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Saturday, 10 December 2016

Learning through mistakes

Can we learn without making mistakes?

James Nottingham's Learning Pit, advocates that without failure you can't learn.

During my own education, failure was not something celebrated.  I remember with clarity being stood up in front of a class of peers and asked to spell my last name, in which everyone else could do but I couldn't.  I remember the feeling of failure.  I also remember subconsciously defining learning as copying, trying to be the same,  so that I remained in the safe zone.

I think maybe that is why as an adult, I try really hard not to fail.  However, over the last two years I have been inspired by my students that failure in learning is necessary and failure by its very nature can, if it is treated wisely give ownership to learning in a powerful way.

In a classroom the learning environment should be one where failure is acknowledged.  In fact, failure should be celebrated.  I watched as my students (5 to 8 year olds) learnt to not only recognise their failures but to celebrate them and ultimately, do something about them by using them to learn.  I think that the ability to be a truely self managing learner is not possible without acknowledging failure in a positive way.  Traditionally education not only controled what students learnt, but it  controled their failures and in doing took away powerful learning opportunities.

As a part of a learning community, as the teacher, my job is to create an atmosphere where failure is allowed and the process through it supported.  That means things can get messy.  I am not just talking about academic mistakes, but emotional and social ones.

During this term, I have experienced one of each type of mistakes and thought I would share.

1.  Academic - I finished my Masters (yeah!) but I got the feedback (not so great) and it reinforced what a terrible speller and grammener (okay that is not a word, but you know what I mean, fullstops, apostrophes and the like).  When I read the feedback, of "you have done enough to pass", I felt failure. This learning became a sinking feeling.  The thing is though, this failure framed in a traditional learning context would leave me powerless, unable to succeed.  Actually, this is not true, I can do something about this.  I can go  and learn how to improve.  The internet provides many opportunities to learn how to write.   In failure, we have to get over ourselves quickly and make adjustments.   One of the adjustments, is to remember to focus on what I did learn, in this case, I learnt some key things which are not dependent on spelling and grammar but are significant to my ongoing work as an educator.

2.  Social - It was my job to get the keynote speaker to the conference in time for 9am. Here I was with one of my educational hero's!  I was in a strange city and without Mrs google.  Anyway, I took a wrong turn and went to re-adjust only to discover it was in a one way street and I was now driving in the wrong direction.  At that very moment a traffic officer drove past. Yep, I got a ticket.  Good news though, he showed me the right way to go and we made it on time.  Her keynote speech was awesome!  Now this could have been a high risk mistake on many levels, lucky for me the nice officer came along at the right time to re-direct.  This reminds me that there are many different types of mistakes.  This blog post discusses them.

3. Emotional - I am now co-leading a team of teachers.   Working in teams is the default setting for many Early Childhood Educators.  However, for Primary and Secondary trained teachers this is different.  It really brings to mind the heart and head stuff.  How important it is to consider the heart of relating through how we relate.  At my new school, Haeata Community Campus, relationships are at the centre of everything we do.  However, building and maintaining relationships is complex.  So I made a mistake in the way I interacted with my team and really upset some them.  On reflection, I could completely see how I had done this.  I was able to explain why, said and meant sorry and they graciously forgave me and we moved on.   These type of mistakes ultimately involve emotions and are probably the hardest to deal with.  There is no getting away from it, where there are people trying to work together, there will be challenge.  How we deal with these mistakes impacts on how our students learn.  One of the positives in team teaching is that students will have us as models.  As we relate together on a daily basis little eyes are looking at us and ears are listening.  We have an amazing opportunity to showcase how we get over mistakes together in positive ways.

I believe strongly, that making mistakes, needs to be an everyday disposition that is seen and celebrated in our learning communities.  It is not likely that we are going to make mistakes on purpose, but learning how to recover from mistakes in a positive manner, is a crucial skill needed in the learning process.  I wonder how you will achieve this in your particular situation?   I wonder if you can help students learn to see failure as a positive in the learning process not only in the academic field but the social and emotional?  Finally I wonder how authentic these learning situations can be?

"After all these years, I am still involved in the process of self-discovery. It is better to explore life and make mistakes than to play it safe. Mistakes are part of the dues one pays for a full life" Sophia Loren.

Saturday, 19 November 2016

Disrupting Education

I love the word disruption.  We had a disruption this week when we had to evacuate from our house at 2am because of threat of Tsunami.  Most of the time we think of disruption as negative.  It think it is uncomfortable.  While uncomfortable it can have positive results.  Think of the disruption of electric lights.  A huge change.  I think we need this type of change we need in Education. Education needs disruption!

We try and disrupt education by adding in Innovative Learning Environments.  The spaces are new but we take our old practice with us and add it into the space.  It would be like taking a candle into a modern house with lights and using the candle instead of switching the lights on.

We try and disrupt education by adding in technology.  Again, we use technology like we use a pencil or a book.

We enter the 21st Century but live like we are still in the 20th Century.  We continue to use plastic while our oceans are drowning in it.

What is it going to take to disrupt?

We are going to have to stop doing some things.  Stop lighting candles, and turn on the lights.  Stop using ipads to write on.  Stop teaching like we always have.  The most important word is.... Stop. What are we going to stop in order to start?

A little example.  Over the last two years I stopped teaching writing like I used to.  I stopped having small groups of children and teaching them how to write by sitting them down and giving them a direct lesson. I stopped defining writing as the activity we do when we open our writing books and use a pencil.   Instead, I put numerous writing tools around the learning space.  White boards and pens.  Clip boards and pencils and Ipads.  Chalk and concrete.  Crayons, paints, pastels. Writing was modelled by me and others as we needed to use it.  If we needed it, we used it.  Writing is a culture tool and when it is seen as genuinely useful, and genuinely cool, everyone wants to do it!

Writing wasn't defined as a lesson.  Children wrote because they wanted to, or they didn't write because they didn't want to.  I didn't make them.  Some children copied words.  Some made words up.  Some used writing to communicate with.  The way we viewed what writing was, changed.  The way I taught writing changed.  It wasn't me teaching writing, but children learning to write.  Actually, those children who didn't write, found other ways to communicate.  They were still learning.

