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Character education: big ideas are great, but the hows are harder

SSAT Senior Education Lead Corinne Settle brings a practical teacher’s perspective to bear on some of today’s buzzwords…

Character education, soft skills, non-cognitive skills, habits of the mind… I’m not one for making sure I have the ‘right’ or academically correct word for what I am talking and thinking about, most of the time I just go for what makes sense to me.

I see the current big words – resilience, grit, reflection etc – on the walls of schools all over the country. To come to think of it, they aren’t just in schools, we also see them in cafes, billboards and the like.

But what do these big words actually mean to us as teachers, and more importantly our learners? I recently asked a group of year 9 students about what resilience means to them, and was given a clear answer: ‘don’t give up’.

I also asked my growth mindset guru (in my dreams) of a son. He said, ‘ninjas never quit’ (he is six). I then asked them, how do you do this? The year 9s looked a little confused, whereas my son demonstrated a series of karate moves that would clearly defeat any enemy in battle.

I have been thinking a lot about this recently, and I think it comes down to the difference between strategies and techniques. Resilience is a personal quality, converted into a strategy by schools – a plan of action designed to achieve a long-term or overall aim. For the students I talked with, if you don’t give up and try harder you will hopefully get there.

Strategies, though, aren’t enough. We need to teach learners techniques, the how?

Whenever I read any new ideas, my first question is, how do I teach this, how does it work? Big ideas are great, but hows are much harder.

It’s the small steps that matter

One of my greatest shifts in practice was reflecting on, and identifying, what learning behaviours I wanted my learners to have. Rather than focusing on the big words I found, as with everything in teaching, it’s the small steps that matter. Through TEEP training, I discovered and began my journey to understand how I could explicitly teach and model effective learner behaviours. For me, effective learner behaviours (ELBs) are the hows I need to teach my learners.

I found sense in the work of the Project for Enhancing Effective Learning (PEEL) in Australia. This project was founded in 1985, born out of the frustration of teachers seeing the same unhelpful behaviours over and over in class.

They set out to research classroom approaches that would stimulate and support student learning that was more informed, purposeful, intellectually active, independent and metacognitive.

The project identifies teacher concerns (or whinges, as many Aussies would put it):

  • Students rarely contribute ideas
  • Students don’t think about the meaning of what they read or hear
  • Students don’t link different lesson
  • Students don’t think about why or how they are doing a task
  • Students keep making the same mistakes
  • Students don’t read instructions carefully
  • Students don’t learn from mistakes in assessment tasks
  • Students won’t take responsibility for their learning
  • Students dive into tasks without planning
  • Students have no strategies when stuck
  • Students don’t link school work with outside life
  • Students don’t believe that their own beliefs are relevant
  • Students are reluctant to take risks in creative tasks
  • Students are reluctant to edit or check their work
  • Students’ existing beliefs are not easy to change.

Nothing I would disagree with there, although there is some solace in knowing that the students in Australia are no different from ours.

Give feedback on learning behaviours

The PEEL project then goes on to identify good learning behaviours. What is it we want our students to be?

  • Checks personal comprehension for instruction and material. Requests further information if needed. Tells the teacher what they don’t understand
  • Seeks reasons for aspects of the work at hand
  • Plans a general strategy before starting
  • Anticipates and predicts possible outcomes
  • Checks teacher’s work for errors; offers corrections
  • Offers or seeks links between:
    – different activities and ideas
    – different topics or subjects
    – schoolwork and personal life
  • Searches for weaknesses in their own understandings; checks the consistency of their explanations across different situations
  • Suggests new activities and alternative procedures
  • Challenges the text or an answer the teacher sanctions as correct
  • Offers ideas, new insights and alternative explanations
  • Justifies opinions
  • Reacts and refers to comments of other students.

So the big question is, how? How do we promote, model and enable learners to explicitly practice and develop these learner behaviours? Over 31 years, PEEL teachers’ collaborative work has developed over 1500 PEEL procedures.

These explicit techniques let the learner know when they have made progress in their learning behaviours. They’re not all that different from some of the excellent tips and techniques developed in this country, but sometimes it’s good to get some complementary ideas – or just new examples to refresh your thinking.

We are already very good at giving feedback on the progress of students in terms of content. As TEEP and PEEL both emphasise, the trick is taking this and emphasising learning behaviours as well as content, hand in hand.

peel-in-practice
The big words aren’t enough, how do students achieve and demonstrate resilience? We need to support them so they know how: they appropriately seek assistance, know various techniques to try when they are stuck (ways to not give up, that don’t involve karate) and are confident to offer ideas, to name but a few.

One of the most useful techniques I have used is the moving-on map. This can be a classroom display or personalised to the individual learner.

moving on map cs

Catch them doing something

Yes, it’s what great teachers already do: they catch learners doing something that they didn’t think they could do and praise them for it. I learnt what not to do, for example announcing that we are doing group work at the start of the lesson, as it was always followed by moans and groans.

I did learn (and took some delight in) catching ‘group work refusers’ working collaboratively and telling them how great they are at it. The look of surprise on their faces gave me that internal smile. I observed them shift from ‘group refusers’ to active participants as they too came to believe it was something that they could be good at, and enjoy.

So the hows are the small steps that lead to big impact, the group work refuser becoming the leader of a group of learners. For my son’s small step:

’A Ninja never accepts defeat. A ninja always picks himself up when he’s down.’, I reply ’how can he do that?’ Always trying to make links that make sense to him. ‘Do you remember when you first began karate and it was really hard? What did you do?’


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This piece was originally posted on Corinne’s own blog.

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Read more blogs by Corinne.

Find out more about the Teacher Effectiveness Enhancement Programme (TEEP).


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