In teaching and learning terms that is.
Asking somebody to do something or giving instructions to be followed is an everyday thing but when we teach there is another dimension, we are directing learning. If there are two paths to the same objective does it matter, through our teaching, which one we direct our students to use?
We know that there is often a sequence to learning, an order in which we learn things and on which we base future learning. I find that we can learn things out of sequence, but it severely hampers our understanding later when called on to apply our knowledge or undertake a problem-solving activity. We also know that it takes an effort to learn something and the major part of that ‘learning’ involves cognitive activity: we must think in order to learn!
How hard can learning be?
The effort of learning is proportional to what we already know, what we understand and what we can use to learn what we don’t yet know or understand. Make sense?
A teacher who can make each of these steps proportionally ‘easier’ for a learner is often regarded as a ‘good teacher’. Making things “easier” of course involves many things such as providing encouragement, a good learning relationship, an accurate assessment of what is already known and understood as well as choosing the appropriate learning path.
What part does memory play in learning?
Let’s get back to the thinking aspect and let me give you a simple example of how the right path can make something easier by considering what we need to hold in our memory as we carry out a task.
Finding something: the instructions.
- The item you are looking for is in the large inside pocket of the blue bag in the third room on the left of the corridor.
- On the left side of the corridor look for the third room. In that room look for the blue bag and inside the blue bag open the large inside pocket where you will find the item you are looking for.
I’ll start by asking you if there is any difference between instruction a) and b) since they both direct you to the object in the pocket of the bag.
You will notice the sequence of information is different. Sequence “a” starts at the end, at finding the object and “b” starts at the beginning, of looking for the object. Which do you think load your memory the most or are both the same? In order to remember or follow the sequence would you involve imagery at all, would you try to visualise the sequence and see in your minds eye (the pocket, the bag, the room and the corridor)? If you were given only sequence “a” do you think you may reverse it to make it easier to follow?
Thinking about how our brains work – working memory and cognitive load theory
I am of course hinting at two theories of how our brain works and how they may influence our learning. The first is “working memory” (different to short term memory as it involves some ability to process information and was coined by Miller, Galanter and Pribram and first used in the 1960’s[i]) simply put a type of memory that has limited capacity. It is from this memory that we may transfer information to our long term memory, the type of information, knowledge or understanding that is involved in learning. We may get told an address and recall it minutes later but the next day we will probably have totally forgotten it.
The second theory is “cognitive load theory” (credited to John Sewell of the University of New South Wales in 1988[ii]) and is directly proportional to how much effort we need to make to learn something irrespective of our ability. We can ‘load’ the learner with unnecessary demands by confusing them, making things overly complicated or by making the learning environment ‘hostile’ or ‘toxic’.
Addingto the challenge – the issue of time
Now let’s add a new dimension and see how it would impact our ability to find the object, that of having only a few seconds to find it after which a severe penalty will be imposed.
Consider our example again and instruction a) and b). For me path “b” offers the least effort in terms of working memory, I do not need to re arrange the sequence and can easily visualise the path to the object. No time will be lost in ‘reverse engineering’ the instructions and I believe I would be calmer or more confident of success even with a time penalty being applied.
As for cognitive load, well I think path “b” again would make things easier since there is a logical sequence in the order of direction helping me process information, but the time penalty certainly adds to the load. Once again though to me the complicated nature of instruction “a” would add to the cognitive load.
As teachers and given these two theories where are we in creating our teaching paths?
I would suggest that it is certainly worth exploring these
two theories prior to planning our lessons, building learning relationships and
creating learning environments especially when we consider the claims of each
in terms of learning.
An excellent piece that speaks of the value of the PBCF approach to building learning relationships. See my earlier post about my talk at the 10th Festival of Education and download the notes. https://4c3d.wordpress.com/2019/07/01/closing-the-achievement-net-talk-notes-and-slides/
New teachers — and experienced ones too — can find ideas here on how to stop disruptive behavior before it begins.
In the 1950s, psychologists Jacob Kounin and Paul Gump discovered a curious side effect of discipline: If a student was being disruptive and the teacher responded with strict disciplinary measures, the student might stop — but other students would start exhibiting the same misbehavior. Kounin and Gump called this the “ripple effect,” and it demonstrated that efforts to control a classroom can backfire.
“The teacher who is interested in controlling ripple effects can generally do so best by giving clear instructions to the child rather than by exerting pressure on him,” Kounin and Gump wrote.
Decades later, classroom management is still a thorny issue for teachers. Nearly half of new teachers report that they feel “not at all prepared” or “only somewhat prepared” to handle disruptive students, in part…
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I am currently reading David Hughes book “Future Proof your school” the section on pupil voice contained a comment that made me think, well most of the book has made me think!
Pupil voice is a key component of my work on learner engagement and building learning relationships which I represented in the acronym “PBCF” meaning Power Belonging Choice and Fun. Easy to remember – “Please be child friendly”! These four ‘needs’ form the drivers for engagement and so pupil voice is a critical component. Power is the representation of ‘voice’, being heard or your views and opinions genuinely recognised.
In his book David gives an account of one of his experiences in making the Schools Council a funded body. The school was suffering from the effects of vandalism which drew resources away from the school and affected the environment in a negative way. His solution was to offer the Schools Council a percentage of the saving the school would make if there was little or no vandalism. They could then spend this money on school projects, such as disco equipment. Attendance at the disco would be by ticket and tickets were linked to learning behaviours and learning progress, engage in learning and you were eligible for a ticket but if you did not then you would not be able to attend. He says:
“.. achievement co-ordinators monitored pupils’ progress with the tutors, issuing weekly reports in assemblies. This was much more positive use of their time and began to set a change in climate of the school: achievement was given a higher priority.”
It is the last part of that quote that made me think, “achievement was given a higher priority”. It made me ask the questions “Priority over what, and in what was achievement in competition with?”
Symptoms or cause?
I know that it is easy to focus on the symptom rather than the cause and these then becoming the priorities in schools. Symptoms of under achievement include lateness and absence, poor learning behaviours, a lack of respect to each other and these are symptoms we need to address by understanding the cause. I think that is what David did successfully and what began to alter the climate in the school, he understood the need for a real voice, for ‘power’ in a structured and tangible way that had a genuine ‘ear’ when it came to setting school priorities. Students became ‘empowered’ and understood the implications of their actions or indifference to what was directly affecting them.
