Everyday, teachers are observed by people who see more lessons that any headteacher or inspector I know – the learners themselves. These people know intimately what teaching styles, activities and methods work for them. They know what attributes a good teacher has and they know what they can get away with! The learners know their teachers better than anyone. They are a massive reservoir of knowledge of teaching that should be tapped into.
I did tap into their collective experience that other day. I asked them to reflect on my teaching and everything that I do in the classroom. I gave each of them three sticky notes. I asked them to write down the things in my teaching that they want me to Keep. I asked them to note down those things that they like about my teaching that they would like me to do more of; the things they want me to Grow. Finally, I asked them to write about the aspects of my teaching that they would like to Challenge; the aspects that they did not like or those that they would like me to change. I divided my board into three sections: Keep, Grow and Challenge. I told them that they could use their sticky notes for 3 Keeps; or 3 Challenges; or 2 Grows and a Challenge; or any combination that they liked. When they finished their notes they stuck them on the board in the appropriate column. Actually, there was a fourth category. If they wanted to tell me something personal to them, then they could stick their note on my desk.
The results were very interesting and showed me that I am doing a great deal right although they have challenged me too. I was really pleased that the learners liked some of the quirky things that I have tried, such as using music to time things. I have pieces of music that last 30 seconds, 60 seconds, 90 seconds and 2 minutes. They told me to keep these, along with the Thunderbirds 5,4,3,2,1, countdown that I use.
For a long time I have tried to reduce the amount of time that I spend talking to the class. I have tried to get more from my students through questioning and other prompts, rather than just telling them. I was really pleased that the learners liked the quality of explanations that I give them. They liked the way that I explain things and make them appear simple. They did, however, say that I still talk too much. This is something I will have to reflect on and look into ways that I can reduce the amount of time that I spend talking to them even further. I already have some ideas!
With one of my classes have I taken time out of teaching my subject to reflect on what it is to be an effective learner. I have introduced them to the idea of ‘My Learning Universe’ in order to get them to realise that they are the most important person who can influence their learning because too many of them, particularly the lower ‘ability’ ones, think that learning is done to them. They have reflected on the qualities that their learning hero – Katniss Everdeen from the Hunger Games – has that makes her able to learn effectively. They have transformed this to look at the qualities they need to have to be their own learning hero. I was really pleased to see that some learners identified this as an area that they would like me to grow. It is very clear that many learners are interested in their own learning, which has to be a good thing.
In my higher group it was fairly clear that they did not like a seating plan and that they wanted to sit where they wanted to. At the end of the feedback session we had a class chat about this and why I use a seating plan. The seating plans stay but at least the learners understand their purpose a little better. My lower group said that they wanted to be allowed to listen to their own music more when they are working. Again, it won’t happen but we discussed it and they know the rationale behind my position! It was interesting that the quality of the feedback that I received from the higher group was in the main more informative than the quality of feedback from the lower group, which really is not surprising. The higher group concentrated on things that affect their learning whereas in the lower group there were more comments about peripheral issues.
All in all, this was a really worthwhile exercise and very reassuring that I am going in the right direction. One of the most reassuring comments was – Keep: your teaching style.
Independent learners in the end take charge of their own learning and use their teachers to help them on their own learning journey, which will lead them to the peak of academic success in the form of outstanding exam results. Over the years I have come across these learners and perhaps I have played a part in creating them. Paradoxically, these learners are also the ones who take up a lot of teacher time because of – not despite – their independence. They will be asking more questions, and questions at a deeper level. In my subject they will be looking to make products in novel ways or using advanced techniques that others would not consider. In fact these independent learners demand more support than more dependent learners: strange but true. More dependent learners are not aware that they need the support, are reluctant to ask for it or are unaware of the next level so cannot ask about it. These independent learners that any teacher loves to teach; they challenge themselves and they challenge their teachers. They also deliver exceptional exam results.
There is another breed of independent learner that I have come across. These come fully formed into the classroom; I cannot take any credit in their creation. These learners also take responsibility for their learning but they do not recognise the constraints of the school curriculum and I have to say that computing and physics – my subjects – attract more than their fair share of this breed of independent learner. These learners also explore levels that ordinary learners are unaware of. One of these learners once tried to produce a laptop version of an old Amiga computer. You may well ask why? He did it because it was a challenge and he thought he could do it. Another decided to make a touchscreen computer, long before the iPad, and he got it to work.
These people are the true independent learners. They really are driven by their own interests and their own curiosity and if it does not correspond with the demands of the exam board it does not matter to them – they’ll ignore the exam board and carry on ploughing their own furrow. There is something to admire in this attitude although these guys (and they are almost all guys) can be infuriating to teach. Also, they rarely achieve the exam grades that they could because they will not focus on the artificial constraints put on them by exam specifications. They often underachieve, sometime massively; however, if they had to opportunity for a viva voce with an examiner they would fly through it. They often know and understand more than their teachers within the field that they are interested in. These people are the mavericks who have the potential to change the world but our current educational system, with its league tables, value added tables and floor standards does not cater for them. It is a shame that the educational system as it currently is formulated, does not respond better to the needs of these students.