When students become teachers and teachers become learners.

 

I gave a pair of 5 year old children some place-value blocks, a number flip chart and a brief explanation of how a number on the flip chart can be represented by the blocks. I then turned away to scan the classroom and to observe the other children doing their own maths activity. About 1 minute later I heard a child’s excited voice say, “Look, I’ve made 132”. I went to investigate. Yes indeed. The child had made 132 with the place-value blocks. I turned the camera on to capture the moment. You can hear my voice in the video prompting the child to repeat what he had already told me. Trust me on that. He was excited. He knew what he was talking about. He was aware of his achievement. I know that I had previously talked about the concept of place-value to the children. But it was more in a quick, “isn’t this interesting and useful thing to know”, kind of way.

I want to share this learning moment because I think it reveals a lot about effective teaching pedagogy.

132 was the child’s number. He chose it. That is, I didn’t instruct him to make 132. I simply said, “now it’s your turn to make a number”. The tone of his voice clearly indicated to me a sense of achievement and success. He knew he had achieved something significant. According to Education professor John Hattie,

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

The child who had made 132 with the blocks had become his own teacher. I, the teacher, had just learned something new about teaching. Well actually, confirmed/validated a teaching practice that I was already in the process of exploring. 

From a teaching perspective, what did I confirm/validate?

Place value is a key concept in working with numbers but is not a concept I would expect all 5 year olds to pick up so quickly and easily. Nor should they. Children develop differently; in different areas and at different paces. In fact, I am surprised that this needs to be spelt out. That is not to say that the concept of place value should not be introduced to 5 year olds. The video shows that it is unwise to underestimate the capability of a 5 year old. It reinforces the value of the ‘provoke, listen, respond’ philosophy. And it supports the idea of provoking children at the highest order of thinking.

…all children are different and need to be provided with learning opportunities that cater best to their individualised needs.

A key element of the maths activity shown in the video is the concrete nature of the task. It’s about manipulating and experiencing and testing. Getting a sense of what numbers mean. Visual, physical, tactile. All too often I see children being asked to complete tasks that are way too abstract and paper based. By providing more physical activities like this you can, at the very least, save on your school’s photocopying budget.

Interestingly, the child’s working buddy was more interested in fitting the blocks together in a creative pattern than creating and solving his own place value problem. He was engaged, but not in the way I had intended. But that’s cool. It was good for me to see that too. This learning opportunity only went on for a few minutes anyway. If that child was ‘into’ that task, I anticipate that he would have been inspired and been able to learn place-value from his peer. Maybe another day. No big deal. But once again, all children are different and need to be provided with learning opportunities that cater best to their individualised needs. Flexible, dynamic, organic. I have said it before in previous blog posts, the current education system only works for some students. Many students are disengaged. And this increases as students get older.

…we are talking 5 year olds here. They should still be playing. We are asking them to engage in formalised learning way too early…

The time I allocated for this task was short. Enough time to give the children a chance to develop and practice. But not enough time to be bored and disengaged. I always make a note of activities that don’t provoke a positive response from the children. I try to be flexible. I won’t give up on a task immediately. I will try a different approach. And some things are not negotiable. For example, during whole class sharing opportunities, the expectation is that children will listen actively and respectfully. I took the children outside to fly a kite the other day. They just wanted to play on the playground. Maybe I’ll try again. I used to love flying kites when I was a child. How could modern day children be so unenthusiastic about flying kites?

I want to develop confident, curious learners who can take risks and learn from their mistakes.

When the children are engaged in an activity that is genuinely interesting to them, negative behaviours are not an issue. Obvious really, eh. Based on personal observations and reflections, the same concept applies to adults too. And of course, we are talking 5 year olds here. They should still be playing. We are asking them to engage in formalised learning way too early anyway. Before it’s developmentally appropriate. 7 years old seems to be the magic number. It would seem that Bryan Bruce and I have been reading the same research. See for yourself, in his documentary about the New Zealand education system.  

I try to provide a balance between independent learning and guiding students through some specific learning tasks. (Once again, bearing in mind that they are still only 5 years old). I want to develop confident, curious learners who can take risks and learn from their mistakes. I take my role as the gatekeeper of what and how the children get to learn, very seriously. Of course I need the children to meet the National Standards that have been imposed from above. But I also want them to be curious and engaged. I am discovering that with the right input, the children seem to be able to have their cake and eat it too. With the right type of activities and input from me, the children seem to find their own pathway to success. I think the place-value experience highlights this proposition very well.

The best learning is authentic and based on the real needs and demands of the children…

I have also made significant changes in the way the classroom is set out. I have started to make a wide range of maths activities and puzzles available to the students.  Dare I say, it was the case up until a few years ago, that a lot of the maths activities that are now available to the children, used to be sitting on a shelf off-limits to the children. What was I thinking? Nowadays, the maths equipment is readily available to the children just like the books in the library corner, the toys and the blocks in the ‘play’ area, the art and crafts equipment, the writing equipment etc.

