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 finess our classroom craft.
If one person asked you to ‘plan’ a party and another asked you to ‘design’ a party, would you consider these two tasks to be identical?
What about the ‘plan’ of your living room versus its ‘design’?
Planning starts with well-understood components and organises them in an efficient and logical way. (We’ll do the party games first and then have the cake at the end.)
Design is different. Design is linked to desire. Design starts with a well-understood intention and harnesses imagination to create something that works to serve the intention. (We want our living room to make people feel calm and relaxed.)
Trainee teachers are taught very early about the value of lesson planning and curriculum planning. It’s important, of course, for lessons to be well-structured and efficient.
But lessons really come to life when they are well planned and well designed. Design works when it optimises human experience.
Here are some lesson design questions:
- What is the intention of the opening three minutes of the lesson? Is it to energise students, to calm them, to focus them, to nurture a sense of safety? How can I create an experience that achieves this intention?
- What is the desired emotional state for the main lesson activity? Do I want my students to feel stretched, or grateful, or inspired, or…? How can I create an experience that achieves this desire?
- How can I create an environment in this lesson in which students feel competent, connected, and autonomous?
Great teaching isn’t based on planning perfect lessons. Rather, it is based on an iterative design process driven by a clear intention that creates powerful learning experiences.
The best educators are so because they are students of their craft. No one is born a great teacher. Like all complex crafts, it takes thousands of hours of practice and years of experience to hone world-class teaching practice.
Great teachers are constantly seeking to sharpen their skills. They know they can continue to improve and so they work hard to become 5 or 10% better each year.
And when you ask one of these top teachers: “Is it possible for you to, one day, be twice as good as you are now?”, they invariably say ‘Yes’. And even more interestingly, they can describe what this would look like.
They have already envisaged this reality.
This future reality is the source-code of innovation in education.
There’s a quote in Adam Grant’s excellent book, Originals, that stands out – particularly when read through the eyes of an educator:
“In the deepest sense of the word, a friend is someone who sees more potential in you than you see in yourself, someone who helps you become the best version of yourself.”
This is not just true of friends.
In the deepest sense of the term, a great teacher is someone who sees more potential in their students than their students see in themselves, someone who helps their students become the best version of themselves.
That is our goal.
Is there a ‘right’ way to teach or to parent children? Is there a ‘right’ way to lead a school or organisation? Is there a ‘right’ way to be a friend or colleague?
No. (Life would be so easy if there was.)
But there are wrong ways. It is wrong to parent with abuse. It is wrong to lead with corruption. It is wrong to manipulate friends and colleagues with fear.
And there are wrong ways to teach. Whilst good and great teachers often have very different styles and commonly embrace their varied idiosyncrasies, there are three things that should never, ever occur in any classroom:
- Intentional humiliation or shaming of a student. This causes so much harm, including to the embarrassed student, to class cohesion, and to the students’ and parents’ respect of the teacher. This is a lose-lose-lose scenario. It is never justifiable.
- Giving up on a student. Teachers are trained professionals whose job it is to unconditionally nurture and seek the best in every child. It is particularly at the most difficult times, with the most challenging students, that we must model hope.
- Speaking badly about one student or one group of students to another. This is a form of disloyalty that is not only entirely unprofessional but will inevitably get back to the original student or group and erode trust and relationships further.
Teaching is a highly demanding profession. We will make mistakes. Mistakes are inevitable, understandable, and forgivable. But the above are not.
There is one question, more than any other, that should be held close by every educator. It belongs on a Post-It note on your desk and in the forefront of your mind as you enter a classroom:
“For whom do I teach?”
As new parents, my wife and I often ask ourselves: “What did we used to do with our time before we had kids?!”
Educators might ask the same thing about email: “What did we used to with our time before we had email?!”
I wonder if that’s when intellectual conversations and debates were had between colleagues. I wonder if this is when books were read and letters were penned? I wonder if that’s when teachers worked on their subject knowledge, and designed and wrote their own curriculum? I wonder if this was when teachers were able to occasionally go for a stroll, to relax and refresh?
I grew up with a Mum who was a teacher in the 70s, 80s and 90s. So I know that those times TBE (Teaching Before Email) had their own challenges. And email isn’t all bad – there are so many advantages in us being able to stay connected with each other.
But TBE, there must have been something nice about being able, at the end of the day, to literally, switch off.