There may be a temptation as you read this to suspect that the long term has finally begin to take its toll
on my sanity but hopefully if you persist through to the end some sense may emerge from the apparent
As parents, of course, we are all teachers and I suspect if you all thought about it for a little while, you
might realise that actually a significant part of what you do at your work or elsewhere in your daily lives,
also involves teaching. For this reason, I want to share with you a seminal moment for me that occurred
in the unpromising context of watching my son eat his spaghetti! As so often in life, my learning came
from my mistakes……
So, there I was watching Columba eating his spaghetti of a Tuesday evening. He was struggling, as all
children do, with those straggly pieces hanging from his mouth and deploying the suction technique so
beloved of children of his age. Now this is a risky approach! It will almost certainly result in a bolognaise
sauce-coloured chin at the end of the meal but can also cause splatters of the aforementioned sauce to
be projected to the far corners of the table (and most certainly onto any white shirts within range!) as
each piece of spaghetti friskily flicks its tail before conjoining its fate with its predecessors…..I wasn’t
“Bite it off!” I said…”You’re supposed to bite off the ends; don’t suck them- it’s rude!”
Reflecting afterwards, I realized to my shame, that this was a pretty poor effort for someone who has
been a teacher for 26 years and a father for 15.
So where did I go wrong and what can I learn from it?
Context, Motivation and Objectives
It is really important that as teachers we give a context for learning and if at all possible show the
practical benefits of applying the new skill or understanding. The best I could muster was, “It’s rude,”
which is more likely to cause offence and possibly even set up an emotional roadblock to the learning. I
should have spent some time persuading Columba how useful the new skill I was about to teach him
would be, how often he could use it in his life and what the benefits would be for him (and those sat
nearby!). I should also have foreshadowed the learning by explaining briefly what I was going to teach
him. By doing so, I would automatically cause his brain reflect on his own technique; he would almost
certainly then go on to try to both predict, and evaluate, my technique, as I explained it and he tried it,
thereby deepening and consolidating his learning.
Obvious! I should have shown Columba how to eat spaghetti politely. “Watch me do it, Columba and
then you give it a try,” or something similar should have been what I said. By taking this approach I
would be requiring him to observe carefully and, more importantly, critically, and also involving him in
learning experientially, greatly increasing, by both means, the chances of creating deep and sustainable
Had I done even the merest amount of planning (i.e. engaged brain before mouth!), I would have
avoided all of the previous errors, as well as adding great value to my actual instruction of Columba. You
see, we don’t “bite it”! I rehearsed the technique afterwards and realized that what I was actually doing
was using my tongue to press the spaghetti strands against my top teeth (my “incisors”, if we want to
add value by incorporating technical terms!). If one bites, one has, of course, to open one’s mouth
which, as we know, is not considered good manners and in any case results in several of the pieces of
spaghetti falling out of one’s mouth and down onto the plate (or worse!) below.
While we will often manage to avoid the first two areas of mistakes, so often, as teachers, we are guilty
of this last, of not critically and analytically deconstructing the learning we are about to lead and
thinking about what are the really important, or especially challenging, parts of the learning (and then
designing our approach to teaching these with particular care).
So my intervention with Columba should have been rather more like this:
“Today, we are going to continue looking at the area of table manners. Now, in your life, Columba, you
are going to be faced with the challenge of eating a bowl of spaghetti many, many times. Wouldn’t it be
great if you could learn a technique for doing this tricky task that was efficient and that didn’t cause any
mess or embarrassment?
Well, I am going to show you how you can use your tongue and the sharp teeth at the top of your mouth
(your incisors) to do just that. Now watch carefully as I eat a forkful of spaghetti and tell me what you
notice about the technique I use.”
So, in conclusion, life may not be a bowl of pasta….but maybe learning is!