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3) The call to adventure – How can I be a better teacher?

Essentially this book is about the final stage of the call to adventure, that which in the form proposed by Christopher Vogler is called ‘Return with the Elixir: the hero returns with something to improve the ordinary world’  Although I am no hero each chapter of my book is about something you can do to improve your teaching and ensure that you remain a learner.

Question: How can I be a better teacher? For teachers, no two days are ever the same and no group or individual pupil is guaranteed to learn or behave in the same way from one day to the next. Teaching is a full-on job and often with only time to respond to the challenges and changes.

Answer: To be a better teacher I recognised that teachers need to have time and the opportunity to reflect and that they need to remain learners.  It is important to me that the book gives you the tools to manage your time effectively and to successfully meet the day to day challenges as well as encourage you to reflect.

In reflecting on what worked and why in learning and teaching I realised that after all the preparation, planning and resourcing it came down to pupil/teacher relationships. Establishing, building, and maintaining relationships is very important. There are many things that can damage a relationship in an instant but it takes time to repair or build an effective learning relationship.

Question: How do you build effective learning relationships and secondly what factors can support or undermine them? We are now getting to the heart of the question.

Answer:  In observing and discussing the relationships pupils build with teachers and their peers it became clear that pupils will invest in establishing a relationship to meet certain needs. The pupil may not make a conscious decision or even be able to articulate why they behave in a certain way towards some people or when in some groups. Pupils may not even recognise the drivers of their behaviour at all. It also became clear that some needs are powerful drivers of pupil behaviour, so powerful even that they will override such factors as social or school expectations, personal safety, parental influence, or any pressure from existing relationships. It was also clear that not all pupil behaviour is predictable and that there are dampening and enhancing factors that can promote or subdue the nature of the behaviour a pupil will exhibit in any given situation.

Chapter 1 explores the challenges you will face as a teacher and includes a series of reflection prompts. Chapter 2 is an in-depth look at the learning relationship between pupil and teacher using an innovative ‘Learning Relationship Responsibility Ratio Graph’. The important role of leadership in nurturing and protecting the relationship between pupil and teacher is recognised and is also analysed.

Question: How can we interpret pupil behaviour to understand pupil needs?

Answer: Seeing behaviour as a symptom of a need rather than as a challenge is the first step in developing our understanding of needs and the impact they have on learning and teaching.  What we want as teachers are engaged learners, pupils that are motivated to learn. Chapter 3 looks at what pupils need in order to engage in the process of learning.

Question: Who helped in my call to adventure?

Answer: It’s a long list! From my teaching mentor John, who’s 12 rules appear in chapter 11, to those I have taught and those I have taught with, the many who have challenged my teaching and opened my eyes. Some sources go back further than you may think too, some were suggested by the different online groups and education thought leaders we are familiar with through LinkedIn, Twitter, Facebook, TEDx etc.  

Next

The next instalment of ‘If you can’t reach them you can’t teach them’ will describe the chapters that cover four learning needs and how you can plan to meet and manage them.

Publisher link:

https://www.criticalpublishing.com/if-you-cant-reach-them-you-cant-teach-them

2) Developing the narrative

In the first instalment, I introduced you to ‘If you can’t reach them you can’t teach them’ I now want to explain to you the nature and format of the book.

Question: Where did ‘If you can’t reach them you can’t teach them’ come from?

Answer: From my own experience, insights, observations of pupils and teachers, reflections on what worked and what did not in learning and teaching and the research I carried out when I tried to work out the ‘why?’

‘To be a teacher you must be and remain a learner. If you stop being a learner then I believe you give up the right to be a teacher and the right to be a leader too for teachers are learning leaders.’

Question: Why a narrative?

Answer: Much of teaching is about telling stories, those that draw pupils in, develop their confidence, set them challenges and celebrate their success. Story telling is an art, you must assess your audience, know what interests them and you must listen and in a way that retains their interest.  A good storyteller will build a relationship with their audience that allows them and their audience to take risks, to have emotional highs and lows together, to wonder and to celebrate together.  Story telling is a way of getting complicated messages across to your audience in a memorable and effective way. There are skills involved in being a good storyteller in the same way as there are in being a good teacher.

I want to take you on a learning journey.

The idea of a narrative, of telling a story of how as a teacher you can improve your storytelling is also a story. My driver for writing is the honest aim of helping other teachers be the best they can be by sharing my own learning journey.  In wanting to share what I have learnt and to widen my sphere of influence I realised I needed a story, a good one, one that would bring to light the complex nature of learning and teaching and convey a message in the gentle and thought-provoking manner a good story does. The message I wanted to get across is that if you understand and respond to learning needs you can be a better teacher and remain a learner.

