The Secret Teacher: ‘Those who can’t, teach – that’s what my da says’

Passive learning no longer applies – it’s all about engaging learners now

“Those who can’t, teach,” offers Ruairí. “That’s what my dad says, anyway.” Ruairí is the self-appointed guidance counsellor in my transition year group.

“Is your dad Man or Superman?”

Blank faces all round.

I suggest they research the original quote from the George Bernard Shaw play, knowing some will, some won’t, but that my reply has stimulated them to think; 21st-century classrooms are all about engaging the learners. The authoritarian, teacher-centred model of 20th-century Ireland is fast becoming obsolete other than in anecdote.


Passive learners should live on only in the memory of those who were in classrooms then. Active learning is where it’s at now – in theory anyway.

I wonder if it occurred to Ruairí to ask his dad where he had heard that quote. Curiosity makes new doors and possibilities visible to learners. In active learning, it’s the learner that must be active. Observing all kinds of learners in my career so far has taught me a successful formula for active learning.


First it involves careful listening so that the initial contact with a new concept, word or approach increases the learner’s awareness. Engagement with it is what produces understanding, something more solid and longer lasting.

Assessing the possibilities for application of that new learning is a skill in itself. A simple example of this is any new word or expression that we learn.

A particular bugbear of mine is when people say “I resonate with that”. I have not heard this in my classroom, it’s a real-world adult example. Awareness of the word “resonate” which has not been followed by engagement in how exactly it is used has led to its inaccurate application. Mere imitation is simple and human, but in our current climate of skim reading, it is critically important to know how to apply new knowledge.

Did Ruairí’s dad even know those words were a quotation from a play, or know the sentence immediately before them? Ruairí evidently didn’t, so what a world of learning remains for them both to explore if they actively engage in it!

Active learning must also include responding. Teachers exhaust themselves performing for the duration of lessons, which simply conditions the pupils to permanent passivity. Lessons which are devoid of active responses produce little evidence of learning. Such evidence will be required in formal assessment, and we are doing our learners a disservice if we only allow them to respond during formal assessment. What a shock to the system that will be!

Active learning also involves navigating one’s own choices. Spoon-feeding never nourishes active learners so that they make real progress. Subject choices at second level and course options for third level are decisions it is entirely reasonable to expect a student to take the lead on.

It’s not about pushing them to premature independence, but about ensuring that the experience of having to choose between options feels natural during their formative years. It is a feature of life that we can withhold from them for too long and with alarming consequences.

Denying young people opportunities to respond and navigate their own decision-making can contribute heavily to their stress levels. They pick up on what everyone else wants and expects, whether peers, parents, teachers or siblings. The weight of varying, perhaps even conflicting expectations, combined with an absence of the skills required to move forward, inevitably creates a strain on their mental health.

A further strain comes from the fact that our learners are exposed to all kinds of teachers, and may therefore get mixed messages about what is expected of them. At second level, the newly-qualified teacher and the soon-to-retire teacher will have trained under very different schools of thought. Many qualified with Junior Cycle reform as a fixed feature, while others resented its introduction, and resisted or even sabotaged it.

Our attitude as teachers towards new initiatives directly relates to a learner’s experience of them. This requires a courageous conversation I don’t see anyone calling for. What we do in the classroom is not about us or our opinions, but about what we can do to best serve our students.

There is much to compensate for, after all. The OECD Education at a Glance 2019 report provides concrete data on 21st century education. We learned that Ireland ranks lowest of all OECD countries for investment in education. As teachers, we aren’t indulged when it comes to financially prioritising what we do. Despite this, our students shine. According to the same report Irish young people rank among the world’s most educated. They topped the poll in Europe and came fourth globally. We are clearly getting a huge amount right in our classrooms. Teachers are evidently going above and beyond for their students. What we are doing obviously “resonates” with them!

The fact that both educators and learners are doing the best they can with the tools they have merits greater recognition. However discouraging it may sound, and however shortsighted and unjust it may be, perhaps investment is unlikely to increase precisely because we are performing so well without it. The fact that teachers know Ireland ranks lowest for investment needs balancing out with appropriate acknowledgement that we perform well despite that. This could help to prevent any drop in morale.

High morale in a staffroom means a good level of joy and confidence in what we are doing in our classrooms, with all the attendant levels of naturally good discipline and behaviour. Is this realistic? I would maintain that it is. Not that we need to become supermen or superwomen, but that we are able to work well with classes full of active learners.