When Teacher Talks, Who Learns?
When the word ‘teaching’ is mentioned, the first image that may spring to a PGCE student’s mind may be a teacher telling students some new information, and assuming a fascinated audience gaping in awe at the wide ranging, life-changing knowledge that this god-like figure imparts from the front of the room. My father, who ended up becoming a headteacher, was asked when he took his own teacher training what he thought made a good teacher. The answer of “someone who imparts information” was met with a blunt “that’s exactly what teaching isn’t”. His reaction, forty years ago, was understandable – but this idea of what teaching is still holds sway over the public, as well as training teachers.
What I’ve discovered is that, for all my foresight and high-minded approaches based on a certainty that I would never fall into the trap of becoming a pedagogic, by-rote teaching, I too have fallen into the trap of talking too much. And not talking in the correct way, either. What has become apparent to me as my planning has developed is the need to realise that questioning and teacher talk in lessons is not spontaneous, as the best teachers would have students believe. All questioning, all responses, are mapped out, and belie their surface appearance of interest and informality by very deliberately tapping into the well of students’ thought processes and unlocking the mechanisms of independent thought.
What is teaching? It is easier to say what teaching is not. As the gentleman above would vouch for, teaching is not about the passive process of being taught. It is not about the teacher. It is of course aided by a teacher’s obvious passion for a subject, and ability to use praise constructively, but that can only go so far. In my practise I am aware that almost reflexively I am able to use praise in a more constructive and thoughtful way than throwing out a ‘well done’ now and then. What matters is what the student has actually achieved in order to receive praise.
IFR, whereby knowledge is reflected back at the teacher, functions as an exercise in satisfying a teacher’s vanity. It is not the student that is talking. It is the teacher’s words being spoken back to them. In my experience, I have seen excellent examples of learning through verbal feedback, and also examples of teacher-led lessons where the students absorb an opinion and decide to use as their own. I myself have taught these lessons.
A year 9 top set doing war poetry. I began my first war poetry lesson deciding to teach Belfast Confetti. Instantly, the idea of ‘teaching’ a poem seems somehow self-defeating; for, if the purpose of learning is for students to have the tools to apply independently-reached conclusions, how can a solitary poem be ‘taught’? But, at school, I distinctly remember plodding through poems one by one, learning them, knowing them well, coming to my own conclusions but seemingly afraid of utilising my own opinions because that went against what I had been taught to think about them. Until one moment in sixth form college, where a teacher who had gone through the works of Blake with us, finally told us to pick any poem of his we hadn’t read before and study it. At that moment, I found ‘The Sick Rose’, realised I had come to my own interpretation without any outside help and, as a result, decided that the poem therefore belonged to me. Those words were mine because my opinion was mine. And as a result I memorised it, simply because I felt like it always had significance.
What had become evident however was the need for the teacher to explain and tell us the background of Blake’s poetry. I cannot recall whether we spent lessons listening to her interpret other poems before giving us the independent study, but I assume she did. The tools of interpretation had been laid down, and it was only then that I came to realise that the teacher’s opinion needn’t necessarily be watertight, unless I learned something new regarding the context of the poem that could have changed my opinion. This is where the problem of teacher authority becomes apparent. When teaching towards textual study, i.e. A02 and A06, as I am now, it becomes necessary then to encourage students to pick out parts of a text and make their own evaluations of ‘writer’s intention’. It took me until a week ago to realise that being able to say the effect of a word also means that the reader is thinking about the writer’s intention. My understanding was that to relate a work to context, i.e. A06, meant relating it to the history of the writer. Instead it appears, at least in my department, simply to mean a loose approximation of writer’s intent with a particular word or phrase, used to convey a particular feeling. So in other words, the A06 is a curious mix of reader’s interpretation and assumption of author’s intention regarding language, without any recourse to the personal history of the writer.
