Today’s teachers are expected to teach like champions, have an ethic of excellence and a growth mind-set, while being at all times on the lookout for marginal gains, ensuring that, in a world without levels, learning has no limits, although there is a need to ensure that formative assessment underpins all your decisions. That sounds easy enough. Read six current books and all will be well, or, seen another way, choose your guru.
To me, there is a little element of the “truth” about teaching and learning in each of the books, each author putting their personal “slant” on the writing, by virtue of the way that they see the world at that point in time. Each is also updating ideas that have been around for a long time, in some form, as part of good teacher practice.
Education has, for many years, come in a box or a book, the latter with a different set of authors who all sought to distil the wisdom of the time into forms that would describe learning and provide background to teacher decision making. A few years ago, Bruner, Piaget, Vygotsky and Kolb, would have taken over from Dewey and Rousseau.
Simplification is often the order of the day in any writing about teaching and learning. In effect, every single teacher has already distilled their own learning, via ITE, subsequent experiences, reading, discussion and listening to the available expertise.
Every teacher takes, or should take, themselves into the classroom, with a much clarity in their thinking a possible, all premised on good knowledge of the children who make up their class(es). This latter point is, to me, the most significant aspect, as underlying knowledge of each child ensure that challenge, support and feedback are more refined to the needs of each learner.
Problems arise when the distilled knowledge of the acknowledged experts is then interpreted into systems, either at a national or a school level. The systematising, in itself, becomes a box which traps and guides teacher thinking to specific ends. So words like differentiation lose their meaning. Instead of articulating the next real challenge for the learners, with subsequent focused teacher questions, guidance and feedback, each of which gives rise to teacher reflection, or assessment, they can be systematised into the visual of different activity, some of which may be inappropriate to needs.
Assessment has developed into a pseudo-science with tick box mentalities determining, in many cases, the tasks children would be given. The devising of such fine-tuned tasks, has to me, distorted teacher effort and slowed learning for many children.
The biggest problem, in my opinion, though, has been the view that seems to be gaining traction, that it is purely the teaching that matters, with the implication that children cannot learn anything unless it passes through the teacher. This is creating a mutual dependency culture, between learner and teacher, in a world where children need to become independent and a teacher life is eased, a little, with that independence.
In real life, the chances are that any challenge that needs to be accomplished will take the practitioner to a point where they need to find out something in order to progress with the task. That is the point where learning takes place, moving the person from one state to another.
For that reason, I think that a real focus on task design would be time well spent, as it always has been. I can remember discussing task design from the beginning of my career. The ubiquity of the internet-available resource and the use of the photocopier has exacerbated the problem of easy to fins and easy to copy resources. If you have to hand write differentiated work cards for a class of 39 children, thinking about what they will do takes a lot of time, as there is no benefit in spending hours for a few minutes of challenge.
The recent ASCL conference spawned a weekend of Twitter and blog writing, as different individuals sought to make sense of what they had heard. As a non-attendee, I was left with the reportage, with much focused on one slide from Professor Robert Coe, seeking to look at learning, or what is often viewed as learning. This slide came from @CarlHendrick’s blog on Engagement, after the event.
The first point, I would agree with totally, as it embeds that which I would argue very strongly, that the quality of the challenge in a task is the determinant of the potential and the actual learning. It is stated that Prof Coe argues that learning happens when children have to think hard. That seems to validate my assertion. I would argue that children should become producers of learning, rather than just consumers of learning activities. Children who are under-challenged, or challenged AT their perceived current levels will, by definition, not be progressing their learning, except, perhaps by chance.
Challenge, however, can be difficult for less-secure teachers, as that could take the lesson in unexpected, or unanticipated directions. Yet, in the hands of confident teachers, prepared to go with the flow, these are the lessons that enhance the learning experience for everyone.
Learning is, in reality, likely to be fluid in nature, identifying blocks or gaps in learning which need to be addressed. Good learning challenge enables that fluidity; planning happens across a period of time, within holistic structures, adjusted over successive lessons to learner capability evident in outcomes. The diversions enable a broader look at the landscape, enhancing the sum of understanding. Learners, supported by teachers, unpicking and articulating their learning journeys, sharing these with peers, with the evidence of their outcomes as good examples (WAGOLL), enables a significant event, the “lightbulb” moment, when another learner sees a way forward.
So, in an effort to reframe the slide above and to link with the current library shelf, I’d suggest the following.
Know your children well, using the available (data) information with care, not to create a wrong impression.
Plan effectively, over time, so that each lesson has a part to play in the whole, but allow for adaptation to need.
Know your stuff and order and organise the sharing of this with care. The choice of register and vocabulary provide models for learner discussion. Are you aware that you may speak differently to different classes? How good a “storyteller” are you?
Ensure that relevant and appropriate resources are available and easy access/return, to support the learning environment.
Overview tasks should allow for personal challenge to each child in the class, even within a whole class lesson. Tasks may have to be adapted to need within the lesson, to increase or decrease the challenge to need, if there is one challenge for all.
Spot and deal with evident issues; children off task, finished early, worried looks… adapt to need.
Celebrate and unpick outcomes. Use these to check personal learning needs.
Displays of outcomes can provide the food for thought for personal development.
Test by creating tasks that enable the showing of the accumulated learning.
The above describes the reality of the current teacher standards, which I discussed in another post, 24652. Click here if interested. Learning, as such, may not, as David Didau argues, be visible.
The conditions within which learning might occur might well be the closest we get, during the process. Checking the progress will depend on the quality and closeness of questioning and subsequent follow-up challenges.
At transition, it may also depend on the quality of understanding from the receiving teacher, if progress is to be maintained. But that’s another story, maybe…It is very easy to underexpect, or underplay prior performance, therefore limiting progress.
Seeing learning as a process might be a more useful starting point. Here's a diagram that seems to put the whole together, linked to the current Teaching Standards.