They are now available for the children to use whenever they are not engaged with me on a specific teacher directed task. And please let it be said that I am no longer surprised when I see children choose to read in the library corner, or complete a maths puzzle, or write a story, or listen to a story on the listening post – ahead of playing on the computer or playing with the variety of blocks and toys available to them. The best learning is authentic and based on the real needs and demands of the children – there’s a reference to that, “children as their own teachers” expression again. Life does not operate in a silo, neither should a classroom. 

Being a mass provider of knowledge is no longer the appropriate form of teaching.

I want to work in an education system that is equipping students with the ability to function in their lives once they leave school; prepared for a world that is looking increasingly unfamiliar and uncertain. In order to flourish in life after school, we need people to be able to apply social and emotional skills, as well as academic skills. Being a mass provider of knowledge is no longer the appropriate form of teaching.  Students need to be treated as individuals who have different learning needs. I want to be allowed and encouraged to go deeply and broadly.

Excuse my passion. I’m in bit of a hurry. We should all be. I can see a different future, and that excites me.

For some academic validation of the opinions expressed above, check out this article on The Conversation.

Ease Education: Teaching at a human scale.

You can also find Ease Education on Facebook and Twitter.

Life doesn’t operate in silos, education shouldn’t either.

A pet shop was a favourite setting for some of the children's stories.

Writing is more than a new blank page everyday.

I have spent many years learning and practicing the craft of teaching. And if I wasn’t such a modest person I would probably say that I have mastered this teaching thing. Mastery takes time and perseverance. Experience and longevity does not have to mean resting on one’s laurels. For me, mastery is about creating a buffer; of space and time. A buffer that allows one to look outward. To reflect. To see and hear better through the static. To gain confidence in trusting oneself and trusting the children. To appreciate that doing the same thing over and over is unlikely to offer up any different results. To move beyond the deficit model that seems to be the foundation of our education system.

This deficit model casts a long shadow. It dims the light. Academics write about it. Their research and their words match my daily observations. Stories of the disengaged and the excluded are regularly in the media. Nor do you have to look hard to witness the deficit model fully operational in all aspects of modern society and public institutions. I know I risk the opprobrium of my colleagues for raising this issue. But it’s not a personal thing. It’s purely professional. I think there is an alternative. I have seen glimpses of it. I have no answer to those who say everything is fine and dandy, just as it is. Some form of acknowledgement that change is needed is essential. The system needs to cater equally to all learners. But gravity favours the status-quo. No one wants to be apart from the crowd for too long.

The New Zealand Curriculum supports schools to move away from ‘silo’ thinking: the treatment of subject areas as rigidly discrete entities, with no application to each other. It’s now almost universally accepted that, as life doesn’t work like that, education shouldn’t either. – New Zealand Education Gazette, 21 March 2016, Vol 95, Number 5, Pg 2.

It’s about being innovative. And be reassured that there is no risk to the students’ learning. There is nothing to lose. Everything to gain. The innovation I have tried out in the classroom so far, looks good. And more importantly, it feels good. For both the children and myself. It works like this. I see a need. I test an idea. I evaluate it. I modify it. I test it again. I evaluate the outcome. I share it with colleagues. I seek feedback from colleagues and parents. It’s agile and effective. The children have a critical role in this process. They are the feedback. I am constantly listening for their voice. Their enthusiasm for learning and their clever responses to my provocations are the feedback I crave. ‘Provoke, listen, respond’. This process provides the teacher with a strong sense of where the children are ‘at’ with their learning; their developmental level – both academically and emotionally.

For some time I was aware of a need. So I decided I needed to be innovative with my writing programme. The rationale for doing so was clear in my head. I wanted the children to experience writing in its broadest and most engaging form. (You can imagine how happy I was to see the above item in a recent Education Gazette that validated this approach – suggesting a move away from ‘silo’ thinking that currently prevails in the classroom). I wanted to link as many different curriculum areas as possible to teaching writing. I wanted a literacy activity that would appeal to all students equally. I wanted an activity that provoked high level thinking.

Clever thinking

Never underestimate the complex thinking a 5 year old is capable of.

So the children each made a diorama. They built a diorama. They created their own stories. They shared their stories. They said it with pictures. They said it with spoken words and written words. Because children love stories. Want a quiet, calming activity? Pull out a good story to tell. The children wanted to tell their own stories. And they had the knowledge and tools to do it because they know what good stories sound like. Because of their prior knowledge. I helped them develop their knowledge of the features and structure of stories (ie character, setting, problem, solution, introduction, conclusion, celebration) and then went about supporting them to develop their own stories.

For those of you aware of the S.O.LO. taxonomy, all the learning was directed at the ‘extended abstract’ stage. Many showed ability at that level. Some needed support to work at that level. As you can probably imagine, I have long since stopped being surprised by the level of complex thinking that a 5 year old is capable of. Nor was I surprised by the level of engagement with this activity. Unfortunately, the deficit model seems to have a blind spot with regard to the connection between engaged learners and behaviour. Writing is more than a new blank page everyday. It’s broad and complex and fun. Well, it can be.

