When you are “in the zone” and focused on a task, it can be frustrating when someone interrupts your thinking to ask a question. To ask “do you have a minute?” can feel awkward when asked of someone who is clearly ensconced. But on this occasion I was the one interrupting…
I had the great privilege of talking to some very sophisticated learners between the ages of 9 and 11. Their brief required them to keep within a budget to meet a client’s complex requirements. Powers of reason, mathematics, communication and negotiation skills all came into play to tackle this extremely complex task; a task which had them completely absorbed.
So when I interrupted, the workers very courteously downed tools momentarily. Their answers to my questions were concise, considered, articulate and well-reasoned (see below). Then, with just enough of a pause to be polite, they were off again, ignoring my presence as best they could and getting on with their learning with a strong sense of collaborative urgency and purpose.
I’ll come to the subject of my questions and their answers in a moment, which are remarkable in themselves. But even more significant to me are the sophistication and drive with which the children worked and the pedagogical approach which facilitates it.
At present, there seems to be a polarised debate developing about the relative merits of different modes of teaching and learning. On one side of the argument are those who advocate the teaching of skills which enable pupils to learn for themselves. Opposing this view are those who are arguing that it is more efficient to uphold the traditional view of the teacher as the knowledgeable expert who imparts high standards of literacy, mathematics and general knowledge. In the middle are those who consider that both modes have value to a lesser or greater extent.
At the heart of this debate there appears to be fundamental differences of understanding about the purpose of education: whether it is a purely academic pursuit or preparation for success in its broadest sense. When I observed this lesson in progress it left me in no doubt about my own convictions: that we best serve our learners when we empower them to such an extent that they are in the driving seat of their own learning. But who disagrees with the need to master core skills of literacy and maths, or says that factual knowledge is not useful?
Consider the educational approach of Tertiary institutions such as our great universities. Here the learning diet consists of lectures or master-classes, in which the teacher is the expert imparting their extensive erudition. But the majority of the student’s time is spent in self-directed learning, coursework or assignments. Therefore, it seems reasonable to argue that it is correct for primary and secondary teachers to aspire to a similar balance in order to achieve accelerated learning. For primary pupils to be hungry for learning and have the nimbleness of mind to tackle complex tasks without much recourse to their teacher – surely attributes which will prove to be assets when these young people are gaining employment in a few years’ time?
Now, what were my questions to these industrious young people? I was interrogating them on the subject of their allocation to working groups as determined by the teacher. I asked them what they thought of this procedure.
“I prefer to choose to work with my friends,” said one, but continued: “although you do learn who is good to work with.”
“If you are with your friends you are more likely to argue,” said another. “If you are not, you just have to get on.”
The responses continued as follows:
- you get to cooperate with different people;
- you get new ideas;
- we all work well together;
- you mess around more if you are with your choice of friends.
I believe that these young people will stand the strongest chance of success in the workplace by being both highly literate and skilled in mathematics, as well as having developed the motivation, initiative, flexibility, collaborative skills, self-awareness and capacity to learn which I saw demonstrated in this lesson.
I’ll try not to make a habit of interrupting the learning too often.