Essentially this book is about the final stage of the call to adventure, that which in the form proposed by Christopher Vogler is called ‘Return with the Elixir: the hero returns with something to improve the ordinary world’ Although I am no hero each chapter of my book is about something you can do to improve your teaching and ensure that you remain a learner.
Question: How can I be a better teacher? For teachers, no two days are ever the same and no group or individual pupil is guaranteed to learn or behave in the same way from one day to the next. Teaching is a full-on job and often with only time to respond to the challenges and changes.
Answer: To be a better teacher I recognised that teachers need to have time and the opportunity to reflect and that they need to remain learners. It is important to me that the book gives you the tools to manage your time effectively and to successfully meet the day to day challenges as well as encourage you to reflect.
In reflecting on what worked and why in learning and teaching I realised that after all the preparation, planning and resourcing it came down to pupil/teacher relationships. Establishing, building, and maintaining relationships is very important. There are many things that can damage a relationship in an instant but it takes time to repair or build an effective learning relationship.
Question: How do you build effective learning relationships and secondly what factors can support or undermine them? We are now getting to the heart of the question.
Answer: In observing and discussing the relationships pupils build with teachers and their peers it became clear that pupils will invest in establishing a relationship to meet certain needs. The pupil may not make a conscious decision or even be able to articulate why they behave in a certain way towards some people or when in some groups. Pupils may not even recognise the drivers of their behaviour at all. It also became clear that some needs are powerful drivers of pupil behaviour, so powerful even that they will override such factors as social or school expectations, personal safety, parental influence, or any pressure from existing relationships. It was also clear that not all pupil behaviour is predictable and that there are dampening and enhancing factors that can promote or subdue the nature of the behaviour a pupil will exhibit in any given situation.
Chapter 1 explores the challenges you will face as a teacher and includes a series of reflection prompts. Chapter 2 is an in-depth look at the learning relationship between pupil and teacher using an innovative ‘Learning Relationship Responsibility Ratio Graph’. The important role of leadership in nurturing and protecting the relationship between pupil and teacher is recognised and is also analysed.
Question: How can we interpret pupil behaviour to understand pupil needs?
Answer: Seeing behaviour as a symptom of a need rather than as a challenge is the first step in developing our understanding of needs and the impact they have on learning and teaching. What we want as teachers are engaged learners, pupils that are motivated to learn. Chapter 3 looks at what pupils need in order to engage in the process of learning.
Question: Who helped in my call to adventure?
Answer: It’s a long list! From my teaching mentor John, who’s 12 rules appear in chapter 11, to those I have taught and those I have taught with, the many who have challenged my teaching and opened my eyes. Some sources go back further than you may think too, some were suggested by the different online groups and education thought leaders we are familiar with through LinkedIn, Twitter, Facebook, TEDx etc.
The next instalment of ‘If you can’t reach them you can’t teach them’ will describe the chapters that cover four learning needs and how you can plan to meet and manage them.
4) Our 4 learning engagement needs PBCF
In the first instalment, I introduced you to ‘If you can’t reach them you can’t teach them’ I now want to explain to you the nature and format of the book.
Question: Where did ‘If you can’t reach them you can’t teach them’ come from?
Answer: From my own experience, insights, observations of pupils and teachers, reflections on what worked and what did not in learning and teaching and the research I carried out when I tried to work out the ‘why?’
‘To be a teacher you must be and remain a learner. If you stop being a learner then I believe you give up the right to be a teacher and the right to be a leader too for teachers are learning leaders.’
Question: Why a narrative?
Answer: Much of teaching is about telling stories, those that draw pupils in, develop their confidence, set them challenges and celebrate their success. Story telling is an art, you must assess your audience, know what interests them and you must listen and in a way that retains their interest. A good storyteller will build a relationship with their audience that allows them and their audience to take risks, to have emotional highs and lows together, to wonder and to celebrate together. Story telling is a way of getting complicated messages across to your audience in a memorable and effective way. There are skills involved in being a good storyteller in the same way as there are in being a good teacher.
I want to take you on a learning journey.
The idea of a narrative, of telling a story of how as a teacher you can improve your storytelling is also a story. My driver for writing is the honest aim of helping other teachers be the best they can be by sharing my own learning journey. In wanting to share what I have learnt and to widen my sphere of influence I realised I needed a story, a good one, one that would bring to light the complex nature of learning and teaching and convey a message in the gentle and thought-provoking manner a good story does. The message I wanted to get across is that if you understand and respond to learning needs you can be a better teacher and remain a learner.