And if I wasn’t such a modest person, I would say that this is an example of the ‘visible learning’ that all teachers should be aspiring to.

Ease Education: Teaching at a human scale.

You can also find Ease Education on Facebook and Twitter.

When it comes to effective learning, context and relevance is everything

Writing needs to re redefined. It is much more than just the process of putting words on a piece of paper.

Writing needs to re redefined. It is much more than just the process of putting words on a piece of paper.

“Can you write ‘Happy Birthday, Mum’ for me”, is a request that I frequently get and one that I love to receive. I dutifully write the words on the card that the child has carefully created from the spare materials and resources that are placed strategically around the room. Or, I will be asked to write it on the board for the child to copy. Sometimes I will endeavour to remind the child of the correct way to hold a pen. It depends on how busy I am at the time. Regardless of how busy I am, I always make myself available to respond and acknowledge these kinds of wonderful examples of learning taking place.

If I was thinking narrowly, I would only view this as an academic exercise in writing. But of course it is much more than that. This 5 year old understands the concept of birthdays and celebrations and feels compelled to embrace this cultural phenomenon. This child is thinking of life outside the classroom. The connections to be made are unlimited. These are some of the many insights it gives me into this child. And I use to think naively that the classroom was where all the learning took place. Not any more. Context is everything.

Inevitably, the child’s writing, the letters that make the words that convey the birthday message, will be a combination of capitals, lower case and some strange mixture of hieroglyphics. I rarely correct that. The recipient of the birthday wish will understand immediately the intent of the message, even if the words are not entirely legible. These children have only just turned 5, after all. That’s early to be starting formalised education. But if we must start them that early, the least we can do is soften the blow; ease them in, so to speak. This child understands that words convey messages and those messages can be spoken or written down. That’s something to celebrate.

Compare and contrast.

I ask this same child and all of his or her 5 year old colleagues to sit down at their tables. I give them each a blank piece of paper and a pencil. I ask them to write. Now, that child with so much to say, all of a sudden becomes ‘mute’. That blank page remains blank. Or it is covered in what appear to be random squiggles. What’s going on here? And it isn’t only this child. There are other blank pages too. But not only that. There are tears. Requests to have a drink, to go to the toilet. ‘Behaviour management’, instead of teaching writing, becomes my top priority. “What’s going on here?”, I ask myself. These typically vibrant, eloquent children are acting out of character. Or are they? Are they simply reacting appropriately to what is a very complex task?

Is it possible that the way we currently approach writing instruction,

1. underestimates the complexity of writing?

2. overestimates the relevance that this type of writing instruction has on the children?

When you break it down, writing is a complex business – pencil grip, letter formation, writing direction, staying within the lines, leaving a finger space, legibility, spelling, word recognition… and those are just the surface features – the mechanical process of writing.

Then you also have to have something to say – ideas. And you need to hold those ideas in your head for more than a minute. I love writing my ideas down. Well actually, typing them and increasingly, just speaking them into very clever technical devices with the help of Google and Siri. What next? Who would have thought? etc. When I write, most of my time and energy goes into thinking and bouncing ideas off people – in real life and via social media. I spend time seeking inspiration and ideas from other writers and thinkers. A lot of time goes into crafting and editing my ideas in the hope that they will make sense. And who is my audience? What is my purpose? I experience quite a lot of anxiety around writing. How will my audience react? So as you can see, there’s a lot of energy expended to be able to write convert the ideas in your head into a written form. Context is everything.

Yes, I love writing. And I encourage all the children in my class to love writing too. That’s why we are always reading and talking and sharing ideas. I regularly show them direct examples of how the process of writing works – in the form of co-constructed class stories – recounts of shared experiences: throwing boomerangs, flying kites, chasing cats, having water fun, swimming in the school pool, walking to the local park with parents. They tolerate my efforts. I keep them short. They enjoy reading the end product though. Especially if they are somehow featured in the story. Relevance is everything.

I can foretell the criticisms that this approach to teaching writing will attract. It will focus on the quality of the explicit instruction provided. Are enough opportunities being provided for modelled writing sessions? Are the modelled writing sessions sufficiently pitched, paced and explained? Maybe the time should be more serious and stern? Or then again, maybe it should be more relaxed and funny? Would wearing a silly hat during instructional time help?

Another form of criticism will be centred around the idea that “life is tough” and the “take this medicine” approach. “If you don’t make them sit down and write, you will encourage laziness, a dislike of writing….” The problem is, that by employing the ‘blank paper’ approach, the focus shifts from learning, to that of ensuring compliance. While this may be achievable when the child is still young, it becomes increasingly difficult as the child moves into teenage years and adulthood. And of course achievable should not be interpreted as desirable or as promoting effective learning.

