Getting to grips with this thing called “student agency”.

ClassTimetable

Correlation: as ‘student agency’ increases, ‘blue’ time decreases and ‘green’ time increases.

“Student agency” is a phrase that you may have been hearing a lot lately in an education context. That’s because experts have determined that “student agency” is an essential ingredient in helping drive student success in learning – the equivalent of an educational “holy grail”. “Students as teachers, teachers as learners”, is the way Hattie describes it. I have already written a lot about the success I’ve been experiencing as a result of bringing this theory into reality

It will probably come as no surprise that I often find myself frustrated in the way I see this term being defined and interpreted. At present I see it being interpreted in its most literal sense. That is, student engagement (agency) is simply about wanting to see students occupied, involved and excited in the activities that teachers are serving up to them. But of course, that’s insufficient if improving the learning outcomes of all students is the intended goal. At best, this is a description of “student agency-lite”. The full potential of “student agency” to improve learning growth for all students will only be realised when it is understood and implemented at its deepest meaning and intent.

Full-bodied, meaningful student engagement is a combination of learning that involves sustained effort and deep, intentional thinking. In a school setting I too often see “student agency” being interpreted as bringing or pushing students into learning – getting the students excited about a topic, lesson or activity. Giving them “responsibilities”. Busy work. Lots of fanfare, inducements, prizes, bells and whistles – the works. In other words, lots of external motivation. Lots of energy expended, lots of exhausted teachers, lots of perspiration, limited inspiration. You get the picture. Oh so familiar. I feel exhausted just thinking about it. As you can imagine, reliance on this approach means that the excitement fades very quickly, and the deeper learning fails to fire.

Let’s take a step back to see if we can figure out what’s going on. Students are human. They work for external rewards. Just like you and I do. I teach because I get paid. But I also explore ways of teaching better and describing these experiences on this blog in my free time because I am internally motivated and intrinsically rewarded by the thrill of watching students progress as a result of my deliberate acts of teaching and also, hoping that this expertise could be monetised one day :). I can see that I have a bunch of intrinsically motivated learners in my class. That is, they are displaying high levels of student agency/engagement.

But it’s also important to understand that not all these children were at this point when they entered my class. I have had to engage in many deliberate acts of teaching in order to draw out the children’s natural curiosity and motivation – to try and develop this ephemeral thing called, “student agency”. (In case you are wondering how I know the students in my class are engaged in this way, then please note that I have a plan in process to collect some qualitative data to prove this point in the future). So, assuming I am making an accurate reflection, based on my own observations and the feedback of various other adults who have been in my classroom, what insights can I offer? Plenty, I hope.

All children are naturally curious. But unfortunately, there are plenty of reasons why children have had their curiosity quotient sucked out of them or are proficient at hiding it away. Adults are very good at ignoring or stifling this curiosity. It is the job of the teacher to unlock that curiosity, feed it and invite it to flourish. And may I hasten to add that this won’t happen by teachers rewarding compliance – compliant behaviour nor compliant thinking – which I dare say is the current prevalent practice. It’s those innately human skills that give teachers such potential to make great learning happen. If this wasn’t the case, learning would all be happening in front of a computer screen by now. Learning is a social activity and the teacher’s greatest facility is to inspire students and help them interact. Connect, inquire, respond, celebrate – repeat! This is actually just a synthesis of Hattie’s Visible Learning pedagogy. It’s an approach that teachers can utilise to help develop internalised motivation. Because deep learning is deeply satisfying. It’s contagious. Well that’s my experience. “Can we read another chapter of that book today?” “Can my friend and I play that number game?” Can I write a story?” It’s requests like these I hear everyday that are music to my ears.

Now let’s take a look at the weekly timetable above. I have started to notice that over the years a correlation between ‘student agency’, my effectiveness as a teacher and high rates of learning growth taking place in the class. As ‘student agency’ increases, the ‘blue’ time decreases and the ‘green’ time increases. The ‘blue’ time is when I do the fundamentals of literacy and numeracy. It’s about offering the foundation knowledge that all learners require to be successful learners. During this time there are high expectations on the children to engage and contribute to their own and their colleagues’ learning experience. And when they are not working directly with me (as a whole class, in a small group, or individually), they are expected to be engaged collaboratively and constructively in some developmentally appropriate and engaging learning activity – reading a range of books, completing number puzzles. So, even though it is teacher directed and led time, the students are required to be active in their learning and are given some degree of choice in how they want to engage.

