Friday, 14 July 2017

Creating a Classroom Culture for Learning: The Human Factor in Sanctions

First and foremost this is not a post arguing against school sanctions for student misbehaviour. I am a strong proponent of sanctions as an additional strategy to support its much more powerful cousins: student-teacher relationships and positive reinforcement.  What I am proposing is that such a strategy should perhaps come with a health warning, or terms and conditions to be considered prior to enforcing.

I have rarely met a student who has a problem with sanctions; I have met plenty of parents who struggle to come to terms with another human disciplining their child - but rarely a student who thinks that sanctions are a breach of their human rights.  What I have often come across is the emotional outcry brought on by a sense of injustice, or a feeling of being picked on, or the belief that teachers are incapable of understanding the incident through the eyes of the student.  As such, it is perhaps important that teachers view themselves in such situations as not just a judge, jury and executioner, but also an empathetic, caring significant other.

Issues often arise when students perceive a punishment to be unjust.  More often than not this a misperception.  Whatever the reasons for such a misperception, it can be damaging to the student-teacher relationship.  It is therefore important that a shared common understanding is sought to ensure trust is maintained between both parties. Listening to a student does not equate to agreeing with a student.  It shows respect, and also allows for the teacher to attempt to clarify the purpose for the sanction.  It may also allow the teacher to reconsider whether the sanction is just.  We are human after all!

Nine times out of ten, additional time spent seeking a shared common understanding is not required. With regards to the other 10%, teachers are often quickly made aware how unfair a sanction is; You will more often then not know when to seek further dialogue. *

Furthermore, subsequent misdemeanours (however small) involving the same student & teacher can sometimes lead to the student thinking he/she is being picked on.  A simple strategy to tackle this is to show the student the issue is in the past.  Look for opportunities in lesson to praise, but only if deserved; Alternatively, engage in small talk with the student during break or lunch duty, or wish them a lovely evening at the end of school. 

Finally, one study suggests that employing an empathetic mindset towards sanctions can positively impact on students subsequent behaviour in school.  Worth considering!

* There will be always be some students who place themselves in the position of victim.  No amount of dialogue is likely to change their perspective.  Stand by your decision.

Tuesday, 14 March 2017

Is the death of the teacher (in Norway) inevitable?

Is the death of the teacher (in Norway) inevitable?

Over the last few years I have come to the realisation that the Norwegian education system is potentially one of the last remaining bastions of safety for teachers.  Its system still places teacher autonomy and professionalism at its core.  In this post apocalyptic (or neoliberalism) educational world we live in, Norway’s education system is the educational equivalent of Helm’s Deep in Lord of the Rings, Zion in the Matrix, or even Narva in the year 1700 as the Swedes defended against the Russians with odds of 4-1.  Many of Norway’s neighbours have fallen to the allure of neoliberalism, even Norway’s eternal ally Storbritannia has succumbed to the rise of this ideology, with its education system on its knees. The impact of such an approach to education is best summed up by Evers and Kneyber in their book Flip the System:

“It is clear that the neoliberal shift in reform has led, in a more postmodern sense, to the death of the teacher (Biesta 2013): the death of the very idea that a teacher has something to contribute, the very idea that the teacher has a meaningful voice in regard to his work, to what he wants to achieve through his work, and by which means he achieves it.  Although it is a common and oft-cited belief that the quality of a system is determined by its teachers, that particular belief is of no benefit to teachers. In the neoliberal perspective, the teacher is viewed as a trained monkey, and it is simply a question finding the right stick to beat him with, or the right brand of peanuts, to make him do the desired dance in front of the audience.  The teacher is no longer viewed as a professional...So clearly the old days where teachers decide on matters of curriculum, and delivery without any kind of accountability, are over.  By and large, through neoliberal reform teachers’ professional identities have been monopolized in many countries by aspects of managerial professionalism.”