Child psychologist, Louise Porter provides a helpful example to rationalise this.

Consider when we are supporting a child in learning to walk. We don’t scold or feel angry when the child falls over. Instead we lovingly help them up and support them in trying again. If we think of behaviour (and learning) as development, then we can shift our thinking to being more like supporting a child in learning to walk.

I also realise that there are quite likely to be 5 year olds who can complete the complex task of writing independently. It’s just that I have not met one yet. It’s that teaching children the complex task of writing is an adult’s priority, not a child’s. If you utilise the provoke-listen-respond model, you will notice that children move at a different pace and they will surprise you with their insight and understanding of the world. And it’s not to say that you actively discourage children from writing. ‘Horses for courses’ is the expression, I think. The best learning is the one that is not forced. Of course a 5 year old can be taught to play the violin. But is it desirable? Adulthood lasts a lifetime.

Nor is this critique of the way writing is taught focused solely on 5 year olds. It is applicable to all ages. It is applicable to all subjects. Context and relevance is everything. Learning in the classroom needs to replicate the realities of the outside world as much as possible. Writing words on a page is not an accurate reflection of the modern world. An essential skill to have – sure, but not a substitute for all those other essential skills like thinking and creating and…

In a future blog post I am going to describe a writing activity that I did with a bunch of 5 year olds that achieved, what I believe to be, the essence of what I have described here. At least a step in the right direction.

Ease Education: Teaching at a human scale.

You can also find Ease Education on Facebook and Twitter.

Do schools kill creativity?

I have watched this video a few times. And I have spoken to a few people who have also watched it, and who were equally impressed with it. But how has it been able to achieve almost 40,000,000 million views? The speaker certainly knows how to entertain a crowd but maybe, just maybe, his message resonates. I really hope that some of those viewers have been teachers. I hope you too will take the time to watch it (again).

I’d have to say that I would answer his question with a resounding ‘yes’. Education, in it’s current form, kills creativity. The education system in its current form was created out of a need to meet the needs of a new industrialised world. To create a work force. But times are changing. The whole world is engulfed in a technological revolution. Even though we like to suggest otherwise, nobody has a clue what the world will look like in 5 years, let alone in 50. But our education system is presented as though we do know. And all based around three core subjects – reading, writing and maths – the 3R’s. Yep, nothing has changed since my father and his father went to school. Well at least, not beyond the obvious surface features. Ken Robinson argues that “creativity is as important in education as maths and literacy and we should treat it with the same status.”

He observes that, “our education system is predicated on academic ability.” The smart ones who are destined for university. Not to study Humanities, of course. But to study a STEM subject. Because that’s what we need more of, according to the current NZ government. For these ones, it doesn’t matter that the education system robs them of their wonderful creative talents and capacity for innovation. They will survive, if not thrive. Hard work and compliance will get them through. High achievement and financial success can be used to justify stress and personal unhappiness. What about the rest? Those who don’t excel in the desirable core subjects? Their skills and talents are deemed as of limited value within education and out in the real world.

Kids will take a chance. If they don’t know something, they’ll have a go. They are not frightened of being wrong . Being wrong is not the same as being creative. If you are not prepared to be wrong, you will never come up with anything original. By the time children have become adults they have lost that capacity. Become frightened of being wrong/of making mistakes. This is how our education system works. We are educating people out of their creative capacities. We get educated out of creativity.

University is not, or should not be used as the determiner of high intelligence and success. It’s a definition that is way too narrow. Besides, with so many people now graduating with university degrees, they are becoming worthless – it’s called academic inflation. We need to stop directing our children to take subjects that we deem as valuable. We need to encourage them to find their talent and pursue that. We need to rethink our view of intelligence.

Unfortunately, I would predict that this is a risk that many of us will not be willing to take with our own children. Even if you have had personal experience that tells you otherwise. But the problem is bigger than you and I as individuals. It’s a societal issue. While we remain locked into this restricted view of intelligence, we will never be able to solve the problems that we face as a humanity – poverty, environmental degradation.

Our education system has mined our minds the way we have strip mined the earth. We need to rethink the fundamental principles on which we educate our children. We need to celebrate the gift of human imagination and start seeing our creative capacities for the richness they are and see our children for the hope that they are. Our task is to educate the whole child so they can face the unknown future.

On a personal note, I’m pleased to say that I am putting a lot of effort into addressing the ‘creativity deficit’ that he talks about. We still make plenty of time for the ‘important’ subjects of maths and language. But there is now also much more time for the children to explore and be creative. In some cases I have found myself having to really encourage children to find their creative space. I have had to really provoke and encourage. Movement and music is ever present in our daily routine. It’s wonderful. The children are growing enthusiastically into this new way of being and learning. As Ken Robinson says, “we all have bodies.” Too early on, we start teaching children from the waist up only.

Ease Education: Teaching at a human scale.

You can also find Ease Education on Facebook and Twitter.

