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Challenge your mind and keep on growing

During the Christmas holidays, I chaired the Oxford Conference in Education, a biennial event that dates back to the 1930s. It is virtually unique among educational conferences in aiming to raise teachers' awareness of wider issues rather than directly addressing professional concerns.

Instead of sessions on learning strategies and examination reforms, we were encouraged to think about the nature of virtue, the role of myth and the effects on our minds of different types of music. The rationale is that good teachers are those who remain intellectually curious, enthusiastic about their subjects, and alert to wider philosophical, cultural, social and political issues.

Many years ago, editing a history teachers' journal north of the border, I urged readers to throw away the directives and consultative documents from the Scottish education department and spend the time this would free up reading some good history. It was a youthful irresponsibility I have never dared to repeat. But the idea was not unsound: it may not be a sufficient condition of being a good teacher to be a well-educated person, but it is a necessary one.

We spend huge sums of money on in-service education. We might well redirect some of it to feeding teachers' minds instead of just refining their professionalism. The Prince of Wales's Summer Schools, with their focus on the nature of subject disciplines, are a move in this direction. One of the most successful science in-service schemes in France and French-speaking Switzerland, in which my school is taking part, involves direct links between university scientists and classroom teachers.

A recent staff development day at my school started me thinking further about the qualities that are essential in a good teacher and how best to encourage them.

Much of the day was focused on the effects of the information technology revolution on children's learning. This was interesting, but I doubted whether it would have the same reinvigorating impact as the broader talks we had had at the Oxford conference. In-service provision needed to foster a sense of that extraordinary range of qualities and attitudes required for effective teaching and then help teachers to analyse their own professional lives and see how they might develop these further.

One of the best routes to self-reflection about one's practice as an educator is to be attentive to one's experiences as a learner. During both the Oxford conference and my school's staff development day, I found myself wondering why certain concepts were easy to grasp and others more difficult, why at some points I was totally absorbed, and why at others my concentration faltered.

But this was as nothing compared with my most important recent experiences of being a learner: trying to get my French to an acceptable level as head of a bilingual school and trying to acquire, at an advanced age and as a total beginner, the vital Swiss skill of skiing. Both processes have been much slower than I had imagined. What both have taught me is the importance of pacing, consolidation and repetition, the sensitivity of the balance between encouragement and admonition, and the range of feelings and attitudes - elation, fear, confusion, boredom, obstinacy, determination, over-confidence, laziness, low self-esteem - that shape a learner's success or failure.

Learning to ski with a French-speaking instructor has given me more empathy with slow learners than a thousand in-service sessions. One whole day was wasted because I interpreted the word for one part of the body as referring to another and so was putting the pressure in all the wrong places. Another day, every time I ended up spread-eagled on the piste, I was made, before being helped up, to analyse why I had fallen and what I should do to avoid it happening again. My instructor Georges's motto, repeated with depressing frequency, Tomber c'est faire du progr s (Falling is making progress), should enter every teacher's vocabulary.

My two recipes for effective professional development go hand-in-hand: challenge your own mind in ways that go beyond narrow professionalism, and, in doing so, reflect on your own experiences as a learner. As Georges keeps on telling me: Tu sais que tu peux le faire (You know you can do it).

Nicholas Tate is director-general of the International School of Geneva

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