always exists but sometimes it is hidden and you have to dig around for it. I am now more aware than ever, that I can make a difference. I can make a difference through my deliberate acts of teaching. And that is achieved by building strong relationships with the students. From trusting relationships come good learning conversations. That’s the hierarchy. The foundations must exist for effective learning to take place; to unleash the real learning.

When National Standards were implemented into New Zealand schools I reacted negatively. My original position, like many with a vested interest in education, was to criticise and resist the introduction of this kind of regime. It seemed as though the introduction of National Standards was part of a shift towards an international trend towards standardised testing in primary schools. The arguments against standardised testing are compelling. Yong Zhao describes the standards as “too narrow, too impersonal, too linear and too focussed on the short term. It’s a model that stifles creativity and discriminates against many students.” Ken Robinson describes the need for an education system that is responsive to the needs of a modern world. He argues that the education being offered and delivered by schools currently, is only good at “killing creativity”. How could I support a regime that was going to be a barrier to that?

You can imagine my shock then, when I discovered, that it was John Hattie who was responsible for the introduction of the standardised testing regime into New Zealand primary schools. I had been a big fan of the Visible Learning approach to education for some time. I had been endeavouring to apply the findings of his research into my classroom on a daily basis. How had this situation arisen? Is it a ‘situation’ at all, I wondered? Were these academics actually contradicting one another?

I now realise that standards and creativity can co-exist in the classroom. I believe my experiences and observations in the classroom over the past few years can validate this. I am becoming increasingly aware that it is not the standards that are the problem. The real problem is in the way that teachers approach learning (in general) and how they approach the achieving of those standards (specifically). It’s about pedagogy. It’s not the standards that are acting as a ceiling to effective learning and creativity. That ceiling is being imposed by the prevalent teaching practices. The teaching practices that you will see in the majority of classrooms throughout the world. They are pretty much the same teaching practices that you and your parents and grandparents were subjected to during your time at school.

I no longer fear those “evil” standards. I embrace them. Teachers need to see themselves as problem solvers. There are many variables that teachers, as individuals, can have no impact on. But too often those factors are used to explain away the inability to lift student achievement. John Hattie asks teachers to keep asking this one critical question – “What impact am I having on my students’ learning?” By implementing John Hattie’s “Visible Learning” pedagogy in the classroom over the past few years, I have discovered that high levels of academic achievement and creativity can co-exist in the classroom. Instead of being mutually exclusive, they can in fact, create a learning environment that grows exponentially.

The good news is that a template for achieving exceptional learning outcomes for all students has been provided for us. It’s all about the pedagogy.

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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Reframing educational outcomes – counting what counts

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Look what I made. Now let tell the world about it.

There are times that I have to remind myself of the purpose of this blog. To “inform, illuminate and inspire” was my original intent. I hope I am doing that. Documenting my thoughts and observations of the learning journey taking place in my classroom has certainly been valuable for me. There are also times when I am reminded of why I love my role in the classroom so much. It wasn’t always like that though. It has taken a lot of reflection and determination.

The current education model wants to count everything and hold everyone to account. It’s a model that stifles creativity and discriminates against many students.

I have also been inspired by the marvelous research that keeps prompting my curiosity and validating my experience. My journey, has in fact, been about breathing life into that research. It’s easy to read it and agree with it. But it’s another thing entirely to put it into practice. What I am aspiring to achieve looks and feels very different to what we typically see. There really is an confirmation bias towards maintaining the habits that keeps us wedded to the status quo, even though it’s not really working. It seems easier to stick to the status quo rather than venture into the unknown. To do so would require a significant leap of faith to get better answers to the questions,

  • What will good education outcomes looks like?
  • Will children really learn?
  • What will the learning environment look like?

Yong Zhao is a source of inspiration and validation.  He speaks about the danger of standardised testing (ie National Standards) and the need to reframe a discussion around educational outcomes. He is the editor of a new book on education called Counting What Counts. The current education model wants to count everything and hold everyone to account, according to Yong Zhao. It is too narrow, too impersonal, too linear, too focussed on the short term. It’s a model that stifles creativity and discriminates against many students.