The ‘green’ time is that time of the day when I invite the students to participate in independent and creative activities of their choice. There are a range of resources and activities available to the students in the classroom that are highly appealing and desirable. These activities hold a currency that have very persuasive qualities – even to the most reluctant, least curious learner. It’s just a matter of time, patience and consistency. Eventually, every student wants unfettered access to that ‘green’ time and the goodies that are available at that time of day. Eventually all learning behaviours – social and academic, become self-reinforcing and internalised. The appeal of play drives the students’ desire to move towards managing their emotions and taking ownership of their learning. At that point, my job is done. I can step back and be the conductor and the ‘head’ learner – roles that are so satisfying and rewarding. “So if you can do that, can you show your friend how to do it?” or, “Can you think of doing it a different way”? or, “Wow, I didn’t know you could do that/think like that.” Dynamic conversations and learning points. Formative assessment at it’s most effective.

As a result of making these changes, I have also noticed that I am once again able to use the ‘blue’ time to do more of the interesting stuff that typically gets dropped off the timetable due to a “crowded curriculum”. We are not having to spend all our time covering literacy and numeracy. In fact, the amount of time we are spending on these areas is decreasing. It’s a ‘win/win’. That’s because the learning is going so efficiently. I can’t push the students ahead any further. They are at all at their appropriate developmental level and the required national standard. As I have said before, national standards and creativity can co-exist. The interesting stuff I am talking about (for 5-6 year olds) are topics like – science (baking bread, planting seeds and experimenting with what they need to grow), literacy – (making snozzcumber jelly based on The BFG story). The sky’s the limit. Exciting, motivating, full of good learning opportunities for students and offering seamless links to literacy and numeracy. But just as importantly, these types of learning opportunities are manageable and sustainable from a teacher’s perspective.

And that still leaves plenty of time for the students to have enough ‘green’ time to simply ‘play’. But it is also worth highlighting the fact that even though this is ‘student-led’ time, this does not equate to a free-for-all. This kind of independent play time is premised on a code of conduct that has been co-created and is referred to on a regular basis. That takes lots of my input to keep it on track. It’s purpose is to build, maintain and reinforce high expectations and of course, that secret sauce called, ‘student agency’.

Finally, the biggest prize for getting to grips with this thing called, “student agency” is that ALL students will benefit. No student will be left behind. That may sound like a big claim but I am experiencing it first hand everyday. It’s hard to describe in words but you will know when it when you see it. Give it a go. But you will have to think differently.

Ease Education: Teaching at a human scale.

You can also find Ease Education on Facebook and Twitter.

What a 6 year old’s drawing can reveal about pedagogy and creativity.

CastlePic

Let me tell you what’s impressive about this picture.

I’m always looking for evidence to prove that I have created the optimal learning environment for every 5 and 6 year old in my classroom. I want the best learning outcomes – academic, social, cultural – for everyone. I make changes if I think they will help me achieve that goal. I can do that because the wealth of experience I have built up over many years has given me confidence to make changes in order to keep improving. It’s a creative process that I find immensely rewarding. I read somewhere that creativity can be defined as, “simplifying the complex”. That sounds about right.

So what about this picture then? Isn’t it incredible? But it’s not just the picture itself that I find impressive. There is a whole back story to this picture that needs to be told. It’s actually, as you will probably guess, a story of pedagogy. A key element to this story is that I had no direct input into the creation of this artwork. My contribution was through a range of deliberate but indirect pedagogical actions. Let me explain.

First of all, it wasn’t that long ago that the artist in question was neither a willing or able drawer of pictures. Quite the opposite was true. At the moment this picture was celebrated with the whole class, it was met with authentic wonderment and awe by myself and the students. This is important to note because there is enormous power to be mined in this acknowledgement/sharing process. ie. “My colleagues and teacher genuinely appreciate my work and effort”. During this moment of sharing, I also ensured that the significance of that student’s learning journey was acknowledged. The message for everyone is, “Look at the progress I have made with a bit of effort. I wasn’t always this good. Effort pays off.” Diligence, perseverance… There is a lot of ‘visible learning’ pedagogy driving this seemingly minor investment in time. It’s also about placing high value and expectations on the students’ creative achievements.

