As I progress through the teaching year of 2013 at Opotiki College I am developing a strong, student focussed, personal teaching philosophy.  I have become ‘tuned in’  to the learning needs of my students so much so, that I now view this perspective as the critical disposition for effective learning and planning.  To base my teaching on the assumptions and expectations about the learning needs of my students is simply wrong and that explains my title “The tail that wags the dog”.  This is a reference to how we as teachers, educators and ministry agents, often dictate the learning methods, content and reporting mode of topics to our students.   We all too often set about teaching  assessment-driven or prescriptive tasks in an effort to gain performance and achievement criteria that neatly tick off standards for the satisfaction of the technocratic predators that we think watch, wait,  measure and judge.  (This is another blog….I don’t believe that these guys even exist in big numbers now).P1010398

If the students in our school are important then lets call them the dog in this metaphor.  This then allows the educational process and the function of learning to be aptly labelled as the tail.  How often does the school, the teacher, the national assessment machine and even parents dictate how, what, why and when our students learn?   We place on them foreign expectations and set standards that often have no relationship or bearing on the realities of life.  We sometimes, unwittingly,  place pens in the hands of the finger-less, books in front of the blind and speak in the ‘Queens English’ to those who don’t understand and say “perform like everyone else”.  When they do well, we pat ourselves on the back and say “I am a great teacher”.  When they don’t do so well we ‘deficit theorise’ or manipulate the statistics so things don’t look so bad.  Isn’t it about time we collaborated with our learners to form effective , meaningful and authentic learning processes and outcomes?  Outcomes that mean something and enable our students to flourish in the many contexts of the 21st Century.

My year 12 class are working very well this term.  They are writing about their most important food memory/experience which we will publish online, to produce a hard copy book simply called ‘Plenty’.  This work will help me assess  AS91302, Evaluate Sustainable Food Practices but so far I haven’t even mentioned this standard to them.  This work will also be assessed in their English class as well, allowing them to gain 12 credits overall.  Don’t get me wrong the standard will feature at some point for a little while.  I am working closely with their English teachers who are also assisting these students to write about their food experiences and establish some of the many  features of writing into their work.  These students are so engrossed in this that when I set a practical cooking task for them to do, which they normally love, at least ten of the twenty students chose to continue on with their writing.  One student took it upon himself to coach another, who was having difficulty with his story and spent a full block of 100 minutes sounding very much like a teacher.  “What did you feel, see, smell, hear…?” I heard him say several times.  The next step for them is to provide a recipe inspired by their food experience, which we will individually cook and refine and also take a high quality photograph to use in the book.  Did I mention that there are four photography students in this class as well as eight media students.  Let’s see, that makes a possible 16 -18 credits possible for some.  ‘Oh yes’ and let’s not forget the three music students who will also use music to report on this using their own compositions as a reporting tool.   Am I excited about all of this?  Hell yeah!

We have had a quick look at the student roles in this so now let’s have a closer look at the teacher role, my role.  Like me, students get really bored, really quickly if there is nothing in it for them.  I showed them a copy of a well-made online book that was about a 40th birthday party.  They were very interested in this otherwise boring event, why?   Quite simply it was similar to but slightly more difficult than editing a Facebook page.  It used technological tools and was based online.  It resulted in a high quality product.  It was interactive and allowed the student to have a certain creative control and it most importantly it was centered around and about an individual that they all knew.  In other words it had a familiar appeal for many reasons.  My role is simply to assist the students with their pathways and the best way to do this is to say “yes” as much as possible. Once the exciting initiating activity has been delivered my role is to stand back and not get in the way of the learning and act as a guide, rather than be the authority. In fact the more I teach the less I see myself as an authority and  I have also become the tail of the dog, wagging back and forth,  as I set about delivering the learning demands of my students.

To function this way requires a lot of faith and the relinquishing of the control that some teachers have engrained in their default mode. A familiar saying tells that we won’t  be able to teach an old dog new tricks but that is probably because we have always tried to tell the dog what to do.  Now more than ever we need to ensure that we build a learning disposition into our students to face our rapidly changing future.