What a 6 year old’s letter reveals about how children learn best.

Letter

What’s in a letter?

I treasure this letter. It came to me from a 6 year old boy in my classroom. He wrote it at home and gave it to me when he arrived at school one morning. It’s been sitting on my desk at home ever since. Every time I sit down at my computer it’s there. I see it. I marvel at it. I contemplate what to do with it. I’m tempted to frame it. “What’s the big deal?” you ask. It’s just a letter. Children do this kind of thing all the time. Yes, but it’s because this letter reveals so much. In this letter, I recognise the impact I have had on him. It reflects the quality of the relationship I have built up with this child.

And in his letter I also see real learning. Learning in the way that is natural to children. I see his attempts to form the letters based on the way I have instructed him. I see the errors – the reversals that are entirely appropriate for a 6 year old, the crossing out and the corrections. It reveals deliberateness and purpose. The desire to write, to communicate, to explore and enter the adult word. Problem solving even. To me, this letter yells “I am an effective, engaged learner”. I mean, he could have just told me that he was planning to bring a cake. He didn’t have to write it. I can imagine the conversation between the child and his parents at home. The search for paper and a pen. The adult support that made it possible for this child to fulfill his desire to communicate in writing (when it was actually time for bed, perhaps).

I love this letter because it demonstrates and reflects so beautifully how a 6 year old’s learning should take place – but which is so commonly denied in a typical school environment. It’s a type of learning that reflects how children learn best. A type of learning that reflects the curiosity and natural developmental progressions of a child. I see examples of this type of learning taking place all the time in my classroom. Children choosing to write, to read books, to solve maths puzzles – to apply and test out their knowledge and skills.

Teaching is a word that has traditionally been, and continues to be, interpreted so narrowly. Teaching should be about providing children with a learning environment with plenty of space and time to grow and develop their own learning – to be curious, to test themselves, to make mistakes, to think critically. The most critical role of a teacher is to listen, respond, nudge – to not be a barrier to a child’s natural way of learning. From my personal experience, I marvel at the amazing learning that can be achieved when this approach to learning is embraced. When the learning is made visible. When the children are invited to lead their learning journey. When they are invited to share and acknowledge their accomplishments and discoveries. It allows for a highly sustainable, upward spiral of learning success to be perpetuated. Trusting the children to learn. Seeing is believing.

PS: The cake was delicious and enjoyed by everyone.

Ease Education: Teaching at a human scale.

You can also find Ease Education on Facebook and Twitter.

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.

How effective is your teaching practice?

ReadingLevels_2017_01

Reading Levels #1, 2017

ReadingLevels_2017_02

Reading Levels #2, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ease Education: Teaching at a human scale.

You can also find Ease Education on Facebook and Twitter.

Notes about the graphs: see below….

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ease Education: Teaching at a human scale.

You can also find Ease Education on Facebook and Twitter.

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

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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.

Open Plan Classrooms – What’s the verdict?

Too right!

It would appear that Open Plan Classrooms (OPCs) are making a comeback. Or probably more accurately,  they never really went away. You may have also heard of them being referred to as Modern Learning Environments (MLEs). I have no knowledge of their prevalence, past or present. But it is looking increasingly likely that your local school may be using, or planning to use this kind of space. So for that reason, I think it’s worth taking a look at what they are, and examine their potential impact on teaching and learning.

The intent behind these kinds of learning spaces is honourable. But as I have learned over the years, in all aspects of life, behind every good intention is a disaster lurking. The argument given in favour of these kinds of spaces is that they are designed to be flexible and to encourage creativity, critical thinking, and collaboration—among students as well as teachers. And of course, it is that creativity and collaboration that is so desperately needed in schools. It’s just that….

We now know that effective learning is achieved via effective pedagogy. And we now know what that looks like. The improvement that is needed in education will come via a cultural shift; in how we teach, rather than by changing the physical environment. As Hattie suggests in his “Visible Learning” research, unless teacher pedagogy is adapted to innovations (such as open space classrooms) there are no benefits to be gained.

I would take this a step further. From a personal perspective, I see open plan classrooms as being detrimental. I have made significant changes in the way I teach. Changes that put me in line with the research. As a result, I am seeing successful learning taking place in my classroom. Success that is obvious to me but somehow not obvious to others, it would seem. I hope that will change one day.

