Take students out of their comfort zone

1st August 2008 at 01:00

If Henry Kissinger was right when he pronounced that "the task of the leader is to get his people from where they are to where they have not been", then every teacher is a leader. Surely this is exactly what happens within every classroom or workshop when a teacher inspires learners? It also indicates how difficult it is to be a teacher. Often pupils do not want to go where they have not been. On the contrary, they are happy and comfortable where they are.

It is easier not to venture into unknown territory. They might have to scythe their way through jungle vines or wade through raging rivers. It may be far easier to stay within the city walls.

Teacher leadership is a novel concept in many further education colleges. It shifts control from senior management and places it where it should be: firmly in the hands of the educators.

Put simply, teacher leadership invests teachers with professional authority. It enables them to research into teaching and learning by finding ways of challenging students and improving attainment.

The essence of such investigation is the risk-free ethos. Released from the constraints of external pressures, tutors learn as much, if not more, from what does not work as from what does.

But research traditionally belongs to the scholarly world of higher education. Research is a noble beast; HE is its natural habitat. And HE is separated geographically, ideologically and philosophically from FE. The problem is that FE is cash-poor, time-starved and has an image problem. It is seen as tower block rather than ivory tower.

That is why the Spotlight on Learning Conference, held here last week at Yale College in Wrexham - the culmination of a two-year learning-to-learn project - was such a triumph. Its real accomplishment was not the research findings themselves, exciting though they were, but the fact that research happened at all in a Welsh FE college affected by serious underfunding.

It says much about the dedication and commitment of the staff that across 15 vocational and academic areas, students were profiled using the Herrmann Brain Dominance Instrument (HBDI), their high and low-thinking preferences identified and discussed, and teaching interventions selected which were designed to address students' learning challenges.

Effective learning for all is driven by such research. Educational Utopia will be discovered not by bureaucrats but by teacher pioneers navigating their way through oceans of learning theories to discover what really makes a difference.

The inspirational Ann Herrmann-Nehdi, speaking with passion about the latest insights into the human brain and what those insights mean for the learner, provided a way forward for the Spotlight tutors. By delving deep into the thinking skills of students, they had already taken giant strides along the route that leads to identifying what makes a difference.

Statistical analysis has come up with some results: boys' thinking preferences tend to be different from the girls, especially in mathematical and communication skills.

It seems that in some subjects, students have wider variations in thinking skills. This means that it is arguably more difficult to teach some subjects than others.

Early drop-out or poor achievement could well be related to students having a different thinking profile from their subject peers, or indeed from their tutor.

Advances in learning will happen if teachers are trusted to lead from the front. It is teachers who can, and ultimately will, transform lives.

Carolyn May is professional development manager at Yale College in Wrexham.

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