One of the joys of teaching is the capacity to learn from the learners.
The Scottish Educational Leadership, Management and Administration Society increasingly seeks to have school students presenting at its events. Four pupils from Dean Park Primary School opened this year’s annual SELMAS forum, where the theme was Transforming Teaching, Transforming Schools: Ambition or reality?
Their task was to describe, to an audience of teachers, education officials and parents, “teaching which opens up learning for us”. Four bright, lively, young people, the youngest only six, provided their insights.
The last, Eve Roberts, a P6 pupil, had worked out that learning could be divided into four categories: teacher-led learning; physical learning; active learning (“or, as I prefer to call it, do it yourself learning”); and repetitive learning (“such as spelling and times tables”).
She was clear that all four types of learning were essential, including the repetitive learning. (They understand, quite intuitively, that some learning is hard, often boring but utterly essential.) She knew that different young people liked different types of learning – and that was fine. Her personal preferences were for teacher-led learning and DIY learning.
She knew that there was a value in listening and being informed and inspired by her teacher. She also knew that she could successfully negotiate learning independently and enjoy the pleasure of picking and choosing what she learned, either because she needed to learn that particular area of knowledge or because she wanted to learn it.
Eve was followed by four polished professionals.
Ken Greer, former-HMI and Fife Council’s executive director education and learning, asked whether we could operate an even-more learning-focused approach with fewer tiers in the education system. He mourned the trend to maintaining complex management structures, even in an age of acute resource shortage.
Karen MacGregor, headteacher at Queensferry Primary School, described how the introduction of learning rounds, of systematic, mutual teacher observations, focused on particular pedagogic issues, and reporting in strictly descriptive (and not judgemental) terms, had transformed the ethos and the quality of learning and teaching in her school.
Stephen Quinn, headteacher at North Ayrshire’s Auchenharvie Academy, questioned why despite substantial improvements over recent years in the quality of learning and teaching, the attainment gaps in Scottish education remained, in many cases, as wide as ever. He also returned to school ethos and culture as the keys to improving learning.
Chris Chapman, Glasgow University’s recently appointed chair of educational policy and practice, compared and contrasted experiences north and south of the border and left many in the audience certain that England’s importation of Michael Gove has been Scotland’s gain and England’s loss. He also spoke of the size and scale of the Scottish educational world and, indeed, one of the joys of living in a small country is that events such as the SELMAS forum can attract a range of participants from across Scotland for an evening of debate, discussion and learning.
After, however, the professional speakers had sat silent and the tables been cleared, my abiding memory was of Eve Roberts, a confident 10-year-old who reminded me of some of our profession’s core values. One of these must be listening to our learners, but not listening as the scribes or the Pharisees or the HMIs listen.
Saint-Exupéry reminded us that: “It is only with the heart that one can see rightly; what is essential is invisible to the eye.”
It is, similarly, only with the heart that one can hear rightly, especially when listening to children – but if we truly want to transform teaching and learning, then it is precisely where we need to start.
Alex Wood has been a teacher for 38 years. He is now an associate with the Scottish Centre for Studies in School Administration at Edinburgh University.