Teaching is all about the moment where the penny drops

When students really 'get' something, they start to see things differently, writes David Murray

David Murray

From the moment the penny drops, students see things differently, says this teacher

I’m a sucker for those videos of people having hearing aids switched on so they hear for the very first time. Or the colourblind people given those glasses that help them see the full range of the rainbow. I can’t get enough of the awe that is provoked, the overwhelming new awareness of a world they couldn’t access but which was waiting for them all along. I just love them. 

I think what I like about them is they invite me to also experience the world in a new way. I have grown used to seeing the full range of colours and so when I see someone in awe of a lawn or a tree or a red balloon, it makes me consider them afresh. Or when someone can hear their child’s or parent’s voice for the first time, it makes me appreciate the sounds that assail me every day. I am invited to experience the mundane with a new element of awe or appreciation.  

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I experience the same thing when I teach and a student experiences that lightbulb moment of realisation, the flash of sudden insight, the coming together of threads, the success of finally understanding. I am a naturally curious person, with a magpie mind. So I am always hungry to learn myself. So I am aware that I am on a learning journey too. A few years ago, the term "flightpath" started to be bandied about in relation to learning. I get the idea, of learning and progressing and taking off, but I just never liked it. It too closely resembled the uptick of a graph. The kind of graph that we are supposed to be able to show for every student. 

Learning is not a linear process 

But I don’t think learning is like that. The person with the new colourblind-countering glasses doesn’t always keep them on from that day forth. I am sure they wear them a few times, then put them away. Maybe they come out now and again, as a reminder of what the world looks like to others. Or the person with the new hearing aid is sometimes visibly traumatised by the sudden aural onslaught. I am sure they, too, must sometimes turn them off and return to the old world they knew.  

Learning is the same. It happens in stops and starts. It is not a smooth process. I don’t know if you have ever watched rain running downhill on a road. It isn’t a single smooth flow. Rather it comes in waves as the friction builds up to slow the flow down but the increasing mass overwhelms that resistance and it goes, then it happens again. So the rain runs downhill in waves. Humans are the same. We all have good days and we all have bad says. The important thing is to be going in the right general direction and be ready when the lightning strikes.  

Last year, I was teaching the novel The Great Gatsby. It’s a classic case of a potentially unreliable narrator. I used that phrase from the start. Students wrote it down. I checked they understood the phrase. They did. And then several months later a student chirped up, “So, hang on. We don’t know if Nick is telling the whole truth? He might be biased? But that means… And that means… Oh my days. That changes everything.” The penny dropped. Months after my formative testing had already shown some grasp of the concept.  

When the new understanding starts to be applied, you know they’ve got it; they start to see things differently. I once had to explain textual allusions to the Garden of Eden and the phallic symbolism of the snake a writer was using. After that, every time there was anything even mildly suggestive, one student would mutter excitedly from the back of the room, “Ooh, the snake is in the garden…” I knew she’d got it. Sometimes students seem to understand, but cannot apply that knowledge, other times it’s a lightbulb moment which changes everything.  

I think that’s why I never liked the old analogies with flightpaths. That analogy assumes a steady growth and leaving something behind. But for my students, learning is about seeing something anew. It might be seeing something old in a new way. It might be looking around with a new eye. Sometimes there’s a penny-drop moment. Once you understand that atoms are mostly empty space, the world around you is a little bit changed. Once you realise that you never really touch anything but are in a constant electron push-pull every object, you wonder a bit harder about touch. Once you know that the golden mean is everywhere or the Fibonacci sequence predicts petals’ patterns, you start to look a second time. You don’t leave anything behind, you acquire. You gain. You are more. You start to see and hear anew. And that is what I work for.  

David Murray is an English teacher at City of Stoke-on-Trent Sixth Form College


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