Teaching without teaching

Could you teach your subject without explicitly talking about any of your content?
Would you students know how to learn if you didn’t teach them (or weren’t there)?
Could you say your students know how to learn, and will confidently graduate knowing how to manage their own learning?
How well can your students talk about cognitive strategies, their own meta-cognition, and reflect on their meta-learning?

I gave myself a challenge to teach a highly content driven subject, chemistry, for 2 weeks without explicitly teaching the content.

I felt I was failing my students as they weren’t confident self learners and didn’t have the strategies to revise, learn, or productively struggle without an adult in the room.

So I taught how to learn instead.

  • We talked about how to find reliable, and accurate information about a topic.
  • We went through a couple note taking strategies (like SOAR and SQ3R)
  • We developed ways to collate, compare, summarise and organise information, including processes for solving problems.
  • We discussed the research around best strategies for revision (hint: reading the textbook is not one of them)
  • We used more class and peer discussion to create consensus and teach each other (rather than it being mostly teacher talk)
  • We developed cognitive strategies like mnemonics, and meta-cognitive reminders to regulate our learning
  • We talked about how those doing the work are those learning (hint: the teacher should not be working the hardest in the room)
  • We analysed the ways that we each learn and remember best, and which strategies we like to use (including doing practical work)
  • We practiced strategies like putting post-its in where you have questions, so you can check in later.
  • We talked about time organisation, grit, perseverance, positive attitudes, relaxation, and reducing anxiety.

The outcomes? Well, the students started taking more responsibility for their learning. For example, they would move themselves away from distraction. Students did more thinking in class. Students asked each other (or consulted other sources like a textbook or internet) more for help, rather than going first to the teacher. 

But I’m hoping the real gains will be in the next few years when they grow to be more like adults. My continuing motivation is the thought that when children are born, adults make 100% of their decisions for them. But when children turn 18, our aim should be that we are making 0% of their decisions. We need to step back, empower them, let them go and allow them a chance to have responsibility and control (well, with our guidance of course. We are older and wiser!)

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