Mrs Kristine Cooke, Director of Information Services
Every day throughout the academic year at Brisbane Girls Grammar School, the expertise and dedication of our teachers contribute to a vibrant educational environment that has for more than 142 years fostered exceptional scholarship and inspired a lifelong love of learning in our students. As we celebrate International World Teachers’ Day, Director of Information Services, Mrs Kristine Cooke discusses how ‘the best teachers are also the best learners’.
In The First Grader, a 2010 film by Justin Chadwick about an 84-year-old determined to seize his last chance to learn to read and write, one of the characters states that her father believed ‘Learning never ends until you’ve got soil in your ears’. After years of kindergarten, pre-school, primary and secondary schooling, this may seem a little disheartening to those Year 12 students who will graduate in a few weeks. It may also be what university graduates feel when they realise that while years of tertiary study may have equipped them to start a career, modern professional life demands continuous learning to keep abreast of leading practice.
What most of us will come to realise is that one of the most fundamental aspects of being human is the ability to learn; continual learning is a ‘normal’ state. Every aspect of life provides the opportunity to learn — and not only school or university. Reading, interpersonal relationships, travel and special interest activities are all learning experiences that shape, and re-shape our individual selves. Therefore, everyone is a student and must face this idea with a positive attitude. However, ‘learner helpers’ have always been close at hand.
What many students may not know is that throughout their schooling they have been surrounded by the best learning role models: their teachers. The ability to learn is an essential feature of being an effective teacher. How often are teachers required to learn new content, new approaches, new theories and new strategies? Each Year group, curriculum unit and class demands that teachers embrace the opportunity to innovate and adapt, and develop effective approaches, strategies and content choices that respond to an ever-changing educational environment. The only constant in education, as in life, is change.
With the growing pace of change in schools, from the Australian curriculum to technology, from better understanding the value of diversity of thought within student populations to the ‘one size fits all’ external testing regimes, every teacher must confront and accept the challenge of change to become the best teacher they can be.
Renowned educator and education commentator, Jennifer Hogan (2015) explores what separates good teachers from great ones. She asks:
Is it that the great teachers know more about their subject area? Is it that they are funnier, better joke or story-tellers, or better communicators? In my twenty plus years of experience, I think what separates the good from the great is the willingness to learn. The good teacher must not only be willing to learn about their subject area and effective ways to teach it, they must also be willing to learn about themselves and their learners, increase self-awareness and be willing to act on the information they learn.
Hogan defines the best teachers as those who are the best learners. It sounds simple but allied with this idea of learning is the fact that teachers also have to un-learn and re-learn, both skills that are, in essence, complex and problematic. Mark Bonchek (2016) in The Harvard Business Review explains:
The problem isn’t learning: it’s unlearning … to embrace the new logic of value creation, we have to unlearn the old one. Unlearning is not about forgetting. It’s about the ability to choose an alternative mental model or paradigm. When we learn, we add new skills or knowledge to what we already know. When we unlearn, we step outside the mental model in order to choose a different one.
Unlearning is difficult. It is neither a straightforward process to give up ideas, content or strategies that have been effective in the classroom, nor is the process neatly linear. It may take multiple attempts to identify, acquire and assimilate what needs to be discarded and what is to be added. Initially, there must be a genuine recognition that what has been learned or applied in the past, often instinctively, needs to change. Bonchek describes this unconscious and automatic application of familiar mental models as ‘the proverbial water to the fish’. Turning away from the accustomed and the trusted can take courage. Who wants to give up what has defined personal success in the past? The teacher is then faced with the creation or discovery of new models of thought and the subsequent ‘ingraining’ of these ‘new mental habits’ into the repertoire. Fortunately, brains are adept at adaption and, with a positive attitude to continual learning, teachers are kept challenged and energised.
Albert Einstein once said, ‘We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them’ — perhaps the place to start is by unlearning how we think about learning. Dr Maryellen Weimer (2014) identified seven characteristics of all effective learners:
- Good learners are curious.
- Good learners pursue understanding diligently.
- Good learners recognise that a lot of learning isn’t fun.
- Failure frightens good learners, but they know it’s beneficial.
- Good learners make knowledge their own.
- Good learners never run out of questions.
- Good learners share what they’ve learned.
What is interesting about this list is that many of the points seem self-evident but are also deceptive in their apparent simplicity. Of particular importance to teachers as learners are two of Weimer’s characteristics: the idea of asking the best questions and sharing learning. Superficially, it is obvious that these two would also form the basis of effective teaching. However, these skills, modelled by teachers, are the very attributes students should adopt. Defining what is necessary to know and working collaboratively are strategies that carry a student from classroom to lecture theatre to workplace.
Students, learn from teachers. Embrace the new. Rise to the challenge. Be courageous. See each beginning as an opportunity to learn.
Bonchek, M. (2016). Why the problem with learning is unlearning. Harvard Business Review. https://hbr.org/2016/11/why-the-problem-with-learning-is-unlearning
Hogan, J. (2015). Good vs great teachers. The compelled educator. http://www.thecompellededucator.com/2015/01/good-vs-great-teachers.html
Weimer, M. (2014). Seven characteristics of good learners. Faculty Focus, Magna Publications. https://www.facultyfocus.com/articles/teaching-professor-blog/seven-characteristics-good-learners/