At the beginning of these last three essays I promised to discuss the significance of the way we conduct our classroom to ensure we could get the best learning outcomes. We have discussed structure and expectation and now I will address what I described as ‘lesson content’ which I often refer to as the pedagogy of the lesson. I have to make a clear distinction between what I mean as the pedagogy and what is generally accepted in the education community.
The common belief is that pedagogy is the study of how knowledge and skills are communicated between the teacher and the student. This is a huge area of study and is well covered and understood in any teaching course and rightly so; it is extremely important. The difference between what is understood and what I want to add to the discussion is that like most theoretical approaches the approach is top-down, that is it is up to the teacher to put the knowledge and skills ‘into the student’. I will argue that it is the teacher’s role to present the topic to be studied so it is available to the student which would literally be exactly the same process but it is also the responsibility of the teacher to produce an environment where that student can focus on the lesson.
Learning, be it knowledge or skills is the acquisition of memories and the ability to manipulate those memories to address presenting challenges. Learning is not a top-down process it is bottom-up under the ‘control’ of the student. The key consideration is what does the student want to or need to learn rather than what we want them to learn!
In a previous Newsletter (see Motivation Students – What Drives Them’ – 03/14/2019) I discuss my model of human needs and the following are the major points:
The principle of homeostasis states that when we are in equilibrium we are satisfied. When we are in homeostatic dis-equilibrium we will experiences stress and that stress will cause the brain to initiate behaviour that will return us back to balance. Our behaviour is much like an air conditioner, when everything is at the right temperature nothing happens. If it gets too hot, or too cold the thermostat is activated and the machine is turned on to either cool or heat the environment as required. In our case, when we are comfortable there is no motivation to change but when we are ‘uncomfortable’ our behaviour is turned on in an attempt to return to a point of equilibrium.
The brain has evolved, from the bottom up to manage our physical status, the area of our:
Primary drives – predominantly controlled in the brain stem/mid brain to make sure we are physically comfortable. If we are too cold we will seek to warm ourselves.
Secondary Drives - our need for emotional stability is controlled in the limbic system. This is predominantly focused on our social acceptance.
Tertiary Drives – here our intellectual satisfaction is under the influence of the cortex, predominantly the frontal lobes. This is where we satisfy our curiosity.
The point is the teaching goals are focused on the tertiary part of the child’s brain but access here is only achievable if the child’s social and physical needs are satisfied.
Throughout these essays there is a theme that understands that children with severe behaviours are subjected to stress in the classroom because their expectations learned in a dysfunctional home clash with that of the school. These issues have been well canvassed but there is more to consider for all kids when ensuring their primary and secondary drives are satisfied. Kids are not little adults and they need to develop skills that will allow them to ‘survive’ in their community and eventually reproduce. The following is an illustration from Andrew Fuller that explains the different developmental stages.
What is well known is, in the early years the brain sets itself up to learn new skills. It does this by providing an excess of the material myaline that consolidates memories by creating a sheath around newly formed neural pathways to consolidate that pathway (memory) and make it more efficient.
This process of creating and consolidating memories continues throughout life. What is particularly important for the teacher is the formation of peer relations and self-esteem critical for the development of the child’s sense of self. For most kids this is a process that occurs consistently both at home and at school but for some, those raised in dysfunctional homes there is a conflict. This is where the teacher is required to address this disparity.
Successful teachers, particularly in primary schools, the age these skills are under construction almost reproduce a sense of family in their classrooms (see Newsletter - The Tribal Classroom’ – 08/10/2018) where social skills are part of the hidden pedagogy! Professor Bill Mulforde of the University of Tasmania has shown that “some of those other outcomes of schooling, such as socialisation, are in fact better predictors of later life chances such as employment, salary and so on, than literacy, numeracy and exam results”.
Recent studies have shown that about age eleven this same excess myelination is present in the prefrontal lobes. This is the time our ‘teenage brain’ begins to mature. This is the part of the brain that is required to succeed in academic pursuits. Again, the teacher needs to deliver the content of each lesson understanding that there is a need to progressively make the coursework self-directed so they graduate as independent learners.
