Category Archives: Teaching

Changing Unacceptable Behaviour by Changing the Environment

In Chapter 8 (pp.139-147) of Parent Effectiveness Training, Gordon talks abut the strategy of changing the environment in response to unacceptable behaviour. Instead of trying to resolve a conflict situation, parents may be in a position to change the environment so that the behaviour simply does not occur any longer.

Environmental change can be through techniques such as enriching the environment, impoverishing the environment or limiting the space the child is living in (particularly for younger children). Gordon also discusses the importance of discussing and planning change with kids, and seeing the home as one which is shared with them, rather than one which parents deign to let them live in.


Once Gordon feels he has made his point about the importance of Active Listening in Parent Effectiveness Training, he moves onto the other side of the coin – how parents can effectively communicate to their children.

The key suggestion here is to move from parental communication which focuses on the target of the message (the child), and instaid to focus on the sender (the parent). This is a transition from 'You-Messages' to 'I-Messages' (pp.103-138). The underlying thought here is acknowledging that the 'problems' which parents often need to communicate actually belong to the parent, not the child. When the parent 'owns' the problem, and communicates with an I-Message, they are openly and honestly explaining the situation – this is very different from the various otehr approaches that parents will use when raising a problem. Gordon categorises and critiques these alternative 'You-Messages', from ordering and preaching to giving solutions and threatening.

Given my personal behaviour, I found the negative comments on advising and providing constructive solutions a little challenging. On reflection, I definitely acknowledge that by providing a solution, I am denying someone else the opportunity to create the solution – a fairly subtle kind of dis-empowerment, but an important one if I expect them to be committed to making the solution happen.

Gordon also raised a number of the challenges with I-Messages, particularly the tendency to disguise 'You-Messages' as I-Messages. He also has some interesting comments on anger, which he suggests is not the real thing that needs to be honestly communicated, but is usually a defensive reaction to an original emotion (such as embarassment, or frustration) that needs to be uncovered and communicated.

PET and Active Listening

Thomas Gordon's Parent Effectiveness Training (PET) was a book I have had lying around since my undergraduate (psychology) degree – at my dad's suggestion from memory. It cropped up again last year when we were looking at Gordon's approach as a model for classroom management, so I thought I'd dig it out and re-read it.

Basically, Gordon presents a style of parent-child interaction that is grounded in humanistic counselling approaches. He emphasises the need to move away from the use of power in parent-child relationships, and presents a series of techniques to replace the more accepted ways of dealing with kids. The core of the book is the explication of 'Active Listening', 'I-Messages', and 'No-Lose (or Method III) Conflict Resolution'. In presenting these techniques he also provides extensive critique of the use of 'parental power' in family relationships.

The book is very accessible, if anything it belabours the point a little – particularly if you are already a convert to the approach. I would also suggest that if you want to read it you pick up a copy of the recently revised edition – it was somewhat jarring to keep reading about how parents object to their teenagers running off to hippie protests and smoking pot (the book was written in 1975).

'Active Listening' (pp.29-102, particularly pp.49-55) is something that you may already be familiar with – Gordon presents it here clearly and simply. Through numerous script examples he shows the technique of listening and reflecting back in a non-judgemental way to elicit further discussion. He also emphasises the ned to actually decode meaning and paraphrease in response rather than just 'parroting'. Interestingly, he addresses the fear that you will be 'found out', for using such a strange, artificial way of communicating – and explains (quite rightly) that if you try it you often discover that people seem to go with it quite happily.

As a background to the idea of active listening, Gordon also introduces a encoding/decoding model of listening (p.50). While overly simplistic it does provide a good context to think about communication as a two part process that also includes the listener. 

A bit of a rant on streaming literacy and numeracy

We've had a number of in-class conversations about streaming recently, and I took the opportunity to crystalise my thoughts by responding to another student's posting in a discussion forum about a school they had visited that uses streaming for English and Math and is achieving good NAPLAN results. Thought I might share it here for those that are curious…

Without doubt, if high average NAPLAN scores is all you are seeking to achieve within a school, streamed numeracy and literacy classes are probably a sound strategy. Drilling with 'NAPLAN style' tests is also a sound strategy. As is cutting art, sport, and most of HSIE to give more time to maths and English. How far are you willing to go for those beloved green boxes in the MySchool NAPLAN tables?

