A close up and personal view of successful learning.

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Give a child some time and space and witness the magic.

A child enters the classroom at the beginning of the year. The child is lively, funny, gregarious, intelligent, precocious, articulate and creative. Everything that you would hope and expect from a normal 5 year old. But school environment doesn’t seem a good fit for this child. The child has trouble focusing, or staying on task for even a short periods of time. It becomes increasingly apparent that, without some specific and tailored input, this child is looking unlikely to attain the established academic standards.

The child’s teacher realises the challenge at hand, and gets to work establishing the deliberate acts of teaching that need to be implemented. A long term personal commitment is made to address the identified issues. Fortunately, the NZ Curriculum document is non prescriptive. It places no specific requirements on the teacher to teach in a particular way. It seems to encourage innovation and a problem solving approach to learning. Prior successes in similar circumstances reveal that a positive outcome for this child is all but assured. But it will be a challenge. It will be a test of skill and a test of confidence. For a while at least. Previous experience reveals that it could take a week, or it could take a year. Or somewhere in between. That’s because the best solutions are typically the easiest to deliver but also the slowest at delivering the best results. But the rewards will be huge. The pay back will be worth the effort.

As I argued recently, rapport may be the foundation stone of a super charged learning environment but there is more to it. Rapport on its own, it is no guarantee that effective learning will take place. It’s what’s done with the rapport that is the critical factor. Rapport gives the teacher a clear and well researched pathway. It’s a credit source that can be drawn on. It allows the teacher to engage with the child in an effective and productive way. It is premised on a healthy and constructive mindset. Rapport conveys a message from the teacher that, “I care”, and, “I will work hard.” But more than that, it’s a message that needs to implore the child to care just as much, and to work just as hard.

Expectations must be high. Teacher talk time needs to be short, prompt and focused. Expectations on students to listen and engage during that time also need to be high. The child’s opportunity to demonstrate an appropriate response and understanding is equally short and focused. This process is enhanced by ensuring that only activities with sufficient levels of context and relevance are on offer. Insight is gained through the regular dynamic interactions that take place between teacher and student or student and student. These interactions are prized possessions. They are utilized by the teacher. Formative assessments are made and are ongoing. Next steps are formulated. High fives are offered generously for every recognition of constructive effort expended. The child gradually becomes aware that their effort is linked to their achievement. Intrinsic motivation may be an abstract concept to a 5 year old but its presence is clear and invaluable. The child is now entering the pathway to becoming the director of its own learning.

The learning environment the teacher creates is positive, familiar, predictable and visible. It is that kind of environment, in which eventually, the learning pretty much takes care of itself. That’s because a similarly high level of expectation of self management and effort is placed on all children and is evident in all daily interactions – whether the interactions are teacher led or child led. Increasingly, as the year progresses, the teacher’s presence becomes less obvious in the classroom. The result is that every child manages to succeed. Some just needed a little less direct input than others.

And as for the target child? When the results are in, the child is indistinguishable from its peers. That’s the measure of success. That’s what makes teaching more than just a job.

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.

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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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