How to set children up to be successful learners.

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“Books should love a child and help a child to feel powerful.”

The learning in my classroom of 5-6 year olds is going really well. So I thought I would try and capture this by describing two key elements of my reading programme that reflect the successful learning that I am witnessing. Some time ago I started noticing that I was having significant success in improving reading outcomes for all students. I put this down to the fact that I was willing to change my teaching practice. I continue to refine and change my practice as I see the need arising. For those not familiar with teaching reading to young children, the measure of success at reading for 5-6 year olds is on the child’s ability to decode a text – turn letters into sounds and then into words and then into fluent sentences. Thankfully, there is no standardised reading test for children of this age – yet.

The first element is based around how I have set up the practical aspects of my reading programme. It’s a programme that allows me to read with every child almost every day of the week. This means I can keep close track of each child’s progress in reading and be informed on a daily basis how each child is doing. Hattie’s research tells us that the best learning outcomes will be achieved when the child’s effort, attitude and achievement are ‘in sync’. This reflects the high levels of growth I am seeing in my classroom. This means that my job is more than simply delivering the key knowledge and skills of reading. By employing an evidence/research based approach I have discovered that there is a high emotional and human component to successful teaching (including reading). My job is get to know each child really well so that I can challenge and motivate them to do better, to make more effort, to be prepared to experience some cognitive dissonance and to invite them to place higher expectations on themselves.

If you were to enter my classroom during a reading session you could expect to see an environment in which there were high levels of student agency and engagement. You could expect to see the “student as teacher/teacher as learner” model of teaching in place. The students know that I have high expectations of them. I am telling them all the time that I want them to want to read well. I employ a growth mindset that taps into the natural curiosity and desire to learn that every child possesses. I also provide a very generous scaffolding service to ensure success for those who most need it.

In my reading programme I am always introducing a wide range of developmentally appropriate and engaging texts. The classroom is full of opportunities to receive and produce language – both written and oral. The children are given plenty of opportunities to read a wide range of texts. I read instructional texts to the children in a way that invites them to join the club of “decoders’. “I’ll let you in on a secret about reading”. Each child will read their instructional text with a range of their colleagues before they get to read it with me. And when they do get to read with me, they know that I am expecting them to bring their ‘A’ game along with them. As they read to me I am assessing their ability, attitude and effort. I develop next steps based on that assessment. Is it a technical skill or is it an emotional issue that needs to be addressed? It’s usually a mixture of both. It is a quick and efficient process. I have noticed that some students have learned to look for the tick or dot that I put against their name once they have finished reading with me. They want ticks. Ticks are success. Something so simple but so reinforcing.

As the year progresses, an opportunity to read with me becomes a highly sought after commodity. Underlying the requests to be allowed to read to me is, of course, “I want to show you how good I am at reading.” I never decline such an offer. But I will prioritise certain learners who I think need extra support. I do have external motivators in place to help the reluctant few in the beginning. Mostly, the motivator takes the shape of my ability to control access to the wonderful range of play resources in the classroom. Eventually, it all spirals up and up and the learning becomes intrinsically motivated. Great academic learning supporting great social learning. Inevitably, everyone becomes a great reader. The link between social and academic learning can not be understated.

The second element of my reading programme that helps it to be successful is something that I have already alluded to. That is, teaching reading needs to be more than about imparting the mechanical skills of reading. Teaching reading needs to be about inspiring and instilling a love of reading. That’s because sharing a passion for learning will always have a greater influence on a child’s success than direct instruction ever will. And I often wonder whether teachers fully appreciate the value of reading aloud as a way of developing great readers. In all my years in the classroom, I have never ceased to be amazed by the willingness of a child to be captured by a good story. A class of 5-6 year olds can go from noise and chaos to silence, the moment a book is opened. But it’s not always quiet. A good story can also be a time for questioning and discussion. Their enthusiasm and ability to understand and process complex ideas is impressive and informative. It often reveals an insight into a child that I previously had no awareness of. ie. formative assessment in action.

There is also the more ephemeral role that stories have on learning – their ability to engage children emotionally – within the classroom as well as beyond. Stories allow us to see life beyond the literal. To see in colour; beyond black and white. To dream. Yann Martel, 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.”

