Teaching to Learn

As I sit down to write this, I have just read a piece in the paper about a BBC report on the future of Panorama. Moving the fifty-year-old, erstwhile flagship current affairs programme back to a Monday night prime time slot – up against Coronation Street – would, the report argues, require rather softer-looking presenters and less difficult subject matter. Accompanied by a cartoon by Austin with the caption ‘Panorama with Jeremy Paxman and Sooty’, it quotes the report as arguing that the programme suffers from the four Ds,‘too distant, demanding, difficult and didactic’, and that ‘To address this, Panorama should move from an image of distant informer to that of active agent. It should move from a remote, pedestal position of “lecturer” to a “touch it, reach it, feel it guide”. It should enable people to feel and experience the truth, not simply observe or “learn” it.’1 This language begs a number of questions which, added to the unvoiced assumption that lecturers are unredeemably boring, says not a lot for the writer’s experience of education. As we face the uncertainty of the next RAE, however, and simultaneously wonder whether, in the face of criticism of its effects from many quarters, including the House of Commons Science and Technology Select Committee, some other mechanism will be introduced to reconcile our core funded but Cinderella activity, ‘teaching’, with the incompletely funded but kudosbringing activity, ‘research’, there can be no better time to be asking what it is we do when we teach, what it is we need to do (both as individuals and as groups at all ages and levels) in order to learn, and how we might promote learning in others. For teaching and promoting learning are not necessarily the same thing, while research and learning surely are.

This paper is the latest in a series of outcomes from a research project funded by HEFCE’s Teaching and Learning fund into an undergraduate course I have been teaching at Queen Mary, University of London since 1993.2 Shakespeare in the Classroom involves students working together in small groups, teaching a Shakespeare play to years 6, 7, or 8 in local inner city schools.The first part of the course comprises five weeks of lectures, seminars and workshops in college, in which students are taught the chosen play at their level and introduced to ways of teaching it to younger people.Then the undergraduates spend about one and a half hours per week for six or seven weeks in school, teaching their class, with a regular trouble-shooting session back in college in which they share successes and problems.The process culminates with each class of children giving a ten-minute presentation of what they have achieved to other classes in the school.The undergraduates reflect on their experience throughout the course in a learning journal, and later write an assessed 3000 word essay (60% of the final mark), which situates that experience within a wider and more theoretical context. The learning journal is unassessed but fulfils the invaluable task of ensuring that students write regularly for the course from its very beginning in a personal but also analytical and problem solving way. It also gets the immediate (and often considerable) emotional joys and frustrations of the work placement off their chests, helping them to use the experience productively in their essays.There is also a group mark (40%) for the classroom work, which is documented by a file containing lesson plans and photocopied samples of the children’s work.

The final presentation is probably one of the most important parts of the experience for the school students. It is important to realise that although we are ostensibly dealing with a play and the presentation may involve acting bits of it, this is not just a performance in the theatrical sense of that all-encompassing term, but part of the process of learning. In order to get this far, the children, helped by the undergraduates, need to reflect on what they have learnt and decide how to present this learning to others – effectively becoming teachers themselves. It is a transformation that they find empowering. One undergraduate who had a placement in a particularly challenging school which at that stage, several years ago, had very poor standards of literacy, initially wrote quite angrily in his learning journal that he thought ‘we should be helping the students learn how to read and write before they encountered material that college students found trouble with’. Later, he realised that he had ‘learned to trust the boys and let them teach each other, and this was most significantly accomplished by acting …These boys have come a long way since October … I have seen it, and by the smiles on their faces after their presentation they saw it as well. Their performance gave them courage and an ability to show what they [had] learned. They took pride in something they initially considered a waste of time’.

Multiple Intelligences

The theoretical approach underpinning this course draws heavily on the work of the American psychologist Howard Gardner and what he calls ‘multiple intelligences’. Having observed the effects on his patients of massive damage to selected parts of the brain through stroke or trauma, Gardner suggested that intelligence, far from being a single quality of mind measurable by IQ, is manifested in seven distinct ways. Being intelligent in one of these areas does not mean that one is equally intelligent in them all. Gardner’s seven ‘multiple intelligences’ are: Linguistic; Logical-mathematical; Musical; Bodily-kinaesthetic; Spatial; Interpersonal; Intrapersonal.3