Not disruptive enough!  However, it felt it.  I wasn't teaching the way I had taught forever.  I had to learn a new way of viewing teaching.  I have recently learnt a name for it.  Instead of direct teaching, it is embedded instruction.  One definition of embedded instruction is "Inserting planned, individualised teaching into children’s ongoing activities, routines,and transitions in a way that relates to the context of what the child is doing. It involves distributing opportunities to use teaching strategies for the child’s objectives throughout the regular routines of the day.” 

I am not sharing this to focus on the writing, but to show how I had to stop one practice to enable another to begin another.  I am still learning to embed instruction.  It could disrupt education then again, how many times did Edison fail while inventing the light bulb?  When a reporter asked, "How did it feel to fail 1,000 times?" Edison replied, "I didn't fail 1,000 times. The light bulb was an invention with 1,000 steps." More importantly, the concept of stopping one practice to start another or enable another to begin, could lead to the difference between a candle and an electric light in education.  

The problem I think is that we haven't got the time for 1000 steps.  We need solutions to global problems now.  Is disrupting education about providing the space for our children to provide solutions to our most pressing needs?

Have a think.  Are you in an ILE or a flexible learning space? How disruptive have you been? Electric light disruptive or are you still using candles in your space?  

Saturday, 29 October 2016

Practicing resiliency through change

Term 3 was challenging.  Sometimes I felt like I was going to combust.  I kept getting sick.  I was feeling anxious.  I felt like there was too much to do.  I couldn’t stop, I had to keep going.  I felt driven.  

I hadn’t meant to end up like this.  I never do.  But circumstances can’t always be controlled. Basically, I love change, but my body doesn’t always enjoy it.
Are you aware of those times you step outside your comfort zone, being brave, and in your head it is all okay, you know it will be, but your body doesn’t agree?  That is what happened.  

I have now moved to Christchurch, New Zealand and I am loving it.  But, it was uncomfortable to get to this place.  For the last 5 and a half years I have lived at Te Karaka 20 minutes North of Gisborne, New Zealand.  It took a few years to feel comfortable but finally it was.  Everything was familiar.  Then I moved to Christchurch and everything became unfamiliar.  The buildings, the house, the food, the school, the staff, my family wasn’t with me (they arrive in one weeks time).  Driving to Christchurch I worked really hard to control my anxiety.  

I now have a home, with my own pictures on the wall.  I can drive to school without using Mr Google Maps.  I know the names of all my new colleagues.  I know the timetable.  It is amazing how anxiety lessons when patterns start to form.

Why am I sharing this?  Because we need change in Education.  There is a huge equity gap and it is most noticeable for learners who are Maori and Pacifica, for our learners with Diverse Needs, for those in poverty and for those learners who just don’t fit into the factory model of school.  In order to move Education from Factory Models of producing students who are similar, and leave school with a closed mindset, re-producing knowledge, to a future focused model of learners who are able to think for themselves producing new information, we are going to have to change. Teachers will have to experience change, students will have to change, schools will have to change, education systems will have to change.  And I don’t think we can change without getting uncomfortable.  

Change is not always pleasant, even if we think it is the right thing to do. Change often requires us to be in a space where things are unfamiliar.  The positives of being in an unfamiliar space is that we notice new things.  We are more open than usual.  We met new people and might have more opportunities. If we take opportunity during this change through reflecting we can become innovative, we can change our selves by noticing things we hadn't seen before.  Blindspots become visible.  During my move to Christchurch I had to dig deep and pull out some dispositions that I hadn’t used for a while.  I am reminded of one from my previous school Te Karaka Area School.  Stickability!  The ability to keep going even when it is tough. We used to say out loud “I can do it! I won’t give up!" At my new school, we call this Resiliency.  Never giving up, persevering with new knowledge and skills.  

I have practiced resiliency before in my life, but I had forgotten what it felt like to actually have to use it.  And it was tough.  I don’t think it was any easier.  I had to work my mind, reminding myself where I was going.  I depended on my friends who said “You will be okay, keep going”.  I practiced mindfulness through deep breathing.  I prayed and spent time where I could in the quiet. Thinking about the future and where I was going and why also helped greatly.  I had to influence my heart!

The same can be said for changing pedagogy.  Changing the way we teach to something we are not familiar with is scary.  All our patterns are disrupted.  However, isn’t this what learning should be?  Can you learn without changing?  Yes, you can learn something in your head and not have it affect your heart, but isn’t real learning about changing the head and the heart?  

And what of our learners?  How often do they feel change?  You know I was in charge of my change from Gisborne to Christchurch, and I was tested. But for many of our learners they are not in charge of change.  They have to learn this or that.  They have to do what the teacher tells them.  They have to study this topic.  Wouldn’t it be aspirational to believe that each learner could influence their own learning and by doing so have opportunity to practice resiliency in a safe to fail way.

Friday, 26 August 2016

Exploding the box

I remember saying to the Principal when my eldest daughter started school "She is not in a box"!  She is now 18 and I am proud to say she still remains outside 'the box'.  

The Box?  Education as we knew it.  The known.  Reading, writing and numbers.  Specific knowledge for a specific job.  Teachers teaching a specific curriculum.  Expected ways for children to behave.  Teachers saying "we have always taught like this and they all learn exactly like this at the same time and in the same way.

You know I love play based learning.  The main reason is because it is outside of the box.  Actually, it smashes any box.  The OECD report on innovative learning environments has at the centre of its curriculum "The learner and learning".  If the learner is at the centre of education, nothing can be predicted, known or expected. And that describes our future.  We don't know what the jobs will be in 15 years.  We don't even know if there will be jobs.

Learning outside of the box, means the learner is free to learn how they need to learn.  It means the teacher is thinking about the learner first and their needs.  They are not thinking "you will fit in with what I already do"  They are thinking "What can I do to support you?"

And that brings me to the changes that the National Government want to introduce into the New Zealand Education system.  I liken the changes to an open box.  I think they are trying to make education more flexible, and student centred with the COOL concept, and with the Special Education concept of placing resources into early childhood, they want to target children when they most need the help.  However, I am also a parent of three diverse learners.  Three learners who have and will continue to require learner support.  And as a parent, it is not only 'stressful' living with a child outside the box of regular education, but overtime if someone wants to change my 'box' or my known, it provokes more stress.  And to be honest, without more funding, I can't see how the proposed changes will be fair to anyone.  I can't work out how you can put more into one sector without taking it from another if you are not going to increase the total sum.  But that doesn't mean I don't think the ideas are not good.  And I know how I am feeling, thinking that the meagre funding that keeps my children in school now, if that disappears, how will they cope.  It is a real fear.

