Learners and Teachers

Working late by Alan Cleaver

Writing about my reasons for learning Welsh recently, one I set aside was “to be a student” because I wanted a bit more space to pick it over. As teachers and educators I have no doubt that it’s necessary for us to be learning all of the time, in all sorts of ways. But I think there’s also value in being playing the rôle of student in a formal learning scenario to remember how that feels.

When I was teaching 22 hours of classes a week, I used to think “I wish I was a student again” because I thought the experience of being a teacher had showed me exactly how I could improve. All these 16 and 17 year olds were making elementary mistakes that I recognised, because I’d made them myself when I was 16 and 17. These kids put huge amounts of effort into justifying doing the minimum they could, or less, if they put the same kind of effort into learning I believed they could achieve a great deal. When I saw a way of taking a year to become a full time student, and study a masters, I seized it. I thought I could be a great student…

But when you’re in a formal learning situation, the rôle of student is very different to that of a learning what you need or what you can ‘just in time’. For me, although I was far better at being a student than I had been previously, I still managed to slip back in to all of the poor habits I’d recognised as sharing with my own students. The rules, targets, deadlines, assignments and learning environments (both physical and virtual) all seemed to produce a certain sort of behaviour in me. The truth is they still do – I haven’t done my gwaith cartref for tomorrow’s dosbarth yet and I don’t always completely memorise all the vocab, even though I know this puts barriers in the way of my understanding. These are a whole different set of pressures which can eclipse that sense of perspective I had on the learning process when I had several groups of twenty+ teenagers whose behaviour I could observe with far greater detachment than I could view my own.

For me, personally, there are a couple things that I keep feeling the need to come back to.

Firstly, there’s the overlap in the tools I use as both a student and a teacher. Inevitably there are some things that I will experience quite differently: when I sit a test or complete an exercise that has been set as a student I engage in activity that is fundamentally different to that of setting it. However, I’ve seen great work done engaging students in question design as a method for learning (Susan Wall’s work, for example, that was incorporating into the Improving Learning in Mathematics resources). This also applies to the tools we use for online collaboration and communication – the single biggest problem I have with the “Virtual Learning Environment” is that no one uses it outside of a formal education setting. Yet educational establishments are complex organisations with sophisticated needs in this regard. If teachers (and other staff) and students are collaborating and communicating using completely separate sets of tools, I cannot help suspecting there’s something fundamentally amiss. Finding and using appropriate tools is something to be learned and developed. It won’t be the same for everybody, but it certainly ought to be transferable.

Secondly, there’s the need to create the time and space to think. It’s obvious, and yet I’m still very bad at it. A few years ago another department was moved out of our shared staff room and, sadly for me, a colleague with a desk so messy it had piles of papers and books a foot high covering every inch of its surface. It was bad news for me because up to that point his desk ensured that mine wasn’t the messiest in the office. Of course, his desk being there didn’t change the fact there was no way I could sit and do useful work in that space! Doing the Welsh courses I’m on, I’ve tried both the blended (half face to face, half online) and the pure face to face flavours. I found I learned best doing the former when I set aside some time on Tuesday evening when I sat in the armchair in my study on at the same time on a Tuesday evening, with a beer and my iPad, and just gave the time over to chanting the Welsh phrases back at Anna in the video. Similarly, doing my masters, I had to create a space where I could sit and work with everything I needed right there to hand (reference books, internet, printer, pens…) I’m easily distracted, especially when it comes to reading or writing, but giving myself time and finding the right environment makes all the difference. That’s a personal thing, of course, but so it is with building an online environment. The combination of tools, content and workflows take time to discover and construct. Teachers cannot do that for learners, we can only share, suggest and support.

Ultimately, when I’m wrestling with a knotty topic I need to teach, remembering how I learned it may not entirely be a boon if I start assuming others will construct the knowledge in the same way. But to forget how complex, varied and difficult the business of being a student is… well, that would not be helpful. Bad habits are easy to slip back into, and good habits are hard to develop. If you doubt that, just come and have a look at whether my desk is tidy now…

Author: Simon Wood

Lecturer in medical education, lapsed mathematician, Doctor Who fan and garden railway builder. See simonwood.info for more...

8 thoughts on “Learners and Teachers”

  1. Thoughtful stuff a ever. As a TEFL teacher, teaching beginners, I always tried to make sure I was learning a language in a beginners class for the same reasons you outline. Hence I’m not very good at a number of languages 🙂

    Phil Race in on his blog argues in a similar vein that “All teaching staff in higher education would be required to be students” and “Everyone would be required to spend some time teaching students and assessing their work” http://phil-race.co.uk/if-i-were-in-charge/

    1. Thanks Chris. That’s a great post from Phil Race, I think he puts that point very succinctly (I agree with may of his other points, too, and I like the “if I were in charge” concept for a post!)

  2. I briefly tried a Welsh for Adults course, and fell into all of the traps you describe so beautifully!

    However I’ve been pretty successful at learning Welsh with a self-designed and self-motivated combination of simple online resources. (SSIW podcasts, Memrise, BliuBliu, later audiobooks / Radio Cymru). These fit in around the rest of life rather than taking up specific time for themselves.

    Massive implications for formal learning, but no bright ideas what to do about it!

    1. I haven’t come across all of those resources, some new ones for me to investigate there, many thanks! At the moment, I’m finding the new Welsh duolingo course a useful way to drill that vocab into myself…

      As to avoiding those traps, it’s certainly not easy! But as long as we remember that, we can avoid the most dangerous trap of all…

      1. Have you come across SSIW? An inspirational idea – effective e-learning can be so simple! (Brilliantly designed podcasts and a self-perpetuating support forum = 1000s of highly motivated learners worldwide.)


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