Teacher tip 1: Model learning not teaching

What advice would you give to a new teacher working in a technology-related area? Maybe you’re a student who’s experienced the good and the bad? Or a teacher who’s experience has refined some tried-and-true “methods of instruction”? What advice would you give to a new teacher?

Since starting out in education half-a-decade ago (sounds longer than 4 or 5 years), I’ve been influenced by a bunch of educationalists such as John Dewey, Lev Vygotski and Seymour Papert, as well as some more contemporary stuff like Kathy Sierra’s Ten Tips for new trainers/teachers and my own network of educational learners. After experimenting with different ideas, experiencing the teaching of lots of other educators and learning lots from the constant stream of feedback from students and colleagues (see “Do we need teachers of web design?”) I’m slowly getting to the point of seeing who I am as a teacher/facilitator.

Right now I need to pull all that together and write a statement of my own professional beliefs and values for a professional development activity I’m involved in, but I thought it’d be much more fun to post it as “Five tips for new teachers”:

So for what it’s worth, the first and most important tip that I would give a new teacher is:

Tip 1: Model learning to your learners – not teaching

It might seem incredibly obvious, but for some reason modelling the process of learning itself is not something that we teachers always do. Tragically, sometimes the reason we stop modelling learning in our professional area is related to the fact that we’ve become a “teacher”. Yes there may be times to assume the Sage-on-the-Stage teacher role, or times to simply give the Right AnswerTM to avoid learner frustration, but under normal circumstances the most valuable things that your learners can learn from you are the strategies and processes that you use to learn and solve unknown problems in your professional area.

Modelling learning (original at http://www.flickr.com/photos/auro/308616310/ )And I’m not suggesting that you organise a two-hour “how to learn” workshop, or that you invite your students to gather around your desk and witness a problem-solving genius in action. Rather, model your own learning process at every opportunity by inviting your learners to get involved in – even contribute to – your own professional learning just as you do theirs.

Here’s an example of a teacher involving learners in their own learning process:

I was reading Roger Johansen’s Web Design blog yesterday (the one that we’re all subscribed to) and he reckons a better technique than the one I showed you last week is [...] Did anyone else read it? If not, when you get a chance have a read of Roger’s technique. At 3 o’clock this afternoon we’ll get together with those who are interested to see a demo and discuss its advantages over the way we’ve been doing it. If there’s someone who feels confident to demo the technique for the rest of us this afternoon, don’t hesitate to shout out!

Or, as a second example, when a student asks for some help, “My style-sheet’s not working… I’m stuck!”, rather than fixing the problem and getting the “I rule” feeling yourself, involve the learner in the learning process and give them the “I rule” feeling:

OK. The first thing we need to check is what? That’s right, that the stylesheet is correctly linked to the document. What’s an easy way to do that? Great! I didn’t even have to do anything! Give it a go and I’ll come back in a minute to see how you go…

Unfortunately some us teachers are excellent at continuing our own professional learning but instead of involving our learners in their own learning process we leverage our own learning to make ourselves look good – dropping wisdom-bombs on their students and watching for the shock-wave of awe to spread throughout the room (Hint: Don’t do this – it’ll be obvious to everyone except yourself what you’re really trying to do).

Here’s an example of a teacher missing an opportunity to involve students in their own learning:

I’ve been thinking since last week about the technique we saw for [...]. I think I’ve found a much better technique. Let’s all get together now and I’ll show you a better way.

Or, in the second example where a student says “My stylesheet’s not working. I’m stuck”:

OK, give me a look. Aha, you’ve got a typo in your document right there.

As an educator, I reckon that it’s criminal to hide our own learning process from learners (although I’m sure I’ve committed the crime myself). We’re hiding one of the most valuable things we can offer our students. Why? Because it makes us Teachers feel smarter than our students? Because it helps us to feel that we do in fact have something to contribute? Kathy Sierra puts it bluntly in tip 7 of her Ten tips for new trainers/teachers: “Leave your ego at the door. This is not about you!”

During an email discussion last year Stephen Downes expressed clearly what it means to model learning – to conduct genuine teaching (see Live what you teach for more):

Teaching as presenting is dead. Teaching is transferring information from one brain into another is dead. Teaching as exercising authority over a group of students is dead. But teaching, genuine teaching, living what it is you want the next generation to see and emulate, is necessary. [...] It takes a conscious effort to be the sort of person you are trying to get your students to be.

Given that we want our students to be learners in our specific professional areas, my number 1 tip for a new teacher is don’t stop learning when you become a teacher! Instead, become even more passionate about your own learning in your professional area. Be infectious about it! Be open and transparent about it – modelling your learning processes at every opportunity. Involve your learners in your own learning and problem solving processes by default and teach as the exception where required.

How important do you think it is for teachers to model their learning processes? Is it just as important in non-IT learning contexts such as a chemistry lab, a work-place or a church? What’s your number one tip for a new teacher?

5 comments to Teacher tip 1: Model learning not teaching

  • Annette Macrae

    Listen to what the students have to say. Ask them to make choices. Offer them alternatives and ‘read’their responses. They will know you are in charge when it matters and gradually they will take greater and greater ownership of their learning

  • Yeah, great points Annette! The flow that you’ve highlighted from making choices to gradually taking ownership of learning is soo important… I’ll be hitting on these as Tip 2: Act on the needs of you learners (coming soon) and Tip 5: Gradually allowing learners to control their own learning… hope I can get some more ideas from your experience there!

  • [...] we need to listen to each individual (and not just with our ears – as Annette commented, we can ‘read’ individual responses). We need to get to know each individual, and then most importantly – to have any integrity with [...]

  • I like to always answer a question with another one too Michael- that way we are learning a process rather than an answer. [Don't know about you, but I pretty much don't remember the "answers"but almost always remember the process.-especially if I get to practice it a lot.
    Here's another dimension: HAVE FUN! if learning is meant to be enjoyable, I recokon we should be modelling that too.
    When I started teaching basic computing, I learned a lot I didn't know from the learners in my classes...thank goodness for that! So I also learned how to accept and encourage knowledge other than my own as part of the class process. [whew! takes the pressure off!]
    Can’t wait for the other 9 tips!

  • Genie wrote:

    …that way we are learning a process rather than an answer.

    Too right!

    And having fun should be such a big part of learning – it certainly is for me when I’m learning at home – but at work there’s always sooo much to do that I find it hard to relax… the irony of teaching.

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