Beliefs and biases – the biggest challenge faced by education

SpencerRowell

via Spencer Rowell

Some years ago I learned that a research based, evidence informed teaching pedagogy, that would vastly improve learning outcomes for all students, was readily available for all teachers to pick up and adopt immediately. Imagine it? A road map for effective teaching had been provided and was just waiting to be utilised. If only. The unfortunate reality is that this pedagogy is still only of interest to academics and a small group of dedicated teachers. And it’s this disconnection between the research and everyday practice that interests me the most these days. That is, my focus has gradually gone from exploring the features of “best practice teaching” to exploring the beliefs and attitudes of teachers that appear to be stopping them from taking up this amazing offer. My attention has shifted from education practice to one of human psychology. I wonder if it will ever be possible to get a sufficient number of teachers on board to create a “tipping point”? If so, what will it take to make that happen?

Experience tells me that, by and large, teachers are in the business of teaching because they care. It’s a “calling”. There is immense satisfaction in having a positive impact on a child’s education during their formative years. But these days I am more inclined to think that the potential to have a positive impact on student learning is, to a large degree, being squandered. So why is it that teachers would spurn the opportunity to make a positive impact on the students they are teaching? I am not the only teacher receiving the regular memo or attending professional development courses that implore teachers to help fix an education system that is failing so many students. The only difference seems to be that, upon receiving these requests, I started a personal inquiry into how I could make this happen. And let it be known that it was personal by default, not choice.

I found out as much as I could about this ‘magical’ pedagogy. I immersed myself in the research and began to trial it in my classroom. I had to. I had no choice. I had students in my class who were bright and articulate but were unable to engage in the standard learning programme that was expected to be delivered. The only alternative would have been to exclude them from the classroom. But that would be akin to giving up on them. Our judiciary system seems to work in that way. I definitely don’t want our education system to be the same. So I chose to meet these students where they were at. But I had to change my practice in order to get them to where they needed to be. It soon became apparent that this new approach worked for them and for every other student in my classroom. I liked what it was delivering. The children liked what it was delivering. It was delivering exactly as the research said it would. By that, I mean there was significant learning growth taking place. Better still. I had become aware of it and aware of what I was doing to make that learning happen. It was at that point that I felt compelled to share this experience; this new reality.

As well as benefiting the students, it has made my life as a teacher less stressful and more satisfying. But in other ways it’s been harder. Biases are hard to recognise, let alone shift. Teachers are not immune to this reality. It’s naive to think teachers would be any different to the general populace. When I started changing my teaching practice, based on the research and the evidence that was being presented to me, I naively anticipated my achievements would be fêted. Quite the opposite was the reality. It became apparent that applying a tried and tested, yet unfamiliar pedagogy, sets you on a collision course with the prevailing forces of the “status quo”. The default setting is to “shoot the messenger”. The silence, the lack of curiosity, the absence of critical discussion can be deafening. “How dare you challenge our beliefs about teaching or about the children in my care”, can be conveyed equally effectively, in subtle and less subtle ways. But regardless of how it is conveyed, it takes a personal and professional toll. Meanwhile, this incredible pedagogy that I witness on a daily basis never strays beyond the four walls of my classroom. Not for want of trying I hasten to add.

Once again, I sought solace in Hattie’s research. He says, “the biggest collective impact on student learning (effect sizes 1.3+) happens when teachers are able to share their learning and openly discuss their evidence”. That’s the theory. As you will have noted, making that happen in reality has proven to be a significant challenge. To do so teachers would need to leave their beliefs and biases at the door. And in order to do that, they would have to be aware of the existence of those biases in the first place. Maybe Hattie is as naive as I am. Back-slapping and high-fives is evidence of a cooperative environment. This should not been confused with a collaborative environment. Rigourous, managed debate, centred around evidence of learning growth is the hallmark of collaboration. Those with the most compelling evidence are the voices that need to be encouraged to share. An environment needs to be created that allows ideas to be tested in order for the best learning outcomes for all students to be achieved. Strong, confident, informed leadership is a prerequisite. And high expectations. Likewise, a no-fail and supportive approach needs to be in place to ensure all teachers are able to participate in the journey too.

It’s becoming increasingly clear to me that our education system, like our political system, is very resistant to making any material changes. It’s called inertia. Tinkering at the edges is currently as good as it gets. Fads and fashions come and go. Compliance and process are valued ahead of innovation and achievement. But the point needs to be made that unlike politicians,  teachers are in no need to be looking for votes. Teachers are well-paid professionals. They are impartial. They owe a duty of care to offer the best outcomes for all their students and need to be prepared to be challenged. Politely and professionally. They need to be reminded that they are in fact required to deliver best learning outcomes for all. To do so will require best teaching practice. Qualities of being caring and showing good intentions need to be converted into great learning outcomes for all.

