The teacherless class: empowering 48 students to teach themselves
My dad was a primary school teacher for around 40 years. He's retired now, but I guess it's fair to say that he will always be a teacher. He spent the first part of his career in Cyprus, before moving to England, where he worked for around three decades.
In the 80s
I was fortunate enough to have been in my dad's class for a while, in the late eighties, at Newington Green Primary School. Fortunate for me because, looking back, I think my dad was the perfect primary school teacher. Not so fortunate for him, though, because when I wasn’t in his class I was in trouble more often than he would have liked (I was quite talkative back then). It’s a unique feeling to have your dad walk past you when you’re sitting in the corridor, outside your classroom. I regret the embarrassment I caused the poor man!
My dad was a popular figure in our school. All of my friends liked him, and I remember children from other classes telling me that they wished he was their teacher too. I remember the great stories he told, that helped us see things from different perspectives; the brilliant numeracy hacks he taught us, that made maths easy; and the fascinating science experiments we did, where we would make cool stuff like boats, basic robots and electronic games. He would empower us to do things for ourselves—so we were all richer, more able and more confident as a result. Empowerment was an important part of his toolkit.
The word empowerment is often used in discussions about education in developing country contexts. It seems almost exclusively reserved for talking about groups of people who are seen to be more disadvantaged than we are. Something that NGOs do, as opposed to schools. But isn’t empowerment just excellent teaching and learning?
In the 70s
In 1977 my dad was teaching at a primary school in a small town in Cyprus called Güzelyurt (formerly Morphou). He was a young, dynamic teacher who loved his job. He also loved my mum, who was living with her family in London at the time. They had plans to get engaged there, in the autumn, but my dad knew that it would be really difficult to get time off. The school wouldn't be able to find a supply teacher to cover for the two weeks he'd be gone. This wasn't really something he could give a miss though, so he proposed an unusual solution to the headteacher.
He promised to prepare all of his lessons for the two-week period in advance, and then give the lesson plans to the pupils. He would then train and empower them to teach themselves while he was gone. Simple, no?
The headteacher was reluctant, for obvious reasons, but he liked and trusted my dad, and could see that he really needed to take the time off. He decided to give it a go, saying that he'd check on the class several times a day to make sure they were okay. BUT, if this were to end badly, he made it quite clear that there would be serious repercussions for my father.
When my dad got back to Cyprus, the head was waiting for him at the gate and invited him to his office. There were no congratulatory words, and being summoned to the headteacher’s office first thing in the morning didn’t fill him with confidence that his project had gone to plan. He sat there nervously as the head went on to explain that a few days after my dad had left for London, he heard a lot of noise and commotion coming from one of the classes. He said that he had not been in the best of moods, so he had stormed over to my dad's class ready to set them straight. He burst into the room—only to find 40+ students with their heads down, quietly working away. He realised that the noise was coming from the class next door, where the teacher had stepped out of the room for a short while. He then congratulated my dad and said that he had never seen a class so well-behaved in his career. I suspect he also congratulated him on his engagement.
I understand that setting, culture and, perhaps most significantly, the era played a huge part in making this a success—but we are still talking about 48 individual children. Ten and eleven year-olds. It seems unlikely that every one of them would have shared the same mindset to independent work. The headteacher was clearly uncertain about how successful this experiment would be. Yet a success it was.
My father had changed the dynamic in the classroom to give the students control and autonomy over their own learning, and in doing so, gave them the ultimate proof that he trusted and respected them. The students recognised they were being given the opportunity to demonstrate maturity, and rather than abuse the privilege, exceeded everyone’s expectations.
This story has stayed with me since my father first told me about it, and with the development of Lyfta, this ethos of empowerment has been at the forefront of what we do. Lyfta covers challenging topics, but rather than mollycoddling students, we treat them with respect. We have steered clear of childish design and language, and work hard to give teachers the tools to open up important, and sometimes difficult, topics. We don’t lecture students on the issues raised, but rather invite them to think for themselves and draw their own conclusions. Teachers are encouraged to use the emotional engagement the content elicits and facilitate the explorations and resulting discussions.
A couple of years after my father’s classroom experiment, my parents moved to London, where they were both primary school teachers in Hackney and Islington until their recent retirement, in which they are now enjoying the highs and lows of grandparenthood :)
My dad is still in touch with this class, having had a reunion with around 15 of the pupils a couple of years ago, which is when I first shared the story on Facebook.
While it may be difficult to imagine something like this happening today, the principle of empowerment still resonates. We have chosen to kick off our themed blog series in 2018 with this brilliant word, which inspired our illustrator Mirella to make the beautiful artwork at the top of the page. Please feel free to download the image from here to use in your class. Invite your pupils to consider what the picture means to them and let us know the most interesting answers they come up with via Twitter or Facebook.
Next week, my colleague Katri will be writing about diversity, which will be accompanied by another brilliant artwork.
Thanks for reading!