Better than a thousand days of diligent study is one day with a great teacher
Something interesting is happening in classrooms across Australia.
Teachers are apologising for knowing things.
I’ve seen it happen in a number of lessons of late. It goes something like this: “OK students, settle down, settle down . . . thank you . . . now, I’m going to talk at you for about 10 minutes, sorry about that, and then afterwards you can get on with a learning activity I’ve prepared for you. OK?”
It seems that some teachers are feeling the need to position the part of the lesson where they talk as something of a necessary evil, an unpleasantry which students must undergo before they get to the part of the lesson where the learning really happens.
Why is this happening?
Well . . . it certainly wasn’t always that way. Take a look at this extract from the beginning of Charles Dickens’ ‘Hard Times’:
'"NOW, what I want is, Facts. Teach these boys and girls nothing but Facts. Facts alone are wanted in life. Plant nothing else, and root out everything else. You can only form the minds of reasoning animals upon Facts: nothing else will ever be of any service to them. This is the principle on which I bring up my own children, and this is the principle on which I bring up these children. Stick to Facts, sir!"
The speaker, and the schoolmaster, and the third grown person present, all backed a little, and swept with their eyes the inclined plane of little vessels then and there arranged in order, ready to have imperial gallons of facts poured into them until they were full to the brim.'
A powerful start to the novel.
Little vessels. Children as little vessels. Ready to have imperial gallons of facts poured into them until full to the brim. This is the Victorian model of public education, albeit with a generous helping of typically Dickensian hyperbole and satire. It seems that Victorian teachers felt far from guilty about sharing their wisdom with their students. In fact, perhaps they considered this their central function, their sole purpose . . . if Dickens is to be believed.
Now of course, I’m not advocating a return to chalk-and-talk, stand-and-deliver, and the teacher as ‘sage-on-the-stage’, to use Alison King’s terminology (King, 1993).
But is there a balance to be found here?
Let’s return to the first question I posed. Why is it that teachers are apologising for knowing things?
Well . . . there’s a powerful paradigm washing through the world of education right now. It’s the paradigm of ‘teacher-centred – bad; student-centred - good’. It’s taking hold through many fronts, including but not limited to educational conferences, school staff meetings, research papers, academic writings, blog musings and the press. It oozes out of the ‘Teaching and learning philosophy’ page on many school websites. And is it also implied through the wording on the homepage of my own website? - ‘SIMON BROOKS works with educators and schools keen to build cultures where students become critical and creative thinkers, delighting in their learning and developing deep, lasting understanding.’
And of course, that’s a good thing. Right? We don’t want a return to the world of ‘Hard Times’, do we?
But here’s the thing. Do we really need to create a polarised spectrum here, with teacher-centred at one end and student-centred at the other? If students are to become critical and creative thinkers, does that really mean there is no place for the teacher anymore? And how do children become independent learners anyway? Is it by putting them in purpose-designed learning spaces with soft furnishings, giving them a self-directed program on Moodle, and saying “Off you go!”?
In a culture of thinking, where learning is most definitely student-centred, the teacher is more important than ever.
I don’t know about you, but I’m inspired by great speakers, by folks with fascinating ideas to share. And we need only look to the rise in popularity of TED Talks - https://www.ted.com/ - to know that millions of others feel the same way too. There is a particular type of magic wielded by compelling talkers, by people with captivating messages, stories and concepts to share.
I believe that many highly effective teachers understand their role as an educator to be, at least in part, a purveyor-of-ideas. Ideas-purveyors. Highly-qualified professionals with a host of rich, important, challenging and engaging insights to share. People who are able to draw on a wealth of reading, study, reflection and practical experience, and with something immeasurably valuable to offer their students.
People who don’t apologise for knowing things, but who relish the moments of sharing.
But of course, in a culture of thinking, we think of the teacher’s role as more important than just this. That’s what I mean about the role of the teacher being more important than ever. Because in addition to being ideas-purveyors, highly effective teachers are also culture-shapers and learning-enablers.
Highly effective teachers understand that culture teaches, and understand that they have agency in shaping the culture of their classrooms and schools. Highly effective teachers take to heart the words of Vygotsky, that ‘Children grow into the intellectual life of those around them’ (Vygotsky, 1978, p.88), and marinate their children in an intellectual life replete with expectations for thinking and learning; language that names, notices and highlights thinking; modelling of thinking; time for thinking; opportunities for engaging in thinking; routines that enculturate ways of thinking; a physical environment in which the process of thinking is made visible; and interactions that show respect for thinking (Ritchhart, 2015).
It is in their interactions with learners, the questions they ask, the understandings they probe, the connection-making they facilitate, the big questions they surface, that teachers help build learners who love the experience of learning, develop deep understanding, and become critical and creative thinkers.
So – to any teachers out there (including myself) who sometimes submit to the pressures of the prevailing student-centred paradigm and feel the need to apologise for sharing knowledge with our students. Sure, let’s not spend the whole lesson at the front, lecturing. But why not delight in our role as ideas-purveyors, and celebrate those moments where we make ideas come alive for the children in our care. And let’s remember that it’s often what happens after those moments of idea-sharing when the learning truly beds in for our students. It is as culture-shapers and learning-enablers that we help children truly to make understanding their own.
In a student-centred world, the role of teachers as ideas-purveyors, culture-shapers and learning-enablers is clearly more important than ever.