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David Major

Wolff Olins

Education Specialist

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Five things that great teachers believe in

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The desire for quick fixes, and the lure of catchy publication titles has in some ways reduced the process of improving learning for L&D professionals to sets of 'top tricks', snake-oil tools, and the latest innovations in secret sauce.

It’s how our practice becomes one of fragmented bricolage rather than scalable and sustainable development.

Walking around recent trade shows it has become hard to avoid the allure of flipped classrooms or social learning when what is actually being sold is often simply a "comment box" and podcasts.

Abstract ideas don't make great teachers great, and neither do narrow commodities. While certainly there are practices that have positive impact on how people learn, the real lasting improvements come from what underpins those practices: the beliefs about learning that inspire them.

For instance, a 'trick' seen everywhere, from primary schools through to executive coaching, is that of a 'learning receipt': having participants write a short statement of what they've learnt and what they are going to try to take forwards.

When done well this is extremely powerful, but our focus as professionals should not be on the act, but on what it tells us about the educator involved: that they believe learners should have a short moment of reflection that they can take with them from the room.

Assessment is not a quantitative measure of compliance or mere attendance, but a key part of a continuous process of learning.

The receipt then becomes just one purposeful realisation of this.

It is these beliefs that we can and should learn from great teachers, not the theories above them, or the highly contextual tips & tricks below them.

So what do great teachers believe?

Great teachers believe in assessing for learning

Underpinning the idea of the above 'learning receipt' is re-positioning the role of assessment from something that is done at the end of learning, to something that actively contributes to it.

Assessment for Learning and formative assessment are amongst the most effective ideas to enter mainstream education - most famously through the publication 'Inside the Black Box' (Black & Wiliam, 1998).

Among the core ideas of this are that learners should be the primary consumer of assessment, and that assessment is not a quantitative measure of compliance or mere attendance, but a key part of a continuous process of learning.

The best learning experiences tend to be longitudinal, giving learners time to become 'ready' to hear something.

Great teachers assess early, frequently, and design their assessments to help the individual understand how they are doing and how they might progress, rather than provide them with an arbitrary and largely meaningless score.

They involve learners in the assessment process rather than subjecting them to it, encourage them to develop their understanding of 'what good looks like' through peer and self assessment, and encourage become reflective individuals.

Great teachers believe in creating the conditions for learning & the time for telling

Both teachers and L&D professionals often find themselves "selling something that people don't want to buy or know they need"; compliance procedures and company values are the new calculus.

When we have training that revolves around things that just-have-to-be-learnt-please-don't-ask-why we often pivot to a transmission-style of teaching - packing information in quickly with the hope that it sticks so that we can move on.

John Dewey, the 19th century theorist wrote often of the importance of 'felt need' - that students had to have a legitimate need for learning, gained through perhaps experiencing a tension or challenge that could only be resolved through it.

Effective questioning is one of the cornerstones of excellent teaching practice, but also one of the easiest to use ineffectively.

The best learning experiences tend to be longitudinal, giving learners time to become 'ready' to hear something, or to poke at the boundaries of what they've learnt and codify it in their own way.

The larger shifts in thinking or view we ask them to make, the less instruction they need, but the more exploration. Great teachers encourage and design for this exploration and accept that things aren't just remembered, but become meaningful and learned through time.

Great teachers believe in thinking about the questions almost more than the answers

Effective questioning is one of the cornerstones of excellent teaching practice, but also one of the easiest to use ineffectively.

It is extremely easy to ask learners for the answer we want to hear, rather than the one that they actually believe, or 'give up' a moment of learning and correct people before they might have arrived at why they were wrong and guided themselves towards a moment of learning.

Much like snooker players, there is a need to think several moves ahead - what responses do I expect to this question?

What follow-ups questions will challenge the incorrect ones and allow learners to discover their way rather than just be told it?

Much like snooker players, there is a need to think several moves ahead - what responses do I expect to this question?

When learning is moved to the digital domain we often forget how we work in person and stray further from effective practice by writing the answer before the alternatives and reaching for the satisfying '10 question end of module quiz' rather than a more focused, learning-orientated question.

Great teachers believe in obsessing over the experience of learning

We have probably all suffered 'death by PowerPoint', or the existential dread of "we'll get into groups when we get back from coffee".

When great teachers plan learning they do so with a focus not on what they, but what their class will be doing and how learners will transition from activity to activity.

The best teachers do less themselves and make learners do the lifting.

In many ways it is not the 'blocks' of learning—be they activities, classes, days or terms—that are important, but how a learner travels between them and relate them to each other.

The best teachers do less themselves and make learners do the lifting; they know that learners struggle to focus on a single person (and more pragmatically, that they have another four classes that day!)

They use group-discussion not as a way to 'break up boredom', but as a meaningful interlude and pivot between individual understanding and critical evaluation.

Much traditional learning is resource and content-driven, bringing with it a temptation to treat it as a sacred cow.

They use the time they reclaim by doing less in order to monitor learning, resolve misunderstands before they become problematic and celebrate achievements.

Great teachers believe in treating learning as a design science

When assessment is being used to gain learning-focused information, and the learner experience is of highest importance, great teachers begin to approach teaching not as a craft with mandated, rigid best practice, nor as an art with a high degree of variability and risk, but as a design science with testable approaches, shareable designs and a focus on constant improvement.

Much traditional learning is resource and content-driven, bringing with it a temptation to treat it as a sacred cow, rather than just one iteration of that cow.

Our methods of evaluation in turn move towards those of validation, rather than continual improvement - what usable data do we actually gain from asking if the facilities were appropriate?

Or even if the facilitator showed mastery of the content? Neither of these actually aligns with our—hopefully—stated goals of improving outcomes or adding value for the learner.

David Major is an education specialist working at Wolff Olins for Curve, their online learning design service for ambitious business.

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David Major

Education Specialist

Read more from David Major
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