Sorry, we can’t completely escape from theory!
All this bumf is based on certain assumptions about teaching
and learning. In the terms of Learning
theory they are broadly constructivist, but in
practice they have been adopted by successful (and some unsuccessful) teachers since the
year dot, of whom 99% at least have never heard of that label. They are more or less
congenial to any practitioner (as opposed to theorist) who believes that teaching is more
than “take it or leave it” presentation of material.
The object of teaching is that learners should
change — the extent of this change however is a matter of considerable debate.
Behaviourists talk about changing behaviour, cognitivists about changing minds, humanists
about changing lives, critical reflectors about changing society.
- It is generally assumed that learners change
more than teachers. But if teachers can/do not change at all, it is unlikely that they are
teaching effectively (particularly when teaching adults). Mowing machines cut grass, but
eventually the grass blunts the blade. This has been known for ages: one of my favourite
aphorisms is from Seneca the Younger, “Homines dum docent, discunt” (Roughly:
“while you teach, you learn”). Hence the name of my
- This is because, in order to get people to
change, you have to know “where they are coming from”. That means entering into
a dialogue with them.
Crudely, if you don’t know how someone misunderstands
something, you have got little chance of correcting him effectively.
- So teaching is all about creating a task-centred
dialogue, in which you — the teacher — understand the learner’s experience
of the subject, so that you can modify it.
- Sometimes, if you have a class of 300, or if you
are preparing resource-based learning materials, you can’t have this live dialogue,
so you have to speculate about potential misunderstandings by putting yourself as best you
can in the shoes of the learners: and try to offer something for everyone. But wherever
possible, evidence is better than speculation.
- The learning frame of mind is fragile: people
find it difficult to sustain. Drama depends on the willing “suspension of
disbelief” on the part of the audience. If I go to the cinema, and the film is
out of focus, I can’t suspend disbelief — I am too conscious that I am watching
a film. In the same way, if teaching is not performed competently, it is difficult to
maintain the learning frame of mind. Note that there are all kinds of other factors which
may disturb this frame of mind, which are beyond your control, but that does not absolve
you from getting right those which are within your control.
The other side
of the coin is that if everything is perfect
in the cinema, I forget the film is being projected.
Teaching (like film editing) is the "art
which conceals art". Few people come out
of a sesssion saying how good the teaching was—if
they "never forget a good teacher",
as the TTA would have it, it is only with the benefit of
- However, the learning frame of mind is not
conscious. If you — as a learner — are conscious that “I am learning
this”, you are less likely to really learn it than if you are framing the experience
as “I am interested in this” or “I am practising this” or even better
“I am doing this”.
- So the best guarantee of effective teaching is
to keep your eye on the ball: concentrate on the
learning and the teaching will follow. Think about the teaching and
you might produce a great performance, but the main thing your students will learn is
merely that you have a high opinion of yourself as a teacher.
That is enough to be going on with. I hope that these
principles are embodied in the prescriptions on the rest of the site