Let's lead from the front again

20th July 2001 at 01:00
Never mind child-centred education, it's the teacher who is vital to learning, says David Potter

He who is a teacher, let him teach, said St Paul, encouraging everyone to make full use of their talents. It is sad that so many of today's educational boffins seem unaware of this simple text.I can already hear the cries of those who will accuse me of being a good 40 years out of date when I bemoan the lack of good, straightforward talking to pupils. Heavens, even in the early Seventies, this sort of talk was thought blasphemous.

And this was before the buzz words "child-centred approach" and "group work". These were much used at promotion interviews and when talking to the head, but had their drawbacks. A "child-centred approach" is OK, but with 30 in a class the teacher will struggle to find the circumference of a circle with 30 different centres.

"Group work" will work excellently if the pupils are mature enough to handle it. The sad thing is that not all have enough interpersonal skills to benefit."A'm no sittin wi' him" and "He nicked ma rubber" or "He stuck his pencil in my bum" are often the cries of the "group work" approach. The theory is fine. Pupils help each other - the bright ones will act as role models and problem-solvers for the others.

Meanwhile, the teacher will wander around the classroom, smilingly offering advice to those who may just be experiencing a few difficulties.

Then there are worksheets. The problem here is, as with all bits of paper in the grubby hands of children, they very quickly become tattered. If different classes use them, one will frequently encounter references to a football team or the head's alleged sexual preferences.

It is remarkable what an accurate knowledge some pupils have of staffroom liaisons. I once got my first inkling of one from such a source.

Videos and visual aids are also great in theory. Children watch nothing but videos these days, however, and often expect something different from what they actually get.

Which brings us back to the teacher. The teacher is there to teach. Heshe should therefore aim to impart knowledge of the subject in the first instance. Developing the "skills" of personal opinion and so on can wait, although one can go over the top on this point.

A wise teacher will "diversify their methodology" (as they might say in a job interview) and pupils thrive from a varied approach. But the cornerstone of education must be that the teacher is the vital person. So vital that the Government is wanting another 4,000 of us. Unashamedly, then, we should aim for pupils sitting in rows with everyone facing the teacher for at least part of the lesson.

"Chalk and talk", that once despised method of teaching, should return. After all, we have had "flavour of the month" educational dogma holding sway for long enough.

When addressing a class, we are doing only one thing. We are in control, we always have the escape valve of "Right, jotters out". What is written there will be infinitely better from having listened to the teacher first - it is when we start off by allowing pupils to do their own thing that we forfeit control, structure and direction. And let no one say that pupils are fed up with being talked to. Quite the opposite. So many of them come from homes where the TV is the dictator and the only "chatting" is done via very suspect Internet sites.

Lessons should be taught with firmness, direction and not a little humour. Relationships are thus built up. Those of us of maturer years will still be able to remember with some clarity at least some of the things that teachers said to us many years ago.

I remember learning about hyperboles thus: ". . . and I've told you that a million times," our teacher said, and the smarter ones piped up,"Hey, that's a hyperbole!" How many pupils will, in 40 years' time, recall what a particular worksheet looked like?

David Potter is a teacher in Classics and Spanish at Glenrothes High.

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