A new school year and the importance of creating a positive classroom culture

Name tag/name mat- identity I belong really important – clues when chn bring parents/family members in to share means

Creating a positive classroom culture means giving students opportunities to feel like they belong and are valued. You’ll know you’ve got it right when the children want to share these experiences with one another and their families.

It’s a new school year and I’m pleased to report that things are going well. I am getting to know the children and the children are getting to know me. The ice is starting to melt. Order and structure is being established and learned.

My primary focus at the moment is on building positive relationships – between myself and the students, as well as between the students themselves. That’s because effective teaching and learning is premised on the quality of relationships and the quality of the interactions between the teacher and the students. I have already written about that. It’s all about making the learning ‘visible’.

Creating a classroom culture that is structured and ordered provides the social and emotional space that will allow a random group of individuals to grow into a kind and caring community.

I am glad that the research has been able to validate something that makes intuitive sense. And while the research seems to focus on the teacher/student relationship, I have taken it a step further by putting a lot of emphasis on building positive student/student relationships. In a vibrant, dynamic learning environment, children spend a lot of time interacting with each other. That could be via teacher prescribed, direct learning opportunities such as reading a book together or, self directed activities such as collaborating on building a tower of blocks or playing together at lunch time. And remember, this is all enshrined in our wonderful NZ Curriculum document. It defines learning in its broadest sense – academic and social learning.

When it comes to establishing a classroom culture, I think of myself as a ‘benevolent dictator’. Which may seem somewhat paradoxical when you consider all the emphasis that I put on the role of positive relationships. Creating a classroom culture that is structured and ordered provides the social and emotional space that will allow a random group of individuals to grow into a kind and caring community. That is the ultimate prize.

…all efforts put into building a positive classroom culture, are rewarded exponentially throughout the year.

By achieving that, it means that a teacher can be more effective – achieve better quality interactions. It makes it possible to be able to deliver dynamic, flexible and individualised learning programmes. But to do that, it is necessary to have a classroom that is structured and orderly. From order and rules comes spontaneity and joy – and of course, great learning.

Let me tell you a story.

How would you react if you walked into your classroom after morning break to find all the children jumping out of hiding places in the classroom and yelling “surprise”? That’s what’s happened to me over the last few years. I don’t know how or why this situation has arisen. But it got me thinking. That a group of 5-6 year olds could agree unanimously to do such a thing? That they could do it without someone spilling the beans? That they assumed I would also enjoy their surprise? And of course I did (until they wanted to keep on doing it everyday, that is). I laughed with them. I congratulated them on their inventiveness and creativity. And of course, I interpreted it as a sign that we had successfully created a kind and caring community. We were all on the bus, all going in the same direction. Magic!

It’s not personal. It’s not judgemental. It’s just about setting everyone up to succeed.

So building positive relationships is not just an important focus for the beginning of the school year. It takes priority throughout the year. Just like regular maintenance will help keep a car on the road for longer, a classroom culture needs regular maintenance as well. It’s not a task that can be ticked off after the first few weeks of school. It’s ongoing. I have learned that all efforts put into building a positive classroom culture, are rewarded exponentially throughout the year. It really is worth it. Typically, the best solutions in life are the ones that take the longest and require the most input. There are no quick, easy steps to creating a positive classroom culture.

Children arrive at school in different states of readiness. Some children arrive at school knowing how to read, how to relate to others. Some, less so. I use the beginning of the year to address any needs – provoke, listen, respond. Who needs help to turn the pages of a book gently? Who needs help packing up the classroom equipment? Who needs help sharing the blocks? The beginning of the year is the time to determine the ‘lay of the land’ and model the desired behaviour. It’s not personal. It’s not judgemental. It’s just about setting everyone up to succeed. 

Yes, we have a treaty in our room. Yes, the students and I have co-authored it. Yes, we have referenced it to the Treaty of Waitangi. But still, even after all that, that treaty is just words on a piece of paper, stuck (with varying degrees of artistic flair) onto a classroom wall. So we need to breathe life into it. We need to embody its intent with the words and actions we use in our everyday interactions.

I wonder whether the teacher in this video had a well written, well considered and well presented treaty on her classroom wall? While I don’t want to be a scare-mongerer or a John Holt, I really want to be reassured that classrooms are great places for learning as well as places for the human spirit to flourish.

So, let’s celebrate the good parts of our education system and keep looking for ways to improve.

Ease Education: Teaching at a human scale.

You can also find Ease Education on Facebook and Twitter.

The desire to enjoy teaching

Listen out for those rich learning conversations

Listen out for those rich learning conversations

To really start enjoying teaching I had to stop giving a fig.

I had to stop spending time that I didn’t have, doing things that weren’t enhancing my teaching experience, and worrying that I wasn’t doing things the same as everyone else. I’d like to think that this is a process that leads to innovation. I’d like to think that it is this kind of approach that brings about change. When you have your eyes on a big prize, you don’t want to be distracted. Like, it’s easy to forget that women in NZ haven’t always been able to vote.