The slightly problematic nature of this would be reflected if, for example, I decided that Blake’s use of the word ‘howling storm’ meant he lived in a stormy climate, which, being based in London, he doesn’t. This being a slightly disingenuous example, but nonetheless coming back to the idea of knowing when a teacher has to step in. Is teaching essentially a process of stepping in when a student makes a mistake? As a result, surely this would end up discouraging students from finding their own conclusions: only the most confident of top set pupils would be able to walk into a class and looking forward to making a mistake in front of an entire class.
The teacher, in outstanding lessons, may sometimes take the role of magician. What is hiding beneath the hat? Using higher-order thinking, the class can debate and argue over it, and in groups produce worksheets and presentations. This is all well and good if the class is right, or has been steered towards their conclusions by the teacher (a process I am finding almost deceitful when I implement it), but if the class misses the mark completely, what ends up being left is a sense of failure both from the students and the teacher.
When teaching that year 9 class in my lesson before, I encountered a feeling of angst when informing students that there was no right answer. When teaching Belfast Confetti, I decided to steer them towards the conclusions I was looking for. As a result, there was some independent thought, and I tried as hard as I could not to ask closed questions, but in the end, I couldn’t help but feel like I’d betrayed them a little when finally ‘we’ came up with the conclusion that the ‘asterisk on the map’ represented the point where the bomb exploded. What could I have done better to let them reach that conclusion? The exercise I gave them, which was to draw out their own map, marking all the punctuation on it, could have been ample enough.
The issue here is that the thought process I was looking for, which was association with imagery, involved finding a single ‘correct’ answer. Yes, I would gladly have welcomed other possible interpretations, but none appeared forthcoming. The thought process of linking the image of the asterisk with the idea of the bomb site on a map just did not appear for a single student. So I ended up ‘teaching’ it to them. I practically gave a lecture. What I perhaps could have done was tell them the entire history behind The Troubles, which would have been a lesson in itself. The tools of interpretation taught to them by the teacher, which was PRAMSROAR:
only served to highlight to me how reliant these students had become on the teacher, seeing as they were required to go over these every single lesson. These tools for independent analysis were themselves ‘taught’. By-rote learning used in order to teach independent learning? A contradiction, a confusion, bound up in its own goodwill. These terms belong to the teacher, and always will. Picking out and finding these within a poem like a treasure hunt – that is what these pupils specialised in. But being able to explain the effects? Being able to evaluate independently? Impossible, when that requires something that cannot be taught – love of words.
What I would love to do one day with a top set class who have finished all their unit, and memorised all the acronyms they need, and yet struggle with evaluation, is just to stand there and tell them about the first ever poem written. It could be real, or it could be made up. I want them to visualise poetry whose words are not made prisoner by these labels shorn of signifier, which so defeats the point of poetry. I want them to imagine the first ever poem critic who, upon seeing an interesting phrase, found themselves explaining why they liked it. Then finding themselves making up a word to describe that effect. I want students to understand that these arbitrary phrases that are taught by-rote and churned out in essay after essay are simply expressions reflecting enjoyment of a word or phrase. Yes, they are like nets catching butterflies, but then, having caught them, let the butterflies go again. What pupils would truly benefit from is to be able simply to enjoy the poems, and do the catching later.
In How To Be a Brilliant English Teacher, Wright talks about a lesson where a teacher begins by drawing a picture of a face, and next to it, writing ‘head like an egg’. This leads to pupils learning within a second what similes are. Within moments they are even applying it themselves by drawing on the board. The remarkable simplicity of it is matched only by how beautifully it leads to learning, slicing through the usual simile clichés like a knife through butter.
What happened in that lesson? Simile was not taught. Nor was it shown. It used prior knowledge of metaphor and simile that students simply hadn’t learned how to label yet. It seems as though teaching is a balance between the by-rote (today, we are learning about metaphor...) and the stepping-back process from actual ‘teaching’. The lesson in question simply modelled. The teacher was silent. There was no voice, no IFR, no praise, only modelling.