One important implication of the concept of multiple intelligences is that we probably all learn in different ways. When I first started teaching Shakespeare in the Classroom, most of the class, when given a standard learning preferences test, registered a preference for learning aurally (for instance listening to lectures) or visually (reading books).4 These are the learning preferences that are most likely to equip people to survive in a traditional academic system. More recently I have found that students are more likely to answer those same questions in ways that show that, at least in part, they learn kinaesthetically, that is by needing to move about or use their bodies in some way while studying. My samples are too small to be statistically valid, although one possible explanation is that, since I started teaching the course, the department has acquired a drama section and consequently a large number of students who have a need to get up and perform. But the suggestion that by increasing the numbers going to university we are not lowering standards but allowing students with different types of intelligence simply to be recognised as intelligent is attractive. As is the idea that whole intellectual domains (in the sciences particularly) could be opened up to people who have historically been put off by conventional pedagogical approaches to those subjects. It should certainly encourage us to rethink our teaching. Teaching styles that are sufficiently flexible to allow students with fundamentally different learning styles to flourish equally are yet to permeate far into any level of education.

Learning versus ‘Teaching and Learning’

A focus on learning rather than on the ubiquitous but dichotomised mantra ‘teaching and learning’ marks an important shift of emphasis. First, and most importantly in the present climate in higher education, it enables one to see one’s teaching as a seamless continuum with one’s own learning or subject-specific research. It also encourages a more empathetic and imaginative approach to others, since participants become partners in a shared 6 project rather than deliverers or consumers of material. It thus fosters a dynamic process in which each individual relates their own experience as a learner to their role as a facilitator of learning in others.That dynamic, arising as it does from an awareness and understanding of multiple viewpoints (the undergraduate’s own, that of others in their group, of individual children in their class and of their class’s usual teacher, not to mention my expectations and course guidelines) inevitably fosters critical thinking. Students display a passionate interest and involvement not just in the practicalities but also in the philosophy and ethics of what they are doing. The weekly seminar discussions in college during the weeks of teaching practice are invariably noisy, vibrant, argumentative, and frequently laughter-filled with all students fully engaged. This free-thinking, critical and thoughtful process is then compounded when in their final written piece they have to relate their teaching experience to their independent reading of theoretical work on topics such as the value of the arts in education, or creativity and problem solving in the learning process.

Students actually want to be stretched and engaged. While being taught is frequently a chore, learning is a pleasurable activity for all of us – otherwise none of us would have got out of our cradles. Active engagement is a good indication that deep learning is taking place and there is indeed evidence to suggest that students on ‘student-focused’ courses that are designed around the development of concepts acquire deeper knowledge than those on courses that are ‘teacher focused’.5 A good definition of a teacher-focused course is one,‘in which the teacher is concerned primarily with the organization, presentation and testing of content and their own teaching behaviour, with the goal that students acquire information’.6 The unwanted, and perhaps unintentional, effect of the last ten years of education reforms is that students come into higher education with an overdependence on guidelines and attainment targets while our accountability as teachers at all levels is measured primarily through assessment of teacher-focused activity.

It is my experience that students learn best when they're Teaching to Learn asked to think about how whatever subject they're doing relates to them both personally and in the world – that is, by responding to the questions ‘what can I now do?’ ‘how can I work out what I think?’ and ‘why does it matter?’.These are all questions that relate to process and to concept, rather than to fact. The student can therefore more easily see that they have a role to play in their own learning. Involving students in teaching each other is just one way of making this ‘in the world’ activity blazingly visible. The traditional teacher-focused lecture and seminar course, whether punctuated by continuous assessment assignments or culminating in a final examination, follows a constant pattern. Shakespeare in the Classroom has a rather different shape.A lot of material has to be packed into the preliminary weeks of the course.The students have to learn to understand the play at their own level; there are workshop and other pedagogical techniques to be imparted and practised; and essential logistical and safety requirements to be considered. This is accomplished in a combination of lectures, workshops and discussions. The delivery of information is inevitably teacher focused, but the combination of the learning journal and intense awareness that they will soon be responsible for teaching others ensures active engagement and urgent discussions within their groups. As the weeks progress, there is a gradual shift as the undergraduates, working together, and largely undirected, adapt what they have been taught, reflect on their learning, and plan their own lessons. Once their teaching practice begins, the dynamic of the course changes. My role becomes more that of adviser, counselling the students on the classes I observe, and chairing the lively weekly discussions in which they offer each other advice on the problems they are facing.

