He was the only person I had ever met who was able to dislocate his shoulder so that he could write on the board while continuing to watch our class.
Slick D.—, or more properly, Mr .D—, facing front, would eyeball us with his arm twisting grotesquely behind his back writing perfectly aligned history notes in a neat hand. For Slick D.— had discovered what very few teachers ever learn: that there are at least three worlds in a classroom. The best teachers know about each. The best technology magnifies the best aspects of each.
On one occasion, Mr D.— missed something that went on in his classroom. And it was probably this that forced him to take a closer look at what was happening and to develop the remarkable trick of dislocating his shoulder (or so it seemed) to deliver his notes to the class.
It was a Tuesday afternoon, the long last lesson of the day at 5:00pm. A winter semester. 17 of us in the class. Boys, restless, playful, pale, but not disrespectful. Sitting in rows of desks. Andrew, one of my closest friends hiding at the back, deciding it was time to ‘wake’ me up.
A favourite trick was to set light to a boy’s jacket and watch the small flames roll up the back in a small wave, singeing its extra hairs before petering out. The stench was horrid and it usually provided entertaining distraction to an otherwise overly regulated class.
That day it was different. I was too far from Andrew to set fire to. Instead, he elected ‘death’ by ink pellet.
In the course of 10 minutes he rolled up a small sheet of paper, about the size of the post-it note. He bent in half, soaked it in saliva and then dipped it for a minute or so into ink. And then, when Mr D.— was not looking (reading something at his teacher’s desk with head bowed), Andrew launched his missile from a thick elastic band directly at me.
The problem was his understanding of ballistics. The ink pellet was heavier than he thought and, although it was travelling very quickly, it dropped short of its target, bouncing off a desk before screeching across the classroom to strike down Slick D.—, now preparing his notes on William Gladstone.
The problem for me was the pellet that had cracked into Mr. D.— ’s forehead, like the stone from David’s sling, appeared to have come from my hand. The fallout was unpleasant. I was expelled from the classroom for protesting my innocence, pointing to a freshly inked desk, and without due process given a semester’s worth of detentions and after-class punishments.
Next I was sent to my housemaster to explain my actions. He asked me if I had fired the offending pellet and I said no. He asked me a second time, and I told him that I neither made nor discharged it. Without hesitation he said that was sufficient, dismissed me, got up and went to see Mr D.—. When he came back he told me everything was sorted. Why? I asked. ‘Because you didn’t do it,’ he replied.
The housemaster, Edward, held his post 40 years, just getting better in the role. He is held to be one of the most exceptional and most formative in the school’s history. He created trust and led from it. He was like a really good father and friend.
Mr. D.— learned from the experience, too. He became a better teacher for it. He had already grasped that a classroom is made up of two worlds: the public world where a teacher and students inhabit the same space, interacting and with the teacher explaining things. And then secondly, the private world of the student. A sphere where individual students make decisions about what to focus on and how to learn effectively (especially with ‘homework’).
But what Mr D.— learned that bleak Tuesday evening, although he had no doubt intuited it already, was that every classroom as a third sphere to it: the world of the students, peer-to-peer.
On that Tuesday afternoon the peer-to-peer world was about pellets; on other occasions it concerned notes furtively passed hand-to-hand on football team selections, or pending theatrical rehearsals with girls from a nearby school.
Slick D.—’s teaching improved. Not so much because he learned, Quasimodo-like, to pop his shoulder to watch us while he was writing notes on the board, but because he started taking seriously the power of peer-to-peer interaction and learning. It was a sphere he slowly began to expand into.
Many years later, I discovered high quality research underlining how little teachers know about what really goes on in their classroom—in that third sphere. And further, that students already comprehend as much as 40% of what a teacher intends to teach them (and hence much of the messing around or ‘off topic’ activity that takes place during a lesson). Fascinatingly, students who made positive use of this world, chewing on concepts with peers, outperformed by every measure those who solely relied on their teacher for learning.
A downside to this third space is it can become nasty. Precious time can be wasted in it, too. An upside is it remains a favourable environment for very powerful learning to take place in.
To reiterate in the three worlds of a classroom there is the public space of teacher-student interaction (the teacher doing the teaching); the private space of self-selected/directed learning (the student alone); and then, vitally, a peer-to-peer space. Depending on the strategies employed and the personality types, this third arena can become exceptionally powerful for facilitating learning. Peer-to-peer discussion, learning from one another, testing concepts, ferreting out a weak argument, questioning information, making learning visible, manipulating an idea publicly as if it were a football for everyone to see and take a kick at – these activities can make learning gorgeous.
Mr D.— to give him his due was diligent and effective history teacher. And despite his buzzard-like gaze, was fond of his students (generally). He might have been even better if, having been made painfully aware of the world of the students in his classroom, he had done more to enter into it. The summary image I have shows him standing in front of the class trying to control everything, under-utilising the richest assets available to him: the students.
The same risks are present today with educational technology. It offers enormously rich assets to aid learning in the three worlds of the classroom. But these can be neglected.
All of us (parents, teachers, policy writers, etc.), if we haven’t already, need to grasp that Twitter, Facebook, Vimeo, Instagram, Pinterest etc.— enable us to share material quickly and memorably. Further, that digital technology can magnify direct, real-time communication between teachers and students or between peers. I have taught a range of subjects using, for instance, GoToMeeting (an audio-video package enabling simultaneous and multiple connections) to students spread across Australia—from the tropics of Darwin to rural farms in outback Queensland, and remote mining communities in Western Australia. I have not mastered the medium, but I am getting there. It is not a silver bullet that will vanquish the monster Ignorance, but it is a very sharp arrow that will certainly damage it.
Apps, too, are playing an increasingly important role in the ‘personal learning’ space. That second sphere of the classroom, where we individually make decisions about what to focus on and grapple with, and how to remember information and test our learning, will be radically impacted and assisted by educational apps. As they figure out our learning weaknesses and give us a variety of new routes to deal with these, they will become a breath-taking educational asset. It takes at least 3 or 4 interactions with new material to grasp it. Apps and educational programmes will simplify these interactions.
Take away points: There are at least three ‘worlds’ in a classroom. A public world where students interact with a teacher. A private world where individual students work out for themselves, the best approach to learning something. And perhaps the most important world—the third one—a peer-to-peer sphere. Research consistently affirms we learn efficiently through conversation and from interaction with one another. Many teachers miss just how much is going on in their classes in the peer-to-peer realm, and fail to use it effectively. The growth in EdTech will continue amplify learning in each of these spheres. Apps will play a particularly prominent role in personal learning. Games, conferencing software, video and social media will continue expand their presence in peer-to-peer and teacher-student learning.
Nuttall, G. A. The cultural myths and the realities of teaching and learning: http://www.educationalleaders.govt.nz/Pedagogy-and-assessment/Evidence-based-leadership/Data-gathering-and-analysis/The-cultural-myths-and-realities-of-teaching-and-learning
With Reference to Nuttall’s ‘Hidden Lives of Learners’ and the three ‘worlds’ I describe: http://www.nuthalltrust.org.nz/publications.shtml
Franz Schubert: Winterreise with Alfred Brendel (piano) and Dietrich Fischer Dieskau (and English subtitles):