At least I no longer assume that change will come automatically, be easy or, be championed by every teacher. There is unlikely to be a safe and easy pathway. But on the positive side I do think I have uncovered the circumstances that allows for the disconnection between research and practice. Beliefs and biases – that is now the focus of my attention. Wish me luck.

Ease Education: Teaching at a human scale.

You can also find Ease Education on Facebook and Twitter.

Stop blaming the children. Start fixing the system instead.

NYC School

A climate of fear tends not to encourage the best learning.

I love sharing and reflecting on the magic taking place in my classroom. My hope is that it can inspire fellow teachers to reflect on the impact they are having on the social, emotional and academic well being of the students in their care. My hope is that it will eventually provoke an honest and considered conversation that will lead to better learning outcomes for all students within the education system. Yes, I appreciate that that’s a lofty goal.

But despite what we wish to tell ourselves, all is ‘not well at mill’. That’s why it’s critical that we move beyond the personal and speak in a way that puts the wider education interests of our children at the forefront. Not a day goes by that I don’t dispair at the enormity of the problem we are facing. Systems are notoriously difficult to change. But that should not stop us from facing up to the reality. Sure, celebrating success is essential but let’s not avoid tackling the core issues as well. Those unconscious biases run deep.

So as I continue along the path of delivering a reflective, evidence based teaching programme, I will also continue to be the conscience of educators. And just because you may not witness personally the issues that are being referred to, it does not mean they do not occur. Finding examples is easy. But addressing the problem? Not so easy. Maybe it helps to appreciate that it is not an issue solely for educators to deal with. That it needs to be seen as a human rights issue as well.

I for one, am hopeful that the victims of historic abuse in state care will get the justice they deserve.

Or how can a 4 year old boy run over and killed by a lawnmower in a public park be described as no more than a tragic accident?

In a New York city school, a teacher was videoed terrorising the children in her care during a maths lesson. I note that John Hattie says that it is very difficult for teachers to stop a child from learning. I think the teacher in this video makes a very good attempt to prove that theory wrong.

Or in 2017, it came to light that a New Zealand school was utilizing a ‘seclusion room’ as a way of dealing with ‘difficult behaviour’. I wonder how the Ombudsman’s Inquiry into the issue is progressing? I don’t recall hearing a great deal of contrition being offered by the school when this issue came to public attention.

And back in 2015, a group of teenagers got to speak publicly to the New Zealand parliament to describe their negative experiences in the classroom. They described incidents of being bullied and mistreated by their teachers; of being told they were unteachable; that their work was described as ‘shit’, then ripped up and put in the bin; of being told to stay in at lunch time and do it again.

I also wonder whether classroom culture played some role in the death of Aryan Banerjee in a New Zealand school in 2015. Aryan was left unattended in the class to finish some writing while the teacher took the rest of the children out to play. Why was that? Was Aryan, in effect, being punished for not completing his writing? Is that best teaching practice? Is this a reminder that it is time to put a halt to the overused practice of exclusion in schools? In the end, the school managed to have it presented as a health and safety issue. In the end it would appear that the caretaker was made the ‘fall guy’ for failing to ensure door handles were on the toilet cubicle doors at the time.

It’s too easy to blame the children for failing. Instead, we need to be providing an education system that works for everyone. And the cool thing is, there are already successful working models in existence that we can rely on to lead the way.

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.

EaseEdCover.SilverBullet

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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Why the education system is stuck and what can be done to unstick it.

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Operating from a growth mindset. Building positive relationships.

It feels like all those years I have spent teaching up until now, have been like an apprenticeship. And it feels now like I have finally arrived at a point of mastery. It has all been worthwhile. By deliberately applying the best research to my teaching practice it has enabled some amazing results to be achieved. The students are leading their own learning as well as helping me with my learning. These are exciting times for me. But there is one problem. I thought my colleagues would be as equally excited. That there would be some level of curiosity. That I would start to hear comments like, “Wow, how come all the children are achieving so well academically and socially?” Or, “How come the children are all so engaged with their learning?” But the silence has been deafening. I have been wondering whether this is an example of the wilful blindness, that I have previously made reference to.

So I have gone back to the drawing board. I’ve decided to see if I could discover the reasons for how this could be. Why is it that the children can be doing so well but I am still be unable to convince my colleagues of this? And as I started to search I began to realise that there is a bigger story to be told. That there is a key element that links my personal experience to how the world functions. I started to see the links between my personal experience and the existence of all the major and minor problems in the world and our inability to acknowledge them or address them successfully. Economic issues come to mind – how to address poverty. Or environmental issues – how to address climate change. There is a universality to these problems. Education is no different.