So what are the priorities in your school and how would you characterise them? Do they focus on symptoms rather than cause? We know all schools will say achievement is a priority, perhaps their number one priority but how does this translate in terms of allocation of resources? I would claim that those things that have the biggest immediate negative impact tend to receive the greatest resources. In doing so the finite resources of a school are often focused on the symptoms and not addressing the underlying cause. I believe those students who do not have their four learning needs met will only reluctantly engage in learning and will present symptoms typical of those needs not being met which result in school ‘phoney’ priorities. Perhaps you can suggest a few.
Here are some of the ‘priorities’ I have experienced in the schools in which I have worked. Assessing the resources given to each (teacher time, money, facilities, equipment) we can get an idea of the true priority each is given.
- Classroom behaviour
- Movement around the school
- School rules (equipment – uniform etc)
- Various policies (marking – homework etc)
- Raising standards
One through to four only become a priority because learners are not actively engaged in learning and we hold number five as our single accountability performance indicator. I suggest we become fixated on one to four which only serve to subjugate the symptoms of the causes rather than recognising them. Ask yourself what you do if you don’t like the TV programme you are watching. What do you do if your partner wants to do something together and you don’t. Your actions are moderated by maturity, agency and a sense of responsibility. Perhaps our students don’t possess such moderating factors. If they don’t then it is our responsibility to recognise the four needs and ensure the school maintains these as their true priorities for doing so will result in raising standrads.
For more on PBCF you can download details of my presentation I gave at the 10th Festival of Education this year held at Wellington College.
For David’s book you can find it here: https://www.amazon.co.uk/Future-proof-Your-School-improvement-developing/dp/1912508443
A good analysis and reason for adopting a different educational model.
I consider myself blessed to have grown up in the 1960s when there was an underlying and fundamental belief that the world could be changed for the better. Between purposeful action and technology, problems could be addressed and solved. Perhaps it was wishful thinking on my part, but the recent celebrations of the Moon Landing seemed to epitomise the time and the attitude.
Fast forward fifty years and we seem to be mired in a sea of problems which demand our attention. The focus of media outlets on negative stories, the existential threats to our future posed by climate change and environmental destruction all paint a sorry picture of our future.
There is a cost on the lives of individuals who are asked to function with little hope of fulfilling their ambitions, or even rising above the daily grind. The classic story that education would give you the resource and…
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The school curriculum has many masters and whilst we think in subjects, few options. We need to rethink our approach and it starts with developing a new specification.
Where we are now.
Any present curriculum is a specification consisting of ‘subject areas’ and listing ‘content’ under those areas, content being the things learners should know and understand. The specification sets out a standard for education and provides a basis for measuring conformance. Demonstration of the success of the teaching of this curriculum is by assessment of the learner through formal examinations or tests producing grades or levels.
The problem with a specification
The very nature of a specification requires it to be exact but if what is written is ‘criteria specific’ then it can soon become obsolete. The reason for this is because as either the expectations change, or the standards required increase the specification becomes no longer appropriate. This is both a good and bad thing depending on how flexible the system is to adapt to changing specifications. If the system is inflexible, unable or unwilling to change then the specification can act as a limiting device preventing future developments keeping pace with change. In such circumstances it can also lead to those with a vested interest unwilling to change frequently resulting in a conflict between the existing specification and the new ‘reality’ or requirements of the system. We often observe such stakeholders battling to retain the existing system ‘as is’ and insisting on a set of ‘basics’ represented by the current specification as being essential.
A simple example of a limiting or hindering specification
- The new vehicle design MUST achieve 40 miles to the gallon.
Here we are limited to the figure of 40 mpg, there is no incentive to explore 80mpg. Further we are referencing a ‘gallon’ requiring a liquid fuel solution.
It is possible to write a specification that is less limiting and more liberating.
- The new vehicle design must represent the most efficient form of energy conversion currently available or planned in the near future (5 years), and also be able to be adapted or upgraded to future systems.
Please don’t pick holes in my two examples, they are just that! I am trying to make a point that is critical to education. That the knowledge we teach today and the understanding or skills we require to be demonstrated today may not be that which is necessary in the future. If we have a limiting specification then it is more than likely that we will be ‘out of date’ and caught up in that vested interest cycle (think EBacc, STEM, STEAM etc).
Where to start in writing a specification
It is easy to write a limiting specification, we list the traditional core subjects and rely on what we were taught in order to define the curriculum. We can insist on the ‘basics’ and on ‘traditional values’ and say we are going to raise standards, but I would argue we are creating a conflict between ‘what is’ and ‘what is needed’, we are being inflexible. Writing a specification that will produce a more ‘liberating’ curriculum will help us respond to future needs, to be more agile or flexible in our approach. We will still need ‘checks and balances’, a way of evaluating the effectiveness of the specification in achieving our desired outcome but this will not be one looks backward to determine its success but instead very much forward.
To put this argument into context I would recommend you read the “The Sabre Tooth Curriculum” by J Abner Peddiwell. There are many online accounts and a book is available too.
In the Sabre Tooth Curriculum it is survival needs that lead to identification of the tasks that need to be taught. There is both spiritual and political impediment to the development of a curriculum and to the teaching of these things. Success based on the initial criteria promotes the curriculum and the content but as the initial need and challenges change the curriculum does not. Sides are taken and arguments made. Those for continuing with the current system reference greater virtues than suggested by the now outdated skills in order to justify their continuance. Those that suggest change are admonished for their lack of education.
My advice in writing a curriculum specification
You start at the beginning and that is not with the specification at all. Alvin Toffler is accredited with saying ““The illiterate of the 21st century will not be those who cannot read and write, but those who cannot learn, unlearn, and relearn. ”
Learning as a problem-solving exercise
We need to look at education, specifically learning, as a problem-solving exercise. We need to decide what we want to achieve. Once we do then we have available a language and a set of tools that will help us design, specify, generate ideas (for there is always more than one),build, test and evaluate a dynamic system that will equip people with the abilities, knowledge, insights, understanding etc to teach themselves in whatever environment they find themselves in. We will have done what Alvin Toffler suggested the literate of the 21st century need from our education system and we will have cut the strings that presently bind us to the Sabre Tooth Curriculum mentality.