To really start enjoying teaching, I needed to start trusting myself. That felt an achievable first step because I had already been teaching for over a decade. Experience does matter. But I also started to listen to the children and trust what they were telling me. I started to give them a voice.

The external demands on teachers are incessant. But I realised that the children needed to be my focus. As much as possible, I tried to ignore all those things that acted as a barrier to me being able to get the best outcomes for the children. Once again, experience helps. I now know really well what a child should be able to achieve and what is developmentally appropriate. Children don’t need to be pushed to do stuff – not if it’s interesting, that is. And now I know that we can expect that great learning takes place in many different ways.

I now have a clear set of guidelines of what an innovative, vibrant, compassionate learning culture looks and feels like. I created these guidelines based on widely available research. The ‘provoke, listen, respond’ feedback loop is great because it provides an ongoing validation process of the research and of the teaching and learning that is going on in the classroom. It’s an organic but robust teaching pedagogy. I particularly like it because it is an emotional as well as academic process. After all, we are human – social and emotional creatures.

So actually, it’s not really true that I have stopped giving a fig. I am now just better at discriminating – identifying the things that are important and the things I really care about.

I’d also like for us to be able to discuss the things that, we as individuals, have little control over; the external barriers to learning – such as child poverty. There are plenty of external factors that undermine a teacher’s ability to deliver an effective education programme. Those same factors are likely to be the ones that diminish the ‘joy quotient’ that motivates teachers to turn up to class everyday and try to make a difference.

So, being able to distinguish from those things that we can and can’t control is critical. It’s critical that we don’t allow ourselves to get bogged down or distracted by the things that we can control. The things you shouldn’t give a fig about. By doing that we can start to work towards a consensus on the kind of education we want our children to be getting in the 21st Century. An education that is truly innovative; something that is possibly beyond what is currently on offer.

Ease Education: Teaching at a human scale.

You can also find Ease Education on Facebook and Twitter.

Will we ever agree on what the best education system for our children should be like?

 

"Look what I made."

“Look what I made.”

I overheard a conversation between a 10 year old and a 5 year old in my classroom recently. The 10 year old and the 5 year old were ‘playing’ with the geoshape blocks. The older child was admiring the younger child’s creativity and ability to build ‘stuff’. The admiration was genuine. I can assure you of that. It was also expressed with a strong sense of incredulity. Like in, ‘how do you do that’? I know that feeling. I often see myself struggling to be as creative as a 5 year old.

I hear these kinds of interactions and see this kind of creativity frequently. I now use these interactions to provide me with insight to, and as a validation of, my approach to teaching. It reassures me that the ‘provoke, listen and respond’ model of teaching is really appropriate for 5 year olds. I have made it my mission to nurture the creativity that these children bring to the classroom.

I am inspired by the likes of Glen Keane who explains the importance of holding on to your childhood. It was Picasso who said, “when I was young, I could draw and paint like Raphael. It’s taken me a lifetime to learn to draw like a child.” I am now applying this philosophy to my teaching; by putting myself in the shoes of the child – to create a child-centred learning experience. That’s what I can offer the children in my classroom.

But if only it could be that easy. There is resistance. But why? Why would you want to deny children the best education possible? And there lies the problem. We will never get full agreement on what the best education looks like. Although, I would argue that an education system that treats people with dignity and equity should be a non-negotiable. But society does not always treat people fairly, so is it any surprise to see that the education system can miss the mark, too?

That’s why I like to think of my classroom as a microcosm of a society that I would like to live in. It’s not always easy. There are conflicts and inconsistencies all around. The system sometimes suffers from rigidity. Children come through the door with different life experiences. They are people. And people are emotional/social creatures – fallible; with vast quantities of joy as well as complexity.

An opportunity to explore the factional views of education (and dare I say, ‘humanity’) presented itself recently in a ‘Humans of New York’ story about a young woman describing her experience as a preschool teacher. The responses to her story were informative. Some were very positive and understanding. Others, less so. The situation was not helped by the fact that the young woman’s story was a little lacking in context and therefore leaving it open for interpretation. Needless to say, I identified with the story intuitively, and understood what was intended –  a desire to provoke, listen, respond. To give the children the best learning opportunities possible; based on sound research.

The arguments that are dismissive of child-centred learning* can be summarised as follows. That children:-

  • need structure and strict guidelines of how to behave.
  • would just play all day if they were not forced to study academic subjects like maths and literacy.
  • need to learn to do stuff that they don’t like in order to be better prepared for life after school.
  • need to learn that life is tough and exposure to this reality early on in their life, they will learn resilience and gain mental fortitude.
  • are inherently naughty and we need to ensure that they learn to be compliant.

They represent a view of children that defines them in negative and narrow terms. Unfortunately, ‘deficit thinking’ of this kind, is prevalent throughout society and has a strong influence on our education system. I would also argue that it helps to explain the high rate of child homicide in New Zealand.

