Never Work Harder Than Your Students

Probably the best piece of advice I ever got as a teacher was “never work harder than your students.”

One of my former mentors, Joanne Roberts, told me that. A fantastic principal, with a deep understanding and love of learning. Joanne was all about giving students responsibility for their learning. She played an important role in how I came to understand the process of learning. She helped me understand the complementary roles of the teacher and learner in the learning process.

I think of it like this. In a room of 30 students and a teacher, there’s a cognitive load that needs to be lifted. 30 students need to go from not knowing or being able to do something, to knowing or being able to do it. That’s the hard work of learning. And the question that needs to be answered is who’s lifting that load?

Our prevailing teaching culture means that in many schools, the teacher is doing most of the heavy lifting. We’ve been told teachers are responsible for learning. That learning is the outcome of teaching. As a result, teachers plan learning, provide the feedback, correct mistakes, smoothing out the learning process and make sure outcomes are achieved.

"The sad part about this scenario is that it isn’t helping the students, or the teachers."

I met a teacher recently who was deep into a teaching culture. She felt a keen responsibility for making sure learning outcomes were being reached. As a result, she did all the heavy lifting for her students. She was in control of the learning process. She told students what to work on, how to answer questions, how to fix mistakes. She provided all the feedback.

And she was getting great results. Well… she wasn’t actually getting any results. The students were the ones getting results. But she was getting all the credit for their results! Which, in an odd way, was reasonable. After all, she was doing most of the work. And as you may have guessed, it exhausted her doing it.

The bigger problem was with the students. On the surface, they were getting good short-term results. They performed extremely well in their year 12 assessments. But they weren’t learning how to do the heavy lifting of learning for themselves. They were what I describe as Directed Learners, reliant on the teacher to guide their learning. They don’t know how to take charge of the learning process for themselves.

We create directed learners when we put teaching at the centre of our school culture. When every conversation is about effect sizes and quality teaching. We focus on meeting our short-term educational outcomes and totally miss our long-range educational goals.

The schools I work with develop a culture of growth. In this culture we still value expert teachers. But we recognise that they aren’t solely responsible for learning outcomes. They don’t carry so much of the cognitive load. They recognise that learning is not the product of teaching. Learning is the product of the activity of learners. So they are keenly focused on how students are engaging n the learning process. How the outcomes are achieved is more important than simply achieving the outcomes.

"In a culture of growth, students develop learnership - the skill of learning. Students learn how to carry the cognitive load for themselves and use that load to become even better learners."

Not only do they get good short-term results, but by becoming skilful learners, we set them up to thrive in the world after school. Schools smash their short-term outcomes on their way to achieving their long-range educational goals as well.

So try asking yourself who’s doing the heavy lifting of learning in your classroom? Take onboard the advice I was given. Never work harder than your students. Help students develop Learnership so they can lift the load on their own, now and in the future.

(As an added bonus, when you lift less of the cognitive load, you have more energy to devote to being even better teachers!)

How much of the heavy lifting of learning are your teachers doing for their students?

To find out more about Learnership - the skill of learning, visit

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James Anderson
Speaker | Author | Educator

M: 0423778008
E: [email protected]


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