Education adviser Gavin Dykes (above, in Beijing) reflects using the 'Five Things I have Learned' format
1. I learned more by teaching than by learning
More than 20 years ago I turned my back on a civil engineering career to enter the world of education. Asked at the further education college interview how soon I thought I might be comfortable in teaching, I replied, “In 12 months, hopefully”. My mind was on the preparation of lectures to present to students, and that one full academic cycle would set me up nicely.
I had no idea that I was heading for the biggest sustained learning experience of my life.
I certainly didn’t predict I would come to understand what I had been taught and what I had experienced, through presenting it to others and responding to their questions. It seems to me, had I realised it, that I’d made an early discovery of a flipped classroom, with the Socratic method working rather well for me. Over time, I hope I learned to apply it better in the interests of my students.
2. Respect and appreciate your students
One half term, I was listening to a Radio 5 programme while driving home from a meeting. It was addressing issues in schools and was full of teachers ringing in to voice their opinions. The host asked each teacher, “What is it that drew you into teaching?” And as the programme progressed, a pattern formed. Nearly every primary school teacher talked of a love of children, while nearly every secondary teacher talked of a love of subject.
Not a scientific survey this, but the impression was strong and clear and has stayed with me. That impression helped me to reach a nicely developed prejudice that if we are to search for guidance in pedagogies then we should perhaps be looking most closely at teaching and learning in primary, and perhaps special needs education. And secondary schools, colleges and universities should be learning from those areas, rather than the other way around.
3. Value contributions
In any group of people, be it a class of students with their teacher, a group of friends or a team thrown together by circumstance, it is far too easy to presume whose ideas and voices should prevail. By prevail, I do not simply mean, those voices that should be heard, I mean whose ideas should be followed.
As a teacher in class, you may have wider experience than any one else present. Yet who is to say that experience is more relevant or more appropriate to a given situation. Whose ideas might be the best ones to follow and to test? Mike Gibbons, once lead director of the Innovation Unit, now executive of the Richard Rose Academy Trust used to talk of “amplifying the quiet voices of innovation”. In education and in work, I feel that this is an excellent principle to follow – it says something about ego and humility. That is, a little suppression of the leader’s ego (be they teacher, CEO, or minister), to allow the quieter, but often wise and innovative, voices to be heard.
Research suggests we are at our most creative when young, and that we have our greatest social conscience also when young. So to listen to some of those voices, and to strengthen their confidence would seem to me to be a no-brainer.
I recall teaching maths to a group of students who were struggling with the subject and two things helped bring the group to life. The first was to encourage the view that all the challenges of maths had not been resolved, and that a new way of doing things might be established by any one of the students (including the teacher) in the class. So we were not simply and continually rehearsing a computational method devised by some great (or not so great) mathematician, we were working things through for ourselves and discovering the best ways for each of us to tackle challenges, and where appropriate, sharing these with other students.
The second was to remove direct pressure on their learning, and have them thinking about helping someone in greater need. Some of the students’ best work was when they were challenged to develop a learning tool for the times tables. The idea was that they should develop these tools for a younger brother or sister who was having trouble with them. Of course each of the students needed to improve their own tables and the thinking they did to help their (sometimes imaginary) brother or sister helped to address that challenge.
4. Empathy, sincerity and humility make for success
I don’t really want to refer to banks, but they are easy examples of leadership not quite coming up to the mark in terms of empathy and humility. I do like management guru Jim Collins’s examples in his book “From Good to Great” about how the hero leader might just not do best for a company. He says that when the hero leader eventually leaves there is a risk of a void and subsequent failure. A more empathic, humble leader will have nurtured those immediately below, giving greater likelihood of success when leadership changes hands. Think Gandhi, Mandela, Mother Teresa….
I’d like to think that skills associated with empathy, sincerity and humility may be more powerful and make students more employable than many of the skills currently declared 21st Century. How good is communication without empathy and sincerity? How good can collaboration be without humility?
It seems to me that humility often runs counter to the current direction of education. We follow education to become expert. When expert, we are often less likely to listen to other viewpoints. I like the notion of developing a course in humility and have mentioned this in other papers. Entrants to the course might start as experts, and leave it as students. Peeling of layers of self-importance and learning to listen again.
I mention international, simply because that is the direction that much of my work has taken. When faced with big systems all over the world, it’s too easy to fall back on prejudices and sound bites. Recognising that I have a fully polished and functioning set of prejudices of my own, I just want to say how much I dislike it that sound bites and performance undermine real value. I’m throwing sticks here at anyone presenting, be they political, educational, conference speaker or teacher in class.
However, my point is that it is too easy to think that all Finnish schools must be wonderful, that South East Asian schools are all harsh and without fun and so on. Those views sometimes come from overstated sound bites, sometimes from a little bit of experience scaled. Either way it’s easy for them to stop us thinking clearly. I certainly believe I’ve had my prejudices challenged by the smiling and demonstrable enjoyment of a music class in Beijing, by the kindness and gentleness of a primary school head and the school children in Taiwan, by the innovation and dedication of teachers in Delhi.
It makes me think of a comment in Chris Patten’s biography where he suggested that we should not be demonising particular religions. We should be focusing our concern on fundamentalism in all religions. So what might be the fundamentalisms of education that we should be challenging, wherever they occur?
Gavin Dykes is an independent education adviser and consultant, and director of Cellcove Ltd
See also the Pearson Foundation series Five Things I've Learned