Tuesday, January 01, 2008

Successful teachers know themselves?!

Effective Teaching of Disaffected Afro-Caribbean Pupils – Are there lessons for Steiner Waldorf Teachers?

I recently came across a piece of work based on research conducted at a school in the London Borough of Ealing. As reports in national & educational press make clear, there is considerable concern about the academic progress of African-Caribbean pupils, especially boys. This study came about as a result of a recognition that a group of very different teachers across the range of subjects in an Ealing Comprehensive school seemed to have much better success in their teaching these students than other, sometimes equally experienced & qualified, teachers. The research comprised interviews with students & teachers & observation of lessons. The results seem to me to be significant for any teacher, no matter where they teach & irrespective of the origin of the young people.

From the interviews with pupils & the successful teachers, the researchers identified & were able to verify through their observation, a number of common factors:

>The teachers were seen as being “fair” & respectful of pupils as well as insisting on respect towards themselves & everyone else in the class. The teachers were seen as available to & approachable by all their students[1]
>These teachers would always apologise if they got upset or went over the top, but they also made sure that the students knew & kept to the rules of the class
>The rules themselves were seen as reasonable by the pupils, who, in some cases had contributed to establishing them in the first place
>The teachers encouraged & responded positively to pupil questions throughout the lessons observed
>The teachers were seen as having high expectations of their students, but also structured their lessons so that the material was experienced as understandable
>The teachers all had clear aims & objectives for their teaching – a strong sense of purpose which had the appearance of confidence in the classroom, even though some of the teachers reported themselves as not feeling confident as they looked
>All the teachers reported that they enjoyed teaching, even when it was challenging

During classroom observation, one of the most striking consistencies between the different teachers was the way they all directed attention to positive behaviour. Rarely did they draw attention to negative, e.g. –
“Listen while your classmate is talking”
not “Stop talking”
“What help do you need to get started?”
not “Why are you still talking?”
Similarly, the teachers gave praise by describing specific behaviour: “That was a well reasoned idea, John” rather than merely responding with, “Good”. Attempts to give answers were always received warmly & there was no jeering or impatience from classmates when mistakes were made. The teachers responded positively to these attempts, gently correcting any misinformation & usually not immediately.

In spite of the similarities, however, the teachers observed showed considerable differences of style. The researchers reported that the teaching ranged from formal & “strict” to informal & “laid back”. The teachers themselves gave very different, sometimes conflicting, explanations for their success: one explained that she had a quiet voice & this helped because, “these pupils expected to be shouted at”; another put their ability with these pupils down to having a loud, commanding voice…

This led researchers to ask themselves more about some of the inner qualities involved in the way the teachers were working. They began investigating the correlation between their state & the way they managed their classrooms. Those who needed silence to think & learn insisted on this from their students. Those who needed movement & bustle to be in a good learning state encouraged this in their students. Perhaps surprisingly, the same group of pupils sat in these very different classroom environments & were able to adapt to them & learn in each.

Implications? –
It seems to me that the context that this study focussed on a particular group of students seen as problematic is not of primary importance here. What the researchers describe is very good teaching brought to light because most teachers found this group of pupils difficult to teach. Most, or all, of the features suggested in the seven listed above (& there are others too) ought to be staples of any & every teacher training, not to mention school policies for promoting positive behaviour. But the major finding in all this might cause a rethinking of some of the ways initial training as a teacher is handled.
Though I am not intimately involved in any of the training courses, the picture I have from speaking to a wide cross-section of recent graduates at the regular Class 1 Teachers’ Preparation Workshops & in the classroom, is that questions of how to optimise one’s own learning state in the classroom & indeed, what a teacher’s individual learning style might be, receives at best peripheral attention. This may be a by-product of training, but is not investigated, nor is that investigation supported, in any systematic way. Becoming aware of oneself as a learner during training would contribute to developing an appreciation of different modes of learning in others. The pedagogical nature of Waldorf education would seem to underline the importance of such investigation & its potential benefit for classroom practice. For Class Teachers in particular, the extensive relationship class teaching involves would seem to call for a mature knowledge of the basis of interaction with the class, both inner integrity & explicit skills in how to apply this.

This study also raises a number of important ongoing questions, which teacher trainers, advisers & other colleagues might do well to explore:
§ What constitutes “confidence” in the way a teacher acts in the classroom?
§ In what ways might awareness of how a teacher can organise the classroom environment to support themselves to learn better help to improve the learning of classes?
§ What processes in initial & ongoing teacher education & development might serve to enhance such knowledge & confidence?

Drawn from a research paper by Kemp & Watson presented to September 2007 BERA conference. Also see http://www.trainingattention.co.uk/
[1] Though the word is not used in the research, it is not pushing the pupils comments too far to say that they bear out the first of Georg Locher’s three injunctions: the teacher should be lovable to children (the other two are: approachable by parents & helpable – or mentor-able – by colleagues)

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