The use of technology to deliver content means that teachers will be freed up to be more human and to help children develop socially and psychologically.

He describes the current model of teaching as a deficit one. Rather than the 3 R’s being the foundation of learning, they have become the ceiling. We need a model that allows individuals to flourish. A system that motivates and engages students. A system that works for all students equally. Teachers are still seeing themselves as deliverers of information. But that approach is should be redundant. We now have the technology to do that. Technology needs to be used to allow students to be creators rather than consumers. The real value in technology is its ability to amplify the learning, to enable it to be shared and invite collaboration.

I agree with Yong Zhao when he says that technology will not replace teachers but it will play a key role in delivering information. And this is the part that I like the most. It is the raison d’etre of this site. The use of technology to deliver content means that teachers will be freed up to be more human and to help children develop socially and psychologically. Sound familiar? These are all topics that I have already discussed on this blog in previous posts.

Fortunately, I have seen both of the education environments that he describes. I know which one the little people in our classroom would prefer. And I know the one that would really allow them to thrive.

Ease Education: Teaching at a human scale.

You can also find Ease Education on Facebook and Twitter.

An interview with Yong Zhao can be found below.

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5 years old is too early for children to start their formal academic education.

Update: My attitude to the starting age of formal education has changed a little since writing this post. I am now believe that it’s critical to ensure that the learning experiences on offer are appropriate to the age of the child.

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The emotional and cognitive reality of a 5 year old.

5 is a critical age in a child’s life. “The learning that takes place at that age is creating a blueprint for life as an adult,” says Professor of Neuroscience and Education, Paul Howard-Jones. He says that, “the foundation of the well-being of an adult is based on a child’s early emotional and cognitive development. A good foundation at an early age will lead to good interpersonal relationships and self-regulatory thinking.” What a daunting proposition. What an opportunity. A chance to set up a child to be successful in life. If it’s approached it in the right way, that is. Working with children at that age is such a thrilling and rewarding experience. And such a serious endeavour. What a responsibility! That’s why I am always asking myself – “Are we getting it right? Are we doing the best for our children? Are we approaching it the right way?”

By and large, a 5 year old is still living in an egocentric world. A 5 year old’s social understanding is limited. It is around the age of 5 that a child is ready to be encouraged to think beyond itself; to develop key emotional and social skills, to understand the perspective of others, to develop empathy, to find one’s place within the group, to develop confidence in group situations, and to fit in socially. Whereas adults get to choose the level of social engagement they expose themselves to, children are typically not given much choice.

When children have just reached a formative age in terms of emotion and socialisation, we set them off on their academic journey. Before any appropriate pro-social learning has been started, let alone achieved.

5 year olds are better at working 1 on 1. Group situations can be very emotionally challenging for them. Having extra people around means having to share your time and compete for the attention of friends. Emotions of jealousy and rivalry are very difficult to process at this age. The adult’s job is to help them get these emotions under control and help them learn to self regulate. 5 year olds need to learn to understand that the consequences of not managing/controlling their feelings can result in losing friendships. They are able to learn this.

The problem with starting academic education too early (and defining education too narrowly).

5 years old is also the age that children in New Zealand start their formal academic education. That’s the age when we start to teach them to read and write and count. That’s the age we start to define them by a set of narrowly defined National Standards. Can you see the problem here? When children have just reached a formative age in terms of emotion and socialisation, we set them off on their academic journey. Before any appropriate pro-social learning has been started, let alone achieved. By starting them off on their academic journey so soon, we haven’t given them enough opportunities to develop emotionally or cognitively.

It’s naive to assume that meaningful learning is actually happening in high-pressure, worksheet-laden classrooms…

Many children are not developmentally ready to complete structured academic learning when they arrive at school. Nor should they be. Many children are still developing emotionally. That is where the teaching and learning needs to be focussed. The adoption of National Standards has made things worse by requiring the setting of unrealistic academic goals. This is turn, leads to teachers employing inappropriate classroom practice to achieve these goals.

