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Cool on the stool, or bore on the floor?

How do you think of yourself as a teacher? Sage on the stage? Guide on the side? Cool on the stool? This question occurred to me recently as I listened to postgraduate secondary students reflecting on their experience of school placements.

They gave a mixed account, describing some excellent examples of teaching they had observed, outlining some practices they would not wish to emulate and offering frank appraisals of their own successes and failures in the classroom.

The particular focus of the session was how to challenge pupils to engage in "higher order" thinking, both to capture their interest and to encourage them to achieve more than perhaps they thought they were capable of.

Several students cited instances where the enthusiasm and skill of teachers ensured that pupils responded by going beyond simple recall or routine tasks to demonstrate deeper understanding of the topic. Where the work was organised as problems to be solved rather than simply material to be covered, the chances of a qualitative improvement in thinking were increased.

Asking probing questions was seen as critical. Rather than simply seeking the "right" answer, exploring the reasons for particular responses was regarded as important. "How did you come to that conclusion?" "Why did you do it in that way?" Giving pupils real (as distinct from token) opportunities to ask questions of the teachers was also mentioned with approval. In one school, a teacher had built in sessions of pupil questioning to her lessons.

Instead of being embarrassed and tongue-tied, the pupils had learnt to see the sessions as a good opportunity to clear up confusions and misunderstandings.

On the negative side, some students reported cases where opportunities to develop higher order thinking were missed. One expressed concern about the amount of straightforward copying of text (from the board, from books, from the internet). Another said that he had worked in a well-organised department - of a kind that would have met with approval from the inspectorate - but everything was done in a mechanical fashion.

Worksheets were all kept tidily on a CD-Rom and issued according to a carefully planned schedule. But both the teaching approach and the pupil responses were formulaic and dull.

These examples led to the observation that the desire to ensure classroom control sometimes seems to take precedence over the promotion of thinking skills. If pupils are copying text or answering questions on a worksheet, then the possibility of disruption is certainly reduced.

Hard-pressed teachers would rightly point out that, for any worthwhile learning to occur, there has to be a framework of order.

But classroom control should not be an end in itself. Once established, it should provide the basis for more creative teaching of a kind that pushes youngsters to think hard, gives them the opportunity to make choices (and learn from their mistakes), and perhaps even begins to create a new sense of what it means to be a teacher.

When this happens, the limits of pre-planning become apparent. Some of the most exciting and rewarding moments in teaching occur when a pupil says something unexpected, or asks a question that takes the lesson in an unanticipated direction. The lesson comes alive - for the teacher as well as the pupils.

In such moments it is not only pupil thinking that is challenged. The teacher too has to draw on all the resources of knowledge, training and experience to respond in a way that exploits the full potential of the situation. If we rise to the challenge, we may even manage to avoid that most wounding of teacher appellations - bore on the floor.

Walter Humes is professor of education and head of educational studies at Strathclyde University.

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