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Teaching as a way of learning

Planted April 09, 2021

It’s easy to remember my first week of teacher training. I’d just moved country, I didn’t know anyone, it was raining heavily and I was wondering if I’d made a mistake. There were about 30 people in my cohort - all different in age, race and backgrounds - but all here to train to be secondary mathematics teachers. For our first exercise, we were put into groups and we had to teach each other.

Well, we were here to train to be teachers, so that’s not surprising! I can’t remember if we all had to teach the same thing but I remember I had to teach adding fractions to my group of 5 or so. My fellow students had to role-play a bit and ask questions as well-behaved 12 or 13 year olds.

A blackboard with one quarter filled in.

I was fresh out of a Maths degree and had been playing with fractions for about 15 years by then (there was another 13 years of teaching them to come). The struggle to explain concepts that were so obvious to me was real. I stumbled over concepts that I knew, my examples confused rather than helped and I had to dig deep to come up with alternative explanations. I also realised that my technical language wasn’t always accurate. I remember I talked about common denominators and called the numerator the nominator (which kind of makes sense but is wrong). I know that after that session, I understood fractions better than I ever had before and was hooked on being a teacher.

In that single exercise, I got a blast of what I would be improving on every day from then til now. I got the thrill of trying to decode the technical knowledge in my head into something shareable and learnable. Crafting my explanations, planning the order of my questions, finding out past knowledge of students and building on it, creating and sharing activities that caused cognitive conflict to produce teaching moments.

Tighten Explanations

I’ve encountered a lot of Maths-phobia in my life. At parties, when people heard I was a Maths teacher they’d quickly tell me how bad they were at Maths and get nervous like I was going to throw down a pop quiz. Many students had a similarly negative believe about their skills in my subject.

I was shaped heavily by the work of Carol Dweck (I highly recommend Mindset if you haven’t read it). Her language around fixed and growth mindsets was on my lips every day. There was this one thing I’d say to classes I met for the first time, to students who were struggling and to parents and students at parent/teacher conferences.

Look, I’ve got a 100 different ways to explain this concept. If you don’t understand something tell me. We’ll try a different explanation, a different way, a different approach. It might take explanation 15 before it clicks and then you’ll say, “Why didn’t you say it like that the first time?“. It’s my job to keep trying explanations, approaches and strategies to help you understand, it’s your job to tell me you still don’t understand.

Teacher Kevin

As a teacher you tighten up your use of language, you minimise jargon and get laser sharp on what is key and what is fluff. You try to create situations where the activity creates the need for the knowledge you want to share and get alongside and coach well.

Unearth Misunderstandings

Fast forward a decade and I was helping to train and coach teachers. One of the activities I loved to share with my colleagues was looking at right wrong answers. Those answers that students produce that are incorrect and yet they show the misunderstanding well. It’s why Maths teachers love to say, show your working, because they can’t find out where you’ve gone wrong if you don’t.

We’d look at these student answers together, try to work out what their misunderstandings were and then think about designing learning activities that would help to challenge and correct them. Is there a physical, concrete activity that we could use to drive this home? Maybe there is a pictorial representation that would help? Or could some abstract equations and symbols be the way to show the issue here?

When teaching, we are confronted with the misunderstandings of our students. It’s why we ask for questions, give assignments and leave silence. In our students misunderstandings we find the weaknesses of our explanations and, also, uncover our own lack of knowledge.

I hate doing things because that’s the way you do it - that’s the way it’s done - just get on with it. I trained my students to never be satisfied with that. For me, understanding why we did something was more important than learning the tricks for the exam (and often meant you were able to carry out the “tricks” more reliably). As I taught more, I unearthed new areas where I had taken things for granted. My students’ pushed me to keep thinking and explaining and digging down to bedrock.

Develop your thinking

I’ve been reading an amazing book called Writing to Learn by William Zissner. In it, he talks about how writing helps us order our thinking and understanding. He then gives examples from a huge range of fields showing that good writing, understanding, teaching and learning can exist together.

I found that being a teacher in a classroom made me think better and with more nuance. Faced daily with strong personalities that disagreed or misunderstood, I had to dig deep and make sure I understood all of the implications of what I was teaching. I’ve continued to find that writing tutorials and creating courses does the same thing now that I’m no longer a classroom teacher. As a developer, I know how to do things - I can make API calls, wire up front-ends and design APIs. As an educator, I want to be able to explain the why of each step and not just the how.

Start from where you are

Based on where you are right now, you can teach. Those hours you put into really understanding Arrays in JavaScript or classes in PHP or flex-box in CSS are shareable. If you imagine a number-line stretching from zero knowledge to infinite knowledge, you are on it. What could you reach back and teach down the number line?

  • Could you send a tweet with a code snippet you’ve learnt from?
  • Could you write an article or create a video showing something that you’ve learnt?
  • Could you help out at a local Codebar or equivalent?

The people who are further along that number-line, that you might think are unreachable, look to still others in front of them. As developers we are learning all the time, why not make that learning even more powerful with some teaching?

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