If you want teachers to innovate, don't train them using a sage on a stage
Teacher Matt Esterman talks about his dream schools with no boundaries and why he’s developing a Tinder-style app for professional development courses. Matt Esterman is a history teacher at St Scholastica’s college, Glebe Point, in Australia. He has been a teacher for 12 years.
I used to want to be Indiana Jones. I studied ancient history at university and had plans to become an archaeologist. But my mum said, “You know there aren’t many jobs in archaeology” so after my first year I studied education as well.
Teaching was a natural fit for me. I like working with people, and it enabled me to pursue my passion for history with a practical and valuable purpose. Luckily, there were already a few teachers in the family, including my mum, so I knew that teaching was more than just a job. It’s a vocation – something that you take on before the bell rings at the start of the day and continue to think about after you leave.
I’m really interested in how school spaces are designed. I was recently invited to take part in a state-funded project that’s turning a university campus into a lifelong learning village, with facilities for six to 12-year-olds and higher education students. My main role has been to assist professor Stephen Heppell with his consultancy work, talking to people in the community about the plans.
As well as having offices on site for the education authorities, the plan is for the village to include co-working spaces for startups and other businesses that students might like to experience, and have a live-in facility so that visiting schools can stay overnight and work on projects.
It’s going beyond just delivering the curriculum and is poised to be what we truly need in the 21st century: a place where students learn by what they can do rather than how old they are, with teachers collaborating not just with each other but with students, parents and other relevant parties.
My dream school wouldn’t have any physical fences. And it wouldn’t matter if you were a baby, an elderly person or a busy single mum, everyone would have the opportunity to learn there. I’d love to see kids scoot through the curriculum at their own pace, but still be part of a social group of kids of a similar age. I’d love to see senior students teaching younger ones, because translating what you’ve learned for someone else makes you consolidate your knowledge. And I’d love technology to just be part of the school. Rather than having the computer room booked out for an hour, kids can just pick up a device and do what they need to do when they need to do it.
Along with a primary teacher called Henrietta Miller I brought TeachMeets to Australia. We heard about it separately and then joined forces in our area. It started very modestly in 2011; in March the following year we had what we still think is one of the largest TeachMeets outside of a conference, with more than 300 people rocking up.
It’s really appealed to teachers because it’s enabled us to take control of our own learning. You don’t need to ask permission to go, it’s free and open. And you can choose when to listen, adopt and reject things. The spray and pray approach to training, where you blanket everyone with an idea and hope it sticks to some people, is terribly inefficient. We talk about personalised learning for students all the time, but not so much for teachers.
Those who take part in TeachMeets leave with new ideas they can use in the classroom. They also leave with new colleagues to partner with, or with a bit of inspiration to keep them going for the rest of term. Some ideas that are shared include ways to bring creativity into the classroom, ways to engage the most marginalised students using sock puppets to encourage conversations: anything and everything is available for presentation and discussion. The beauty of the event is that it’s about teachers and students coming together to better what we do.
My partner, Atul Pandey, and I have been developing a free professional development app. It’s called Everyone’s Lifelong Learning App (ELLA). For a couple of years I’ve been thinking that there must be a way teachers can decide what courses to go on more efficiently and effectively. The idea we came up with is an app that lets you tap in your preferences . It will then feed through a carousel of potential events you might be interested in. You’ll be able to click through to the ones you like or flick them off Tinder style. This will hopefully generate a profile of the things you’re interested in, and then registering for events should be quick and easy, which it isn’t at the moment.
We need to adapt to reflect the changing world kids are living in. All aspects of their lives will – directly or indirectly – be affected by technology. They need to learn the skills of critical analysis, thinking, communication and the digital literacies that will help them navigate a completely different world to that of today.
If we don’t offer them new ways of learning that move away from traditional methods, they’ll turn their backs and say thanks anyway, but I’ll do a massive open online course (Mooc) on engineering because that’s what I’m interested in. They’ll turn up to your class because they’re legally required to be there, but their minds will be somewhere else.
When it comes to the future of schools, the trick is integrating being innovative into teacher training. We talk about needing to move away from sage on the stage, but do you know what, that’s how we’re taught and that’s our experiences of seeing teachers practice quite often, so why would we think any other way? It’s really hard for people to be innovative when they haven’t seen people do this. Training could use pre- and post-session engagement through social media discussions, webinars, video conferences so learning is about more than just the workshop at the moment it happens.
Originally published in The Guardian