Over the last 5 and half years, I have been teaching at a school that is an innovative learning environment.  My three children who are outside the box have been attending this school.  It hasn't always been easy, but I can say that the child centred pedagogy, like described in the above OECD report has supported my children to learn.  Because the child is at the centre, their needs are listened to, well most of the time.  Nothing is perfect, I mean life and learning is difficult no matter what.  But, certainly, my voice as a parent, and their voices as students are listened to. I am pleased to say that many of the teachers, have listened and learnt along with me.  And actually, it has been better than being in the box of regular education.

I can see how our education system could be better.  If we truely put the learner at the centre and if schools and teachers could stop peeking out of the box, but explode it, we could be providing an amazing education for all our learners.  What could the exploded box look like?
Teachers changing the environment, their expectations, their lens to teach through, to suit each learner. Teachers listening to parents and trusting them as experts.  Teachers working in teams and not alone.  Teachers functioning as a team, joining together to come up with innovative ideas.  Schools, being able and free to educate the way each community needs them too.  Whanau, Schools, Special Education, Health,  CYF working together, communicating freely, making smooth transitions, opening up resources, sharing knowledge, together.  Putting the child at the centre.  Not the system, or the 'way we have always done this' but learning from each learner what is needed.

And change doesn't mean we chuck everything out.  There are some things that will still be needed. For example, a diagnosis.  That is essential, because it helps me as a parent, to have a framework to work within.  We need as much knowledge as we can, but it is what we do with that knowledge that makes the difference.  If we treat it like it is fixed, we will fail.  But if we treat it like it can be used, changed and manipulated, we will succeed. As the OECD report points out, it is the mix which creates the success.  How we mix up what we know, with each part of the system, helps create the change we need.

Here is my attempt to change an environment so the learner is at the centre.  I have been deeply moved by play in the classroom.  When the child arrives in the class, they are surprised to see they can play.  Children understand play.  Play is children's work. Play is learning. They relax, so the brain starts to work. They begin to learn.

Two children have recently come from schools, where the box is well defined, closed even and they have found themselves very much outside of it. So much so they have been isolated and unable to learn.  As they have been immersed in our play based environment, they have begun to enjoy learning.  They not only have success, they have continued success.  Their next steps are identified and the teachers start where they are, sensitively helping them to move to the next step in their learning.  Sometimes, it is social for example, learning how to get on with others.  Sometimes, emotional, learning how to calm down when angry. Sometimes it is academic, learning how to sound out letters. It is always about learning how to learn.  This future focused skill is transferrable, no matter what your age, or what your stage, learning how to learn is an absolute.  It explodes the box.   Learning what it feels like to struggle, being supported to keep going and not to give up, and then experiencing the success.  Being trusted to know what you want to learn and then being provided with the resources meaning you are in control of your learning not the teacher.  As we know, relationship is the key.  Exploding the box, means removing our blinkers about what we think we know about any child and looking in a new way.

Exploding the box is most uncomfortable for the adults but for the learners, it is fun, meaningful, life changing, and well, it simple enables learning.

Do you want to explode the box?  I think we can, I know we need to.  Not for our sakes, but for the children, for the learners and for the future.

Sunday, 10 July 2016

Protecting the genius in our learners

Oh I love this quote. It really does work, if you stop and take time to watch each child unfold, you see the genius. I have noted that in the NZ Ministry of Education Document, Ka Hikitia, on page 37 says that Maori student are more likely to have lower levels of achievement than non-Maori in literacy, numeracy and science. It says if this is not addressed early, they will fall behind and then be at risk of disengaging in the early years of their education. It goes on to say how National Standards are the key to identify these early warning signs so students receive help before the negative consequences of falling behind compound.  

I think they have got this the wrong way around. If children are engaged in learning that they love, they will continue to learn, especially with excellent teaching that supports literacy and numeracy through their interests. I think they are more likely to disengage, when literacy and numeracy are taught out of context and out of a learners developmental readiness. I wonder as well, by what measure they falling behind? Children develop and learn at different times. It is the system that the learning is assessed against that makes it look like they are falling behind. Far better to have them engaged in learning, everything else will follow. Oh and a play based learning environment provides just that - engagement rich in deep learning about how to learn.

I have one student who has been in a play based learning environment most of his schooling. Phillip ( I have changed the name), has just completed learning most of his letters and sounds. He has just turned seven. According to our National Standards, this is an extraordinary long time to learn letters in. It has required an extraordinary effort and much persistence. For the longest time, it looked like our (Phillip, teacher, whanau) efforts where making no difference at all. This year, we have seen progress. And just last week, Phillip began to read. At his instructional level, he recognised words, sounded them out and read fluently.

I have been coaching Phillip for two years. I would tell him not to give up. His whanau helped at home. We started with and continue to use Yolanda Sorryl phonics and early words. We use a group, direct reading lesson every day. We used the Davis Dyslexia Method for around 6 months last year, making letters out of clay and mastering them using their visual method. Phillip didn't give up. He wanted to. I saw the pain looking at letters caused him. The discomfort. The rubbing of his eyes, the wriggling, the distractions and we slowly taught him to focus, to be aware of his triggers and how to calm his brain, to focus on the task.

Last week, we celebrated! We turned to each other and smiled. I told him, how proud I was with his stickability. "Phillip, you can read because you kept going and didn't give up!" And he knew his 'not yet', had moved a step closer to a being achieved. I wrote a certificate to tell whanua of his achievement. The next day, he came to school and he asked to read with me. When I saw his Nan, she said that he now says 'he likes reading' and has been asking to read more at home.

I believe that Phillip loves learning today because he has been in a learning through play environment allowing his strengths to flourish and success to be celebrated daily. Phillip knows he is a successful learner. And learning is defined in the broadest sense. In our learning community, key competencies and learning dispositions, are celebrated and discussed more than academic competencies. These form the foundation on which academic skills sit, not the other way around. Student's interests are embraced and supported first, and academic skills are skilfully woven within these.

