Good relationships are central to deep learning and cognitive growth

Once again, Henry Stewart has posted an important article on Local Schools Network. Henry reproduces a speech by a former head, which he introduces as follows.

Two years ago Sir Alasdair Macdonald gave this speech at the Happy Schools conference, organised by the Guardian and my own company, Happy Ltd. Reading it again I believe it deserves a wider audience. Sir Alasdair focuses on values, relationships and trusting your people as the keys to a great school.

Henry is right that the points made by Sir Alasdair, which lie at the heart of Henry’s own core values, are not just important for schools and school leaders, but for also for other organisations. Lego is one of the world’s most successful companies. Like good schools, it is absolutely dependent on innovation, co-operation and high workforce morale. This is what Lego states about it’s core values.

As we continue to experience global growth, we are joined by many new employees each year. It is important to us that everyone at the LEGO Group experiences their workplace as a highly motivating and engaging place to be. For us to live up to employees’ expectations and to continue being a desirable workplace, we annually measure our employees’ level of motivation and satisfaction. This gives management a better understanding of how our employees experience working for us and to get crucial input for making improvements.

Sir Alasdair’s speech needs to be read in full, but here are some excerpts.

I think there is a tendency with the media in particular, and the politicians and so on, to think that ‘Happy Schools’ is somehow a soft option. That somehow it’s going back to the 80s where we put our arms round children and didn’t have high expectations.”I don’t think it is that at all and certainly wasn’t the perspective of the school where I was Headteacher  We had outstanding Ofsteds, we had very good exam performance, we had very little gaps in terms of pupils. So it is about still having incredibly high expectations.

I think relationships are at the core of good schools. I think headteachers are key within that. However I also think for me personally, perhaps even more important than that, is the idea that everyone in the school – adult, teacher, sports staff, pupil – has potential and is capable of doing whatever they are currently doing better.

I know of no schools where the majority of staff can’t be trusted and yet we base our model on the minority, and often it’s a tiny minority, who can’t. One of the great things to do is to keep a little bit of money, have a slush fund. When people come to you with a great idea you can actually support it.

I think in schools when you get that really strong core value mindset about relationships and about belief in people, you are going to get consistency. By that I mean the way the headteacher interacts with the staff, and that has got to be the way in which the staff interact with the pupils.

This last point crucially also applies to the way that pupils interact with each other. The direct link with learning is made clear in this article.

Lessons that develop cognition and so raise intelligence require pupils to be confronted with cognitive problems above the level at which they can solve them without assistance using their existing mental models. Teachers are now often taught never to allow children to fail to solve problems because this reinforces failure (the behaviourist model), whereas for cognitive growth children need to learn in a culture that supports and encourages learning from mistakes.

 Vygotsky asserts that understanding first appears in the social space that learners share. Only then does it become internalised by individuals. The key point is that in a school the resolution of cognitive conflict in individual learners works best as a social process. The participants assist each other in grappling with the shared cognitive conflict. This is called peer to peer learning. It requires high quality social relationships in the classroom. I was lucky enough early in my career to work in a comprehensive school where such high quality relationships existed and it became a career goal to eventually achieve it in my headship school. Pupils have to trust each other and not fear humiliation by the teacher if they are to risk revealing the true depth of their misunderstandings.

A school culture of behaviourist authoritarianism will not provide sufficient personal psychological security for the teacher or the pupils for the necessary social interactions to ignite. Obviously nothing can be achieved where informality degenerates into anarchy and chaos reigns. Great demands are placed on the teacher, who needs the skills to be able to promote positive self-sustaining, reasoned discussion between pupils. This is very difficult to achieve and the hallmark of a good teacher, supported by like minded professional colleagues working in a school that supports such a culture.

There are regrettably a growing number of schools, led by the Academy and Free School movement, many feted by the DfE, where relationships between school managers and teachers, teachers and pupils and pupils with their peers are so limited in depth and quality that this type of high level learning will be impossible. If cramming and repetition, reinforced by rewards and the shame of failure, have any effect at all on individual cognition then it is cognitive depression, leading to rejection of challenging concepts and consequent alienation.

