Wednesday, October 26, 2016

Quality learning: William Glasser - 'Schools without Failure' ; and Jerome Bruner - solving 'learning blocks'.


A number of years ago many schools implemented the ideas of Dr William Glasser . Glasser had written a number of books  all with a focus on achieving quality work for all students  without teachers using coercion.

There is a New Zealand Glasser Association for anyone interested.

Glasser's belief is that  , with the appropriate conditions, all students can do quality work but, it would be fair to say, many teachers find this hard to believe.

 Currently schools focus on students achieving imposed standards which sadly labels a number of students as 'not achieving the standards ( or in the students and parent's eyes failing).  The currents government's dogma is that 1 in 5 students fail while at the same time ignoring the  effect of poverty on achievement; that the students from poor socio-economic backgrounds lack the 'social capital' of their more well off classmates.

This lack of 'social capital' does not mean the teachers cannot assist such students.

 Glasser's writings provide practical ways to help all students. Glasser's basic premise is that 'no one can make anyone do anything' and that it is the teacher's role to help students see the point in expending the effort to do quality work by satisfying their basic needs of  'survival, power, fun and freedom'.


Glasser writes that teaching may be the hardest job there is.

 Glasser defines an effective teacher  'as one who is able to convince all his or her students to do quality work'. 

This is made difficult when teachers have to face up to students who , due to their previous unsuccessful experiences, are resistant to learning. Almost all teachers inherit students who have developed negative attitudes towards learning; students who often satisfy their needs by being disruptive. Continual measuring of achievement ( or lack of it) will not solve the problem; nor will being placed in low ability groups. Such moves to objectify and standardize teaching will prove to be counterproductive. Failing students will simply opt out while students from 'good homes' will do well.

The current approach to measure fragmented achievement has little to do with all students achieving quality education and will make the achievement of quality learning for all impossible. And equally such an achievement based system imposed on teachers will restrict the teachers ability to do quality work - teachers , like their students , have to learn to comply.

What is required, instead of coercion, are rich experiential curriculum experiences , creativity and the opportunity for all students to 'feel' success; what we have in our schools is not an 'achievement gap' but more an 'opportunity gap'.


Our current model of teaching.

It is only when students ( who may have previously failed in their own eyes)  surprise themselves by doing something beyond their expectations that they begin to believe they can do quality work.

Success will depend on the artistry of the teacher. It will take a long time to persuade some students but with appropriate help it can be done; the students must make the choice to put the effort in - 'choice theory'. If what the students do satisfies one or more of their basic needs a great deal of work get done.

Choice theory is based on the ideas that we all make choices to satisfy our needs - and any choice we make is always our best attempt at the time to make us feel good even if it is counterproductive to quality learning; many students choice to stop working at school and satisfy their needs in counterproductive ways.. School ought to be about helping students make better choices and through such experiences feel better about school learning.

Glasser writes that students from affluent homes do most of the quality work in public schools. For students from less fortunate homes  from the start they do less well at school even though they are inherently just as capable - with age  such students ,who fail to feel success, become increasingly antagonistic. For one student achieving a sense of power is doing well in maths - for another by disrupting the class.

A rich experiential curriculum

Teachers need to keep basic needs continually in their minds and from day one create stimulating room environments; room environments that are warm friendly and totally non coercive. Such rooms would feature authentic learning challenges with students working in cooperative groups and with the teachers continually looking for better ways to help all students gain success,  Personalized learning.

The key to success for students who haven't achieved the need for quality learning is to accept any small improvement

.Frustrated students are very difficult to manage. Until they can be helped to see what they do as pleasurable  then then such learning will never enter their 'quality world'. As we go through life we collect need -satisfying memories that contain our 'best of highest quality pictures or perceptions of the people, things, and situations that we have learned feel especially good.

'If something is not pictured', Glasser writes, ' in this quality world we will not expend much effort pursuing it'.

 The reason that many students do not work hard in schools is that they do not have a picture of school work in their quality world.' This means 'that a teacher ...must continually encourage the students to express themselves and then listen carefully to what they have to say.'