What I have not discussed and really what is never overtly recognised is the arrival of each child’s sexuality. The PDHPE syllabus does address sexuality but apart from a period when some schools adopted the Safe Schools initiative that supported the diversity of sexual expression, those kids with more complex needs are ignored. Like most, I have no advice about this problem other than to understand it exists and is significant for all children and be aware that solving simultaneous equations is hardly going be more interesting than a first infatuation!
This essay doesn’t really give ‘rules’ on what to do. Somehow good teachers get these issues and we get through these stages of development however, for those kids who have been raised in difficult homes the teacher has to be doubly aware that their growth from learning the rules of being human, mastering communication skills and successful socialisation on to becoming a productive, reproductive adult is a difficult task! This is why structure, expectation and of course strong relationships are indispensable.
In the last Newsletter we discussed the importance of structure as part of this expanded examination of the characteristics of an effective classroom learning environment. The underpinning concept that defines structure is that there is a realistic connection between actions and the consequences of that action. This assumes there is a recognised framework in which this process operates. This is where expectations are important; what we expect to happen depends on the customs of the environment in which the action is taken.
Perhaps the foundational assertion of our work in regards to children who are raised in abusive, neglectful environments is that the behaviours they learned to make the most of their opportunities to get their needs met or more likely to minimise the damage inflict upon them by their abuser. They had learned what to expect in a given situation. The importance of this work is to teach these children to predict what will happen in this new environment. Of course, this is not the case for those children raised in chaotic, unpredictable families who come to our schools with no expectations at all. For those kids who have been raised in an environment where they had no idea what would happen to them we need to provide the link between what they do and what happens next.
Until the child experiences the new set of consequences their existence can only be a speculation; an imagined world if you like. The following diagram illustrates this process.
This is the connection between what is the remembered experiences and what could be the imagined result of their actions. In this process the emotional content is significant in any decision made and is expressed as a form of stress. Having built up our behavioural repertoire through remembering the outcomes of previous experiences each ‘situation’ will generate a level of stress depending on how damaging was that incident. If left unchecked when these children are faced with a situation that has the memory of a negative outcome the student descends on a negative emotional cycle that may start with frustration and if not resolved generate a level of fear about any future event with the same beliefs. The power of these emotions excludes the child from even imagining a different outcome. If this is attached in any way to the school, the work or interpersonal relationships they will eventually hate going to school; unable to imagine any other outcome but failure.
Unfortunately, we see too many of our kids, particularly when they are in upper primary of secondary completely disengaged from school.
The task for the teacher is to build-up an alternate bank of memories that will allow the child to choose an imagined experience as the result of their actions. This process takes time, time older students with severely damaging behaviours do not have a lot of. This underlines the importance of the need for predictable and consistent delivery of consequences discussed in the last Newsletter. However, there are other ways to teach these kids the ‘rules’ of their contemporary environment. One method which came into fashion was the teaching of social skills. The leader in this field was Arnold Goldstein the professor of Psychology and Education at Syracuse University. He introduced a method of social skills training in 1973 to deal with juveniles in detention.
He overtly taught the children in his charge how to act in a manner that would be acceptable within the cultural environment that is for us, the school. This was done through the following processes:
Modelling – the children are shown examples of how to behave in a given situation where previously they have failed to get what they want. The model needs to be someone who the students respect.
Role-Playing – The students are given scenarios to investigate through acting out how they should behave. This process can be threatening at first but will become a powerful tool in changing behaviour. Remember, the brain, where memories are formed and stored after a while will form the memories from the role play as an alternative choice for the student. The scenarios, at first are provided by the teacher, later can be from a random list or when engaged at the request of the participants.
Performance Feedback – This initially is provided by the facilitator but as the students engage they can all contribute. Approval is the best type of reinforcement and as the skills become more accepted there will be an intrinsic reward that follows. They will start to enjoy the process of rehearsal and the rewards that go with that. The satisfaction comes when they take these new skills and use them successfully in their day to day experiences.
Finally, the way the teacher corrects the dysfunctional behaviour is significant. When the student acts in an inappropriate way it is very important that the feedback is exclusively about the behaviour and nothing to do with the student. We have all witness teachers who, through lack of training or sheer frustration make comments like:
‘What do you think you’re doing’?
