I have been giving a lot of thought to this concept lately. Throughout our professional inquiries one thing comes through clearly, our learners that struggle in those core areas of literacy and numeracy all lack confidence in their own abilities. Because of this they are unwilling to take risks and often believe they 'can't' before they even try. They are inclined to sit back and let others do the work and take the risks, they are the children we struggle to help to make the progress that we know they are capable of.
Obviously there are other things going on, but this self-confidence comes through clearly as a barrier.
After thinking about these children and this lack of confidence I realised that for some, this lack of confidence only comes through in these areas of learning. These children may appear to have quite good self-esteem otherwise and this lack of belief is only related to specific areas of learning. Hence the term 'learning esteem.'
This makes me think of myself. I was not the most confident child, but would have said that I had quite good self-esteem. Put me in a challenging learning situation however (usually maths) my lack of learning esteem would come through clearly. I believed I couldn't do it, it was too hard, I didn't want to offer any ideas in a group situation and would be more likely to apply a fixed mindset in this situation. This was not the case in all situations. Put me in an English class and you would not have ever thought I was anything other than a confident learner. This could be viewed as maths anxiety I guess, but this lack of 'learning esteem' often spilled over into other situations, particularly those that were challenging for me. I simply believed I could not do it.
So why is this, and why is it happening...what can we do about it?
I think there are a range of reasons for this 'lack of learning esteem' but quite ironically I think that one of the main reasons is that for some children early learning is easy, they sail through, nothing really challenges them and they are rewarded for being quick, or 'bright.' Often the way learning is seen in classrooms is that there is one answer...that you are either right or wrong, speed is often rewarded in certain situations and perhaps learning is not viewed by children as the most open concept...you are either right or you are wrong.
The way our current system is set up, particularly due to National Standards is that these areas of our curriculum seem to be valued much more than any other, children pick up on this 'value' or importance pretty quickly and come to think of themselves as either good or bad at learning based on how well they achieve in these areas. We have lost the balance in our fabulous curriculum and I believe that by placing far too much value on these areas we have created pressure and unintentionally reframed how children see themselves as learners.
So what can we do about it? I believe there are some things we can do that will send different messages to children, that will allow them to develop strong learning esteem but still allow us to know where they are at and how to help them.
1) First and foremost I think we need to slow down. Step back from academic learning till children are developmentally ready. It is no surprise that children would have poor learning esteem in relation to literacy or numeracy if they are pushed into doing things that they are nowhere near ready for cognitively. The message this sends them is that they are not good enough. Surely if this teacher sitting beside them that they respect and care for expects them to be able to do it, and they can't then it is them that is deficit right? There is something wrong with them? We have this new alarm bell going off in our country around struggling writers in year 3+4, all around the country I hear of schools setting targets in writing...it is not rocket science that if we push children into something they are not ready for when they are five that they are going to believe they are lacking in some way, have poor learning esteem and therefore become our 'struggling writers.' Children need time to grow, they all develop at different stages, our current system does not appreciate this and instead puts further hurdles in their way.
2)This goes along with one, I think that at least every new entrant/Year 1 room should be play-based. True self-directed play. Based on allowing children to grow as learners at their own pace. My absolute dream would be to see play-based learning having a strong part to play in every classroom, even secondary.
3)We need to stop comparing and stop measuring so often. Children do not need testing on entry and they do not then need testing again in a few months and they do not then need testing again in another few months. It is entirely possible to establish systems that allow you to monitor children on an individual level, without them feeling 'measured' or believing that they are right or wrong, below or above.
4) Base classrooms on learning competencies. These are what children are going to need in their future. Make learning authentic, show children how it relates to the real world. Make it something they can relate to.
5)Try an approach like Mantle of the Expert. The process of elevating children to 'experts' and the way this approach allows the arts to shine is incredibly beneficial for children. Mantle has been transformative for some of our learners that would have been flagged as 'target' children. They shine in this environment simply because they are reframed as experts. This reframing seems to help them overcome any low learning esteem they may have and allows them to attack learning in a whole different way. It is authentic, integrated, valuable, and in a completely imagined world 'real.' Children work in a responsible team as they will eventually in the real world...what could be more authentic then that!
6)Allow children to see learning in different ways. Where possible make it open ended. Ask questions in different ways where there are many different answers. Allow time for children to think, plan and process. Try in any way possible to eliminate pressure.
7)Where possible integrate learning. This is also where Mantle of the Expert works so well. Show children how everything links together, don't narrow the curriculum, but open it up so they can see the possibilities.
8)Build in loads of time to talk about learning. Use growth mindset activities and allow children to see how important mistakes are. Use the learning pit (or dip) and show children how important the struggle is.
9)Make time to dance, sing, run, jump...take learning outdoors, allow children follow their urges, let them find joy in the learning process.
10)Last but not least remember the power you have. Relationships are key. You are important. One teacher can change the way a child sees themselves as a learner, be it positively or negatively. You have the power to help children see the value in the risks, to help them find their passions and talents and to help them see that learning is a journey not a destination.