The Misunderstood Ingredient in Modern Learning Environments

In the era of Modern Learning Environments and all the various rhetoric around what constitutes 21st Century Learning Environments, one key point seems to be lacking in the conversation.  Money is heavily invested in making our learning environments look ‘modern’ (bright colours, lack of walls, access to alternative working spaces) and teachers are required to adapt to these environments and ‘move with the times’.

But for all the investment in these spaces, and the focus on responding to a new ‘type’ of learner, the key ingredient in any successful learning journey is under-funded, under-resourced, and under-supported to ensure this is money well spent.

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The teachers operating in these environments find themselves being thrown into the new spaces facing the inevitable steep learning curve that comes with a significant veering ‘off course’ of traditional teaching pedagogies.  Those funding the provision of these environments have a sort of ‘she’ll be right’ approach to supporting the teachers moving into these spaces, with many often expecting teachers to adapt quickly and respond promptly to the various challenges modern-learning provides.

Why is this? Why is there a fairly relaxed approach to ensuring teachers have the adequate knowledge and skills to teach in ways that enable modern learning environments to be responsive to 21st century learners? Perhaps because the pivotal role the teacher plays in this type of environment is so very misunderstood.   Teachers working in these environments, seeking to gain the outcomes modern learning approaches provide, are challenged beyond any previous trends in education to be highly creative, responsive and innovative with their learners.  The teacher’s role in an MLE requires a high degree of skill and expertise if the learning outcomes are to demonstrate the success sought by those implementing these approaches.

So what are these skills and why are they so significant for our learners? Creativity is required now of teachers in ways previously unknown in the classroom.  The creative teacher has always been a gem, a hidden sort of jewel among the profession.  In a MLE, these teachers can excel in creating exciting and passionate opportunities for learning by their students.  They can extend learning far beyond the monotony of the traditional classroom.  But creativity takes time to blossom.  It takes time to plan and grow.  And in an age of extreme workload, the creativity of teachers, is limited to moments between assessments, reporting, planning and inquiring.

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Creative teachers create creative classrooms.  Creative teachers create creative students.  21st Century learning advocates cite creativity and innovation as leading ‘soft skills’ for our future workforce.  School managers, educators and the wider education community acknowledge the importance creativity plays in a child’s learning journey.  And yet, little time is allocated for both teacher and student to foster creativity in the already jam-packed school timetable.  Teachers need to be able to move into the mind-space to become creative in their practice.  With any MLE, teachers need to move away from replicating the traditional classroom practices within a brightly coloured, open-spaced, jam-packed MLE, and be enabled to respond to this learning space with creativity, flair and innovation.  Teachers need time to move into this creative space.  Teachers need support to understand that teaching in this environment looks fundamentally different to the more traditional single-cell approaches many (if not most) have trained to work within.

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The result of teachers feeling supported to understand their role in an MLE?  The student outcomes sought by those promoting this modern learning approach.  Teachers will come to understand how crucial their role is and feel they have the time to create the sort of learning opportunities available to students within these environments.  They will move away from some of the practices inhibiting creativity in the classroom and model the kinds of thinking needed by the learners before them.  They will see themselves as part of the learning journey, rather than the expert in the room.  And the physical space will work to support all learners, rather than simply be another ‘pretty’ space with untapped potential.

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Creativity is a key skill of any effective teacher.  Within a modern learning environment, it plays a significant role in generating the soft-skills required of our modern learners.  And yet, creativity is difficult to generate with the myriad of workload requirements faced by teachers presently.  For modern-learning environments to be successful, it is the role of the teacher, not the physical space, that is the key ingredient to successful student outcomes.

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The Teaching Profession: Time to Pick Ourselves Up and Dust Ourselves Off

Before I decided to become a teacher, I tried my hand as a travel agent.  The idea of travel and exotic places as a career really excited me and I, at age 18, enthusiastically entered the vocation with ideas of glamour and adventure.

