The science of teaching effectively

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I was chatting with a friend who has expertise in behavioural psychology. I was sharing my experience of what I believed to be the successful learning environment I had created in my classroom since adopting an evidence based approach to teaching. During our conversation I described how I had made an adjustment to the way I was approaching the start of the new school year. To provide some context to this conversation, after many years of looking at the research and matching that to the evidence I see in the behaviours and learning taking place in the classroom, I have elevated the role of play markedly over the years.

It is also worth pointing out that I am describing a creative, constructive kind of play. A kind of play, based on clear guidelines and expectations and purpose; in how the equipment is used and shared and packed up. Managed, structured, mindful. This explicit structure is, of course, the science of cognitive behaviour therapy in action  – a most powerful and effective behaviour management tool. “Show me how you can make a tower with those blocks”. “I like the way you have worked together with your friends to make that tower”. “Thank you for packing up so quickly and quietly”. That kind of language. That kind of modelling. And I observe. I offer guidance, encouragement, feedback and some provocation, when appropriate. And it is a result of being so explicit and deliberate, that this play time is so full of surprises and creativity. Full of learning and inquiry – for the children and myself. That’s right. “When students become teachers and teachers become learners“.

The small adjustment that I made this year, compared to previous years, was the giving of full and immediate access to the play equipment. The difference was that we launched straight into the play experience. Normally I would only offer up a minimum number of activities and any offering would be contingent on satisfactory completion of assigned learning tasks – play was being used primarily as a reward. A very useful and effective strategy. But could we do better, I wondered. This time there were no conditions attached – apart from the guidelines and expectations I have already spoken about. It was at this point that my friend suggested that I might like to do a search of ‘Pairing – Applied Behaviour Analysis’. So I did. And yes indeed. Unknowingly I have been employing another science based behavioural strategy into my classroom. In my ‘non-experts’ brain I saw it simply as a way of building rapport. A way to connect with the students with the intent of setting the groundwork for launching into our new learning journey together.

There are two primary reasons for putting a high value and priority on the role of play in the classroom. First of all I use it as an intrinsic part of creating a positive and pro-social environment in the classroom. But what I want to explain is my second justification for why and how I utilise ‘play’.  That is, in order to apply an evidence based teaching model in my classroom. The deliberate acts of teaching that I choose to engage in (such as providing access to play time), are based on my observation and assessment that a direct correlation exists between the activity and excellent learning outcomes – both academic and social. How so? What does Hattie’s research say about that? Of course, “play”, as I describe it, is not defined by Hattie as a *key effect size variable related to student achievement. It is just an input that I deem to be very effective and have chosen to use in order to go about achieving the best possible learning outcomes for the students in my classroom. I use it as leverage to get the learning outcomes I desire. It’s science based. It works for me but I will change it or modify it if I see new evidence or research that advises me to do so.

So let’s dig a bit deeper. How does promoting play in my classroom work as a strategy to access the key variables that are at the top of the list of strategies for improving learning? As I have already indicated, I want to build up a strong, trusting relationship with each child in my class. I want to convey to them that I am in control, that I understand their needs and will respond to those (emotional and academic) needs quickly and competently. I want to convey that I am interested in them, that I understand them and I have their best interests at heart. I also want them to know that I am the one that controls access to those wonderful toys that they want to get their hands on. (Teacher credibility – effect size 0.9).

And I want to get to know the students really well so I can find their individual strengths and weaknesses, their beliefs about themselves, what interests them and what motivates them. When that is visible to myself and the students themselves, I can challenge and motivate them to do better, to make more effort, to be prepared to experience some cognitive dissonance and place higher expectations on themselves. That ‘growth mindset’ thing. I am mining for that precious resource called ‘student agency’. “Look at how well you have achieved as a result of all that effort you have put in. Well done, your next step is to do this…” (Self report grades – though Hattie now calls this student expectations – effect size 1.33).