‘Is this your best you can do’?
‘Why did you do that’?
These comments put the blame on the student. Instead they should say things like:
How can we make this ‘…’?
‘What can we do this ‘…’?
‘What will it look like if ‘…’?
By using language that projects into the future with an improved outcome the student is more likely to be able to imagine a better future.
Teachers who face-up every day to students with such challenging behaviours are also subjected to the challenges of expectations. Over the many years I worked with these difficult kids I rarely, if ever was given the type of encouragement I would give to the students. Children, the authorities identify as bad are generally placed in programs that attempt to make them invisible. The teachers, who work with these kids experience this same insignificance. This is not fair, I contend these teachers should get the most attention for the difficult work they do but, working with these kids any notion that life is fair is soon discarded. Like the kids, you have to cling to the fact that these kids can take control of their actions and when they do they get the real intrinsic reward that drives their behaviour. You also have to look for that same intrinsic behaviour when you see your students taking control of their life. There can be no better reward!
In the last Newsletter (see ‘Nature vs Nurture’ – 8th June 2020) I made the point that to assist these children with severe behaviours we needed to create an environment that helped them develop a new set of memories that would drive an alternative way for them to deal with stressful situations. Of the three major components, structure, expectations and lesson content, it is structure that is the most important to be delivered at the beginning of the change process.
For the sake of this essay, structure means the predictable coupling of actions and consequences, that is if I do this, that will happen! Of course, this condition is not realistic, in the real-world if I do this there may be a lot of possible outcomes. The example I use when discussing this with students is as follows. Say I choose to drive home as fast as my car will go and on the other side of the road. There are a lot of imaginable consequences. I could:
Have a direct crash with an oncoming vehicle
Force all the approaching cars off the road
Be killed by losing control and hitting a tree
Really enjoy myself and get home early
The thing is, as a mature adult I can imagine these possible outcomes and make a mature decision that is best for me – drive home safely on the right side of the road. All the outcomes above could still happen but compared to the other decision I might make the chances of this are very low. It is this ability to predict future outcomes that empower us to make smart decisions.
These Newsletters have as their focus assisting children who have been raised in an abusive and/or neglectful environment. The form of abuse can vary. In some cases, the assault on the child is always delivered the same way. It might be dad bashing the child whenever they ‘make a mistake’. The result is the abuse is predictable and the child learns a behaviour that best deals with dad’s abuse, this feeling of having some control is transferred to the classroom and these kids are not usually a major management difficulty. This is not a ‘better’ form of abuse it just has different long-term outcomes for the child.
The children that do cause the most trouble in the classroom are those raised in an abusive and unpredictable environment. This range of possible outcomes is different than the example above. In that case there was a sense of logic between the choice of action and what may happen. For these kids there is no understandable connection between what they do and dad’s, or mum’s response. The chaotic behaviour of the ‘parents’ is a result of parent addiction or mental illness.
Take the example of a young boy being in a fight with a peer and this is reported home. One possible outcome is that dad belts the child for fighting. The next time this happens dad praises the boy for ‘being a chip off the old block’; the next time he takes the child to make peace with his rival, etc. What the father does depends on how the father feels and, although more sophisticated kids can take this into account they can’t in early childhood and so never develop a set of memories that would allow them to predict what might happen the next time they are faced with such a situation.
The use of structure, the close association with actions and consequences when dealing with these dysfunctional kids is to reconstruct the conditions the child should have experienced in early childhood.
New-born children have no capacity to make a choice and are dependent on others to get their needs met. In a healthy environment this is what happens, at first completely and then the babies start on the road to control. Initially, they may learn to cry when they are hungry, they cry and mum feeds them; crying works – the action gets the desired consequence. As they get older this feels a little less structured but good parents and teachers of very young children still consistently control the outcomes which is the predictable environment.