After my talk at the 2019 Festival of Education I have prepared a downloadable file covering the key aspects of the session. Like all my presentations I favour writing something specific after the event, you may wonder why!
Nothing ever goes to plan!
No matter how or what you prepare a good teacher knows you must respond to the audience and their needs, so it is with my presentations and talks. I find I may miss or understate some key points in the urgency to deliver in a time constraint. If only I had a half day, but then would that be long enough to squeeze in over 40 years experience in education? I very much doubt it.
After the event I have time to reflect and using my slides and notes I take the opportunity to put it all together along with any points raised during the talk. I hope you find the file useful and even if you did not attend #EducationFest this year the notes should allow you to understand my approach and message.
“See the behaviour as a symptom of a need and address the need.”
As far as needs go there are four of them that require addressing if we seek active learner engagement and learning behaviours. For more about the four needs you will have to download the file but here is the graphic I use to explain the simple message to remember the four needs –
“Please Be Child Friendly”
This was my 5th time at the festival but this year I spoke at the festival about the importance of learning relationships and our learning needs when we are in the learning zone. What I was reminded of, and what I have always believed is that ….
“Teachers need to remain learners“
And this is why….
I don’t mean the compliant type of learner who takes on new initiatives, learning ideas or theories and adds them to their teaching repertoire just because they are asked to. I mean the type of learners who challenges the ‘what’ and the ‘why’ as well as the ‘how’. The type of learner who sees learning as a problem-solving activity for to do so shows they are already looking for ways to improve learning. They are the type of teacher who is observant, reflective, see opportunities, is collegiate, supportive and open.
The second reason teachers need to remain learners is firstly the dynamic of learning and how this impacts our view of self, our confidence and our energy. To place yourself in learning situation, to move out of your comfort zone requires confidence but it is where the magic happens. It is where you discover something new about yourself and add to your view of the world and those in it. The second reason is you get to visit the emotions, experience the anxiety, and celebrate the successes and failures of learning. You get to be reminded what your students go through each and every day and this is a valuable reminder of the type of learning relationship you need to build with your students.
Compliance then in both teaching and learning could be regarded as a disability and not an advantage. Think about that as you as a teacher seek compliance from your students. Accept the challenges that come your way from learners and as a teacher learn to use these to your advantage. There is no such thing from a learner as a “red herring” questions for they are an insight into how they are thinking and an expression of a learning need.
Teachers are heroes!
This is my version of “The Hero’s Journey”, I have adapted it for teaching and learning, for learning is a journey often involving challenges and teachers are heroes. “The hero myth pattern studies were popularized by Joseph Campbell, who was influenced by Carl Jung’s view of myth. In his 1949 work The Hero with a Thousand Faces, Campbell described the basic narrative pattern” (1) and we can recognise these in such things as Disney adventures today. See if you can recognise it in your own teaching and learning.
This year, actually on Thursday the 20th of June, I will be speaking at the 10th Festival of Education. I have attended the festival in previous years and enjoyed listening to the broad range of speakers and exploring some very interesting topics. So what am I talking about?
The title of my talk is “Closing the Achievement Net”.
Not all that clear perhaps so here is a breakdown:
- The session will start by reflecting on the types of learners we find in our classrooms and how they respond to learning challenges.
- A discussion of the ‘teacher/learner relationship’ will help identify the key elements, after ‘safety’, for building effective learning relationships.
- We will also look at typical behaviours when these elements are lacking encouraging us to see them as symptoms of need and respond accordingly
- Each of the four elements, (Power, Belonging, Choice and Fun) will be discussed in practical teaching terms in order to identify opportunities to build and strengthen them in our lessons and around school.
In preparation for the talk I have run this past a number of people, and I have been surprised by some of the comments, so much so I thought I would highlight a few issues that I think need explaining and that I will need to address in my talk.
- What net? The ’net’ is a metaphor of course but what am I hoping to catch? Well I am hoping by ‘closing the achievement net’ we will ensure that we acknowledge all learners and that we create an environment that positively promotes learner engagement.
- Types of learners. I am not referring to terms like “learning styles” or “multiple intelligences” I will be using three very practical identifiable types taken from an analysis of school reporting and teacher comments over a number of years. In defining the learner types my focus is on ‘learner approach’ and ‘potential’.
- Language, it appears that not all words mean the same to all people and we need to be mindful of the context in which we have both heard and used them. The word “Fun” for example is the “F” part of PBCF which I claim is essential in the teaching and learning relationship. One teacher said I am not hear to entertain and tell jokes and I agree so what do I mean by “fun”? This is something I will be careful to explain along with other words I have used like “effective”.
- The possible mix up between symptoms and behaviours. I see behaviours as symptoms of a need or needs. If I buy a bottle of water this is a behaviour that is symptomatic of needing to quench my thirst.
If you are attending the Festival then I hope you are able to come along to my workshop on Thursday (14:15 in Maths 3) or say hello during the day, if not then I will be publishing the slides and notes from the day.
I want to add to the discussion about teacher wellbeing, to explore the signs and symptoms and then offer some practical advice from my own experience.
How are you doing, deep down?
How are you doing? I don’t mean the casual “How are you?” question that we answer politely with “Fine, and you?” I have written this article to flag up how easy it is to slide into routines and practices that are bad for us as teachers and what we can do about it.
To judge your wellbeing I have a question for you but you need to be brutally honest in your reply.
“How do you feel the night before starting the school week?”
It’s Sunday evening and you begin to mentally go through the week ahead. There are bound to be challenges and outstanding tasks as well as new deadlines to meet, that is ‘normal’ but how do you ‘feel’ about it, deep down. You need to be in touch with those feelings, either the excitement or the nervousness, as you mentally get ready to start teaching on Monday. If there is a feeling of dread, of apprehension or anxiety that too can be ‘normal’ but what we should concern ourselves about is the depths, the extremes of these feelings.
Other ways to assess your well being
There are other signs that things are not as they should be too. First we stop being learners and rely on routine and established behaviours, especially when faced with a challenge. We lose a certain capacity for change or taking on anything new. We find it hard to ‘switch off’ and to leave school behind. Relationships take the strain, and as teachers we rely on good learning relationships with our students, this is a significant symptom.
We develop a security blanket.
