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hard learning

And talking of learning, why is it so hard to do?

When working with schools, I regularly initiate conversations with teachers about learning. It is, surely, the core purpose of schools, and to be an effective teacher with little interest in, or understanding of, human learning is inconceivable. So why, then, do such conversations frequently become derailed by other, more ‘pressing’, issues? What are these pressing issues, and how can we avoid drifting into these cul-de-sacs at the expense of the main event?

The primary distractor is ‘teaching’. Years of ‘teaching and learning policies’ or ‘teaching and learning strategies’ or, in some schools, ‘learning and teaching strategies’ (as if changing the order changes the meaning!) has led us into regarding teaching and learning as inseparables. Much like fish and chips, or Morecambe and Wise, they come as a pair. Occasionally they morph into one another, becoming fish ‘n’ chips, giving the unfortunate message that if you have one, then you get the other. I teach, therefore they learn. Really ?

As Chris Watkins at the London Institute challenges us – “which do you think happens more often – teaching without learning, or learning without teaching?”

A moment’s reflection and we can all recall learning without the aid of a teacher, and we can probably recall teaching when precious little learning was being achieved. Teaching cannot be discounted from conversations about learning, but it needs to take its proper place, as servant, not master. We teach so that they may learn. They do not learn so that we may teach!

The second distractor is attainment, progress, examination success, the standards agenda. The greatest fear is that to focus on learning might compromise hard–won standards, that results might plummet on the altar of student learning. In a system that prizes simplistic, measureable outcomes over a richer but harder to measure set of performance indicators, it is hardly surprising that teachers have been lured into believing that passing exams is the only game in town.

But examination performance is not learning, although it may develop from learning. Learning is not an alternative to examination success, rather it is the life-blood of it. In his paper, Research Matters, Chris Watkins observes that “ In everyday terms the motivation to prove one’s competence [through examination performance] is immaterial without the motivation to improve one’s competence [as a learner]. This refutes the idea that a focus on learning and a focus on performance are in some way alternatives.”

Click here to download Research Matters

The third distractor is content overload coupled with too little time to ‘deliver’ the curriculum. Rooted in the fear that if I don’t tell it, they won’t get it and we won’t finish the syllabus in time, it leads to some fairly unpleasant consequences. Usually when a teacher talks the language of content overload and ‘coverage’, you know that they are preparing to abandon learning in favour of ‘delivery’.

As a counter example, allow me to tell the story of a fabulous History teacher I used to work with. Traditional by most standards, she had a damn good story, and she had every intention of telling it. At pace. At volume. For her, teaching was a performance, and she was a fine performer. She loved being the centre of attention in her classroom and her kids loved being taught by her. For a couple of years she watched the school’s deepening interest in learning with suspicion, nervous of taking her foot off of the delivery accelerator.

Then, suddenly, she started to trial things out. She spoke less. She made them do more for themselves. The pace slowed. They thought more, but wrote less.

Are you worried that you might not get through the curriculum, I asked. The answer was illuminating:

“Initially yes. Their books were half full compared to previous years, but then I began to ask myself some hard questions. Why did I make them write so much in their books? The unpleasant answer was that it was to prove to myself that I had said it and that they had heard it! Not quite ‘writing for a purpose’ ! So I relaxed about the lack of volume, especially when I realised that what they were writing was at least one level higher than would previously have been the case because they had processed the information for themselves before committing their ideas to paper. Quality was overpowering quantity. And, because their learning was deeper and more sophisticated, I needed to repeat less, and so there was no overall effect on our ability to ‘get through the syllabus’”.

Learning, then, is not the enemy of content coverage.

How do we keep these three intruders at bay and focus our conversation on learning ?

Remember these three things:

  1. Teaching is the servant, not the master
  2. Learning and Attainment are not alternatives, it is both/and, not either/or
  3. Deep learning is the friend, not the enemy, of coverage.
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