My worry is that in some quarters of the Norwegian education system there is an attitude of why fix it if it ain’t broken; such carelessness and complacency will ultimately lead to the downfall of a system that should be nurtured and improved.  Let’s assume that the system has its flaws and requires reviewing and improving, who should be responsible for this? Again, my worry is that rather than lead this improvement, some teachers will employ a protectionism mentality underlined by an air of stubbornness: “You can’t make us!” Such a mindset will (in my opinion) only undermine the professional standing of teachers, and deepen the resolve and determination of politicians and administrators to change to a top down profession rather than a bottom up profession leading to the demise of teacher autonomy.


Having autonomy means having a responsibility to take ownership of the profession so that teachers can call it so. Teachers need to challenge the rise of government involvement and administration expertise by continuing to upskill and develop teacher expertise.  This needs to be self motivated, purposeful, with a renewed mindset about what it means to be a professional.  Professionals in such professions as medicine, engineering, architecture and law seek to constantly improve their knowledge, and the application of such knowledge. If teachers are not viewed in such regard by politicians, and the public, then the future is bleak.  But if teachers do not hold this view of themselves then the future is inevitable; the death of the teacher.

For further information on neoliberalism and its impact on education I suggest you read Flip the System.  Furthermore, a  number of the contributors to the book are presenting at the researchEd Conference in Oslo on the 22nd April, further information can be found here.

Sunday, 5 February 2017

Creating a Classroom Culture for Learning: Empathy

"Daddy, can we go over the jumps so that you can see me jump and I can see you fall?"

The words of a six year old called Cai Fredrick on Christmas day to his father as they walked to the ski slopes. Cai's father had wanted to learn to snowboard since moving to Norway.  He was desperate not to fit the stereotype that Norwegians have about people who can't ski or snowboard: Han må være engelsk eller dansk. Translated: He must be either English or Danish. Cai's father wanted to become a master of the slopes, but first he had to start at the beginning - as a novice.  It had been a long time since Cai's father had been a complete novice at anything. So he began his journey as a learner.  It turned out that Cai's father learnt more than just the ability to snowboard but also what it felt like to be a novice again.  The constant wrestling of emotions: fear, anger, embarrassment, frustration, sadness, occasional joy, bruised pride, a deflated ego - not to mention a sore backside.  All the ingredients needed to help him maintain his empathy (as a teacher) with his students in his classes.  Why is such teacher empathy important to Cai's father? Because there is a strong possibility that it may help develop positive relationships with students, since students recognise that the teacher understands their struggles.  It is the teacher's ability to see the school experience through the eyes of the student, which according to Kohut (2001) triggers an authentic response, leading to a positive impact on learning.  Yet such an important connection may be in jeopardy from the curse of knowledge. The idea that the more expert a teacher becomes the less empathy they may be able to show towards their students.

Is it then a case of you can't have your cake and eat it? Let's hope not - teachers should strive to become experts in both subject knowledge and pedagogy, and endeavour to remain empathetic. Perhaps timely life reminders, where teachers experience the trials and tribulations of being a novice over a sustained period, might just be a suitable defence against such a curse.  My suggestion, if you haven't already learnt to ski or snowboard, is to give it a go.  The slopes are one humongous mixed ability classroom.

Diary of a Novice Snowboarder
December 7th 2016
Dear diary, it's only two weeks away and I have been excitingly telling friends and family about how much I am looking forward to my first skiing holiday.  I can't wait to feel the brisk wind sweep across my face as I weave my way down the slopes; a playground for adults. Yeeha!

