Teaching is the art of sharing a lightbulb moment without throwing shade

Teaching: Hard lessons well worth learning prove that every child has potential, given the right instruction

28 September 2017 - 07:23 By jonathan jansen
SHINING EXAMPLES With competent teaching, any pupil can glow, even in the darkness of our education crisis
SHINING EXAMPLES With competent teaching, any pupil can glow, even in the darkness of our education crisis
Image: iStock.

It took me two weeks to prepare an hour-long lesson on the subject of refraction for Grade 8 science pupils in a rural township school outside Worcester. Two weeks.

Though I have a Bachelor of Science degree, I had not taught high school science for a long time and my training was really to teach senior biology - or what they call the "life sciences" these days.

How did I end up with this challenging assignment? I was critical of the teaching of five mainly young teachers in this new township school. Having briefly observed their Grade 8 classrooms I saw little passion for the subject, almost no evidence of enthusiasm for teaching and little sense that the pupils were leaping out of their seats in response to what was happening inside these sedate classrooms.

Having shared my criticisms in the debriefing session, the teachers instructed me: "Okay, so you think we can't teach? Why don't you come and give a model lesson?" Fair enough. But I soon realised this was a major task.

I read books on refraction. I consulted expert teachers of Grade 8 science. I collected equipment for experiments on refraction. I prepared a multimedia presentation on the subject. I redesigned the teaching plan at least nine times until I was sure that the content matched the context, that the mode of delivery fitted the time of day (early afternoon teaching requires a very different energy from early morning instruction), and that the starting point for teaching refraction was based on clear assumptions about what the pupils already knew. This is a complex thing, teaching. And I had built-in contingency plans if anything went wrong - what if the ray box would not switch on at the last minute?

After playing the booming song Ice Ice Baby - to which the pupils were invited to dance - I asked whether Vanilla Ice was right in his lyrics: "Turn off the light and I'll glow."

Clearly this made no sense. But it raises the question - how do we see things around us? Light travels from the object into the eye, concluded the discussion. It did not take long to convince the pupils with a simple demonstration using a ray box that light travels through the air in a straight line. Until they put various glass blocks and lenses in front of the ray of light and then it bent. Refraction. This is the key learning - light bends.

Quickly I realised that these were second- or third-language English pupils. So to say light is distorted or that light bends because the density of water is greater than that of air means that the science lesson is now also an English lesson - distortion and density are big words that require attention.

Okay, so light bends. Then the famous coin in the bowl experiment. Move backwards slowly until you cannot see the coin below the rim. Good. Now pour water into the bowl. Wow, the coin becomes visible. Faces light up as the volunteers suddenly see it.

My assistants explain to the pupils through skilful questioning - the coin becomes visible because the light rays bend as they move from water to air, revealing the coin to the eye that could not see it when there was only air in the bowl. Heads nod in understanding.

Then the spear-the-fish photograph familiar to science teachers. Where the man with the spear realises an image of the fish underwater is not really where the fish is because rays of light bend as they move from the water into the air, placing the image in a different position in the water. So where should the man aim the spear as the fish comes towards him? The pupils grapple with the problem but soon agree that the spear must be launched in front of where the man thinks he sees the fish.

Most of the time is spent doing science through simple, hands-on experiments.

Much time is in groups where pupils discuss these various problems with facilitation. The pupils predict, draw the pathways of light, pose questions and suggest answers. What did you get out of this lesson, I ask one group of pupils - participation, they say.

I conclude the lesson with four short assessment questions to determine whether the pupils actually learnt the key points. They quickly mark each other's work. A majority get all four questions right.

There are five core lessons for teaching. One, when you teach in disadvantaged schools, almost every lesson is a compensatory act; you are making up for lost time, for things not learnt earlier.

Two, when you teach in any context, planning a lesson takes much, much more time than delivering the lesson. That is why giving professional teachers pre-planned lessons is such a dangerous thing when contexts are so remarkably different.

Three, learning a subject can be exciting, regardless of whether it is science or economics or languages. It simply requires a passion for what and whom is taught. Four, learning is the only outcome that matters. Yes, teaching is performance. But unless the children learn something, there is no point.

And five, there is nothing wrong with the children. With competent and committed teaching, any pupil can glow, even in the darkness of our education crisis.