“Look, why don’t you ask your teacher?”
It was the exasperated lament of generations of parents frustrated by the endless and incessant questioning of their own children as they navigated homework, or even as they just wondered something banal out loud.
Why us? Why were teachers expected to know everything from who invented the moustache and why koalas have eerily similar fingerprints to humans?
It’s because we were the founts of knowledge. Facts were our thing. In fact, most teaching could be characterised as the oldest person in the room behaving like a knowledge sprinkler at the front of the room, spraying information across her class of students in the hope that some of it wets her students’ minds.
The carryover effect of this positioning of teachers as mere knowledge keepers is that we’re still asked to spell words at dinner parties – and even that we often try to. After all, we’re teachers. We’re supposed to know.
Of course, we’ve all heard the line about how the 1981 invention of the internet and the subsequent pervasion of Google has changed parental language from “Ask your teacher” to “Just google it” when kids have a fact that they need validated.
In fact, most of you have already googled ‘koala fingerprints’ in the last minute or so. It’s true! But there’s also some truth in the historical turning point that this manifested in for educators.
That the role of the teacher has fundamentally shifted as a result of being superseded around knowledge sounds like a problem, but it really isn’t. Who gets into teaching so that they can be a human encyclopedia standing at the front of a room spewing information at students in the hope that they can regurgitate it themselves in a test anyway?
We may have been a little slow on the uptake, but this actually presents a wonderful opportunity for us. No longer chained to an authoritative platform in the classroom we can now make a philosophical shift away from doing education to our students and toward doing education with them.
That commences with transforming the architecture of our schools to eliminate features of power and authoritarianism.
Don’t worry, you’re not about to lose your authority as a teacher. You’ll still be the most influential person in the room. But your authority will be more authoritative and defined by your practice than it will be authoritarian and bestowed upon you by the power of your badge.
Let’s briefly look at two ways this can commence – one in primary classrooms and one in secondary environments.
Primary teachers – let’s lose the clump. Bringing students together on the floor for all manner of reasons highlights power through the existence of special or desirable positions.
Let’s be honest. Where do the kids sit who most want to answer a question? Front and centre, right at the teacher’s feet – right? They’re maximising the chances of answering that question, which is really just evidence of something they already knew.
But where do the students sit who most need to answer a question? It’s at the back and the edges of the clump. They too are seeking to tilt the odds, but this time it’s against them being asked a question so that they don’t feel any embarrassment or shame at not knowing.
Instead, sit with your students in circles wherever practicable. No special spots, no chance to escape or boast and no power plays. Just learning – together.
And in secondary classes, let’s lose the rows. Your class isn’t a battlefield and thereby needn’t resemble one in its architecture. You too know where the students are sitting who least want to engage and who are also bearing the heaviest artillery. It’s the back row, isn’t it?
Why step onto such a field when you’re so outnumbered and outgunned?
You too can push the tables to the edges of the classroom where wall-facing students are less distracted when working individually. And then, hey presto, turn the chairs around and grab a seat when you need to instruct. Instant circle.
The reason you got into teaching was probably more aligned with wanting students to learn and grow to their fullest potential in your presence far more than it was to cram information into their hormonally charged and resistant brains.
Let your classroom architecture be the first expression of that purpose.
Adam Voigt is a former successful school principal and system leader who is now the founder and CEO of Real Schools. Adam is also the author of Restoring Teaching, a book aimed at restoring esteem for the role of educators through establishing strong, productive and restorative cultures around Australia’s schools.Do you have an idea for a story?
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