I came across this superb quote recently, “Let’s be the best at everything that requires no talent.” It’s by Paul O’Connell the well known, and highly talented, former Ireland rugby player.
Let’s get one thing out of the way, it’s not saying that people shouldn’t aim to be the best at what ever they are talented in (whether talent exists is another completely different debate). Certainly, in the classroom there are many things that all learners should be expected to do not matter what their previous attainment, talent or ability. I’m sure that you can come up with your own list of things quite easily, but it would include: being on time; having the correct equipment and uniform; getting ready to work quickly; following classroom expectations, such as putting a hand up if they need the teacher’s attention; work must be completed on time, saying nothing about its quality; etc. It is important that there are no exceptions to this. Certainly, if you do have any ‘talented’ learners, they should be expected to lead the way in all of this and their ‘talent’ should not be allowed to let them skimp on these basic expectations.
If teachers insist on these behaviours from their learners then they are setting the scene for all learners to maximise their progress and attainment.
Earlier this year I had an accident and I was away from school for seven weeks. My exam classes were without me for a large part of the vital Spring Term. During this time my Year 13 learners put together their final coursework projects. In previous years, I would be in the classroom with them during this time and I would be able to answer their queries at a moment’s notice. This year, I was at the end of an email and I was not necessarily able to answer promptly due to hospital appointments, ongoing treatment and concentrating on my recovery. I have now marked their projects. The standard of them is higher than I would have ordinarily expected from these learners despite me not being available to them all the time – or was it because I wasn’t available to them all the time.
I am convinced that the learners did better than would normally have been expected because they could not take the easy way out and ask teacher every time that had a problem; they had to find the answers out for themselves. They had to be independent learners. Turning them into independent learners had been my aim from the start of the course. The exam board specifies that they should run their coursework projects themselves and, for once, they had no option. Over time I had taught them all the skills that they would need to complete their projects. I made sure that they had a stack of back up material including exam board mark schemes, help sheets, and other support material. They were all aware of where this material was and what material was available to them. It appears that this time the learners really did use the resources that were available to them rather than asking teacher for help at the first sign of difficulty.
For me, this simply reinforces the idea of learners looking in books and asking a fellow learner before asking the teacher for help – book, buddy, boss, or 3B4ME. The key to making this happen is quality first teaching and having the necessary support material clearly available, but most of all, the teacher must know when to let the learners struggle and find the solution for themselves. Teachers must accept that learners have to take responsibility for their own learning and that over helping and over teaching can in fact hinder this. Teachers’ natural instinct is to get involved with their learners and their learning, but this is not always the best way forward because it can take power away from the learner. In this case, less teaching leads to more independence.
A little while ago there was a huge push in education for independent learning. Like many fads over the years this seems to have been abandoned and replaced by someone else’s trendy idea that will equally be left in the gutter when overtaken by the next pedagogical fashion. Perhaps it is time we revisited independent learning and really tried to make our learners independent. This means that teachers must force the learners to do it for themselves.