Listening to our pupils

How often do we stop in our schools today to ask our young people what they really think? How often do we ponder how a child’s mind is working? What are their burning questions and interests? All too often we are in a rush to ‘deliver our lesson plans.’ In the process we inadvertently shut down channels of true engagement with the minds of the young people we teach.

Now, I am not saying that teachers should somehow avoid direct instruction or refrain from passing on knowledge. We need actively to pass on knowledge and to introduce children to all kinds of areas of human thought and achievement. How else are they going to discover or understand things? I agree with Daisy Christodoulou in her excellent book Seven Myths about Education that ‘learning depends on teachers passing on key ‘building blocks’ of knowledge to students so that they become lodged firmly in the memory.’  This process need not be one way; it has to involve dialogue.

In many ways our exam-driven system does not help to promote genuine teacher-pupil dialogue; rather it dooms us to practise a kind of ‘instruction from without’ which, in turn, encourages pupils’ passive reception of information and teaches pupils how to perform, rather than how to think. Karl Popper called this approach the Bucket Theory of Mind, whereby the teacher imposes the agenda. Yet the teacher-led lesson is the complete opposite of the active, self directed learning we know we want to foster.

Every teacher knows that learning is a product of the activity of the learner. The growth of knowledge proceeds through an active, creative process in which the learner needs to be engaged. A small shift in our practice from asking closed questions to open-ended ones invites children to think and, most importantly, to solve problems. We work very hard on this technique at St Mary’s Calne.

It is obvious but equally important to remind ourselves that open-ended questions have many possible answers. They invite the children to think and solve problems. As children express their ideas, they learn to participate in the back-and-forth flow of conversation.

Asking open-ended questions can be an effective way to encourage thoughtful conversation and to encourage children to explore new possibilities, clarify their thinking, and solve problems, talk and share ideas.

We should aim to have richer and more varied conversations with our pupils, inviting children to express their own ideas in their own words. We should find ways of signalling to children that their opinion counts, and we would like to hear what they think. So let’s stop ‘delivering lessons’ and instead focus on ways to allow children to clarify their ideas and generate alternatives to follow through on their own ideas, test them, discover what works, and talk about them.