The reality, however, was a little more sobering.  Most of my time as an agent was about sending other people on exotic adventures, while I, remained behind the desk, on a telephone and computer ensuring nothing went wrong.  My working week was consistently mundane and predictable.  I was due in at 8am and clocked out at 5pm.  I had a series of jobs that needed doing in the morning and a series of wind-down jobs as we closed the shop at night.  I had a responsibility to report to my boss, provide information about my clients, ensure sales targets were met and make sure I wasn’t putting anyone in danger, or at the very least sending someone somewhere without the appropriate visa or legal documentation.

Life was predictable, consistent, non-creative, and boring.  The most exciting responsibility I had was to come up with a new window display to encourage people it was time, in the middle of winter, to book a holiday to the tropics.

So I decided to answer the call to teaching – a call I had been ignoring for a significant amount of time.  My rationale for becoming a teacher – life was never dull, never predictable and working with children allowed me to be creative and imaginative, and to have fun in my profession.  Being a teacher would not only challenge me but provide me with academic stimulation, as I was a learner in the journey of life just as much as those learning alongside with me.

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And this rationale was very much answered when I entered the teaching profession as a beginning teacher almost two decades ago.  Within the structure of a profession that asks for and should have accountability, I was able to be autonomous in my style of teaching.  My methods of delivery were not put under a microscope, but were celebrated, by carefully considering those children who would be placed in my classroom.  Children who would connect with me, and I with them.  It was not a judgment call, but a recognition of my ability as a teacher to speak to some children more successfully than others.  Other children were placed carefully with other like-minded teachers.  There was a trust that our unique teaching methods and styles would get the job done.

The autonomous nature of the teaching profession was a big selling point for me in choosing to become a teacher.  The professional trust communicated to me early on in my career allowed me to work extremely hard to be the best teacher I could be.  I wanted to do the job more than well, because I enjoyed it, because I was dedicated to my students, because I wanted my management team to continue to have faith in me, and because I relished the idea of being creative and adventurous with my kids.  I wanted my kids to enjoy the learning adventure just as much as I did.  I achieved this in a teaching culture that did not question my every decision or every bit of assessment data.  I achieved this by not feeling like someone or something was waiting for me to ‘mess up’, or slack off, or demonstrate that perhaps I wasn’t a ‘good enough’ teacher after all.

This teaching culture did not require me to teach reading at the same time as the rest of the school – just so that the school could say without a doubt reading was being taught.  This teaching culture trusted that I, the professionally trained (degree-holding) educator, also believed teaching reading was fundamental to my role (let alone crucially important) and that it would happen every day (as I was trained to do).

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This teaching culture did not require me to hand in my planning every week, or month, or term and microscopically examine it to identify where I may have missed a dotted i, or a crossed t, indicating I was an inept professional.  Instead, I was trusted to have my plan and only needed to show it if an issue arose where we needed to reflect on a way to tackle the issue in a different way – going back to the start and looking at a creative alternative to solving a problem instead.

This teaching culture did not look for the deficits in my assessment data, raising an eyebrow if I had some (or in some cases nearly all) students ‘below’ a standard or target….as if I may have been simply slacking off that week causing thus causing the slump in the data graph.  Instead, if I had a concern about the progress of a child (and yes, I was concerned as a teaching professional) I could confidently discuss these with others without fear of being judged in my teaching ability.

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As I weave my way around New Zealand, working now with teachers, I am sad that this teaching culture, for many, no longer exists.  This culture of professional trust and professional dignity is being eroded and replaced with one that has teachers……good teachers……looking over their shoulders and feeling devalued as trained professionals. Teachers now are being treated with distrust and contempt…..questioned by those without the knowledge or skills to be able to stand in front of a class of 30 children and get through the day while remaining sane.

The culture of standardisation, ‘outcomes’ and ‘accelerating achievement’ is sucking the very life out of a profession that draws its strength from those who can work in an environment of autonomy, creativity, flexibility, and at times mild-madness.  Many teachers I meet have been working ‘on the shop floor’ for well over 30 years, and who have sound and proven skill as practitioners.  They know how children learn best, and how to establish a learning culture in their room that provides the necessary conditions for children’s successful learning.  And yet they express a frustration that they have lost that autonomy to be the teacher they know to work – because of the requirement to be able to justify and explain every single decision they make. This culture of mistrust is extending its tendrils across the country and into our classrooms in an epidemic manner.

