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Learning from Iain's granny

By 28 April 2012No Comments

My friend Iain White, head at Govan High, recently stated that he learned about good teaching from his granny.  We all sat up and wondered if Iain had lost it but his explanation was powerful.
Iain’s grandmother knew what she was speaking about, she was good at explaining it and he knew she loved him.  She had it all: the curriculum (what was important to know), the pedagogy (how to explain it) and the relationships.  We should all aim to emulate Iain’s granny.
When I entered teaching many of my older colleagues had fought in the 1939-45 war.  They were often skilled and committed but had a starchiness, a formality, which was out of tune with the changing times.  Their teaching had two key aspects, the content and authority.  One could not bring himself to address the head teacher, universally known by his first name, by anything other than ‘Headmaster’.  Times changed rapidly but the core intellectual aspect of teaching, knowing what you were speaking about, having a command of your curriculum, remained central.  The starchy authority models however changed.  Most teachers gradually came to realise that being a teacher does not engender automatic respect from young people.  Respect has to be earned, as indeed does authority.  Nonetheless, what that generation of teachers had in abundance and what we cannot surrender, is the core knowledge.  There is no point teaching if you have nothing to teach.
In the 1970s, thinking on the curriculum had already moved from content to methods.  Being good at explaining it, like Iain’s granny, meant programmed learning, resource based learning, differentiated learning, taking learning out of the classroom.  The continuing emphasis on the ‘how’ of teaching has seen formative assessment, peer assessment, cooperative learning and countless other innovations.  Today secondary teachers have learned what their primary colleagues always knew instinctively: knowledge is never enough.  The good teacher is a reflective practitioner, a skilled communicator and a sharp observer of the needs and the potential of every learner in the class.  There’s no point being full to the brim of core knowledge, if you don’t have the communication skills and the empathy to give that knowledge in meaningful form to your learners.
Iain was right also on the third characteristic.  Learners are loved, not sentimentally, but they are cared for, respected, valued, guided, advised and held in high regard – and they know it.  Relationships can break down but the good teacher always seeks to rebuild them.  My wonderful former Depute always claimed that he earned the right to give youngsters a severe row.  “They know it’s serious but they also know that tomorrow we’ll start again.”  The fact that we now accept as the norm that warm, friendly, mutually respectful relations are at the heart of teaching, marks the biggest positive change in my almost 40 years on the job.
Has it all been progress over these years?  No.  We need vigilance today, around first principles, particularly curricular content.  Curriculum for Excellence continues to address the issues of methodology but there are serious questions over the vagueness and imprecision of many of the experiences and outcomes.  At a time when it is even suggested that ‘the primary role for a teacher should not be to teach’, at a time when universities are cutting back on degrees without an explicit vocational element, the enemy of good quality teaching is a new wave of anti-intellectual philistinism.  Iain’s granny wouldn’t have tolerated that.  She knew that to teach anything to young people you have to know what you are talking about.
The above article was first published in SecEdon 3 November 2011:;category_uid=115;section=Opinion

Iain White


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