Proof – the final frontier for teachers

Is it time to return to the cult of the teacher?

It’s the first thing you get told when you come into teaching: what works with one class doesn’t necessarily work with another.

A trainee teacher might lament after a lesson (that did not go so well) where they had repeated the plan from another class and their sage mentor would say – it might have worked quite well with 9x, but 9y are a different class.

This is not about learning styles, which has been substantially criticised. This is about knowing the individuals in your classes. A good teacher is always thinking about ‘maximum learning’. Don’t mistake this for, ‘entertainment’, ‘engagement’ or any other glib insult. We are not ‘making our subject interesting’ – our subject is interesting. But we are fine tuning the lesson to the unique community of learners that have been assembled to experience the subject with us in the form of lessons.

If we are really honest this is one of the biggest issues with the accountability system. A school’s results and standards of teaching don’t go up and down so dramatically as measured from year to year as the data likes to report. What happens is that one cohort is very different to another in terms of collated outcomes. A senior manager prays that a specific cohort goes through the system out of sync with the ofsted inspection cycle of a school. God help any school if ofsted turns up shortly after their one dodgy cohort’s variable results. This is really an amplified version of what Becky Allen refers to as ‘noise’ – the variables that can affect outcomes and attempts to measure progress using what is actually non-comparable data. A school could be comparing one good cohort with one not so good cohort and be deemed terrible or amazing depending on which came first. I’m afraid Progress 8 has done nothing to prevent this from happening as others have already said. The off-rolling we have seen is a direct result of people trying to manage this ‘noise’ and its impact on accountability measures. Indeed, having read Becky Allen’s blogs on closing the gap you begin to think the issue with the RCTs of the EEF is that they need to make stronger their awareness of ‘noise’ and how schools cater for this when exploring ideas that emerge from the RCTs. Rather than use the RCTs as eternal proof that setting, technology or any other intervention ‘works’ or ‘doesn’t work’, one should see the output from these RCTs as a source of information and evidence that could be useful when looking at one’s own specific cohorts (and remember, every year group is different).

All too often, we end up looking for the silver bullet. We try to remove the very thing which makes us human from the school system – our variability. Once all variability is removed then we can finally say that our resource or pedagogy is proven to work with all. Yet the inherent variables and other influential attributes all mean we cannot prove that something ‘works’ for everyone and every school.  That’s why social science can never lose its subjectivity or its lack of ability to resolutely prove things in the way that medicine likes to do. It’s therefore why you can’t ‘prove’ anything in education. But you can get the next best thing: a teacher.

A teacher, through forming a deep relationship with a class, can use their knowledge, intuition and teaching to maximise the outcomes for the individuals in that class. Those outcomes will be many, varied and not always measured or be measurable. Those outcomes will be assessment outcomes, aspirations, values, passions, inspiration, personal growth and so forth. Some will be quantified and some will be qualitative. The teacher will subjectively work out which methods, from their vast list of methods and evidence, are best for this group of individuals. It’s an amazing feat of human engineering and it’s a time-honoured ability: to be a truly amazing teacher for a class. And it’s the closest thing we will get to proving something works in education. You want a silver bullet? There it is: the teacher.

Understanding the effect of the Autonomous Nervous System on children’s behaviour – Guest Blog

behaviour management

One model of explanation often applied in determining the learning and behaviour of any  child is the state their Autonomous Nervous System (ANS) is in. It is worth knowing a bit about this as the ANS gene expression is changed by poor early attachment experiences, excessive stress and trauma.

In any situation, a child’s brain is neuroceptively (fast and unconsciously) assessing environmental safety.  Many children find school a reasonably safe place and respond accordingly; some will find school and learning unsafe. This blog does apply to all children, but focuses by illustration on children who have experienced adverse childhood experiences. If a child’s  life  means that their experience of things is fraught with danger signals, then the child’s ANS will be sending danger signals to the rest of the brain and to the body. The child will then excessively look for danger in the EXTERNAL environment and excessively experience danger INTERNALLY – even from the most unfathomable of stimuli; when we experience an internal feeling of danger we tend to look externally for the source. This chart by Ruby Jo Walker highlights it well.

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According to Stephen Porges, who has pioneered work on the role of the vagal nerve, the ANS operates on a continuum of response from complete safety to extreme danger. It is helpful to divide this up into three zones of SAFETY, DANGER and LIFETHREAT. When the ANS judges both internal and external environment to be safe then this represents a child’s optimal arousal level. In this state, the child is most ready to learn. This is not about an element of challenge or stress but the assessed absence of danger. It is this state, that most children are in when in school, that is elusive for the child who has experienced significant adverse life experiences.

A child with the above issues exists far more with the ANS in a state of readiness for danger or even life threat – even if no such threat exists in the environmentA danger state is represented by hyperarousal and readiness for fight, flight, rage or panic. A life threat state is represented by hypoarousal, freeze, dissociation and collapse. When someone has an extreme phobic response to a relatively innocent stimulus then this is what is happening.

This understanding sheds some light on the issues surrounding these often very difficult to manage children. We tend to look at our external environmental strategies to see if they will work and often cannot see why they don’t work. However, these strategies simply will not work if the ANS is experiencing the external or internal child environment as dangerous. Where does this leave us then? Our focus needs to be on getting the ANS in the right place rather than on the poor behaviour resulting from the ANS response. Quite simply we also would behave in inappropriate ways if our ANS was misfiring in this way. When working with these children it is helpful for us to acknowledge poor behaviour and response to learning as adaptive rather than maladaptive. That leads us to the question, ‘Why might this behaviour be adaptive?’. Once we have asked ourselves that question it can lead us forward in our search for good solutions.

We can take three routes to modifying the ANS response and in ‘learning the child’, we can try to find the right combination of routes. The first route works primarily on the body and physiological response generated by the ANS. The second route works primarily on the emotional state itself to create a sense of safety. The third route works on the cognitive (executive function) ability to apply a brake to the ANS. This whole brain way of working represents a powerful model for working with these children.

 As teachers we need to ‘stand still in order to move on’. This means finding the time to stand back and ask the question ‘ Could this behaviour be signalling something more than is immediately obvious? By being prepared to view behaviour as a signal of adaptation gives us the space to become thoughtful and reflective rather than reactive. It enables us to be better teachers and children to learn better.

 The author is a former SENDCO and advisory teacher for looked after children. He currently runs a consultancy – advising schools and children’s homes on working with children with SEND backgrounds.