5 year olds are being expected to learn through rigorous instruction. As Erika Christakis says, “it’s naive to assume that meaningful learning is actually happening in high-pressure, worksheet-laden classrooms where teachers tightly control the content and pacing of instruction.” She says, “we also suffer from confirmation bias — we look for evidence to support what we already believe.” Teachers are encouraged to ignore the human element of education. So while National Standards are touted as a solution, they are in fact, a distraction from focussing on real solutions. That is, equal learning opportunities for all children.

There’s a well-established scientific consensus that young humans learn best through playful, relationship-based experiences.

Today’s children have got it tough. Our academic expectations of them are increasing. Our misplaced anxieties are demanding greater academic achievement at even earlier ages. This is compounded by the reality that children are also losing their free play time outside of school hours. Children have busy schedules. They have organised sports events, culture activities and playdates to attend. Parents are busy. Children are required to fit into their parents’ schedules. Or they are being supervised by technology. Tragically, it is not so unusual to have 5 year olds in the classroom who need support to be able to engage meaningfully when given free play.

So, what’s the alternative?

There’s a well-established scientific consensus that young humans learn best through playful, relationship-based experiences. That’s academic and social learning. They learn through playful, hands on experiences with materials, and with the support of engaging, caring adults.

Nor does ‘play’ mean an unstructured free-for-all.  Active, play-based experiences can incorporate language rich environments to help children develop ideas about literacy. Experience tells me that in the right environment, children will ‘miraculously’ develop an understanding and strong desire to read and write. 

Yes, a daunting proposition. But also a wonderful opportunity – a chance to set up a child to be successful in life.

Update: Since publishing this post, I have discovered that the same issues are being discussed in the media in Australia.  A teacher quit teaching and petitioned the government to address her concern that, “teachers are being forced to teach an age inappropriate and crowded curriculum which is pushing students too hard, too fast.” The petition asks parliament to “observe international evidence-based best practice and ensure children are six years of age or older to commence being formally taught an incremental age-appropriate national curriculum”, and “that all play for under 6-year-olds is play-based and data collection be minimised, as well as order an independent investigation into the true depth of child and teacher distress in primary schools related to the curriculum.”

Ease Education: Teaching at a human scale.

You can also find Ease Education on Facebook and Twitter.

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When students become teachers and teachers become learners.

 

I gave a pair of 5 year old children some place-value blocks, a number flip chart and a brief explanation of how a number on the flip chart can be represented by the blocks. I then turned away to scan the classroom and to observe the other children doing their own maths activity. About 1 minute later I heard a child’s excited voice say, “Look, I’ve made 132”. I went to investigate. Yes indeed. The child had made 132 with the place-value blocks. I turned the camera on to capture the moment. You can hear my voice in the video prompting the child to repeat what he had already told me. Trust me on that. He was excited. He knew what he was talking about. He was aware of his achievement. I know that I had previously talked about the concept of place-value to the children. But it was more in a quick, “isn’t this interesting and useful thing to know”, kind of way.

I want to share this learning moment because I think it reveals a lot about effective teaching pedagogy.

132 was the child’s number. He chose it. That is, I didn’t instruct him to make 132. I simply said, “now it’s your turn to make a number”. The tone of his voice clearly indicated to me a sense of achievement and success. He knew he had achieved something significant. According to Education professor John Hattie,

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

The child who had made 132 with the blocks had become his own teacher. I, the teacher, had just learned something new about teaching. Well actually, confirmed/validated a teaching practice that I was already in the process of exploring. 

From a teaching perspective, what did I confirm/validate?