The success I see has been achieved by creating a flowing, open space that invites the children to settle into deep and engaging learning. But the biggest changes have come about as a result of the nature of my relationship with the children, the relationship between the children and the resulting ability to respond to their needs. They are the directors of their learning. I respond and provoke where necessary.

Moving into a large open plan space with more children and more distractions is likely to detract from that. I would argue that it is the intimacy; the ability to develop close relationships with the children that helps create an effective teaching and learning environment. Of course I don’t want to do anything that would dilute my ability to be effective. To make a move into an OPC I would need to be working alongside colleagues who understand and are sympathetic to these fundamental elements of achieving successful teaching and learning.

Proponents of OPCs say that with better organisational and financial support, teachers can be trained to use these spaces effectively. That’s what they always say. It’s not a money issue or an organisational issue. It’s a pedagogy issue. Until more teachers are able to honestly assess the level of their effectiveness and implement an effective pedagogy, this kind of teaching space will fail to achieve what it is supposed to do. Sorry, but it’s about the children.

Ease Education: Teaching at a human scale.

You can also find Ease Education on Facebook and Twitter.

For further reading on this topic, refer below…

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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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More of the same will not shift that long tail of underachievement.

Children flourish when they are provided with opportunities to practice and test themselves independently.

It’s an unfortunate reality that Maori and Pacific people make up the bulk of the tail of underachievement within the New Zealand education system. Not all, but the bulk. Teachers, like myself, are implored to address this inequity. And I do believe that there is enormous and genuine desire amongst teachers to address this inequality. That desire seems to be hard wired into people who sign up for teaching. But after all the meetings and reports and hand wringing, nothing changes. The tail remains the same. We look for the elusive solution while continuing down the same well worn path.

This is the state of the education system as I get to witness it everyday. Good intent rarely correlates with effectiveness. To paraphrase Einstein, doing more of the same and expecting different results, is an exercise in futility. Tinkering around the edges is not going to bring about the desired result. When looking for solutions there are two possibilities. Some solutions are hard to find because they are so small and easy to overlook. But in this case, I believe the solution is difficult to see because it is so big. What’s required is an ability and willingness to look beyond the obvious and implement a pedagogy that is based on evidence rather than on what feels right. That would seem so easy and obvious. But apparently not.

I believe that I have seen a different reality. I believe that  I’ve witnessed a learning environment that improves learning outcomes for all students. It’s real. I witness it on a daily basis. This new reality has come about because I have been willing to challenge all the assumptions that I have learned over the years about what I have been told that constitutes effective teaching; the received wisdom. I guess you could say that I’ve been prepared to be a little bit disobedient. It’s a tough gig at times. But I believe the cost of not being willing to venture into that uncomfortable place is too high. And when you see a child making rapid academic and social progress, after months of struggling, you get to enjoy that feeling of it all been worthwhile.

Lifting learning outcomes for all students needs to be the goal. I like John Hattie’s take on the current state of education. He says that, “any child with a pulse will learn.” Ouch. But don’t shoot the messenger, please. I have previously made the observation that in many cases students are learning in spite of or, despite the best endeavours of their teachers. (I was a beginning teacher once). Schools really need to stop taking credit for the learning that they are not responsible for. Fortunately, Hattie has provided us with a list of the essential ingredients for achieving effective learning. A pedagogical check list of the things that have the greatest impact. Unfortunately, that list does not seem widely known or understood by the teaching profession. Which probably goes a long way to explaining why we continue to walk down the same path.

I would also like to argue that this issue of underachievement is one that impacts on more than just our Maori and Pacific students. In the context that students may in fact, as Hattie suggests, be learning in spite of the education on offer, I think it gives weight to my argument that changing the way we teach at the broadest possible level is paramount. Because receiving a sub-par education is not just impacting negatively on Maori and Pacific students. It’s just that the consequences of leaving school with poor education outcomes is going to impact more negatively on those people and communities who are lacking in social and economic capital. Inevitably, a student who “fails” at school but has an abundance of social and economic capital is going to be more successful when transitioning into work or further education. In effect, a student’s access to reserves of economic and social capital acts as a buffer against failure at school.

