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The importance of sharing knowledge

The purpose of education is to share our knowledge with others. A great teacher can impart a deep understanding of a subject to students effectively and with passion and hope, in turn, that in doing so those young people will be inspired to teach others.

The Victorian artist and critic, John Ruskin, wrote that 'the moment we use our possessions to any good purpose ourselves, the instinct of communicating that use to others rises side by side with our power. If you can read a book rightly, you will want others to hear it; if you can enjoy a picture rightly, you will others to see it'. It sounds so obvious, and we see it every day in every school in the country. Teachers, obviously, share every day, giving their students the benefit of their experience, insights, expertise and understanding; ideally, that that spreads outwards across the community, into other classroom, homes, and on across endless networks.

Perhaps nowhere is this commitment to sharing more deeply embedded in the culture of a school than in Phillips Exeter Academy, a private school in New Hampshire. Here, the Harkness philosophy of teaching acts as its pedagogical foundation in every lesson, and in every classroom.

Edward Harkness was an extraordinary man. Although not as well known as other American philanthropists (such as the Rockerfellers and Andrew Carnegie) Harkness gave away much of his inherited wealth, and a considerable proportion of this went into education. Harkness wanted his money to make a difference: he wanted to challenge unquestioned – and unfulfilling – teaching methods that so dominated – and diminished – the lives of young people then. In 1930 he wrote:

What I have in mind is a classroom where students could sit around a table with a teacher who would talk with them and instruct them by a sort of tutorial or conference method, where each student would feel encouraged to speak up. This would be a real revolution in methods.

Go into a classroom in Phillips Exeter today and you will see a large oval table occupying much of its space. The students sit around the table, with the teacher among them, but in no 'prime' position. All students can make eye contact with each other, and for much of the lesson they lead the discussion with the teacher contributing at key moments to add structure and direction. Importantly, the students come to the lesson having completed 'prep' in advance: they do the work independently, and then they share. Others learn, including the teacher.

Nothing more profoundly challenges a teacher's view of his role than to remain quiet, and to trust the students to learn from each other. Imagine a lesson in which perhaps 80% of the talking is done not by the adult, but by the students. When it works well it is liberating for all involved. But of course not every school has the resources of Phillips Exeter, nor do they have such small class sizes. But what they probably all have is students who rarely contribute, who are not trusted as teachers themselves, and also teachers who, for various reasons, feel they have to 'own' their classrooms, both in time and space. Talking still too often is confused with teaching.

As an inspector, every outstanding lesson I have observed has an almost palpable sense of mutual respect, between students and teacher, running from start to finish. When that relationship is found across the school community then it is probably an outstanding school: a place where teachers want to teach, and students want to learn. Such schools should share their expertise with other schools, creating new connections, and promoting an on-going debate about teaching and learning. The Wellington College Teaching School Partnership, is typical of the teaching school initiative in that it includes 14 schools and two higher education partners; what is unusual about this is that it includes an independent school, but that is likely to change as more schools from this sector join with other partnerships.

The shared aims of this partnership is to offer school-to-school support, both for staff and students, to spread good practice, to use technology in a meaningful (and cost-effective way), and to use evidence-based research to underpin approaches to teaching and learning. And, fundamentally, to learn from each other. For some in the independent sector sharing might mean a weakening, a dilution, (and it is perhaps this defensive position that Sir Michael Wilshaw recently attacked in his address to the annual HMC conference); but for those of us in the partnership sharing means the opposite: a strengthening, an adding to, a nourishing. The practice of sharing, which we should model in every classroom, in every school, should be heard in every discussion about education. Only in doing so will we learn, and then, perhaps, will have fulfilled our purpose as teachers.

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