What makes a good teacher?

One of a series of questions to be explored at Essential Questions for Educators Everywhere open summer course National College of Ireland 26-30th of June 2017 eqfee.org ‘What makes a good teacher’ seems a simple question and you might expect a straight forward answer. However, the more you think about it the more you will realise that it is not so simple after all. For many years now, I have worked with students and teachers in different sectors and contexts. Over time we have developed an exercise to interrogate this question. The exercise is worthwhile for learning professionals everywhere. You can try this yourself. Start by thinking about your own experiences as a student and ask yourself who was the best teach er you ever had. Go on think about who that might be now…. Have you identified someone? Good! Let’s presume you can picture that person in your mind. Write down, or make a mental list, of the top qualities you associate with them. Keep that list handy and read on… OK, I’m going to have to introduce some theory before we proceed. Let’s assume the basic task of a teacher is to bring about learning in another person. Read More …

Ready to Learn – Taking the First Step

‘Oh I was just wondering have you got a moment, I just want to ask you about something‘ she had arrived at NCI reception and they suggested I might meet with her. ‘No problem at all‘ I assured her while thinking how much I had to do that afternoon. Five minutes later she sat in my office. She was very nervous and I thought I noticed a slight trembling in her voice. Her name was Susan. ‘It’s like this‘ she said ‘I was thinking of doing a course here but I am not sure if I’d be able for it‘. She went on to tell me her story. She left school at sixteen without a Leaving Cert. She worked in the retail sector for the last twenty five years and now she is a manager. She is married with three kids and two of them are in college. She reads a lot and is well liked by her colleagues. Generally, she’s happy. But there’s always been a niggle. An unease and sense of being often left out, ignored and taken-for-granted. ‘Sure what would Susan know‘ she once overheard a younger colleague remark. Susan explained that she has been thinking about Read More …

New Learning and Education Degrees at National College of Ireland

I am delighted to introduce two new degree programmes at NCI the BA (Honours) in Early Childhood Education and the BA (Honours) in Adult and Workforce Education.  These are new awards developed by our team to address the growing interest in education at all stages of life and in all contexts. An important idea underpinning our approach to learning is that education is not confined to school. We learn so much in early childhood that stays with us throughout life and likewise when our school years are over we continue to learn as we progress through our career and meet the challenges of our lifespan. It is natural to learn. This seems like an obvious statement but it is so simple we often overlook its importance. We are ‘natural born learners’ and more than any other living organism we are destined to learn all the way through life. Early Childhood Educators are now rightfully regarded as professional practitioners who require advanced qualifications and specialist knowledge and skills. The sector is now the subject of important legislative and policy developments. It is a wonderful area to work in and requires committed educators trained to the highest level. Adult and Workforce Educators Read More …

Skills of Teaching

When it comes to teaching we often make the simple mistake of reducing all that matters into one specific skill. For example, if someone is very good at explaining things we might say they were a good teacher. Likewise, empathy for students is often regarded as an essential quality for teachers. I like to talk in terms of ‘skills for teaching’. In the approach two points are emphasised  – firstly, teaching is multifaceted and involves clusters of abilities rather than one single isolated skill and secondly, when I say skills of teaching I do not put ‘the’ in front, in other words, I mean to say “here are some skills of teaching and there are likely many more”. However, the framework provided below is derived from a series of workshops developed by my colleague Dr Arlene Egan and I. We have used this framework to support improvement in college teachers and in our Post-Graduate Diploma in Learning and Teaching at NCI. We we have devised an activity for each of the skills involved. For example, we use an activity called ‘high five’ to support development of presentation skills. student-teachers are expected to make a presentation to their peers on a Read More …

Questions and Inquiry

I have a recent publication in E-Learning and Digital Media and the following post is a shorter version of some of the ideas I discuss in this paper on Questions, Curiosity and Inquiry. Questions are the root of inquiry; they initiate, sustain and invigorate all aspects of deep learning. Questions direct investigation, drive creativity, stimulate discussion and are the bedrock of reflection. In order to understand inquiry we need to deal with questions. I begin by attempting to clarify potential misconceptions of what exactly questions are. I argue for precision in language and I encourage a fuller conception of questions as situations and processes rather than simple sentences. I also discuss curiosity and elaborate on Dewey’s conception of curiosity as a natural resource for use in the training of thought. These ideas on the nature of questions and curiosity help to frame our understanding of the Inquiry Cycle as a model of learning. They can also act as a bridge, closing the gap between theory and practice, contributing insights on the integration of technology in teaching and learning and suggesting new areas of application and research on learning and inquiry. Questions as Situations Questions and questioning are familiar processes ubiquitous Read More …

