Sunday 3 May 2009

To use a spoon - or not!

I had a very curious and vaguely disturbing conversation with a colleague the other day. We have very different attitudes to the students: he believes that the teacher should do practically everything for the class; I don't. In fact I refuse to spoon feed my students . A class should be able to sit an exam without my holding their hands. My job as their teacher, is to make sure they have the necessary knowledge, tools and confidence to do well on their own. In fact, if they need me to do everything for them, then I haven't done my job. My friend however believes otherwise.
He feels that the teacher should be able to teach students to be A* by following the syllabus to the letter. I believe that we can't. A teacher can teach a student to be a very good A, but the student has to get the A* himself. When I said this, my friend asked what was the point of us teachers being there if we were not going to teach the A* using a step by step guide. My argument is that our purpose is to provide the knowledge for an A*, but, more importantly, to provide the environment in which an A* can develop and flourish.
The critical element in an A* piece of work is 'originality'. In fact, it says so in the exam syllabus we use. If the teacher over-teaches a piece of work, and this happens if the teacher guides repeated redrafting of coursework (by 'repeated' I mean five or six redrafts with the teacher watching every move) then the final piece will be the teacher's not the students, and it certainly won't be 'original'.
I'm teaching another fast paced group, following on from my lovely yr 11s from last year. Even though they are only yr10s, some of them are already producing A* work. I certainly haven't sat down and made them redraft work over and over again. They've done a first draft, on which I write reams of suggestions and rude comments (the occasional 'eh? what's this supposed to be?' or an 'Aaargh!' in the margins provides much hilarity) then they do a final one. If need be, I tell them that if they're unhappy with their 'final' draft, they can do another one next year, when they're in yr 11 and that I will talk them through improvements then - and not before. This should be enough. The student has to do something himself, otherwise the final piece will be mine, not theirs.
We have to trust the students. It's up to us to teach them, to guide them, then to let them go.
The word 'educate' comes from the Latin 'ex duco' which means, 'I lead out'. That is what I hope I do.
I told my yr 10s the other day that I see the A as climbing to the top of a mountain, the A*, is jumping off. They got the idea and they agreed that this is exactly what it is. The jumping off is up to them, my job is to show them the way. If we want originality in our students, if we want A level students who know how to think on their feet, then we have to let them go. We have to trust that we, as teachers have done our jobs properly, that we have given them the knowledge they require and provided them with the kind of learning environment in which they feel safe enough to think without fear of ridicule or censure. But more importantly, we have to trust them.

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