Taking things home to do is fine if it is an option and not a necessity. When you leave school you may find yourself carrying along ‘work’ to do at home. When these are loaded into the car and left there until the next day or over the weekend then you need to stop and assess how you are doing. Worse still if you take them into the house and they remain untouched you have a problem for then they represent a spectre of your worries and concerns.
What you have done is create a form of ‘security blanket’, a way of convincing yourself all is okay because you can ‘catch up’ at home and so you pack them up and carry them out with you. Don’t believe me? Try this, try leaving everything at school when you go home and see how it feels. I did and it was a revelation.
Take nothing home and see how it feels.
There I was standing in the carpark feeling as if something is not right. It was odd, I had nothing in my arms, nothing on the back seat and I felt ‘lost’. I had the same feeling all the way home and when I entered the house. My routine had been to say “Hi” and then do a little work before cooking and eating and then finishing things off. It is easy to get into this routine but is not good for us. A little work can become a lot and finishing things off can mean a very late night.
It is about setting boundaries and expectations.
I can remember Kenneth Baker in 1987, the then Secretary of State for Education, setting 1,265 hours as a reasonable expectation although there was the caveat about needing extra time for the marking, report writing, lesson preparation and teaching resources that were needed to “discharge effectively his professional duties” [i] I also remember a deputy head who would ask “Have you earnt your money today?” If the answer was “Yes” then the instruction was to “Get on home and relax”!
Here is my advice
Do as much as you can at school without staying too late. This often means working efficiently and with focus when not in the classroom.
Plan ahead and keep an eye on any event or deadline that requires you to participate.
If you must take things home then set a space aside for doing ‘school work’. Do not let invade your personal space (dining room table, kitchen worktop, or even worse, the bedroom).
Have a rule about taking school work home and stick to it. “Not on Friday” is a good one.
Don’t try to ‘multitask’, i.e. watch TV or socialise whilst working – you end up doing a poor job of both and you do not recharge your batteries.
The night before a school week asks yourself “How do I feel?” and set your mind to address any negative issues. This may, and probably will, involve engaging with others to share your feelings.
You may need to learn to say “NO”
Saying no is not a sign of weakness and neither should it be a last resort. Here is a link to an article all about saying “NO“
Think about finding a coach, like myself, that specialises in working with teachers. Sharing and being challenged is good for us and the impartial nature of the relationship with a coach can have significant benefits.
It’s not easy and it won’t happen overnight
Of course it’s not easy, but being aware of our ‘well being’ is often all it needs to find the focus to do something about it. If you are still struggling then make sure you talk to someone.
[i] The Education (School Teachers’ Pay and Conditions of Employment) Order 1987
I like it when a plan comes together, even if it’s not one of mine!
I came to Northampton to take up a post as head of faculty at Trinity school in 1990 when education in the town was split 3 ways, lower, middle and upper. What struck me moving from Lincolnshire was how close the schools were and how much co-operation there was across schools and phases. This was supported by an excellent teacher’s centre, an ICT support centre and LEA advisors. There were black clouds on the horizon though in the way of Ofsted inspections, league tables and the resulting competition and a changing National Curriculum as schools wrestled with the burden of demands it placed on time and resources. Enter the “dark ages”, who would have predicted academy chains, a University of Northampton or a teacher recruitment and retention crisis?
Jump forward nearly 20 years and the University of Northampton is now in the town, education is split 2 ways and there are such things as academies, MAT’s, the EBacc and once again the energy and passion and above all, ownership for education by those who teach in Northampton has emerged. Hurray and well done to those who has the vision and tenacity to make #EducatingNorthants that was both a) an event that was well supported and owned by the teachers and b) a success. I am so glad I was there to see it, it has been some time coming.
I no longer teach, instead I share my 40 years of experience of teaching and learning, leadership and management through my writing, coaching, workshops and consultation. So perhaps I may offer a slightly different perspective on the day to many who were there.
The venue, the UON is new and ‘modern’ in all senses of the educational world and proved to be up to the job of hosting 600 teachers providing entertainment, refreshments and excellent resources. I have to say it lacked a little ‘soul’ though, perhaps it will come in time.
The excellent programme kicked off with a welcome and a chance to hear from the organisers whose vision and determination had brought about the day. The tension and excitement was palatable, it was going to be an exceptional day. Talking to those who I met and became re acquainted with there was anticipation and expectation, something has to come from this day other than a temporary high. I was reassured that although I had not taught for nearly 8 years I still understood the core challenges and that little had really changed in day to day teaching except the landscape in which it played out. Let’s not underestimate the significant impact the landscape and the ‘political engineers’ who have formed it has had on teaching, but I found many examples of those who had begun to take ownership of it and who had ideas on how to master it. Creativity is important to me, I see teaching and learning as a problem-solving activity, and there was much creativity in evidence throughout the day.
I was able to continue my journey as a learner like many who attended this day and felt uplifted as a result. Change may not be here, but the winds are blowing, and they are rising from a breeze to hopefully a storm.
How will we measure the success of the day though and how will we continue the ‘conversation’ as some have put it? Perhaps we should take a spoonful of our own medicine each day and show creativity, a growth mindset, resilience and above all create the learning environment that embraces all those in our care first and satisfies some arbitrary target last.
I will conclude with what I have discovered to be the key to engagement in any activity, process or organisation and which I believe sits behind the success of #EducatingNorthants. The graphic below gives you an overview of the concept and it’s easy to remember just “Please be Child Friendly”, PBCF. You can of course take this as “Please be Colleague Friendly” too.
When people have a voice and representation and can communicate openly with each other it empowers them.
Believing in something that is shared with others and through common language or aims it gives us a sense of belonging.
By being given a choice we can express our needs and learn to understand responsibility and consequence.
Fun translates into energy and passion for the things we believe in, for the things we believe are attainable and of value to us.
PBCF was at the heart of the success at #educatingNorthants and if maintained will be what ultimately transforms teaching and learning in Northamptonshire.
Director at Advocating Creativity in Education
Published 8th April 2019
I have written this article as a way of looking at the teacher retention and recruitment issues we are currently facing in the profession. A key element is doing too much, high levels of stress and burnout.