Place value is a key concept in working with numbers but is not a concept I would expect all 5 year olds to pick up so quickly and easily. Nor should they. Children develop differently; in different areas and at different paces. In fact, I am surprised that this needs to be spelt out. That is not to say that the concept of place value should not be introduced to 5 year olds. The video shows that it is unwise to underestimate the capability of a 5 year old. It reinforces the value of the ‘provoke, listen, respond’ philosophy. And it supports the idea of provoking children at the highest order of thinking.

…all children are different and need to be provided with learning opportunities that cater best to their individualised needs.

A key element of the maths activity shown in the video is the concrete nature of the task. It’s about manipulating and experiencing and testing. Getting a sense of what numbers mean. Visual, physical, tactile. All too often I see children being asked to complete tasks that are way too abstract and paper based. By providing more physical activities like this you can, at the very least, save on your school’s photocopying budget.

Interestingly, the child’s working buddy was more interested in fitting the blocks together in a creative pattern than creating and solving his own place value problem. He was engaged, but not in the way I had intended. But that’s cool. It was good for me to see that too. This learning opportunity only went on for a few minutes anyway. If that child was ‘into’ that task, I anticipate that he would have been inspired and been able to learn place-value from his peer. Maybe another day. No big deal. But once again, all children are different and need to be provided with learning opportunities that cater best to their individualised needs. Flexible, dynamic, organic. I have said it before in previous blog posts, the current education system only works for some students. Many students are disengaged. And this increases as students get older.

…we are talking 5 year olds here. They should still be playing. We are asking them to engage in formalised learning way too early…

The time I allocated for this task was short. Enough time to give the children a chance to develop and practice. But not enough time to be bored and disengaged. I always make a note of activities that don’t provoke a positive response from the children. I try to be flexible. I won’t give up on a task immediately. I will try a different approach. And some things are not negotiable. For example, during whole class sharing opportunities, the expectation is that children will listen actively and respectfully. I took the children outside to fly a kite the other day. They just wanted to play on the playground. Maybe I’ll try again. I used to love flying kites when I was a child. How could modern day children be so unenthusiastic about flying kites?

I want to develop confident, curious learners who can take risks and learn from their mistakes.

When the children are engaged in an activity that is genuinely interesting to them, negative behaviours are not an issue. Obvious really, eh. Based on personal observations and reflections, the same concept applies to adults too. And of course, we are talking 5 year olds here. They should still be playing. We are asking them to engage in formalised learning way too early anyway. Before it’s developmentally appropriate. 7 years old seems to be the magic number. It would seem that Bryan Bruce and I have been reading the same research. See for yourself, in his documentary about the New Zealand education system.  

I try to provide a balance between independent learning and guiding students through some specific learning tasks. (Once again, bearing in mind that they are still only 5 years old). I want to develop confident, curious learners who can take risks and learn from their mistakes. I take my role as the gatekeeper of what and how the children get to learn, very seriously. Of course I need the children to meet the National Standards that have been imposed from above. But I also want them to be curious and engaged. I am discovering that with the right input, the children seem to be able to have their cake and eat it too. With the right type of activities and input from me, the children seem to find their own pathway to success. I think the place-value experience highlights this proposition very well.

The best learning is authentic and based on the real needs and demands of the children…

I have also made significant changes in the way the classroom is set out. I have started to make a wide range of maths activities and puzzles available to the students.  Dare I say, it was the case up until a few years ago, that a lot of the maths activities that are now available to the children, used to be sitting on a shelf off-limits to the children. What was I thinking? Nowadays, the maths equipment is readily available to the children just like the books in the library corner, the toys and the blocks in the ‘play’ area, the art and crafts equipment, the writing equipment etc.

They are now available for the children to use whenever they are not engaged with me on a specific teacher directed task. And please let it be said that I am no longer surprised when I see children choose to read in the library corner, or complete a maths puzzle, or write a story, or listen to a story on the listening post – ahead of playing on the computer or playing with the variety of blocks and toys available to them. The best learning is authentic and based on the real needs and demands of the children – there’s a reference to that, “children as their own teachers” expression again. Life does not operate in a silo, neither should a classroom. 

