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Crack the whip or Let Learning Happen?

In our run up to SATs, we have been trying to fill some holes in knowledge this week. Today I decided to allow the pupils to have access to ALL my resources. I allowed them to choose whatever they wished and then work on areas they felt they needed a little more input – we called them ‘Areas for Development’. The pupils worked REALLY hard, as I type this at the end of the lesson, Ross has just turned to me and said:

“Jake has just mastered Long Division!”

Had he? Guess what…he had! Now either I’m a bad teacher and the pupils learned without me or something else which was good happened today.

After chatting to the pupils, Fern sat quietly with her hand up and said:

“It’s like if you whip a horse it will do something because you want it to. We’re now doing this because we want to and that’s why it’s so good!”

This lesson really challenged me, it wasn’t so much the lesson itself, but I allowed the pupils to comment on my teaching. These comments were really powerful and can be seen here.

When talking to the pupils, they knew that a teacher couldn’t use this approach all the time. What would happen to a pupil in Year 3 whose teacher just gave them the resources but not teaching input? Saleha said:

“This pupil will not learn anywhere near as much as the pupils being taught by their teacher.”

Some of my pupils during this lesson – peer support!

I also posted here about a good teacher being compared to an Orchestra Conductor, using his/her baton to bring in the right tools at the right time.

Clearly this tool of stepping back and allowing pupils the time and space to decide the pace and content of their own learning is a very important tool. All pupils are different, each school is different and possibly, most complex of all, all teachers are different. Some will see the value of it, some won’t. Some will take the risk and give it a go, some won’t.

I have taught in 5 schools over 13 years and in this time, I have had to crack the whip. When I started off as an NQT a great Consultant Headteacher I worked for (Christine Harrison) took me to one side after I had cracked the whip and whispered in my ear…

“Public executions should be the exception, not the norm.”

I still carry those words around with me 13 years on and I have always valued the power of the quiet voice since that day. It was only on Monday that I really took stock of another tool, the tool to step back and let learning happen! Of course I have done this before, most lessons in fact but only on Monday did I step back and observe the power of stepping back! The tricky bit is… being able to recognise when best to use this tool.


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  1. Diane Davies
    April 13, 2011 at 4:47 pm #

    I’m sure you are familiar with the ‘Learning Pyramid’, which puts into an order the ‘effectiveness’ of various teaching/learning strategies. In concordance with your findings (of the children learning really while teaching each other) it suggests that the best way to learn is to teach others. Here is its suggested amount of information retention;
    ~ 90% of what they learn when they teach someone else/use immediately.
    ~ 75% of what they learn when they practice what they learned.
    ~ 50% of what they learn when engaged in a group discussion.
    ~ 30% of what they learn when they see a demonstration.
    ~ 20% of what they learn from audio-visual.
    ~ 10% of what they learn when they’ve learned from reading.
    ~ 5% of what they learn when they’ve learned from lecture

    I dont know how accurate it really is but it is something that I use to structure my lectures on, I certainly find that my students learn best when ‘doing’ rather than ‘observing’

  2. Mary Blake
    April 13, 2011 at 9:28 pm #

    David, this is exactly what good teaching is all about – not being at the front and spouting knowledge, they can get that from anywhere, what you do is inspire them, motivate and interest them. Quite agree with above comments too,if you have to teach something you will retain it and understand it far more effectively. I’ve written about an experience I had early in teaching. I was in secondary and tracked my form for the day. Gave me foundations from which I built my teaching on…YOU CAN’T learn in a silent classroom! I needed – especially in maths – to constantly ask the kids around me what to do as I was lost.
    The other important point for me is that you are prepared to step back and let learning happen, it is very powerful. Great stuff.

  3. Neal McQuaid
    May 20, 2011 at 12:15 pm #

    Nice post, and a nice introduction to this blog. I’m almost overly pro-active about giving them individual time to work through tasks on their own. At first, I found pupils struggled but more and more, I’m getting pupils sharing info and willing going off on their own initiative to learn or pick up new items. as someone coming to teaching from working in an office for several years, I’m very keen that all my pupils will leave school and not just expect to be spoon-fed work!

    Out of interest, when do the pupils get a chance to comment on the blog? is it in school, from home? and do they get notifications of new blog posts/etc. (obviously questions from someone who has messed around with a blog school but looking to get more involvement :).

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