Everyday, Phillip is able to play. In this context we see an amazing learner. A child who can socialise, show imaginative, creative and dramatic play. He is a stunning friend, kind and compassionate. He loves to sing, he loves to build. Lately, his creativity exploded onto the iPad, using the puppet pals app, that he taught himself. He draws detailed characters and tells stories. We protected his 'not yet skill', "I can't read yet" while enhancing his strengths.

Phillip, is defined not by his lack of academic skills, but by his abundance of learning dispositions and his knowledge of how to use these. Phillip is beginning transition into the next learning community. I know Phillip has a solid foundation to continue to learn throughout life. As Plato advocates, lets find the genius in each of our learners by finding what they are curious in and work with that first.

Thursday, 30 June 2016

Learning is learning no matter the age

When I visited Rutene Road Kindergarten today I found more in common to my practice in my Primary School Learning Community than not. 

The environment supported the students who were 2 to 4 years old to be independent learners.  Everything in the learning space was safe for the students to use.  Everything, from scissors, staples, glue, loose parts, shovels, puzzles, everything.  The attitude of the teachers supported this.  High expectations resulted in students who were calm, self-directed, and collaborative learners.  

The routines supported this. At Mat time which is held twice a day, the students came happily to join in songs, stick games, and finger rhymes.  Then Karakia and Kai.  Little routines set up by the teachers become a visual clue as to what happens next.  All the students were successful.  Their ability to self manage was clear.  They were all happy and engaged in their learning.

Rutene Road Kindergarten are building a new philosophy built around Guy Claxton's Learning Muscles.  My learning community uses a model based on this as well.  These muscles form a visual for deep learning, what it looks like and what the next steps are.  They show teachers how we can support the students in their learning journey.  It was wonderful to see how learning is learning no matter the age.  It was obvious to me as I watched the students play, what they were learning.  One girl showed me her Mahi Whai - String game.  Another student came along with a piece of string.  It was fascinating to watch her try and work out how to change the string so she could use it. Then I watched as the student watched her friend who had already mastered the game.  Ako, learning to learn from someone a step ahead of you - this learning skill - reciprocity - being ready, willing and able to learn alone and with others is a skill that is crucial to all learners no matter how old they are.  This reinforces to me how important it is to keep learning real, whole, and not broken into silo's.  

Peter Gray outlines a very important and crucial philosophy of play.  

  1. Self-chosen and self-directed
  2. process rather than product driven;
  3. contains structures or rules established by the players themselves;
  4. imaginative, non-literal and removed from reality
  5. occurs between those who are active, alert and non-stressed.
(Grey, 2013; Brewer, 2007)

To me these are what true learning is about.  I saw all these things.  I also saw teachers talking to students, using their knowledge of when to support, when to guide and when to leave a student alone to learn.  Learning this way requires teacher skill to know when supports are needed and to identify what the learning is.

As reflect on my own practice it is about knowing when to introduce next steps into the learning process.  To do this, I need to know the curriculum really well.  That way when I see opportunity in play I can either change the environment next time or demonstrate a new skill or ask questions to help the student to figure out the next step.  Making visible deliberate acts of learning is the new future.  Using dispositions as lenses to frame learning helps with this.  Giving students the vocabulary to explain their learning will help each student to become deliberate learners.  And it all starts from day one....  at home and beyond in the Kindergarten and onto school.  When students arrive at school, they are already learners.  They have a past, they have a story.  They don't come empty, but full.  We as Primary teachers need to take the time to build relationships and in the play based learning community observe them at work learning.

I loved my visit and I came away with many ideas to make learning even better in at my school.  I highly recommend Primary teachers visiting good quality, play based Early Childhood Centres to further their professional development.

Saturday, 11 June 2016

Student led learning

In foundation years, students have access to the "tools of the culture" (Grey, 2013).  In the book "Free to Learn" Grey discusses his views on play from an evolutionary perspective, that is "play is nature's way of ensuring that young mammals, including young humans, will practice and become good at the skills they need to develop to survive and thrive in their environments" (p.119).  What are the tools of our culture?  Pens, pencils, paper, iPads, counting, money, etc.  And into the future...  complex problem solving, critical thinking, creativity, co-ordinating with others, emotional intelligence.

Reading, writing and number are modelled constantly through play. Students model it through dramatic play. They play shop keepers and ask for play money use.  Other children love drawing and making books, and cards etc.  Many children love writing letters and numbers on their iPads. They also watch teachers use the tools.

Last week, one student who has been at school for just over a year, begun to get excited about reading.  Up to this point, reading was a drag, it didn't interest him.  Yes, he would read with me once a day, but it really wasn't his thing.  However, he loves numbers.  He spent significant amounts of time counting and sharing a number app with another friend who also loved counting. He loved dominoes and other number games.  He loved solving problems. But words and reading - Hmm not yet!

On this particular day, he bounded into the room and asked to read with me.  The previous day he had read a book and finally, read the words.  One of those days when the light bulb goes on and all the mini skills he had been learning came together.  In that one moment, he decided he liked reading.  I sat down with him immediately and he read a book to me.   It wasn't long before there were some words which were new to him.  I grabbed some paper and wrote them down.  I said, "these are the words you will need to know".   He continued to read ... before I knew it he had taken the paper and begun to write other words down that he needed.  At the end of the book, he read through his hand written list, carefully.  Then he stapled the list to the wall.  When a teacher came in, he took them to his list and went through the list again. He went and took a book off the book shelf (something I hadn't often observed him do to often) and started to read it.

I would much rather wait until a student is ready to learn something and is passionate, than drill and pester them to learn something they really not ready for. I think we do students a disservice when we make learning, surface level learning by pushing them to learn what we think is important.  By waiting for the time when this child turned his head towards the learning and saw it as culturally relevant to him and applied his focus to learning, not only is he improving, but he is having fun. More importantly, he is learning deeply.

Learning deeply

He is learning how to  learn.  He knows from his success with numbers, that if he perseveres he can learn new things.  He loves showing off his abilities.  He loves helping other students who are just behind where he is by using his insight into what has helped him to learn.  He is enjoying using his learning in the context of a play based learning community.