December 22nd 2016
Dear diary, I woke up today full of excitement.  I was so confident and of course foolish when I kept asking myself how hard can it be? I looked good in all the gear and for a short time I even felt like a competent snowboarder despite my novice status. Helping the kids suit and boot took my mind of the impending playground of fun and thrills.  When we walked out of the apartment I was suddenly face to face with the mountain.  I have to say diary that I was momentarily giddy as I walked to its base. Adults and children were gracefully zig zagging their way down the slope.  As I arrived at the T bar queue my confidence began to wane.  I attempted to reassure myself by remembering my moves as a teenage skateboarder.  The line was long but it was soon my turn.  I was told how to grasp the T bar by the blonde Nordic attendant. I smiled and said to myself you can do it.  And I did do it .............. for exactly 3 meters before I was eating Scandinavian snow.  It was so embarrassing diary.  The attendant even ran to my aid with a sympathetic smile, whilst the kids in the queue were rolling their eyes and whispering.  The next time I managed 10 meters, after that I managed 15, and after that I only managed 3 again - what an idiot! I'm 41 for #####sake.  Step forward my brother-in-law; 6ft 3in muscular frame, fair hair, chiseled face, and beard.  Some say Norwegians are born with skis on their feet, in his case he snow jumped out of his mother womb on Telemark skis.  What's worse diary is he is a lovely guy, everyone's best friend, with man crushes a frequent occurrence. It was baby bambi on ice next to an adult Simba in his natural habitat.  I have to tell you diary - I felt pretty inadequate.  So with the class pin up and jock by my side I hung onto him for my dear life as he took hold of the T bar - It was reminiscent of the scene from the original Superman movie when Superman catches Lois Lane as she falls from a helicopter.

Coming down the hill was fraught with danger as I negotiated how to stand up on a snowboard from a sitting position, and how to deal with a bruised cox bone.  I only coped with a couple of hours of instruction, fear, frustration and pain before I had had enough.  It was not the day I had hoped for, and not one I readily want to experience again.  On the upside, my wife tells me that my 3 year old son Ketan can independently go up the T bar on skis and come down unaided. Great!

December 23rd 2016
Dear diary, I was a wreck this morning.  The image of people laughing at me as I attempt to snowboard was plastered across my mind.  My son Cai asked me this morning at breakfast why I was grumpy.  I told him my snowboard wasn't working properly.  What a pathetic excuse.  I did manage to take the T bar unaided to the top once. It must have been luck as I failed to replicate this success for the rest of the day. Luckily the God of Thunder (Thor), my Brother-in-Law, was on hand to help. Diary I feel like giving up.

Christmas Eve
Dear diary, I am still trying to come to terms with the Norwegian tradition of giving presents on Christmas Eve but Father Christmas was good to me. I mastered the T bar today and came down the mountain a few times without falling over.  Tomorrow I will accomplish mastery of the baby slope.

Kohut, H. (2001). On empathy. The search for the self, selected writings of Heinz Kohut 1978-1981. New York: International Universities Press.

Monday, 26 September 2016

IB: Why I won’t be attempting to teach grit - just yet! (EIP)

Grit has been lauded as the potential holy grail for academic success.  If you have grit it is argued you a more than likely to be successfully academically and professionally.  

Willingham defines being gritty as:

Such ideas send Senior Leadership Teams into overdrive in an attempt to give their students additionally weaponry to succeed academically; the term Grit suddenly appears on curriculum models. SLT brainstorming sessions occur to identify what is already in place to develop grit and what else could be done.  The school vision for the year adopts a grit theme to take its pride and place next to previous award winners: Accelerated Learning, No Child Left Behind, Moral Purpose.  Headteachers have a new catch phrase to give backbone to support the classic statement ‘rapid and sustained improvement will be achieved by…..’   And governors can sleep at night knowing their General has a plan.  All this despite no clear evidence to date that grit can be taught, learnt or developed.  And of course such leaps in faith send panic through the teaching ranks at the thought of another ‘great idea’ to be implemented with a potentially short life span until the next great education eureka moment.  

Whether Grit can be taught, learnt or developed, the International Baccalaureate’s curriculum model appears to be in an advantageous position due to its focus on promoting a change agent mindset in young people as opposed to grit mindset. The IB’s focus on Action as a compulsory element of the IB curriculum endeavours to help foster such a mindset. According to Asker International School:

“Action is a part of who we are. If we want to change the world we need to start with changing ourselves. If we want children to make a difference in the world we need to help them personalise the action they take, and understand that it is not just a mandate from their teachers and parents, but a life long mindset they develop. Taking action can happen at any age and may be inspired by a learning experience in the curriculum; from a homeroom project; from a student’s own initiative or from someone/an organisation outside of AIS.  It’s all about how we as parents, educators, and the community, support children and youth as they begin the learning journey towards becoming adults that are change agents!”

