Connection not Content

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Archive for February 2011

#CCK11: A Century of Classroom Learning

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Almost exactly 100 years ago a couple of twin sisters toddled off to a school in Edinburgh for the very first time. What thoughts were in their minds on that first day and how were they welcomed by Mrs Stewart, their teacher? I’ve little idea, but both my mother and aunt seem to have enjoyed their school days and had happy memories of friends, group activities such as games and spelling bees and these good impressions stayed with them all their lives. They both became teachers, as did their two older sisters.

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Above: extract from the school records. Jan and Elsie were born on the 9th January 1906 and went to school for the first time on 1st March 1911 – almost 100 years ago.

Left: their school, still open in 2005. There would have been separate entrances for boys and girls in 1911. I think the school was only a few years old at that time.

I grew up with six teachers in my immediate family and I believe they were competent, conscientious and caring by the standards of the day although they could be disparaging about the training they received in college. College lecturers were considered inexperienced in ‘real’ teaching. It was not unusual for a new teacher to be told by senior colleagues that in order to find her feet in the real world of teaching she’d best forget everything learned in college! Good teachers were good because they had the good luck to possess the right combination of academic and leadership skills and a natural ability to develop their own highly effective teaching styles. Bad or indifferent teachers of course did not, and the harm they inflicted was amplified by being the undisputed kings in their own disconnected classroom empires.

Learning by example ?

I learned to read and write in a small country school in Scotland. My first educational memories are of slates and slate pencils; can you imagine learning to write on a heavy slate with a squeaky slate pencil? Every morning we wrote down the names of the continents and whatever arithmetic tables we were learning. Our teacher Mrs K, took 3 classes in the same room. She had a robust no-nonsense approach to education and a fierce tenacity in dealing with the less quick to learn. She would angrily stand over a weeping child at a desk until the task in hand was completed. To my everlasting shame once I even offered to watch over a small girl and stamp on her feet if she made a mistake. Mrs K did not take me up on that but what a testament to her standing as a role model!

Learning gone very wrong:

Learning Never to Knit: “I was learning to knit a dishcloth and every week the teacher pulled out what I’d knitted the week before. So it took me a year to finish it, and even then she held it up like a dead rat and refused to let me take it home. I’ve never knitted since” [‘School Days’, U3A Sources, Jan 2011 No 42]

Learning to Hate Maths: I attended a boys-only secondary school where corporal punishment was not uncommon. ‘David’, a sensitive and much-bullied lad was regularly belted by DD the maths master. DD could be engaging on maths but he had a strong sense of ‘duty’. Anyone who failed his Thursday afternoon maths tests was simply slacking and deserved to be punished. David was visibly distressed on these occasions but I clearly recall, on a quite different occasion, a more sympathetic maths teacher complimenting David on having real mathematical insight: “Would he then be taking maths further?” – “Not if I can help it!” said David.

Perhaps Mrs K and DD had behaviorist leanings but on the whole these stories illustrate fairly straightforward wrongheadedness reflecting the cultural values and practices of the day rather than something learned from training college.

But what about learning to hate maths this way?

“I still remember being in tears in elementary school when I couldn’t figure out negative numbers. The teacher thought we need to be self-directed and figure it out on our own, that a little confusion would do us good. I just came to the point of tears because it didn’t make sense, until my Mom finally found an encyclopedia that showed a very ordered way of understanding negative numbers. But the teacher wouldn’t show me anything because it was “self-directed learning” and I was too frustrated to care anymore. And I still hate Math to this day.” [Comment from ‘Matt’]

So what’s gone wrong here? Humanity bowing in blind adherence to a dogma of self-directed learning, chaos and confusion?  If nothing else it does illustrate the need for care and consideration when putting learning theories into practice – a healthy distrust of the theoreticians is maybe still not such a bad thing!

Most educators now have access to an abundance of pertinent information and a diversity of viewpoints. They must be trusted (with a Howard Rheingold ‘crap detector’ at the ready!) to maintain open and enquiring minds while using their valuable field experience to exploit and test a diversity of learning theories in a diversity of learning situations. This will apply even more as learning moves out of the classroom.

If there is a moral in all this then perhaps it’s that those in ‘teacher of teachers’ roles not only need to be properly informed by researchers and theoreticians (who can be the worst communicators of all!) but also need to practice their own arts in transmitting and demonstrating their findings as effectively and efficiently as possible to busy educators.

Written by Gordon Lockhart

February 14, 2011 at 9:37 pm

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