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Just as the standards approach sucks the very joy out of learning for our students, so too, does it suck the very joy out of teaching for our most successful and talented teachers.  It does this by communicating to these teachers they are not trusted, not valued and not respected as the qualified and experienced professionals they are.  We often ask our teachers, when they visit a doctors surgery and received a diagnosis – do they challenge the doctor? Do they question the doctor’s credentials, or perhaps suggest that they re-read the text book with which they consulted?  When a plumber responds to the call to fix a blocked pipe – do we suggest they need to use a more appropriate tool from their tool bag, or perhaps a different diameter pipe to better do the job? Do we ask to see their rate of success on previous blocked pipes?

Why, then, are we doing this to our teachers? Why do we allow the culture of teaching to be bullied by those without the professional knowledge, academic understanding or simple courage to stand in front of a class of children on a daily basis?  Perhaps its time, as a profession, we pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off and bravely challenge those challenging us.  For this is what we would tell our students in the face of a bully – stand up for yourselves and be confident in your skills, talents and abilities as the trained professional you are.

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Learning Misunderstood

What learning is and what it looks like.  The apparent endless debate between all those with a vested interest in any kind of education system around the world.  The search for the ideal approach to learning provision by governments intent on raising educational outcomes for their young and future workforce.  And yet, with education having existed for so very long now, why is the search continuing?  Surely we’ve had enough time to define learning and in turn know how to ensure it happens?

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As I continue to explore literature surrounding teaching practice and learning needs of students, one key factor is becoming abundantly clear.  Practitioners and policy makers cannot reach agreement on what ‘learning’ actually is, and what it looks like.  Simplistically put, it would appear there are two major camps of thought with a significant chasm between them.

In the first camp are those who view ‘learning’ as the serious business of the three ‘rs’ (and other such significant and important subject areas).  That children who are actually doing the business of learning are heads down, bums on seats and pencil firmly gripped as they plod away on the task set for them by the highly knowledgeable and expert teacher.  That learning is measured on the output of the student, and on the final product – usually in some manner of written format.  Reading levels, writing production, aptitude in solving equations all indicate a child’s progress in their learning and if a child cannot demonstrate these under test conditions, then they clearly have not consolidated the lessons they have been exposed to in their classroom setting.  Heaven forbid if a child is not kept busy with a focused task (again, usually written) and any time is wasted in opportunities for ‘learning’.  They will not seek out any learning independently and as such need to be corralled into lessons in order to fill them up with the knowledge those in this camp feel necessary for a successful working life ahead.

The second camp advocates for a more developmental approach to a child’s learning progression.  It argues that children are natural learners, and that, if left to their own devices (but not on their own completely) they will begin to inquire and adopt a curiosity to the world around them.  They will seek to understand phenomena, concepts, events and issues that will require them to learn tools and skills in order to find answers to their own questions.  They will learn to research, they will consider ways to communicate their learning or messages (this might actually include some writing) and they will endeavor to solve mathematical problems, when required, to address real-life problems they themselves have posed.  And through all of this, they will only consider themselves ‘playing’.  Their learning will be a haphazard approach sometimes, and at other times fiercely intensive and passionate.  It will be messy and loud, and other times quiet and calm.  It will be big and fast and active, and other times small, slow and passive.  Those in this camp of thought advocate for children to be supported to explore and engage with their interests and passions and to drive their own learning, often through play, drawing from the skills of adults around them that can help scaffold their knowledge and learning further.