Secondly, I have never taught the skills of drawing or creativity directly. But I have provided plenty of time, space and resources for the students to explore their interests and talents. During these periods of uninterrupted time, the children can choose from a range of available tasks and equipment. (It is not unusual to see students choose to complete numeracy puzzles or read books during this time). I have observed, over time, an increasing level of interest in drawing. The talented students (ie. the ones who had already tapped into their curiosity and creativity) become magnets to the newly curious. A wonderful sharing of ideas and talents develops and evolves.

Story reading is play. And so is storytelling. Both feed curiosity and feed on curiosity. Listening to stories tunes the ear and trains attention. – Scott G. Eberle Ph.D.

Another aspect of my indirect input into the creation of this calibre of artistic creativity is how large parts of our day are given over to storytelling – narratives. This has a very positive impact. It means the children are being constantly surrounded by words and ideas. Discussions start and evolve. Curiosities are piqued. I respond by providing more pictures and texts for the students to explore. During reading time or any ‘free time’, students choose to immerse themselves in these images and texts. They pour over them, absorbing the content like sponges, and utilising their incredible powers of observation. Their curiosity and ideas are contagious. They spread like wild fire.

So hopefully by now you can see that, by placing a high value on nurturing a positive learning environment, it will allow for students to become their own teachers. In turn, the teacher’s role then becomes one of keen observer, navigator, conductor and learner. It’s all in the pedagogy.

Ease Education: Teaching at a human scale.

You can also find Ease Education on Facebook and Twitter.

Why?

EqualityEquity

Removing barriers – systemic change that would benefit education.

Why do I teach in the way I do?

I feel strongly about many things. Things like, the need to protect the environment, and to mitigate against climate change. To improve economic equity and social justice. But these are big issues. And I recognise that my ability to have a constructive influence over these things is very limited.

I also feel strongly about the need to improve education outcomes for all students. As a teacher, I recognise that my ability to have a constructive influence on the students I am responsible for, is very real and immediate. Neither do I make any apologies for viewing education in the same way as other major world problems. As I have described before, failure costs a lot. This is no time for timidness.

Why do I teach in the way I do?

18 years ago, 10 years ago, 5 years ago even, I didn’t know what I didn’t know. I had no real idea of what I was trying to achieve. I simply modeled my teaching on what I was told was best practice. I just gradually became better at (what hindsight has allowed me to see more clearly) implementing a process. I was unaware of the impact I was having. But things have changed. I became curious. After 18 years of toil, I am better at understanding the impact I am having. I have come to appreciate that there is a science to teaching. That is, teaching effectiveness can be measured. Teaching is still a complex business, but knowing that success can be measured with the use of evidence, it means we now have very useful guidelines on the best way to proceed. At least, we should have.

Why do I teach in the way I do?

It’s quite simple really. I want to help ALL students be academically, socially and creatively competent. All my actions are predicated on that goal. If it works, I do it. If it doesn’t, I drop it. It’s about identifying and eliminating the barriers to achieving that goal, as much as it is about me teaching to a particular programme or delivering a specific lesson. Increasingly,  I am seeing signs that many of the barriers that teachers face are self-imposed barriers. Deficit mindsets reflect that we are witnessing a people problem as opposed to an education problem. After all, Hattie tells us that “the biggest effects on student learning occur when teachers become learners of their own teaching, and when students become their own teachers”. Evidence/research based teaching practice is about reflecting on, and changing your teaching practice, as a result of applying research and reflecting on the results that it produces.

To get to this point I have had to get used to feeling uncomfortable. A nagging sense of doubt has always been present. Doubt about the way I was teaching. And a willingness to tolerate being the odd one out. Engaging in evidence based teaching has resulted in that sense of doubt shrinking immensely. Although sadly, being the odd one out has not. But regardless of the growing certainty that I feel, I still encourage myself to maintain a slither of doubt.

