I’ve had the opportunity to observe quite a few classes in recent times, and only a few stood out. The ones that were noticeable, for the right reasons, had the same basic traits:
- The teacher asked open-ended questions, which challenged their students
- Students worked cooperatively in groups on a range of tasks. The groups stayed on task when the teacher was not with them, because the tasks were inherently engaging. (Obviously, there had also been a lot of groundwork done in the area of self discipline.)
- Groups were formed according to the requirements of particular issues: sometimes, ability grouping was used, sometimes grouping for social reasons and, often, random groupings to foster cooperation and acceptance.
- Tasks were designed so that students could investigate the topic, and communicate their new knowledge.
As a result of this, the students were enthusiastic and could discuss what they were learning confidently – not bad, considering one class consisted of four-year olds.
In the majority of other classes I observed, the teacher stood predominantly at the front of the classroom and led all students through the same material, at the same time.The classes in which students were engaged depended heavily on the personality of the teacher. Energy and enthusiasm came from the teacher, and was sometimes transmitted to the students. In the classes that, in my opinion, were exceptional, the energy and enthusiasm of the students came from how they were learning, although their teachers were energetic and enthusiastic as well.
A long time ago, during some post-graduate studies, we did a teaching styles test. I asked the lecturer what course of action should I take if I came out strongly as a “director”. In typically Australian fashion he said “Give it (ie: teaching) away.” I didn’t, and I was able to learn from good role models, and change what I do.
The most important thing I learned was to stand back and consider what the students really needed and to plan for it, long before I set foot in the classroom. Qualities such as life-long and/or independent learning are enshrined in so many school mission statements, and it takes only a bit of effort and imagination to devise purposeful activities that foster them. The overwhelming majority of young people have an innate love of learning, and, surely, it is the teacher’s responsibility to harness and grow it, rather than suppress it, in the name of “covering* the curriculum”. We can use reasons such as having a rigid course outline, or that there are tests and exams that students need to pass, but there is rarely a valid excuse for dulling the light in our students’ eyes.
*As someone recently tweeted, cover means to hide something