1 Aug 2014

When learning is recognised - the power of mindful feedback

"The most powerful single moderator that enhances achievement is feedback.
 John Hattie

I've been thinking alot lately about feedback and how it has such a huge impact on our own self worth, self image, our knowledge and understanding of what we are learning and how we view ourselves in a world that is constantly challenging and changing. Often feedback is received in various ways and can effect our opinion of ourselves and of the person delivering the feedback.
I hadn't really thought about this before until I came across a review of educational research by John Hattie and Helen Timperley, The Power of Feedback.

I started thinking about the feedback we give to our children when they are learning, not only when they try new things or achieve at sport or an every day activity, but also when they bring work home from school. Often we are quick to react to their questions or can be dismissive and don't always realise that our feedback can take them in a number of different directions.

I often find I need to be careful with providing an opinion or feedback that may be taken to heart. When we as parents provide our opinion, it is often received on a more emotional level than it would be if a teacher at school is delivering the same feedback.

Feedback that will enhance achievement is described by John Hattie as "......providing information how and why the child understands and misunderstands, and what directions the student must take to improve."

If children receive feedback that is considered and conscious, they are more likely to come back and ask for feedback in the future. Even if it is not involving praise, a good dose of constructive and supportive feedback can be encouraging rather than discouraging, depending on how it is delivered.

Reinforcing learning provides further information and coaching for the child to recognise what it is they have learned by answering questions to discover the answers themselves. As a parent, a coaching method is a great way to provide feedback because it is encouraging the child to explore their abilities and question their processes, they are able to think about the why and how they came to find an answer or conclusion. On some occasions, they simply won't know the answer so you can provide it to them, but also show them how to work it out.

If a child receives feedback that is dismissive or negative, they are less likely to ask for it in the future, or they may come to expect this type of feedback, therefore they may alter their own standards for fear of failure. Fear of failure is a most common problem that we as adults face.

Our opinions and feedback need careful consideration, as children can interpret things the wrong way if not delivered well. I am hesitant sometimes to give feedback in case it backfires and is interpreted as criticism.

How do we know if the feedback we provide is going to encourage or discourage?

In the case of giving feedback on homework, my worst habit is to look for spelling errors and things that need correcting instead of reading the story and seeing the positive story telling in the text.
I sometimes instantly look for areas that could improve, instead of focusing on what my child has achieved first.
I am conscious of this and so I concentrate on listening and understanding now before I provide an opinion. If I need to give feedback on spelling or grammar, I have to rephrase it so that I am asking a question rather than expressing my thoughts and then being seen as criticising or being overly picky.

I find that if I am aware of my what my children are learning at school, it is easier for me to ask questions and provide appropriate feedback in context. I also need to be aware that my child doesn't always need my feedback, that sometimes they are able to assess their own work and this is a skill that should be encouraged. We need to stand back sometimes and wait for them to ask for our feedback before barging in and ruining the learning experience.

I find it is worthwhile using the technique of being aware of thoughts, feelings and actions.

When I am checking my child's work, what am I thinking? Am I looking for errors or mistakes? Am I looking for their skills or are just checking their work so I can sign their diary, not really taking much notice of what they are showing me? Am I having constructive and interesting conversations about their work and giving examples that are going to benefit and increase their knowledge, or are am I miles away thinking about other things I could or should be doing?

I know for sure that most parents are guilty of at least one or more of these scenarios.

Think about your thoughts. Are they turning into feelings of dismay if you see a spelling error? Are you feeling angry or frustrated after seeing the same word spelled incorrectly several times? Or are you calm and collected in your thoughts, thinking both positives and perhaps just quietly observing areas in need improvement before providing your opinion?

Observe your actions. Are you showing your dismay or disappointment in your body language like tut tutting or rolling your eyes, sighing? Are you saying things like, "you should know how to spell that word by now," or "I thought we went through this last week, where to put a full stop and a comma."

Think about how your child will receive these types of actions and responses. Then take a step back and think about how you might stop each negative thought before it becomes a feeling and then turns into an action that could have a positive or negative impact in that moment.

Children and adults are constantly learning from each other and the most important people they are learning from are us, their parents and family. Of course, their teachers and the feedback they receive at school are most important too, but did you know that formal education only counts for around 16% of their time learning? The remainder of influences on their learning are outside of school where they are exposed to a whole variety of experiences.
It is these experiences that we, as their main role models, are responsible for. The more and varied opportunities we provide them, the more they will learn. The more constructive, supportive and positive the feedback, the more they are likely to thrive and enjoy their learning.

