Engagement, Opinion, Promising Practices, Teaching

Preparing The Classroom Garden

In my last post I referred you to Sir Ken Robinson’s TED Talk of 2006.  This year he followed up with a call for revolution in education: “We have to recognize that human flourishing is not a mechanical process, it’s an organic process. And you cannot predict the outcome of human development; all you can do, like a farmer, is create the conditions under which they will begin to flourish.”

Now much as I respect Sir Ken, I cannot agree.  That statement is just too passive and does not acknowledge the power and responsibility that teachers have for actively shaping student experience and proactively nurturing learning.  However, I do agree that ‘human flourishing’ – and learning – is much more organic than mechanistic.  So, as we begin a new school year, what can we do to prepare the educational garden for a bumper crop of learners?

The Critical Thinking Consortium (http://www.tc2.ca/wp/) asserts that powerful learning depends on supportive relationships, enabling resources, stimulating opportunities and helpful guidance. Let’s start with relationships.

Supportive relationships – between students and students, students and teachers, students and parents, and teachers and parents – are an important foundation for learning. Creating supportive relationships in the classroom is the first task of teaching.

So what about that old maxim – Don’t smile until Christmas. To be blunt, it’s nonsense, a remnant of an outdated and unprofessional orientation to “teaching as telling” that required “classroom management” to ensure attentiveness to delivered wisdom rather than the creation of a classroom culture that promotes engagement for constructed understanding.

Learning is a partnership based on a relationship and few relationships take hold if nobody smiles. So, go ahead, smile. Let’s not confuse sternness with strength. Your students need to know that their teacher is serious about their learning and committed to it, and to them. Simply laying down a bunch of rules does not give them this message.

Classrooms don’t work best when controlled by the teacher, they work best when well structured by the teacher – which largely obviates the need for control. Classroom structure is the scaffolding that a teacher provides to enable learning. The teacher has to take the lead in creating classroom structures that facilitate smooth operations so that engagement in learning is not impeded, but this is best done in collaboration with students through an appreciative process of identifying what works and spreading it, rather than focussing on what does not work and trying to suppress it.

I am embarrassed to say that 37 years ago when I faced my first Junior Secondary class I had this backwards and so I gave my best “you’re in the army now” speech on day one to an entirely unimpressed young audience that had heard it all before. I now know that was both unwise and unproductive. Just as you catch more flies with honey, learning proceeds best in response to invitations, not exhortations or demands.

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Bruce Beairsto

Retired school superintendent, educational consultant and adjunct professor at Simon Fraser University

Bruce Beairsto is a retired school superintendent, educational consultant and adjunct professor at Simon Fraser University.

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