Just another lesson………the deeper truth about learning objectives.

High order design skills in evidence with a year 8 pupil working on a project.

High order design skills in evidence with a year 8 pupil working on a project.

It wasn’t a formal lesson observation, the kind where you agree what you will be looking at, look at it and then talk about what you looked at.  It was just one of those countless situations where I needed to be in a colleagues room using a piece of equipment while they got on with the lesson they were teaching.  The first intimation that I was looking at something good was that I felt as though I should be walking on tiptoe as I crossed the room, it was so quiet.  Now you need to know that the teacher is not one for silent working particularly, the group has not misbehaved and had a good telling off, it was not a silent reading lesson.  What it was was a whole class of year 8 pupils all busy working away at the task they had been set.  None of them needed or wanted to ask for help, noen of them was doing the ‘ learned dependence’  thing of asking what they had to do as soon as the teacher had stopped explaining, none of them was off task by an iota; they were all fully engaged.

I remember the first time that happened for me as a trainee teacher.  I had been assigned to a difficult school that will remain nameless; suffice it to say that my tutor, on hearing about my placement had explained, “That’s bloody!”  Always the sort of cheery remark that you want to hear before you embark on a make or break experience.  Well it wasn’t as bad as he made out and one particular memory stays fresh in my mind to this day.   It was an old fashioned curriculum and an old fashioned methodology but after I had shown the class what I wanted them to do they all went away and did it.   If you have never taught you might find that an unremarkable event, if you have worked in schools you might see it differently.  Every single member of the class was doing exactly what I had taught them and doing it perfectly, I was, for a few moments redundant; I couldn’t even find someone to help or an aspect of technique to correct.  It was a breathtaking feeling, I could do it!

Back to today.  As I watched the lesson unfold I saw a teacher not only fully in command of their subject but also fully in command of their craft.  From time to time she would gather the pupils around the interactive white board and tease out from them some point that they all needed to know or show them some aspect of technique that they were ready for then she would give them a task and a time and off the would go.  The teacher moved around the room intervening where necessary but significantly it was often hard to spot where she was, typically she sat with a pupil and they shared the task quietly before she moved away to walk the room and look for points of praise or assistance.  It was a joy to see it.

Two things emerged from this experience, (apart from the feeling that I still had a lot to learn).  I have often thought and frequently told my classes that the human brain is designed or evolved, take your pick on that one, to learn.  The importance of this statement is that learning is an intrinsically rewarding experience, we all enjoy it though that doesn’t mean that we all enjoy it at school.  I have written before about the shallowness of the standard teacher response to the question, “Why do we have to learn this?”  Be honest, when you were at school did you ever think to yourself, “Gosh, I really must apply myself to differential equations so that I can get my maths exam which will lead me to a higher qualification, a better job and a happier life”?   What I witnessed today was a group of children who were all learning. all making great progress and all taking pride in what they were able to do.  By the by, the work they were producing was of a very high quality, reward in itself.   The great beauty of the experience was that the teacher had the time to intervene whenever and wherever it was required or productive without having to rush around frantically trying to cope with the demands of the class.  Independent learning is a buzz word but it was a reality in this class.

The second thing that struck me was that these children were learning an enormous range of things.  Many teachers struggle with this idea, they want to see the lesson as an episode where children do something but find it hard to express what they have learnt by doing it.  It would be plausible to say that the lesson objective was to learn how to use a specific piece of software.  Plausible but inadequate.  To be honest learning the software was just the tip of the iceberg.  Of course there were technical issues, questions and teaching but the meat of the learning was the high quality design practice that was going on; analysing and evaluating a design decision, refining and developing an idea, responding to the need and purpose of the design task, collaboratively evaluating and critiquing peer work, developing flexibility and tenacity with tasks.  And we have trouble writing a learning objective?

Of course we take pride in the physical evidence of excellence in learning in Design Technology, we do after all deal with the interface between the physical and cognitive worlds.  What we sometimes lose sight of is that the process and the learning experience that we have guided our children through are life changing, life shaping at their best.  The famous OXFAM strap line, “Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day.  Teach him to fish and you feed him for life” contains an element of that truth.  Teaching Design Technology is not just about the designs and the products, it is about the meta cognitive skills that last a life time and change life chances.

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