Why we need systems to optimise learning

When you sign up to become a teacher, no-one ever tells you that one of the most important things you need to teach students is how to enter a classroom! Every teacher joins the profession to make a difference in the lives of young people. Teachers want to inspire and motivate! They definitely do not dream about how exciting it’s going to be putting their class into a seating plan! However, if you can get your routines, structure and organisation right, you might just be able to teach that amazing lesson that you prepared!

Schools are like any other business in that they are dynamic places that are required to continually evolve to meet the needs of their customers/clients. Except our clients are more demanding and important than most other demographics because they are our future generations. 

Systems are a way of ensuring a message is communicated in a consistent manner.

If culture is the foundations of a building, then systems would be the scaffolding. It sets everything up and allows new additions to fit in seamlessly. However, sometimes systems can go too far and not allow for any flexibility in professional judgement. As you will see at the end of the article, that is also why having a review process in place is also an important part of any system that is implemented.

This article focuses more on school wide changes, but the general principles and thinking around decision-making can be applied at any level from a classroom teacher looking at implementing set routines to a middle leader putting in place systems to ensure that they are able to fulfill their roles as a teacher and leader. 

Making decisions

If we simplify the decision making process at a whole school level, every decision could priortise:

  • How can we help our students be better people?
  • How can we help teachers be better teachers, to ensure our students become better people?

Too often in education, reactionary decisions are made based on things like:

  • The latest educational fad
  • Heard that another school/teacher/country was doing it
  • A sudden influx of a certain problem
  • An influential teacher/school leader is pushing an idea forward
Cedit: Neil Pasricha
From Neil Pasricha, The Happiness Equation

Low importance and high time: Regulate them, allocate a specific time to do them e.g. e-mails.

Low importance and low time: Automate these decisions e.g. how to enter a classroom

High importance and low time: Effectuate them, just do it e.g. Say “Hi” to your team.

High importance and high time: Debate them, either with yourself or colleagues. These decisions are worth the time. I go through how to do this at the end of this article.

What the research says

“Global expenditure on education exceeds USD $3.5 trillion per annum—with approximately 4% of this (or USD $140 billion) being invested in education products, resources, and in-service teacher professional learning. 

“As Good as Gold? Why We Focus on the Wrong Drivers in Education” by John Hattie and Arran Hamilton. 

In Daniel Willingham’s book, When Can You Trust the Experts, he talks about using this formula when making decisions:

“If we do x, there is y% chance z will happen.” 

This sort of formula could be applied to all areas of teaching and learning when looking to make changes.

David Didau in Intelligent Accountability talks about a deficit model and a surplus model (see table below). It describes the different perspectives school leaders can take based on current circumstances and can influence the whole culture of a school. 

Why we need to review current systems and processes

Cognitive bias

We can be affected by cognitive bias due to things like our personal beliefs and experiences, jumping on the bandwagon and status quo. For example, staff may be reluctant to change their ways, because it’s different to what they have always done.  They do not have any evidence to suggest that their way is the best way.  

The curse of knowledge 

We often assume that other people know more than they do because of how much we know. Or we think that something will be easy for others to do because we’re so good at it. As teachers we do it all the time. Because we have so much background knowledge to make connections too, we can forget or just not actually know, how few schemas our students are able to link too. 

However, this also applies to teachers. For example, it might be a new teacher starting at a school. If you have been working at school for a long period of time, there are certain situations where you just know what to do because that’s how it’s always happened. It might be to do with the way students leave the school for home time or the expectations for assembly, however if it is not written down or time has not been allocated for someone to go through these procedures, then you can assume that the new staff member won’t know what to do! 

Why do we need systems, routines and structure?

