Here is a story of a journey begun. One of adventure, danger and heroism. There is also an element of innocence lost as our hero faces the stark realities of the boundaries of possibility. Our hero continues journeying for a lifetime, facing danger and solving mysteries, all the time growing in legend.
You may think this is a strange way to begin an essay on my personal history and development as a teacher. I see teaching as an expression of creativity and a way to make a difference in our world. The hero I mention is the typical narrative hero; the person most thought to amount to nothing, with nothing to offer. This person, through trial, tribulation, success and tears, enters into a lifelong journey of making a difference. Along the way gathering experience, skills, tools and knowledge. I am that person who had nothing to offer and I am enjoying my journey.
Stage One – Survival
I entered my first classroom with the purpose to create a positive learning atmosphere. I had few teaching strategies and little curriculum knowledge. I was teaching as I had been taught. Nuthall (2001) writes that culture shapes our understanding of both the teaching and learning process. The ritual of teaching remains relatively unchanged. He calls teaching a kind of cultural ritual.
This survival stage furnished me with many questions. Is it effective to teach separate subjects on separate days? What knowledge do my students really need? And the question that bothered me the most…what was I meant to do with that one computer at the back of my room?
So at the end of stage one, I knew there was something amiss, however, could not define it. I questioned the content I taught and the way I was told to teach it. I felt that learning was enhanced by positive self esteem which was developed within a safe environment that promoted a supportive community, risk taking and respect. I had started my journey.
Stage Two – From ‘what to teach’ to ‘how children learn’
This lengthy stage coincided with two major events. Firstly, I was presented with a new curriculum document to interpret in Western Australia. I embraced this new document with zeal. It confronted things about the way I was teaching that made me uncomfortable such as a differentiated curriculum, and allowed more creative freedom. My zeal was soon undone as we were informed by the Principal there was no hurry to adopt the documents. The books were put back on the shelf and teachers continued with the ‘cultural ritual’ of teaching.
Then I moved to New Zealand.
I continued with my cultural ritual, however it didn’t fit with the NZ curriculum. Teachers in NZ had already embraced a new curriculum. I was unable to work out how to teach in this new world. I had a lot of questions. I could no longer teach as I had been taught. This did not meet my students’ needs. I had to ask myself, how do I think students learn and therefore how should I teach.
Now I could run with the new curriculum documents.
I integrated the curriculum in a meaningful manner. I embarked on a teaching strategy, which I now know to be called ‘Inquiry Based Learning’ which made sense to me. Inquiry learning “begins with students’ prior knowledge and experience and moves through a deliberate process wherein that knowledge is extended, challenged and refined.” (Murdoch, 1997:5). I had moved out of the survival mode of thinking about ‘what to teach’, and had moved into the stage of discovering ‘how children learn’.
This curriculum with the four pillars of education stating that children need to: learn to do, learn to live together, learn to be and learn to know equipped me with a picture of the skills, knowledge, attitudes and values I wanted students to have and I designed my teaching with this in mind.
Some changes I made to my practice included embracing collaborative learning in all areas of my teaching; thinking skills were woven into lessons and I planned ways for students to take responsibility for their own learning. No longer would I supply knowledge for students, I would create an atmosphere for them to construct their own learning. Another major change was I began using assessment to guide my teaching rather than to report to the authorities. Crooks (1988) discusses that evaluation is a guide to learning as well as to teaching. Feedback should be given promptly and children should be given opportunities to demonstrate learning from the feedback. Black and William (1998) agree stating that formative assessment is at the heart of effective teaching and that frequent assessment feedback raises achievement overall but especially in low achievers.
The freedom in this new curriculum gave me the momentum to enter into stage two of my development as a practitioner. “Motivation is the key to preventing ‘educational suicide’. Constraint gives a person the desire to escape, freedom gives a person the desire to explore, expand and create” (Clifford, 1990:23). I began reflecting on my teaching and the children’s learning. I asked questions and enacted changes. I began to read educational research to support my assumptions. I realised I needed to know the theory behind my practice. This led me into the next step of my journey.
