Understanding each student

Tuesday 10 September 2019

Listen to each student and allow them to tell you their their personal story of how they learn best.

I have learnt so much about learning (and teaching) from sitting with my 11 year old daughter as she struggles to understand individual pieces of work. Just sitting with her watching and listening has helped me understand what she finds difficult and challenging. For her, learning facts is in danger of becoming rote learning since she has not understood some key basic concepts. For example, in history, she was trying to learn about the history of England without grasping what 'heir' to the throne actually meant. Similarly in science understanding important experiments without grasping key concepts such as photosynthesis. For each child their struggles and challenges might well be different.

What I have learnt as I sit by my daughter is the importance of allowing her to tell the story of her own learning - to articulate what she does not understand.  It is for me as a teacher then to facilitate her overcoming those obstacles. John Hattie describes this as the work of the expert teacher (see  Expert vs Experienced Teachers) who adopts a forensic approach to students' learning.

In his book A Whole New Mind Daniel Pink speaks about the six essential aptitudes on which professional success and personal fulfilment now depend. One of these is STORY. As I read the book I was particularly taken by what he had to say about the role of the medical profession today and how applicable this was to our lives as teachers.

We are OUR stories

Modern medicine is a marvel. Powerful machines are letting us glimpse our body's inner workings. New drugs and medical devices are saving many lives and improving many more. Yet, those spectacular advances have often come at the expense of a more mundane, though no less important, aspect of care. The medical system can "completely eliminate the person's story." Unfortunately, medicine sees anecdote as the lowest form of science. But that rushed just-the-facts approach to patient care may be changing.

"Stories - that's how people make sense of what's happening to them when they get sick. They tell stories about themselves. Our ability as doctors to treat and heal is bound up in our ability to accurately perceive a patient's story. If you can't do that, you're working with one hand tied behind your back." (Dr. Howard Brody, family practice physician).

In 2001 Dr. Rita Charon launched the narrative medicine movement that called for a whole-minded approach to medical care: "A scientifically competent medicine alone cannot help a patient grapple with the loss of health or find meaning in suffering. Along with scientific ability, physicians need the ability to listen to the narratives of the patient, and be moved to act on the patient's behalf."

Narrative medicine is part of a wider trend. Dr. Danielle Ofri, who teaches med students, requires her young charges to write up at least one of their patient histories as a narrative - to tell the patient's story from the patients point of view. Stories alone won't cure the sick. But combined with modern technology they have an undeniable healing power.

Extract from A Whole New Mind by Daniel Pink

This passage got me thinking about how we as teachers should continually listen to our students' stories about their learning if we are to maximise their progress.


  • Choose a student who does not always find learning easy or straight forward.
  • Spend time with them listening to their story.
  • Now try writing up their learning journey in the form of a narrative - telling their story.

Tags: the importance of story, personalised learning


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