An 18 year apprenticeship in teaching.

Building with blocks

Intelligence comes in many guises

The thought occurred to me numerous times, while undertaking a postgraduate primary teaching course at the University of Auckland way back in the year 2000, that I had made a huge mistake. It wasn’t all bad. There were many things to like. There were lots of nice people to engage with – students and lecturers. And the course itself offered some wonderful pedagogical and philosophical insights into the world of education.

Having a fire hose operating at full volume directed at you, feels like an apt description of that year as a teacher in training. But it wasn’t the workload and enormous volume of content that concerned me. I had expected as much. There was something more pressing that had me doubting my decision. There existed within me a dissonance that I was unable to articulate at the time. In hindsight, I can see that it was no accident that at some point during that year, I purchased a copy of John Holt’s 1967 book, “How Children Learn”.

In part, I had chosen teaching because of my previous experience of teaching children during my time as an ESOL teacher in Japan. I didn’t know the theory of teaching but I did know that I enjoyed relating to children. I had become inspired by that experience. I got a sense that teaching could be a calling for me, rather than just a job. It was that sense that sustained me throughout the year. The feedback I was receiving certainly wasn’t it. I had a strong feeling that my ability to engage with the children in front of me would compensate for my inability to produce a lesson plan that bore any resemblance to plans we were told to produce.

It occurred to me recently that it feels like I have just completed an 18 year apprenticeship in teaching. To some, that may suggest that I am simply, ‘a slow learner’. At about the 10 year mark I finally got round to reading that book that I had purchased all those years ago. It was perfect timing really. I was on the verge of being burnt out. But also because I discovered Holt’s book to be revelatory. It articulated all the doubts I had had about what I was being told was important about teaching during that training year. That an education focused on lesson plans, instead of the children in front of you, is not an education system that is working effectively.

Fast forward to the present and you will see Hattie and Bishop producing research to validate what Holt had already articulated. 18 years on, and having finally completed my apprenticeship, I find myself feeling relieved that what I also knew intuitively to be true, has been validated. That is, the cornerstone of effective learning is relationship. That the children need to be at the front and centre of their learning experience. That teachers need to trust children to be the best determiners of their ability. That they are able and willing to learn. According to Sir Ken Robinson, two of The Beatles, Paul McCartney and George Harrison, were told by their music teacher that they were lacking in sufficient musical talent.

Hattie and Bishop have laid out the road map for teachers to follow. This map indicates to us to follow the research and teach to the evidence that results from best practice. But while the best way forward may have been presented to us, there is still a long way to go to making this the new accepted practice. At present, personal experience tells me that teaching as Hattie and Bishop prescribe, is more likely to result in a teacher being labeled as “difficult” rather than as a teacher to be celebrated.

 

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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