Thursday, January 14, 2010

Reinventing the Wheel is No Bad Thing … it is a Necessity

Towards the end of last year a couple of teachers from different schools approached me asking when ‘we’ (the System) were going to create or compile a complete set of Powerpoints or SMART Notebook files so they could teach their respective subjects. Their reasoning was that there was no point in them ‘wasting time’ and reinventing the wheel.

I have a few issues with this request:

• Since when has the preparation of lesson materials not been the responsibility of the classroom teacher?
• What pride or depth of knowledge in such resources would these teachers have to best engage the students?
• Does one size fit all suddenly?
• If all we had to do was flick through the slides of a presentation, why bother having a teacher at all?
• This is awful pedagogy! Going through someone else’s material slide by slide for any length of time is not teaching. Unfortunately however, this is still a regular practice amongst some teachers just as going from one page to the next in the textbook.

Hiding my irritation, I pointed out to one teacher that if he simply wanted a Powerpoint on any subject matter all he had to do was an Advanced Google Search, selecting ‘ppt’ as the file type.

For example there are 54,200 ppts on Nutrition alone.

However, I suggested that he could not rely on the quality of these resources and would have to spend time discerning their relevance. I also pointed out that this was very teacher-centred and considering that every student now has a laptop (thanks to the Australian Government’s Digital Education Revolution wouldn’t he rather engage his students in something more student-centred where they could take ownership of the work they produced.

For me, ‘ownership’ is the key. We know this works with students, that they take pride in their work when it is their own creation. This is also the case with teachers. If we create a resource we will have done so knowing the individual needs of the students, the context in the curriculum and how it will fit into the overall lesson plan. Every year our classes are different plus we all teach with an individual style. Therefore reinventing the wheel is no bad thing … it is a necessity. We should continually adapt and evolve our resources and those created and shared by colleagues.

As a Physics teacher I was lucky enough to borrow some wonderful resources (Powerpoints ironically) created by Greg Pitt of Hurlstone Agricultural College. They were ‘definitive’ and literally addressed every dot point in the syllabus. However, if I was simply to go through every slide with my own class they would not come close to achieving the results that Greg’s class did and would be bored witless. What I had to do was take the real gem aspects and integrate them into my own teaching. By reviewing the materials at my fingertips I was able to customise the experience to my students and exhibit a depth of knowledge that the students would value, responding to my sincerity and belief. No teacher can (should) stand tall and look a student and their parents in the eye if all they have done through the course is flick through the same old material that they and their colleagues have been doing so for years. I know for a fact that Greg adapted his own resources regularly and integrated them all within some excellent practical activities, hence his outstanding results.

A common scenario that excuses many teachers (in their eyes) to not take ownership of their delivery is when they find themselves teaching a subject for the first time. However, it is not good enough to say a subject is not one’s specialism or it’s not the class one signed up for. In this situation more than ever a teacher has to prepare their own materials so as to pre-empt the problems the students will raise and deepen their own understanding. This is where collaboration comes in. Functioning as part of a Professional Learning Community and sharing resources means that teachers can mutually support each other. It does not mean that one teacher or Coordinator (or System) makes all of the resources and everyone else dispenses them without ownership, responsibility or accountability.

Interestingly, another System (the largest in the State), has gone to great lengths and prepared resources for every point on the syllabus such that their teachers will be able to have their students use their laptops (or netbooks in this case) provided by the Government in the classroom. I would suggest that conscientious teachers will adapt these with their own work but many will take no ownership and simply issue the worksheets and instructions as they are.

As a postscript, in a year when we achieved our best ever results, the teacher who asked about the Powerpoints has just received the worst exam results in his school. I would suggest that this is not because he lacked a full set of slideshows.

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