The fact that the undergraduates are not teachers, and not even PGCE student teachers, means that they have a relationship with the school students more like that of mentor or even elder sibling than authority figure. For their part, the school students invariably become aware that they have some responsibility for the undergraduates’ learning.A partnership grows up between them, which owes something to this relative status and something to thecommunity-building nature of the drama and other creative techniques that the undergraduates are using.The novelty of the experience and the consciousness of the responsibilities that each group bears towards the other, often has the effect of shaking individuals out of previous habits of learning (or perhaps more accurately, non-learning), and a significant number from both groups achieve results that can confound the expectations of their teachers. An equally important part of the process is the effect on the teachers (including me) of watching this inter-student dynamic. It offers the opportunity to reflect on our practice and to consider the nature of learning – in itself, of course, a learning experience of particular value to teachers. The undergraduates are encouraged to be both critical and self-critical.Their openly expressed and observant arguments about the problems of education are thought provoking and certainly more useful to me as a teacher than those anonymously completed questionnaires about teaching delivery. I try to share the undergraduates’ written work with the schoolteachers and a current part of the project is to ask them too to write down and evaluate their experience of the course.

The teaching to learn technique that I am advocating here is a natural extension of my work as a researcher into the nature and mode of operation of English renaissance drama. Cognition is at the heart of both. Learning happens when we try to make sense of things that are not straightforward, that ‘cannot be resolved with a high degree of certainty’, about which ‘experts may disagree’, and that are in short ‘ill-structured’. A Shakespeare play is a highly structured artefact that simulates, but never exactly imitates, ‘ill-structured’,7 conflicted reality. It is organised as a learning trajectory for its audience, but it never tells you what to think. There is generally no narrator. In some cases in Shakespeare where there is such a character (for example the prologues of Henry V or Romeo and Juliet) he is notoriously unreliable.There is invariably, too, a gap between what any given character knows about the progress of the story in which he is involved and what the play’s structure (both visual and aural) has enabled us to know. Meaning therefore resides for the audience in reflective analysis of the material presented, and may be specifically coloured for Articles individual readers or audience members by prior knowledge or life experience. But the academic study of ‘Shakespeare’ should be more actively engaged than is possible for an audience member or private reader. It properly involves ‘doing’ Shakespeare: writing creatively as well as analytically; acting out as well as reading; thinking visually as well as linguistically; arguing and disputing, but never ever being asked to tick a box.Trying to recruit another partner school to the Shakespeare in the Classroom programme two years ago, however, I was met by a Head of English with the words ‘I hope you are not going to be doing any of that drama nonsense’. Here was a committed teacher in a position of some authority who felt so beleaguered by testing and attainment targets that she could not see Shakespeare as anything except some kind of exercise to be got through. And in the previous edition of this Newsletter, Bethan Marshall wrote that there has been a ‘shift whereby English is becoming like maths teaching’.8 This would be singularly unfortunate. Traditional maths teaching has been so unsuccessful in getting students to pursue their studies in maths even to A-level let alone university that the ‘overwhelming majority of respondents’ to Adrian Smith’s recent report into maths education ‘no longer regard current mathematics curricula, assessment and qualifications as fit for purpose’. His suggested solutions to this disastrous state of affairs include having a ‘forum for joined up thinking’ about mathematical teaching and learning from primary to higher education; getting undergraduates out into schools ‘to obtain some classroom teaching experience’; developing a ‘subject specific pedagogy’ by ‘appreciating how pupils learn mathematics, the role of questioning and response, and the potential obstacles to learning that students are likely to face’; and, perhaps most significantly, trying to effect ‘a shift of emphasis towards the processes of ‘doing mathematics’ and away from ‘learning outcomes”.9 I am proud to say that Professor Smith is Principal of my own college, and these measures would actually combine to make maths more like English. But only if we, as researchers at the forefront of learning in our discipline, resist the imposition of attainment targets, and explore – and explain to others, both within and outside the discipline, what it is about ‘doing’ English that enables us and our students to learn.

Carolyn Lindsay, Year 6 class teacher and 
   Science, Design and Technology Co-ordinator at St Elizabeth's RC Primary School, describes the 
   effect of undergraduate English students in the classroom.

Shakespeare and King Lear have been a key part of the Year 6 Curriculum since we entered the partnership with Queen Mary English Department some six years ago.We were immediately overwhelmed by the enthusiasm and imagination of the students in their presentation of the text to 11 year olds.

The project allows children to access Shakespeare through a range of exciting experiences, incorporating a whole range of creative activities. Children find the experience empowering. They are introduced to the language and stories before they have had a chance to develop any preconceptions or prejudices. Knowing that Shakespeare wrote plays a long time ago and perhaps the title of one or two which have been recently filmed is the extent of most children’s knowledge – King Lear is invariably an unknown quantity, so when children are introduced to key points in the story and the very vivid characters they are soon able to relate to them. Children are encouraged to keep a journal to reflect on their reactions to experience. These are private, but some children have chosen to share them and their insights are interesting:

Really, it’s about the sort of things that go on in our lives, only it’s got Kings and Dukes and stuff. The people are just like us only they talk in a different way. When you know what some of the old words mean it’s just like now. The people in King Lear get upset and do stupid things.