It seems as though the qualities that set humans apart from other animals; those qualities that have allowed us to achieve such remarkable achievements, are also the qualities that act as the barriers to progress and resolving problems. In respect to education, the research tells us that the biggest impact on learning is the human element – our social qualities, our ability to build relationships. Sure, you need to know the curriculum – some stuff about maths and the mechanics of reading is always going to be useful. But as I am discovering, that is not enough. Because “children don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.” And that’s why I want to explore how it is that humans have the potential to have the biggest positive impact on learning, but at the same time, also be the biggest barrier. My hope is that once we can acknowledge and understand this dissonance, we may have a better chance of creating the necessary changes and improvements.

A system that is entrenched and resistant to change

The education system we have may not exactly be the best one, but it kind of works – for most people. Or at least, that’s what we tell ourselves. Instead of trying to change the system, we become well practiced at ignoring its inadequacies and blaming the people it doesn’t work for. We label these people as flawed and unresponsive to an adequate system, rather than as an inadequate system being flawed and unresponsive to decent people. A system that has evolved over many centuries is hard to change, even if any rational person can see it is overdue for change. And it is within this narrow framework that teachers are invited to help those who are failing. So inevitably, the actions that result, amount to the equivalent of tinkering at the edges.

This inability to make the required wholesale changes is due to the existence of a condition called ‘path dependence‘. It’s really hard to deviate from a well worn path. The features that exist in the current education system were put in place to serve a function at the time it was created. These features persist even though everything around them has changed. This locked in way of thinking/doing things means that we simply end up hoping that the system we have inherited will evolve sufficiently to be able to deal with modern problems – such as the impact of technological disruption on employment that we are now starting to witness.

Try adopting a proven model?

But maybe there is some hope. If our education system is so deeply flawed maybe we could turn to one of those successful education models that exist already in northern European countries, like Denmark. What’s stopping us from adopting those models as a template of successful alternative pathways and importing them directly? Unfortunately, the reality is that templates don’t work well. A solution imposed from above is less likely to be effective. Change will be successful and sustainable only when it comes about organically and has ‘buy in’ from the users of the system. The end users need to have had a chance to contribute to the creation of the new system.

And you are correct if you are seeing a link between effective and sustainable teaching practice in the classroom and the implementation of effective and sustainable change to the education system at large. At both a macro and a micro level, creating user agency via problem solving, is the name of the game. We all need to be invited to put our thinking hats on and work together as problem solvers. Working together to solve problems is what humans do very well. That is the culture of collaboration that I have generated and get to witness the results of, everyday in my classroom. It is when children are invited to present their best ideas in an authentic and genuine way, that the magic starts to happen. But this kind of collaboration will only be achieved successfully if the environment is conducive. There needs to be a genuine free flowing of ideas. It is a high trust/growth mindset model of teaching. Therefore, it takes confidence and a high level of ability in relationship skills to attain this. These are the very human qualities that are most needed. Teachers need to be encouraged to think and care at the most human level. Because, once again, “children don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.”

Up scaling this reality from the micro level to the broader, societal level needs to be seen as an achievable goal. To do so, we need a shared vision and shared goals that will promote a self sustaining education system. And via an effective education system we can help create a society that is economically and socially prosperous. The goals need to be able to address these moral and ethical questions at the broadest level. And of course, we need education leaders to inspire us to seek out solutions that will enable us to achieve these goals. Politicians, policy makers and educators need to be held accountable for setting and achieving these goals. Those goals need to be in line with appropriate academic achievement and social well-being targets. National Standards need to be seen as part of the solution, not a cause of the problem. And most importantly, we need to be encouraged to participate in genuine and robust conversations about what needs to take place. Only then will there be a chance for any significant progress to be made.

The art of self delusion and conflict avoidance

But wait, there’s more. Beyond the problem of inheriting an inflexible system and needing to employ very human qualities to create a more desirable system, lies a greater challenge. Humans have many great qualities but unfortunately, honesty is not one of them. Honesty, when it counts, that is. Humans have a propensity for lying. Everybody does it. People are in the habit of lying in their daily lives. I’m not describing the lying of a sociopath, but rather, the self delusional type. Humans are social creatures. The constructive need and desire to fit in, can also be destructive when it takes the shape of saying and doing what you think is desirable rather than, what is correct. It is called a social desirability bias. It means that we tend to rationalise our decisions to suit our own internal narratives and intuition. It means we avoid telling the truth in order to fit in socially and to avoid conflict. You can test this theory by observing your responses when completing a survey. Note how your responses will change depending on whether your response is anonymous or not. That’s because, when we are revealing information about ourselves, we tend to lie.

