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February 2017

Making sense of what is happening in your classroom

This week I want to encourage you to continue to build on the discussions you had about teaching and learning on Monday and Tuesday, alongside pushing yourself to notice, and celebrate, what you are good at, what you can do now that you couldn’t before and making sense of this.

‘More than ever before, we need to educate young people to think critically about knowledge and about values, to recognise differences in interpretation, to develop the skills needed to form their own judgements. And if that is true for our students, then it is also essential that all teachers develop similar aptitudes, skills and dispositions, constantly reflecting on their practice, systematically engaging with evidence, with critique and development.’

Furlong, 2013, p186

I think this quote is incredibly useful when thinking about why it is important for you to theorise, and form your own judgements about teaching and learning in your subject. In exactly the same way that you want pupils to form their judgements based on the key knowledge that you (as an expert in your subject) know, it is important that your theorising is informed by what is known by experts in the field of teaching and learning.

On Monday, the mathematicians amongst you were challenged to analyse some classroom situations using theories about teaching and learning and other internationally recognised research we have explored so far on the course. This wasn’t an easy task but the depth of thinking that gradually emerged, and the targets you were able to set yourselves coming out of the session, were impressive. I know other subjects did similar tasks and tutors were very impressed with the quality of thinking shown over the two University-based days.

The problem is you are now back in school and the hurly burly of day to day teaching – so, how do you make sure you keep this thinking going and actually make all the reflection and critique translate into changes in your classroom practice??

One way is to return to the idea of ‘noticing’ which we explored in January.

If you remember, we talked about the idea of ‘noticing’ as a way of forcing yourself to ask questions about something you do in the classroom or something that happens.

So, keeping with a focus on celebrating what you are now able to do well, my challenge is that you identify something you noticed worked this week. Keep it small and focused, e.g. a class being able to get on with a task straightaway without you having to instantly run around the room helping individuals; a pupil suddenly understanding a tricky concept; a moment related to behaviour where you suddenly got a desired behaviour from a pupil or class that you weren’t expecting.

Take a moment to simply describe what happened to yourself – what exactly happened before, during and after? Don’t try and justify or explain any part of it, just describe.

Now, can you make sense of that moment using theory? Take the example of having that golden moment where you can stand and watch a whole class get on independently with a challenging task without your help. Consider the following questions:

  • Would the notion of scaffolding help explain how you introduced or modelled the task in a way that meant everyone was able to access it and get straight on with it?

‘[Scaffolding] refers to the steps taken to reduce the degrees of freedom in carrying out some task so that the child can concentrate on the difficult skill she is in the process of acquiring’ (Bruner, 1978, p. 19)

‘Effective learning environments scaffold students’ active construction 7 of knowledge in ways similar to the way that scaffolding supports the construction of a building. When construction workers need to reach higher, additional scaffolding is added, and when the building is complete, the scaffolding can be removed.’ (Sawyer, 2006, p7)

  • Could the idea of contingency make sense of a series of questions and answers that took place that enabled the pupils to build up their understanding?

‘Contingent teaching, as defined here, involves pacing “the amount of help children are given on the basis of their moment-to-moment “understanding. If they do not understand an instruction given at one level, then more help is forthcoming. When they do understand, the teacher steps back and gives the child more room for initiative.’ (Wood, 1988, p81)

  • Have you been focusing on the culture of your classroom and could a consideration of the principles of dialogic teaching help explain what is now happening?

‘dialogic teaching is collective (teachers and children address learning tasks together), reciprocal (teachers and children listen to each other, share ideas and consider alternative viewpoints) and supportive (children articulate ideas freely without fear of embarrassment over ‘wrong’ answers and help each other achieve common understandings)’ (Alexander, 2008b, pp112-113)

There are many more questions you could ask but this begins to give you an idea.

There is still the question of why this matters – why can I not just make up my own theories when I reflect on what happens? Well you can, and should, be theorising for yourself but that alone is not enough. They key is to engage with the expert knowledge that exists in the field of teaching and learning. That way you can learn from this expert knowledge; consider it in your own context; feel confident in the ideas you are developing and the judgements you are making; make sense of what you want to develop further or try next.

Take a break …

I am going to keep this week’s post very brief.

The first thing I am going to say is congratulations! This is a hard half term – you will have found your teaching commitments have intensified, you have been settling in to a new context, mornings and evenings are dark and cold, …

You have survived it, so well done and look forward to the week ahead!

Now, I am going to give you two small pieces of advice in relation to next week:

  1. Organise your week:

Whilst I am sure the last thing you will want to do right now is think about organising, there is a danger if you don’t that next week will disappear in a fog of thinking about (and perhaps worrying about) your return to school – so, even when you are theoretically relaxing, your mind has not switched off. Taking a short amount of time to decide when you are going to designate time to work will pay huge dividends – stick to this schedule and then force yourself to disengage from work the rest of the time.

Make sure you know exactly what jobs you have got to complete and assign them to the periods of time you have designated for work.

If you need to, make one of your jobs organisation so you are fully prepared for your return to school – if paperwork has become scary, use a little bit of time next week to sort this out!

  1. Prioritise your health and wellbeing

Make sure you do some nice things next week! Plan to see friends you have neglected since September, go away for a few days, spend time with family, … do something that makes you happy!

Our children need happy teachers and this means teachers who understand they should have guilt-free time away from school!

If you feel your health and wellbeing are at risk at the moment then next week would be a really good time to explore the BRiTE materials we have mentioned before. They offer lots of ideas and techniques that you could use to ensure, when you return to school, you have strategies and structures in place that enable you to be resilient as you enter the next stage of your journey. https://www.brite.edu.au/

Have a lovely half term!

