When students become teachers and teachers become learners.


I gave a pair of 5 year old children some place-value blocks, a number flip chart and a brief explanation of how a number on the flip chart can be represented by the blocks. I then turned away to scan the classroom and to observe the other children doing their own maths activity. About 1 minute later I heard a child’s excited voice say, “Look, I’ve made 132”. I went to investigate. Yes indeed. The child had made 132 with the place-value blocks. I turned the camera on to capture the moment. You can hear my voice in the video prompting the child to repeat what he had already told me. Trust me on that. He was excited. He knew what he was talking about. He was aware of his achievement. I know that I had previously talked about the concept of place-value to the children. But it was more in a quick, “isn’t this interesting and useful thing to know”, kind of way.

I want to share this learning moment because I think it reveals a lot about effective teaching pedagogy.

132 was the child’s number. He chose it. That is, I didn’t instruct him to make 132. I simply said, “now it’s your turn to make a number”. The tone of his voice clearly indicated to me a sense of achievement and success. He knew he had achieved something significant. According to Education professor John Hattie,

“the biggest effects on student learning occur when teachers become learners of their own teaching, and when students become their own teachers”.

The child who had made 132 with the blocks had become his own teacher. I, the teacher, had just learned something new about teaching. Well actually, confirmed/validated a teaching practice that I was already in the process of exploring. 

From a teaching perspective, what did I confirm/validate?

Place value is a key concept in working with numbers but is not a concept I would expect all 5 year olds to pick up so quickly and easily. Nor should they. Children develop differently; in different areas and at different paces. In fact, I am surprised that this needs to be spelt out. That is not to say that the concept of place value should not be introduced to 5 year olds. The video shows that it is unwise to underestimate the capability of a 5 year old. It reinforces the value of the ‘provoke, listen, respond’ philosophy. And it supports the idea of provoking children at the highest order of thinking.

…all children are different and need to be provided with learning opportunities that cater best to their individualised needs.

A key element of the maths activity shown in the video is the concrete nature of the task. It’s about manipulating and experiencing and testing. Getting a sense of what numbers mean. Visual, physical, tactile. All too often I see children being asked to complete tasks that are way too abstract and paper based. By providing more physical activities like this you can, at the very least, save on your school’s photocopying budget.

Interestingly, the child’s working buddy was more interested in fitting the blocks together in a creative pattern than creating and solving his own place value problem. He was engaged, but not in the way I had intended. But that’s cool. It was good for me to see that too. This learning opportunity only went on for a few minutes anyway. If that child was ‘into’ that task, I anticipate that he would have been inspired and been able to learn place-value from his peer. Maybe another day. No big deal. But once again, all children are different and need to be provided with learning opportunities that cater best to their individualised needs. Flexible, dynamic, organic. I have said it before in previous blog posts, the current education system only works for some students. Many students are disengaged. And this increases as students get older.

…we are talking 5 year olds here. They should still be playing. We are asking them to engage in formalised learning way too early…

The time I allocated for this task was short. Enough time to give the children a chance to develop and practice. But not enough time to be bored and disengaged. I always make a note of activities that don’t provoke a positive response from the children. I try to be flexible. I won’t give up on a task immediately. I will try a different approach. And some things are not negotiable. For example, during whole class sharing opportunities, the expectation is that children will listen actively and respectfully. I took the children outside to fly a kite the other day. They just wanted to play on the playground. Maybe I’ll try again. I used to love flying kites when I was a child. How could modern day children be so unenthusiastic about flying kites?

I want to develop confident, curious learners who can take risks and learn from their mistakes.

When the children are engaged in an activity that is genuinely interesting to them, negative behaviours are not an issue. Obvious really, eh. Based on personal observations and reflections, the same concept applies to adults too. And of course, we are talking 5 year olds here. They should still be playing. We are asking them to engage in formalised learning way too early anyway. Before it’s developmentally appropriate. 7 years old seems to be the magic number. It would seem that Bryan Bruce and I have been reading the same research. See for yourself, in his documentary about the New Zealand education system.  

I try to provide a balance between independent learning and guiding students through some specific learning tasks. (Once again, bearing in mind that they are still only 5 years old). I want to develop confident, curious learners who can take risks and learn from their mistakes. I take my role as the gatekeeper of what and how the children get to learn, very seriously. Of course I need the children to meet the National Standards that have been imposed from above. But I also want them to be curious and engaged. I am discovering that with the right input, the children seem to be able to have their cake and eat it too. With the right type of activities and input from me, the children seem to find their own pathway to success. I think the place-value experience highlights this proposition very well.

The best learning is authentic and based on the real needs and demands of the children…

I have also made significant changes in the way the classroom is set out. I have started to make a wide range of maths activities and puzzles available to the students.  Dare I say, it was the case up until a few years ago, that a lot of the maths activities that are now available to the children, used to be sitting on a shelf off-limits to the children. What was I thinking? Nowadays, the maths equipment is readily available to the children just like the books in the library corner, the toys and the blocks in the ‘play’ area, the art and crafts equipment, the writing equipment etc.

They are now available for the children to use whenever they are not engaged with me on a specific teacher directed task. And please let it be said that I am no longer surprised when I see children choose to read in the library corner, or complete a maths puzzle, or write a story, or listen to a story on the listening post – ahead of playing on the computer or playing with the variety of blocks and toys available to them. The best learning is authentic and based on the real needs and demands of the children – there’s a reference to that, “children as their own teachers” expression again. Life does not operate in a silo, neither should a classroom. 

Being a mass provider of knowledge is no longer the appropriate form of teaching.

I want to work in an education system that is equipping students with the ability to function in their lives once they leave school; prepared for a world that is looking increasingly unfamiliar and uncertain. In order to flourish in life after school, we need people to be able to apply social and emotional skills, as well as academic skills. Being a mass provider of knowledge is no longer the appropriate form of teaching.  Students need to be treated as individuals who have different learning needs. I want to be allowed and encouraged to go deeply and broadly.

Excuse my passion. I’m in bit of a hurry. We should all be. I can see a different future, and that excites me.

For some academic validation of the opinions expressed above, check out this article on The Conversation.

Ease Education: Teaching at a human scale.

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19 thoughts on “When students become teachers and teachers become learners.

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