We felt their presence…
On watching a video showing three different groups of children engaging in a bridge-building activity for purposes undefined, we were encouraged to consider (among other things): is this teaching?
Whilst it would be quite possible and potentially fascinating to discuss this question for the rest of this entry, my focus was drawn to the palpable influence of a teacher upon the pupils’ activity – particularly in the case of the two groups of older students – despite the apparent absence of a teacher upon cursory viewing and looking beyond the contexts of the learning environment and the school uniform the children were wearing. The older students seemed to be motivated and engaged in the activity – working collaboratively, systematically and with a purpose. But what was the role of the teacher in all this?
It seemed to me that great deal of preparation, planning and input had gone into framing the activity we witnessed. The teacher had been hard at work behind the scenes: assessing the current level of understanding of each of the participating students; planning the resulting differentiated lesson outcomes; sourcing and providing resources; explaining the task clearly to allow for a high level of pupil autonomy; making sure the surrounding environment allowed the children to focus without distractions; offering feedback and pupil reflection on the activity afterwards and assessing the progress achieved. These examples offer just a snapshot of the work that needs to be put in by a teacher to allow opportunities for greater pupil autonomy.
For this, surely, has to be the purpose of education – to give children the chance to develop the capacity to make their own decisions and express their own views and opinions. The findings of the Cambridge Primary Review (2010) suggest that there appears to be a real difference in opinion amongst participants at the soundings between this more progressive goal of education and that of the need for adults to assume the responsibility for ‘dependent children’ in their care. But if we want youngsters to come out of the education system further down the line, ready to find their place in society, at some point in the process they need to be given some ownership of their own learning
I came across the following quote, quite by chance, as I was flicking through an educational philosophy book in a classroom: good teachers try to be a guide on the side rather than a sage on the stage. Some further digging as to the origins of this quote led me to the work of Alison King who suggested that increasingly constructivist approaches to learning have led to a shift in emphasis the teacher’s role in the classroom from that of a “sage on the stage” – the keeper of the books who acts as a conduit of knowledge to passive listeners – to that of a “guide on the side” – who supports and facilitates learning. A more recent article by Erica McWilliam (here) argued that, if the “sage” and “guide” standpoints are viewed as being on opposite ends of a spectrum, a more suitable role of the 21st Century teacher should be that of a “meddler in the middle” – one who is positioned between, and borrows from, both strategies.
Modern teachers need to be creative and confident enough to employ a range of teaching strategies which may sometimes involve taking a step back and allowing pupils the space and time in which to apply and practise the knowledge and skills they have already acquired in an exploratory way, to have the structured freedom to be able to form their own ideas and choose their own way of doing things and learn from their achievements and mistakes in an environment that offers “low threat, high challenge” (McWilliam). Activities which challenge pupils to stretch themselves, which are exciting to partake in, which allow pupils a measure of control over their own learning and a chance to express themselves creatively offer many more opportunities for the learning to stick.
On the subject of getting learning to stick, I can recall just one activity in its entirety from my own primary school experience. We were asked by the teacher to replicate the configuration and movement of molecules in a solid, liquid and gas by respectively bunching up tightly into one small space, walking slowly around the room and running around and jumping over and off tables. This represented the entire content of the lesson. Today, with pupils having ever-increasing access to the internet, the temptation for teachers is to get pupils to look up the facts themselves. But I believe it is essential that teachers provide rich, enactive learning experiences described above and being experienced by the children we witnessed in the video stimulus.
Alexander, R., (2010) Children, their World, their Education, Routledge, p. 55
King, A., (1993) ‘From Sage on the Stage to Guide on the Side’, College Teaching, Vol. 41, No. 1 (Winter, 1993), pp. 30-35
McWilliam, E. L., (2009) ‘Teaching for creativity: from sage to guide to meddler’, Asia Pacific Journal of Education, 29(3), pp. 281-293.
McWilliam, E. L., (2012), ‘Personally Significant Learning’ blog post. Accessed via: http://www.ericamcwilliam.com.au/personally-significant-learning/