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Sometimes, I think of how many Friday afternoons I have spent over the years drifting into places where teachers meet to decompress after a long week. I can still taste the first sips of whatever beverage the week called for, and my mind wanders over countless pleasantries and jokes and stories that were told. The laughter and the teasing and the friendships. Most Friday afternoons were celebrations of successes ~ large and small. Teaching is a very rewarding profession. But there were also the more private conversations, more confessional in pitch and tone,  more quietly grounded in exhaustion and mixed with nervousness (maybe even with a twist of guilt). The kind of topics that come back to haunt on a Sunday night when a new school week is about to begin and sleep is fitful. Teaching is a hard and lonely profession too, and, if you do not believe that, you had best save yourself some time and click off this link. It is not for you. If you understand, I hope you read on a bit more (there will be other places you can conveniently click off for other fare if your need is great).

When I think back to some of those more private conversations, I don’t believe that the majority of them centered on problems that teachers had teaching their course content. Some did, but, for the most part, the teachers I knew were not terribly troubled by the knowledge part of their curriculum. Student skills were more of an issue, but most teachers do have a sense that skills can be acquired and that there is a process that can be followed to lead to that. It was student attitudes, I think, that was the big driver for Friday afternoon decompression talks and Sunday night fitful sleeps. Only those who have done their best and still felt the shiver of a student’s “whatever” can understand the deflating impact that student attitudes can have in a classroom.

I always find it interesting that, regardless of country, curricular guides approach what gets studied in pretty much the same rank order of presentation and importance: Knowledge → Skills → Attitudes  (with attitudes sometimes being ignored entirely in official curricular documents). Yet, when it comes to actual teaching experience and to “life as lived” within a real classroom, a classroom teacher is more likely to rank them in reverse order: Attitudes → Skills → Knowledge. If we cannot first change attitudes, the skills and the knowledge bits are all the more difficult (if not impossible) to teach. However, if attitudes and skills are in place, the teaching of knowledge is more of a pleasure than a challenge.

I believe that the only way we will ever get it right in classrooms is if we pay more attention to reflective learning. If we want to address attitudes, if we are truly going to engage students in a meaningful way about how their attitudes impact on their learning, then we need to reflect on the specific contexts within which those attitudes are demonstrated. We need to hold a mirror up to the process. The same is true for developmental skills. Skills get developed in productive contexts. We cannot lecture students into having them (any more than we can lecture them into changing attitudes). Even our course content is developmental and context dependent as if flows throughout a school year. We cannot pretend that all good things happen as a result of front-end delivery. Quality learning does not very often happen in that way. It is more often the case that we learn after the fact from the experience as it has been lived. This experience is what feeds genuine reflective learning.

Ultimately, a course is not about the teacher and what gets taught. It is about the students and what gets learned. I think we can all remember times when we needed our parents, our teachers, and our mentors to “fade” so that we could have the opportunity to “do it ourselves”. We needed independence and we needed their trust. If we think back on the life experiences from which we learned the most, it is most likely that our parents, teachers and mentors did not do for usThey let us be. However, they remained present to us and were “watchers” of the process. Their guidance,  insights and wisdom were often communicated in reflection. The best teachers have that capacity. They know instinctively that the game belongs to those who must play it. As teachers, we cannot give the gift of knowledge, but we can shape a reflective process that leads to understanding. That is our gift.

My next posts are going to be about how reflective learning informs curricular design. My intention is to show how this might be done in very practical and concrete ways.  This post is but an introduction. If you are interested, check back for the follow up posts. In the meantime, I am posting a poem below to set the stage. I wrote the poem last year for my good friends, Andrew Pearce and Lynne Williams during the first year in their consultancy, Single Steps Learning ( http://www.singlestepslearning.co.uk ).  I am “borrowing” my poem back from them for this post (I hope with their permission.) Lynne and Andrew are people who live their beliefs ~ exemplars for the fade needed for student learning. When I saw the magic in their insets, I needed to write this poem because I so saw what they were doing as the way forward for others. Hope you enjoy it.