Sticking at it

We call it using your stickability muscle, but sometimes, the persevering takes months.  We discuss the learning pit by Guy Claxton, and students learn that no matter what they are learning, that if it feels difficult and they want to give up, it probably is worth pursuing.   Of course it is up to us teachers to make sure the next steps are appropriate and in that zone!   It reminds me learning isn't linear, it is back and forth, uneven.

Grey continues.... "Young humans everywhere, when left to their own devices, play at the kinds of skills that people must develop to thrive as adults.  He also pointed out that human beings, much more so than the young of any other species, must learn different skills depending on the unique culture in which they develop".

It is not so much what we learn, but how we learn that matters into the future.

What is the culture in your learning community?  Are the students watching how to learn?  Do you have faith in the student, in their ability to know when they need to learn something and to support them when they are ready?  Are you listening to their voice?  I don't actually think it matters too much what the learning is about ( I mean I think we know the particular skills students need) but it matters more how they learn it.  That is where our focus should be.  It is the skill of how, that will go through life with them, it is that skill they will need into the future.

Grey, P. (2013) Free to Learn - Why unleashing the instinct to play will make our children happier, more self-reliant and better students for life.  Basic Books, New York.

Sunday, 5 June 2016

Why Play?

Learning Through Play         By Tara O’Neill  6 Dec 2014

Kids learn through play and play is a fabulous way for kids to learn.  It is as natural as breathing. Vygotsky says, “the influence of play on a child’s development is enormous”. Barbara Rogoff also suggests that children supporting each other and learning together, a key feature of play makes a powerful contribution to mathematical learning. Bishop emphasises the playing of games. He notes that playing is “indeed a most serious business” as well as a significant adult activity.  “Play is not just an activity; it’s a state of mind that brings new energy and sparks creativity”(Lundin, 2002).

Is Play a valid way to teach academic skills to children in their first year of school?  What skills do students need as they enter school and engage with the New Zealand Curriculum?  Both early childhood and the NZ curriculum are based on social-constructivism.  Both have moved away from the old Behaviourist theories where teachers imparted knowledge and children repeated tasks to gain proficiency.   No longer do these curriculums direct that rote learning, repetition and discipline help children gain new skills and knowledge.  Instead they embrace a combination of Piaget and Vygotsky and beyond. Piaget where a child is not taught new skills until they show readiness and Vygotsky where a child is taught by a teacher or peer skillfully supporting their new learning thereby helping the child to learn more by sharing the background thinking about how to solve a problem, breaking it down step by step.  

Next year I am heading up a foundation class, a class for students to come into as they begin school.  At its base, it uses Te Whariki the Early Childhood curriculum combined with the NZ Curriculum.   The class environment will look like an Early Childhood center. The main reason for this is to embrace play as the main context in learning.  Coaching is probably the best word to describe how the teachers will interact in the class. We will be coaching social, emotional and academic skills.  We will be looking for indicators that each student has sufficient skills to be able to progress onto the next steps in their learning life. These will largely be seen in the following areas – Social skills, Emotional and Academic readiness. Some of these indicators will be the ability to use emotions appropriately to support their learning. For example, we might see patience from a child as they learn to manipulate blocks in their play, or the ability to focus on a book leading to engagement in an area of learning.  It may be turn taking where the learner is able to take turns in order to play a game with their peers.  It might be being friendly where they are able to use this skill to solve a learning problem with a friend. 

Vygotsky explained that through play, children learn skills for how to control their bodies, develop communication and thinking skills and learn how to relate to others in a social environment. Some of our learners at Te Karaka Area School enter not having had many opportunities to play especially with a trained teacher to coach and assist them in their learning.  This is one reason why they haven’t developed the emotional and social skills necessary to support further learning. The other reason is that for children up to the age of 7 play provides the best instructional environment.

At a conference this year, I listened to Nathan Mikaere Wallis share about research on 5 year old boys and brain development.  The acquisition of social and emotional skills are the most important skill for this group of learners not cognitive skills.  If we get boys at 5 and they don’t achieve, they may develop a disposition of failing and not wanting to achieve.  Most boy’s brains are not physically ready to read until 7 years old.  This knowledge about brain development is crucial if teachers are to know their learners readiness for certain academic learning.

Further to this, learning needs to be in the Zone of Proximal Development.  If we force them to be outside of this they can feel incompetent and we may risk stopping the development of the brain.   In order to think and learn, you need the other parts of your brain to be functioning.  1.  Survival brain.  Brainstem – this is in charge. You need warmth, food and security from loving relationships.2.  Movement brain or the Midbrain – sports brain  You need to exercise and experience movement.  3.  Mammal brain or the Lymbric system – emotional brain. You need emotional support and safety.  4. The thinking and learning brain is built on the above.  The thinking and learning brain’s ability to function rests on the above 3 brains.  What happens in early childhood impacts on brain development and continues to influence further learning. 

 This is an interesting discussion by Nathan Mikaere-Wallis - Radio New Zealand “What 3 to 7 year olds need to learn”

The Incredible Years Programme outlines three developmental levels of social skills needed by children as they progress towards being able to focus on more academic learning.  Child Developmental Level 1 – The child plays alone.  Level 2 – Parallel Play where a child plays alongside another child.   Level 3 - Interacting with others. The Incredible Years describes how the ability to control a child’s body needs to be taught just like we teach academic skills.  Learners need to firstly understand what emotions feel like and then be able to identify these using words.  Finally they will learn to use their emotions as a tool to support their learning.  Just as we allow learners to make mistakes in their academic learning, we also need to allow mistakes with social and emotional learning.  And just as with academic learning we provide an environment every day for practicing in. Just as we support learners to learn how to write a re-count we can scaffold learners to learn how to control their anger.  We can explain the thinking behind restorative practice and why we say sorry to someone we have wronged.

Te Whariki the Early Childhood curriculum links in with the NZ curriculum the focus of the Primary Years.   Under Development of Learning and Capabilities it says "There is no developmental cut-off at school entry age.  During the early school years, the principles and strands of the early childhood curriculum continue to apply and can be interwoven with those of the New Zealand curriculum statements for schools".   Pg 21 of Te Whariki Curriculum Document.