Teaching involves passion, dedication, endless energy and a strong sense of accountability as well as ‘personal’ responsibility. The rewards are addictive and here in lies the problem, when do you say “No”? It’s not easy to say “No” and so you put up with a little less personal time in order to meet the needs of the children you teach. You do a little extra, buy the odd resource, stay a bit longer because the benefits of doing so outweigh the cost.
Learn to say NO*
There is a case to be made for saying “No”, loudly and with commitment and to suffering the immediate consequences but it comes at a cost too. Are we as teachers ‘masking’ the problem of being underfunded, under resources and over burdened by doing more? Are our efforts to make things work actually responsible for the high level of numbers of teachers leaving the profession, of many being too tired to have a life outside of school?
I know you cannot turn up to lessons with books unmarked, lessons not planned, refuse just one more students in your class and not enough resources to go around but what can we do about getting the work life balance sorted? Sorted in a way that means we have a chance to recharge the batteries, to socialise, to have a life outside school and for us to be learners once again too.
“Am I the best person to be doing this?”
Having worked with teachers who are tired, who have no work life balance and who are struggling to be effective in the classroom I have one question I always ask. It is a question you should always ask yourself before starting something, before taking on something extra, before saying “Yes” instead of “No”. That question is “Am I the best person to be doing this?” and you need to be brutally honest with yourself. It is no good saying “Who else would do it if I did not?”
“The Secret of Time Management”
Of course you need to ‘unpack’ the words “best person” and there is a contextual aspect to the words more than I can go into here. I have written an in depth look at the this question with the catchy title “The Secret of Time Management” and you can find it here. In the article, which is spread over several posts, I look at three elements, 1) the task 2) the person and 3) the resources at hand and work these into what I call the “Not Enough Time” or NET equation. I believe you will find it helpful if you can find the time to read it!
We end up saying “Goodbye” instead of “No”
We know the plus side of going the extra mile, of giving a little more but here is another side I want to draw your attention to too. Things are unlikely to get better if we keep perpetuating the current approach of giving more and more. In many ways teachers, by not saying “No”, are ‘masking’ the serious issues that are affecting our education system. It is difficult to get a true picture of the resources that are needed or the systems that are fundamentally flawed in education if we mask them. What we do see is people who do not say “No” eventually saying “Goodbye” to teaching. I would suggest that until we understand the NET equation and we accept saying “No” is a good thing the teaching profession will continue to risk recruitment and retention of those who want so much to teach. Teaching will become, if it has not already done so, a ‘toxic’ environment.
One final observation regarding time. When we are refreshed and focused we achieve more in a shorter amount of time, we are more effective. It’s worth thinking about this next time you are asked to do something! Perhaps you should reply “What do you want me to stop doing in order to do what you are now asking me to do?”
*How to say “No” nicely – A link to another article looking at ways to help address the workload issue in teaching.
Recently I met with Charlotte Davies to find out more about her work in person. I have followed Charlotte’s work for some time both out of interest and knowing that it has something to do with my own work but not sure how. My head is still buzzing! Charlotte’s profile on LinkedIn says “Education Consultant, Tomatis Consultant” she is also Director at “Fit-2-Learn” and she is co-author of “The Maze of Learning”[i], a book written to ensure “that your child has the best foundation for learning”. So why am I so excited about her work?
Like so many in education Charlotte has a great passion for learning, especially when it comes to the human developmental aspects that need to be in place before we can become ‘efficient’ learners. Her second passion, like so many dedicated teachers, is to make things right. Those that have followed or read my work on my concept of “Learning Intelligence” (LQ) and student engagement through “PBCF” will know I share both passions so it was natural that we should meet at some point. Let me share the outcome.
My work with LQ focuses on enabling the learner to understand and manage their learning environment. Doing so involves us meeting our “learning needs”, developing or possessing a set of skills, attributes attitudes and behaviours (SAAB) that are needed to efficiently do so. Having identified what is needed to manage your learning environment and understand the impact it has on us both physically and emotionally, it can be tiring and stressful, I have been exploring ways of developing our learning needs. This is where Charlotte and her work comes in. What if there is something that is preventing you developing your LQ and aspect of SAAB, something that is causing far more stress than it need be. What if you can’t put your finger on it, or worse still, if it has been given some broad label that often suggests there is something wrong with you or something that can’t be put right. Both dreadful scenarios and ones we have all come across as teachers. I hope you can see why I am interested in Charlotte’s work.
Charlotte has taken a ‘parental’ view of both these scenarios, I say this because there is nothing like the drive, the energy or the open mindedness like that of a parent wanting to find a solution to their child’s needs and challenges. A parent will move mountains to find a solution or an understanding and do it with un-exhaustible energy and commitment. You may now understand why my head is still buzzing!
Developing LQ in learners works, I know, it is my own learning story and it is the way I taught, it may have lacked a definition in those days but seeing learning as a problem solving activity is the way forward – without doubt. But, and here is the caveat, if the right pieces of the developmental jigsaw are in place. Sure we are not all perfect and we can find coping strategies to overcome limitations but ultimately this will either slow our learning or limit us in some way, possibly even causing elements of stress or anxiety. So if it can be ‘fixed’ why not fix it? Surely this is a better way forward.
Charlotte has identified these developmental aspects and in my meeting we discussed and explored how to identify them and check they have evolved correctly. You may say it’s ‘child development’ and teachers are taught about child development. True, but in my experience many teachers are subject specialist first and child development specialists third or even fourth. Teaching is a full on activity and with the additional pressures of administration etc. etc. you can understand why they have little time to spend on identifying and fixing developmental problems. I am not making excuses, it is just the way it is, my approach of LQ and enabling students to manage their own learning environment is a way of trying to help too, after all we all want ‘independent learners’.
It all starts with motor skills but there are other pieces of the developmental jigsaw that need to be in place. We have sound processing and visual processing to consider too. Each element is part of the developmental sequence that will enable us to become efficient learners. Trying to rush learning, to learn things such as skills or carry out certain types of learning such as reading before all the pieces of the jigsaw are in place is surely morally wrong. It can also lead to a degree of ‘damage’ to the learner and the learning process that stays with the learner for life. How many adults truly believe they cannot learn because they were put into a learning situation before they were ready, before they developed the necessary motor skills or sound processing necessary? Meeting with Charlotte was an eye opener in this respect and also underlined why LQ works. When I help learners re- visit something they believed they cannot learn it may well be either they have now developed that aspect that was not ready earlier or they have developed a coping strategy that will allow them to be successful.
