‘Even I saw the massive value of making learning active, inclusive and personalised’

Hilary Moriarty recalls her first experience away from traditional teaching methods and discusses how e-learning has brought teaching into the 21st century

Once upon a time, I thought I was the bees’ knees in the classroom. I loved teaching and I flattered myself that the pupils I taught loved learning. Sadly – or perhaps luckily for my ego – mine was an era in which students were not canvassed for their opinion of lessons/teaching. Inspection-ready proof, therefore, have I none.

But in today’s classroom, I think I might fail the scrutiny of an inspection.

I laboured for most of my professional career under the illusion that ‘to teach’ was an active verb – I qualified, I trained, I passed exams and inspections, and even won a university award for my teacher training year, and then I went into classrooms and lecture theatres and taught. Or possibly lectured. The basic premise was: I know these things now, you need to know them, so listen up and ye shall learn. How will I know you learned? By your exam result at the end.

Happy all round. If you were bored/detached/sullen on the journey, not to worry, as long as you got the stuff and tailored it for your exams, in a packed exam hall, on a hot day with hay fever, while your parents were getting a divorce – hard luck. Not my problem.

I am sorry to confess that I took pupils’ learning for granted, as they sat in their serried ranks, listening intently (OK, mostly) and making occasional notes. Hand on heart, en route to what I hoped would be good results for pupil and school, I cannot lay claim to ever having worried about a student’s capacity to hypothesise, still less about my capacity to engineer an opportunity for such skill to be demonstrated and made visible to a lurking inspector.

I do recall what I think of as the best class I ever taught, and that was accidental. Renovations in school caused my A-level class, reading Hamlet, to be relocated to a lecture hall. The space went to our heads. I asked them to act, rather than sit and read. Action, not passive, dutiful, receptive, note-making learning.

Much as I enjoyed ‘I teach, you sit and learn’ classes – oh, the ego – for this particular lesson I sat in the stalls and the girls took the stage. It was a revelation.

Much as I enjoyed ‘I teach, you sit and learn’ classes – oh, the ego – for this particular lesson I sat in the stalls and the girls took the stage. It was a revelation

To begin with, slight nervousness all round – huge space, teacher almost invisible in the dark auditorium, stage all theirs. They could walk, stride if they were the king and speak lines into the faces of characters if the script suggested aggression. Shout if necessary.

Ours was a very ‘just so’ school. The freedom of the big space was intoxicating. Our gentle, sober classroom-based previous classes had brought us to the point in the text where Hamlet’s dad, the king, is besieged by Laertes and his mob.

Throwing caution to the wind, I stationed half the class out in the corridor and told them to riot. Bang on the doors. Shout. Demand entrance for Laertes and his men. Fight your way in and threaten death and destruction!

The girls left inside assumed great dignity as the king – “I am guiltless of thy father’s death” – and his courtiers awaited their fate. Such drama. Such contrast of words and actions, feeling and belief. Such fun.

I like to think my sixth formers remember this occasion as one of their best sessions; they brought the situation, the sentiments, the anxieties of Hamlet’s world, to life. They surely hypothesised – one reflecting on Laertes, “He’s really p—-d off, isn’t he?” I could have told them that in the classroom, but they would have ‘known’ it in a completely different way, and maybe not at all if they were actually thinking of the many things that fill a teenager’s brain instead of being riveted by Hamlet’s existential crisis.

So, much as I loved the centre stage spotlight afforded to the old-style teacher – “I know, you don’t, listen to me and I will tell you, and don’t interrupt” – even I saw the massive value of making learning active, inclusive and personalised.

Seismic shift

And in the year of the great coronavirus, what do we have now? Surely a seismic shift in the whole business of teaching and learning.

And – so far as one can tell at this stage, and before the realities of exam results as they emerge from this year’s dramatically different system – it seems education is flourishing. In particular, it appears that teachers dyed in the same 20th-century wool as me are, to mix a metaphor, coming into the sunlight. Staff, students, parents, all happy. The triple crown.

If it were true that many senior teachers were less comfortable with digital, 2020 has offered the seismic shift, both in attitude and practice, to bring the business of teaching into the 21st century. Our pupils are children of the digital revolution. Get over it. Get with the programme. Go online.

And when it mattered, that’s what they did. Like large parties of would-be bathers who had stood at the pool’s edge for the last couple of years and finally got pushed in – they could swim! And they loved it; and the kids loved it.

For many teachers that had been forever ‘put-offable’ and ‘no time for it anyway’, getting with the programme and becoming computer-savvy became possible and even fun. Welcome to the new army of Ted-talkers, with the bonus of audience participation and repeat as often as you wish. It’s revolutionary, but what else would you expect from the future?

From these acorns, oaks are surely possible. A complete revolution in schools, their structure and timings, their demands for attendance – and is that for children to learn because they are sitting in the same room? Or to provide day care for parents who will all be working in the way that, pre-war, only men worked, and mum existed to keep house and home and be there if a child was unwell.

It would be sad if we ever decided that releasing mums into the workforce was really the major reason for having schools at all, but we’re already halfway there with the creation of wrap-around care provision at the top and bottom of the day in many, if not most, schools.

It’s as if schools just got shoved into the digital age, in which students have any information they need at their fingertips when they want it.

It must seem that there is no point in ‘learning’ anything, when you can just look it up when you need it. The apps on the phone multiply and they are open all hours. My parents had a small set of three encyclopaedias – my heart used to sink at the words, “Now, I want you to research…” Now, it’s on the phone. And theirs, in every classroom.

Which may leave us with an interesting question, to follow this extraordinary year: in the 21st century, what are schools for?

Hilary Moriarty is an independent advisor for schools, a former head and former national director of The Boarding Schools’ Association.

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