Teachers and Teaching

(d’oh! had this one as a draft but no web access in Townsville a couple of weeks ago, and so just discovered it in the Draft box and realised I’d never published it. Hope the content is still interesting)

I’ve been away from home this week conducting a research study in a school, basically observing lessons and interviewing students. This is the second such week in a school (I was in a different school a couple of weeks ago), and I’ve seen a huge range of teachers, students and lessons, in a wide range of subjects and at levels from Year 8 to Year 10.

As always I’ve been very impressed by the professionalism and commitment of the teachers I’ve seen, and the amazing work they do in sometimes very difficult conditions. I’m reminded of the demands on time and energy, particularly emotional energy, and it tends to blunt my yen to be back in the classroom when I see just how hard they work.

I’ll talk in a moment about some directions forward, and will first say that I haven’t seen any bad teachers. Every one of them has been a good person and taught good lessons. In some cases those lessons have been more effective and successful than in others, and that relates to a wide range of factors around the students, the teachers, the subject, the topic and even the time of day and day of the week.

(I think schools should take the advice in the old Dire Straits song ‘Industrial Disease’ to ‘Abolish Monday mornings, and Friday afternoons’.)

One thing that did strike me was how much time students spend in class not learning. In particular the kids who finish their work first spend huge amounts of time sitting around waiting for the teacher to dispense the next task or piece of information. Is it surprising they sometimes mess around? I was bored and fidgety!

There are lots of things that go to make it that way, too, from poorly behaved students who require a lot of teacher time to keep under control to students with reading levels 5 or more years below their grade levels. It also relates to the way we ‘do school’, though, in that students aren’t given autonomy to continue with other work or move ahead, but required to wait on the ‘drip feed’ from the teacher.

None of these problems are simple, but the cool thing about a study like this is that, for every classroom we see in which it doesn’t quite all go right, we see another one where it’s just amazing. A big part of the goal of the study I’m participating in, with an amazing group of colleagues, is to find what works in one teacher’s class and share it with other teachers. No direct transplant is possible, because every class is different, but the underlying themes and ideas can help to inform a teacher’s professional judgement as s/he thinks about how to improve what happens in the classroom.

All the teachers we’ve interviewed (on some earlier trips) value the students and learning and aspire to be the best teachers they can be and help their students achieve success in school and life. If we can equip them with some better strategies and approaches, that’s probably useful.

Here are a few themes that I’ve observed in classrooms that would help to enhance learning. I’ll try to unpack them a little bit, but obviously none of them are simple – or easy to implement in a busy, diverse classroom:

  • forward momentum – not rush, but in the best lessons there’s a drive on toward the next thing to be done and learned, rather than a sense of aimlessness. The students know there’ll be something along soon so they’d better get on with it.
  • explicit expectations – in the best lessons there’s no ‘do this, but I won’t tell you why’ or ‘guess what’s in my head, and if you get it wrong I’ll yell at you’. What the teacher expects – both in terms of behaviour and learning – is made clear and explicit for the students.
  • focus on learning – it’s ironic how easy it is, in school, to lose focus on the learning. There are so many other activities involved in ‘doing school’ that sometimes learning slips off the radar a bit. In the best lessons, it’s clear that students are here to learn, and that the teacher knows what is to be learned and how to check that it has been.
  • behaviour management in the service of learning – this is a similar point, but an important one. The management of behaviour – what used to be called ‘discipline’ – is a not a goal in itself. Behaviour is managed in the service of learning, and this principle will change the ways in which that happens. Of course, learning to behave well and do the right thing is also important, but it can’t be the main goal in the classroom.
  • engaging the disengaged – some of the students make the choice not to work. In the best classes, they don’t get away with it. I used to struggle with this one, because I’m all about allowing students to choose… but (some) adolescents aren’t mature enough to make good decisions about this. The teachers who are aware of what everyone is doing and can gently engage those students are the ones who are meeting the goal of challenging all students to succeed.
  • enhancing autonomy – students have very little choice about what happens in school. That includes both the rules in the classroom and what (and how) they’ll learn. Most of the examples we did hear about were things like whether or not to have music playing in the room while they work. Deeper forms of autonomy where they make real choices about how to learn would actually also help maintain forward momentum. (And this point doesn’t really contradict the previous one: they need scaffolding and support to make good decisions.)

There’s a companion piece to this post that I’ll write tomorrow that goes a little more deeply into what we’re up to: there are layers within layers and wheels within wheels.

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