The questions that are raised by streaming literacy and numeracy might be;
  • Is this being achieved across the board, or is it primarily the result of better outcomes for one subgroup (say the higher achievers) doing much better, and what implications does that have for everyone else?
  • What are the implications for self-esteem, self-efficacy and
  • Are we content with such an individualistic environment, or are we seeking to create a collegial, collaborative classroom?
  • While we are streaming numeracy and literacy, why not stream art and PE? Is there a single valid reason why you would not pull out all the more athletic or more artistically inclined kids into an 'A' stream for that subject?
  • Teaching numeracy and literacy in a streamed mode means that they are taught exclusive of other KLAs. Does this mean we miss out on the opportunity to create meaningful integration across the curriculum?



‘Shopping the book’ with Ralph Lauren

I noticed today that apparently Ralph Lauren have produced a children’s book (‘The RL Gang: A Magically Magnificent School Adventure’), available as a picture book and a ‘read’ online.

Of course, reading online is much better, because you can enjoy the lovely animation and Uma Thurman’s earnest narration. And more importantly, you can roll-over any of the characters at any point and ‘shop that character’s look’. Don’t you just love Hudson’s Striped Cotton Tee? Why not get one, available at the click of a mouse, in Clay Blue, Chocolate Brown or Weathered Red.

As Ralph Lauren put it, ‘the world’s first shoppable storybook adventure’. Another triumph for quality children’s literature!

[You can read more about it here]

Dick and Jane are No Fun

So it's back into the swing of things – week two and we are already being let loose on unsuspecting seven year olds as part of our English primary curriculum work.

One of the things I have always wondered about is the aversion many teachers and academics seem to have against 'learning to read' books (or 'basal readers' in the lingo). I have always assumed this is because they presented language in questionable ways, or dumbed down something that shouldn't be dumbed down. Conversely, these teachers would speak of the importance of 'quality children's literature', which always seemed a bit lofty to me, but still…

I realised today that the main benefit of literature over readers is simply one of motivation. From a pre-literate age, children (like the rest of us) love stories. Stories capture our interest, and sustain our engagement. It is for precisely this reason that 'story books' (or 'quality children's literature' if you must) are key. If we achieve mastery through practice, then anything that gets us turning page after page will make a difference in building literacy.

Yes, 'Dick and Jane' (and I jest, there is a wide range of language learning texts available, not all of which feature Dick and Jane) can probably teach someone to read. But what child is going to rush over to the book corner to re-discover the excitement of Dick running, or Jane seeing Dick running? There are far better things to do – from sailing over the sea with Max to heeding the word of the Onceler, from listening to Tashi's tales of far away to solving cases with Encyclopedia Brown. Stories that surprise us, characters that delight us, worlds that captivate us. And it is these stories that will stretch us to the increasingly dizzying heights of literacy.

Teaching rules as constructed, contextual and emergent

There's lots of discourse about 'democratic' classrooms and introducing negotiated class rules, but I really liked the way it was expressed by a teacher from Harmony school, cited in 'Emergent Curriculum' by Jones and Nimmo;

"…we have consciously avoided setting up rules at the beginning of the year because we wanted the kids to understand that rules are tied to concrete situations of living. We haven't wanted students to simply 'follow rules' that they have no history in making and no idea of why they are needed in the first place. We wanted them to help make rules that are necessary to live in our school."

I like this because it makes it clear that we are not just teaching kids the 'how' of the process behind social rule construction, we are teaching them the 'why' (drivers for social rules) and the 'what' (the nature of rules as shared contracts emergent from context, with history). 

NurtureShock (spoiler alert!)

So when I read that Po Bronson had (co)written a parenting book, I decided to give it a look. I’ve been a fan of Bronson for great books like ‘Bombadiers‘ and ‘The Nudist on the Late Shift‘, so I had high expectations. Happily, I can report that after reading ‘NurtureShock’ basically over the weekend (which is fast for me), my expectations were met, and exceeded.

