Final thoughts from the classroom

I have now finished my term of casual teaching in Darwin. It has been an interesting and extremely valuable experience. It has been refreshing, albeit exhausting, to remind myself of the everyday experiences of the clients I serve as an education officer. While I did not have a class of my own, or have much opportunity to participate in planning and assessment, I still found the chance to be immersed in the school environment worthwhile. This experience has reminded me of a number of things I already knew but was beginning to forget. It also shed light on from a different perspective. I’m glad I can return to my position as an Education Officer, and I will bring back some new ideas and a new resolve. I wanted to share some of the things I noticed, learnt, considered and have come to believe as a result of my experience. These are generalisations, but I think they still represent truths worth considering.

Classroom realities that GLAM education professionals should remember:

1. Behaviour is the biggest influence on a classroom learning environment.
True, I taught in some tough schools with low socio-economic families and high level of ESL, and not all schools are like that, but we want to cater for as many students as possible. I also taught in one of the most elite private schools up here. It was this range of experiences reminded me the key role behaviour management plays in the running of successful learning experiences. When we (EOs) develop programs and resources, this is something we need to keep in mind. Most Education Officers can successfully alter an onsite learning program to meet the needs and level of the students in front of them. How education resources are used, on the other hand, is out of our control. I know that I only used one of my own programs while I was teaching here. This was mainly because I didn’t have the planning time (or resources, eg. computer, photocopier password), but when I did, it was because I knew the lessons were far beyond the students I was teaching. Some of the Year 4/5s I was teaching were reading at a Year 1 level, and if I asked them to write something independently, the would begin a series of work avoidance behaviours that ranged from quiet refusal to complete classroom disruption. Unless I wanted to loose the whole class to mayhem, I wasn’t going to give my programs a go.

2. Many schools have rigid learning plans and content guidelines
We often hear about a crowded curriculum and other constraints placed on teachers. This reality means that excursion experiences and use of resources can be affected. While most schools seem very capable, even strongly encouraged, to organise day excursions, fewer have the opportunity or the inclination to meaningfully connect them to the learning program. I know EOs see this all the time – kids that have no idea why they are on excursion or what they are meant to be gaining from the experience. I was in one class the day after they had been on an excursion to Parliament House to coincide with a unit on Australian History/Federation. The students completed a recount of their experience, and it was clear they had a great time, but there was little evidence the teacher planned to expand upon their experiences or bounce off their enthusiasm.

3. Teachers are creatures of habit
This is not to suggest they are not willing to learn or try new things, but as they already have limited time and the issues in points one and two to deal with, many teachers seem to stick with what they know. They seem to be more open to new ideas that come hand in hand with a formal professional development experience. New teaching ideas that require careful consideration, planning and resource prep, and those that do not seamlessly blend into current classroom practices are not readily taken on.

4. Many (although definitely not all) teachers like it delivered on a platter
Again, because of the points above, teachers seem more willing to try new ideas if they are easy to follow, require little preparation and will keep the kids on task. This seems more true of primary school teachers or secondary teachers outside their main subject area. For these teachers, textbooks still seem to be a top choice as they require teachers to have little or no background knowledge.

5. Kids still hate comprehension
Many of the humanities textbooks that teachers rely on still focus on comprehension – that is, supply factual information in a text format and then follow with questions that require students to retrieve particular points from the information given. Most students I taught who were completing activities like this didn’t have great skills at retrieving the information and saw the questions in isolation to the text (and then wondered how they could be expected to know the answer!). So the challenge for EOs is to balance points 4 and 5.

These realities have left me with some questions to think about over the coming months. Some I feel I have partial answers to, but I look forward to being able to confer with my EO colleagues.
– How do we encourage adventurous use of GLAM resources without losing teachers?
– How do we create resources that cater for both the rigidity of curriculum plans with the variety of student needs and capabilities?
– Is the longevity of our resources more important than direct links to a current exhibition? Will those resources without reliance on a connection to a current exhibition allow us to become part of a teachers habitual repertoire?
– How can we foster meaningful excursion experiences? (Yes, the timeless question we will always be asking.)

My thinking on these questions so far is:
– We need variety. We need easy to follow activities that teachers can pick up and run 10 minutes later, but we also need challenging open-ended activities to suit the more adventurous and experienced teacher. We need activities that can introduce challenge concepts without requiring strong literacy skills from students.
– Professional Development (particularly when linked to a formal educational theory or expert) goes miles towards increasing our legitimacy in the eyes of teachers. It also provides a platform for them to ask questions and test ideas, increasing their willingness to try new things.
– Resources that have as much longevity as possible (do not require a visit to a short-term exhibition or website) may increase the number of teachers who use our resources. Then if they come to use the resources as a standard part of their learning program they may be more willing to try new or more complex ideas we produce.

I will keep pondering these questions, but in the meantime I wonder: what are your thoughts? Do my experiences gel with yours? How in your institution facing these challenges?

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