Talking about story telling

In one chapter of the book I use the analogy of the Hero’s journey, a narrative attributed to Joseph Campbell. In Campbell’s version the hero experiences a call to adventure, takes on challenges, experiences a transformation and returns enlightened to share what they have learnt.  I saw a lot of similarities between learning and teaching and the Hero’s journey so I adapted it into a learning journey.  Whilst I don’t consider myself a hero I have certainly faced a number of challenges in my teaching career and the knowledge and understanding I gained as a result feature in the book making it the true story of a learning journey.

Question: What is the format and how is it differnt to other texts?

Answer: Whilst in a recognisable chapter format a key element is the use of reflective exercises and encouragement the recording of your own learning journey.

A learning journal

One feature I was keen to include when writing the book was the concept of recording your own learning journey, best thought of in terms of a keeping a journal. I wanted my book to be your companion on your journey. This is important to me because if we reflect on our own experiences, challenges and strategies as well as observe others then we remain learners. We remain open to new ideas and new ways of doing things, not blindly but with an enquiring mind. A mindset that challenges as well as stimulates creativity.  Throughout the book you will find reflective tasks, tasks designed to make you think, and you will be encouraged to record and share your thoughts and ideas.

The call to adventure

Having set the scene for my writing in the next instalment of this story I will describe my call to adventure and those who have helped me to develop my narrative.  

Keeping up to date

The publication date for ‘If you can’t reach them you can’t teach them‘ is February 2021 (link below). You can follow the story of its conception by clicking the follow button located to the right of this column.

https://www.criticalpublishing.com/if-you-cant-reach-them-you-cant-teach-them

Resolutions for 2021: Mine’s about relationships – what’s yours?

This time of year, as one closes and another is on the horizon, we start to look forward as well as back. Part of this process is to reflect and also declare resolutions for the coming year.

Certainly 2020 has made its mark and there may not be a lot to look back on but it has not all been doom and gloom. There have been some spectacular events, achievements, happenings, and many challenges overcome. In the midst of this upheaval to our everyday lives has been learning and teaching. Schools have gone online or been open throughout the pandemic and their much broader  role of supporting children and their families has been highlighted in many ways. Teachers and schools have certainly faced significant challenges but in seeking solutions some interesting doors have opened and things in the classroom may never be the same again. 

Reflecting and the three R’s

I have a feeling though that one of the key components in learning and teaching will always be front and centre, be it online or face to face, and that is relationships. Building and maintaining learning relationships is for me what teaching is all about. The three R’s if you like – Relationships, Relationships, Relationships.

Resolutions and developing and sharing a learning narrative

My challenge this year has been the forming of a narrative that I can share and that described the importance of building effective learning relationships in learning and teaching. 2020 certainly afforded me the time to do it but it has been great to reflect and write,  even if I was unable to present at the wonderful Festival of Education again this year. 

My aim was to write something along the lines of a learning journal for teachers with the honest aim of helping those who want to become a better teacher. There is no arrogance in my aim, I certainly don’t hold all the answers, but I do understand how much of what teachers do depends on building effective learning relationships with their pupil or students.  I also recognise and understand how the four key elements that help form those relationships (power, belonging, choice and fun) work in the learning environment.

As the year ends I can tell you that the narrative I developed now has a title, several chapters and a publisher and will be available in February next year.  In this blog I will be looking back on the process and the challenges in putting the narrative together as well as sharing some of the things from the book.  In the new year you will also be able to find support materials from the book on my website (www.ace-d.co.uk)  So in 2021 look out for ‘If you can’t reach them you can’t teach them’ published by Critical Publishing and follow the blog where I will explain how this important text came about and my hopes for it in the world of education.

https://www.criticalpublishing.com/if-you-cant-reach-them-you-cant-teach-them

Does it matter which path?

Image acknolwedgement https://www.prweb.com

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.

  1. 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.
  2. 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.


[i] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Working_memory

[ii] https://www.psychologistworld.com/memory/cognitive-load-theory

School priorities and how to recognise them.

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!

Power!

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.

Recognising priorities

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.   

  1. Classroom behaviour
  2. Movement around the school
  3. School rules (equipment – uniform etc)
  4. Various policies (marking – homework etc)
  5. Raising standards

Subjugating ’cause’

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.

https://4c3d.wordpress.com/2019/07/01/closing-the-achievement-net-talk-notes-and-slides/

For David’s book you can find it here: https://www.amazon.co.uk/Future-proof-Your-School-improvement-developing/dp/1912508443

Closing the Achievement Net: Talk notes and slides

Downloadable file

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”

10th Festival of Education

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.

  1.  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.
  2. 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’.
  3. 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”.
  4. 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.

Kevin Hewitson

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