The best encapsulation of ‘NurtureShock: New Thinking About Children‘ I have seen is Good Morning America (cringe) who describe it as “The Freakonomics of child rearing”. Bronson and co-author Ashley Merryman present a series of chapters, each synthesising the last ten years experimental research into a particular aspect of learning (and hence child rearing). The results are often counter-intuitive, and sometimes disturbing. They are also extremely actionable – both for parents and for teachers.

In short: go buy it and read it, some wonderful stuff in there.


For those who are curious, here’s a quick roll call of some of the insights/advice:

  • Praising traits (‘you’re so smart’) rather than action (‘you did that well’) is detrimental to resilience and self-belief
  • Sleep is vital to kids as there’s all this amazing brain activity going on to solidify learning during sleep
  • Teens actually have different sleep-inducing hormonal behaviour resulting in later sleeping and waking
  • Forming groups of similar kids and ascribing more positive attributes to your own group is a natural behaviour – ie. ‘racism’ can happen even if you don’t teach it
  • Kids don’t pick up on subtle PC approaches to educating on racial equality – we need to take an explicit approach as we do with gender equality
  • Lying is actually a useful, challenging cognitive skill, and one which we often value and encourage
  • Even if you really like IQ as a measure, testing that stuff as kids are entering preschool (or kindergarten) is too soon to pick up gifted students
  • The learned social behaviours of older siblings will set the tone of sibling relations
  • Teen rebellion may seem traumatic to mum and dad, but might seem constructive to teens
  • Fewer rules, justified and enforced, but negotiable
  • The popular kids are often the aggressive ones

Toward the end there is a fantastic chapter that presents a series of quite detailed findings on language acquisition which was probably my favourite. A couple of other interesting observations made throughout are that kids often aren’t the same as adults, and that sometimes people will ignore the evidence if an approach ‘feels’ right.



New Preschool Rules

The Australian government has recently released a set of guidelines (and a National Quality Framework) for early childhood care. Nothing particularly surprising in there, primarily it reads as an attempt to professionalise the sector, and bring a more educational focus to what might previously have been 'baby-sitting' programs. Key outtakes include;

  • for kids 3+yrs, a staff ration of 1:10 (in NSW)
  • an early childhood teacher present (part time is under 25 kids)

Of course, no framework would be complete without a standardised assessment battery. The Department has released a draft ratings tool that shows how services may be assessed to provide a uniform metric that will assist parents in making the right decision about where to send their kids.

I shouldn't be too harsh, their five outcomes for quality service aren't bad at all;

  • Children have a strong sense of identity
  • Children are connected with and contribute to their world
  • Children have a strong sense of wellbeing
  • Children are confident and involved learners
  • Children are effective communicators

I mean heck, some of it even sounds disturbingly like it's recommending emergent curriculum development;

"Critical reflection and evaluation of each child’s learning and development, both as individuals and in groups, is consistently used as a primary source of information for planning and improves the effectiveness of the program and teaching strategies."

"The service actively engages in appropriate community projects and events contributing to children’s learning and wellbeing."

"Innovative use of natural elements and materials, and innovative design or adaptation for multiple uses in outdoor spaces provide an advanced learning and care environment for children."

Look out, they used the 'i' word! One does wonder exactly what "[w]ell developed behaviour guidance strategies preserve and promote the dignity and the rights of each child at all times" could means, but I'm sure people will figure it out.



Summer Reading – Some synthesis of alternative, progressive and emergent approaches

Over the delightful uni hiatus, I’ve had the chance to actually read some of the books that have been piling up precariously around the place. Full disclosure, I haven’t quite reached the end of two of them, I’ll let you guess which.

The Element‘ stands out as the piece not specifically written about schools. Sir Ken stitches together a host of stories about famous and less famous individuals, and how they have unearthed, arrived at, or searched for those things in life about which they are passionate. He talks about the importance of ‘being in your Element’ as a key way of finding meaning (and joy) in life. It is only in the final chapter that he addresses how the education system needs to change to help kids find their Element – and it feels a bit like the book is a Trojan Horse to the world at large… drawing them in with anecdotes about Meg Ryan to get them on side for a (brief) lecture on education reform. If you’ve read or seen any of Sir Ken’s work there’s nothing particularly new here, but it’s a nice read.