Slowly and carefully teachers must help their struggling students gain 'learning power'  by valuing any small improvement , helping students at first gain short-term satisfaction  eventually  leading to long term feelings of success.

Students will begin to put in the effort if they feel what they are doing will lead to success;  with success students will slowly begin to make better choices and even to accept frustration as part of the process and not just give up.

When  students begin to do quality work they learn to hold themselves to their own standards. and feel the need to continually improve - to better their personal best.

 As students grow in confidence they should always be asked how they might improve 'next time. 
learning; if they persist; and if they choose to put in the effort.

Once the need to achieve quality work becomes implicit in the classroom culture students will be continually surprising themselves by what they achieve; students get better at what they get good at. Quality is contagious.

Teachers need to come alongside learners to help their students figure out how to do things better. The message 'we care' is the foundation of quality education.  Glasser writes,the success or failure of our lives is greatly dependent on our willingness to judge the quality of what we do and then to improve it if we find it wanting'.

Jerome Bruner

 Another educationalist ,Jerome Bruner, has written that 'teaching is the canny art of intellectual temptation'. Teachers have to find exciting ways to 'sell' what it is they are teaching so that students will see that it is worth making the effort to learn.

In an earlier blog I shared ideas about how to help students achieve beyond their expectations; the importance of 'slowing the pace of work'.

 'Too many students spoil what they do by rushing through their tasks working on the principle that 'first finished is best'. When teachers allow this 'mindset' to be an implicit part of the school culture students are not encouraged to stop and think ( or reflect) about whatever they are undertaking and , as a result, a frenetic atmosphere can result. Slowing the pace  allows no time for teachers to give students ( particularly those struggling) appropriate help'

 Jerome Bruner  spent a lot of his time studying 'learning blocks' in students, possibly the same students that Dr Glasser writes about - students who have not out areas of learning into their 'quality worlds'.

Bruner studied why it is that some students avoid learning such things as learning to read or do maths and how to help such students get through their 'learning blocks' so as to recover their 'learning power'.


When assisting a learner with difficulties ( or any learner) Bruner writes,  the 'danger is that the learner may become permanently dependent on the tutors correction. The tutor must correct the learner in a fashion that makes it possible for the learner to take over the corrective function himself'.

'The first task 'was to gain and hold the child's interest and lead him to problem solving activity'.

 'The greatest problem is to prevent oneself from becoming a perennial source of information, interfering with the child's ability to take over the role of being his own corrector'. 'If we do nothing else , we should somehow give to children a respect for their own power to generate good questions, to come up with interesting informed guesses'.


Bruner writes, 'it is more than a little troubling to me that so many of our students dislike two of the major tools of thought - mathematics and written language.' And, echoing Glasser , he writes, there is a need to 'making these tools lovable'. 'Perhaps the best way is to make them more powerful in the hands of their users'.

All humans are born with  a 'will to learn'; 'all children possess  what have come to be intrinsic motives for learning'.

The reward for intrinsic motivation  'inheres in the successful termination of that activity or even in the activity itself'. 'Our attention is attracted to something that is unclear, unfinished, or uncertain. We sustain our attention until the matter at hand becomes clear, finished, or certain.'

'Curiosity is only one of the intrinsic motives for learning. The drive for competence is another'. The key Bruner writes  is 'we get interested in what we get good at'.

Schools, Bruner writes,  have not begun to tap into this enormous reservoir of zest' to keep alive this innate curiosity and the drive for competence.; the need to sustain a sense of pleasure and achievement in mastering things for their own sake. 

'What the school imposes often fails to enlist natural energies that sustain spontaneous learning - curiosity, a desire for competence, aspiration to emulate a model, and a deep-sensed commitment to the web of social reciprocity'.

Bruner and Glasser are both encouraging problem finding schools. Schools where it is all right to entertain and express highly subjective ideas, to treat a task as a problem where you invent an answer rather than finding ones out there in the book.

Such ideas are about the personalisation of learning; that knowledge ought to be related to the child's own experiences.

All this is a long way from the audit and surveillance, test orientated , formulaic teaching of our current schools.

And too many students still fail.













1 comment:

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