By providing constant critical or negative feedback, we can unwittingly blow out the flame that burns inside children who have a natural ability and love for learning. My wish is that all children can keep their spark and that they become who they want to be, not what society or what we expect them to be. Each person has the chance to be who they are and to find their own way, it is up to us to let them discover their path.

If we listen to our children when we provide feedback, really listen and observe their body language and reactions, we too can learn about our own behaviours. They are our mirror and we are always learning from them, as long as we are aware and are truly connected.
If we listen to ourselves and become more mindful of our thoughts, feelings and actions when it comes to providing feedback, you will be amazed how it helps you in your relationship with your child.
If you apply this concept to other relationships also, you will see a huge difference in how you approach others and how they react to your advice.

It is important to be aware of the feedback we are providing them in order for them to thrive.

For more on this topic and how you can stay connected with your child on their learning journey, stay tuned for my upcoming book due out later in 2014!

11 Apr 2014

Resisting the urge to resist technology as a learning tool

Recently my eldest child saved her money and bought herself an ipad. At first it was a big decision for us as parents to give her permission for such a large purchase and of course there were the alarm bells going off about how 'educational' and useful it would be.
We then had to think about the rules for use and how often she should be allowed to use the device.
We also questioned whether she was learning on the ipad or if she was just playing and how much time she should be 'learning' or 'playing' online.
It is a dilemma facing many parents now with these new tools that were not around during our own childhood. We can be quick to assume that if children are using these devices that they are not thinking for themselves, that the game is doing the thinking for them and that they are not really learning. They are just shutting themselves away from the family and participation in other, more useful activities.

However, I've been proven wrong. I have had to broaden my knowledge and perspective on how these new devices are actually helping my children to learn, to have conversations around the learning and how their creative minds are actually enhanced by the experience.
I watch as my children crowd around the tablet to discuss and ask questions of each other about the village that one of them has created on Minecraft. I recall with them that I too created villages as a child, playing solo, using old blocks of wood from a discarded pile at the back of the house. I made roads in the dirt and used matchbox cars and sticks for fences to keep the animals in. Minecraft is the same concept, only it can be done indoors and is safe from damage or the weather. Admittedly it's not quite the same and is less hands on, but still provides a creative template for exploration or inventing a whole village or community from scratch.

My son enjoys the Jurassic Park game and he and I delight in evolving new dinosaurs and learning about their names, habits and building the park to entice more visitors. He then uses his toy dinosaurs and lego pieces to create a park in his bedroom, calling them all by their proper names and creating enclosures to suit the herbivores and carnivores. He has also borrowed countless numbers of books about dinosaurs from the library, so the app game has peaked his and also my interest in anything to do with these prehistoric and amazing creatures. We also have wonderful conversations about the animals that have evolved from the dinosaurs and which ones we think are the most like dinosaurs today.
I see it as a fun, new and interesting way to teach children about the dinosaurs and engage with each other in fun activities that also provide learning experiences.
One of my children has also taught herself how to create animations, using an app and Lego characters and vehicles to develop mini stories and illustrations that she has created from scratch.

As I watch all of this unfold, I realise that instead of resisting the technology and its uses, I need to embrace it and learn about it so that I too can be engaged in their experiences and encourage this learning as a part of their growth. They were born into this era where technology is to be explored, discovered and stretched to the limit. They are demanding that games and learning tools be more sophisticated and challenging and through these devices, they are actually constantly testing themselves and pushing themselves to do well.
It is a form of self led learning and is teaching them how to make decisions and that they need to excel to get to the next level. Something that is sometimes lacking in other areas of their education. They make mistakes on these games and devices but they learn to keep going to get to the next level.
I have used this analogy once or twice when they have made mistakes in other areas and have related this experience back to them so they understand it is just the same. You make mistakes so you can do better next time or push yourself to do better.

So, instead of resisting technology, there are many benefits for children and parents to learn and enjoy the fun side of learning. Yes, it is still a good idea for them to have limits on use of the devices so it allows for other types of learning and playing, but it should also be seen as an important part of their learning. I love that I am learning as well from my favourite teachers, my children.

8 Apr 2014

Why is parenting becoming undervalued in our society?