HattieKeyEffects

Hattie effect size variables

All the while I remain mindful of the need to match my expectations of the students with their level of cognitive development as defined by Piaget. Some children have developed fine motor skills and the cognitive ability to write before the age of 7. Many have not. That’s essential knowledge if a teacher is going to be most effective. The students need to be scaffolded appropriately. If the demands placed upon them are beyond their developmental level, fear will dominate and hinder their learning. (Piagetian programmes – effect size 1.28). There is also the role of providing descriptive timely and formative feedback to students. What is the goal? Where are you in relation to it? What can you do to close the gap? The advantage of formative feedback as opposed to summative feedback is its immediacy and timeliness. (Providing formative evaluation – effect size 0.9)

This is why I believe that what I am doing in the classroom, as I have described it, is having a positive impact on the learning taking place in my classroom. But the problem is that these actions are only benefiting the students in my classroom. While the effect sizes of the actions I have described so far are high, the impact is only concentrated on such a small group of students. The next step is to imagine all students having similar access to really effective evidence based teaching. Especially those students who make up that “long tail of underachievement“.

And that’s where things get tricky. I would love the opportunity to share my success. But the unfortunate inevitability of working in an evidence based way is that it is likely, in the early stages at least, to look different to what other teachers are doing. Teaching in a deliberate and evidence based way tends to result in labels such as ‘disobedient’ being used; as a result of following the science, following the research, following the evidence. “Are you telling us that you are a better teacher than us?” “What, you are letting the children play? When are they going to do some serious learning?” All those essential and valuable societal constructions that maintain order and structure also have the impact of being a brake on progress and innovation. They keep us stuck. ollowing the science, following the research, following the evidence

So even though Hattie’s research tells us that the biggest collective impact on student learning happens when teachers are able to share their learning and openly discuss their evidence (effect sizes 1.62+), it turns out that it is an idea that is easier to say than implement. It has become clear to me that the open and high trust environment that I endeavour to generate scientifically in the classroom leads to effective learning outcomes for my students. I no longer have any doubts about that. Does it then, need to be said, that the same science applies in equal measure to adults? But the upscaling that Hattie says is necessary, will only happen when teachers are prepared to challenge their assumptions and honestly assess the evidence that is in front of them. Different voices and viewpoints need to be elicited and taken seriously. A sliver of doubt needs to be present when considering the options available to teachers when attempting such a important task of improving learning outcomes for all students. Rigourous analysis and debate needs to be encouraged. And that kind of analysis and debate can operate within a culture of respect and kindness. Of course. They are not mutually exclusive. But an open, high trust environment is the essential prerequisite.

This is where I am stuck. Here lies the problem. The use of applied behavioural analysis for children or evidence based teaching practice for teachers, means there is no hiding. It means that statements such as, “my child’s behaviour is different/unique/more difficult”, “if only class sizes were smaller” or “the students in my class are different/come from more difficult backgrounds” don’t cut it anymore. It is at this point that our cognitive biases are exposed – “I believe what I perceive and no amount of convincing will tell me otherwise” or “I will happily ignore the evidence and what the research tells me”.

I appreciate that it is normal human behaviour to not want to hear that it is possible to change behaviour or change learning outcomes due to the implications that it (I guess) highlights our own inadequacies and failings. It would mean we would have to take responsibility for the outcome/situation. It is safer to seek an easier target. In the end, I may just have to settle for “John Hattie is deluded if he thinks we can realistically break through the current impasse”. I reckon he needs to walk a few steps in my shoes.

If you have any suggestions or ideas or you want to share your own experiences, please get in touch. Your input is most welcome…particularly if it is grounded in science and evidence. 😉

*Effect size – 0.4 is the average effect size. That is described as the ‘hinge point’. That is the effect size that a typical student’s unimpeded cognitive growth will develop at. Which proves the point that students may in fact be learning despite a teachers imput, or that any growth above that could be coming from parental/home imput. Sobering thought, eh!?

Ease Education: Teaching at a human scale.

You can also find Ease Education on Facebook and Twitter.

More links to Hattie’s effect size analysis can be found below.

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An open letter to education policy makers.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Yann Martel, the author of ‘Life of Pi’ has this to say about fictional stories,
“By imaginatively engaging with characters who we may not meet in real life, or by considering scenarios we may never actually find ourselves in, we can practice empathising with others and seeing from another point of view. We can learn from fictions in this way by being open to new experiences that we see in our mind’s eye. Narratives can teach us something new and encourage open heartedness. In reading we dream, and our dreams define how we live our lives.”

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

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

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