The Cycle of Life

Next Friday 28th of March I will take part in the Galway Cycle. This involves a cycle from Maynooth to Galway in one day. This will be by far and a way the longest and most challenging cycle I have done. I have trained and prepared well but admit to being nervous and apprehensive. I am in my mid-fifties and not blessed with an athletic physique. The journey is about 180 kilometers and I will need to keep up with the 25kph pace. The Maynooth Galway Cycle has been running for many years and each year thousands of Euro is raised for a designated charity. This year’s charity is the Prader-Willie Syndrome Association Ireland. This is a well deserved cause and you have only to watch the associated video to appreciate how much they need support. I am collecting so please give a little whatever you can to  http://www.idonate.ie/leosgalwaycycle My affair with the bicycle has spanned the cycle of my life. One of my early memories is accompanying my father on the crossbar of his bike as we cycled to the Garda station to collect another bike.  My bike! It was a find he handed in more than a year Read More …

Learning, Participation and After Virtue

What makes a good person? This is an old and important question.  Philosophers and theologians through the years have sought an answer including Aristotle, Aquinas, Hume, Kierkegaard, Newman, Nietzsche and others. Alasdair MacIntyre provides a useful analysis of the history of thinking on this question and the current state of moral philosophy in his books After Virtue (1984) and Whose Justice? Which Rationality? (1988). MacIntyre argues that a full understanding of moral philosophy today is constrained by failure to appreciate historical context. He proposes a disquieting scenario to illustrate what he deems the state of affairs today. Imagine, he suggests, through some terrible catastrophe all the scientists in the world were wiped out and with them the thinking and practice they engaged in. Some time later, when people seek to revive science they would only be partly successful; they would have to rely on clues from remnants of documentation, pieces of laboratory apparatus and a scattering of folk ideas. The practice of science would be gone. Although MacIntyre uses this vista to illustrate how, he believes, we have lost the way (and means) of moral philosophy, he is also making a point about ‘practice’. Human activities directed and sustained toward Read More …

Why We Learn

Sometimes big questions just sit under our noses and are too close and obvious to warrant attention. The matter of why we learn falls into this category. It seems obvious that we learn every day of our lives and that learning is important but why is it so? Part of the answer lies in our evolutionary past. To understand why we learn we need to appreciate the benefits of learning in terms of survival and growth of human beings. Learning is a special way in which we can gain advantage in our quest for success. Every person and indeed all animals have innate abilities developed through natural selection. Over many generations animals adapt to their environment and acquire specialist abilities for hunting, defence, reproduction and so on. When we observe animals in their environment we appreciate the usefulness of these assets. Mink have fur coats to survive the cold winter, cheetahs run very fast and hedgehogs have spines and roll in a ball when under threat. Notice it is not easy to distinguish a behavioural ability such as knowing when to run and a physical ability such as well-developed muscle and skeleton for running. If you look at anatomy and Read More …

Alienation and Learning

I want to talk about alienation as I believe it to be a topic of concern to most of us and it is an important influence on how we live our lives today. Karl Marx was one of the first to highlight how the structures of modern society inevitably lead to alienation.  He describes how, in industrial settings, many workers are alienated from the products they produce.  For example, an assembly line worker is far removed from the completed product. The alienation of the worker in his product means not only that his labor becomes an object, an external existence, but that it exists outside him, independently, as something alien to him, and that it becomes a power on its own confronting him.  Marx K, Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844. First Manuscript p29 In contrast, many professionals such as teachers, architects, entrepreneurs and hairdressers remain closely affiliated with their productive output. There are other ways in which we experience alienation in the modern world.  Often we experience alienation as customers when organisations conceive their clientèle in purely economic terms.  We may experience this in for example, in airline, telecommunications and fast food industries – customer-provider interactions are kept to Read More …

Learning about Thinking from James Joyce

In my view one of the best ways to study learning and thinking is to look to literature and in this arena one figure stands out for the manner in which he conveys the human thought process in print. I am of course referring to James Joyce. In this short review I present some aspects of Joyce’s work from the perspective of insights on how we think and learn. My argument is that great literature resonates with our thought processes. In reading Joyce we are provided with a working model of the inner structures and mechanisms through which we experience the world. I approach this analysis from the perspective of the average reader rather than the rich practice of Joycean scholarship. As such, my remarks are confined to my own, somewhat surface, impressions and interpretations of the literature. Almost at every point in Joyce’s work there are many layers of meaning and great pleasure can be derived from reading and rereading the passages. My analysis is based around five short lessons: Lesson One The Inner Narrator Consider the opening lines from A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man: Once upon a time and a very good time it was Read More …