inTuition taster: Watch and Learn with Susan Wallace

Written by Susan Wallace, a professor emerita of education at Nottingham Trent University.

I have vivid memories, aged about 13, of sitting in despair as our maths teacher wrote up solutions to algebra problems on the chalkboard with her right hand while simultaneously deleting them with the board rubber held in her left. This gave each line of the solution about 30 seconds’ exposure before being obliterated forever.

Far from being impressed by her ambidexterity, I was – and remain – perplexed as to why she would do this. My difficulty was exacerbated by the fact that she performed this feat while muttering explanations directly to the chalkboard at a volume just below what is audible to the human ear.

Since then, I have had the privilege of observing countless lessons during the course of my professional career, many excellent and none – I am delighted to say – which have matched that one for awfulness.

But some have come close, and perhaps one way we can get something positive out of them is to heed them as a warning of what not to do if our intention is to be effective. Here are four major mistakes that the would-be excellent teacher needs to avoid. Starting the lesson by telling the learners they’re not going to enjoy the topic about to be covered. This is usually prefaced by the teacher saying something like: “I know this is boring, but we’ve got to do it.” This is often said under the misguided impression that it will create a sense of solidarity with the learners. But, let’s face it, who wants to be told: “I’m now going to bore you for 40 minutes?” When I hear this, I have to resist the urge to rise to my feet and say loudly, “Find a way to make it interesting then! That’s your job!” Of course, I do eventually say exactly this, but only afterwards, privately, and in a nice way.

Talking to the screen. This is understandable, perhaps, with new teachers, but unfortunately they’re not the only ones who do it. Turning your back on a sea of faces who might be waiting to hang on your every word – but might equally just be waiting for you to make a terrible mistake – may seem to offer a momentary sense of safety. But turning your back is about as effective as putting a bucket on your head: it’s no real protection from disaster and – worse – you won’t even see disaster coming. And, of course, it sends completely the wrong message. If we want to communicate effectively with someone and build up a rapport, we don’t turn our back on them.
Treating a wrong answer as though it’s stupid. It’s very dispiriting to hear an incorrect answer greeted with a blunt “No!” or “Wrong!” or even “Rubbish!” It destroys the confidence and motivation of the learner (doubly disastrous if they didn’t have much of either in the first place); it discourages others from engaging with the lesson; it engenders fear in the class – one of the greatest barriers to learning; and it doesn’t teach anyone anything except that learning carries the threat of humiliation.

And there are perfectly good positive ways to respond. “Good try!” “Nearly right.” “Interesting idea, but I need a bit more.” Or: “I like your thinking, but that’s not the right answer.” (We can thank Victoria Coren Mitchell on Only Connect for that one.)

Always having to be the one who knows everything. There are three things a good teacher learns to say quite early in their career. They are: “I don’t know”, “I was wrong about that” and “Does anyone else know?” As teachers, we need a sound grasp of our subject. But no one expects us to be a walking Wikipedia.

What we do need is the ability to guide our learners towards finding things out for themselves and the willingness to use their existing skills and knowledge as an added resource.

None of us are perfect. The upside of our mistakes is that we can learn from them. I could write a whole article about what I’ve learned from my own. And, needless to say, I’ve never really got the hang of algebra.