“Their learning will be a haphazard approach sometimes and at other times fiercely intensive and passionate”

As both a teacher and a new Mum to homeschooling, I continue to be amazed at the insidious nature the first camp of thought has had on my expectations of learners……most recently my own children.  I firmly sit in the second camp – trusting that my children will have enough gumption to explore their passions, if I create the right conditions for them to do so.  I do not sit them down from 9am – 3pm with worksheets, text books and pens and paper and have them do their ‘schoolwork’.  Instead, we make learning relevant, active, purposeful and meaningful – at all hours of the day and night.  We cover a variety of topics and have no time frame as to when these begin and end.  I do not run a formal reading time or maths lesson.  We use the tools of reading, writing and mathematics to access information required to continue driving forward with the interests and passions the children have.  Accurate measurement, for example, is required when making anything involving food.  Inaccuracy in measurement results in very different baking as we have discovered.  Key skills such as how to compose a letter are important to get right when advocating the need for conservation measures for the Bobcat, for example.

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It is a hard ask to have those firmly ensconced in the first camp to consider that the traditional methods of teaching and learning are now facing considerable and significant research that contradicts their foundation.  Those that are beginning to move in their philosophy and pedagogy from this camp qualify this decision as recognising the learners of today learn differently to those of yesteryear.  And yet, put simply, it is that we in fact now have the knowledge, backed by significant evidence, to understand how children actually learn.  That they are not empty vessels ready for the filling – but unique and curious and inquiring minds eager to make connections with their world around them.

If we know how children learn, and have access to clear research around the effect play-based child-centred learning has on the motivation and engagement of our learners, then what makes it so hard to shake those from their well-established camp of traditional education delivery?  Government policy doesn’t help.  Reporting to arbitrary standards and comparing progress of students to teacher competency are such policies that do not allow teachers the opportunity to bravely pack up their gear and embark across the chasm to the opposing camp.  The fear of failure in either of these areas reflects directly on the personal capability of the teacher.

A lack of control as well as a lack of trust also limit teachers in taking chances to allow children to take control and trust their own abilities with their learning.  And let’s face it – if you’re a clean freak, the idea of mess and chaos within the four walls of the classroom with 30+ children is nothing sort of coronary-inducing.  It takes a significantly brave control-freak to let go of the brakes and start the process of becoming a facilitator to the learning needs of each individual student in their large and loud class.

“And let’s face it – if you’re a clean freak, the idea of mess and chaos within the four walls of the classroom with 30+ children is nothing sort of coronary-inducing.”

Children learn.  In all interaction and in all situations there is learning to be had.  With the right conditions and support, learning can be joyous and meaningful.  It can build foundations for further learning, or it can provide pathways to entirely new learning areas.  Educators need to decamp and work together to respond to the individual and valid needs of the learners they have in front of them.  Motivation and enjoyment need to be at the core of any classroom program.  Not outcomes, not levels or standards.  If a child is happy and can be given the opportunity to inquire and explore, learning will occur in its most natural and meaningful state.  Reading, writing and ‘rithmatic will be accessed as tools to further knowledge and understanding, skills will develop with meaning and purpose.  With appropriate scaffolding from adults around them, students have the potential to make significant progress – if it interests them and if they see meaning in their learning.  And throughout their entire experience they will be engaged in the very purpose of childhood – play.

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The Big Picture

Ten years ago I was in the midst of teaching a class of ‘behaviour’ students.  This was a special project working in a classroom of a school in the heart of South Auckland.  The need for this classroom arose out of my Deputy Principal’s desire to work with children who were finding themselves excluded from other neighbourhood schools.  The more students we accepted from schools no longer tolerant of their behaviour, the more students we attracted into the school.  Within six months, we had enough to form a small classroom of students focused in addressing the social and emotional needs of these students and in turn addressing their behaviour. In my work roles I hold now, I often tell the varying stories of the experiences I had in working with these students.  They taught me an enormous amount about myself as a person and as a teacher.  Having grown up in a very different environment to that of my students, I had to quickly come up to speed on their extensive needs.  I no longer was working with children whom developmentally matched their chronological age level. For the most part, these children, cognitively had the ability to achieve and succeed in school. But because of their home circumstances and what life had taught them about adults and their safety, socially and emotionally they were simply not ready for the rigours of the school system.