As the children develop they should be encouraged to make decisions about how they should behave but never about an issue that the child does not understand the harmful outcomes of a wrong decision. It is not ‘good parenting’ to ask the child what they would like for dinner and when they say a popular take-a-way which is repeatedly advertised, they do not understand the implications to their health now and in the long-term, so should not be making the decision of what to have for dinner.
The ‘out of control’ students that we are discussing have missed the early years of encountering predictability and so we have to create the conditions to deliver that experience. Teachers sometimes are reluctant to introduce such a tight structure into their classroom because the majority of kids are well beyond this phase of development, they can deal with a degree of freedom to make decisions. However, presenting such a predicable classroom will not hamper any of these advanced kids’ development; knowing what to expect makes everyone feel secure.
For those kids who are ‘out of control’ we need to reconstruct the conditions they should have experienced in early childhood. The more we can couple the consequence to the action the quicker they develop a new set of memories and these can replace those that drive their dysfunctional behaviour. This means in the classroom we need to develop a set of rules that describe the behaviour and what happens if you act that way. These can be desired outcomes, positive reinforcement or just the opposite, negative consequences. In a previous Newsletter (‘Creating Structure’ – 12th August 2019) I have described the process of constructing the type of desired environment.
Choosing behaviour all gets back to applying memories of what happened in the past and imagining what will happen in the future. The purpose of structure is to build a new set of memories that hopefully will eventually replace those feelings of hopelessness these children have because they never developed consistent conditions that allowed them to imagine a future.
A note to the teacher; if you are dealing with a fourteen-year-old child understand you are dealing with fourteen years of memories. Don’t be discouraged if they don’t immediately change, this takes time and when they are really threatened they will have no choice but to revert to their dysfunctional behaviour. But, if you hang in long enough they will eventually understand the link between what they do and what happens to them and if you do this for them you are setting them off to a life with some sense of empowerment.
Historically we have argued about the strongest influences on our levels of achievement as to whether it is our genetic make-up, (our nature) or our experiences (our nurture). This has consistently shifted towards nurture as being the dominant feature. What is important for us teachers to remember is that it is in this field we operate.
At the time of conception, a child is subject to a given genetic blue print that determines its physical self; their hair colour, how high they grow, etc. I must point out that these pre-set specifications are not all definitive, for instance the height of a child will vary depending on their diet, etc., but in very recent times the discovery of the process of epigenetics shows that we continually alter our genes. This is the gene’s response to their environment but of course that is part of their nurture! For the sake of this essay the child’s genetics determines their capacity including their cognitive potential.
As educators we are most interested in the brain and how best to interact with it to maximise the student’s learning. Despite the Pollyanna view of many education leaders in that if we try hard enough for long enough we can all succeed, the myth of meritocracy prevails. In reality children are born with a normal distribution of all features including their potential ‘learning achievement’. This capacity to learn is reflected in the efficiency they can establish memories and their exposure to experiences! That is, the child perceives a situation, tries an action and if that works ‘remember’ to do that next time the situation occurs. When the child is motivated for whatever reason, the neurons in the brain try different combinations to generate the desired action that will result in satisfaction. Eventually they come across one sequence that succeeds, this success motivates them to try again. If this next attempt is also successful the pathway becomes stronger eventually being myalinated, coated with a sheath for efficiency and is stored as long-term memory – ‘neurons that fire together wire together’! Nature is not a form of egalitarianism; some kids form these memories after a few exposures while others require a multitude of repetitions to make the connection!
If you have taught mathematics you will have experienced this difference. Some kids only have to be told once how to do a computation and they get it and remember it. Sadly, I have experienced those beautiful kids who try, and try to learn for example, how to multiply fractions and by the end of the lesson they ‘get it’ but tomorrow, when they return to class ‘it’ has gone – much more work is needed for this to become a long-term memory. This variation in the ability to form memories is expressed as a normal distribution when aggregated across the total population; most in the middle and fewer as we move away from the average. Where any child finds themselves on this curve has nothing to do with their worth or character it is just their genetic inheritance. So, if they are on the extreme they will have very different abilities through no fault of their own.