Not all students are ready for cognitive, academic learning when they start school.  They are not all ready to sit down in one place for more than 10 minutes and have a lesson with a teacher.  There is no magic that happens when a child turns 5 that allows them to be ready emotionally and socially.    By providing a foundation class we are providing a smooth transition and acknowledging that for our community, the children sometimes need a melding and transition of the two curriculums.   We also acknowledge that play is an important context for early learners to experience and that as educators we act as a deciding force to seeing the environment set up to support learning.  This includes noticing when a learner is ready to learn the next step and how we will set up learning experiences to enable them to learn.  

I think that one of the greatest mistakes we make as Educators is thinking that direct instruction is an effective way for young children to learn.  And sometimes we think it is the only way.  We believe that if we control the knowledge and tasks, the students will learn.  We mistakenly believe that the structure of direct teaching is the very structure needed for our learners to feel safe in and learn. 

Next year, we are starting a class which will focus firstly on emotional and social skills and secondly on cognitive skills.  In most Year one classes in New Zealand, children are expected to come to where their teacher sits to take part in a formal skill based lesson.  Instead of this, in our foundation class, the educators will go to the children and like in Early Childhood, will engage with the child in play, listening, asking and answering, questioning, challenging ideas and concepts teaching social and emotional skills.  They will respond quickly to learner’s needs and passions, providing resources to enable their learning to progress in the very best way needed for each individual.  Creativity will be encouraged and enabled.


Vygotsky, L.S. (1980) “Mind in society: the development of higher psychological processes” pg. 96.

Minstry of Education. ( 2009) “Mathematics, assessment for learning: early childhood exemplars” pg. 2.

Bishop, A. (1991) “Mathematical enculturation: A cultural perspective on mathematics education.  Pg17

Lundin, S. (2002) “Fish Tales”. 

Naysmith, R. (2011) “Implementing the New Zealand Curriculum: understandings and experiences from three urban primary schools”. 

The Incredible Years Teacher  -

Te Whariki - http:/

Wednesday, 13 April 2016

The excitement of being Maori

Today, Foundation years went to Takipu Marae, one of our local Maraes.  It was everything I hoped it would be.  My concept was to spend time at the marae and to Be.  To be present, to be there, seeing, sensing, hearing, smelling, focusing.  At Te Karaka Area School we are all about local curriculum.

There is much research that proves the strong link between well-being and achievement.  Students well-being is strongly influenced by a clear sense of identity and access and exposure to their own language and culture.  As a person bought up in another culture other than maori, the challenges of understanding this concept have been many.  Not because I haven't wanted to understand.  I love Maori language and culture.   Mainly because I had not experienced another culture.

It has taken me five years at Te Karaka Area School to come to a place of confidence and understanding to allow the magic of today happen.

We were welcomed on to the Marae by the tolling of the bell.  We entered the wharenui.  We sat, boys in front, girls behind.  The Kohanga based at the marae came to take part as Tangata when.  The Teacher aide a male was in the front.  The whakatau begun.   Matua Steve returned the speech in English with a lovely genuine piece about our welcome.  Then we sung as a group.

Next we sat on mattresses in the Wharenui where Nanny Ruby spoke to us about the history of the marae and the beautiful carvings.  The students sat for 15 - 20 minutes, still and listening, asking questions. Unusual.  In Foundation years we do not practice sitting still and listening to adults very often, but here in this environment the students sat still and quiet.  They genuinely were interested. Today I saw their faces, lit up with excitement and wonder. We felt welcomed, we felt comfortable, we felt the sense of the marae.  The presence of generations before us, the significance of our identity.  The students belonged here, taking their place in a line of many.  And when students genuinely get something, they pay attention.  It is not hard or difficult.  It is natural and that is what learning should be.

As we sat and ate kai, the adults spoke about the next 50 years, and how some of these tamariki would be welcoming young children.  This is their place.  We want to come back again and again.  To hear the names of ancestors, to hear the sound of Maori spoken, to learn, but more than that to Be.

The children then played, some outside with soccer balls, and with imagination playing cops and robbers.  Others inside next to carvings, drawing and talking.  Naturally being in this place which signifies identity.  Eyes lit up with expectation with genuine questions.  Faces smiling at this special place.  I would like to thank Nanny Ruby, Tamaiti and the Kohanga for the genuine welcome.

For me as a professional, a teacher, it has given such confidence.  An Aha moment.  I have gotten over all my excuses and in the end see how simple it can be.  I did not feel afraid, or threatened, but welcomed and partnered with.  These are our Tamariki and together we want them to succeed.  We want them to have the things mentioned in research.  Success as Maori. Enjoying and achieving success.   If our Tamarki get this, to know how special they each are and how special the place where they grow up is and who their ancestors are. If they begin to grasp identity, then they will succeed.

Friday, 8 April 2016

I can't read - I can't write

"I can't read"  "I can't write". These were two statements on consecutive days from a new student in Foundation Years in response to me asking them to read and write.   They had come from another school.  11 months at school.

The 'I can't' stood out because I don't remember hearing those two words in any student in Foundation. I have heard "No" or "I won't"  but these are matters of will that sometimes get expressed when I ask students to come and read to me, mainly because they are involved in their own play and I am disturbing them.  Completely different to this child who sounded demoralised and as if they really believed they could not read or write.  It made me feel very sad.
There are students who are at similar levels academically in Foundation, but they believe they are learners.  They believe in "I can".

Developing the atmosphere for "I Can" is what developmental learning is really great at supporting.  Two students stand out for me when I think of "I Can".  They are both a little older and have had difficulty learning to read and write.  The literacy skills do not come easily to them.  Late last year as I shared with whanau (family) where their child was using National Standards measurements.  I think  whanau understood their children were not being naughty or dumb, they just needed some extra help and extra time.  I arranged for some books to go home and showed the parents how to support the teaching of sounds for the students.  This term, I have seen the benefits of this.  Both students have begun to make real progress.