One of the schools Sir Ken highlights in The Element is Grange Primary School in the UK. Richard Gerver was the head teacher at Grange during its transformation into a model for innovative education, and ‘Creating Tomorrow’s Schools, Today‘ is an overview of his pedagogical beliefs (the first half) and how they came to life at Grange (the second half). A self-professed non-academic, Gerver is readable and pragmatic, but firmly grounded in well-researched and considered opinions. Highlights include an overview of ‘Grangeton’, a program where the school creates a simulacrum of society, with everything from a healthy-eating shop (mentored by the local supermarket owner) to a daily radio show. I also like Gerver’s comments about using the ‘evils’ of advertising to ‘sell’ school to kids as the ‘consumer’ – as he puts it, ‘How do we make school as exciting as Disneyland?’.

Both ‘The Hundred Languages of Children: The Reggio Emilia Approach to Early Childhood Education‘ (ed. Edwards, Gandini and Forman) and ‘Emergent Curriculum in the Primary Classroom: Interpreting the Reggio Emilia Approach in Schools‘ (ed. Wien) are collections of papers documenting the Reggio approach and looking at how it can (and has) been imported to the US. Wien’s is much more light weight – it reads like a selection of final ‘action research assessments’ for a post-grad course she seems to be running to spread the good word. The papers are written by practitioners gushing with excitement over ‘giving this Reggio stuff a bash’ in their classrooms – with varying levels of insight and success.

The tome by Edwards, Gandini and Forman is something else altogether. Criticised (on Amazon) as not being readable, this is a serious collection of reasonably academic papers, and gives a thorough and considered overview of Reggio pedagogy, and some of the issues in bringing its key ideas to other shores. The book begins with papers outlining the Reggio story (including an interview with Loris Malaguzzi), then some specific articles on different elements of the approach (such as an excellent overview on the role of the Reggio teacher by Carolyn Edwards) before showcasing several American perspectives. The latter does very well to show the different ways and depths with which teachers in the US are adopting and engaging with Reggio ideas.

Compared to this relatively engaging tour of the world of Reggio, ‘Schools of Tomorrow, Schools of Today: What Happened to Progressive Education‘ (Semel and Sadovnick ed.) can be hard going. Having said that, I think this kind of detailed review of previous attempts at innovative and alternative education is important – and something that perhaps is too often ignored, leading to the danger of ‘reinventing the wheel’. From an in-depth review of the Dalton School to a chronicle of the rise and fall of the ‘open’ Butterfield School, the editors present case studies of eleven different US schools, giving a thorough overview of the progressive education movement in that country.

Reading these different books provided a chance to start identifying common themes that recur throughout, and (to be honest) are of interest to me. While they may not sit neatly within a single philosophy or paradigm, they each strike a chord with my personal vision for better schooling. Some of the key areas I was left considering were;

  • environment… the creation of spaces for children that are beautiful, real, engaging, different, homely… places for children not just to learn, but to live
  • relationship… the connection between ‘teacher’ and ‘student’, often becoming something far more real and powerful… echoes of Rogers and perhaps psychotherapy here
  • emergent curriculum… both the power that is harnessed by using the interests of children to drive the agenda, as well as the challenges that this places on teachers… the way planning becomes an ongoing activity rather than ‘set and forget’… and the obvious conflict with standardised testing and curricula
  • community… the engagement of parents and the community at large with the school… from building school buildings, to activities that transgress the ‘boundary’ of the school… all of which makes schools specific and local, and hence limits scalability
  • reality… from projects worth doing, to acts that have a place in the real world, with real impact… moving away from the idea of ‘school work’ to something more meaningful and connected to life
  • transience… the degree to which so many progressive schooling successes relied on a particular historical moment, the alignment of the stars… the difficulty in maintaining ideals as people move on… the impermanence of small, independent organisations in the face of social change and large institutions
  • integration… a complete move beyond disciplinary ‘subjects’ to an integrated curriculum where themes bring students into contact with everything from math to culture to music… and the difficulty in linking that with defined curriculum outcomes
  • social play… the role of everything from multi-age classes to group work in building social skills and personal strengths

…and underneath it all, the move from ‘teaching’ to the facilitation of ‘learning’ – a firm and powerful belief in the child, and the capacity of the child to learn through inquiry and discovery.