But nurture is different in the sense that, unlike genetics the characteristics of the environment in which a child is raised is imposed on them. They had no choice about who would be their primary ‘carer’. Throughout these Newsletters we have discussed the importance of the developmental environment in the formation of behaviours (See Newsletters – ‘The Impact of Poverty and Neglect’ – 20th August, 2018 and ‘Poverty and Student Success’ - 19th November 2018). We have focused on children who are raised in chaotic, unpredictable homes where the connection between what they try today that works will work when repeated because the parent’s response is different there is no consistent firing of networks to allow memories to develop.
For this discussion we need to focus not on this deficit but describing the type of environment that will provide the best opportunity for the students to build a rich and varied neural architecture. In the next few newsletters I will discuss these features in detail but for now they are:
Structure – all kids need to know what will happen when they act, this is how they construct their memories
Expectation – everyone needs to know what behaviours will create what outcomes. This is like structure but is a shared quality between teacher and student. We need to know what works to solve problems.
Lesson Content – I have proposed that in the first instance the ability to quickly create memories is a significant indicator of academic success. The next characteristic is the assortment of those memories. The richer and secure an environment is, the more memories are developed. The more stored memories you have, the better equipped you are to solve new problems.
It is important to keep in mind student achievement is directly linked to:
Their genetic make-up
Their developmental environment
When considering issues around education I find a pictorial approach helps me think and draw conclusions, they are sort of thought experiments. Below The following diagram I devised to illustrate the significance of these factors. It is not critical to examine this for the points I want to make but I suspect some will find it helpful.
I have used an arbitrary measure for achievement (Units of Achievement) which allows for comparison. I have chosen four students, S1, S2, S3 and S4 and they fall on either, extreme end of the curve. In this set-up we have two born with very poor neural efficiency (S1 and S2) and they find memory formation extremely difficult. S3 and S4 have been born with the natural ability to quickly form and retain memories.
We now take these students and raise them in environments that reflect the conditions at either end of the curve, one end extremely neglectful with no experiences that would at least stimulate the formation of memories. At the other end these children are raised in a warm and secure family with a rich and varied set of experiences, they have plenty to form memories about. To mix the starting points I have exposed S2 and S3 to the neglectful environment and S1 and S4 to the fertile environment.
Taking a scale of 100 Units of achievement for both nature and nurture in a perfect world a child could achieve 200 units. For the illustration I have given them a position 5 Units inside the maximum, so for nature:
S1 and S2 get 5
S3 and S4 get 95
S2 and S3 get 5
S1 and S4 get 95
When you aggregate their scores:
S1, 5 + 95 = 100
S2, 5 + 5 = 10
S3, 95 + 5 = 10
S4, 95 + 95 = 180
It can be seen that there is a potential difference of 160 units of achievement for students, born with very poor cognitive abilities and raised in a very neglectful environment, to those who have been gifted with cognitive potential and raised in a highly supportive and fertile environment.
The point we have to keep in mind is that no matter how a child is born it is their community, their family and school that makes a difference and it can be a big difference. None of these fictitious students had a choice in how they were born and what they were born into and their achievements at school are out of their control. However, how the influence of the environment which impacts on the child’s achievements is the responsibility of our whole community.
It would be nice if governments recognised this reality and provided real support through pre-school, school and up to universities but we know how far this is from the reality schools face today. So, again the task of helping those kids falls to the schools and for those with disabilities, linked to their nature it will be our public schools that bear the load. I know we always rise to the occasion with the assets we have but just think how much more we could do if we were properly resourced?
Not doing so leads to a massive loss in human potential!
Teachers just faced the most stressful conditions they have experienced, with the very swift transition from school based to on-line learning only to return to an environment that at any time could prove life threatening for them, their colleagues and students. In this Newsletter I will examine the real mechanics of stress, the abdication of the employer’s responsibility and the need to completely modify the current industrialised approach to providing public education.
Throughout these essays the underpinning message has been for the struggling students to succeed and we need to achieve two things:
Develop a sense of self that allows them to approach their learning with confidence
Provide an environment that does not attack the child’s sense of security and provides them the opportunity to succeed to their ability.
Although both conditions are required for teachers the responsibility to achieve them is not shared. In fact, it is the quality of the environment that determines the level of stress teachers have to deal with.