Stage Three – putting the pieces together
Stoll, Fink and Earl (2003) exert that teacher learning has a positive correlation on student learning. To ensure the best outcome for my students, I had to take an active role in my own learning.
I had begun my journey by providing children with a secure and supportive learning environment. I made changes to my practice with ‘how children learn’ in mind. I was beginning to fit into the definition of a social constructivist. “Vygotsky (1962) theorised that human learning is dependent on the social and cultural environment, as well as the mind, and that the deep determinants of human activity lie in the historically developing culture, embodied in various signs and symbol systems” (Stoll, Fink & Earl, 2003:23). Jones and Mercer (1993:72) identify that Vygotsky’s theory also supports the notion of teachers being active participants in the learning journey.
The Inquiry approach defined by Murdoch (1997) is effective for both students’ learning and teachers’ learning. Students wonder, find out, take social action, and then reflect. Teachers should do the same to refine their practice. As I began to explore my pedagogical knowledge more fully I recognised the need for effective reflection. Eisner in his article on “The kinds of schools we need’, cries “no longer would isolated teachers be left to themselves to figure out what went on when they were teaching” (2002:578). Learning communities and collaboration among colleagues are essential in effective reflection. I have identified myself as a social constructivist and now I need to understand what this really means.
So where do I stand right at this moment in time? “A paradox of information is that those who know a lot about a subject are more aware of what they do not know than those who know less… Those who have information are better placed to demand information than those who do not, hence the importance of metacognitive knowledge” (Dillon, 2004:106). Going even further than that, I find myself worrying that I may not have the time to explore all that I want to know. “One of the challenges of the twenty-first century will be finding ways to capture and dedicate the time necessary for the serious business of learning. (Stoll, Fink & Earl, 2003:41)
I have stated that I fit within the social constructivist paradigm. I see learning as a process of construction and reconstruction, where knowledge is constructed by the learner and not supplied by the teacher. But I find myself reaching beyond this paradigm – with the rapid changes happening in our technological world, what lies beyond constructivism? Brown (2005) suggests that it may be ‘navigationism’. With technology pervading all areas of teaching and learning students need to know how to ethically navigate the wealth of information available and the emerging literacies this demands. So, right at this moment, I claim I am a social constructivist, this may and no doubt will, however change.
Fried in his book “The Passionate Teacher” explains why I am a teacher:
“It (passion) is also a gift we grant ourselves: a way of honouring our life’s work, our profession. …It is teachers’ passions that help them and their students escape the slow death of ‘business as usual’.” (1995:19)
I am interested to see what my next stage will be. I have survived, changed my focus from ‘what to teach’ to ‘how children learn’, and embarked on effective critical reflection. Where will my quest take me next?
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Brown, Tom H. (2005) Beyond constructivism: Exploring future learning paradigms. Education Today, (2) 14-30
Clifford, Margaret M. (1990) Students Need Challenge, not easy success, Educational leadership, 48 (1) 22-26
Crooks, T.J. (1988). The impact of classroom evaluation practices on students. Review of Educational Research, 58, 438-481
Dillon, P. (2004). Trajectories and tensions in the theory of information and communication technology in education. British Journal of Educational Studies, 52(2), 138-150.
Eisner, E. W. (2002). The kind of schools we need. Phi Delta Kappan, 83, 576-583
Jones, Z., & Mercer, N. (1993). Theories of learning and information technology. In P. Scrimshaw (ed.), Language, classrooms and computers, London: Routledge pp 11-26
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Murdoch, Kath. (1997). Classroom Connections, Strategies for integrated learning. Eleanor Curtain Publishing: Australia
Nuthall, G. (2001) The cultural myths and the realities of teaching and learning. Keynote address to conference of the NZS association for Research in Education. Christchurch, 6-9 Dec. To be published in NZ annual Review of Education.
Stoll, Louise. Fink, Dean and Earl, Lorna. (2003) It’s about learning (and it’s about time) What’s in it for schools? Routledge Falmer: London
Taylor, R. (Ed.) (1980) The computer in the school: Tutor, Tool and Tutee, New York: Teacher’s College Press.