While the job of the teacher is to ‘teach’ there are many different theories about what the best way to teach is, the one that is the most prevalent at the moment is a constructivist standpoint rather than an instructive one. Constructivism was conceptualised by the ideas of such thinkers as Vygotsky, Dewy, Piaget, Montessori and Bruner; it advocates that all learning is deeply influenced by the learners past experiences and understandings. In other words Vygotsky (Hill 2006) takes the standpoint that teaching is not just a transmission of information and that students need to take a more active role in learning and that learning is social, collaborative and active. Instructivism on the other hand is the more traditional standpoint when it comes to teaching. This theory believes that direct teaching is the way to go and is more effective. However as mentioned previously constructivist beliefs are the ones that are prevalent at the moment as other research supports the ideas of Vygotsky and believe that children construct knowledge and so need to be actively engaged in organising and exploring ideas. However some teachers may take different approaches and some of their teaching practices will be more of a direct approach and at other times it will be a more active approach according to the subject and the particular teacher. Teachers also have to stick to the curriculum which means that sometimes they have to teach in specific ways for such things as the NAPLAN tests that students are required to take.
Teaching is not just a job; you have to be passionate about your role as a teacher if you want to be successful as a teacher. As a teacher you are making a commitment to lifelong learning as the career involves some workplace and allied professional learning. As well as this the most important thing to remember is that you like the students that you teach are a learner. As a learner and a teacher it is ok to say to a student, “teach me about this” or “let’s look at this together” according to the constructivist theory. Teachers do not need to be all knowing god like entity that stands in front of the classroom and imparts knowledge, according to Westwood (2008) the role of teachers who teach using constructivism views and active learning becomes not one of an instructor but one of a facilitator and motivator.
Freire (2006) takes a strong standpoint when it comes to ideas about how students should be taught he says that the teacher-student relationship is fundamentally narrative in character. He is very critical saying that ‘Education is suffering from narration sicknesses.’ Reading what he has to say on the matter of this method of teacher you, the reader becomes overwhelmed the knowledge that he doesn’t agree with this method of teaching which he has described as ‘banking’. He is highly scornful of the actions of the teachers who in his opinion are ‘projecting absolute ignorance onto others’ and says that ‘knowledge only emerges through invention and re-invention, through the restless, impatient, continuing, hopeful inquiry human beings pursue in this world, with the world, and with each other.’ This last idea is the basis of the theory of active learning and it is true, human nature is fundamentally inquisitive we are always questioning and wondering the who, why, what and how of everything which is why human culture has made such advancements, if this were not the case then we would still be a bunch of Neanderthals sitting around in caves none the wiser of the wider universe. Freire looks to liberating education saying that the solution to the problems with education is teacher-student reconciliation. He says that this is done ‘by reconciling the poles of contradiction so that both are simultaneously teachers and students’. ‘Liberating education consists in acts of cognition, not transferrals of information’. He says that ‘the teacher is no longer merely the-one-who-teaches, but one who is himself taught in dialogue with the students, who in return while being taught also teach. They become jointly responsible for a process in which they all grow.’
So while the constructivist theory is the one of the most influential theories of education and most widely subscribed to at the moment, it is also one of the most debated theories. Sasson (Rowe 2006) refers to constructivism as ‘...a mixture of Piagetian stage theory with postmodernist ideology’. Wilson (Rowe 2006) has a similar view and states that ‘....Australian operational views of constructivism... confuse a theory of knowing with a theory of teaching’ saying that everything is the student’s responsibility and that the teachers do not help the students as they should that the constructivist theory has been used to justify an non interventionist theory of pedagogy. What we need to implement in Wilson’s view is a different view of teaching one that will emphasise that the role of the teacher is to intervene in the process of a students learning vigorously and systematically thereby ensuring that a ‘child’s construction of knowledge leads her to a more correct understanding of her domain’. Another view is that a constructivist approach to teaching and learning is only applicable to certain stages of a students learning and development and that it cannot be applied to all types of learning. Jonassen (Westwood 2008) presents a three stage model of knowledge acquisition:
· Stage 1 – Initial knowledge acquisition
· Stage 2 – Advanced Knowledge
· Stage 3- expertise.
His view is that initial knowledge acquisition would be better if a direct learning approach was applied at this stage and that advanced knowledge acquisition and expertise would benefit more from a constructivist approach. Westwood (2008) uses the example of early literacy by looking at how the basic skill set that is needed for reading and writing is taught. He says that for establishing these skills especially such things as word identification and decoding a direct approach to teaching would serve better and then when the student moves on to higher order reading and comprehension a constructivist approach may be used to build upon the skills that the students has already gained through the direct learning approach.
