Welcome to NEGS 2018. It has been a busy start to the year with many new faces and the every-day-bustle of all things new.
At NEGS we have all been buoyed by our outstanding HSC results and the excitement of the cohort of 2017 as they set upon their new adventures. The myriad of places the girls are travelling to – whether that is university, paid employment or a “gap year” – represents all the opportunities and confidence that a NEGS education affords them. I am sure my words resonate with every NEGS parent when I say: I would love to be that age again with the wisdom I have now – it could have saved a lot of angst.
This week I share with you the research of Professor Erica McWilliam and Dr Peter Taylor. As it is the beginning of a new year for every student at our school, it is imperative that sound habits and passion for learning are instilled within each of them. This of course facilitated by expert teachers. I am so proud of the outstanding teachers at NEGS and the new fleet of teacher-talent we have been able to recruit. This ensures excellence and once again hones in on the value of the aggregation of marginal gains.
McWilliam and Taylor have found that planning and pedagogy are ‘inextricably linked’ and that ‘first day, first class’ success ‘derives from planning for the pedagogy’. From their research titled: Enabling Routines Project, they investigated how 17 highly effective teachers established enabling pedagogical routines with a new class of middle school or secondary students in a Brisbane school. As the aim of the project was to understand how teachers establish routines with students they had not taught previously, teachers identified classes containing students with whom they were the least familiar. The first lesson of the school year was video-taped and observed, along with at least three lessons over the first fortnight. Teachers were also invited to share with the researchers how they went about planning for the first lessons of the year.
Analysis of the responses of the 17 teachers to questions regarding their approaches to ‘first day, first class’ revealed several shared beliefs including: ‘You are safe in my classroom’, ‘You can learn in my classroom’, and ‘You can grow in my classroom’.
Teachers conveyed safety and inclusiveness by a variety of means which supported the emotional and intellectual needs of their students. Effective teachers put students at ease, reassuring them and giving them the confidence to succeed. Some teachers used self-deprecating talk or jokes, while another asked her students how anxious they were on a scale of one to five, and rating herself as a ‘two’ in order to signal ‘that it was “ok” to feel less than confident on day one’. In sum, effective teachers adopted strategies framing themselves ‘as an approachable “equal” rather than an all-knowing instructor’.
Teachers conveyed that all students could learn in their classroom in a ‘nuanced’ range of ways depending on ‘the sort of culture that would be likely to engage a particular cohort of students in a particular subject area’. This involved learning about their students (e.g. their strengths and ‘defaults’ as learners), establishing a ‘classroom culture and love of learning’, and building on experience of previous years to prepare new resources, perhaps even during holidays periods, ‘in order to devise precise strategies for better addressing the interest of students in early adolescence’.
The ‘You can grow in my classroom’ belief is, of course, linked with Carol Dweck’s research on ‘growth mindset’ which indicates that students are not limited by a narrow range of abilities but are ‘potentially capable of learning in any domain of knowledge’ (p. 31). Effective teachers conveyed this belief though establishing that failure is normal and that they can continue learning regardless (p. 32).
Effective teachers also utilise their classroom spaces to enhance learning, using the ‘multi-sensory experiences that encoding-rich environmental design makes possible’. Teachers in this study used specific classroom layouts (e.g. teacher in the centre of the room to be as close to the students as possible) and purposeful and interesting visual stimulus on classroom walls. Digital technology is also an increasingly important component of the overall environmental aesthetics of a classroom. Teachers did note, however, that ‘unstable platforms and “bugs in the system” can detract from an optimal day one, class one learning experience’. One teacher said, “I absolutely make sure that all the technology is working before I start … No quicker way to lose engagement than a boring wait for me to fix tech’.
While McWilliam and Taylor found that effective teachers had many things in common, there were some areas in which they diverged. Some teachers began planning during the holidays or as soon as the timetable was out; others not until a few days before classes began. One teacher responded:
I started planning over the holidays — classroom set up, routines, how I want them to manage their work, books, lockers, organisation, computers etc. More intense planning was done during staff week, and again things were refined after the first few days of school once I met my class.
Some teachers liked to find out about their students before classes began; others preferred to allow their students a fresh start. Some felt that their career or experience prior to teaching had been influential in their planning process, while others named a previous teacher as highly influential. Some looked to a colleague or mentor who they admire, such as those in their own department or school. This provides ‘a strong indication that effective teachers are increasingly looking sideways to build and sustain collaborative learning-oriented cultures with their peers, in the same way that they want their students to do in their classrooms’.
Even in the early stages of their study, before analysing all the data, McWilliam and Taylor stated that their observations already revealed that ‘effective teachers plan for, and then successfully enact, pedagogical strategies that support and sustain student engagement and learning’. Planning is ‘crucial’, they write, but ‘merely planning for curriculum “coverage” … is sub-optimal for building deep and sustained learner engagement, or effective thinking cultures’ (McWilliam & Taylor, 2017a, p. 56). Indeed:
It is not always easy for teachers to imagine that their students may not become as excited as they are by the subject they love. For many of us teachers with a passion for our disciplines, it is too easy to proceed with the presumption that elaboration of the ‘content’ will be enough to engage students. Or, if and when this fails, that frequent reminders about pending assessments will be enough to round up the outliers and non-believers (p. 56).
Effective pedagogy must be planned for and ‘such planning is not to be conflated with decisions about what subject content would be “covered” over the duration of a term or semester’. Rather, ‘planning is the first step in a five-step process of establishing enabling pedagogical routines (plan, communicate, initiate, establish and normalise)’ (McWilliam & Taylor, 2017b, p. 30).
McWilliam and Taylor conclude that ‘planning for a culture of learning is a key “front-end” to the work’ that effective teachers do — they ‘prioritise pedagogical planning over planning for content “delivery”, then follow through by messaging their “culture of learning” intentions from the first encounter with their students’. This allows effective teachers to translate their planning into ‘robust and sustainable pedagogical realities’.
This is enlightening research and I can concur with not only what McWilliam and Taylor concluded, but witness this every day with our inspiring teaching Staff at NEGS. What lucky students we have.