Sometimes, it can be helpful to talk about ‘teaching’ and ‘learning’ as if they are two discrete concepts. Each has its own set of practicable skills, for example.
In reality, of course, they are not distinct. By definition, teaching requires someone to be learning. The only reason you can’t teach a wall is because it cannot learn.
And that’s why the most effective professional development for educators embraces the inherent entwinement of teaching and learning. When we view teaching and learning as two sides of the same coin – when we view education simultaneously through the lens of a teacher and a learner – then we can really begin to finesse our classroom craft.
If I walked into a random classroom at your school and asked a random student: “This thing you’re learning right now, why are you learning it?”, would they have a good answer? And what if we disallowed the following answers: “Because it’s on the test.” and “Because my teacher told me to.”? Would the student be able to clearly articulate the underlying value and purpose of the lesson?
Learning driven by a deep sense of real-world meaning and powered by curiosity, hope and intrinsic motivation is so powerful. Yet, there are still many lessons being delivered that are void of this sense of meaning and driven, instead, by some form of external motivator (eg stickers, tokens, money, grades, fear, etc).
The best educators always ensure the ‘why‘ is strong – at the heart of their classroom – even in very young students. The ‘why‘ is the source-code of inspiration and the fuel of long-term passion and perseverance.
The ‘why‘ makes learning matter.
When you buy a cake from the shop and serve it to your guests, it tastes nice, they like it, and you’ve saved time and effort. But you’ve learned nothing about baking.
Many teachers lean heavily on materials and structures built and determined by others. It’s just easier that way.
But when you get the chance to see a lesson being taught by a teacher who has carefully designed, orchestrated, and crafted a student experience from the ground up – with their own stamp on every part if it – you see something different. Not only do you see a teacher who is more deeply invested in the lesson but you see a teacher who is really learning. The real-time student response provides rich and meaningful data that allows a teacher to not only refine their pedagogy, but also to become a better lesson architect.
Great teaching is as much about preparation and design as it is about delivery.
When you start baking for the first time, you make mistakes and you learn. But soon enough, you are able to bake a homemade cake that tastes better than anything you can buy in a shop.
One thing that almost all great plays, brilliant speeches or addictive TV series like Mad Men (a current favourite!) have in common is a captivating, attention grabbing, opening ‘hook’. It’s sometimes an image or a scene or a phrase or a line delivered by an actor. This hook inadvertently sucks us in to the content and, often, our entire attentional capacity is so zoomed in that the performance in front of us becomes our reality.
Yet, so few school lessons begin in such a way. Not every lesson needs to be mind-blowing. And a teacher is not a performer on a stage. But every great lesson has a ‘hook’. The opening few minutes of a lesson are so critical in setting up deep learning and focussed attention. In the best classrooms, students quickly become completely immersed in their learning because whatever they are doing immediately feels like it matters and it makes sense. The ability to rapidly cultivate a sense of purpose, a ‘hook’, is right at the core of great teaching.
Our classrooms can be absolutely as captivating as video games and iPhones – but only when we deliberately and skilfully ‘hook in’ our students.
What’s the ‘hook’ in your next lesson or speech?
I was a classroom teacher in mainstream secondary schools for about 15 years. Each year, I taught for about 40 weeks; 200 days. For the sake of round numbers, let’s say I taught five lessons per day. That works out to be 15 years x 200 days x 5 lessons = 15,000 lessons.
It’s hard to be precise, but I reckon I had another adult in my teaching room on about 45 occasions. That works out at 0.3%. of the time. And to be honest, a majority of those adults were trainees observing my teaching. So the proportion of time in which I had a mentor or senior teacher or qualified person witnessing my practice was minuscule – probably less than 0.1%.
Can you think of another regulated, established profession, other than child psychology, in which 99.9% of a person’s work is unseen by another adult human?
Because teaching has tended to occur, literally, behind closed doors, the amount of substandard practice that has been allowed is matched only by the amount of brilliant teaching that has never been seen, shared, or learned from. Things must change.
One of the most exciting initiatives we have seen is compulsory, systematised pedagogical experimentation. All teachers are required to think deeply about their practice, experiment with innovations and in-class variables, and then record their findings in a shared database.
This kind of development, led and owned by teachers, is helping us inch closer to another level of transparency, dynamism, collegiality and shared practice. And to the the next level of teacher professionalism.