6 essential strands

It is common nowadays to talk about the ‘repertoire’ of a good teacher, a metaphor taken from stage performance – though the original word simply meant ‘list’ or ‘inventory’. I’m not quite comfortable thinking of teachers as performers nor, to quote the cliche, as ‘sages on the stage’, and I want to offer a quite different metaphor for the teacher’s art, namely that of weaving.

Teachers have many aims and ways of trying to achieve them. There are, indeed, countless lists of techniques or tools recommended to teachers. I have my favourite ones, as most teachers do. But I would distinguish techniques and tools from strategies or skill-sets, and I like to think of the latter as strands that run through one’s whole approach to the complex task of teaching. I suggest, moreover, that the best teachers have learnt how to weave different strategies or skill-sets into a coherent whole.

beach-beach-beach-stonesAfter years of reflection, I have distilled the following as 6 essential strands that I believe characterise good teaching – and (importantly) good learning. They are:

  • Inquiry-inspired
  • Concept-constructing
  • Dialogue-driven
  • Reason-respecting
  • Reflection-reliant
  • Virtues-valuing

Using more conventional adjectives, I would describe a good teacher as inquisitive, connective, responsive, reasonable, reflective, and idealistic – qualities that surely most people aspire to, but which one might hope teachers particularly would model.

They also, I argue, coincide with qualities that philosophers have always striven for, and this is why to become a more philosophical teacher is to become a better teacher – and vice-versa.

Philosophers in ancient Greece set a model of inquiry – the first strand – that has inspired the best learners and teachers ever since. Their interests were broad and deep. The threads of inquiry they thought of as ‘natural’ and ‘moral’ philosophy eventually became the natural and human sciences as we know them today.

But, as I explain in my 12-page article, Philosophical Teaching and Learning, there is still a vital role for philosophical inquiry in the teaching of these sciences, and indeed of any ‘subject’. Because of its focus on making sense – of words as well as the world – it helps students face the conceptual challenges inherent in any new area of study. It does this by encouraging public dialogue and private reflection, whilst emphasising the importance of being open to, and able to, reason.

The sixth and final strand in effect brings together all the other five strands, framing them as ‘intellectual’ virtues or strengths, whilst giving equal emphasis to the development of what used to be called ‘moral’ virtues, but which are better framed nowadays as ‘personal’ and ‘social’ virtues or strengths.

Quite how one weaves all these strands into one’s teaching is explained more fully in my courses and writings. These are not merely theoretical constructs, though. I set out practical steps of self-development and self-monitoring for both teachers and learners.

Finally, I would claim, these 6 strands represent important directions of educational thinking in the 21st century, referred to by different names, and championed by different individuals or institutions, but never brought together (* see footnote) in such a simple, coherent framework:

  • Inquiry skills / Inquiry-based Learning (inquiry-inspired)
  • Communication skills / Dialogic Teaching (dialogue-driven)
  • Deep learning / Concept-centred Learning (concept-connecting)
  • Metacognition / Reflective Education (reflection-reliant)
  • Thinking skills / Critical Thinking Movement (reason-respecting)
  • Values or Character education / Values-based Education (virtue-valuing)

As part of their idealism, philosophical teachers will naturally assume that all learners have the ability to grow and develop in each of these strands. They probably do not need to subscribe formally to a ‘growth mindset’ agenda. In any case, the last of the strands, with its emphasis on developing good habits of mind and character, provides the vocabulary, as well as the rationale, for raising learners’ expectations of themselves.

  • I acknowledge that these 6 strands can be aligned closely with two or three strands or emphases in the IB curriculum – which I regard as the finest in the world. I still believe that the framework I am offering is more comprehensive, more coherent and yet more straightforward than any other. It is comprehensive because it focuses on different aspects of teaching-and-learning that are equally vital. It is coherent because it reflects interconnected purposes and processes that are justly called philosophical. It is more straightforward because it is proposed as a pedagogy, not a curriculum.

Copyright © 2017, Roger Sutcliffe, All rights reserved