Poles of Learning, Snappers, and Making the Time

People tend to dichotomise teaching and learning into handy, easy to digest concepts.

Poles of Learning 1

Student led, good; teacher led, bad. Enquiry learning, good; direct instruction, bad.

The reality, of course, is not that simple. At any one moment, in a single day, teachers and learners are on constant bounce between the two. It’s chaotic, it’s variable, and it’s the reality of actual feet-on-the-ground teacher work. The beauty of teaching is in the blend of these concepts – how teachers design learning flexibly, based on the needs of the student. Education needs to have this flex and to not sit too comfortably at any one end.

In reality, teaching and learning looks like this:

Poles of Learning2

So in saying that, I think the stuff on the left – the direct instruction, the teacher led stuff – can (must!) be done quickly and efficiently. This opens up more time for the stuff on the right.

For too long, teachers have warbled on in front of students, saying the same thing in four different ways. A third of the kids have zoned out, a third already know it, and only a third are actually listening. Direction instruction is important, sure, but it must be targeted and quick. The exact kids that need that particular snippet of information must be in front of you, not the whole class.

At our place, we call these “Snappers” – bite sized chunks of direct instruction, lasting no longer than six or seven minutes. They are often rewindable and recorded so kids can revisit the learning at a later date. Examples would be a Snapper on complex sentences, place value addition, or the conventions of written dialogue. Kids are free to opt in or out of Snappers, based on their knowledge of themselves. Often though, we shoulder tap kids that we know need to attend a particular Snapper.

So you get the teacher-led stuff done quickly, which leaves time for the slower, deeper, more student-directed learning. And this is where the magic happens – when kids have the nuggets of knowledge they need, and can go about assembling these into something they themselves craft. Putting all the pieces back together, seeing the bigger picture, having the time to play and experiment.

Screen Shot 2014-11-14 at 10.29.06 am

It is my contention then, that while I talk about the constant bounce between these poles of learning, the balance needs to be tilted to the right. It is in this realm that lasting competencies are developed, that creative juices flow, and lifelong learning is kindled. The right is where students learn to love learning.

So, speed up the left to give time to the right. Linger in creativity and enquiry, be efficient and speedy with direct instruction.

Kudos to Tom Barrett for the original image.


  1. I really like this summary of what you do Matt. Its efficient and speedy as well and says it all! Thanks for sharing.

  2. Real food for thought. Makes me wonder about more creativity time at home and less structured stuff.

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