Talking about story telling
In one chapter of the book I use the analogy of the Hero’s journey, a narrative attributed to Joseph Campbell. In Campbell’s version the hero experiences a call to adventure, takes on challenges, experiences a transformation and returns enlightened to share what they have learnt. I saw a lot of similarities between learning and teaching and the Hero’s journey so I adapted it into a learning journey. Whilst I don’t consider myself a hero I have certainly faced a number of challenges in my teaching career and the knowledge and understanding I gained as a result feature in the book making it the true story of a learning journey.
Question: What is the format and how is it differnt to other texts?
Answer: Whilst in a recognisable chapter format a key element is the use of reflective exercises and encouragement the recording of your own learning journey.
A learning journal
One feature I was keen to include when writing the book was the concept of recording your own learning journey, best thought of in terms of a keeping a journal. I wanted my book to be your companion on your journey. This is important to me because if we reflect on our own experiences, challenges and strategies as well as observe others then we remain learners. We remain open to new ideas and new ways of doing things, not blindly but with an enquiring mind. A mindset that challenges as well as stimulates creativity. Throughout the book you will find reflective tasks, tasks designed to make you think, and you will be encouraged to record and share your thoughts and ideas.
The call to adventure
Having set the scene for my writing in the next instalment of this story I will describe my call to adventure and those who have helped me to develop my narrative.
Keeping up to date
The publication date for ‘If you can’t reach them you can’t teach them‘ is February 2021 (link below). You can follow the story of its conception by clicking the follow button located to the right of this column.
Th enext article exploring If you can’t reach them you can’t teach them is:
The Learning Relationship explained
Let’s start by explaining what a “learning relationship” is. This graphic is my way of showing how the responsibility for learning should, over time, pass from the teacher to the learner. The time period may be a single term, year, key stage, a course, or educational phase (primary/secondary). This is the form of relationship that will ultimately produce independent rather than dependent learners, learners able to manage their own learning rather than be dependent on others to manage it for them.
At the start the teacher has the primary responsibility and will have planned and resourced the course. Little is expected of the learner other than turning up and having some basic equipment appropriate to the course. For example the learner responsibility may consist of turning up with a pen and pencil or include a book, an apron, or PE kit or other personal specialist subject equipment. A positive disposition is always useful as is an element of motivation to learn. Where these do not exist then the teacher has an additional, but not insurmountable challenge.
Once the course has started and the teacher sets out their expectations it becomes increasingly the responsibility of the learner to engage in the learning, making an effort to take part, to work at understanding and applying knowledge. Think of this as being set a topic to learn or a book to review or completing classwork and homework. This does not absolve the teacher of responsibility, as the diagram shows there is still a significant requirement on the teacher and these may take the form of motivating, encouraging, coaching, or tailoring approaches and materials etc. There is never a point where the teacher is without some responsibility.
Planned responsibility changes
There comes a time in the learning relationship period when the teacher will temporarily take back some of the responsibility. This reclaiming some element of responsibility is primarily is a time of redirecting, initiating, review or assessment of (and for) learning. It is both a small percentage of what has already transferred and for a limited period of time only. There may be several of these occasions over the course but it important to recognise that each one is planned and forms part of the process. The teacher will prepare the learner for such occasions making sure that they understand the purpose and outcome of each one.
Lesson planning needs to account for this approach and I have written about how that can happen and what it looks like here: http://wp.me/p2LphS-a6 A more in depth lesson approach is in the form of mindful learning, again I have covered this topic in an earlier article. See here “An Introduction to Mindful Teaching”: http://wp.me/p2LphS-om and “Just what is Mindful Learning”: http://wp.me/p2LphS-u for ways to question and interact with learners that promotes learning responsibility both from a learner and teacher perspective. A great deal of my work on Learning Intelligence, or LQ, is based on finding ways to promote in learners the ability to manage their own learning environment to meet their learning needs. The idea of the learning responsibility ratio is part of that work.
So what can be so powerful as to distort this ideal model of teaching and learning?
Martin Robinson (www.martinrobinson.net) says in his article “Teachers, Cheating and Selling Achievement” [i]
“Different children every year are expected to perform better than children did the year before. This means that although every year the children change, the school is expected to improve, the children are not the reason for this improvement, the school is. This is not teacher centred or child centred education, it is school centred, and with statistical modelling it will be school eat school out there.”
