“Teaching is a somewhat outdated practice to encourage learning.”


Meet Ross, ICT teacher & Tech Director, ICHK (Hong-Kong)

Can you tell us a little bit more about you ?

I’ve gone from being a traditional ICT teacher to something called "free learning": students get to decide what they want to study through a software offering a structured framework. They can work in groups or individually, and can they change from unit to unit. They all have to start with the same unit but when they completed their work and I have approved it, they can move and follow the map wherever they want to go. In the beginning, the units are very structured, with a lot of instructions and screenshots and progressively, they become less structured because students are better at learning on their own and more skilled in that area.

Now we might chat with students about how they focus, how they learn and less about content. The focus becomes more on the learning process. Choice motivates them and they learn to learn so that they can eventually learn anything.

How did this shift occur from traditional teaching to free learning?

I wanted to be a different teacher, I think we all do, right? To start I really thought I was doing different things but over time I realized that I was doing the same things but with more energy because I was new and excited. And after 3 or 4 years students seemed less engaged, so I started to look around and I asked more questions. I tried numbers of different things over the years, changing the way I assessed students, changing the way I presented materials to them, replacing unpopular units but eventually I thought this wasn’t enough.


A view of content in Free Learning

One day, a couple of years ago, a student shared with me a video about "free running" : this discipline invites participants to use creativity, skill and strength to find new ways to navigate a landscape. So I thought we could use free running in education. So I created a same fixed landscape: the units I use to teach and student’s job would be to find a personal way to navigate through it.

This software I developed is also interesting for me because I added things I couldn’t teach before. For instance, there is a unit on diagnosis and it’s not only about ICT diagnosis but also medical or technic. They get to know about something useful and transdisciplinary, it is way more meaningful.

And learning is happening! Even though I’m not pushing students to work, and they are choosing to submit when they are finished, they are actually producing more than they used to.


Human technologies

Also, they have a unit on human technologies: material, cognitive, spiritual and social. We can work on how you look after yourself and how you make yourself feel meaningful in this crazy world. When most schools and most of our lives tend to focus on the material part, we try to get kids to see that almost nothing in human culture and practices is native or inevitable but everything has been invented. Through this course, they learn that they can change the way that they exist.

What did you learn while teaching ?

We all have a professional delusion, as teachers. We can’t get kids to remember things, the fraction of the lesson they remember from a lesson to another is very little. And if you work enough they might succeed in their exam but what will be left of that after? This system seemed ridiculous to me. I’m much more interested not in what students learn but rather in how they learn and what they discover about themselves. If they choose to learn something that has more meaning to them, maybe they will remember a little bit more. When I’m looking back at what I was doing in my first years, I thought I was doing the right thing and it took me a lot of time to work out some of the damage I was doing, some of the negative effect in my relationship with students. It’s much more relaxed now.

Can you explain what do you think you were doing wrong in your early years?

I think education traditionally pits students and teachers against each other. You’re taught to see students behavior in a certain way, generally a negative way. For example, I would give an assignment and I would explain what plagiarism is and still some students would plagiarize. So I would have to inflict some kind of consequence. I was thinking: « I need to be really strict I have to give them a message ». Actually, I think they already understood they shouldn’t plagiarize but in many ways, they felt pressured by the deadline, the homework they had to do... Various factors come into making a bad decision. I thought I was being rigorous and setting high standards but I was adding to the pressure. Now I’m not forcing them anymore. Before I would expect them to do the right choice without any practice. Now I see that they need to make mistakes and I need to be forgiving, directing and encouraging when they make mistakes because it is practice. I you don’t give any practice how can they be able to succeed? I think I’m more patient now. Usually, we might punish students for our failures because we haven’t taught them how to do what we are expecting from them.

As well in my class discipline, I thought you had to be in charge, in control. I use to be much stricter, I use to make example of kid, I use to assume they’re were doing wrong. I did what I thought I should do but it put me in conflict with students.

And all this is a great risk for teachers: your enthusiasm might eventually turn into frustration, disappointment, anger. I use to work with a teacher in ICHK, he’s been teaching for 20 years and he was still so passionate. Every day he was looking to learn something new. That is the key.

What has been your best moment?

I had a student who never seemed to enjoy my lessons and who was always very resistant and the other day he send me an email thanking me for « helping him change so much ». When you get to see the difference that you’ve made, it is always precious. But teaching is like farming, not over on season but over twenty years: you put the seed in, you water it, then nothing happens but sometimes you get to see what you planted.

How would you define teaching?

Teaching is a somewhat outdated practice to encourage learning. If you have large numbers of kids who don’t want to learn something and you have to make them learn it, then teaching is a good way to do it. If you have students who want to learn something and ask you to teach them, that is fantastic, but I think, for a lot of kid, teaching is not the optimal way to learn things.