FSLT13 Reflections on teaching

Focus on your own learning experiences, how do you learn best? How have your own learning experiences influenced how you teach? These are the questions asked in the first week of the FSLT13 course (not yet a MOOC. According to Stephen Downes you need more than 150 active participants – Dunbar’s number – to be a MOOC, but that begs the question of what we mean by active).

So thinking about the questions for the first task on reflective writing …

…. I qualified as a teacher in 1969 – rather a long time ago. Last year for FSLT12 I was a tutor on the course and didn’t really have time to think about this question, but I was impressed by all the participants’ posts and in particular the autobiographical response made in a series of blog posts by Fred Garnett about how and why he came to be the teacher that he is.  (See Stephen Brookfield’s work on becoming a critically reflective teacher for further information about reflective writing using an autobiographical lens).

Reflecting on this, I know that condensing more than 40 years of experience into one post is nigh on impossible, but as it so happens, I have recently watched a TED talk by Ken Robinson – How to Escape Education’s Death Valley.

This talk is about school education. I spent quite a few years teaching in schools and teacher training (teaching how to teach in schools) so a lot of it resonates. In fact I think he’s spot on. Through the years I have taught all ages from the youngest of children to adults at Masters level. Years ago a wonderful Head teacher, to whom I am eternally grateful, insisted that I teach the youngest children (4/5 year olds) telling me that if I could teach these children (kindergarten), then I could teach anyone – and I have found that there is a lot of truth in this.

Ken Robinson in his talk says that ‘the role of a teacher is to facilitate learning – that’s it’.

In recent years I have thought a lot about the role of the teacher and despite my many years in the teaching profession, as the years go by I think of myself less and less as a ‘teacher’ in the traditional sense of the word. This thinking started a few years after I qualified as a teacher with the sudden realisation/revelation that teaching isn’t about me, but about the learners.

When we are new to teaching all we can think about is ourselves and our ‘performance’ and unfortunately many teaching situations and practices encourage performance (we are observed, assessed, inspected, judged). So we end up with a focus on questions such as Have we planned the lesson effectively? Do we know the subject? Will we engage the learners? Will we be able to explain the subject? All a focus on me as the teacher instead of on the learner.

As time went on in my teaching career I began to realise that I was the least important person in the process and that my focus should be on the learners – what were they learning, were their learning needs being met, did I know who they were? But having been a teacher trainer I know that you have to go through the first step, i.e. who am I as a teacher, to get to the second step, who are the learners.

My current approach to ‘teaching’, if you can call it that, is a strong belief in learner autonomy and negotiated meaning and a belief that learning is emergent and cannot be controlled by the teacher whether or not it is prescribed. Recent research  into what kinds of learning environments promote emergent learning and how these environments are experienced, confirm time and again that learner experience is unique to the individual (see this wiki for examples), which really shouldn’t come as a surprise, but which makes me wonder about the logic of the teacher planning learning objectives.

Stephen Downes has said that to teach is to ‘model and demonstrate’ and to learn is to ‘practise and reflect” – but as Cris Crissman has pointed out in a comment on my last post – a teacher is also a learner, so also ‘practises and reflects’. To ‘model and demonstrate’ probably needs unpicking.

Anderson et al. in their Community of Inquiry model write about ‘teaching presence’  and Stephen Brookfield in the podcast posted on the FSLT13 Moodle site, make it clear that whilst a teacher may be learning alongside learners, there is still a need for intervention – but the manner of this intervention has to be carefully thought through, particularly with regard to power relationships. At what point does intervention become interference? There is a delicate balance here to be understood and worked with.

I think I learn best when I have a good sounding board and safety net (teacher), but also when I feel empowered and in control, so this is how I try to teach. Catherine Cronin articulated this very well in her keynote this morning to the ICT in Education Conference in Ireland in terms of student voice . Hopefully a recording of the keynote will become available soon.

I have written about many of these ideas before, but they just seem to keep coming up again 🙂

3 thoughts on “FSLT13 Reflections on teaching

  1. Scott Johnson May 11, 2013 / 7:41 pm

    Hi Jenny,
    The idea of “intervention” sounds intrusive or presumptuous to my thinking as a self-directed learner yet there were times when I’d wished someone would care for my learning enough to provide directed guidance rather than a teaching “solution” from a guidebook as if I was a “type” of learner. To me the process of learning must include some sort of assistance that entangles us in a mutual process. Some of our instructors describe teaching as accompaniment which matches well with facilitation and brings to mind musical performance images such as “jamming” together and the close responsiveness of equals. We aren’t alone and should see ourselves as incomplete without others.

    Thanks for this post.

  2. jennymackness May 12, 2013 / 12:23 pm

    Hi Scott – that’s a great comment – and much aligned to my own thinking. Thanks

  3. catherinecronin May 14, 2013 / 2:13 pm

    Hi Jenny – just followed the link to your wonderful post today. Thank you very much for the mention. I will be happy to share the link to my #ICTEdu keynote when it is available. Thank you for joining in on Saturday 🙂

    You post resonated with me in so many ways. Recognising that we are learners is the essence of good teaching, as you describe so well. You note how teacher training focuses on the teacher, not the learner. So much to undo! Teacher training, of course, is built on top of our culture’s powerful connection of teaching with power, authority, structure, discipline, “knowing”, and so much more. I’m finding, as you have, that it is a lifelong task to uncover the many layers of this within ourselves. It feels like peeling back layer after layer — continual learning, of course 🙂

    Finally, thank you for including highlighting learner-teacher power relationships. This is the heart of so much that happens in the learner-teacher relationship. It must be addressed, within each of us most of all — but so rarely is. Thanks for prompting my thinking today.

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