I just looked up workplace stress on Goggle I got 217,000,000 results (0.63 seconds), that is 217 million bits of advice. I have had a look a few of these and as I already understood they all had advice for you on how to deal with that stress. They were about looking after:
Your Health – diet, smoking, exercise, etc
Support Structures – reaching out to others, finding someone you can share your problems, etc.
Self-Management – take control, say ‘no’, manage your time, etc.
I read one list that advised you ‘become lord of your destiny’!
I remember a few years ago when the Department provided a substantial sum of money to ‘cure’ principals from their stress. All that happened was a consultant made a lot of money and we principals were really left with the understanding that, if we couldn’t cope it was our fault! But, that’s like telling someone who is about to be assaulted that if that was about to stress you it was your fault – no one would do that so why do they blame the teachers for their stress?
No one would argue that teaching is not a difficult job and no one gets through many days without being put into situations that generate stress. That stress comes from dealing with developing children. We soon learn that in most cases these are problems to deal with. Occasionally you would get a few kids that were really difficult and had to be dealt with. In recent years the numbers and the extreme expression of the dysfunctional behaviour has become more significant. For some schools the Government’s support for private schools has allowed concerned parents to take their students away from the public sector and their attempts to stem this drift has developed selective schools. The result has been the residualisation of the comprehensive school. On top of the kid’s behaviour you have to deal with their other kids’ diverse talents and disabilities not to mention their parents! Remember the presence these stressors are out of your control!
You can add to this increasing external environmental difficulty is the demands on you from the Department. In my almost fifty years in schools I witnessed the exponential growth in a teacher’s administrative responsibilities. Today there is a recognition of the excessive burden placed on the teacher and the increasing onus on teachers to provide evidence that they comply with these demands.
The diagram below is an attempt to illustrate the problem:
The amount of stress a teacher accumulates is a balance between the external demands placed on them by their employer and their ability to handle these demands! When the teacher’s resilience is equal to or greater than the external stressors the teacher will be able to function effectively. However, when these external stressors are greater than the teacher’s resilience then the teacher is suffering a type of abuse and will be required to use their cognitive energy to survive thus rendering them less effective!
Where does the responsibility lie to solve this problem? As I pointed out at the beginning of this essay, look for any advice and almost exclusively it will place the obligation on the individual. Even the small support the Department provides is directed at helping teachers increase their resilience. A popular phrase used was to increase your capacity. This implies that if the teacher can not provide enough resilience to deal with the external demands then they are the problem, they failed because they were just not good enough!
This is faulty logic that suits the status quo, the same argument that is applied to meritocracy. It delivers equal demands to all workers and when some succeed, then not to do so means you are a failure; ‘if you have a go you will get a go’!
A significant result is that because few of us want to fail and even more admit to that failure we go back to school day after day using most of our cognitive energy just surviving, this is what I’m calling toxic resilience we appear to be coping when in reality we are not only suffering continual intellectual abuse we are not being able to teach to the best of our ability!
The Department consistently praises the teachers for their efforts but never ever take any responsibility for their side of the equation! In their WHS Policy they assert:
The department is committed to:
1.11 – providing everyone in its workplaces with a safe and healthy working and learning environment.
They are not complying to their own legislation.
For the first time since retirement I am pleased not to be at a school, I am sure I suffered from toxic resilience through many phases of my career and at my farewell I made the comment the job is now undoable. Today with the continued growth in demands and now being ordered to teach in a pandemic without the physical ability to provide the recommended conditions even the most resilient teacher would be lying if they claimed to have it all under control!
I have no advice that’s better than you can get readily on the internet but I think my approach to boundaries (see Newsletter Teaching Practical Boundaries - 31st July 2017) is as good as any. What needs to happen is the external demands are reduced to a level where all teachers can meet their directives and have the energy to then teach their students. Maybe its time to become ‘lord of our destiny’ and demand change. I can’t see how the Department is not breaking its own law and perhaps that’s where this problem will be solved!
The principals of the company have had long careers in education with a combined total of eighty-one years service. After starting as mainstream teachers they both moved into careers in providing support for students with severe behaviours.