Empowering Learners through feedback and thinking out loud

Anna Freeman – Tōtara Teacher

“Do you like my drawing?”

At first glance, this is a mundane question. Still, this question is one that has made me ponder its implications for the past half year.

Whenever I hear students ask for feedback I pause to be precise in my reply: “I love all the details you included in your flower!” or “I like how people’s facial expressions tell us about how they feel toward each other.” Sometimes I frustrate students with a Socratic question “what do you like about it?” When I receive an eye roll or an exasperated sigh in reply, the question may likely have been directed at the student-teacher relationship level rather than the factual, more objective level.

At the relationship level the question implies “do you like the way I work?” or even “do you like me?” Both implications can be addressed by taking time and carefully looking at the work. My best answer acknowledges the level of care by noticing details that give evidence to it. Gauging the effort accurately requires knowing how the student usually works.

On a more objective level, requests for feedback make me consider how I can help students to become both more self-reflective and more confident in assessing their work accurately. Through observation I can know about the time and care invested in the work which can be a good indicator of effort. What is more, in an online world of influencers there is something to be said about the merit of a job well done for its own sake – without the need to vie for other people’s approval.

An impactful way of promoting self-reflection and assessment is to model it. Demonstrating (modelling) to them how I know that I have done “a good job” or a “job done well enough” is essential. Showing children how to deal with making mistakes and how they help me learn and that this requires me to be patient with myself gives children a blueprint of how to deal with their own mistakes in learning. I also provide students with a checklist for the different types of work they are doing in the class. 

I am careful to mention often that I have the experience of my lifetime of drawing and crafting. A vital part of teaching requires making the unseen or unheard explicit for students! I need to say that I do not have all the answers and that learning something requires trying something multiple (i.e. not just tens but hundreds or thousands of) times. What is more, learning something means making mistakes. In class, I already talk about this but I still want to talk about it more. 

I hope that reading this text has inspired you to try new things together with your tamariki – especially things that you are not already good at. 

How do we ‘follow the child’?

By Amy Johnson — Kōwhai Head Teacher – Preschool

As we are settling into term 4 and I sit in my classroom observing the tamariki, I am often struck by the joy they have, just to be back together again. Back into the swing of routine, back into the community of learners that makes up our akomanga (classroom), exploring each day and what it brings. I can see and feel across our preschool that many tamariki feel this way. They love being together and exploring indoors and out, with their peers and hoa (friends). It is lovely to see them settling into their environment and beginning to encourage each other and take on challenges. Yes, sometimes they will return to that well-loved activity, the one they mastered long ago but that still provides comfort of routine or the feel-good- glow of known mastery. But it is amazing to see how often children choose to take on new tasks and challenge themselves with difficult and complex activities, sometimes ones they have just been shown and are still struggling to figure out. 

It is our goal as Montessori kaiako to introduce activities and challenges to the children at just the right moment – ideally finding that “sweet spot” where the child finds enough success and has built most the appropriate skills to take on a new task, but also tempts them to explore and attempt an activity that brings something new to practice, to fail and to improve. When we get this balance right, we find the most concentration, the most focus, the most interest and the most satisfaction for the tamaiti. And because every child has a different set of skills, interests and personalities, we are able (and in fact, it is necessary) to personalise a set of lessons and introductions to different activities, in different orders and ages for each and every child in our community. This is often a new concept for ‘education’ when you might compare your experiences in school to those of your child. He/she does not get a ‘lesson’ or an introduction to an activity because of their age, but rather interest, ability and willingness to practice the skills that must come before. This is part of what Dr. Montessori means when she talks about ‘following the child’. It also embodies the underlying message that one’s education is ultimately reliant on you and your own efforts, not something someone else can do or build for you. 

How do we know which lessons to give when, you might ask? And the answer is simple and complex all at the same time. We observe. We observe closely and from a distance. We listen, and watch, and get to know each child and their personal strategies and personalities. We notice and take note of strengths and challenges, of interests and avoidances. We watch social interactions and individual trials and triumphs. We get to know each and every personality that makes up our learning community, and we allow space and time for each one to develop in at their own pace and in their own style. I feel lucky to have a job where I get to know and understand your children in this way, as do many of my colleagues. And of course we get to watch them grow and change as they develop more mastery and understanding of themselves and the world around them.  What a special place Wā Ora is!