In future, is this what the teacher must become? A student showing other students what they should be doing? Should the spoken word only consist of question after question that, like magical power words, unlock student’s thought processes allowing application? If that is the case, then essentially this gradual stripping-away approach may ironically end up with the teacher themselves being the victim of by-rote learning. Each moment that has been so carefully fine-tuned, each word making sure the aim is met – does this perhaps remove any last trace of individuality from the teacher? Perhaps this is what makes an ideal teacher – someone who merely facilitates, who guides students anonymously like a gondola rower guiding holidaymakers through Venice. The attainment of outstanding learning means that the traditional notions of teaching comes into question.
And yet... last Friday I found myself standing before a class who were required to use high-order thinking in regards to photographs of the Holocaust. It was a top set year 7 whose attitude to learning was impeccable. They were more than willing to take up the task of answering questions on the photos they had given, which went along the lines of ‘What can you see’, ‘what do you want to know more about’, ‘what could be happening’. Going along the lines of Bloom’s Taxonomy, I assumed that pupils would form conclusions by themselves, and even though they might end up getting it wrong, at least the thought process was sound.
Unfortunately, the nature of the lesson aim meant that the exercise was inherently flawed. For all the higher-order thinking and independent learning that had seemingly taken place, it just seemed to me to be a starter that was a waste of everyone’s time. The aim, which was to understand the social context behind the novel The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas, was simply not being met.
Yes, at one point they watched a video for two minutes. Yes, at another point, they undertook an exercise where they linked quotations in the novel to the real-life situation. This would have all been well and good if they had any idea about the context in the first place. What happened next? Seeing as a vast majority of students didn’t even know what the Holocaust was, I felt myself indulging in an argument for a moment or two in my mind, involving two thought processes. One seemed to be a young, modern teacher, with ambitions of greatness and a sharp suit, who wanted more than anything to show off an exemplary lesson which was tightly-run and tuned to perfection, with all the higher-order questions under the sun. The other part, however, was an old man, wearily trudging along to offer counsel that even he wasn’t sure made sense anymore. Nonetheless, I listened, and what I had to do then was simply stop the lesson. I had to speak. So I talked. It wasn’t a script, it wasn’t planned. It was knowledge, it was entirely IFR, it displayed clearly the gap between my knowledge and theirs; and whilst Teaching Standard number 3 was indeed being met, I was ignoring facets of other standards. It was a lecture. Had it been a formal observation, it would have been ten minutes that in no way could be seen as positive. And yet... it just had to be done.
And afterwards I distinctly felt alarmed, knowing that I even hesitated for a moment. What is being forgotten here? Are teachers being sucked into a thought process that is inherently self-defeating? How could I have possibly let students go on with their (for want of a better word) ignorance? A roomful of students who, when presented with images of Auschwitz prisoners, could only ask me what was going on, is a room that needs someone to impart knowledge. It doesn’t need Bloom’s Taxonomy. It doesn’t need Gestalt theory, or Prezi presentations. It just needed to have someone tell them about something they didn’t know about.
When a pupil asked me why it happened, I could only admit that really, the only people who knew were the Nazis themselves, and that teachers didn’t know everything. A pupil at that point said “I like that, sir. It’s nice to have a teacher who doesn’t pretend they’re better than everyone else in the room.”
Perhaps it’s only stress talking, perhaps it’s seeing teachers working until ten every evening and waking at half five the next day, perhaps it’s the over-abundance of paperwork piling up on any desk I inhabit, but I wonder where all this is leading. What began as a mediation on the lack of freedom regarding teaching poetry became a lament on the logical fallacies sometimes inherent in the over-emphasis on discouraging by-rote teaching. The focus from the teacher to the student, something I have been praised for showing evidence of, suggests an environment where the most important person in the room is being cast into the background: the teacher. Ask any student who they think the most important person in the room is, and they will tell you ‘the teacher’.