An effective education system should not be measured by the level of compliance and self congratulation but in its ability to embrace a conflict of ideas and willingness to strive for long lasting improvement for everyone. Dealing with conflict in a constructive way is a very human skill that can be learned and practiced. If used appropriately, it is a skill that will enhance personal relationships and the benefits will flow on into the learning environment in the classroom.

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Postscript: Still not convinced about the benefits of positive social relationships? According to this research, an emphasis on close personal relationships and face to face interactions is the primary cause of the positive life outcomes and longevity of the people of Sardinia.

Ease Education: Teaching at a human scale.

You can also find Ease Education on Facebook and Twitter.

Inspiration and scientific analysis for this blog post come from the clever people at Freakonomics. See below for the links.

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Get the learning environment right and watch all those ‘negative’ behaviours disappear.

 

Things to be curious about are all around.

Teaching can be exhilarating and exhausting in equal measure. Getting a large group of people to work together collaboratively and cohesively, is a delicate balancing act that requires a high level of expertise. Being that humans are humans, there will always be a layer of complexity when they come together. This complexity requires well thought out and constructive solutions for managing behaviour in order to create the best outcomes for everyone involved.

The best solutions will be achieved by approaching the issue of behaviour with a growth mindset, as opposed to a deficit mindset. That is, viewing children positively and seeing them as having enormous quantities of potential waiting to be realised. It helps to have a good understanding of human psychology in order to appreciate what makes people behave in the way they do. In the case of children, it is really useful being able to view their world from their perspective.

It is also helpful to break down the issue of behaviour into two distinct scenarios.

1. Sometimes the behaviour reflects a child who is distracted or not engaged in their learning. If that is the case, then it’s probably time to rethink what is being taught and how it’s being taught.

2. Sometimes the behaviour reflects a child’s lack of self management skills or an emotional deficit. If this is the case, then there are ways and means of changing those behaviour patterns.

Let’s take a closer look at the first scenario.

Inappropriate behaviours will occur when children are asked to do tasks that are beyond their developmental or interest level. A teacher’s task is to locate that “sweet spot” (or in the words of Vygotsky – the ZPD – the zone of proximal development) and then nudge them along, but all the while, staying within the zone. Children are naturally curious. Although it is possible that a child may sometimes need to be helped to find that curiosity again. It’s also very easy to block a child’s curiosity. That scenario needs to be avoided at all costs.

For the most effective learning to happen, it needs to be child centred and teacher directed. The teacher’s job is to help the child along a successful learning pathway. With one hand on the curriculum document and the other holding a conductor’s baton, the teacher’s role is to conduct and manage the classroom, in order to help the children navigate and explore their learning successfully.

Most importantly, a teacher’s primary task is to create and maintain a positive and self sustaining learning culture that:-
– enables all children to lead and grow their own learning, and
– empowers the children to help each other do the same.

By investing heavily in this kind of learning environment, learning has the potential to grow exponentially and all children will be enabled to reach their potential. It requires the teacher to embrace and implement a growth mindset and convert this mindset into a growth learning model. The rewards are huge. The high trust environment and growth mindset is the essential foundation. Easy to say, hard to do. Years of contradictory practice and fear of the unknown seem to hold us back.

Now, let’s take a look at the second scenario.

Children and adults alike have different levels of self managing skills and social intelligence. But just like literacy and numeracy (or driving a car), these are skills that can be learned. Like any human being, students in the classroom will respond positively to appropriate cues and motivators. Vygotsky is useful here, too. Guiding children to make incremental improvements applies to social learning as much as it does to academic learning.

And of course, that high trust environment and growth mindset is once again, an essential ingredient. Rather than focusing on achieving compliance, focus should instead be on using communication and negotiation to encourage reasoning, respect and cooperation. Rather than simply telling or instructing, give children opportunities to practise and model the appropriate behaviours. We learn best by using these skills and seeing the positive impact on our daily lives. Children are no exception. It’s a win/win scenario.

Hopefully you will have noticed by now that these two solutions are long term strategies and will require persistence and consistency if they are to be implemented successfully. Hopefully, you will also appreciate that “the best solutions are the easiest to implement but take the longest to achieve”.

Ease Education: Teaching at a human scale.

You can also find Ease Education on Facebook and Twitter.

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

Can you read this?

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

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

So what exactly am I seeing?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘More or less equally’?

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

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

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

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

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

Ease Education: Teaching at a human scale.

You can also find Ease Education on Facebook and Twitter.

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

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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.

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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