One tradition in my house has always been to read before bedtime. Sadly, my three oldest rarely allow a good read aloud anymore (in part because their bedtime is later than mine) but my youngest daughter still loves our reading sessions. Currently we are reading through the Harry Potter series. Last night, Cana and I were reading and we came to this passage in Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets:
When he had handed out the test papers he returned to the front of the class and said, “You have thirty minutes. Start – now!”
Harry looked down at his paper and read:
1. What is Gilderoy Lockhart’s favourite colour?
2. What is Gilderoy Lockhart’s secret ambition?
3. What, in your opinion, is Gilderoy Lockhart’s greatest achievement to date?
On and on it went, over three sides of paper, right down to:
54. When is Gilderoy Lockhart’s birthday, and what would his ideal gift be?
Half an hour later, Lockhart collected in the papers and rifled through them in front of the class.
“Tut, tut – hardly any of you remembered that my favourite colour is lilac. I say so in Year with a Yeti. And a few of you need to read Weekend with a Werewolf more carefully – I clearly state in chapter twelve that my ideal birthday gift would be harmony between all magic and non-magic peoples – though I wouldn’t say no to a large bottle of Ogden’s Old Firewhisky!”
Oh Gilderoy, you have totally missed the mark about teaching and assessment. Your poor students. How engaging do you think that learning was for them? How meaningfully was their learning represented? Who was it that decided what was important to be learned? How much of the learning that you asked them to do was the easy regurgitation of facts?
I don’t know what teacher training looks like for the employees of Hogwarts, but I would suggest that perhaps some lessons in who the learning is really about might be in order. It seems to me that Gilderoy is under the mistaken impression that it is his job to transfer all the information in his head that he deems important into the heads of all of his students, regardless of whether this will actually help them in their learning of the subject (which, incidently, is Defense Against the Dark Arts. Knowing Gilderoy’s favourite colour is unlikely to help Harry and his fellow students in defending themselves against the evils of the magical world, I’m afraid.) Gilderoy has been caught up in unfortunate cycle of thinking “What I think and say is much more important than what my students think and say, unless what they say agrees with me.”
As Cana and I will soon learn as we continue reading this book, Gilderoy Lockhart really doesn’t know what he is talking about. He really has no idea how to defend against any dark forces, so he has disguised this by reaching for things he does know about to prove how smart he is. As teachers back in the real world move more into the realm of teaching through inquiry, we are more and more frequently delving into learning with our students about things that we are not experts on. Instead of trying to mask this by spouting what we do know, as Gilderoy did, we should try some different techniques. Here are some ideas:
Admit that we don’t know, but we would love to learn it with them and from them. Talk about an engaging start.
Ask them questions. Good questions, not simple quick answer ones. Questions that make them think more deeply, with varied perspectives, with an eye towards bias and also towards real world application. Also, questions that help you as the co-learner better understand the subject matter. Nothing makes a student’s eyes light up faster than a teacher saying: “I never thought of that but it helps me understand it better.”
Think about assessment and how to balance it with good learning. We still have a need to assign marks to student learning, but generally the traditional forms of assessment just don’t capture good learning well. Gilderoy’s 54 question test (in 30 minutes!) is easy to mark and grade, but doesn’t really measure student learning about how to defeat Voldemort and company in a dark alley. Documenting the conversations you have throughout the learning process with students, having students demonstrate their learning in a variety of ways, and having students capture their shifts in thinking and application over time will help you paint a picture of how well the learning has happened. To me, this is always the most difficult juggling act, but so worth it.
Give them something interesting to learn about. I may not know about all of the inquiry topics that students will investigate, but I’m a pretty good thinker and researcher myself (pretty good qualities for a teacher to have, I would say). I can find thought-provoking material, concepts, thoughts and ideas and provide students with them to encourage them to learn more deeply. We often call these provocations. It doesn’t mean we are providing all that a student needs to know, but perhaps pointing them in a direction that they wouldn’t have gotten to on their own.
Don’t immediately jump in with the “right” answer. Gilderoy does just that after collecting the tests, again proving how much smarter he is than his students. Unfortunately, all he has taught them is that if they don’t know right away, he will rescue them. No thinking required. If they don’t know the answer, they aren’t ever going to be motivated to learn it on their own.
Gilderoy Lockhart was a total fraud of a teacher. There is very little to recommend him as an educator. But it is easy to fall into some of the same traps he does in teaching. If we are to continue to strive to provide our students with the education they need to live in our fast-paced world, we have to move beyond the 54 question test and into the realm of real learning and assessing. We can’t let our own Harry Potters down. You never know what they will become after we teach them.