While this classroom set up – having at anyone time 10-11 students with severe aggressive and destructive behaviour in the one room – was unique, it was ideal in terms of meeting their developmental needs. We had a mandate to focus on addressing social and emotional competence, putting the academic curriculum to the background. Sure, I ‘taught’ curriculum lessons, these areas provided a foci for the day’s timetable. But what we ultimately did was provide a structure in the classroom that gave the children many opportunities to learn to manage their social interactions while learning compliance, resiliency, independence and emotional competence. We had many a rough day. There were more days than not when I questioned life as my children shared heartbreaking stories about life at home. I quickly developed an understanding that these kids had so much more going on in their lives that when I needed them to write a story they really struggled. In that struggle all their other (and quite frankly more important) struggles came to the fore and we usually ended with an upended classroom.

My job was to provide these kids with security from 9am – 3pm every day. I was to be consistent and predictable, as they had been taught adults in their life were not. I was to demonstrate love to them that was unwavering, no matter the names they called me, nor the attempts to physically hurt me. And above all, I was to know when today was a day to be flexible in my expectations of their work output. That they had other worries and for me to expect a piece of writing, or a completed maths activity was simply unrealistic and,quite frankly, disrespectful to their bigger problems.

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While this classroom structure was unique and challenging, I, as stated above, had the mandate to be that flexible in my approach to managing behaviour while delivering the curriculum. Today, in current classrooms, teachers do not have the luxury of this. Policy pressures, time constraints, school management pressures are significant and noticeably causing teacher stress and overload. Add to the mix the increased number of children demonstrating similar emotional and social needs to bulging classrooms, and teacher stress goes through the roof. Teachers appear to be caught in the cross fire between two paradigms – teaching to meet a standard which is set against a chronological measure of what is thought to constitute ‘success’ or teaching to a child’s individual developmental needs. In the many conversations I have with teachers, almost all are struggling with matching their expectations with developmental readiness and individual ability to learn. Couple our understanding of developmental theory with the latest in brain research, teachers are becoming increasingly disadvantaged in their practice as they attempt to meet the requirements of teaching to the standards. Disadvantaged in the sense that they are simply pushing the proverbial up hill. There are children sitting in classrooms, due to varying circumstances occurring outside of the school setting, who cognitively, socially and emotionally will always be ‘below’ the expected levels for their chronological level. These are children who have experienced a lack of attachment in their early years, or trauma. These are children who have had delayed language acquisition, or been late in reaching developmental milestones such as balancing, sitting or crawling. Children who are living in homes where there are adults arguing, or adults there sometimes and other times not. Children who spend long hours (and I’m talking really long) in daycare settings where they have limited one-to-one time with adults. Children who are not talked to enough. Children who are not read to enough. Children who are living in homes where Mum and Dad work long hours out of necessity and, due to guilt, buckle to every whimsical demand their child has as a result. The list could go on. In other words, the classroom is filled with children who have ‘bigger stuff’ going on than being there ready to work towards expectations that for the most part, are unrealistic for them to achieve.

While we, as teachers, appear to have little option now in reporting to the Standards, we can continue to make a lot of noise about the Big Picture. We can get those not working with these children to understand that we are responsible for shaping future adults, not just the 6 year olds we have for the one year in front of us. We need to remember human development is not a linear progression. We don’t skip happily through each year, building on our skill set from one level to the next. We respond in more ways than one to our environment, and children are no exception to this. We need to use all the tools we have to ensure these children feel safe and secure at school and do not feel the increasing pressure we feel as educators to push them to the next learning progression. And we need to be prepared to stand up and say why. When a child has spent the night sleeping in their wardrobe out of fear that their big brother will hurt them as he trashes the house, it is unrealistic to expect them to be focused and ready to learn at school. Their brain will simply not allow this, as it has more pressing matters…..like simply survival.

We need to keep addressing the Big Picture. We cannot fuel the thoughts that children will always meet our expectations when faced with environmental or developmental challenges. We need to keep making noise and advocating for these kids who, will otherwise, be always in the ‘tail’ our government so eagerly wants to address.

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