I pride myself on having a good knowledge on a lot of topics. I am well educated, very well traveled and extremely driven and focused on being the best at whatever I do. This focus drives me to now want to be the best teacher I can be, but it also has led me to be the fount of all knowledge in my classroom and this year I finally realised how disempowering that can be for a student. By allowing my ego to control my teaching and to always be up the front of the classroom ready to tell them everything I perceive they need to know, I never actually give them the tools to find out what they actually want to know.
So last year I made a change and my catchphrase became “I don’t know, how about you find out and teach us”, and the difference that made in student learning astounded me. By simply admitting I am not the expert all of a sudden allowed others to become the expert, but more importantly gave others a desire to become an expert.
Once I let go of control of knowledge I had to ask myself the question if I am not going to be the expert then who should be? That’s when a blog post by Monica Evons shared with me the power of Skype in the classroom. I teach in a small rural school in Central Queensland where the prospect of getting an expert in any given field to visit is virtually zero so the thought of being able to travel around the world and find experts in their field who would teach my students really excited me. This is what I wanted my students to see, the possibilities and to have the opportunity to learn first hand from the best.
I love to write but I am by no means an award-winning author, so then why am I the best-credentialed person to teach my students how to write? So the first thing I did was I set about using Skype for Education to find some amazing authors who could teach my students how to write and what it takes to be a published author and I was staggered by how many amazingly generous people there are out there who are willing to give up their time for the betterment of others.
In our first lesson with author Chris Tozier I learned more about writing in 1 hour than my entire knowledge of the process beforehand. This really opened my eyes to how much an injustice it is to my students by not engaging the best in a given field to teach them. I would not send my son along to a basketball coach who has only ever seen the game on TV so why would I expect a student to learn about how to write a book from someone who has only ever read them?
The result of this Skype was not only a vast improvement in the student’s knowledge of the writing process but when Chris asked them to write a story for him so he could read their writing and give them feedback it resulted in a movement of the goal posts. No longer were they writing to just please me, but all of a sudden they had an audience and didn’t that just change everything! All of a sudden I had students writing 1000’s of words which they then painstakingly edited to ensure it was their best work, not just something they reeled off to keep Mr. Smith happy. They all of a sudden became avid readers and just had to read Chris’s books and I can’t tell you how excited they were a month or so ago when he emailed them to say he had just finished his new book.
This changed everything for me and now I saw the power of not only having experts teach but that of giving my students an authentic audience to present their work too. I also saw the power of a relationship! When students get to meet an author or whatever other experts they meet they are inspired. By meeting an author the students felt a connection and the story in the book meant so much more to them.
The most popular unit I did this year, however, was one I gave them no instructions on what they had to study. Borrowing from Google where they “encourage employees, in addition to their regular projects, to spend 20% of their time working on what they think will most benefit Google which empowers them to be more creative and innovative”, I let my students research whatever they wanted and their sole task was to teach the rest of the class about that topic in the form of a TED talk.
When I did a survey with the students at the end of the year of what we should stop, what we should keep doing and what we should start doing, the overwhelming response was that we need to keep doing Google 20 and they were already deciding what they wanted to learn about next.
I really must say a huge thank you to Chris Tozier for not only inspiring a new generation of readers and writers with his generosity but also opening my eyes to the possibilities out there for my students.
By taking the leap of faith that the students would be okay and learning to say “I don’t know”, and instead teaching them how to find the answers I empowered my students to go on their own learning journeys and have hopefully created life long learners.