Empowering students through shared teaching responsibilities
Teaching in the U.S., a most important class visit by a supervisor was for the “Stull Evaluation.” That is one of those critical moments when your credentials may be renewed or not, or whether the school would continue to engage you for the next academic year. For the stull process though a teacher was not taken by surprise. The day and hour were set ahead of time to fit both the schedules of the evaluator and evaluatee; also a checklist of what the supervisor expected was discussed ahead of the visit. So no surprises!
The force of circumstance
It happened that on the particular morning of the supervisor’s stull visit to my class, my voice was gone completely. I could not utter a word! It must have been an unexpected cold that arrested my voice box, or God’s way of saying “My dear son, today no talk-talk for you, but expect a serendipitous event.”
The supervisor came in and sat quietly in a corner at the back of the class to observe, while I sat by my desk at the other corner in the back. It was an honours class in English and there was an approach I used for teaching Literature. I got the presence of mind to call one of the brilliant girls in the class – a graceful Spanish girl by the name of Carmen Conde. I wrote on a piece of paper: “Carmen, my voice is gone, please lead the class discussions, pace yourself, introduce the chapter and ask critical questions about the various elements to check for understanding.”
Without hesitation, she took the hint. She advanced to the front of the class, and taught from the beginning to the end. I was amazed at the dexterity and confidence with which she conducted herself for the occasion. Throughout her teaching, I left my desk only once, to stretch my legs. I was overwhelmed and overjoyed by her performance. At the end the supervisor merely said “Thank you” and left.
Standards for learner-centred approaches
In the 1980s, the various requirements in the evaluators’ checklist were indeed teacher-centred, so I was amazed when her evaluation cited my student-centred approach as exceptional.
These days, evaluation assessments have evolved to include Standards. For example, Standard 1: Engaging and supporting all students to learn; Standard 2: Creating and maintaining effective environments for student learning; Standard 3: Understanding and organizing subject matter for student learning; Standard 4: Planning instruction and designing learning experiences for all students; and Standard 5: Assessing student learning.
What a great teacher taught
One of the best teachers I ever met was a professor by the name of Eleanor Duckworth at the Harvard Graduate School of Education (HGSE) in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Her book “The Having of Wonderful Ideas” contain some potent suggestions especially in the chapters “Critical Exploration in the Classroom”, and “Understanding Children’s Understanding”. Here are some key points:
- We must find ways to present subject matter that will enable learners to get at their own thoughts about it.
- Helping people learn is my definition of teaching.
- Devise the situations in which children are called upon to think, and to talk about what they think.
- Questions must be clear; they must be broad enough to invite a response of more than yes or no.
- Critical exploration has two aspects: One, developing a good project for the child to work on; and Two, succeeding in inviting children to talk about their ideas: putting them at ease; being receptive to all answers.
- When working with someone else, try to understand how they understand something, and see how we can get to the same answer.
- Looking honestly at what a child really understands can be a self-evaluative act; it can be seen as a measure of the teacher’s own competence.
- Put emphasis on what the children were thinking, not on its rightness or wrongness.
- The better we could judge how children were seeing a problem, the better we could decide what would be appropriate to do next.
- To the extent that one carries on a conversation with a child, as a way of trying to understand a child’s understanding, the child’s understanding increases in the very process.
Put the learner in the driver’s seat
For Duckworth, in every subject matter relating to what people do – dancing, computers, how to run a meeting, and so on, it is important to give the subject matter itself to the learners in some way, and then watch carefully to see what happens when the learners explain what they are thinking. She said, The second part is to have the learners do the explaining rather than teachers. Teachers do the listening, and the learners do the explaining, so that the teacher knows what the learners think. If teachers do all the talking, they will never know what the learners think.
When the learners do the talking you always know where you are, and then you know what to bring in next, or what question to ask next, or what contradiction to point out, and so you have much more to work on as a teacher.
The teacher’s job is always to get the students to be assessing their own ideas by listening to each other, to see how their ideas compare with one another, and how – if they are different – they can try to persuade the other person for them to think more.