Resolving conflict in the classroom

By now I am sure you will have had at least occasional moments of conflict with individual pupils or particular classes so it seems a sensible time to revisit ideas around managing behaviour with a specific focus on conflict resolution.

When I say ‘conflict’ I am not necessarily talking about major incidents in the classroom. I am thinking about moments that begin as relatively minor incidents (e.g. a pupil getting out of their seat when they shouldn’t have) and that quickly escalate into situations that are getting in the way of your work as a teacher and/or the pupils’ learning.

Let’s start by identifying a pupil or class that you currently feel you are ‘in conflict’ with. Reflect on the current relationship and make a note (mental or written) of:

  • who is involved;
  • what is happening;
  • how you are feeling;
  • a particular incident that has resulted in conflict in this relationship.

As you read on, use these notes as a context to think about the thoughts I now offer.

screen-shot-2017-02-03-at-18-58-09

When you think about pupils’ behaviour in your classroom, what are your red flags?

It is very difficult as a new teacher not to react to the behaviour of pupils in a personal way…

  • You have worked hard planning a lesson and thinking about good activities for pupils to do and now they are not doing as you ask!
  • An individual pupil is ignoring you, how dare they!

The list goes on …

The difficulty is, as soon as the pupils’ behaviour has ‘got to you’, then it is far harder for you to make decisions about what your response is going to be. It is highly likely your response will be a trigger for the situation to escalate and conflict to occur. Can you think of an example when this has happened?

Do pupils know your red flags?

When a relationship with a pupil, or class, is strained if pupils are aware of what makes you react they are highly likely to put this to good use! In such situations it may be worth thinking about who has ‘the control’ in the classroom:

If your buttons are pushed and you react who has the power?

If your buttons are pushed and you don’t react who has the power?

Can you approach situations differently and thus resolve, or even prevent, conflict?

screen-shot-2017-02-03-at-19-04-13

Looking at the image above, how might you interpret this pupil’s behaviour? Imagine it is a pupil that is currently making your life difficult – what interpretation would you give to them putting their head on the table?

  • He is doing this on purpose to disrupt my lesson!
  • He isn’t showing me any respect!
  • This is so rude!

Based on your likely interpretation how would you have responded and what would that response probably have resulted in? An escalation of the situation? Conflict?

One way of analysing a conflict situation is to use a means of analysis known as FIDO:

  • Facts (what happened?)
  • Interpretation (what did I tell myself?)
  • Decision (what did I do based on my interpretation?)
  • Outcome (what was the outcome?)

What might this have looked like in the above scenario?

F – the fact is that the pupil has his head on the table (nothing more, nothing less)

I – I told myself this was a sign of bad behaviour (again?)

D – I confronted him and told him off

O – he responded badly, he wouldn’t do what I asked, I shouted, other pupils joined in, the lesson was completely disrupted, …

Try and analyse the conflict situation you have recently experienced in the same way.

So what could have happened differently?

To me the key is the ‘I’ stage – the escalation of a situation can come from the interpretation of the situation and the response based on this interpretation. For example, as soon as, in my head, I link behaviour to previous behaviours of a pupil my red flag can be raised and the remainder of an incident can follow an obvious (and familiar?) script.

Now, I am not saying that the behaviour in the example above wasn’t inappropriate – it may be there was a genuine reason for the head on the desk (ill-health, stuck on the work, …) but it is equally plausible that the pupil was trying to offend and misbehave! If I make the decision, however, to not interpret the behaviour then it quickly changes the dynamics of a situation and possibly the outcome.

What could I do differently?

In some cases it might be as simple as assuming nothing and just asking a pupil if they are alright. The pupil is nonplussed as the response is not what they were expecting; you are not agitated, there is nothing to react to, the situation de-escalates and the pupil re-engages with the lesson.

This is the ideal scenario, sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t! Either way it is a better starting point and will not instantly lead to conflict.

What happens if the pupil continues with their unwanted behaviour though, or makes an inappropriate comment when I speak to them?

The important thing is to continue to avoid:

  • interpreting their behaviour;
  • your buttons being pushed;
  • responding in a reactionary, uncontrolled, way.

Try to ask the following questions of either the scenario above or the recent conflict you have been involved in:

  • What is the outcome you ideally want?
  • What is negotiable/non-negotiable in the situation?
  • What type of re-framing might help?
  • What is your strategy (words/body language/when and where to tackle it)?

When thinking about the latter two questions, it might help to consider ideas behind restorative justice:

‘Too often educators have only learned to administer punitive forms of discipline. Punitive forms of discipline do not reduce misbehaviour but instead tend to breed resentment and further misbehaviour. Restorative justice focuses on relationships …’ (www.schoolclimate.org)

Some ideas around restorative justice focus on:

  • a culture of mutual respect;
  • the behaviour as a bad choice, not the student as a bad person;

So what is of interest here to my situation above or the conflict scenario you have been thinking about?

Try to consider how the scenario might play out differently if you focus on the behaviour not the pupil, have ‘mutual respect’ at the forefront of your mind and you refuse to interpret the pupil’s actions based on previous experiences:

  • What did you say? What could you say instead?

Try out some alternative comments on a friend and ask them to think about how different comments might make them feel and how they might respond.

How can these ideas help you make a choice about what to do at each stage of a conflict that allows you to remain in control?

I am not suggesting that you will never need to use some form of punishment for a pupil, but starting with restorative measures as a primary intervention model with traditional/punitive still available as a last resort can be a really helpful way of thinking to move forward.

The absolute key to all I have said here is to not build up a view of a class or pupil that you take into each lesson. Easy to say and harder to do, but if you go into a lesson expecting conflict there is no doubt that is what you will get. If you go in expecting something different then who knows what will happen!

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