Unfortunately, that sense of doubt that I describe, is not something that you will find in abundance in a typical education environment (or within any organisation for that matter). I suspect that is because typically, the traditional form of leadership is premised on characteristics of strength and expertise. Doubt conveys weakness and indecisiveness. Compliance and agreement is rewarded. Also, leadership in this traditional form seems to be focused on managing and containing, rather leading change and expanding. For change and expansion to take place there needs to be a willingness to engage in genuinely collaborative conversations  that look beyond the currently accepted best practice and be prepared to steer a path through uncharted territory of doubt. The right to question needs to be enshrined within the organisation.

This of course highlights the merits of research/evidence based teaching practice. The quality of the questions will be revealed in the evidence. The questions will simply answer themselves. Isn’t that the premise of Hattie’s Visible Learning research?

The power of one word….why?

Ease Education: Teaching at a human scale.

You can also find Ease Education on Facebook and Twitter.

Children at Work.

 

 

 

As my confidence grows, the more willing I am to try out new ideas. This confidence has come about as a result of seeing a beautiful alignment between my teaching practice, Hattie’s Visible Learning research and the evidence that the students in my classroom are presenting to me. I tried something new the other day. In the past, I would have described such an action as a leap of faith. Nowadays, I see it simply as a minor adjustment to fine tune an already successful teaching environment. I saw a need. I addressed it. I evaluated it. And as well it being a successful intervention, I learned something new. I had a eureka moment!!

Based on my increasing awareness and belief in the value of play, I have elevated its presence and role in the classroom significantly. That’s because play is a great strategy for accessing enormous shifts in learning outcomes. I describe what I mean by that here. But I also value play because it is intrinsically valuable. Play develops creativity. Creativity needs to be encouraged. Creativity is a sign of intelligence. Encouraging creativity encourages independent thinking and emotional resilience and engaged learners and …..

But experience tells me that not all children come to school ready and able to reveal their creativity. There are times when it needs to be coaxed out of them. I’m not sure why that is. Perhaps they have not had opportunities to develop the skills necessary to be creative. Maybe they have grown up on a diet of passive digital companionship, or have never had to share toys, or have never been told ‘no’, or come from a family environment in which play is not valued. Whatever the reason, my job is to introduce all the children to the power of play. To give them access to the ‘gold’ that lies within their brain. I support them to scratch below the surface, to dig deeper. To do that, I set the tone, the pace, the expectations of what play looks like, feels like and sounds like in our classroom. I use language and actions that create an environment that leads to an easy uptake/flow of ideas, confidence, curiosity and collaboration.

So it was with this awareness – that not all children were getting full value of the play opportunities that I was providing them with – that I made an adjustment. In effect, I conducted a play session that was very deliberate and visible. I also limited the amount of equipment that could be used to ensure the need to share and collaborate. And the equipment I offered was very generic. ie. blocks that could be fitted together in a multitude of ways and could invite a multitude of interpretations and personalised stories. I watched and encouraged. Particularly the children who were the prime target of my intervention.

I invite you to check out the video above to see the children at work. You can hear the chatter and see the outcome of this 30 minute play time. Unfortunately, you won’t hear the elaborate stories that the children told me about their construction at the end of the session. Believe me, they were excellent. Some were more elaborate than others, of course. But the major success was that those children, who only last week, were telling me that they didn’t like playing with blocks or were not very good at it, had shown a major shift in attitude and ability. I will continue to provide these opportunities and encourage them.

In the video you can also see the unexpected learning moment that occured. Let me explain it a little. During this play session that I had deliberately set up, two children came to me and asked if they could instead, do a maths game that they had learned the other day. This was music to my ears of course. I watched them play the game. I was curious. Previous interactions had revealed to me that these children were really curious about numbers. BTW: Did you notice my little provocation at the end – even though they are only 5-6 years old, and even though the 10 + 5 = ? problem had been solved by straight recall of an addition fact, I extended an invitation to ‘count on from the biggest number’? I reckon it will stick soon. And when it does, they will be ‘showing off’ this new found talent to their colleagues but also helping their colleagues to master this talent.

Learning is contagious. It spreads like a virus when the learning environment is conducive. And this is the nub of the issue that I am trying so desperately to convey. This opportunity also provided me with evidence that contradicts the common misconception amongst teachers that kids don’t like to learn. It proved to me that, on the contrary, kids love to learn. It indicates to me, once again, that it is how we teach that beats a love to learn out of students. I also think that this is an example of what Hattie describes as that pedagogical holy grail when students become teachers and teachers become learners.

