“The core role of a teacher is facilitating learning… but much of what teachers are expected to do is something other than teaching.” writes Sir Ken Robinson in Creative Schools.
As a teacher myself I remember the bone tiredness that comes from frantically trying to meet all the demands of teaching at a conventional school. Despite all our attempts to reach out to struggling students, plan interesting lessons, go the extra mile to unlock individual students you still only get judged on the results you produce on standardised tests.
The pressure on you is always to deliver results when you sense in your gut that a much healthier way to teach would be to focus on process, learning and growth.
Teachers also struggle under the inhumanity of an Industrial model of Education. This has been even more true in the last 20 years as policies echoed the “No Child Left Behind” Policy of the US that rewarded schools and teachers with resources for better test results. Around the world, the need to do better on international comparative tests (the PISA tests) and the very real local pressure to look better than other schools with your good test results has only further shifted focus away from growth in each student.
But good teachers don’t want to work in a factory, moving kids on a conveyor belt, producing good test takers and discarding the ones that don’t conform.
You read blogs like this because you are such a teacher.
“Education is changeable from where you are in it” believes Ken Robinson.
I propose that seeing your class as an organic farm instead of a factory may just change your job satisfaction, and ultimately the results you get from all your students. In this slightly longer blog we look at what it means to adopt a better metaphor for education.
As a farmer, with the intent to grow a bountiful harvest your task is to:
Have faith in the seed - Expect Learning
It’s really important that you wrestle with the question that I asked Heather Wells on this month’s episode of Wonderfully Wired: Are children natural learners? Because if that is true, your job is to do what you can to facilitate what children naturally do: Learn. IF, on the other hand you believe that some or even all of your students are resistant to, or unable to learn, it changes what you expect of them and children live up AND DOWN to your expectations. (read the blog: children are natural born learners If you are still unconvinced)
How do Children learn?
From this perspective on ALL the kids in your classes you stop asking “which student can learn accounting” but “how can each student learn?” .
“If a child learns in one way and we are teaching in another way we are disadvantaging him,” says Heather Wells.
Celebrate growth - Empower learning
If a child struggles, a great teacher asks: What stands in the way of them learning?
Sometimes it is not only the way things are taught, but often other factors that cause stress on a child’s body and mind which means they disengage . Good teachers are mentors too- your role with a student may be helping them believe in themselves again.
I also know that teachers receive only marginal training on different learning profiles. You don’t have to be an expert in dyslexia, dyspraxia or sensory processing disorder to be a keen observer of a child in your class. What do you notice doesn’t work for that child? What causes her anxiety? What seems to make her unable to focus? Is there something small that has become a big barrier to learning? What would it take to remove that small thing?
Offer good soil - Enable Learning
The farmer is successful when he creates the ‘just right’ conditions for each seed to germinate, grow and carry fruit.
Of course there are occasions when the necessary mode of teaching is direct instruction but ‘expert teachers have a repertory of skills and techniques’ explains Robinson. Grow your ability to add other kinds of facilitation of learning to your repertoire and thus reduce your reliance on lecturing in front of the class. This won’t just help the Wonderfully Wired in your class that may especially struggle with lecture type teaching, but all your students will benefit from more active learning, learning by experimentation, creative learning and group work.
For learning to happen, curiosity needs to be alive and kicking. Practical, inquiry teaching is a powerful tool to spark that curiosity. So is using creativity! Is there space in your classroom for creativity? Remember you needn’t be the creative one, you only need to offer the soil for your students’ creative expression.
Heather explains that the enabled student is the one who feels confident to take risks. What would it take for your students to feel confident to try? Ironically nothing gives a student more confidence to try than a teacher who sometimes admits to making mistakes. Mistakes are always opportunities to learn but if the only message your students get is that mistakes equal poor grades which equals poor students, then learning becomes the casualty.
Watering passion - Engage
Good teachers become experts in the students in front of them, not just applying what worked in years before. The ‘human problem’ (see Do children need to be made to learn or will all children learn under the right conditions? ) means that every year you teach the same content, you teach it to a diverse group of new students. The game has changed and you must too. Your area of expertise is your current students, not science or grammar or geography.
Great teachers achieve those results by bringing the best out in individual students. Do you know what is important to your students? A passion for Star Wars might unlock a reluctant reader. A strong sense of justice might give cause for good writing to a real audience.
Heather has a rather brutal metaphor that I think is accurate: Teachers, she says, can be either ladders or snakes.
What does a ladder, that scaffold learning, look like for individual students in your class? What can cause progress, even if the rungs are very close together at first? What are you doing that might discourage learning for some students: insisting on sitting still on uncomfortable desks right at the back of the class?
But you needn’t instinctively know everything about each student. You have a partner in education: the student’s parents.
In my next blog I explore what a successful parent teacher relationship can look like so that parents can become assets to your understanding and unlocking their children.