In this article I explain at length how such good pupil-teacher and pupil-pupil relationships were built in my headship school, which was closed in 2009, six years after I retired, along with two other successful comprehensives, to be replaced by a single Academy that has struggled from its opening and has now been taken over by Trident submarine manufacturer BAE Systems.

As in many such inner urban schools, when I took up my headship classroom relationships involved a considerable degree of disputatious pupil feuding and bullying that significantly disrupted learning. However, much inherent goodness, kindness, humour, charm and co-operation came with it. This typically applied to parents as well as pupils. I had previously served in some excellent comprehensive schools with some outstanding heads that had a deep understanding of education.

I understood from playing my own part in such good practice that a simplistic, harsh discipline-based response to pupil disruption was counter productive in terms of the quality of classroom relationships needed for deep learning.

If our school was to be successful, given its very unpromising intake ability profile, we would have to aim far higher than mere compliance on the part of our pupils. My university experiences had led me believe in the ideas of ‘plastic intelligence‘ promoted by Michael Shayer and Philip Adey. Like me, they had both been science teachers who had grappled with the problem of ‘difficulty’. How can school students be developed so as to understand ‘hard stuff’, such that the cognitive gains that results from the learning process also boosts their transferable general intelligence?

Once formed, the School Council decided its own agenda for change and school improvement. The first and most important project was to construct an ‘Anti-bullying policy’ and a structure for resolving bullying and relationship problems in accordance with the principles of the ‘Equal Opportunities Policy’. This was seen as the key to eliminating disruption to learning and laying the foundations for the metacognitive and collaborative learning approaches needed for the developmental pedagogy of the school.

The School Council needed education and training. This was arranged in after-school sessions by the Deputy Head, who initially recruited some local professional counsellor experts to assist. These were paid for by the school. This later became an entirely in-house operation as expertise was developed.

Great importance was given to ‘Assertiveness Training’. The ‘passive/assertive/aggressive’ spectrum was explained and explored through role play and discussion. Our pupils were taught and trained in the skills needed to be assertive in all aspects of their lives. This empowered and enriched their relationships with peers, teachers and any out of school authority figures they may meet. It directly supported the developmental learning strategies of the school that involved ‘metacognition’, peer to peer and collaborative learning approaches like those now recognised as especially effective by the Education Endowment Foundation as explained here and here.

A very important effect on school culture related to how our more and less able students were perceived by their peers. Comprehensive schools are often accused of not protecting able, hard working students from bullying and attacks on their confidence and esteem from less able peers. Our most able School Council members and officers readily gained respect and esteem from peers through being able to independently demonstrate their accomplishments in public speaking, managing meetings, conflict resolution intervention and general wisdom and good sense.

The School Council was absolutely mixed ability in nature. Many students that received support in our SEN department, including a number with SEN Statements, were heavily involved. This gave our less academically  developed  pupils the confidence to become engaged resulting in some astonishing transformations as it was perceived that mature good sense and wisdom could be developed and demonstrated by everybody.

When I look back on my teaching career, which began in 1971, I recognise three stages in my professional development.

The first stage essentially comprised learning how to survive in the job.

The second involved mastering the skills of class control which, looking back, relied heavily on keeping pupils busy. This was largely based on worksheets (differentiated of course). This approach undoubtedly resulted in calm purposeful lessons and some significant learning, but it took my full time secondment to the Leicester University ‘Master of Education Studies’ course in 1981/82 for me to realise the vital importance of teacher education, especially in relation to theories of learning.

This led to the third stage of my development, in which I came to recognise that ‘compliant busy pupils’, which may be close to Nirvana for NQTs in challenging schools, was not enough. In order to maximise cognitive development, which should be the foundation purpose of all schooling, it was necessary to loosen the rigidities of the traditional classroom and risk the challenging pedagogy of introducing cognitive dissonance and the ‘Growth Mindset’ approach.

Which brings me back to Henry Stewart and Sir Alasdair’s speech.

“The more power you give away, the stronger you become”

And the higher will be the achievement of the pupils at all attainment levels, the greater the commitment of the staff and the happier all concerned will be, including parents and employers.

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