We do not need to leave things to chance though, we do not have to leave learners to develop coping strategies, as Charlotte clearly showed me, we can do something about it. Yes I was ‘tested’ and asked to perform some strikingly simple actions to find out if, even as an adult, I had motor developmental or sound processing issues that needed to be addressed. This too was interesting, it’s never too late to fix things and some of the people Charlotte works with are not just the young, teenagers, they are middle aged or even older like me.
So my head is buzzing and my way forward with LQ a little clearer, although a little more complicated too. I have much to learn if I am to integrate this into LQ. I will also be working on my sound processing much to the delight of my family who have had to put up with my lack of rhythm or ability to hold a tune over the years.
I’ll leave you with a quote from the fit-2-learn website.
“We believe that everyone can move beyond coping strategies and use all their senses and motor skills in a coherent, efficient manner to learn and to live calmly.”
How important is that!
This fits in so well with the concept of LQ which consists of a set of skills, attributes, attitudes and behaviors and enables the learner to manage their own learning..
Seymour Papert was seeing it clearly two decades ago.
The pace of change in knowledge is so fast that it is meaningless to build a curriculum on a foundation of specific knowledge. Such knowledge will be largely redundant by the time learners put it into operation beyond school.
The future curriculum will be in part created by the learner, with fewer fixed points to scaffold it and more reliance on Attitudes, Behaviours and Competences.
This is part 3 of exploring and dealing with a toxic learning environment where we look at teacher retention. Part two is here
I have mentioned that I have found that there are four needs we all share when it comes to engaging in learning, well it is the same for any activity in which we wish to collectively share and this includes teaching. Part two introduced the need for a sense of belonging for learner engagement.
Teachers are learners so it should come as no surprise that a sense of belonging is as important to teacher engagement, and importantly retention, as it is to learner engagement.
I believe one of our greatest behaviour drivers comes from a sense of belonging.
As a teacher I have seen a student’s behaviour driven so powerfully by this need that they were willing to be excluded for something they did not do rather than break a bond with a peer group. As adults it’s no different, and if we feel a sense of belonging there is a great deal we will do or tolerate to remain part of something.
Creating and building a sense of belonging may just be the key difference between leadership and management.
Autonomous responsibility is a more effective way of achieving outcomes than directed responsibility but requires a strong commitment to the aims and ethos of the organisation – a strong sense of belonging, of sharing the same vision and wanting the same things. Being told to do something ‘or else’ is nowhere near as effective as encouraging somebody to do something for the ‘good of the group’. The ‘stick’ will only work so long as there is a stick and somebody wielding it whereas the promise of a collective need for ‘carrots’ will get people to till and work the land, plant, nurture and protect even when there is nobody to check or inspect.
I am trying to make these analogies to underline where I think schools are going wrong in trying to retain teachers. Yes, some who come into the profession are not suited and leave but there are some who leave before their skills are honed and their experiences give them the greatest rewards of being a teacher – of making a difference to people’s lives and life chances. They do this because they do not have a strong enough sense of belonging to overcome the early struggles.
How long do these struggles last?
I was told in secondary education it takes six years to ‘get your feet under the table’ as it were and I believe it to be true. Why six years? Well because you have to see your own ‘first-year’ group, the one that started the school at the same time as you, through school and then you need at least one year to recognise and build on the benefits of your experience. I would imagine there is a similar time frame and rational in primary education.
What sustains you in these early years is the building of comradeship, establishing relationships and forming that sense of belonging. It does not happen by chance, I believe it needs leadership that is broader in its aims and function than achieving targets.
What prompts mid-career teachers to leave the profession?
This brings me onto why teachers in mid-career or before a normal retiring point leave the profession. I know there is more than one reason for practised teachers to leave the profession but in my experience the process starts once a sense of belonging is lost. As I said earlier we will put up with a great deal if there is a strong sense of belonging but once this is diminished we begin to reconsider what it is we are doing and why we are doing it.
Creating that sense of belonging
I suggest that to create and sustain a strong sense of belonging in schools it needs leadership that understands the purpose of a ‘mission statement’* and uses it effectively to challenge everything they do in order to build a shared sense of belonging. Imagine how you would feel having collectively contributed to, and ‘bought into’ a mission statement and then seeing it ignored during key decision-making processes. In other words, doing something that the organisation to which you belong does not see as it’s purpose or that will further that purpose in order to follow some other path or directive rather than challenge it. You would begin to question why you are part of that organisation and your sense of belonging would be challenged. My view is that leadership should be aware of this and actively work to do only that which promotes its mission and where necessary deflect those that do not. We will support and follow those that stand up for what we believe in and withdraw our support for those who do not and in the process shatter our sense of belonging.
* A note about ‘mission’ statements. In my experience ‘mission’ and ‘vision’ statements are wrongfully used as one term, interchangeable, and meaning the same.
This is part 2 of exploring and dealing with a toxic learning environment where we look at what makes it difficult for learners to engage in the learning and what we, as teachers, can do about it. Part one is here
It is easier to run away than stay and fight but this depends on what tools you have to fight with. Let me give you an example:
If you want somewhere to hang up your coat and you have a screw and a hammer you may be tempted to hammer in the screw*. On the other hand, if you have a nail and a screwdriver you are less likely to try.
Learning and developing tools to deal with emotions and situations means you have to be involved in a constructive way, you have to be engaged in the process in order to practice and become skilled.
Deciding to engage in something that makes us uncomfortable means tipping the balance in favour of gain over pain. Beware though, we can feign engagement if our need to comply is strong enough. On the other hand, if our learning needs are met then we are more likely to truly engage.
Just what our learning needs though?
As a teacher it took me some time to work this out and thanks to a number of less than compliant learners who taught me a lot about teaching and more than a little research I believe I eventually identified four essential learning needs. If these four needs are met, most of them, most of the time, then we are more likely to stick around and attempt to engage in learning when the environment we are in feels toxic to us. Put simply, and using my earlier analogy of tools, we are more likely to go looking for a hammer to hammer in our nail or a screwdriver to drive in our screw and therefore successfully hang up our coat (a metaphor for staying too).
