A “Relationship First” approach to teaching and learning.

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Can ‘play’ have a role in effective teaching and learning?

“My child says he loves being in your class because you allow him to play all day”. How’s that for some feedback about your teaching of students at the early years of their schooling life? And how do I respond to this kind of feedback being that I do put a lot of emphasis on the value of play as a way of creating an effective learning environment? Initially, I used to hate hearing this kind of feedback. But eventually I started to relax a little because as it turned out, in most cases, this kind of feedback came with a strong sense of relief and gratitude. The parent had noticed a shift in their child’s attitude towards school. That is, the child had become noticeably more enthusiastic about attending school or was showing heightened curiosity or improved competency with their learning.

Sometimes this feedback even comes with a hint of curiosity. That’s even better because it provides me with an opportunity to explain the why and how of my teaching practice. Typically, the fact that a child feels that he/she is playing all day (despite the fact that he/she is not playing all day) is actually an indicator to me that the child has settled into school life and I am offering a constructive and effective learning experience. (As if effective learning and fun can’t be mutually inclusive?)

And while I think the research would support me when I say that happy learners make great learners, that of course, is not the end of the story. While I make the socio-emotional component of the children in my classroom a top priority, that is just one of many of my roles as a teacher of young students. That’s because I am equally focused on ensuring that the child’s academic learning growth is making progress appropriate to their developmental age. It’s just that I have come to the conclusion, based on the evidence of what I am seeing in the classroom everyday, that the second part of this learning process is more likely to be achieved if the first part is well established. The reality of modern life also compels me to take this approach. That is, increasingly, more children seem to be starting their school life struggling to manage their emotions. Which in turn equates to behavioural issues that need to be attended to.

Unfortunately, the reality also exists that some parents and teachers are resistant to the deliberate emphasis that I place on ‘play’. Awareness of this reality has required me to reflect deeply on my overall teaching practice to reassure myself that I am delivering the best academic outcomes for all the students under my care. That is, have I got the “instructional core” covered? And that’s why I am always actively trying to prove and improve my responses to the following questions:-

  1. Do I have sufficient knowledge of the content appropriate for the children that I am teaching?
  2. Do I have sufficient skills and expertise in designing and delivering that content to ensure that the children can grow their understanding of this content?

Over recent years I have come to appreciate that through being inquisitive about my teaching practice, with reference to the latest educational research, and a willingness to make small, iterative changes, I have been able to create rich learning opportunities that are generating the high levels of learning growth that I am witnessing. My confidence is two fold. I know I can deliver effective learning and I know I can inspire students to become more responsible for their own learning. That is a powerful combination. I think this may be an interpretation of what Hattie is referring to when he says, “the biggest effects on student learning occur when teachers become learners of their own teaching, and when students become their own teachers”.

As I have said before on this site, I am the controlling force in the classroom. I choose what and how I teach. That choice is based on years of deliberate practice and reflection. These days I would also add to this list – a willingness and tolerance for uncertainty – a willingness to enter into a responsive dialogue with the students. The more confident I become, the more willingness I have to trust the best learning to be led by the students themselves. And of course, some students are quicker to adapt to this approach. Some are more resistant for a variety of reasons. One of the reasons I have noted is the attitude of the child’s parents. Some parents are still expecting a very traditional “firehose” type transmission of knowledge.

I think this may also go some way to explaining the scepticism and confusion that exists towards the use of ‘play’ (or any learning time devoted to the new and recently favoured “practice” of inviting students to identify and build their own knowledge or follow their own interests independently) in the classroom. Clearly, this is not what Hattie is referring to. In my case, I use play as a means to an end. I use it as a tool to give me access to opportunities to achieve effective learning. If I was given permission, I would also use it as a way to enhance the learning experience. That is, I would be more willing to use it as an opportunity to respond to the questions and inquiries that ‘play’ opportunities present. Because in my experience, ‘play’ can lead to significant and genuine scientific inquiries.

A child in the process of ‘playing’ may pose a question without awareness of its significance. In these situations it would be great to leverage off that curiosity and help them explore and share their inquiries with the other children in the class. Imagine the impact on children if they knew that the questions they were posing themselves in response to their ‘play’ opportunities would be met positively by the teacher? “The teacher likes my questions. Wow!” It would certainly allow me to get closer to the nexus of effective learning that Hattie identifies for us. Actually, I have noticed this type of learning experience happening in an informal, organic way. But it would be great to go about this process more deliberately.

In the meanwhile, I will pursue what I describe as the “relationship first” model of teaching. I will continue to put effort into building a relationship with the students in my class. It would be wonderful if every child came to my classroom ‘school ready’. It would be wonderful if the students would sit quietly in front of me and absorbing all the content I delivered to them without fuss. It would be wonderful if every student came from a home that was educationally nourishing. It would make for a wonderful teaching life. So, while it may seem counterintuitive, or not fully understood or embraced – to put the relationship first, I have found this approach to be most successful, productive and rewarding – professionally and personally.

All too often (in all aspects of society – not just schooling) I see relationship being made conditional on behaviour and learning. I have chosen to flip this thinking because I believe access to good learning comes from a foundation of strong relationship. Tough love is not the answer. Clarity and consistency of realistic expectations is. Unfortunately, this approach is still contested and I expect it will remain so until the end of time. But that won’t stop me pointing out that failure to deal with this will end up costing us all a lot.

Where does the resistance come from, I wonder? Where are the leaders who will help break down this resistance? Organisations are rewarded for maintaining status quo and this is perpetuated through fear, inertia and inability to see evidence of effective teaching. Human beliefs and biases will always be a significant barrier.

Ease Education: Teaching at a human scale.

You can also find Ease Education on Facebook and Twitter.

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.

Children at Work.

 

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ease Education: Teaching at a human scale.

You can also find Ease Education on Facebook and Twitter.