Thursday 29 May 2014

Lighting the touchpaper

I was just thinking to myself that I hadn't posted for ages and came in to find I had in fact written this post way back in September but never published it.  So, here it is:

As I start my teacher training I've been doing a lot of reading around how children learn, what helps them develop and grow and what my role as a teacher in this whole process is going to be.

Needless to say I'm loving every minute and every word of it.

My first assignment, about the role of the teacher in developing the exploratory spirit of all learners, has inspired me to share my thoughts on the subject here:

A while ago I observed a lesson where there was a little boy, brand new to the class. He hadn’t been in the day before so hadn’t had the homework. There was no pre-teaching from the teacher to help him catch up. As soon as the lesson started he felt on the backfoot & it showed in his body language. As the class went on the boy realised he actually knew some of the answers, and it was a subject he loved to learn about. He became more and more animated and more and more excited, his body language literally opened up as he began to explore the subject with the others. In his excitement he had his hand up and was jumping up and down making little whimpering noises desperate to make his contribution to the class. The teacher walked past, looked down her nose at him and said “I can see you, there’s no need to make that silly noise”. And Boom. The shutters were down, the light went off, the body language closed. He didn’t move or speak for the rest of the class and he certainly didn’t explore any further.

We may well all be born with a drive to learn, but it’s all too easy for it to be squashed. Either by life itself, as we learn about things like shame and embarrassment, we learn to judge ourselves. Or, for others of us, like that little boy, by parents and teachers who just don’t really know any better, who aren’t armed with the knowledge or tools needed to help it flourish.

And so we end up, according to Carol Dweck, author of Mindset: The new psychology of Success, with two types of people: those with a growth mindset and those with a fixed mindset.

And to boil a whole body of work down, the two mindsets can pretty much be summed up with Henry Fords "whether you think you can, or whether you think you can't, you're probably right".

And if you think you can’t, what’s the point in trying or exploring any further.  If you think you can, that spirit keeps you going, keeps you progressing

And that’s what we’re looking for really. Progress. It’s what Ofsted are looking for anyway.

And as teachers, our role as defined in our Standards is to promote the intellectual curiosity that leads to that progress.

In fact curiosity and exploration are woven all throughout the Early Years Framework as well.

As teachers we’re aiming to keep, or move all our learners into a growth mindset and away from a fixed mindset by:

a) doing everything we can not only to keep those growing minds flourishing, but also by protecting them from anything at all that might lock them down


b) to work out the code for the padlocks and break off any chains already there… bearing in mind the code for each learner will be different.

Dweck does seem to simplify this bit somewhat.

But if you think about it, our minds and brains are the most complicated bit of kit we’ll ever have to use and none of us gets an instruction booklet on how to use it.  So in a way I see my role as a teacher a bit like helping each of my learners write their own mind user’s manual.

The more I think about all of this and read through the books on my PGCE reading list, the more it seems like one big minefield out there. Every which way we turn there’s a potential bomb shell. A potential trigger to shut a learner down.

Be it the language we use, the type of praise we give and to whom and when and for what.
The type of assessment we use, what we measure for and what we do with the results
What we as teachers value and what we model ourselves
The feedback we give
How we lay out our classroom
Our behaviour management strategies
How we work with parents and other partners
The type of questioning we use and we encourage our learners to use
How we plan and use the curriculum
The targets we set, the challenges we put out, the choices we allow our learners to make for themselves
And so the list goes on.

But used in the right way these bombshells become a powerful armoury…the minefield becomes a rich treasure chest.

An abundant toolkit fool of goodies to help our learners thrive.

And within my treasure chest, as I see it, are 3 compartments.

Me myself, How I teach and What I teach.

Which roughly correspond with the teacher roles of Modelling, Conveying, Orchestrating and Explaining as Guy Claxton lays out in Building Learning Power, and three of the themes from Development Matters in the EYFS, Positive Relationships, Enabling Enviroments and Unique Child.

There’s literally SO much to say within each of these boxes that I could go on for a week so I’m going to pick one or two key points for each.