While driving to a meeting last week I was flicking through the radio stations to find something worth listening to when I came across an interview on talkback radio. They were discussing the rise in discrimination of pregnant women in the workplace in Australia as the number one complaint against employers.
I was appalled to hear of stories of women being asked to choose between having a family and their job. Then there were others who were immediately treated differently in their work environment because they had the gall to make the biggest decision of their lives, to have a child. A decision and a responsibility that cannot and should not be taken lightly.

In The Age Newspaper (8 April 2014), it states that, "one in four mothers said they were discriminated against during pregnancy, almost a third experienced discrimination when they requested or took parental leave and more than a third experienced it when they returned to work."

Commissioner Elizabeth Broderick of the Australian Human Rights Commission who researched 2,000 women states, "The major conclusion we can draw from this data is that discrimination has a cost - to women, their families, to business and to the Australian economy and society as a whole."
(The Age, 8 April 2014).

The biggest impact of this on our society is the stress, anxiety and pressure that it places on women, who then ultimately feel added 'societal and media pressure' after their child is born - this can then lead to further stress and anxiety that babies then also feel.

I don't believe it is limited only to women. Men are increasingly choosing to spend more time with their families and changing their work arrangements to enable them to do so. "A recent insurance company survey suggests that a man is now the primary carer in one in seven UK families." (The Guardian, Saturday 26 January 2013).

The labels that parents are given now is a reflection on the shallow and surprisingly negative attitudes towards parenthood. Women are labelled 'yummy mummies' if they lose weight after giving birth or 'stay at home' mums as if to suggest they stay home all day in their pajamas and hibernate from the world.
Men are labelled 'Mr. Mom', 'Stay at Home Dads', and the media states that parents have had to 'give up' their career to look after their child.
The problem with that is, why is this seen as a problem or something unusual?
One dad in the UK (The Guardian, Saturday 26 January 2013) was asked if he was gay because he was the only dad in the park amongst a group of mothers. He also received sympathetic comments from people because he had to 'give up' his job to take care of his son.

It got me thinking about how society is increasingly undervaluing the absolute privilege it is to be a mother and a father and how more often now it is seen as lowering your standards or decreasing your chances of success, not only in the workplace but in looks, in ruining your body, in having the best car, home, holidays........the list goes on.

The media is constantly shouting at us that if we don't get our figure back post birth or our jobs and career back, that we are not seen as successful in this world. That once you have a child, that's it. You have lowered your status and shame on you for making that choice.

Sad to say that I have even witnessed those who have chosen to over compensate for this apparent 'lack' and have taken the path to have a child and then end up in a spiral of the never ending climb back to the 'status' of having it all and doing it all - but for what and at what expense? There is a real risk that parents themselves will start to undervalue their role as a parent and understanding the responsibilities that come with parenting.

Are parents believing the hype and media pressure, that to be successful you must have or be seen to have money, a career with status, a new car, a home with a perfect garden, interior design and the latest fashion, trends and also to broadcast all that you have on social media for all of your 'friends' to see - to shout out that 'yes!' you have it all and that you should be held in high esteem for this? From whom and for what?

Why is it that society is so intent on forcing women back into the workforce for believing all this leads to success? We are told by Government that it is good for the economy.

But is it good for children?

Whilst I understand that many families are struggling on one wage and therefore must return to work, I also have a strong belief that the connection parents have with their children when they are young, particularly from birth to age 5 is irreplaceable and provides them with the grounding they need to move into the next phase of their lives. And no, it is not easy and there are sacrifices to be made, but this is what parenting is.
This may be an old fashioned view and it doesn't always suit everyone, however choosing to be a parent shouldn't mean you have to be labelled or chastised for making that decision or fall into the trap of believing the hype and following the trends of what is seen as success.

Through my work in schools, I am now trying to help parents to stay connnected through building parent engagement to improve learning outcomes for children. Parents quite often feel undervalued as the main educator of their children. When researching the barriers to engagement between home and school and talking with many of my friends who are parents, many of them feel out of the loop and not always welcomed at their child's school. Quite often these may be parents who have chosen to stay at home and raise their children who have many skills and ideas that could be shared and valued within a school learning community and to assist their children with learning at home. There are also parents who are working who are unable to be present at school but who would also like to stay connected and kept informed on their child's progress more often.

Ultimately, parents want the best for their children, however the barriers to achieve this are sometimes great, not least from a society and media intent on downgrading or devaluing the role of parents in raising their own children - to be present and connected is so important - the sooner we are a wake up to this, the better, more connected world we can provide for the most important people on the planet - our children.