It is this type of mindset that has been linked to students who display Grit:

“In one study, researchers asked 1,364 high school seniors who planned to attend college why they wanted to do so. Most of the students were from low-income homes and would be the first in their families to attend college, populations in which college attrition has typically been high. In this group, grittier students were more likely to say they wanted to attend college for reasons that transcended personal success (e.g., they wanted to make an impact on the world or help others) and were less likely to offer reasons related to self-development (e.g., they wanted to develop their interests or learn about the world). These students also said that they found schoolwork more meaningful than did less gritty students. When the researchers followed up months later, they found that the students who had offered transcendent reasons for attending college were more likely to still be enrolled. The researchers explained that the fortitude to continue with difficult tasks can come from seeing them as contributing to a transcendent goal, something larger than oneself.”

So whilst educationalists worldwide continue to seek the holy grit.  This teacher will continue to promote an interest in Action

Thursday, 8 September 2016

IB: Approaches to Learning - Approach with Caution (EIP)

                                                                   (Everett Collection)

“Consistently high level of impact, with pupils making an average of eight months additional progress” Education Endowment Foundation

Meta-cognition and self regulation known in the IB as Approaches to Learning can make a significant impact on students learning according to evidence provided by the Education Endowment Foundation.  Such approaches are: usually more effective when taught in collaborative groups so learners can support each other and make their thinking explicit through discussion. The potential impact of these approaches is very high, but can be difficult to achieve as they require pupils to take greater responsibility for their learning and develop their understanding of what is required to succeed.”

Before all you progressive education supporters scream “hooray, Yes, I knew it!”  I suggest that we throw caution to the wind.  I gleamed two messages from the summary of the research.  Firstly, successfully engaging students in approaches to learning strategies leads to significant progress. And secondly, that to deploy such strategies effectively is difficult to achieve.  It is this second message that any teacher engaged in developing these strategies in their classroom should pay attention to. If the research suggests such strategies are difficult to achieve then one might infer that these strategies can occasionally, or sometimes, or even often be attempted unsuccessfully.  If so, what are the consequences of such unsuccessful practice? Is it a case of no harm in trying, and students continue on some form of progressive learning trajectory just not as steep? Or do they stall or even regress?  This research indicates that using such strategies are no precursor to significant progress.  It is rarely the what but the how, and as practitioners we need to be diligent and disciplined in how we develop our craft.  My blog on Marginal Gains and the Plateau Effect should hopefully give some indication as to the thought that goes into delivering just one small component of the Approaches to Learning framework (self and peer assessment) as prescribed by the IB.  

Idealism needs to be balanced with rationalism.  Our primary role is to master our craft so that we can deploy the right approaches at the right time to help children learn.  But this mastery should not be at the expense of students learning. We should be strategic in our own learning curve, and practise what we preach.  Using the IB's 5 ATLs: Communication; Social; Self Management; Research; and Thinking as a framework for our own practice, appears a good place to start.

Wednesday, 13 July 2016

IB: Take the Classroom Outside


The Norwegians have a saying 'ikke dårlig vær, bare dårlig klær' which translates to 'there is no such thing as bad weather only bad clothing'. The phrase is often used to put across the argument that bad weather is never an excuse not to do something. A phrase I would turn my nose up to whenever the Viking Queen (Norwegian mother-in-law) would recite this saying to me. Of course, her declaration was often in response to her witnessing my procrastination around the house when she thought I should be on a day trip with my children. My lame excuse: it’s too cold!  After all, five degrees (in London) is cold, or so I thought. However, my initiation into winter football training in Norway helped me recognise that this Norwegian phrase is (almost) fact. -17 degrees, 9pm in the evening, and twenty over 40 year old men playing football.

So not only was the fierce Viking Queen, who would come and plunder my home, right, but I have come to realise that her comment is part of a collective national voice. It is this shared mindset that helps Norwegians maintain a strong bond with their local environment, and the weather. Norwegians appear to get the best out of the four seasons, with a focus on the benefits of each season as opposed to the drawbacks. Summer is for utilising the fjords by daily/weekly dips, canoeing, boat trips and daily BBQs. Autumn and Spring are about weekend walks and the opportunity to appreciate the stunning countryside, like a scene from a Jane Austen novel.  Winter is snow fun time – skiing, snowboarding, sledding, igloo building, and supporting Norway's No 1 sport the biathlon.

