For the past several years, a good deal of the discourse in educational change circles has focused on teacher quality: how to recognize it, how to improve it, and how it might become more pervasive in all Canadian schools. The conversations have branched off in many directions to include the best ways to assess teacher quality, the idea of merit pay to encourage and reward successful teaching, evidenced-based best practices and how to, in the end, ensure quality throughout the entire system. Much of the conversation has been directed at closing the gap between effective and ineffective teaching by, in a very real sense, standardizing professional practice.
I know that I’m not alone in welcoming the opportunity to have stronger conversations about what constitutes effective teaching, and I believe that it’s extremely important that these conversations take place at all levels of the system. Lately, though, I’ve been thinking a great deal about the energy that I know to be at the heart of the teaching and learning dynamic. It’s an energy that has been evident through our work on the Teaching The Way We Aspire to Teach project, and it’s an energy that is very evident when we talk to students about their memorable learning experiences.
But I’m not sure that the spark that ignites the learning process is always accounted for when we try to integrate our research about effective teaching into the accepted canon of practice. It could be that our metaphor of plugging the gap needs to be tempered with another image. In thinking about my own practice, and the teaching moments that I remember as being particularly powerful, I can point to a type of tension that served to hold open a space between what I understood the system expected of me and what I felt was needed at that particular time and place. It was in this space that the creative energy that has sustained me as a teacher for nearly 30 years was nurtured. But it wasn’t just about me; in talking to students—even many years later—it was in this space that the creative energy of my students was also ignited.
My mechanic tells to me that, with spark plugs, the key to proper firing lies in getting the space between the center and side electrodes just right. If the space is too narrow or too wide the spark that ignites the air/fuel mixture will not occur at an optimal level, if at all. The precision-driven process of gapping the plug is an attempt to get that space right.
I’m carrying this metaphor with me throughout the week, and I would love it if you could join me in thinking about this a little more.
As a teacher do you feel that you have adequate space to spark the type of energy that you would like to see in your own classroom? As a parent, are your children excited by the learning that is occurring in their school? As an administrator, do you have the tools and resources that you need to gap the plugs that drive your learning community?