“In a globalised world and with the rapid expansion of information technology, schools across the globe need to ensure that they are developing the right skills in students that will equip them to be happy and fulfilled, but also ready for a competitive international environment fraught with challenges and uncertainty.
Business as usual in the classroom will not lead to the adaptability, innovation, resilience, critical thinking (especially discernment and information analysis) and creativity that researchers, philosophers and organisations are showing us are more and more needed in an interconnected world.
While many argue that it is the entire schooling system that is at fault or that we need to re-design curriculum, I believe that the real question is not in the structure or the content of education (although these factors are still important) but in the teaching and learning.
What is the role of the teacher as leader in this complex international environment?
If we look back, the expression of leadership reminds us of the Chinese Philosopher Lao Tzu’s belief that a good leader is someone who does not take centre stage. As such the teacher is not a “sage on the stage” but a “facilitator”, someone who stands in the wings and gives the student as much freedom as possible.
In pedagogy this model is still very popular with Discovery Learning programmes across the United States, world-wide web-based learning projects that allow the student to take full ownership of the learning process and many inquiry-based Primary School educational programmes. The word “facilitator” is used more and more and the word “teacher” less and less.
The word “facilitator” is used more and more and the word “teacher” less and less
Whilst educational philosophy might correspond with our beliefs and tastes, it is not scientifically researched and does not necessarily benefit from any hard evidence to back it up. Does the research in education tell us that the best model of learning is one where the teacher is a facilitator and the student is at the centre?
Arguably the most comprehensive study of pedagogical practice in schools is John Hattie’s 2009 publication Visible Learning: A Synthesis of Over 800 Meta-Analyses Relating to Achievement. Hattie’s work synthesises thousands of studies and looks at effect size (a calculation of the benefits using statistical data) of a large palette of strategies for learning.
The findings are not always what one would expect and make us step back and re-think the way we do things. The greatest effect sizes, indicating the greatest change after the use of a chosen strategy, do not come with the student at the centre and the teacher facilitating on the side, but on the contrary with what Hattie calls “active” teaching: the teacher drives the learning, makes learning objectives very clear and uses punchy techniques such as remediation (catch-up), mastery learning (the idea that a student should not move on to new material until the previous parts have been mastered), direct instruction (explicit sign-posting of learning objectives) and setting the students challenging goals.
So the research is telling us that the teacher as leader needs to be in control of the class and showing the way with a challenging, carefully structured pace, not letting students fall behind as they try to figure it out for themselves.
“We need to provide them with a reliable compass to navigate the storms”
Hattie’s synthesis shows that quality feedback is the single greatest creator of improvement. The teacher needs to sit down with the student and explain exactly what needs to be done in order to improve. It seems obvious but how often is the teacher so hard pressed to get through a pile of marking or finish a syllabus that this vital coaching technique falls by the way-side? If we want our students to improve then we have to make sure they have understood and internalised how this can be done.
Our students are entering a turbulent, chaotic era in a competitive globalised world and we need to provide them with a reliable compass to navigate the storms. As teachers, let’s use the benefits of research to make sure that we have empowered them to do so by teaching for learning and not being afraid to lead the way. After all, the Greek word Pedagogy means “to lead the child”.
Dr Conrad Hughes is Director of Education at the International School of Geneva and recently delivered a speech on the ‘Teacher as a leader’ at the annual Cambridge Teachers Conference, run by Cambridge International Examinations.