How then does this impact on the teaching and learning responsibilities?
Consider for a moment the concept of responsibility and who is most likely to assume or feel responsible for examination or test results. I am not asking who is responsible but who is most likely to act in a way that shows responsibility. My experience is it is the teacher who immediately feels responsibility for their students achievement and rightly so. Few teachers lack any form of relationship with their learners and are inclined to feel an element of responsibility. There are however caveats to carrying this burden. If the teacher has done everything they can or could do and despite their best efforts the learner has failed to comply with instruction, complete work, or co-operate with the teacher then we would probably agree it is not the teacher’s fault. The outcome is not the teacher’s responsibility (fault).
In a high stakes environment that requires year on year improvement, that sets threshold levels or standards it is not acceptable to describe a lack of achievement as being down to the learner. Blame must be allocated. Blaming the learner[ii] will not wash with government and so it must be the school that is at fault. The school after all is both a responsible organisation and an identifiable target more so than any individual pupil. The stupidity of this is made clear if we take the following example.
A man is driving (the pupil) a perfectly good, safe, car (the school) and loses control and crashes.
Let’s consider who is responsible for the accident. Is it the car (the school) or the driver (the pupil) of the car who is responsible?
I think I would be safe in assuming most people would regard the driver to be at fault.
Distorting the Learning Responsibility line
The impact of blaming the school (and the school ultimately blaming the teacher) on the learning responsibility line is dramatic. It is no less dramatic on how learners can see themselves in terms of responsibility for the outcomes of their education. Let me give you a personal example of what I mean before showing you the revised learning responsibility line and explaining why it becomes so distorted.
I had a sixth form student join my class from a neighbouring school recognised as “outstanding”. He was struggling and appeared not to have a firm grasp of the basics despite having excellent GCSE grades. He was struggling and so I decided to ask why and see if I could not put things right. He listened attentively and politely said “You do it for me Sir. You know it will make you look good” Apart from being shocked by his answer, and his cheek, I began to wonder where this attitude had come from. What he had worked out was the distortional effects on the learning responsibility line brought about by the wrongful allocation of responsibility and accountability. He knew that because of his past track record of achievement any future “failure” could easily be accounted for by my teaching. It was I who was responsible for him succeeding. I was left wondering how long this particular student had known this! I did not “do it for him” and possibly that day he learnt his very first lesson. He never did finish the course!
Back to the distortion of the learning responsibility line of the Learning Responsibility Diagram. If the teacher takes back responsibility either by too large a degree or too frequently then the decent of the line is slowed and the transition becomes or assumes a “saw tooth” like profile rather than being gradually graded towards a transfer of responsibility.
The causes of the teacher resuming responsibility are always down to accountability. Teacher accountability arrives in a number of guises but always with the same drivers – assessment, inspection or observation. The higher the stakes the greater the number of occasions of imposed responsibility the teacher experiences. In such circumstances we also see a higher workload and greater levels of stress for the teacher. Teachers are for the most part compliant. They have their learner’s interest at heart and this makes them vulnerable to such pressures. Add in performance related pay, career impact of working in a “failing” school and you have the perfect storm conditions. If you make the consequences of “failing” high enough people, and teachers and schools are no exception, will do extraordinary things to make sure they don’t fail.
The outcome of the distorted learning line may not be seen in examination or performance results but it will be in the ability of the learner to manage their own learning to meet their learning needs. We will not have independent lifelong learners but we will have dependent learners who lack the responsibility for their own learning. We will have drivers that blame their cars for not preventing them from having accidents.
As for the teachers and the schools well we will probably have a teacher shortage and failing schools. There is no other possible long term outcome unless we change the focus of responsibility from the teacher to the learner. As Martin says “it will be school eats school out there” and this does nothing to promote learning or develop in the learner the skills, attitudes, attributes and behaviours that will enable them to manage their own learning – to be life long learners.
If you want to find out more about how the LQ approach can raise attainment and enable learners then please get in touch. I run workshops and I can address TeachMeets, run CPD events or the like.
Other related articles:
The return to school looks at how leadership influences learning relationships.
Part 4: The one and only learning theory that counts is … looks at how apportioning blame is the only outcome of one way of doing something. Blame follows after the tightening of procedures, monitoring and checking.
[ii] Once again I have explored the Blame Game in a series of articles called “The one and only learning theory that counts is…” You can find specific post concerning blame here: http://wp.me/p2LphS-r6