Finally, I suggest that opportunities for children to be creative can be offered in the classroom right now. I am hoping that I am offering evidence of why it should be done as well as how it could be done. We love the message that Ken Robinson promotes – we agree with him when he says that schools are failing children. But then we fall at the first hurdle or fail to even arrive at the start line. Teachers continue to find excuses for why it can’t be done. It’s the assessment requirements…it’s that class sizes are too big….it’s the blah, blah, blah…

Actually, it’s teachers who are holding up progress. Once again, it confirms my suspicion that I think we are talking about a human problem, not an education problem.

Ease Education: Teaching at a human scale.

You can also find Ease Education on Facebook and Twitter.

Failure costs a lot: an argument for changing the way we teach.

Toys

A magnificent story was unfolding in front of my eyes.

Imagine you are the first person ever to have circumnavigated the globe and your return home is met with disbelief, rather than excitement and curiosity. “That’s not possible”, they say. “The world is flat”. Unfortunately, that’s a fairly apt description of how it can feel to be working at the leading edge of innovation and best practice in the education sector. That’s not to say that pockets of interest and curiosity don’t exist. But those conversations tend to be conducted in hushed voices.

Even though there seems to be a growing awareness of a need for change in the way the education system works, inevitably it is incredibly difficult to shift systems and mindsets. The naysayers and the unfamiliar remain unconvinced, and at times, hostile to any requests to explore the issue. I have learned that there is little to be gained by offering a solution prior to developing any consensus that a problem actually exists. But the reality is that neither the research nor the evidence lies. The argument for change is a very compelling one. But the first hurdle to clear may in fact be the need to establish a consensus that change does indeed need to happen.

It is my desire to be curious and innovative that sustains me. It’s why I have dedicated myself to this challenge. There are of course, times when this challenge has the feeling of a curse. The good news is that I realise that I am no longer unsure about the way forward. Once again, the research supports my actions and the evidence I witness everyday in the classroom is all the validation I need. The genie is out of the bottle, so to speak. That’s why I feel optimistic that, over the long-term, change will happen. But I am less optimistic in the short term. It can be frustrating.

I believe the most compelling reason for changing the way we teach is very simple. Failure costs a lot. Every disengaged student and every student who leaves school under-educated bears a personal cost as well as a cost to society. This has to be a reason to take the issue seriously. And what’s even more troubling about this is the fact that teachers are reminded regularly of the existence of this long tail of under-achievement and are implored to improve the learning outcomes for these students.

Success at eliminating this tail of under-achievement is attainable to us. But only if we are prepared to implement a research based/evidence based teaching model. And all the best research and evidence directs us to a model that is premised on putting human relationships at the front and centre. Being knowledgable is no substitute for being nice. That’s because we now know that the most effective learning takes place when the children are leading it. A teacher’s primary function is therefore, to provide a learning environment that enables this.

An effective learning environment is one in which a high degree of trust exists between the teacher and the students, as well as among the students themselves. An environment that fosters collaboration. The teacher does this by listening to the students with an open heart, walking in their shoes, and by offering unconditional support. I teach 5-6 year olds so I keep asking myself, “how would a 5 year old be thinking and feeling at the moment?” It means that students need to be met where they are at, not where the teacher is at, or where the teacher thinks they should be at. It’s a ‘judgement free’ zone. It’s a flexible and organic environment that caters to every child’s individual needs and circumstances. It means that, to a large extent, a student’s difficult home life can be parked at the entrance to the classroom door every morning. It means that the teacher can offer an engaging and stimulating learning environment that encourages children to think, share, create and make cognitive connections.

The teacher needs to do everything and anything necessary to keep all students engaged and learning. The teacher is required to be a problem solver and do what works for the children. Inevitably, this means creating a learning environment that caters to the students that are most challenged academically and socially. “Get the learning environment right for them and you will get it right for everyone” is the saying. That may seem paradoxical. Some parents may need convincing. But remember, the most effective learning environment is one in which the students are leading it. It’s an environment in which all students can achieve at their best – academically, socially, creatively. And nor is there any need to sacrifice creativity for academic learning. There is no place for siloed thinking in teaching. Too often I see the current teaching model acting like a glass ceiling; students are being hampered from achieving their best by the barriers that teachers inadvertently place in front of them.

