What is a key characteristic of strong performing schools? They continue learning, no matter how strong the impact of their current practices on student learning.
The Slideshow project had the honor of visiting Toverbos, a Freinet based school in Brasschaat (Belgium).
Toverbos is a primary school who teaches students from 2,5 till 12 years old. As a Freinet school, their classroom practices are characterized by student autonomy and experience-based learning. During the recent years, the school has become highly successful resulting in a big growth of student population. Whereas they were used to having kids enrolled at the age of 2,5, they now have students coming in at different ages. Unlike the students who enrolled at age 2,5 the new students were mostly used to more traditional classroom practices. As a result, teachers saw many of them struggle as they received more autonomy and ownership over their own learning than they were used to. Some really freezed when having to start an assignment, whereas others didn't succeed in handing in their assignments on time.
This observation caused the school team to search for solutions. Their research question was clear: how can we help students enrolling at an older age to catch up so that they can thrive as a self-directed learner too?
Together with the school psychologist, they decided to focus on students' executive functions. With the help of a book called 'Beter bij de les', the school principal and the school psychologist started training themselves in executive function support. Last year, they trained groups of 10 children separately. "It was confronting to observe how much some kids struggled with some of the executive functions, but it was equally impressive to see how much they improved after the intervention.", school principal Lynn Roosemeyers tells us. The growth in executive functioning resulted in small but significant changes in the classroom: working attitude, clean desk before and after a task, etc. Another strength of this approach could be seen in the language/vocabulary. It gave both teachers and students the necessary words to describe rather complex concepts and strategies.
Good improvements, but…
The (first) covid-19 lockdown showed that the self-regulation skills of students are more important than ever before. Even if schools are to remain open, covid-19 will continue to impact classroom practice with many teachers and students having to stay home at some point. Given their usual practices (with clearly defined projects, supporting documents and qr-codes, etc.) the school is well prepared to continue to support learning, even when kids are at home. However, students' self-regulated learning skills are an important pre-condition. "It was clear that we did not want to abandon our Freinet approach and focus on creating powerful student-centered learning environments. And definitely not in these times. So, when we notice kids risk to drop out, we search for even better solutions to better support those kids.", says Lynn.
Thus, the school team went to search for more sustainable solutions. The solution had to fulfill the following requirements:
It should allow all teachers (rather than two) to be involved to ensure continuous self-regulation support.
It should be integrated within the classroom rather than organized as seperate treatment-like interventions.
Therefore, one year after their initial research question, they redefined their question into: What do we expect from students concerning self-regulation and how do we currently support it?
It was no surprise that they addressed this question at their next professional development opportunity. This led to interesting insights into the (high) expectations about students' self-regulation skills. It equally resulted in a schoolwide map of the different techniques, methods and practices that explicitly teach students these self-regulation skills. It is their ambition to develop a trajectory from age 2,5 till 12 outlining the self-regulation support offered in their school.
Self-regulated learning: Zimmerman model
After having dived into the principles of self-regulated learning, Lynn showed us around in her school. She pointed to the many different artefacts that illustrate how they are already supporting students' self-regulated learning skills. It is part of their DNA. Still, they continue to study the impact of their approach and are determined to continue to improve for the benefit of all their students.
It is exactly that what makes this school's story so strong and inspiring. Whereas some might conclude 'Oh, but we already do all of that', the Toverbos team continues to run PDCA-cycles and thus continuously monitors and improves their approach.
According to Lynn, the Zimmerman model of self-regulated learning, is what may help them take the next step. It clearly fits the two requirements listed above (i.e. involve all teachers and integration in the classroom). It also gives more language to analyze current practices and identify what could be improved. "It also helps us as teachers, because you are finally given a concrete framework which allows you to see what it is you can actually do and impact as a teacher", Lynn says. "What's powerful too, is that you approach it with your entire schoolteam. You all use the same vocabulary and are experimenting at the same time. It's much easier to talk to one another." Finally, Lynn sees great value in self-regulated learning as it allows teachers to experience it themselves. Teachers too need to self-regulate. Being able to go through the same kind of experiences reminds us about the time learning takes. We need to be careful not to rush things, while at the same time doing what you can to continue to improve our student support.
The critical reader may have noticed that the PDCA-wall behind Lynn is empty. "That's really a coincidence", Cathy Famaey coordinating director primary education of the school group. I've been here so many times, and it's always full she laughs. Although the board was just cleaned up, it is exciting to see that the one thing that is pinned to the 'plan' box, is GO! policy paper about "personalized learning together". It will be no surprise that self-regulation skills are at the heart of this strategic vision GO! aims to implement in all of its schools.
Many thanks to Lynn Roosemeyers for sharing her story!