I am of the opinion that in a learning environment ‘toxic’ means ‘emotionally uncomfortable’ and one of my biggest concerns about teaching is that we do not spend enough time discussing this aspect of learning with learners. We find it very difficult to truly engage in the learning process when they are emotionally uncomfortable. Try it, think about a time you were anxious, frightened or distracted. Did you find it easy to listen, to take instructions to think straight or to recall what was said to you afterwards? Probably not.
Back to those four learning needs.
The first and probably most important need we have is a sense of belonging. There are two aspects to meeting this need and the first is getting to know your students.
Any teacher will tell you that you need to get to know your class. It’s not rocket science or brain surgery! Not just their names though, but something about them as individuals. I categorise this as something you could have a conversation about other than the lesson, something that interests them. If you learn to listen and acknowledge and respond to the odd “red herring” question you will soon find out what it is. Here are some things to get you started:
The second part of this need can be accomplished by giving them all membership of a group defined by you. Be careful here – positive attributes only. Talk about the group in the positive at all times, no matter how you feel at that moment. So if the subject is maths (sorry maths!) and it the last lesson of the week and they have just had PE remember to tell them how much you look forward to teaching them, how it always sets you up for the weekend when they achieve in this lesson. I have heard teachers say “Here come my stars” as the most challenging group arrives and they are always welcoming.
So there we have BELONGING from a teaching perspective. Of course, there is much more to discuss about this need and the challenges meeting it creates. Next, we will look at belonging from the perspective of teacher retention.
*I have known a hammer to be referred to as the ‘Birmingham screwdriver’ but I have no idea why!
I have written this article to address the debate around teachers leaving teaching and the stress levels of pupils presently being experienced and reported.
It is true that not all learners ‘like’ school and some do their best to avoid it. It is also true that we are seeing many teachers leave the profession, often down to a lack of job satisfaction or ‘burn out’.
We could say that any environment that causes us discomfort, stress or anxiety is ‘toxic’ but are there any factors that we can identify that makes the environment in schools, for learners and teachers, such that they want to get away from it? I believe we can and I believe it’s not that complicated to correct.
My first proposal is that if there is something missing from within our environment that we need to learn and to teach* that we will feel a level of discomfort. Whether we can tolerate that discomfort or not is dependent on a number of factors and includes the following:
- Agency, our strategies for dealing with not having our needs met
- The significance of the outcome or reward for ‘surviving’ the experience
- Support systems and the impact of their intervention both within and external to the environment in which we feel discomfort
- Relationships with people we consider significant or important to us within that environment
- Stamina, the length of exposure and our mental and physical well being
- Willingness to be compliant
Just like in a physical environment where, if we persist beyond our capacity to manage or endure, it is likely to cause us physical harm a ‘toxic’ teaching and learning environment will cause us harm too. In my experience this can also manifest itself as a physical injury but is more likely to be our mental health that is at risk. The danger with this is that mental health issues are harder to recognise and carry a greater stigma than those that are physical in nature. As a result we hide our discomfort and disguise it in some way. A dramatic but relevant example of this I believe is the reports of soldiers in the First World War who carried out self-inflicted injuries in order to avoid the combat environment that they were no longer able to cope with mentally.
In teaching and learning I have seen and experienced high levels of environment based stress and can categorise them according to the symptoms that are presented, these include but are not exclusive to:
- Lack of a capacity for change
- Reliance on habits and routines in order to cope
- Irritability, a lack of patience or objectivity
- Relationship breakdown and withdrawing
- Out of character behaviours
- Minor illnesses such as aches and pains, headaches and a lack of sleep.
My experiences and research has led me to believe there are four needs specific to teaching and learning that, if absent or not fulfilled in some way, lead to a toxic environment and the conditions I have listed. Ultimately and where possible people will look for and find a way to cope or ultimately a way out of that environment and in extreme cases, where agency is limited, this can mean the most drastic of actions relative to the individual. A younger student may throw a tantrum and be expelled from the lesson or not even turn up to school. A teenager or adult may withdraw or even attempt suicide if they can see no other ‘way out’.
*I suggest all teachers are learners too so there are a common set of needs for both groups.
Next I will look at what can we do and what I believe is at the heart of the problem?
Why I miss teaching and the reasons many leave the profession is that their needs are not being met.
“It’s better than sliced bread” was my reply in September 1977 when my dad asked me about my first teaching job. I was at the ‘chalk face’ for almost 33 years, that was eight years ago, and a lot has changed about the ‘job’ of teaching but not the fundamental aspects of teaching.
I have considered making a list of the things that I miss and I may still do that but really it all comes down to relationships and needs. Two things most people will say they get from their job along with a sense of satisfaction, of doing something well or worthwhile.
There is something special about relationships in teaching that is different, let me try to explain.
I know that in many careers that are ‘front facing’, in contact with the customer or public, there is a relationship that needs to be built if you are to be successful and teaching is no different in that regard. What is different is the nature of that relationship and it is unique. I call it a ‘learning relationship’, one where over time you built trust in you as the teacher, you build confidence and self-esteem within your students, you set them challenges and support their efforts, you offer encouragement and praise, you guide their learning and you celebrate success together. Coaching or mentoring may offer the same relationship but not on the same scale or with the same degree of challenge.
Meeting a teacher’s needs
It is this teacher/learner relationship that is better than sliced bread and that I miss the most for it satisfied some of my needs too. So what of my needs and why does teaching satisfy these needs?
The job of a teacher is strange in that collectively we may plan, resource and review but as for the ‘doing’ bit we do this alone more often than not. It is a case of you, the professional teacher, and the pupils in your care in a room together, often with the door shut for single or multiple lessons or even whole school days at a time. Once with those pupils it is a ‘full-on’ job, hundreds of instinctive decisions to make, constant observations and assessments to make, strategies to weigh up and those learning relationships to build. When it goes well you bounce out of that session full of energy and when it does not you reflect in a more sombre mood wanting to know why. Either way you share what happened with your colleagues, telling them of your achievement or listening for advice that will guide you. It is within this ‘interpreted dance’ that I find my needs met.
My needs are best described as a set of characteristics and I am sure these are shared with many teachers.
- I am a learner, hard to be a teacher and not be,
- I am creative and love a challenge,
- I like responsibility and autonomy, and
- I thrive on the energy that comes of working with others.