A learning environment that is genuinely child-centred is physically and culturally distinct. Respect and dignity are cornerstones of such an environment. It acknowledges children as being naturally curious and creative. It is a physical environment that is engaging and allows children to learn through exploration. Such an environment is not synonymous with an absence of structure or discipline, as some would like to have us believe.

Life is complex. We are human. We are social and emotional creatures. We are fallible. But firstly, we need to look beyond the ‘deficit thinking’ model. Children are not intrinsically naughty. They just haven’t learned or been taught the appropriate behaviours yet. And as I have previously noted, most of the inappropriate behaviours that I witness, occur when children are asked to do tasks that are beyond their developmental or interest level. So, the potential to reduce unwanted behaviours is clearly and firmly within the adult’s power to eliminate before they occur.

Secondly, a genuinely child-centred learning experience is a perfect opportunity for children to learn how to engage socially; to learn about rules and boundaries. It’s a perfect opportunity for teachers to teach the essential social skills; just like we teach the skills of literacy and numeracy. And I’m not necessarily talking about prescriptive lessons, but about creating opportunities to learn through experience, over a sustained period of time. Modelling and learning through experience, are always going to be more effective than telling.

In a classroom context, there are clear expectations of how we operate and engage. How we pack up. How we talk to one another. How we move about in the classroom. Respect and kindness are the foundation stones of the classroom culture. So when we witness behaviour that falls outside of that expectation, it is addressed with calmness and consistency. The child is supported to get back on track.

The ultimate goal here is to get to the point where the children are able to self-regulate. This is not always straightforward and may take some time. (Just ask any adults who misplace their phone or get speeding tickets on a regular basis). The existence of motivation to change is essential. It’s important to recognise that the teacher has the ability to provide the child with the rewards that generate the necessary motivation. Dependence on external rewards may be essential initially, but as the rewards for self regulation become increasingly internalised, these external rewards can be removed. (There’s plenty more to say on this topic, but it will have to wait for another day).

*Defining ‘child-centred’ learning is problematic. You may note that I sometimes preface that expression on this site with the word, ‘genuine’. Words and actions don’t always match. But being that you are on this site and are interested in this topic, I assume that you are familiar with what I am describing ,when I use the phrase, ‘child-centred’.

Ease Education: Teaching at a human scale.

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Our children are getting the education we want for them, not what’s best for them.

A young chap I know was in his last year at a ‘highly sought after’ public school. He was given a detention for not wearing garters.  He sat in the hall with the other ‘naughty students’, writing out the school rules. He was a few days short of being old enough to vote.

A few months later and he was heading off for another day at university, wearing shorts, t-shirt and jandals. I commented on this new ‘liberated’ dress code. The difference between school and university was not lost on him; and not only in terms of dress code. What a difference a day makes, eh?!

Let it be known that this young chap had been warned in advance that a ‘garter check’ was imminent. He knew the odds. He lost. But to be told repeatedly that the school was engaged in ‘preparing students for life beyond school’ is risible. Throughout his time at school, I talked about this dissonance with him, as a way of encouraging him to see the nonsense of it; of the need to navigate the system. He was a high achiever anyway (in the way that the school encourages us to think about high achievement), good at sport and socially competent.

But what’s even more troubling for me is that parents pay extraordinary sums of money and go to extraordinary measures to enable their children to attend this public school. They believe. They do not question. If their child fails the system, it is the fault of the child. It speaks volumes about the state of our education system. It really does miss the mark in providing a complete education. But at least our children are getting the education ‘we’ want for them. And at least we don’t have the ‘university walk’ in New Zealand schools. Yet.

Out of curiosity, I did a google search. I can confirm that garters are past their use by date as an essential item for school uniforms.

Ease Education: Teaching at a human scale.

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What a difference a day makes to a child turning 5 in New Zealand.

Children at work.

This is what children look like when they are at work.

Watching children engaged in meaningful, unstructured play is a sight to behold and is something that needs to be valued and encouraged more, in our schools. But for some strange reason, from the moment a child starts school, we deem it inappropriate for them to continue with ‘play-based’ learning – the learning model that is the foundation of the New Zealand early childhood curriculum.

I have come to the conclusion that our education system, as it currently operates, puts too much emphasis on formal learning, too early on. But not only that. I think the system is too rigid and narrowly focused, and does not give children the comprehensive education they need and deserve. In a desire to create smart, intelligent learners, we have inadvertently ignored the human and creative aspects of learning that will help children be resilient and emotionally prepared for the post-school world.

Our school system needs to be designed to fit around the needs of students rather than requiring students to fit into the system. A play based education system that is fun and encourages creativity, is the foundation of effective learning. Play is a means by which children are able to develop their physical, intellectual, emotional, social, and moral capacities. And I would suggest that this approach to learning applies equally to people of all ages – not just young children in their early schooling years.