What must be kept in the minds of teachers though is that not all students learn at the same pace or in the same ways and using the same methods of teaching while they may be effective for one student will not always be as effective for another. While different teachers will have different ideas and pedagogies about what the best way to teach and learn is what must be remembered is that the students have similar ideas. A student may have a deep approach to learning or they may have a surface approach to learning and this is something that Purdie (2001) looks at. Purdie’s research involved students being interviewed about their perceptions about what teaching and learning is to them. The research findings show that how the students perceived teaching and learning was affected by whether they were a surface learner or whether they were a deep learner. When it comes to teaching it was found that if a student with a deep approach to their learning was questioned they tended to describe a wide range of techniques that their teachers used in their class. These students were able to recognise that the teachers were trying to encourage the students and that they used more active learning processes in their teaching. On the other hand those who were surface learners were only able to focus on the transmission and reproduction of the information that they were given in their lessons. For example a deep student had this to say about what the teacher wanted them to learn:
‘To find out things for ourselves first hand, not just something he has just told us, and us just sit there. (Deep student, Year 9 science)’
In Contrast this was what a surface student had to say when asked the same question as the deep student:
He wants us to do well, he wants us to get good marks so it will be easier for us to pass grade 12. (Surface student, Year 9 science)
When looking at learning students who took a deep approach to learning were more active in their approach to learning and they were able to understand the relationship between theory and practice. Students who took a surface approach however mostly were unable to understand the same relationship. This shows that students who are in the same learning environment view things differently. Some of Purdie’s research though showed that there was hardly any difference and that most students were surface students in a maths class where the teacher taught using a very direct approach. This shows that the approach that teachers take really has a big effect on how the students view what they are learning and how effectively they are able to learn from different approaches. An excellent quote from one of the teachers who was interviewed fort Purdie’s research said this ‘I don’t teach the subject, I teach kids’ which sums up quite nicely what teaching should be like. This teacher really knew her kids and this is what you need to be a good effective teacher, you need to know your students and have a good relationship with them. In order to have this good working relationship with the students that are in your class you have to know that all students learn in different ways and learn how your students learn best and accommodate for this while making the activities as interesting, fun and engaging as you possibly can for every child.
As well as understanding the students another thing that you must be able to do is understand yourself and your pedagogy. Everyone not just teachers believe that they are knowledgeable about education because they have all had some experiences with it themselves but it is a teacher’s knowledge and experience that is important, that is what shapes their pedagogy. Pedagogy defines who a person will be as a teacher. Churchill (2011) says that pedagogy is often described as ‘the art of teaching’. Deborah Britzman (Churchill 2011) states that ‘pedagogy points to the agency that joins teaching and learning’. Everyone will have had experiences with teachers that teach in both the styles that have been described and looked over previously and will have memories about teachers that were excellent teachers and teachers that were not so much. Perhaps after everything that has already been said it is unsurprising that the most memorable teachers are those that took an active approach to learning and teaching rather than a direct approach. In my personal experience teachers who took the time to talk to you and get to know you, who encouraged you such as my grade six teacher and a humanities and English teacher that I had for most of my high school year did are the best kind of teachers. However teachers who took a more direct approach such as most of the math teachers that I had throughout high school were in my opinion not as effective teachers, at least their subject was not as interesting though perhaps that is my personal bias as maths was not my favourite subject. These experiences and the experiences of other teachers shape what a teacher’s pedagogy is going to be. Someone who was bullied while at school might focus on preventing that in their own class, someone who had trouble engaging in certain topic or with the teacher or other students might focus on making sure that all their students are included and that they are all engaged and interested in the topic that they are learning about.
What we must not forget however that teaching is also a profession and as such it requires critical thinking and judgement. Sachs (2003) looks at how important it is not to forget professionalism in teaching in a world where teaching and teachers are so highly scrutinised and there are contradictory messages in the media about the quality of the teachers in the public school system. There are debates about the meaning of teaching professionalism, Hoyle and John 1995 said that ‘current orthodoxy suggests that, for teachers, three areas encapsulate what it means to be professional and hence professionalism. These are knowledge, autonomy and responsibility’. Others such as Putnam and Borko 1997 (Sachs 2003) say that to be professional what is more important area the teachers knowledge and beliefs about learning, teaching and subject matter’. These two points of view fit in with the ideas about direct teaching and active approaches to teaching. While Putnam and Borko seem to support a constructivism point of view when it comes to learning Hoyle and John seem to favour a more direct approach. However it must be noted that a public schools curriculum and the guidelines that the schools and education professionals have to follow are designed by the government and teachers have to follow these rules. Ultimately following these rules and teaching to the best of their abilities is what makes professionalism.
Looking at the subject of whether teaching and learning are inter-related I think that it is safe to conclude that they are. An effective learning environment is one where teachers and students learn together side by side with the teachers facilitating and encouraging the students learning. So teachers are continuously learning throughout their lives and their careers as education professionals. Pedagogy is also important as it is the teachers own learning experiences and memories that help shape what kind of teacher they themselves are going to be.
Churchill, R (et al) (2011) .Teaching making a Difference. Australia: John Wiley & Sons Australia, Ltd
Freire, P (2006) Pedagogy of the Oppressed. 30th Anniversary Ed. New York: The Continuum International Publishing group
Hill, S (2006) Developing early literacy Assessment and teaching, Prahran Victoria, Elanor Curtain Publishing
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Purdie, N. (2001) Students’ Perceptions of Teaching and Learning: the influence of students’ approaches to learning and teachers’ approaches to teaching. Teachers and Teaching: theory and practice, Vol. 7, No. 2, pp173‐187
Rowe, K,J (2006) Effective Teaching practices for students with and without learning difficulties: Constructivism as a legitimate theory of learning AND teaching? .Background paper to keynote address presented at the NSW DET ,Office of Schools Portfolio Forum, Wilkins Gallery, Sydney.
Sachs, J (2003) The Activist Teaching profession. Buckingham, Open University Press
Westwood, P (2008) What teachers need to know about teaching methods. Australia: ACER press