Across Australia students are returning to school. Armed with fresh stationery, new books full of promise, shoes that are not yet comfortable and uniforms washed and ready to go, students will be heading off for the first day of a new year. What do they hope to find and how might we make sure their first day back sets them up for a successful year of learning?
Above all else our students will want to know that school is a safe place where they can be themselves. Students will not take risks with their learning, engage in creative thinking, adopt a growth mindset or demonstrate grit and determination if they do not feel safe. A safe and welcoming school climate is one that embraces diversity in all its forms, is forgiving of mistakes and missteps, focuses on growth and sees learning as an iterative process. When we take the time to get to know our students, when we show that we want to hear their story, discover their interests and join with them on the learning journey that lies ahead we show our students that they are what matter most. Great teachers know their students well and use that knowledge just as they use their knowledge of curriculum and pedagogy to construct the right culture for every child's learning.
A teacher I worked with for many years would begin the term by writing each member of her class a welcome note. What made this practise special was the great care with which each note was written. As the students arrived in her class at the start of the year and the start of each term they would find their personalised note waiting on their desk. Each note was carefully crafted to show that the child was known and that their teacher was happy to have them as a member of her class. The notes shared with the child their teacher’s hopes for them in the weeks and months that lay ahead and her confidence in their ability to handle the challenges they would encounter. With this strong foundation, the first hours of the school year were dedicated to building connections and celebrating the rich diversity that the students bring to the class as a result of their backgrounds, interests, strengths and weaknesses. The time spent in these opening hours established a class that put empathy and compassion before all else.
The start of the year is the perfect time to establish a culture of thinking in our classrooms. When we value thinking, make time for it to occur, ask open ended questions that permit it and when we set the clear expectation that thinking is essential in our classrooms we build a culture that advances learning. Many teachers start the year with stories of holiday adventures but fewer begin with stories of holiday thinking and learning. This can be the perfect opportunity to model your thinking as a teacher and as a life-long learner. By sharing with our students, the learning, problem solving, thinking and wondering we engage with we become the models of life-long learning they need.
“What makes you say that?” is a powerful question and one of the Ten Things that Ron Ritchhart recommends we say to our students every day. It can be a confronting question and some learners who have not been exposed to it may see it as negative feedback. It is worth explaining to the class early on that “What makes you say that?” (or the abbreviated WMYST) is a question you will ask often not because their response is flawed but because you value the thinking that led to it. WMYST is one way to take your students beyond right and wrong answers and to move the routine of the classroom away from what Dylan Wiliam calls “ping pong” questioning where the teacher asks a question, a student answers and the pattern repeats. WMYST opens up a richer dialogue where there are multiple perspectives and students are expected to reason with evidence. Establishing an expectation that students will articulate the thinking behind their responses early on brings the advantage that before long students will automatically extend their responses with the addition “and what makes me say that is . . .”.
This is also the time to set up the conditions required to enable a “growth mindset”. Being clear from day one that this year will be full of challenges and that students will have many times when they do not immediately achieve success. Failure will be a part of their learning and is a necessary requirement for true personal growth. If we reimagine failure as a part of the learning process, as a way of finding out what doesn’t work and of exploring just beyond our personal limit, it stops being a barrier and is transformed as a hurdle on the road to success. Building on this, teachers need to be clear that they value personal growth more than right answers or high test scores. The students who take responsible risks, challenge themselves, look for what they can learn from every experience and who want to be shown where they might improve are the ones who will achieve the most.
Our recently appointed Australian of the Year, Professor Michelle Yvonne Simmons captured many of these ideas beautifully in her acceptance speech, words that will undoubtedly be shared by many teachers at the start of this year. "I’ve really lived by four mantras - do what is hard, place high expectations on yourself, take risks and do something that matters” Now is the time for us to establish a culture of learning in our classrooms that allow our students to do the same. The little things we do now, the time we spend building our classroom culture, sets us up for the great year of learning we all hope for.
By Nigel Coutts