Firstly, me.  I think my first duty to my learners it to adopt a growth mindset myself. After all, in the words of DuBois “children learn more from what you are than what you teach”.

Secondly. Even as I was writing this I realised that the main point about how I teach and what I teach, is that that’s not the point at all. Rather it’s about how and what my learners learn.  I mustn’t do all the thinking for them, I needn’t have all the answers, but instead use and encourage those higher level questions that encourage expansive and exploratory thinking beyond right and wrong…and create a safe risk taking environment for that to flourish, and then praise accordingly, avoiding at all costs that ‘gilded cage’ that Dweck talks about. How I use assessment is important but more important is that the learners can self and peer assess, know how they’re getting on and what to do about it.

And in terms of what I teach, well why not ask the learners what they want to learn? One teacher I’ve observed always starts a new project by jumping to the end of term quiz as a fun way for the class to explore their existing knowledge together and then come up with ways to fill the gaps and decide together what they want to learn next.  I  also think it’s important that we give all learners time to discover themselves, their own strengths, their own learning styles. That’s why free-flow play is so important in early years and why encouraging collaborative play is not always the right thing to do…solitary play is just as important in developing an exploratory spirit.

And then as well as modelling, there’s explicitly learning to learn and thinking skills. This could be through something as simple as having 6 coloured hats in each classroom to represent De Bono’s 6 thinking hats and inviting learners to try on different hats to find new perspectives and new ways of approaching the issue at hand…I’ve seen this done to great effect.

So, if I’m getting it right, it’s not about me at all. It’s about “us”.

What I need to do is light the touch paper and get out of the way!

A bit like a pyrotechnician if you like...light the fuse and watch the fireworks dazzle and shine. Get it wrong and it all blows up in your face. Or at the very least you dampen the fuse and put out the flame.

Yeats is quoted as saying "education is not the filling of a bucket but the lighting of a fire”, and before him Plutarch posed that  "the mind is not a vessel to be filled but a fire to be ignited".

But to light a fire, to open the treasure chest, we need a match. A key.

And as much as I love Carol Dweck's work and her Mindset book, I think she is missing something that Barbara Fredrickson captures with her work on the Broaden and Build Theory.

According to Fredrickson, it's positive emotions that open our minds right up like a water lily, so we can literally see the bigger picture, beyond the immediate horizons of our own situation.  Her research is grounded in positive psychology, essentially the science of optimum human flourishing and positive psychology tells us that people who experience more positive emotions are more optimistic and more creative. They exhibit more resourcefulness, more resilience, and more reciprocity and reflexive skills, otherwise known as the 4 key Rs of of Guy Claxton’s  learning powered brain.

And the reason this happens is because positive emotions send dopamine flooding round our brains, lighting up all our learning centres and putting us in an optimum state for learning. 

Without it, our brains are pretty much closed for learning.

So we can teach thinking and learning skills and encourage exploratory thinking but if our learners are too hot, too cold, tired, hungry, sad, scared or bored, their brains will be closed and it just not going to go in.

I think Claxton and Lucas go some way to addressing this with their ever evolving model of real world intelligence where they put 'presence of mind' right in the centre of everything else. Without it, everything else falls apart.

For me, this is why programs like the Tools of the Mind early childhood curriculum described by Paul Tough in How Children Succeed, the Penn and then the UK Resilience Programme, SEAL, Healthy Minds, ELSAs and other programs that teach ‘soft’ skills like  mindfulness, focus and self control etc are key here. In fact Tough argues these are far more important than the more cognitive skills in determining whether a child will exhibit a curious spirit and I'd be inclined to agree with him.

But I also propose a step further. I would set the whole model within a  frame of positivity.

So, as teachers, if nothing else, our role in ensuring the exploratory spirit of all learners is fully developed, is to fill our classrooms with positivity, to give our learners what psychologist Shawn Achor terms “the Happiness Advantage”.

And there are plenty of ways we can do that, but that’s a whole other post.

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