Being a mass provider of knowledge is no longer the appropriate form of teaching.

I want to work in an education system that is equipping students with the ability to function in their lives once they leave school; prepared for a world that is looking increasingly unfamiliar and uncertain. In order to flourish in life after school, we need people to be able to apply social and emotional skills, as well as academic skills. Being a mass provider of knowledge is no longer the appropriate form of teaching.  Students need to be treated as individuals who have different learning needs. I want to be allowed and encouraged to go deeply and broadly.

Excuse my passion. I’m in bit of a hurry. We should all be. I can see a different future, and that excites me.

For some academic validation of the opinions expressed above, check out this article on The Conversation.

Ease Education: Teaching at a human scale.

You can also find Ease Education on Facebook and Twitter.

An open letter to education policy makers.

I experience feelings of enormous doubt about our education system on a fairly regular basis. I doubt that the education system caters to the needs of all students equally. Worse than that, I think it is actually failing many students. At the younger end of the age spectrum we can gloss over the extent of this problem easily enough. But as the children get older, and become more independent of spirit and mind, that gets increasingly difficult to do. I also doubt that the system is preparing them for the potential impact that new technologies will have on ‘disappearing’ jobs. Equally, I doubt that it is preparing them to tackle the environmental and social problems that, like the proverbial can, we keep on kicking down the road. D-Day is fast approaching and technology is not going to be enough to get us out of the mess, if we decide to address it at all.

I don’t know any teachers who are not also concerned about these issues in at least some part. We are well intentioned. We are an earnest bunch who have real desire to make a difference. We go to courses. We create vision statements. We write goals. We really endeavour to be better teachers and deliver ‘better learning outcomes’ for the children. But there is also a disconnect. And it is that disconnect that troubles me. It’s where I start to feel doubt about the education system and its ability to address these issues. It all feels like the stuff we are encouraged to do to is merely tinkering at the edges of a largely cumbersome and ineffective system. And I need to be crystal clear once again, this is not a criticism of teachers but rather, a critique of a system, of human nature and of human fallibility. Teachers like myself, are simply part of a an amorphous blob who are simply responding appropriately to the cues and prompts that society delivers to us, at this present moment in time. We operate as a flock does.

I have come to appreciate that teachers are teachers because they fit the system. They think in the way that the system requires them to. They have navigated the system, so they now get the privilege to perpetuate it. Unfortunately, the system is a pretty very narrow paradigm to work within. It is not a reflection of the real world by any means. Nor is it a particularly inviting environment for children or teachers who think differently. Invitations to teachers or children for innovation and creativity are merely platitudes. Things need to fit within the framework. And the framework is the 3 R’s, still. It’s always going to be difficult to change a system that on the one hand is so rigid but at the same time presents itself as the opposite; flexible and responsive. Of course, teachers are educated and they know what is best for the children. They have been to university for at least three years. Expert knowledge has been passed on to them. I suggest that that these facts may need to be taken at face value.

Working within this narrow framework is a frustrating experience. It’s frustrating for me, it’s frustrating for the children. It prompted me to start playing around with the idea of ‘engagement’. Of course I still wanted to create ‘better learning outcomes’ but I started to realise that I was being hampered from making that happen. I started to ask a different question. “How can I create ‘better learning outcomes’ if the children are not engaged with the learning to start with?” That question started me off on a new learning journey. It taught me that my number one priority is to have all my students engaged in, and enjoying their learning.

If children are not actively curious, then I need to address that. If children are not engaged with their learning, or responding appropriately to my questions, then I try to ask better questions. And when I say I need to have all my students engaged with their learning, I really mean all. I’ve got to get it right for all of them. If I don’t, not only am I failing that child, but all the other children (and society) as well. A ‘disengaged learner’ is a potential disruption to the learning culture of the whole class. From changing that question, from changing my focus, and being determined to find an honest and genuine answer to that question, it has contributed to the big shift in my approach, and dare I say, contribution to teaching. It really feels like I am no longer simply tinkering around the edges; that I am addressing the fundamental flaws of the education system.

