When his school science class ignored the lunchtime bell, Dr Ian Mitchell knew he was on to something. He had experimented for the first time with two changes to his teaching style: he did not immediately correct wrong answers, and he allowed the students more time to think about their responses to questions. The result? “A quite extraordinary lesson where I had kids leaping out of their seats to offer and defend their ideas.”
The students may only have missed lunch once, but for Ian that 1981 class was just the beginning of a lasting involvement in the search for better ways of both learning and teaching.
Ian co-founded the Project for Enhancing Effective Learning (PEEL) at Laverton Secondary College in 1985. The same kind of teacher-led collaborative research it used is still going strong, in hundreds of schools in seven countries.
“It’s still throwing up interesting new challenges,” says Ian, who received a Medal of the Order of Australia in 2011 in recognition of his PEEL work.
For 13 years, he taught school part-time while also working at Monash. Having an active classroom role was vital, he says: his research greatly relies on being done “in situ” and he stresses that it is done with teachers, rather than on them.
His early interest was in the idea of bringing out the views students already held, and helping reconcile that understanding with what they learned in class. This evolved into an interest in metacognition, or knowing about one’s own knowing. In the mid-`80s, that was a novel idea in education -- now it’s a mainstream concept.
Over the years, the “informal network of groups throughout the world” that are interested in the PEEL approach have learned much about the strategies and techniques teachers can use to improve learning.
This knowledge in turn has invited attention to such matters as how to codify and discuss the ideas and approaches that lie behind good teaching, and how to achieve useful collaboration between teachers and academics.
“All these things by their very nature are messy and complex,” Ian says.
Anyone wanting to convey sophisticated knowledge about teaching has to steer a delicate course between over-simplification and over-specification. “A good narrative story from the classroom will not be something that is an example of any one point; it will exemplify a number of possibly quite different things.”
Questions about classroom change emerged early as a critical issue. “This was not really well understood before we started,” says Ian. “There was an assumption that if a teacher started teaching in different ways, students would learn in different ways, but it’s not like that.”
Students have strong beliefs about not only their role in the classroom, but also the teacher’s role.
“Those beliefs are not going to be overturned by a teacher just saying: ‘I want you to stop seeing the classroom as somewhere where I give you the right answers and you learn those; it’s going to be different’,” Ian says.
“That is a singularly useless statement to make. You need a great deal more to change and you need to see change as an evolutionary process. Mapping that journey and change is an area that we are currently actively working on.”
Medal of the Order of Australia