Parents: the best students to have in your class

When was the last time you invited as many parents into your classroom as students themselves, to see a lesson being taught, to participate and get their teeth stuck into the challenges their own kids are working on?

Teresa Marquinez is Head Teacher at Colegio Sagrado Corazon de Jesus in the northern Spanish city of Zaragoza.

She’s a Principal who still teaches. And she’s a Principal who invites parents into her classes, to see her teach, and see how their own kids learn. The impact of this small act is nothing short of transformative.

Our firm has been working with Teresa and around 25 of her teachers in this regular school to transform the way teachers teach and learners learn. We’ve been helping students see how they can design their thinking for any given purpose, and achieve more by taking on the responsibility for learning. It sounds easy, but this kind of teaching is hard work.

It means teachers have to build up some capacity in students to use mental and collaborative toolsets that empower them to work stuff out for themselves through trial and error. It also means creating more immersive learning environments — where the content is more than the textbook and teacher — even when the physical environment of the classroom remains, well, traditional.

So to ask parents to come in when you’re in the middle of learning how to change your teaching practice in such significant ways takes guts. But the pay-off for Teresa and her school has been immense — parents want more of the kind of teaching that, barely 12 months ago, this school like so many others was nervous to introduce.

Teresa Marquinez, Head Teacher (and Teacher!) at Sagrada Corazon de Jesus in Zaragoza, where NoTosh are helping the school develop a design thinking approach to student-led learning.

Parents observed one of Teresa’s extended lessons, where twelve year olds had to get to grips with a complex text on psychology. The teacher — Teresa — wanted students to walk away with some pretty concrete learning goals achieved: an understanding of Spanish idioms as a provocation, and the capacity to synthesise complex ideas in new ways, through the use of NoTosh’s hexagonal thinking and questioning structures. Rather than just the usual ‘glueing’ together of whatever ideas seem to fit most logically, students use open-ended provocation and challenging questions that they create to force interesting connections, and ask “what if” those connections were true… There was even the incredibly concrete goal that students would figure out how to identify Direct Objects in a sentence, and create their own theory of how to do that.

As with every country these days, it seems the curriculum is just as constraining as ever. But the level of understanding we have about how to create a more student-led learning environment has improved vastly, allowing for independent thinking one moment, and deep collaboration between those with opposing viewpoints the next.

For parents, seeing this kind of provocative learning presents such a different vision of school from what they expect. Instead of what happened when they were at school — the teacher selecting each student with a point and expecting the ‘right’ answer — they see students working together to find all the possible answers. They see students work out for themselves which ideas are the most plausible solutions to the challenge at hand. They see their kids working with more independence than they’d ever expected them to be capable of.

When students connect ideas, everyone can see it. Their thinking, and their learning, is visible to everyone. The eyes are as switched on as their brains.

It’s no surprise that these parents are demanding to do it again. But it gets me thinking that most parents don’t even expect this to be an option in their local school.

In my own daughter’s first primary school here in Edinburgh, the now-retired Principal refused to let me anywhere near my daughter’s class. The teacher lacked confidence and skills, the Principal didn’t know how to support her, and so there was not, I imagine, much to observe and be proud of.

The transformative wave of positivity that comes from parents seeing their kids learn in new ways — and seeing the classroom teacher (or Principal) still learning how to teach in new ways themselves! — is lost many. Principals, Teachers and parents alike don’t know what they don’t know.

So, if you’re a parent: ask. And if you’re a teacher: ask parents to pop in for a lesson or two. As long as you’re clearly still learning to engage students in fresh ways, you can’t go wrong.

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