The solution to this problem of under-achievement is there for us to embrace. It seems that progress will only be achieved when teachers are willing and able to be critical in their analysis of their impact on student learning. A high degree of scientific rigour needs to be embraced. And that scientific rigour needs to coincide with a willingness to embrace learning as a human endeavour. There is magic to be experienced when those two ingredients are combined. We need to bring out the best in our students. The model of teaching that currently prevails does not allow that. It only works for some. Most survive. A few thrive. And then there’s the rest.

In the meanwhile, doing more of the same will not shift that long tail of underachievement. That’s guaranteed.

Ease Education: Teaching at a human scale.

You can also find Ease Education on Facebook and Twitter.

My submission to the Ombudsman’s inquiry into the use of seclusion rooms in New Zealand schools.

In 2016 it came to light via the media that some schools in New Zealand were using seclusion rooms as a way of managing student behaviour. Like many, I was shocked by this revelation.

I was very pleased to hear that the Ombudsman decided to hold an inquiry into the practice. For me, it wasn’t just the use of seclusion rooms that concerned me. During post-revelation discussions in the media, I became aware of enormity and systemic nature of the issue. I was also very concerned by,

1. the negative responses and attitudes of one the schools that were found to be using seclusion rooms and,
2. the poor quality of the debate in the media around the issues of managing behaviour of students in schools.

As far as I understand, the focus of the inquiry is solely about the use of seclusion rooms in New Zealand schools. However, in my submission, I have suggested that the use of seclusion rooms in schools is symptomatic of a wider range of cultural failures within the New Zealand education system and wider society.

My real hope is that the inquiry could also be;

1. an opportunity to examine and critique the way schools rely on outdated, unethical and ineffective methods to manage the behaviour of students and,

2. a catalyst for making some essential changes to the way that schools and teachers manage the behaviour of students.

While I have not witnessed the use of seclusion rooms during my time as a teacher in New Zealand schools, I am concerned that the practice of ‘exclusion’ is a relatively common practice. In schools, these spaces are commonly referred to as ‘naughty spaces’. Children are sent there to ‘learn a lesson’. These lessons must be quite difficult for some children to learn because a casual observation will reveal that it is the same children who spend the most time there. The (unspoken?) intent of these places is punishment. This is distinct from the use of a behaviour management strategy such as ‘time out’.

Exclusion is based on authoritarian approaches to ‘behaviour management’ and research shows that it is a totally counterproductive practice. It is unethical and ineffective. It reflects a strong and very unhelpful emphasis on controlling children. We really need to shift our thinking from ‘behaviour management’ and ‘control’ to supporting children with their behaviour development. Providing children with opportunities to learn to manage their emotions needs to be given as much priority as the teaching of literacy and numeracy.

The use of and the reliance on exclusion to manage behaviour also indicates that there is something fundamentally wrong with the education that is currently being provided. Over many years of practice, I have learnt that managing behaviour becomes a non-issue when the learning environment is conducive to the needs of all children. The education we provide our children needs to be academically and emotionally engaging. I have already documented how this can be achieved in a classroom setting.

I also suspect that there is a correlation between the use of exclusionary practices in schools, the long tail of underachievement in education and incarceration rates in prisons. Cultural bias in New Zealand schools is a reality. That is why we need an education system that encourages and supports all students equally.

I don’t know about the specifics of the legalities in NZ, but in Australia the practice of ‘the naughty square’ is actually illegal. Unfortunately, this does not seem to hinder their use in Australia. It is the education of teachers, rather than the writing of laws, that will have the greatest positive impact.

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Update: 16 November 2017

The Ombudsman’s office has completed its investigation and reported its findings. While the report criticises the use of seclusion rooms, it only covers the child and the school in which the original complaint was made. The parents of the boy who made the complaint are “disappointed the Ombudsman only investigated the use of the seclusion room in regards to their son, and not other children or the wider use of seclusion in New Zealand schools. I think by narrowing it to only our son it didn’t overall give a look to other evidence that may have been relevant”.

However, according to the Ministry of Education, “schools now had clear guidance on restraint and seclusion. Late last year we released guidance on effective behaviour management to minimise physical restraint and advised all schools that the use of seclusion must be stopped immediately”.

An RNZ article on the Ombudsman’s report can be read here.

Ease Education: Teaching at a human scale.