Many Norwegians have a summer, and a winter cabin that they frequently visit, sometimes every weekend, located and built to provide a respite from the trappings of technology, and urban life. Norwegians use their natural environment to optimum effect which helps to ensure a legacy; that generation after generation will have a natural affinity to nature, and the benefits it brings. The Norwegian term for such an outdoor dynamic with nature is Friluftsliv. The term is used to describe a way of life that is often spent exploring and appreciating nature, and takes centre stage in almost all of Norway's barnahage (pre – school). Here children are taught to manage the risks of outdoor life rather than ignore it.  This focus on friluftsliv is promoted to some extent throughout a child’s education in Norway, but it would appear that such thinking is perhaps a Scandinavian thing:

Human contact with nature is decreasing in some parts of the world. For example, Tapsell et al. (2001) demonstrated that children’s access to natural environments in the United Kingdom has declined dramatically over the past few decades and that a range of physical and social factors were accelerating this withdrawal from natural environments. Kellert (2002, p.143) notes that major shifts in family traditions, recreational activity, social support networks, and community relations have eroded many children’s traditional opportunities for contact with nature." 1

Why should this be a worry to educators?  If you believe that schools exist to simply help students pass exams then it isn't. But if you believe that schools should support children towards becoming adults that are change agents then it is.  I suspect that it is mightily difficult to expect young people to truly care about mother nature, if they view it as something separate from their existence. This is not in the case for Norwegians, who embrace mother nature as part of their identity.  Such an outlook has changed my thinking about the part my teaching plays in relation to our natural environment.  I could originally see how such a topic fits into the PYP themes of: Where we are in place and time; How we express ourselves; and How the world works, but until recently I would never have thought about placing such an issue at the centre of the theme Who we are.  Likewise before my move to Norway I would never have placed my MYP unit Poetry and Mother Nature under the global context banner of identity and relationships, especially if we consider the other alternatives: orientation in time/space; personal and cultural expression; scientific and technical innovation; globalisation and sustainability; fairness and development.  Now, it seems crazy not to!

Therefore, as teachers (if possible) we should look for opportunities to use the local environment to support our lessons, especially when our earth requires more than ever for people to be sympathetic to her plight. Of course, just like my Sunday afternoon excuses, as teachers we have some plausible excuses that help us remain within the confines of the classroom. The bureaucratic process of arranging a walk to the park, forest or lake may appear more hassle than it's worth. So instead we may turn to technology to further help us justify the ignoring of a fantastic and important resource. Youtube and google cardboard (VR) are able to bring a visual experience to children's eyes that was not possible during my school days. But this technology should be a solution for potentially unrealistic ventures: the amazon rainforest, the coral reef, the solar system, not a substitute for the natural environment that is often on our doorstep.

Does friluftsliv make a difference to mother nature?
Consider the following information: Norway has the highest growth rate for electric cars in the world. With 1 in every 100 cars an electric car. Norway's entire electricity output is powered completely by hydro electricity. Norway is the 15th biggest producer of oil in the world.  How many of the other oil rich nations have a similar collective mindset?

Does friluftsliv make a difference to learning?
If my emotive stance so far hasn't convinced you to look for every opportunity to take you classroom outside then perhaps the notion that providing variability in the learning environment can enhance learning:

If you’re after sustained improvement then you want to introduce as much variability into your teaching as possible: change rooms, change seating, change displays, remove the comforting and familiar background to lessons; mix up topics.  These desirable topics will slow down performance but will lead to increased long term retention and transfer of knowledge between contexts.” (Didau 2015: 127) 2

Short story starters

As a hook

Scenario - Journalism
image (1).jpg

Poetry - The Road Not Taken: “Two roads diverged in a yellow wood.”

2. Didau, David (2015). What If Everything You Knew About Education Was Wrong? Crown House Publishing