The positive impact of putting the most challenging children at the forefront of teaching practice is that it provides the teacher with the most immediate and effective feedback and therefore the best learning opportunities. It provides excellent feedback to the questions of “how am I doing as a teacher?” and “how effective am I being as a teacher?” And as it turns out, creating a learning environment for the most challenging children is a very low risk strategy. That’s because the research also tells us that there is very little that a teacher can do to inhibit a child’s learning. The sad reality for teachers is that children learn despite us. That’s why teachers need to focus on what deliberate teaching strategies they can implement in order to get ALL their students working as close as possible to their developmentally appropriate stage. The other benefit of taking this approach is that it can operate as a pilot project. Successes and failures can be learned and managed on a small scale before being shared and implemented at a wider level.

Finally, for this education model to be successful, the same ingredients that make learning successful for students, need to be carried over into the teacher realm as well. This means that it’s essential that schools operate in a way that encourages genuine collaboration. Teachers need to feel safe and trusted. All teachers need to be invited to share their knowledge and understandings and be prepared to participate in critical reflection in light of evidence about their teaching. In the words of Hattie,

This requires teachers to gather defensible and dependable evidence from many sources, and hold collaborative discussions with colleagues and students about this evidence, thus making the effect of their teaching visible to themselves and to others.

I think it is safe to say that schools are still, by and large, ‘evidence free zones’. For too many, the world is still flat. And it is hard to convince otherwise. Where to from here, I wonder? Trying to establish a consensus for change may be the best approach. In the meanwhile I will continue to place high expectations on myself and all the students in my care. Especially the ones who are at risk of failing. I will also remain an impatient optimist and continue to be a practitioner of evidence based teaching. Care to join me? Anyone?

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.

EaseEdCover.SilverBullet

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

Monsters2

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ease Education: Teaching at a human scale.

You can also find Ease Education on Facebook and Twitter.

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

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Open Plan Classrooms – What’s the verdict?

Too right!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ease Education: Teaching at a human scale.

You can also find Ease Education on Facebook and Twitter.

For further reading on this topic, refer below…

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It’s possible to create a learning environment in which all students learn exponentially.

Can you read this?

“I don’t care that you have trouble spelling. But I do care that you are mindful, curious, thoughtful, empathetic and articulate.”

I am currently witnessing some amazing growth in the reading abilities of all the students in my classroom. And we are only a term and a half through the year. Normally, I don’t see this kind of growth until further into the year. Yes, I do say “amazing growth” and I do say “all”. Let me explain what’s happening. And before I do, let me also say that this is not the first time I have witnessed this. But it is the first time that I have set out to document it. The difference is that this year I have fully embraced the “Visible Learning” pedagogy. There is no more tentativeness. The training wheels are off completely. It is also worth noting that this amazing growth is not only evidenced in reading. I am seeing it replicated throughout all learning areas.

So what exactly am I seeing?

It is easy to track reading. There is a wide range of graded texts for the children to read. When a child shows competence at level 1 texts, they move on to slightly harder level 2 texts, and so on. It translates well into a box ticking and graph making exercise. The level of progress each child is making, relative to where they were at the start of the year, is easy for all to see. And from my vantage point, I can see that all children are improving, ‘more or less equally’. (Keep reading for a more detailed analysis of what I mean by ‘more or less equally’).

As well as seeing improved reading data, I am seeing major shifts amongst all the students in their attitude, effort, curiosity and confidence with reading. I see children reading a book with a friend when they could be playing with blocks instead. I see children offering to help a colleague to read a tricky part of a text and then advising me that their colleague had tried really hard and had done “their best”. I see a child examining a text closely and sounding out words and sounds; employing the reading knowledge and strategies that I have already shared with them. I see the child’s eyes light up with a strong sense of accomplishment. The same child, who up to a week before, was a reluctant reader and finding reading difficult.

So how exactly is this happening? (hint: student ‘agency’).