I first picked up on this progress in play.  One boy started to draw.  I had couldn't remember seeing him draw before by choice.  He didn't draw just one picture but five.  This term, most days I see him drawing and writing.  He also started to have 'light bulb' moments, where before he wasn't hearing the connections between letters and sounds, now he was. He can shout out the answer in our reading sessions with delight on his face. This week he wrote a sentence by hearing sounds and recording them.  The other student started to pick up books and read them, again by choice.  Both students are integrating literacy into play.  This self determined motivation acts like a wind blown on to the seeds of academic skill to produce further progress.  Both these students in National Standards Terms are 'Well Below' students but I have protected them from any knowledge of this.  How can 5 and 6 year olds be 'well below' when they are just at the start of a life of learning? Both students are creative, kind, compassionate, full of life, beautiful learners.  It is just that the literacy side of learning is taking a bit longer than other adults who have decided on a measurement would like.

We flood the learning environment with words and numbers.  Teachers expertly support play sessions with words, both oral and written and with numbers in context, helping to solve problems. Once the child's face has turned to see the numbers and the words, then the time is right to start to teach them formally.  If they haven't noticed the numbers and the words, then we need to wait to see real progress.  Meaningful progress will happen when the child sees where literacy fits in to their world.  It is like a dance, knowing when to add in the skills and when to support the real world context through play.  This part of teaching is something I am still developing, but it is the part I most enjoy.

I think it is important to grow the 'I can' and have students who are real learners as a foundation on which to build literacy and not the other way around.

Tuesday, 23 February 2016

Freeing up learning in the junior school

For me the word 'play' means trusting the students to learn from equipment which can be manipulated and used in many ways. Open-ended. We don't often tell them directly what to learn.  They are left to outplay their own learning.  What and how will they learn? That is an ongoing conversation. In our learning community we discuss 'learning muscles' eg. I didn't give up when I built that tower, it fell over, and I was mad, but I built it again.  Stickability.   

 But I am also considering the academic language we use. I could do better I am sure, but things like "I can count from the largest number when finding how many blocks there are altogether". As I roam I can see this happening or facilitate it. I would love the students to be able to see the learning and record on their iPads independently and show others during reflection time. 

I have found that the transition from moving from 'teacher directed' activities to 'free play' takes time. The students sometimes, don't know what to do and need coaching around the social nuances of social play.  As a teacher, it feels weird.  Scary.  Heart pounding.  What will happen if I just leave them to learn through play?   However, when the students start to direct their learning through play, trust being given by the teacher and reflection happening around what learning is taking place, students flourish. There is so much happiness and engagement. It may take time to get this but eventually when it happens - it is magic - the students can learn a concept in 5 minutes. A concept that as a teacher you may have been trying to 'encourage them to do' through rotations, but they just weren't focused so they didn't get it. Not really, they may have mimicked it.   Here's an example, a 6 year old student who hasn't shown any real passion for letters and words, has just had a break through. For a long time, letters and words were not of interest to her she was below national standards.  She came and had a lesson with a teacher every day at school, mum tried at home to teach her, but the focus just wasn't there.  Today though, a year and a half later, she came to me and showed me a sentence she had typed on her iPad.  Six words, sounded out and carefully written.  How proud was this child?  Very.  Engaged, very.  She knew what she had done was something that adults wanted her to do.  I hope she is beginning to understand the power written words can have. I think the process of hearing sounds and writing them down makes sense to her now.

From here I was able to say, you sounded out the words and wrote down what you heard.  Fabulous.  You are a writer.  And she hasn't stopped. 

Here is what I noticed last year.  The students who wrote because they wanted to, who directed their own learning, wrote a lot and they made more progress than any other student.  Internal engagement seems to be a key for learning fast.  The problem is this looks different for every learner. And it doesn't always happen within the first year. My job as a teacher in a learning through play environment is to find that spark, to find the pathway, to provide equipment, provocations, opportunities and modelling so that each student sparks.  Even when I do all of these things well, sometimes, it is a matter of time.  I have to wait for the child to be developmentally ready.  And nothing can change that.  I could force them to 'do the trick' but really, it is not embedded into their lives in a meaningful way.  I wonder later if that is why we see disengaged learners?

Another student who is also six years old, who spent a good six months copying words down from around the class on paper, whiteboards and using chalk, is now writing with clear well formed letters.  Spaces and fullstops.  We don't have teacher led writing every day in our learning community.  But students do write, draw, record.  

Another student, for whom reading and writing has been a struggle started to draw this week.   For the first time.  And when he started he couldn't stop.  He drew five pictures.

This opportunity for young children to drive their own learning is the same for every part of the curriculum.  We have found great opportunity to share some of our academic goals during kai time this year.  The students sit down for a cuppa tea and kai twice a day.  At this moment, I can model writing or number problems, I can read books to a captured audience.  

As a teacher, I am loving this way of learning.  I think the students are as well.

Thursday, 4 February 2016

Learning Through Play - embrace the mess!

Mess for me has been one area in learning through play that I have embraced.  Give me a good mess and I feel really satisfied that we have had a great day learning.  But then everything has a negative side right!

We do a lot of the messy play outside on the veranda and just in front of the learning community.  The children are free to move inside and out.  So there is paint that gets splattered on the outside of the building and the veranda has a variety of things left spread on it.  And bits and pieces seem attracted like magnets around the space. It is a challenge for other people. It is a bit of a shock to begin with. For the untrained it looks like chaos.

However, I think we have become messer over the year, but better at getting the space tidy again.

We believe that the learning space belongs to the children and they are free to use it and the equipment without having to ask within that space.  We are fortunate to have an office with shelves on it and another space where we can store our messy play resources.  If some resources are not put out for the day the students can always ask for them.

How did we do it?

1. Remember it is a journey.  Five year olds don't always want to tidy, so it becomes the slow and constant message at the end of the day that this is what we do.  Encourage, model etc.  but realise it takes time to learn this skill.  We also value this time as a learning community.  Learning to sort objects into like attributes is a fundamental math concept.  Similar and different are useful words. The consequence of tipping all the lego out is it takes time to put it all away again.  Learning to do things together is a wonderful way to build community.  Manaakitanga is shown through everyone supporting each other.

2. Less is more. To begin with we put all the equipment out for the students to access.  Now,  we have the basics out but have things available if the students play leads that way.  I always think, do I have the energy to deal with this today?  If the clay comes out then then I know I will need a little water for damping the clay and a bucket for washing hands etc.

