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The best teachers do not teach

Posted on: 04 Nov 2016 by Headteacher

I have thoroughly enjoyed the half term holiday and had the usual teasing remarks with my friends outside of school during my time off.  You know the stuff, that teachers have far too many holidays and how, teachers and pupils, are never actually at school that much!  I’m very used to this by now and agree that in education, we are very fortunate to have the holidays that we do.

However, after the initial discussion around teaching time in school, the conversation with my friends that evening moved on to "What makes an effective teacher?".  This changed the tone of the conversation and between us we agreed that teachers needed to be patient, organised, analytical, dynamic, enthusiastic, inspirational, driven and committed to learning. It was at this point, however, I couldn’t help thinking about some of my best teachers from school.

I had an amazing geography teacher at high school.  She was on fire and her enthusiasm was contagious.  However, the things I remember most are the hands-on experiments in which we participated.  I remember every detail and the supporting theories because I experienced it. My geography teacher was an effective teacher because she provided experiences that created long-term memories.  In response to the discussion about effective teaching with my friends, I added one more insight into the best teachers that raised a few eyebrows to say the least.

One characteristic of an effective teacher, and one of the most important, is that they don't teach.  "That’s outrageous!" my friends replied, "what on earth do you mean? How can an effective teacher teach without teaching?"  My experience is that good teachers care about children.  Good teachers know the content and know how to explain it.  Good teachers expect and demand high levels of performance of students.  Good teachers are great performers and storytellers that rivet their pupils’ attention.

All of this is good, but the very best teachers engineer learning experiences that manoeuvre the pupils into the driver's seat and then the teachers get out of the way.  Children learn best by personally experiencing learning that is physical, emotional, intellectual and spiritual.

Long gone are the times when we teach content just in case a pupil might need it.  The best teacher will devise a way to give the children an urgent reason to learn skills or knowledge and then let them show they have learned it by what they can do.  This is called individualised or personalised learning.  The best teacher will keep the pupils wanting to come to school just to see what interesting things they will explore and discover each day. We call this inquiry.

The philosophy that supports the best teacher is simple.  Children learn best when they are in control of their learning.  Pupils must do the heavy lifting of learning and nothing the teacher can say or do will change that.  Real learning requires doing, not listening, or observing only.  Yet what do we find in most schools in the UK?  Teachers talking, talking and talking while pupils listen, daydream and doze.  We call this lecture.

The word "teacher" implies the flow of knowledge and skills from one person to another. Whether it be a lecture, or a PowerPoint, it involves talking at the pupils.  While that is commonly viewed as the quickest and easiest way to impart knowledge and skills, we all realise that it is not the most effective.  Socrates, the Greek philosopher, had it right when he only answered a question with more questions and look what he produced -- some of the greatest minds that ever lived.  We call this questioning.

Yes, there are times when direct instruction is necessary, but only to be able to do something with that knowledge or skill.  The best teacher devises learning experiences that force all the pupils to be engaged - similar to being in the deep end of the swimming pool. Then the lesson on arm and leg strokes becomes relevant.  To learn, the children must do something.  We call this performance-based learning.

Returning to my original premise: the best teachers do not teach. They stack the deck so that children have a reason to learn and, in the process, cannot help but learn mainly by teaching themselves.  This knowledge then becomes permanent and cherished rather than illusory and irrelevant.

At Forest Park,  we have the best teaching staff; teaching through individualised learning, inquiry, questioning and challenge, and that is why we produce the best pupils here who go on to succeed in life with a thirst for knowledge.

Nick Tucker - Headteacher at Forest Park Preparatory School

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