I was reminded recently about the impact my approach to teaching and learning has had in allowing all my students to achieve excellent learning outcomes on a consistent basis. This success all stems from my determination to ensure success for every child in my class. That is, 100%. But to get to this level of success I find myself having to forgo the familiar way of teaching, and instead, forge a pathway based on evidence and research.
The 100% target is quite an exacting standard to impose on a teacher but I have come to appreciate that it is only by having this target that best teaching practice will reveal itself. Solutions to seemingly intractable problems are available if one is willing to dig deeper and take on a long term problem solving approach. Unfortunately, this approach is neither common, nor encouraged. To do so requires blind determination, high levels of social and emotional competency and a willingness to explore the beliefs and biases that are a part of human nature. It’s hard. These human skills are not taught at teacher training school. And it’s easier to go with the flow, to not rock the boat. It’s easier to blame the students, or poor parenting skills, or social inequality. That is, blame anything and everything, other than ineffective teacher practice.
There would be very few classes I have taught since beginning teaching that have not included at least one child who is not “school ready”. The behaviour of this child (this is not a reference to a particular child, but a composite) is extremely disruptive and it displays behaviour that impedes the learning and (sometimes safety) of the other students. This type of child I categorise as the 1-5%. There are also students that I categorise as the 5-20%. The behaviour of students in this category may not be as severely disruptive or violent but they have a negative impact that is felt by the teacher and the other students. If left unchecked the behaviours displayed by these students will make the school year a less than pleasant one and will likely compromise the quality of learning that is able to take place in the classroom. And this is a failure that will end up costing us all. These are the students that help teachers make the decision to quit teaching.
The point I am trying to make here is that, the prevalent teaching model, even if it was effective, is only catering to 80% of the class. That is, every student’s learning is going to be compromised to some extent. I describe this as a model of surviving, rather than thriving. The day I decided to aspire to a thriving teaching model was the day my teaching practice changed forever. Targeting success for the 100% forced me to look for answers that were within my control; to keep questioning myself and asking those difficult ‘how and ‘why’ questions in order to get to a solution that dealt with the root cause. But once again, those questions are generally not welcome or well-received. Because to follow the best answers to their conclusion, can result in colliding with the status-quo.
I have discovered that the solution lies in focusing on social/ emotional learning first and foremost. The academic learning is not neglected but the social/emotional learning is given immediate priority. And the thing is, if you are a proponent of the power of student agency like I am, for that to happen, the teacher needs to be in control of the class to allow the students to be effective self-learners. Without that control, the teacher will have to rely on the “students learning despite me” model of teaching. To do so, the focus needs to be on the learning of all students. Built on a foundation of strong relationships, I ensure that behaviour and academic expectations for every child are high and consistent. Of course there is a need for variability. It’s progress in attainment that is the key metric being measured. Clear and consistent expectations are matched by my unwavering support and desire to see every student achieve success in self-managing. The students who are already self-managing rarely complain that they are given more self-directed learning time.
I am pleased to report that typically, by the end of the first term, the classroom culture becomes strong and cohesive and there exists a secure platform in which to launch into effective academic learning. This social and emotional learning that I describe will be maintained continuously. I continue to give the students opportunities to practice engaging in pro-social behaviours. Slowly but surely all the students take on more active roles as directors of their own learning. I keep tweaking and modifying the learning environment based on the interactions that I observe and the evidence that it reveals. It is the future of learning.
Ease Education: Teaching at a human scale.