September 23, 2010

What are your best and worst memories from school? Because that's how you might teach

If you have a teacher who doesn't regularly reflect on how they're teaching, why they're teaching that way and who doesn't ask students, colleagues and parents how things could be improved the something happens after about 3-5 years of leaving teacher-training college: the teacher reverts to the way they were taught.

This line of research comes principally out the world of sports coaching, where many papers show that in times of extreme stress or imminent failure, coaches forget the progressive (and otherwise successful) coaching they were taught how to do and instead revert to the way they were coached, anywhere from 10 to 50 years previously.

It was the basis of an exercise I carried out with about 100 teachers on my recent tour of New Zealand, and was inspired after a two-minute conversation in the car home with Derek Wenmoth, one dreich evening in Christchurch.

I asked the teachers in two workshops to take two minutes and write down, without thinking too hard, their best experiences and then, in another two minutes, their least happy experiences in formal education (primary, secondary and further education). We put all their post-it notes on the wall in two columns and then looked for similarities, trends and opposing standpoints.

The convergence on certain themes was amazing. Here are the most positive experiences that came to light, with the most prevalent first:

  1. Being able to touch and do stuff ("being able to learn to cook and then make dinner when I got home"; "taking hours to make something, failing to get it to work but still achieving the results"; "designing a go-kart in high school") IIIII IIII
  2. Achieving something as a team or making good contributions to a class discussion IIIII II
  3. School trips away from the school or learning outside - sports, music, geography, language, camp IIIII II
  4. When I was able to gain some form of success, that I had accomplished something IIIII I
  5. I could learn whatever I wanted to learn when I went to uni, following my own trail IIIII
  6. Readng a novel with a teacher who was passionate; lots of laughter and discussion IIII
  7. Getting good marks III
  8. Straightforward lessons in maths III
  9. Learning about stuff I really enjoyed and could relate to III
  10. Working through a problem and finally working it out II
  11. Learning to dance or sing II
  12. Getting excellent feedback on my writing while at primary school being told how to make it better next time II
  13. The lightbulb moment in a class where the teacher explained something really well II
  14. Planning a rail trail between communities - authentic learning whose relevance I could see II
  15. Working on my own without distractions II

and, here, the least happy experiences:

  1. Not being able to solve a problem in Maths IIIII III
  2. Frustration at not understanding IIIII I
  3. Harsh, sarcastic or bullying teacher IIIII I
  4. Where I had no choice over what I was doing, not having a say ||III I
  5. No guidance or help on hand IIII
  6. Being put on the spot to answer a question IIII
  7. Being bored IIII
  8. Being scared to ask a question of the teacher III
  9. Being told I would "never get it" III
  10. Sitting in class not being allowed to speak while taking notes out of a textbook III
  11. Having to stress myself about learning how to use a computer (e.g. lack if sleep) III
  12. Not having the task properly explained and being humiliated for Getting It Wrong II
  13. Boring presentations from teachers II
  14. "I was struggling in science class and asked the teacher for help. He wasn't interested. I felt really bad until I asked others in the class and they felt the same way" II
  15. Not seeing why we had to be doing certain tasks II
  16. Punished for not following instructions II

You can download the full transcription of their post-it notes here: download Most Happy Experiences and download Least Happy Experiences.

What do we learn from this?

Firstly, I'd argue that all the elements we see in the "least happy" list are observable in most schools at some point in one school semester. There are poor teachers, teaching as they were taught no doubt. They need to found and encouraged/made to reflect on their own experiences as a learner in order to improve their game.

I'd also argue that most classrooms, more regularly than the least happy experiences, exhibit plenty of the top behaviours we enjoyed as learners.

Thirdly, if we reframe the least happy experiences in terms of what remedies we might spot, we see yet more attitudes and policy choices that we've just been too slow and hesitant to implement:
Mathematics consistently comes out as an irrelevant or overly difficult subject to be learning - why are schools still buying in the old media that generates this confusion, and not empowering their own learners and staff to reframe mathematics with Meyer's "Less Helpful" lens?
Teachers who appear unapproachable, not really part of the class so much as a teaching machine - if we move from knowledge transmission models of learning to learning by making and doing, then the role of teacher naturally shifts from site manager to foreman.

Finally, I spot elements that we enjoyed as learners that are still struggling to get prominence in curriculum design and teacher attitudes:

  • Learning by making stuff and doing (like in the Tinkering School or in nursery practice in North Lanarkshire)
  • Outdoor learning (of the kind Ollie would love to see every other week, no doubt)
  • Being an effective contributor to discussions and team work, while also having some time to carve out on one's own, for quiet reflection
  • There are two forms of success - grades are only a third as important as a more general "feeling of success", defined by the learner, or a written comment with explanations of how to get better.
  • Passionate teachers who know how to put on a show when it's appropriate, and don't hog the stage with presentations because they feel they have to 'teach' in order for students to 'learn'.
  • Learning being hard, but not too hard, and certainly not 'easy' as most software vendors would like us to believe their products might be.

This is a fascinating exercise to do with colleagues at your next whole-staff meeting, as a means of tapping into emotions and stories from their own pasts that help explain why the changes we've been talking about here for years need to happen urgently. And I think that the emotive element of this task is what makes the difference between a staff development day being just another set of things to do (or, more likely, shove into the physical or metaphorical cupboard), and that development day being something that touches at the core of teacher reflection and personal experience.

Try it, and share what your top Most Happy and Least Happy experiences are. Will we match or find different challenges in different regions?


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Happiest? Doing an internship with the overnight newsman at the local radio station rather than taking English in 11th grade. Suddenly it didn't matter if I was bad at "reading" and "writing." I could listen, process, edit, speak. And I loved running around in the night.

Least Happy? Being humiliated by teachers because I read poorly or wrote unintelligibly. Sitting in any classroom.

My worst memories from school are; not understanding certain concepts and then not having them explained to me properly. Another one is a fear of being put on the spot and being asked a question publicly I did not have an answer too and having to read out loud. And teachers who lacked empathy, I've had some great teachers but also some that I felt weren't on my side and ostracized me.

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