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Teachers as Learners - how might it affect children

Some months ago I read an article in The Japan Times (May 27, 2006) that a Japanese government subpanel of a government educational advisory board had recommended that all teachers currently holding licenses should be subject to some sort of renewal procedure. There was also a proposal in December from the Central Council for Education that teachers should undergo refresher courses of 20-30 hours every ten years. I myself have returned to university about every ten years since graduating from college: first in my late 20s, again in my 30s, and once more in my 50s. Each time I studied something different, but always relating to my main interests: communication and education. These courses of study were not for 20-30 hours but for hundreds of hours, so of course, I have many questions in mind about the value of a short "refresher course" for Japanese teachers.

Perhaps by sharing some observations about my most recent adventure in returning to a formal learning environment, I might give the reader something to think about regarding this issue of teachers and renewal, and how this might affect young learners.

A year and a half ago I decided to leave my job as a teacher at Future University - Hakodate in order to experience a new life in Australia. Of course, staying long-term in a country involves visa problems, so this year in order to stay in Australia, I decided to become a student, which allows me to stay 1-3 years (depending on the program I've joined), and also to work up to half-time. I searched for interesting colleges and programs and finally chose a "1 year diploma course in Fine Arts" at a college not too far from where I have been living, in the mountains outside of Brisbane. Becoming a student again has been a wonderful experience for me, and I mean "wonderful" in the sense of "full of wonder". (See Eleanor Duckworth's full-of-wonder book that should be read by every parent and teacher: "The Having of Wonderful Ideas" and other Essays and Learning (Teachers College Press, NY, 1996-ISBN: 0807735132)

For the first time, I chose a course of study that was not directly relating to education, because I wasn't sure if I would return to the field of teaching again. But still, many things which I'm observing and learning about teaching are very relevant to this discussion. My course focuses on ceramics, though I had a choice of painting, multimedia, photography, and ikebana, the Japanese art of flower arrangement (!). I choose ceramics because I like to make things and feel very involved when I'm using my "touch" and "smell" senses, something usually lacking in most courses of study. Some years back some friends and I made a group called "mudpie", a name we picked because it implied hands-on involvement in something, with the added idea of "getting dirty" or being engaged with all senses. After being in my ceramics program for nearly a half-year, I feel that I have made a very good choice, and in fact, studying through getting my hands dirty fits my learning style very well. Most of my classes are hands-on, and I've been learning various methods of making ceramics, all the while gathering information about the history of pottery, clay and glazes, and also about form, design and color (or "colour", as they write in Australia!)

Being a student has given me many opportunities to think once more about learning environments, teachers, and students. It reminds me yet again that what happens in the classroom is only a small part of a student's life and that the more a teacher knows about the other aspects of students' lives, the more the teacher can help them related classroom learning to real-world living? something often horribly lacking in most classes.

Another thing I've been reminded of is the importance of the teacher, the difficulty of being a good teacher, and the rareness of having a good teacher. At my art college, my teacher is Michaela Kloeckner, and she herself is a well-known potter in Queensland, the state of Australia where I'm living. But being a good potter and being a good pottery teacher are not the same thing, just as being a good athlete doesn't make someone a good coach, or a good mathematician a good math teacher.

I'm happy to say that Michaela is a great teacher; one of the best I've ever had (and I've more than a hundred during my many years of study). Watching her teach often made me think about my own teaching, particularly regarding the important issues of finding ways to stimulate students, support students and to keep them engaged. I think finding the right balance of encouragement/stimulation, information/support for each student is the most important and most difficult work for teachers. In addition to balance, timing is vital. Watching student's frustration level and knowing when to help and when to let students struggle, when to show and when to watch, when to talk and when to listen. Yes, being a good listener is a vital quality for being a good teacher. Michaela has a natural sense about this.

The relationship between knowledge gained from experience and experimentation, and information given to us by others through lectures (listening) and reading (seeing/watching words) is very important. Clearly it's vital that students be given an opportunity to get knowledge from a variety of sources, based on their own experiences and that of others. But it seems equally vital that learning environments be designed in such a way that students learn to notice as much as possible about things happening around them as this is one important way that new discoveries and inventions come into our world. This relates to connecting the knowledge of the course to the world outside the class.

In my ceramics course, we were reading about how the idea of glazing came into human awareness. Our materials proposed the theory that around 3-4000 years before Christ, someone "noticed" a blue lump after an accidental fire, and from this "noticing" the whole concept of glazing developed. This idea of "noticing" is vital to our educational process. Teachers have to notice things in their environment such as how students are responding to their words and how students can be encouraged to think and discover and understand; students have to notice things in their environment, such as anomalies or unexpected happenings which go against their expectations; in this way new discoveries and understandings will enter into our understanding.

Going back to the idea of Japanese teachers being "renewed". I hope that you can see what great potential there is in this idea. Perhaps in these 20-30 hours (though it certainly should be more!), teachers could learn something important about teaching and learning. Perhaps they could sit and listen to each other's stories, rather than just updating their own knowledge through lecture. Again, a book by Eleanor Duckworth might be useful. At Harvard University, she and others created a program which experienced teachers get together and learn from each other's experiences and she and her students have written about it. (Teacher to Teacher: Learning from Each Other, Teachers College Press, NY, 1997. ISBN: 080773652X).

There is always much for each of us to learn, teachers certainly included. It could make a great difference to the education of our young people if teachers were required periodically to enter into formal learning environments, particularly of a thoughtful design, and become learners again.
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