Having your personal needs met is what draws you to a role, to a career, and so it is with me.
You may be wondering why I am no longer at the ‘chalk face’, why I did not continue with my career as a teacher since I loved it so much and continue to miss it. Well I am still a teacher, it’s hard not to be, but not in a school or employed as one.
There are many things that have changed about the role of a teacher since 1977 and for me those changes increasingly limited my opportunity to build learning relationships, limited my creativity and autonomy as well as drawing on my energy in a way that had a profound effect on my health.
You are not fulfilled if your needs are not being met.
What we need to ensure that we recruit and retain teachers is simple – we need to ensure that they are fulfilled. Anything that limits or hinders this should be removed from the ‘job’ of teaching.
Recruitment and retention is simple
In my opinion, if we are to recruit and retain teachers we need to address the environment that is ‘need’ limiting. Teachers leave the profession for a number of reasons but they are also willing to put up with a lot if they are able to build effective learning relationships and have their needs met. The debate is not about workload, pay or hours, it is about being able to build learning relationships and meeting needs on a deeply personal level.
It may appear simple to say that there has to be a beginning, middle and end but is important that we do not miss any of these stages and they must be in balance.
I have known lessons where the beginning went on too long, or where there is not enough time for the students to engage or immerse themselves in the learning or there was not enough time at the end of the lesson to conclude it in a meaningful way. Get it right and lessons are meaningful, full of learning and there is a great teacher/learner relationship. Get it wrong and lessons are often characterised by boredom or conflict and challenge.
The risk of poor lesson planning
I have experienced lesson planning pro-forma that seek to address these issues but become so prescriptive that they do not allow for the natural dynamics of a lesson and risk creating the same outcome they are trying to avoid.
There is a simple but effective way to ensure lesson planning creates the type of lesson we would ideally like in our teaching and that is to plan a lesson as a learner and not as a teacher.
Think about how, as a learner, you would like the lesson structured and the pace or balance of the lesson. As a learner, you would like time to become familiar with the learning challenge, time to explore or practice and to establish your understanding and then to have an opportunity to consolidate the learning or perhaps ask questions to further your understanding. These stages should characterise the beginning, middle and end of a lesson. The ‘mindful’ teacher addresses these needs in their planning and delivery.
Power Belonging Choice and Fun in lesson planning
Planning lessons around subject material is only one aspect of the planning, we need to consider the learner needs too. I define these needs as power, belonging, choice and fun and suggest we ignore them at our peril. Within a calm learning environment, a teacher needs to lead, to guide their students not to push them or over-regulate their behaviour and we can do this if we meet their learning needs. In doing so we can create effective learning relationships and improve learning outcomes.
The beginning, middle and end
Meeting learning needs (power, belonging, choice and fun) is important at the start, during and at the end of all lessons. Addressing them in our planning will help us create the engagement we are looking for as well as creating effective relationships. A relationship that allows for that dynamic of being able to respond to the unexpected teaching and learning challenges in a meaningful way without disrupting the lesson flow. We may on such occasions leave the subject content planning path but by doing so we will better support our learners because we are meeting their needs.
The start of a lesson should include how we are going to meet the need for belonging. Perhaps the greeting and arrival are ideal opportunities to do so. Offering guided choice and listening to the ‘student voice’ can be included too during the lesson. Linking fun to achievement is our greatest challenge and we must include opportunities to celebrate learning at the end.
“Please be child friendly”
My way of remembering learning needs is simple and apt. “Please Be Child Friendly” when planning and teaching. The graphic is also something you can print off and keep at hand.
A different way of looking at teaching and learning
PBCF is part of an approach to teaching I refer to as “Learning Intelligence”, or “LQ” for short, and looks at how the learner and teacher can manage the learning environment to promote better learning and improve learning relationships. If you are interested in LQ or just PBCF then get in touch I am more than happy to talk you through how, with only small changes, the approach can make a significant impact on teaching and learning.
Why dedicate yourself to introducing and promoting a way of thinking about, and going about, teaching and learning?
I was asked this question and have been asking myself the same thing as I struggle to make a significant impact on teaching and learning through the promotion and adoption of my concept of “learning Intelligence”. After a career teaching and seven years of reflection, research and developing a vocabulary and narrative for what works in teaching and learning I need to answer this question in order to continue to justify my efforts and to remain motivated. Motivation often comes from recognising the goal or benefits; here is my attempt at that challenge, of having a reason to continue.
- The “one way” of learning does not work for everyone. Putting aside SEND challenges not all learners thrive in the school environment.
- There are a lot of people who go through education and form the wrong impression about their abilities and about their ability to learn. As a result, there is a significant amount of talent that may never be discovered.
- Learners who are unable to engage in the learning present challenges for teachers and often dealing with these challenges impact the learning of others and the classroom dynamics, or teacher/learner relationships.
- The school has a lifelong impact on us and influences our careers and opportunities. To “fail” at school leaves a deep and lasting scar.
- There is a need for a narrative that brings together what we know or think about learning in a meaningful and coherent way and gives us the flexibility to challenge the “one way”.
- The benefits of the LQ approach are significant and build self-esteem in learners.
- There are a significant number of teachers who could benefit from adopting the LQ approach to teaching and learning.
- LQ promotes seeing learning as a problem-solving activity and develops life-long learners able to face new learning challenges with minimal support.
- I want to make a positive difference to teaching and learning.
Through the Teach Meets at which I have presented and my workshops with teachers it is clear not all teachers see the issue of underachievement as a significant one to address. Perhaps many are happy to believe the mantel learners wear based on past performances and work within it. I would argue that to do so we accept labels as definitive and unchangeable. Underachievement is not solely based within the group those who fail to “perform” it is also within the group who adopt compliance as a strategy to cope with the learning environment in which they find themselves. This group I find often do not possess the skills, attitudes, attributes or behaviours to manage their environment to meet their needs. They respond poorly to target setting without these needs being addressed, needs that are often overlooked as we race to achieve those targets.
Finally, I am reminded of a sobering truth.
It is no good having an answer if nobody is asking the question!
Let me know what you think. Should I continue to promote the concept of LQ and learners needs and if so how?
If you would like to get in touch to find out more about my work or perhaps engage me to challenge you and your staff about teaching and learning then click the link below.
The two aspects of Learning Intelligence, “LQ”