You can also find Ease Education on Facebook and Twitter.

The essential ingredients for creating effective learning are no secret.

Stack of blocks

There’s always a detailed story behind any tower of blocks like this.

During all my years in the classroom, I have always sought to be a more effective teacher; to be able to provide more effective learning opportunities; to empower the children to be more effective learners. The improvement that I believe I am now making has been a gradual process. A process of compiling a series of ‘aha’ moments would be an appropriate metaphor. And this process has been deliberate and measured. Initially it was premised on becoming increasingly familiar with the research of John Hattie.

This research identifies and ranks the impact/effectiveness of all available teaching interventions/variables. Quite simply, it is a list of the essential ingredients for creating effective learning. On this list, we can see and compare the impact of say, class size or computers or homework…all the usual suspects are on the list. And all these variables are ranked according to their impact. I have placed a link to this list at the bottom of this post. I suspect that what you believe has the greatest impact on learning may be challenged. You may also want to check out John Hattie talking about his findings in this Ted Talk.

Personally, I believe that Hattie’s findings are the educational equivalent of the Holy Grail. My confidence in the value of this research is based on another key element. Not only have I become very familiar with Hattie’s research over the years, I have also gone about applying this research in a classroom setting. I have deliberately targeted and applied the variables at the top of the list and then observed the impact that it has on the students. This is allowed me to compile that list of ‘aha’ moments.

In effect, these are the moments that allow me to identify and measure the level of impact that I am having on each student. This in turn has allowed me to be selective and deliberate in how I work with the children. I am getting better at declining or abandoning ideas and processes that are imposed upon us and that act as barriers to achieving effective learning. This has had the effect of allowing me to discover the existence of a range of buttons and levers at my disposal. And slowly, I am gaining mastery of those buttons and levers. This mastery has come about by practise and making mistakes.

Over time, these buttons and levers become visible to the students. They also become familiar and proficient with the buttons and levers. Eventually they start taking control of the buttons and levers. They begin to determine how they would like to see the buttons and levers operating. That’s when the learning environment gets really dynamic. And the cool thing is that it works for all children equally. Their personality or background makes no difference. Nor is there any special equipment or programme required. Really, it’s just myself and the students, in a classroom.

The outcome of this experience for me is to validate my interpretation of Hattie’s research. To me, it seems that the variables that Hattie cites as creating the most effective learning environment, are all based on themes of humanity and relationship. The essential ingredients to achieve the dynamic learning environment that I describe above, depend on to a large extent on the existence of those human and emotional qualities. Teaching as a human endeavour! Who would have thought?

This means, I need to know my students really well. It means I need to build a strong and trusting relationship with them. My job is to observe them closely to see what their strengths and weaknesses are, in emotional and academic terms. I have Piaget to help me know what these children are capable of and to help me to help them to achieve it. It means I also need the children to know what I expect from them in terms of behaviour and in terms of learning and achievement. This needs to be made explicit and visible. Over time this all helps to provide a really strong culture of learning and collaboration.

I love seeing the children in my class at the very edge of their learning development. I just can’t squeeze any more learning out of them. And they all love it. Eventually. Some get on board quicker than others. But they love the challenge. They love knowing that they are at that edge. I always thank them profusely for their outstanding effort. And then I ask them to do it again tomorrow. By the middle of the year, this is the norm. This is when the magic really starts to happen. They want to know how they are doing. The roles reverse. They start directing their learning and I start learning from them. Those buttons and levers.

This all helps to explain why I am better at knowing the level of impact I am having on each child. I can now state unequivocally that the children are no longer learning in spite of me, but because of me. They are responding to my deliberate and persistent interventions. Their learning is not a happy accident. And that’s one of the tragedies of teaching – a school taking credit for the learning that children would be achieving anyway.

My dream is to be able to share my discovery of these powerful buttons and levers with my colleagues and show them how they work. My dream is to give all children access to those buttons and levers and the great learning that results.

Ease Education: Teaching at a human scale.

You can also find Ease Education on Facebook and Twitter.

Want to take a look at that list of essential ingredients? – check out the links below…

1. A ranking of influences according to their impact.

Hattie Ranking: 195 Influences And Effect Sizes Related To Student Achievement

2. Key influences on student achievement.

Hattie’s influences on student achievement