I’ve been thinking lately about the average student … the learner in your classroom who works steadily and unassumingly, who doesn’t require too much intervention and who achieves middle of the road grades. A decade ago, as a full time teacher, I considered these students to be my easy students. As long as they made regular progress and met appropriate learning outcomes for their age and stage, I was doing my job.
Fast forward ten years … I am now a mother of three young children and as part of my role with CORE, I develop curriculum support materials. With wisdom and experience, I realise that I was selling my so called “average students” short.
This year I’ve returned to work as a teacher one day a week. As I re-enter the classroom I have a new outlook on students who are considered to be average, and a new appreciation of the far reaching influence of teacher expectations. In this blog I share several epiphanies that have led me to re-shape my teaching approach.
Epiphany 1: The power of believing that you can improve
Several months ago I watched a TED talk delivered by Carol Dweck. In the talk, Carol reflects on the power of “yet” as she describes an American high school that gives out “not yet” grades to students who don’t pass a course. She commends this idea because it delivers the message that students are on a learning journey where their minds and abilities can be developed. This talk struck a chord with me. It has led me to realise both the peril and futility of labelling students as average. If we promote a growth mindset in our classrooms, where the teacher and students reject the idea that intelligence is fixed and believe in their ability to improve, then everyone can reach their full potential and be anything but average.
Since returning to the classroom, I consciously look for opportunities to build a growth mindset with my students. Some strategies that I’ve tried so far include:
- Praising students’ efforts and perseverance instead of solely focusing on outcomes and achievement.
- Sharing stories about myself as a learner, describing the times that I have had to put in more effort and seek extra support to grow my mind.
- Asking my students to reflect on moments in their life where practice led to improvement.
- Encouraging my students to relish the challenge of hard work and to recognise mistakes as opportunities for learning.
Epiphany 2: Teacher expectations shape student achievement
Research clearly shows that teacher expectations influence student performance. Timperley and Phillips (2003) report that teachers’ expectations for student achievement become their goals for the students and shape their daily classroom decisions and actions. Rubie-Davies (2014) found that teachers who group students according to their ability often expose different groups to very different learning activities. Students who are considered to be high achievers are given complex, exciting activities and are often able to exercise choice as they learn. Students who are considered to be average and low achievers are given easier work, often of a repetitive, skill based nature. Furthermore, students who are consistently labelled as average or low achievers often suffer low self esteem and a lack of belief in their ability to improve.
I recall, slightly shamed faced, the way that I taught multiplication in my first few years of teaching. Consistent with school wide expectations, I taught my middling year 4 students the 2x, 5x, and 10x tables and I left the remaining multiplication facts for the year 5 teacher to cover. Although a significant number of students mastered these times tables quickly I didn’t push them to go further. As I battled the crowded curriculum, I settled for “just good enough” and inadvertently built them a ceiling of achievement.
As an educator today, I aspire to be a high expectations teacher to all; someone who nurtures every glimmer of potential that students show; someone who pushes for more. Some practical steps I am trying in the classroom include:
- Setting individual goals with students based on their current needs.
- Recognising and celebrating individual talents through praise, awards, and tuakana-teina relationships.
- Planning more challenging tasks to stretch students.
- Using high expectation language such as “not yet”, “personal excellence”, “being your best”, etc
- Providing choice in learning activities so all students have the opportunity to complete cognitively demanding tasks.
- Grouping students in a variety of ways, rather than consistently grouping students by ability.
Epiphany 3: Motivation is everything
My middle child is sometimes dreamy and forgetful. There has been many a time when we have had to turn back home during our car trips to school because he has forgotten his school bag or his shoes. I often have to repeat instructions to him because he can’t remember what he has been asked to do. It came as a huge surprise to me when, as a four year old, he immediately memorised a 4 digit pin number to access his Nan’s iPad. He only had to be told the pin number twice and it stuck fast in his memory. This leads me to my final epiphany … students learn best when they are motivated to learn.
There is extensive, well-documented evidence that shows that students are motivated to learn when:
- they are interested in what they are being taught
- they can see tangible benefits to their learning
- they see their own identities, values, and cultures reflected in what they learn
- they have input in the design and direction of the learning programme.
I recently watched an EDtalk where Ewan McIntosh from No Tosh discusses the benefits of students directing their own learning. Ewan gives an example of a primary school in Scotland where teachers capitalised on students’ interest in diggers. He reports that the motivation, engagement, and input of the students led to an astonishing depth and breadth of learning.
Carol Dweck, one of the world’s leading researchers in the field of motivation, states:
“Motivation is often more important than your initial ability in determining whether you succeed in the long run. In fact, many creative geniuses were not born that way. They were often fairly ordinary people who became extraordinarily motivated.”
This year, as I work with my class of six year olds, I am incorporating new strategies to increase student motivation and foster a love of learning. Some new approaches include:
- Listening to the voices of my learners to find out what it is that they are most interested in.
- Incorporating teaching and learning activities that reflect these interests.
- Including real life learning experiences wherever possible.
- Allowing students to make suggestions and choices about their learning.
- Celebrating the diversity of my students, incorporating their cultural identities, contexts, values, and languages into my teaching.
- Adapting my planning and timetable when students’ interests lead elsewhere.
- Seizing the teachable moment.
Teachers should never stop searching for better ways to educate, engage, and motivate students. As I reflect on my personal and professional growth over the last ten years I can’t help but wonder how I will evolve as an educator during the next decade. One thing I know for sure, I will rally against the notion of an “average student” because I have come to realise that average students need not exist. The voice of the average child, illustrated in the poem below, will be heard and acted upon.
The Average Child by Mike Buscemi
I don’t cause teachers trouble;
My grades have been okay.
I listen in my classes.
I’m in school every day.
My teachers think I’m average;
My parents think so too.
I wish I didn’t know that, though;
There’s lots I’d like to do.
I’d like to build a rocket;
I read a book on how.
Or start a stamp collection…
But no use trying now.
’Cause, since I found I’m average,
I’m smart enough you see
To know there’s nothing special
I should expect of me.
I’m part of that majority,
That hump part of the bell,
Who spends his life unnoticed
In an average kind of hell.