Children have become so involved in the stories that during holidays they ask parents to take them to see a Shakespeare play; often they will comment to staff about having seen an advert for a Shakespeare production or heard about one on TV. An important aspect of this is the degree to which the boys are enthused, as the development of boys’ literacy is of national concern. The students also offer a powerful role model for girls and ethnic minority pupils, encouraging them to aspire to higher education.

The students’ approach to the text is consciously aimed at using a multi-disciplined approach, thus supporting visual, kinaesthetic and auditory learners in their accessing of the play. Children of varying linguistic abilities, including those with Special Needs and English as a Second Language, were able to participate fully, often taking a lead in the activities, thus building their self-esteem and confidence. Children are encouraged to use their ideas in developing responses to the text, so painting, music composition, mime, ‘stand-up’ or rap can be part of the final production. This freedom of approach and breadth of expression allowed teachers to stand back and observe children in a new light, seeing how they coped with a range of situations and an amazing range of original ideas. The level of enthusiasm and motivation is invariably inspiring. This motivation and independence has a knock on effect throughout the year and across the curriculum, as children who have been able to bring so much of themselves to the project are keen to approach other topics in a similar way. Exploring the complexities of character, emotion and relationships in Lear will often lead to children approaching a history topic in a similar way, for example using the role of women in Lear as a model for exploring the role of women in Tudor or ancient Greek society. By experiencing Shakespeare’s skill in manipulating his audience, children begin to explore this skill in the planning of their own writing.

By the time we reach the final presentation, to which parents and the rest of the school are invited, one of the most striking aspects is the degree to which each child’s selfesteem has been enhanced through the experience of working with the students, with whom they develop a special relationship. The pupils are fully involved in the planning of the presentation and are involved in lengthy and detailed discussion of each aspect of their work.

As for us as teachers in the school, we have learnt to be more open in what we expect of children. Lear not being an obvious choice worked very well and this has made us more receptive to other seemingly unlikely material The project has made us aware that children can have much deeper and fuller insights than we were inclined to expect and it has given us the confidence to experiment.

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  1. ‘BBC plans radical rethink of Panorama’, The Guardian, 27.9.2004.
  2. Published research outputs include ‘Personal Experience and Academic Theory:The Use of the Learning Journal’, English in Education, 36.3 (2002), 20-7; ‘Targets make our kids go from bard to worse’, Times Higher Educational Supplement, 7.11.2003; ‘Teaching Shakespeare: Indoctrination or Creativity?’, in Shifting the Scene: Shakespeare in European Culture, edited by Ladina Bezzola Lambert and Balz Engler (Newark: University of Delaware Press, 2004), 205-16. I gratefully acknowledge the work of my research assistant, Lilah Heilbronn, particularly in designing and setting up the website: www.english.qmul.ac.uk/ShakesinClass/HomePage.html.
  3. Frames of Mind:The Theory of Multiple Intelligences (London: Fontana, 1983). Gardner has since tentatively added a further potential intelligences (naturalist, spiritual and existential) although these are perhaps less persuasive (Intelligence Reframed: Multiple Iintelligences for the 21st Century (New York: Basic Books, 1999)).
  4. 'VARK: A Guide to Learning Styles’, http://www.vark-learn.com/english/index.asp. See also IT Works!
  5. K.Trigwell, M. Prosser, and F.Waterhouse, ‘Relations Between Teachers’ Approaches to Teaching and Students’ Approaches to Learning’, Higher Education 37 (1999), 57–70.
  6. Graham Gibbs and Martin Coffey, ‘The Impact of Training of University Teachers on their Teaching Skills, their Approach to Teaching and the Approach to Learning of their Students’, Learning in Higher Education 5.1 (2004), 87-100.
  7. P. King and K. Kitchener, Developing Reflective Judgement (San Francisco: Jossey Bass, 1994), cited in Jennifer Moon, Learning Journals (London: Kogan Page, 1999), 21.
  8. English in Schools: Death by Drowning?English Subject Centre Newsletter 6 (February 2004), 30.
  9. Making Mathematics Count (London: HMSO, 2004), 6, 130, 132, 112.

(All hyperlinks to external sites have been removed from this archived newsletter to avoid broken links)

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Newsletter Issue 7 - November 2004

© English Subject Centre

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