The little things that make a difference

In teaching it is often the little things we do on a daily basis that have the largest cumulative effect. While the events, festivals, camps and more spectacular lessons may stand out in our memories these moments have less overall impact across the time that our students spend in our company. Getting these little details right however is a complex business that demands we bring our best to every interaction, every lesson and every opportunity we have to shape the minds and dispositions of our learners. The result is that there are no easy lessons, no easy days.

Once perhaps things were different. In classrooms dominated by textbooks and where teaching was about the transfer of knowledge there were easy lessons. ‘Open your textbook to page 27 and complete the exercise’ is a lesson plan that requires very little input, minimal planning and thanks to the handy answer page ensured easy marking. This model of education continues to shape the perceptions of what school is like for many members of the community. Not only parents but professionals associated with the education industry imagine that students still spend large chunks of time copying information from the board as reflected in suggestions that students with learning difficulties are seated close to the imaginary locus of learning in the room. In these days teaching was almost a set and forget process. Start the students on a task from the board or the textbook and the learning would take place almost by magic, or such was the belief.

Happily, this model of teaching is disappearing. With a shift to a learner centric classroom where the students and teachers become collaborators in the construction of knowledge, who engage in an active process of problem finding and problem solving every lesson demands the highest levels of engagement. Expert teachers construct learning experiences with their students that promote high order thinking, encourage collaboration and demand creativity. None of this happens by accident or without the teacher playing an essential role in constructing a classroom environment and culture that allows for this style of learning.

Consider the language choices we make as a part of our daily routine. A question phrased the right way will encourage students to think creatively and expansively as they consider multiple possible answers. Phrased in alternate language a similar question can send a message to the students that there is but one correct answer and it is the one the teacher already knows. More than just a distinction between open and closed questions the choice of words we make can shift the ways students perceive learning in our classes. Ron Ritchhart in ‘Creating Cultures of Thinking’ describes the influence that ‘conditional’ language has on our students. Replacing the word ‘is’ with the word ‘might’ in our questions can encourage students to see our classes as a place that encourages dialogue and debate; a place where there is no single right answer. Making the right language moves in every lesson is a subtle distinction between high and average performing teachers and it is a distinction that occurs through deliberate attention to every decision that is made.

Our language choices send messages about what we value from our students. There is increased attention on the use of the word ‘work’ within schools. It is argued that referring to what students do while engaged in a task should always be referred to as learning, that the word work implies that they are getting stuff done and that there is one correct way to do it. 'In learning-oriented classrooms, mistakes are seen as opportunities to learn, to grow, to rethink. In work-oriented classrooms, errors and mistakes are to be avoided because they indicate incompetence.’ (Ritchhart 2015 p45) It is a subtle change yet one that reveals what we value in our classroom culture. What we name and subsequently value within our classroom culture shapes our learners and their futures. If we value quiet classes we discourage collaboration and conversation, if we identify students for offering correct answers we discourage alternative responses and responses from students who are unsure of their response’s value. If we value thinking, effort, failure and risk taking we encourage every student to partake in the learning opportunities we make available.

Encouraging a growth mindset in our students is another goal that is well served by the subtle choices we make on a daily basis. Bringing about a genuine shift in an individual’s mindset demands consisted messaging about what results in success. Teachers who have this goal in mind will take care to link student success to the things that they have done which resulted in that success. This focus on the student’s actions, effort, risk taking and willingness to adopt feedback reveals a belief that ability is not a fixed attribute and that success results from what we do rather than what we are. Consistent messaging that leads to a shift in mindset requires teachers who are constantly switched on to the language choices they make. Teachers who seek to change student mindsets understand how easily their students will slip back into a fixed mindset as a result of praise that reinforces their desire for recognition of inherent ability.

One subtle shift that shapes our classrooms and our teaching is demonstrated by how we answer the question ‘who owns the learning’ or ‘who does the thinking’. When we aim to give ownership of the learning and the thinking to our students we need to accept that the learning will be messy. It is difficult if not impossible to plan a lesson in full and complete detail if you are not in control of its delivery. Responsive teachers will know that the students are likely to take the learning in unexpected directions and will allow this to happen safe in the knowledge that this style of lesson serves their goals for constructivist learning. In this rich dynamic environment where questions and wonderings are pursued and celebrated students are actively engaging with the adaptive competencies they will require beyond their time at school. For the teacher these lessons require a different approach to planning, one that ensures the students are developing a variety of skills and dispositions or learning while engaging with the curriculum content from new perspectives.

The end result of these little things is a culture that values learning and personal growth. Through the little things we do every day in every lesson we encourage our students to approach their learning as an achievable challenge. We give them permission to make mistakes, to fall down and to get back up time and time again. We promote a love of learning and we show that we are prepared to join with our students in a journey towards increased understanding. Seeing the value in the little things we do encourages us to give them the attentions they deserve, to take time to reflect on the choices we make and to pursue strategies that will enhance the effectiveness of our every action.

By Nigel Coutts