After many years at the chalk face I am now able to identify the deliberate acts that I am engaged in and the impact these actions are having on the students’ learning. The cause and effect relationship has become clear. (Unfortunately, this correlation is not naturally occurring within the education profession. That is, there is no automatic correlation between a teacher’s level of experience in the classroom and the level of a teacher’s expertise). Increasingly, more of my time these days is spent listening, observing and responding to the children. I take great interest in what they are doing. I show them that I care about what they are doing – emotionally and academically. I am nudging them gently in the direction that they need to go. I’m the expert. I know what they need to know in terms of knowledge and strategy. And most importantly, I connect with them at a human level.

I am focused on more than just passing on the knowledge and skills of reading. It’s about developing a learning culture that becomes self sustaining in the long term. It’s about demonstrating to the students that I genuinely care about them and their learning, and conveying high but realistic expectations. I know how to manage and organise the children effectively and more importantly, how to get the children to manage and organise themselves. I also know what motivates them. I know what they will work for. It’s about human psychology. That’s the foundation for all the great learning that is happening in the classroom. It is this human/cultural aspect of learning that I am most interested in these days. It is this aspect of learning (and in this case reading) that I spend so much time and effort cultivating.

In this kind of learning environment, the children are well versed in giving each other feedback. It’s a learning environment in which I have time and space to be able to give the children feedback, and advise them of what they need to do next. It’s instantaneous and it’s done verbally. The feedback could be about their reading skill, and/or, it could be about their attitude towards their reading/learning. Praise is always forthcoming. But only when it is deserved. We only celebrate excellence – in achievement and effort. That’s important. I am yet to meet a child who (at least eventually) does not respond positively to being challenged and encouraged to do better. Think back to the last time you completed a task that challenged you and required you to strive. That “I did it” feeling.

I also need to know what to expect of a child at their developmental age. The learning needs to be fun and engaging. The learning environment is prefaced on a growth mindset rather than a deficit mindset. Follow Maslow’s advice for strategies on how to get the best out of yourself as a teacher as well as your students. Or adopt my manifesto for creating a positive learning environment. The focus needs to be on finding the potential in the students rather than highlighting their limiting factors and deficiencies. Road blocks need to be removed. Stop finding excuses. Start being creative and curious. Become a problem solver instead. Some children will need more scaffolding and support than others. That’s because not all children enter your class at the beginning of the year from an equal starting point. Not all children come from the same social and economic background. Remember, we are looking at improving everyone’s outcomes equally.

‘More or less equally’?

As the year progresses two things start to happen. First of all, I find my role in the learning process changing. My input is required less and less. Or at least, I start to focus on providing support to those in greatest need. But overall, my role shifts to one that is more about guiding the students. I have been surprised this year with how quickly I have been able to make that happen. Secondly, I notice that student academic achievement starts to improve exponentially. The source of that growth is all due to that highly prized commodity called ‘student agency’. I assume that this what Hattie is trying to convey when he says,

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

Student agency is an essential ingredient of effective learning. And it is an ingredient that is easily overlooked and by and large, absent from your typical learning environment. I have my theories for why this is the case. I think it comes back to the idea that effective teaching and learning is inherently, a human endeavour. We are naturally inclined to look for tangibles; the focus is on the knowledge and skills of teaching reading, maths, everything. Everything but human relationships. That’s what I remember of my time training to be a teacher. And just because human relationships/connections are not easy to see or measure, it doesn’t mean that they don’t exist or shouldn’t be valued.

It is this type of learning environment that will have the greatest impact on lifting that long tail of underachievement in New Zealand schools. It is the magic bullet to avoiding children failing in our education system. It is also the antidote to those ideologues who promote charter schools or those who think more and better discipline/homework/computers/sport… is the solution. But not only does this approach to teaching and learning have a positive impact on those underachieving students, it does so with no harm to other students. All children benefit. So says Russell Bishop. I would go a step further and suggest that it is a learning environment that allows all students to flourish. It is an approach that works for all students equally.

Having said all this, my interest lies now in figuring out how to upscale this teaching pedagogy. The evidence I am witnessing and describing is compelling. Dare I say, a deficit mindset and a lack of curiosity is not only holding back the ability of students to grow exponentially.

Ease Education: Teaching at a human scale.

You can also find Ease Education on Facebook and Twitter.

This blog post relies heavily on the work of Professor Russell Bishop. Refer to the link below…

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