What may come as a surprise to some, is that there is a mandate for making learning broad and focused on the holistic needs of children. The two curriculum documents that are the basis for the NZ education system are exemplary in the way they take a broad and humanistic approach to learning. Unfortunately, the introduction of National Standards has not helped because now, all year 1-8 students are required to be formally assessed in the three core subjects of reading, writing and mathematics. The introduction of these standards has added a layer of complexity and contradictory pressure on teachers. Nonetheless, I still believe that we can manage those pressures. In fact, it is essential that we do.

As a matter of interest, while the majority of children in New Zealand start their formal education at 5 years old,  in Finland, formal education starts at 7 years old. That does not seem to stop their students still managing to rank highly in international student survey rankings. Go figure!

So, what is developmental play, why should it be encouraged and why will I make sure that the children in my class get lots of opportunities to play?

Play is an essential part of early childhood. Exploratory play and inquiry based learning encourages children to learn, develop and grow whilst they have fun. Through play, children are encouraged to explore, investigate and develop ideas and hypotheses. They can test their ideas and find new ways of building, creating, drawing, thinking. The use of open ended resources promote exploratory and investigative play as well as inquiry based learning. Creativity and imagination is developed through new ways of thinking. Social skills are learned through collaboration with others and language and communication skills improve. Perseverance is developed as children keep exploring and investigating their surroundings. Children will become more confident and develop a stronger sense of identity through play.

Ease Education: Teaching at a human scale.

You can also find Ease Education on Facebook and Twitter.

Check out the article below from the World Economic Forum. It argues for the need for kindergarten age children to be playing.

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A fresh approach to managing behaviour in the classroom

Getting the physical and cultural environment right.

Getting the physical and cultural environment right is the first step.

Notwithstanding that the topic of managing behaviour is a is complex one, it’s one that needs to be explored. That is, if we are serious about turning our classrooms into the positive and sustainable learning environments. Managing behaviour is really about creating a physical and cultural environment that allows for, and encourages desirable pro-social behaviours. Creating the right environment provides opportunities for children to learn how to self-regulate, to make ethical choices and to show consideration for others (empathy). I would also argue that getting the social/emotional quotient right is the foundation of any quality ‘academic’ learning.

This approach seems to be a world away from a behaviour management system that relies heavily on strategies that attempt to minimise negative behaviours with the use of discipline and punishment. For me, the term ‘managing children’s behaviour” also has connotations of trying to maintain control and achieve compliance. And it seems as though this model is the default setting in classrooms as well as being the model that is prevalent throughout society.

Managing behaviour is really about creating a physical and cultural environment that allows for, and encourages desirable pro-social behaviours.

Fortunately, there is an alternative model that we can turn to. It is based on sound research and makes sense intuitively. This alternative model requires us to evaluate our expectations of the children; is the task I am asking them to do at their developmental level, is it achievable, desirable and genuinely engaging? The familiar behaviour strategies that teachers typically employ such as cajoling, bribing, and punishing will do little to rectify the core issues, if our expectations are not reasonable or realistic. Nor is it likely that these strategies will achieve lasting behavioural change. A successful behaviour management model requires a high degree of trust and a strong emotional relationship between the teacher and the students.

It’s important to appreciate that what is typically perceived as ‘bad behaviour’ is simply a case of undeveloped social skills. Children are not necessarily trying to be difficult or uncooperative. They really do want to please and behave in a positive manner. It is more likely that they are lacking the skills or ability to solve problems effectively.  So, assuming that the physical and cultural environment is genuinely flexible and supportive of ‘child-centred learning’, then the next step is to teach, explain and model specific strategies to support and guide children to manage their emotions and interactions.

A key element to this approach is called cognitive training. This means that children are told exactly what they should be doing and how they should be responding. They are helped to identify and recognise their emotions. They receive generous explanations of why certain behaviours are inappropriate and how they impact on others. This is an approach that requires the adult to be a very patient and consistent ‘broken down record’. Repetition and consistency of message and expectation is paramount.

It’s important to appreciate that what is typically perceived as ‘bad behaviour’ is simply a case of undeveloped social skills.

By using cognitive training, you are not focused on achieving compliance. Instead, you are focused on using communication and negotiation to encourage reasoning, respect and cooperation. As well as fostering a desirable classroom culture based on respect and empathy, it is also a way of teaching communication skills. The children are learning through modelling, rather than it being taught by a specific series of lessons. That’s essential. The children will learn best by using these skills and seeing the positive impact they have in their daily lives. These are skills that require high levels of emotional intelligence and they are skills that can be learned. It’s a win-win scenario.

As well as cognitive training, there are also the familiar strategies of inducement (“I’m sure someone as clever as you could tidy up those blocks.”) and rewarding desired behaviour (“If you tidy up those blocks, we can play your favourite game.”) Needless to say, as long as the inducements and rewards fit into the classroom culture that you are trying to achieve, then they are also effective strategies to use.

Ease Education: Teaching at a human scale.

Links to some resources that I used for this blog post and that you may also find useful can be found below.

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