When I look back to my school days in the 90s, I am amazed at the developments in pedagogy between then and now. In my memories, we sat mostly in rows and were presented with a body of knowledge that we could tap into or not, depending on whether we felt like it. Providing we weren’t openly dispruptive, nobody cared very much whether we learnt anything or not. Actually, that’s a little unfair. Teachers were over the moon when they found you were engaged and interested, but they weren’t going to lose sleep if you weren’t.
When I began teacher training in 2004, it still seemed that to some extent this approach to teaching was acceptable. Providing each lesson was divided into 3 parts and nobody was disruptive, all was deemed to be well. We lovingly planned lessons with starters, mains and plenaries, and delivered them to our classes expecting that they would lap up the knowledge therein with gusto. If they didn’t, well, that was their problem, providing they didn’t cause any overt disruption.
But teaching is much more demanding, and interesting, now. We are charged with ensuring that every child is a bright and curious learner who takes responsibility for their progress and actively directs their own learning. This is as it should be. And it’s no longer for us to actively “teach” the students. Instead, our job is to create an environment in which student learning can take place while we gently nudge them along, giving them useful feedback (as they pootle away on their journeys) in an effort to make sure they continue heading in the right direction.
When I first came across this approach a few years ago, I was cynical to put it mildly. It smacked of idealistic nonsense that would have no real effect and would disappear quite quickly. But the more I read and the more I try to implement this approach, the more convinced I become of its value and merit. There is no doubt that the work involved in creating such an environment is more burdensome on the teacher than the traditional didactic approach. But the beauty of this approach is that if the planning is thorough and the marking and feedback is timely and appropriate, the actual lessons pretty much take care of themselves. Students come in knowing what they need to do and just get on with it. It takes a lot to train them to do this, but once the systems are embedded it is just a case of steady but consistent maintenance to keep them on track. There are very few groans because the kids are looking forward to doing what they do and are often engrossed in it.
The ironic thing is that the most memorable teachers for me were the ones that could teach exciting and engaging lessons in a traditional way, entertaining me with tantalising tidbits of information wrapped in entertaining narratives and personal anecdotes. But in all honesty how many of them can I remember? Three, maybe four at best. And I don’t believe that I have that kind of charisma talk to a class for an hour and keep them engaged. But I know that with hard work I can create a fertile learning environment in which students can develop, and with a little light maintenance I can keep this environment going. So now, this is how I try to direct my practice, as somebody who creates and tends a fertile environment, rather than someone who broadcasts my wisdom and knowledge in the hope that some of it will take root (there is a definite gardening metaphor in all this, but we’ll keep away from cliches). When I look at my groups getting on with their work, and then think back to myself 20 years ago, either sat at a desk copying out of a textbook, or listening to a teacher espousing, or just being left to do my own thing provided I didn’t cause any problems, I can’t help but a feel a little bit jealous.