Finally, I think there is a wider issue at play here too. New Zealand writer of children’s stories, Joy Cowley, takes umbrage with the idea that boys are not interested in reading. She believes that it’s a case of boys “are not interested in reading the books they are given.” According to her, “books should love a child and help a child to feel powerful.” These days I actively seek out books that have a boy hero in them in order to avoid what Joy Cowley describes as a case of “oestrogen strangling testosterone”. (Is that not an apt description of the education sector as a whole?) These kinds of books do exist but you have to seek them out. I suggest that the test as to whether you have got the right book is when a bunch of 5 year olds ask you to keep on reading a story that lacks any pictures for them to look at.

Ease Education: Teaching at a human scale.

You can also find Ease Education on Facebook and Twitter.

An RNZ interview with Joy Cowley can be found at the link below…

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What can the movie Monster’s Inc reveal about effective teaching?

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“We scare because we care.” An example of ‘deficit thinking’?

Monster’s Inc is such a clever movie. I never tire of watching it. The first time I watched it, I was struck by the premise of the movie – that laughter could generate more electricity than scaring could. Yeah, nah, that’s just a silly idea from a kids’ movie, I hear you say. But please don’t dismiss it so quickly. When I discovered that making a classroom a vibrant, happy, positive place was an essential part of creating a great learning environment, both my teaching experience, and the learning outcomes for the students, improved dramatically. I’m describing an environment that is based on a foundation of positive relationships – teacher/student and student/student. And once again, it is not just a vague, warm fuzzy feeling that I am referring to. It’s an environment in which students have agency. The students are directing and managing their learning. The teacher is able to sit back, orchestrate and learn from the students. It’s dynamic and agile. I often find myself referring to this manifesto to keep things on track.

I would encourage every teacher to move mountains in order to create this kind of learning environment. I have interpreted the Visible Learning teaching pedagogy as a ‘green light’ to do so; as a way of building student agency. There you go. That’s a licence for every teacher to change the way in which they teach. But to do so, really does require the teacher to operate from a growth mindset. Like in Monsters Inc, there needs to be a strong belief in the idea that laughter is in fact, more powerful than fear.

But really? Students can be trusted to engage in this process? Well, yes. And now we are starting to see the evidence to validate this. Economist Alexander Wagner conducted an experiment that concluded that 70% of people are good and motivated by altruistic reasons. (Refer to the link below). If that is true, then it has big implications for how we engage with students in their learning. I suggest that this knowledge is an essential resource for teachers to tap into. I witness the existence of this phenomenon everyday. I see the children in my class wanting to learn. I have practiced harnessing it, rather than stifling it. They are like sponges. They are curious and open to new ideas. Teaching under these conditions is a breeze. Teaching under these conditions is a positive experience. It becomes more about guiding and less about cajoling.

But what about that 30%, I hear you ask? I think I probably start the school year with about 30% who are not so altruistically inclined. Or at least, haven’t been given the opportunity to experience or demonstrate the merits of working altruistically. But that gets whittled down pretty quickly with the right pedagogy and motivators in place. It takes time, patience and consistency. Eventually almost all the children are on the proverbial bus together and participating in a supportive and collaborative learning journey – academic and social.

It is also worth noting that I have found it important and helpful to distinguish between students whose behaviours can be distinguished between behaviour that is:

  • challenging and provocative. eg. “This is boring”. I embrace comments like this. I reflect on these kinds of comments and try to determine their basis. It may well have some legitimacy. It’s an opportunity to find out more about the student and consider a modification to the teaching practice being utilised. In this scenario it is important to get the learning environment right.
  • under-developed social skills. If this is the case, there are strategies that are available to teachers that can help nudge the student towards displaying more socially acceptable behaviours. I would suggest that emotional competency is prerequisite to achieving full academic engagement. In this scenario it is important to provide positive and consistent messages and expectation.

Sometimes, both approaches will need to be taken in tandem.

If you still have some doubts about all this, I suggest you go and watch Monsters Inc (again). If nothing else, it will make you laugh.

Ease Education: Teaching at a human scale.

You can also find Ease Education on Facebook and Twitter.

Inspiration and scientific analysis for this blog post come from economist Alexander Wagner’s Ted Talk, “What really motivates people to be honest in business”. You can find the link below.

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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.

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