A new type of learning, a new kind of teacher

by Peter Hyman. 

If we are to prepare children to succeed in the 21st century, then teaching and learning has to change dramatically.  That is the conclusion we have come to while planning to set up School 21, a new 4 to 18 school in Stratford, East London.

If we want children to leave school at 18 ready for anything thrown at them then we need to cultivate (adapting Howard Gardner) what might be called 5 minds for success: a disciplined mind, a reflective mind, a respectful mind, a creative mind and a communicating mind.

To do this effectively we need teachers who can do more than impart subject knowledge, important though that is. It is time to move beyond the stale debate about whether teachers should be a “sage on the stage” or a “guide on the side”. The truth is we should be both, and much more besides. In this respect there is a lot that secondary schools can learn from the best primaries.

Teachers in the 21st century will need to be able to deliver: mastery lessons that personalise learning so students can address specific  weaknesses in, for example, grammar or a language; Harkness tables where 12 students can sit round an oval table debating issues to a high level and thinking deeply; project-based learning where for up to half a day students are developing rich projects that culminate in an extraordinary product – an exhibition, presentation, performance; one to one coaching where a student works through their own learning dashboard; advisory groups of 15 where students share their learning experiences and goals and work out how to do better.

This is what we are attempting at School 21. If we get it right then students will be far more likely to become problem-solvers, critical thinkers, team players, risk takers and creative citizens.

We are recruiting new teachers to School 21 at the moment, and offering them the chance to have a far richer and more stimulating timetable. For the teachers I have spoken to this is the kind of revolution they are desperate for. Instead of what amounts too often to the drudgery of 1 hour lessons, 30 in a class, the same behaviour management issues, we plan a variety of lessons – different sizes of class, different settings, different goals – teachers able to teach the whole child, to use a range of coaching, mentoring, facilitating, subject skills in rich and varied ways.

All these different ways of teaching will need a high level of pedagogical expertise if they are to prove effective. We need to do more to support action research, reflective practice, and deep knowledge and expertise in learning and teaching. That is why, for example, at School 21 we will give every teacher a generous bursary to pursue their own professional development. All teachers will need proper training in coaching techniques, questioning techniques, child development, differentiation, language acquisition.

If this is what we ask from teachers then teacher training needs to change. I fear that teaching schools might end up merely replicating old models of teaching: a teacher attached to a single department, trained to do no more than teach curriculum content. We need a teacher training process that supports a new and more varied role for teachers so they are equipped to teach in a range of settings. In other words we need a diverse supply of teacher training providers, all with the remit to innovate, all with the opportunity to train teachers to become innovative practitioners.

The more we have thought about this new role for teachers, the more we have realised that some of the old senior leadership team structures are outdated. If we want classroom practice and teaching and learning to drive a school then the school hierarchy needs to be flatter, less top down with leading teachers involved in every aspect of running the school.

Teaching is the best job in the world. But too often it grinds people down. To make it the stimulating, exciting and truly rewarding job it should be, we need to give teachers the chance to help all children take control of their lives and prepare themselves for a world of infinite possibilities.

Peter Hyman is Headteacher of School 21 and gave the NET Annual Lecture on March 14th 2012.

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