3.  We choose resources which suit our environment.  For example, we found play dough stuck to our carpet really badly.  Clay did not.  When it dries, it becomes good old dirt.  We usually have clay as an outside activity but on rainy days, sometimes bring it inside.  I love play dough but just gave it away and embraced clay.  Natural and reusable. I prefer water paints to the acrylic because they are easier to manage, washing up better. Saying that, acrylic paints are much loved.

4.  Storage becomes vital.  Finding the right containers is essential.  I have just found an old teaching station to use for painting.  I brought an old sink from home for water play that goes in the garden outside.  We re-purpose a lot.  Inside, the lego, blocks etc are in containers which are easy to pack up.  The lego goes on a sheet which helps with the pack up.

6.  Labels help.  One holidays last year Carlyn, one of the other teachers, spent a couple of hours a day, sorting and cleaning the mess.  We took time to put labels (photos) on the containers.  I think this helped the children remember where particular things went and gave them a visual reminder.  Amazingly, most things have remained in place since that time.

7.  Don't fight it.  If the children are tired we just do as much as we can together. If there is mess left at the end of the day as a teacher, I'll spend 10 minutes finishing off before I get into my planning etc.
That is just part of the work for a play based classroom.  I think to myself, I value the children playing so I value supporting them by packing it away so it is ready for a new day.  It is so worth it.

8. Pack up once a day.  Last year, we did a pack up every period of which we have three during the day.  This year, we pack up once a day.  The children used to put away what they wanted to keep in our office.  In the research project by Keryn Davis  the children use post it notes to write their name on and place beside anything they want to keep for another day.  Cleaners are asked to vacuum around these models.  We often put lego up high, and on occasion, keep block cities until another day, but most times, things are just process play so get packed up.  Using the app seesaw an online portfolio has meant so far this year we are able to take photos to keep many memories.

And so far this year, because we have similar students from last year, many children have returned with the skills learnt previously and have embraced the clean up.  Some just sit and watch or go to the toilet or try and run away and hide, but we just try and focus on the ones doing the right thing and remember, these ones will learn one day to help out.  Be patient. I find for some of our diverse learners pack up time, a time of transition, is difficult and can make them feel uncomfortable. It is not because they are being naughty or trying to annoy us.

I am sure this is an area I will continue to grow in.  I would love some input from Early Childhood Teachers who I am sure have amazing systems for packing up.  What are your top tips for tiding up?

Embrace the Mess….

Thursday, 28 January 2016

Writing in a play based classroom at TKAS

 Writing in a play based classroom.  

The pedagogy that informs writing at TKAS in our play based classroom is developmental.  We are always on the look out to see where a child is with their skills both social and academic.  This forms the starting point in writing.  We choose play to teach writing through because it is developmentally appropriate for what the children need.  They learn where writing fits in their world through play.  For example, Writing a note to a friend, or a card for Nan.  Expressing feelings on paper.  The students use their experimenting learning muscle to learn how to hold a pencil.  Yes, we show them in phonics time or as we roam around the room, we help them when we see them trying to hold a pencil.  The powerful part of teaching writing through play is that the children choose to write.  They choose when, where, what, and who to write about and with.  This is a crucial point.  

Play is what motivates children.  It is their first language in learning.  When we see them writing, we encourage them by supporting them.  It is in this moment where their attention is focused that they learn so easily.  I have tried teaching young children writing by sitting them around a table altogether and introducing a topic that will motivate them.  But, I rarely saw the spark.  I didn't see the connection to writing being communication.  Writing isolated like this became something they did instead of something they used.   

We take a writing sample once a month and use the Developmental progression below to mark off the journey of each Tamariki.  Interestingly, this is the one time we do introduce a topic or a purpose and mostly they get to choose from a photo to write about something. It is the one time we all write together.  We never have anyone complaining.  They write eagerly, they write with passion.  We do also make notes during the week on children's experiences with writing.  We note the writing that appears on whiteboards.  The writing that is done on clipboards.  

We also believe that when children are ready for more skill based teacher lessons we will then move them on to the next learning community where they will take part in these.  Even if it is for one session a day.  Transition is flexible.  Readiness might look like, an ability to focus for longer periods of time.  A deeper understanding of writing, its purposes.  Probably they will be writing initial letters and recording sounds they hear onto paper.  They may be able to tell a story understanding time.  Able to remember what happened and sharing this. We have done this with children from 5.8 through to 7 years.  There is a broad range. Typically when they do participate in these sessions, they make fast progress.   

Sometimes, writing looks much the same as in a class that uses direct teaching for writing.  You know the sit down at the same time and write about a similar topic with WALTS, feedback etc.  We do all write together on occasions.  The photos show a focus on letter writing.  However, the beginning of this series of events started in play and not with a teachers idea.   I noticed the children were writing letters to each other. They said “I want to send such and such a mail”.  They would write a letter, fold it up and take it to the person or home to nan.  We noticed that some of their vocabulary needed extending. We did this by joining them on their learning.  We watched some clips on utube about the journey of a letter.

During our weekly visit to pre-school, we told the pre-school children we were going to write them a letter and send it to them.  The following week, the teachers set up a writing station with examples of letters and key words.  The children's goal was to choose a pre-school buddy and write to them.  Then we walked to the local shop where the post box is.  In Te Karaka the mail gets sorted at the shop and sent away and then returned to be delivered.  We learnt all about this.  During the following visit to pre-school the children saw  their letters had indeed been delivered.  A huge shoutout to our local shop owner who paid for our stamps.  Interestingly, at the end of the year, the pre-school children bought Foundation some Christmas cards they had made.  

We use play to support writing by using all the aspects that make play so powerful. 
1.  Self-chosen and self-directed
2.  Process rather than product driven
3.  contains structures or rules established by the players themselves;
4.  imaginative, non-literal and removed from reality
5.  occurs between those who are active, alert and non-stressed.  (Grey, 2013; Brewer, 2007)

Writing has occurred while playing fire fighters, making a shop, drawing a picture, using chalk outside, drawing numbers, using book creator and making books about a favourite topic, using whiteboards and coping a list of family names.  All chosen by the children.

This year, we hope to continue on our journey by writing more as teachers. I can't wait!

The Learning Continuum and play

I'm into my 6th year of teaching through play.  Long enough to explore some of the edges. I use this continuum from the England Earl...