Handing over learning to pupils

By Brigitte Pietschmann, May 2013

Pupils do not want to be handed finished solutions. They are not files in which knowledge is stored. They need challenges which awaken their appetite to ask questions.

© Sven Jungtow

Chemistry main lesson in class 9: the pupils are preparing an experiment in groups of four in which they are meant to find out how much sugar can be dissolved in 100 ml of water. How can the quantity of sugar be measured? One girl suggests putting more and more sugar into the water and then at the end filtering it out again. Silence in the class and expectant interest. The teacher explains why that will not work and proposes two other possibilities. 

While he presents his proposals, there is chatter and restlessness in the class, interest wanes. As the groups construct their experiments, they encounter the problem of measuring the sugar again. Either they find a solution themselves or ask their teacher – this time they listen attentively. The learning process has worked.

Questions make things stick

“It is certainly true,” the German children’s author, poet and satirist Erich Kästner said, “that questions make things stick.” For adults this means understanding children and young people in such a way that they create learning situations which can ignite the interest of the learners.

Learning content should be as attractive as a riddle. But teachers can also ask with genuine interest what the pupils already know about a subject. Children and young people are competent representatives of their generation and often have a lot to offer. Teachers should actively listen to the learners before lecturing them. At minimum, this will bring the questions of the young people to the surface and ensure that the listeners have a focus for what the teacher is telling them. A reversal of old teaching habits!

“Teaching is not telling, teaching is guiding discovery”

This ideal, put into words by Lynn Staley in The art of awareness is reflected in open tasks. The latter can support active learning processes because they are tasks which pupils can undertake in accordance with their abilities and which enable them to grow. Pupils deal in quite different ways with the demand in an English lesson: “Write down any words you can think of in five minutes”. The teacher can see who can do what and who has what learning needs. A correction by the teacher in which the pupil can discover something new is mostly more productive than one which serves to check learning goals.

Anxiety paralyses

Do the pupils experience a secure emotional environment, do they, for example, dare to experiment and make mistakes? Learners need to know that the adults have confidence in them. That is possible in the protected group of the class with teachers to whom the pupils can relate. Pupils need the experience that the adults help them in solving their problems and questions. Teachers who only ever want to examine create anxiety, and anxiety, as we know, paralyses. A relaxed learning atmosphere enables pupils to relate to their strengths and weaknesses and to what they have already learnt and can use in the present situation. They connect with the person teaching them and the task which has been prepared for them. The task should be set in such a way that it promises success because without the prospect of succes there is no effort, and without effort there is prospect of success! Children or young people should not have to manage everything on their own. Apart from the supporting adults, there are also fellow pupils one can ask. Their potential is still greately underused in our classrooms. If teachers as much as possible create the conditions in which pupils can learn from one another, they have much fewer disciplinary problems because talking with one another becomes legitimate and with increasing frequency serves the problem solving which is part of learning.

Working with partners or in groups requires practice. That needs time and attention. Many teachers give up too quickly and do not allow themselves to make mistakes when they introduce new working methods to their pupils. Most pupils will work in teams in later life and should have that experience in school already.

Quiet after the storm

Sustained learning requires the understanding phase after the experience. “What did I do in lessons today and what did I learn?” This question should be asked frequently in an age-appropriate way – at the end of the school day with the little children or at the end of the lesson with the older ones, and certainly at least at the end of a main lesson. As happens so often, it is the adults and the way in which they pose the question who can have a positive effect on the pupils with their question or inappropriately seek to elicit a judgement from the younger children. Asking the right question needs to be learnt! Good questions are only rarely asked off the cuff! “What did you like today?” lets the pupils evaluate what they have experienced. “What things have you learnt today?”, in contrast, directs the attention to lesson content. There is no learning if we remain wholly in the the sphere of what we have already experienced. In Education for Adolescents, Rudolf Steiner describes this in the following three steps of learning:

To begin with, the teacher creates an inner picture in the pupils through the description of an historical situation, or he or she undertakes an experiment in physics or chemistry, or uses a story to introduce a new letter. The pupil’s whole person is engaged – the first step. In the second step, the teacher recalls details with the pupils and reviews what has been heard. The pupils are involved with their feeling and thinking. In the following night, the images which the pupils have brought with them from the day combine with the ones they already possess. The third step occurs in the next lesson when the images which the pupils bring along are ordered, supplemented and carried forward.

Creating a framework and diving for pearls

Admittedly it initially creates more work to prepare learning situations in such a way that the pupils can work actively: a clear framework of content and chronology must be set out in which the pupils can  gather their experiences. How can such work be organised? When are the results presented to whom? In class 8, my pupils worked in sets of two on the phenomena of English grammar with an introduction, a practice phase and a test which they also marked themselves. The overall comment from the learning group at the end of the school year was: “It was a super atmosphere for learning. We did everything ourselves. That was fun.” If, as a teacher, I trust my pupils to organise their learning and give them appropriate tasks, how can I check what is really going on? The plain answer is that I have to train my perception. If teachers become pearl divers on the lookout for the qualities of the young people entrusted to their care, and also communicate what they have discovered, the teacher’s life remains interesting and exciting. Evaluation turns into perception of values, correction turns into revision, that is, the concrete prompting of improvements in a further version. From “You made an effort, but …” to “I noticed on page 3 ... how can you do something similar on page 5?” Teachers who truly hand over learning to their pupils remain learners themselves. They understand their profession such that they observe, reflect on, follow up and improve the learning processes in the children and young people with an involved interest. When learning teachers support one another in intervision groups or fixed collegial teams, the pleasure in learning is kept alive. Lone fighters have a much harder time of it.

About the author: Brigitte Pietschmann, is an English teacher at the Schwäbisch Hall Free Waldorf School and works as a counsellor for school development and conflicts in Waldorf schools and kindergartens. Moderator of further training for teachers and parents.