Dr. Judith M. Newman



Leading From Behind

Gordon Wells in his book Meaning Makers (1986, Heinemann) describes the way in which children and adults (parents and teachers) collaborate to further children's language development. One idea he presents is how adults "lead from behind"—that is they modify their language based on the feedback they receive from their child language partners. He says:

Talking with young children is very much like playing ball with them. What the adult has to do for this game to be successful is, first, to ensure that the child is ready, with arms cupped, to catch the ball. Then the ball must be thrown gently and accurately so that it lands squarely in the child's arms. When it is the child's turn to throw, the adult must be prepared to run wherever it goes and bring it back to where the child really intended it to go. such is the collaboration required in conversation, the adult doing a great deal of supportive work to enable the ball to be kept in play (p 50).

Classroom teaching is the same—it requires that same supportive analysis and anticipation, the willingness on the part of the adult to "throw the ball gently so that it lands in the child's arms". What makes this challenging in a classroom of twenty-six or thirty-two students is that different children have different levels of ball-throwing skills! The trick is for the teacher to be able to quickly judge which students have enough skill to throw the ball with one another, which ones can "play" with the help of a more skilled partner, and which ones still need "the ball thrown gently and accurately..." by the adult.

It's a complex collaboration which takes a lot of skill on the part of teachers. As Wells explains:

From observations outside school, we know that children are inately predisposed to make sense of their experience, to pose problems for themselves, and actively to search for and achieve solutions. There is every reason to believe, therefore, that, given the opportunity, they will continue to bring these characteristics to bear inside the school as well, provided that the tasks that they engage in are once that they have been able to make their own. All of us—adults and children alike—function most effectively when we are working on a task or problem to which we have a personal commitment, either because the goal is one that we are determined to achieve...or because the activity is one that we find intrinsically satisfying..., or both. In these circumstances, ...discussion with someone more skilled or knowledgeable takes on real purpose and significance, as progress to date is reviewed and alternative plans for further work are considered in terms of their feasibility and appropriateness. This is perhaps the teacher's most viatl contribution: as a master providing guidance to an apprentice, who utilizes that guidance in the pursuit of his or her chosen goal, the value of which is appreciated by both of them (p. 120).

It starts with an invitation to explore something: where and how soccer balls are made today (in many third world countries using child labour!), why the war in Afganistan is proving so difficult (the history of Afganistan, its tribal roots, past failures to conquer the country...), chocolate bars (the ingredients and where they come from...), why sweaters are warm (where does heat come from, a comparison of wool and synthetic fibres,...). The list of topics is endless. Each topic allows an exploration using the tools of science, history, economics, language, ... it just depends on the current curricular focus. Once started, the students interests shape the investigation, the teacher follows along—leading from behind—with questions and suggestions about procedure, about new directions to explore, about ways of sharing findings, about production of presentations...

Leading from behind is challenging—teachers have to trust students' ability to "make sense of their experience, to pose problems for themselves, and actively search for and achieve solutions." And they have to be able to improvise themselves, to see possibilities students haven't thought of themselves, and to match all of this active learning with the prescribed list of outcomes so that the formal curriculum objectives are being met—not in any prescriptive way, but as an indirect consequence of learning about something that interests the learners!