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What is the real price of ‘control’ ? How one school is starting to do things differently

I was working only last week with a school that provides education for secondary aged children with social, emotional and behavioural needs, on full and part time placements. Additionally it offers support for primary aged pupils on a similar basis. We had already completed 2 days of BLP training together in November, and I had set the 12 teachers I had been working with the challenge of undertaking a learning enquiry.

Typically such an enquiry is conducted in an area of interest for the individual teacher, and might be along the lines of ‘If I assign roles to individuals before starting group work, will their inclination to engage purposefully with each other improve?’ or ‘If I stop repeating myself, will their listening skills improve?’ etc. Notice that the teacher makes a conscious decision to change one of their existing teaching behaviours and monitors the impact that this has on their students.

The day last week began with all 12 feeding back on their enquiries and the impact on their students. The feedback was fascinating in that all teachers had devised, quite independently, an enquiry that required students to take a greater responsibility for themselves as learners.

A science teacher described one of the enquiries thus:

“I have got my kids to do the experiment where they make salt from rock salt for years. Thus far I would tell them all they need to know to be successful, demonstrate the experiment to the whole class, and then ask them to repeat the experiment exactly as I had done it. It gave me control, took care of safety issues, and was as boring as it can get! Why, if you have just seen someone else do the experiment, would anyone be motivated to repeat it for themselves?

I explored my rationale for teaching in this way, and realised that, control aside, I believed that it enabled me to ‘deliver the course’, to ‘make sure’ they all had the revision notes they need, and to ‘convince myself’ that I had taught it well so that they simply must have learned it well. On reflection, this strategy was failing on all counts. Either I would have to re-double my efforts and ‘teach’ even more/better, or maybe there was another way . . . .

With trepidation, I went in with a lump of rock salt and a bowl of salt, and set them the challenge ‘I want you to find out how to make this (salt) from that (rock salt)’. I then sat down, refused to answer any further questions or offer guidance – and it was agony for someone so used to being the font of information in the classroom!

(I admit to making a couple of interventions relating to the safe use of Bunsen burners, but that aside I just let them get on with it.)

What a revelation! They all devised ways to make salt; they discovered the science behind it; they needed minimal external control; and I got a bit of a rest.

The students reported increased enjoyment levels, I reported reduced stress levels, and tests revealed a deeper scientific understanding than was previously the case.

My kids are challenging and frequently disruptive, so much so that mainstream schooling cannot handle them. How amazing that I gained more control and they achieved deeper learning when I stopped teaching for control and started letting them learn.

I realised that these kids need challenge and engagement, not control and instruction. I was afraid this change of approach would slow content learning down, but I was wrong. The learning was deeper and faster because they had done it for themselves, rather than observed it through the eyes of a science teacher. My kids were being scientists, not learning science.”

The room erupted with similar stories of potentially difficult students rising to challenge and ‘doing it for themselves’. One teacher commented “We never really believed our students could do this, but we were wrong!”

When asked what the common threads were through all of their enquiries, one teacher simply said “student power – give them responsibility and they will rise to it”.

A cynic (for there always is one in any group) observed wryly that “If we carry on empowering them like this, we will never be able to reintegrate them into mainstream schooling!!”

What a privilege to work alongside teachers such as these. I may just have the best job in the world!

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