  • Decrease the cognitive load on our working memory for both students and teachers. Anything that is not stored in our long term memory, takes up space in our limited working memory. So, we want to automate the things that have to happen, but don’t add value to the students gaining new knowledge. If every student knows that they have to line up a certain way, enter a classroom a certain way and move between activities a certain way, then this procedure can automatically happen.  
  • Clarifies roles, responsibilities and rules. There may be an incident on the playground during lunchtime. Who delivers the consequences for this problem? How is the incident recorded? Who follows up on this incident? If there is no clear system, then this sort of incident is dealt with differently each time. Eventually, some teachers will just choose the easiest option.
  • Easier for beginning teachers and new staff because there is a clear understanding on how things work and they don’t have to think about it, the processes just happen. Teachers can focus on teaching!
  • Smoother transition between years, new students and teachers. Rather than each new teacher having to re-teach rules, expectations and routines, they are already the norm.
  • More consistency, when looking to make changes to improve future practices, it is easier to work out what works and doesn’t work when there is valid, reliable data. If everyone and everything is done differently, how do you know what actually works? If every teacher is teaching their own program and we are looking at data for a whole cohort, how do we know why results are good/bad?
  • Community knows expectations as well, eventually things like specific language used and expectations can flow into family homes.
  • Behaviour becomes the norm when it is part of the routine
  • Structure increases the predictability which both students and teachers prefer.
  • Supports students with special needs
  • Social proof theory: As children get older, their peers have more influence over them than their parents. Children just want to fit in. We need to create the right spaces for children to fit into.

Factors to consider when setting up a whole school system, process or routine

  • Be clear with what the expectations are for staff and students, for everything.
  • There should be a focus on these systems leading to a decrease in workload and an increase in wellbeing. Workload can refer to how hard teachers are physically working and also the workload on our brains. Like I mentioned earlier, we want to automate the events that have low meaningfulness.
  • Can you take a strength-based approach to teaching? For example, in a primary school setting if you have a teacher that is skilled and passionate about Science, why not let them teach Science across the grade rather than just to their class? Or at the very least, use their expertise and have them lead the programming for that subject.
  • What things happen in every classroom that are of low importance and low time? E.g. entering and exiting a classroom, transitioning and getting the students attention.

Setting up effective whole school systems, processes and routines

Step 1. Why is it needed? What does the internal data say?

What problem is the proposed new system trying to fix? Does the data support your hypothesis? 

Example 1 – Increasing attendance

Increasing attendance may be a part of your school improvement plan, but what does the data tell you? Who is away? What days are they away? Why are they absent?

Example 2 – Improving student behaviour

You may believe that the biggest barrier to students learning is the constant disruptions due to negative behaviour. What does your data say? Has there been an increase in incidents recorded? What do the student and staff surveys say?

Step 2. How can we fix it? What does the external data say?

After you have looked at the internal data, what does the external evidence-based research say to do in order to solve your problem? 

Example 1 – Increasing attendance

Have there been studies on programs that effectively increase attendance? What do similar schools do that works?

Example 2 – Improving student behaviour

What sorts of strategies do behaviour management specialists like Bill Rogers, Tom Bennett and Paul Dix recommend? In NSW, Positive Behaviour for Learning has become very popular, how does the evidence support its strategies? 

Step 3. What will we do? What does it look like at each level?

You now know what the research says and why you need to make a change, you need to decide what you will do. This decision-making process needs a system in itself. Does the Principal make the decision by themselves? Senior Executive members, a wellbeing team or all staff? Is there a form for people to fill in if they have a proposal to make?

Once the decision has been made on what system, process or routine is going to be set-up, you need to work out how it will look at each step of the way. Who does what? When do they do it?

Example 1 – Increasing attendance

You could set up a flowchart to show what happens when a student is absent for one day, two days in a row and falls below 90% attendance rate. Who makes contact with families and when?

Example 2 – Improving student behaviour

There are numerous methods to behaviour management and without going into the nuances of what works best, if we focus on ensuring that we go through expectations for classroom behaviour and what the  consequences are for not meeting those expectations, that will be a strong start. 

The system, process or routine that is set up DOES NOT have to be a rigid, highly detailed set of rules, but could be a set of principles, guidelines, or a framework.

Step 4. How does it affect staff and students? Do they need training?

