The Hamster Wheel Effect: not realising the game has changed

So, in case you weren’t aware, I’m using this blog to work my way through the six principles of our school’s newly devised Learning and Teaching Policy.  That may not sound so exciting, but it is my hope that each of these principles lay the foundations for genuine professional learning that will make a big impact on our classroom practice and overall learning ethos.

This is the principle that could at first be read to mean “quick, look busy, the inspectors are coming”. And what teacher wants learners that are disengaged anyway?!  Yes, I want learners in our school to be engaged with lessons, paying attention and enjoying the activities the teacher has organised. No surprises there. But whilst the whizz-bang whistles-and-bells lesson is all rather splendid, the active engagement of the learner involves ensuring that pupils are actually learning, not just having a nice time. Likewise, simply providing a range of activities that ought to be learning opportunities isn’t enough either. We all need to verify – in real time, in your lesson – that learning is happening and has happened in your lesson. And it has to be something that every child in that lesson is doing, not just most.  And for pupils to be actively engaged, they should really be enjoying the process too.

Iain Smith, formally Dean of Education at Strathclyde, wrote an open letter in 2012 to the Cabinet Secretary for education in Scotland.  In it he points out the risk of amateurism in teaching if we don’t keep up with the developments that have occurred in education research.  He gives this short and simplified rundown of John Hattie’s main points:

  1. Those schools in which teachers set high expectations are effective in what they achieve.
  2. Concentrating on feedback (what we typically call Assessment for Learning) is very effective in causing large gains in student learning.
  3. Reducing class sizes is largely irrelevant to achievement.
  4. School development planning is often irrelevant to student learning.
  5. Focusing on reducing disruptive pupil behaviour is highly effective in causing gains in learning.
  6. Encouraging school students to tutor other students is good at increasing learning – for the students being tutored and for those doing the tutoring.

I’ve seen perfectly good teachers say things off the cuff to pupils that unwittingly undermine the  high expectations they would otherwise purport to have of their pupils.  My favourite was “I didn’t try hard at school either, and I did alright”!  Well-meaning statements like this reflect the moments when we get caught in a sort of hamster wheel effect – we go round and round and round the wheel perpetuating the same mistakes, or even the same paradigm, as our own experience/model of education without taking into account the mountain of research and evidence that tells us that the whole game has changed.  We could be doing things differently and doing it better.

Mihalyi Csikszentmihalyi talks of “flow” and “vital engagement”.  Flow is about being ‘in the zone’ – there’s a clear challenge that fully engages your attention.  He defines vital engagement as “…a relationship to the world that is characterised by both the experiences of flow (enjoyed absorption) and by meaning (subjective significance)” (source: Nakamura & Csikszentmihalyi 2003, quoted in Haidt 2006).  That is to say, being in a state of flow leads to an ever-deepening relationship with the activity/subject, and that relationship becomes part of the person’s sense of purpose and direction in life.  Mix in Csikszentmihalyi’s ideas with quality feedback and collaborative learning, and I think we would be moving in the right direction towards truly and actively engaging learners.

We must all make sure, as teachers, that we don’t promote the “good enough” and that we actively move beyond it.  So it may well be that it is good enough to be an engaging and motivating teacher, or to spoon feed for the exams, or to make sure that most pupils are ready for the exams.  But to go beyond the “good enough” we have to have a clear learning dialogue with every pupil we teach so that the teacher becomes the initiator/facilitator/challenger.  That way we can do more to ensure that no child is left behind and that we ignite a passion for learning that goes beyond the hamster wheel of passing exams.  That’s what I mean by promoting the active engagement of the learner.  We need both teacher and pupil to be on the same journey, working together.  We should aim to spark that meaning, depth and absorption in pupils – that same spark that led us to the academic pursuits to which we now belong.  And we should aim to do it far better than we ever experienced it.