The point of engagement is the ‘sweet spot’. Once that point has been achieved, you know the learning is going to be taking place. And here is the time to be critical of the system again. The learning that will engage a young learner is not always what is currently being offered. They are being offered a narrowed curriculum that is more often than not, delivered in an abstract, paper based way. It speaks only to the head and neglects the heart. It’s a type of learning that does not reflect the real (and quickly changing) world. Sure, it suits many. The compliant and linear learners. At least they survive. Some may even thrive. But not the rest. The blame tends to fall on the rest; for not being engaged or for not trying hard enough or for learning to be lazy or for not being resilient enough or for not doing homework, or for having bad parents or for being poor. Can anyone else see here a reflection of how our society works? I’m telling you, if children are not engaged in their learning, it is the system that needs to change.

So for a brief moment, let’s imagine that all teachers and policy makers agreed with my view of the current state of the education system. That we are approaching education in the wrong way and that it’s not catering for all students adequately or equally in a time of an uncertain future. Is there is a better way? Where to from here? At some stage, a ‘leap of faith’ is going to be needed. We are going to need to create an education system (and social system) that supports and empowers people to be their best and one that will address the big environmental and social issues facing us.

We need leaders with the ability to dream. To trust the children, to trust the adults entrusted with the task of educating the children. Teachers need to become empowerers rather than just gatekeepers. And my word, that’s a tricky proposition. It flies in the face of convention. I can hear the chorus of naysayers as I write. That’s not to say our educators shouldn’t be competent in academic and management terms, but we need teachers who have the freedom to be dreamers and visionaries. We need educators who can achieve the National Standards goals and still provide the fun and engagement that children need and deserve. We need educators who give more credence to the voice of the children in their classroom rather than some invisible policy maker’s visionary nightmare called ‘National Standards’. We need teachers that will encourage the kind of learning that will help make the world a better place and help move us to resolving some of the enormous problems that society is facing.

Not everything that can be counted counts, and not everything that counts can be counted.– William Bruce Cameron

I have already highlighted in previous posts the critical role of playing, making, creating, singing and dancing at getting children actively engaged. I have since learnt that there is also another activity that can guarantee all young children will be actively engaged in learning. It’s reading – the teacher reading a story to the children. This should come as no surprise. I have come to appreciate the value of play based activities as an effective way of understanding life. I now will add reading fictional stories to that list.

As an adult, I love science and the role science plays in advancing the world. (I say ‘as an adult’ because when I was at school I always believed that I was not good at it). However, I also think there is a risk that we promote the role of science (and rationality) at the cost of ignoring the role of fiction. Facts and rationality have value but we are at risk of missing the bigger ideas if we rely solely on them. Stories, like ‘playing’, allows us to explore complex questions in a broader way. Children need to be encouraged to think with their hearts – or at least, not lose that innate ability to do so. Stories and play allow us to see life beyond the literal. To see in colour; beyond black and white. To dream. Actively engaged children will always generate talk and discussion. They will amaze you with their enthusiasm and their ability to understand and process complex ideas. Through the power of the narrative.

Yann Martel, the 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.”

I read a book to the class the other day that still has me reeling. The book was recommended as a great introduction to science for young children. I am embarrassed to say that the book is 25 years old, and I had never heard of it. It’s called ‘Dear Greenpeace’.  It’s a narrative. A young girl character exchanges a series of letters with Greenpeace in response to finding a whale in the pond in her backyard. It’s hilarious and captivating. It captures the essence of ‘the power of stories as a tool to affect complex and broad learning’ very succinctly.

Let’s hope our policy boffins are getting plenty of time to play, time to read and, time to dream. Because it really does feel like to me that our current education system is the symptom of a policy boffin’s nightmare.

Ease Education: Teaching at a human scale.You can also find Ease Education on Facebook and Twitter.