In one way or another, students and staff are going to have to learn and understand a new way of operating. This process needs to be highly structured and organised before the new system is implemented. Will the process be explained to middle leaders first who will then go through it with their teams or will senior executives deliver it to the whole school at once? Due to things like cognitive bias and the Dunning-Kruger effect, no matter what you are asking, if it is change of some sort, there will always be some opposition. So, the way the message is delivered needs to be strategic.

What will be the selling point? Will it decrease in negative student behaviour? Could it increase student learning outcomes? Will it give teachers more time to plan, prepare and collaborate?

You are also likely to encounter some sort of resistance in the community. How will you be strategic in delivering the message to them? Will it be through a well thought out social media marketing plan? Will it be through the P&C?

If training is needed, who will deliver it and when? If you are already experiencing barriers to uptake, then maybe adding it on as an extra after-school activity, isn’t a great idea.

Example 1 – Increasing attendance

How will staff know when to contact families? Will they be told or have to monitor it themselves? Will they need training in how to communicate with families appropriately? Do you need to educate the community about how – “Every minute matters?”

Example 2 – Improving student behaviour

The same explicit teaching principles that apply to teaching a new mathematical concept, apply to teaching new behavioural expectations. Model what it looks like, guide them through when they are doing it, practice it.

Step 5. How will the effectiveness of the system be monitored?

This is often one of the steps that is left out of systems. We might put in all the time and effort into the previous four stages, but not put a timeline on when it will be evaluated. Even after we have analysed all the research and data, no other school is exactly the same and so any system that is set up will have to be monitored to ensure it works for your setting.

So, how long will you give the program until you expect it to start showing results? How will these results be measured? When will changes be allowed to occur?

Gaining feedback from the people using these systems is vital during this stage. If there are recommendations for changes, go back to step one and two. What does the data say and is there any evidence that shows the proposed changes will work better.

Example 1 – Increasing attendance

Who will be monitoring attendance on a daily/weekly/term basis? If this becomes a new responsibility, then what will it replace? When will the effectiveness of the system be assessed?

Example 2 – Improving student behaviour

Usually when a new behaviour management system is put in place, there will be a stage when incidents will increase due to students testing out the boundaries. So, the criteria behind what will be considered successful will have to take this into account.

Step 6. What will the consequences be for not following the system?

Whether it’s teachers or students, what will happen if they do not follow the expectations/steps/rules? For any system to work, everyone needs to be following through and held accountable. However, empathy and understanding needs to be applied to each case. If we follow David Didau’s, Surplus Model, are there aspects to the current systems that leaders could do better?

Example 1 – Increasing attendance

What are the consequences for students when they fall below a certain attendance rate and what will be the outcome if teachers do not follow the set processes?

Example 2 – Improving student behaviour

What happens when students aren’t following the rules? Who follows up with staff that aren’t using the whole-school processes?

Concluding thoughts

Often in education, we make reactionary decisions based on short-term trends. For example, there were five students sent to the office for making discriminatory remarks. So, now the whole school needs to stop what they’re doing and start teaching about the importance of being multicultural and understanding of others. Now, don’t get me wrong, there’s no place for discrimination at our schools. However, taking this sort of quick-fix approach means that there has been no time allocated to researching and planning lessons by taking an evidence-based approach and fitting it into a proper scope and sequence. So, even if it is a real-problem, the effectiveness of the lessons may not be there.

On top of this, there might not even be a problem, because the students don’t even properly understand what they are saying. Recently, I caught a student saying to another one to suck “HER d**k!” Now, we may not quite have covered anatomy in Year 4, and certainly not with that language, but that comment would tell me that they don’t actually understand what they are saying! 

Having systems in place ensures that there’s no place for reactionary decisions and that we are able to go through a set number of steps before making any important decision. In a highly structured environment, everyone knows what they need to do, when to do it and why. Importantly, it allows teachers to focus on helping students learn.

If you are looking at making changes at your school at any level, there will be the potential for backlash. The bigger the change or if you trying to impact on a large group of people, the more resistance there will be. If you are like me, when you see a problem, you just want to fix it. However, if you approach it strategically, it will give you a better chance of success and who knows, you might also be the victim of the Dunning-Kruger effect!

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