SOME English teachers graduate with a licence to be quirky – it’s etched in gold on their academic transcripts.
Some are granted an additional certification – a licence to take risks in the name of student engagement – and these outlaws are in a league of their own. Take a stroll down the corridor and you can see them cartwheeling into classrooms, hip hop dancing, meditating with students and proposing moral dilemmas that mess with their minds.
I call this approach to teaching and learning The Pedagogy of Merriment (TPM) – and I’m writing to remind you that it’s your weapon of mass awesomeness.
As an early career teacher, I quickly discovered that students seldom see you as you wish. To students, teachers are not people – it’s shocking for them to see you strolling about local supermarket or having the temerity to order fish and chips. Teachers are symbols. They are symbols of authority, a subject, schooling, the adult world, convention or discipline.
I used to see this as a problem and something to react to. But, more recently, I have learnt to embrace the symbol bestowed on me by students for the sake of their learning. And it seems to work.
As an English teacher, then, I am a symbol of words, creativity, imagination, reading, drama, inspiration and, occasionally, pedantry. On a good day, I am peripatetic poet, melodramatist, introspective writer, human rights lawyer, politician, philosopher, counsellor, devil’s advocate and dad joke specialist par excellence.
I must say that I did not arrive at this place overnight. My inspiration came from observing, recalling and hearing about those teachers that students loved learning from.
I’ve heard of teachers standing on their heads, playing sport to illustrate concepts, digging tunnels to explore war poetry, juggling, acting, telling jokes, singing, organising amazing excursions, playing musical instruments, imitating celebrities, putting on accents and playing hide and seek.
You’d be forgiven for wondering how they keep their jobs. But let me assure you, TPM isn’t about a lack of professionalism. On the contrary, TPM is about living your craft.
Perhaps it is not surprising that this craft is enshrined in the Australian Institute of Teaching and School Leadership Professional Standards (AITSL), especially standards one and three.
Standard One – “Know students and how they learn” – exhorts teachers to “evaluate and revise school learning and teaching programs, using expert and community knowledge and experience, to meet the needs of [diverse] students”. You cannot meet the needs of diverse students if you only present the skills and knowledge of your discipline in a way that appeals to you or your colleagues.
This is not an invitation to speak like a teen gangsta, though that can be funny, but an invitation to create, figuratively speaking, a third space, a field of learning based on engagement, where students are happy to meet and learn.
Similarly, Standard 3.3 stipulates that teachers “Work with colleagues to review, modify and expand their repertoire of teaching strategies to enable students to use knowledge, skills, problem solving and critical and creative thinking”.
What we are talking about here is the need to take a deep breath as practitioners and think out loud about the teaching practices that create optimal conditions for student learning. To do this, we need to take stock, look at the teaching of other effective colleagues, recall our best lessons and brainstorm their ingredients. I’m sure we’ll find personal passion, creativity and student engagement high on the list of desired ingredients.
TPM is not a new paradigm of learning but, for the purposes of this discussion, it can be situated in the work of the social constructivists Lev Vygotsky and Jerome Bruner, who stressed that learning is a social process and a more engaging social process makes for a better learning context.
For Bruner and Vygotsky, the teacher’s role was not to hector students into learning but to set up and expertly manage supportive learning contexts that saw students continuously supported to transition from beginners to experts in a field of knowledge. In my experience, when TPM is married to social constructivist’s methods of learning, students are fully engaged in learning.
So how might this look in an everyday classroom?
To do TPM with social constructivism, I suggest teachers break up learning into nine phases: engage, connect, pair/share, articulate, extend, dramatise, construct, apply and review. These phases are based on the Learning and Teaching Cycle outlined by Jane Hammond and Kristina Love in their excellent respective works, Scaffolding Teaching and Learning in Language and Literacy Education (2001) and Building Understandings in Literacy and Teaching (2005).
The first phase, engage, is about grabbing student attention and refocusing student concentration. To do this well, deliberately begin every class with an activity that is highly engaging and connected to the curriculum. Tell a story, act something out, do a quick brainstorm, show a short video.
Connect this activity with your curriculum focus and initiate a pair-share activity or discussion around the specific topic. Ensure each student verbalises their thoughts actively in this phase. Travel around the classroom and intervene to make this happen.
Once students articulate their thoughts, summarise these verbalisations on a visible surface to capture and retain that learning. Follow this up with a whole class discussion, expertly mining this for additional relevant content that students summarise.
In that whole class discussion, provide feedback to students by provoking and extending their thinking. When an opportunity arises to expertly explain a concept, dramatise that concept so your antics make Facebook and therefore remain memorable and memorised.
Provide students with an opportunity to apply the demonstrated concept or knowledge in a new way and where possible, have students demonstrate that knowledge in an accountable context to the class, in the style of say a short presentation, a quick video, points on a discussion board and so on.
To end the learning process, use pair/share discussion and reflect on the new knowledge gained and its personal or subject relevance.
I am writing this article because I believe that a sense of merriment has been lost in the teaching profession and that that merriment has been critical to effective learning and teaching. This loss appears to be collocated with an increasingly crowded curriculum and a growing focus on assessment, administration and accountability measures.
Experienced colleagues, over a quick cup of International Roast coffee, often remark that it was better in the old days when they had the freedom to… [Insert own content]. It strikes me that the many of those things that are replacing the old days – preparation for standardised testing, study skills, email correspondence, mandatory ICTS, and so on, are not making teachers or students more effective and that both are getting demoralised by the increasingly formulaic nature of schooling.
As a profession, we seem to be mistaking the tools of modern learning for learning itself. We must remember that a lesson of total engagement can occur just as effectively with engaging tasks, a skilful conversationalist and purpose built relationships.
So, it’s clear: we need to do something different to keep the profession meaningful, effective and sustainable. As a sure step in that direction, let’s begin by bringing back the merriment.
(This article is in tribute to a departing colleague and exemplar – Ms Lucy Brookes-Kenworthy).
Daniel Groenewald works as a senior English and literature teacher at Methodist Ladies’ College, Perth, and educational consultant.