Now, in the sense that you can’t see the cogs turning inside anyone’s head, you can’t see the learning happening.
However, the order and organisation of appropriate experiences with an end goal in mind, delivered with a clear, appropriately delivered narrative throughout, focused on specific conceptual knowledge that needs to be embedded, with dialogue and checks (tests) that this has happened, and an exploration of generated physical outcomes, may indicate, at the very least, the likelihood that learning has occurred. It is a mix of process and outcomes.
The teacher response to the process and outcomes can be explored through formative and summative assessment; formative equating to opinion forming from developing outcomes, leading to interventions appropriate to evident need with a reflective summary at the end of the experience.
Teacher responses, to both elements, are likely to reflect their own level of experience; in the early stages these may be generalisations, which are honed over time, as the developing teacher experiences a greater number of interventions and outcomes and takes part in moderation discussions with experienced colleagues.
Appropriate teacher responses can range from formally revisiting aspects of knowledge with specific children, to independent challenge to see how well the understanding is embedded. Thought processes requires knowledge to be used and applied within an appropriately challenging context, to now that it is fully embedded.
To that end, some 37 years ago, working with the then County science advisor, I developed an approach that sought to summarise a workable approach to Primary science, but which, over time, also developed into an approach across the topic based curriculum within the different schools within which I worked. Over time, it encompassed history and geography topics, with art, dance, music being used as tools for creating responses, in addition to written forms.
This, during my 16 years as a headteacher, developed into a coherent form that focused the learning and teaching policy on the idea of “Making Sense of Experience”, which, I would argue, is what each of us seeks to do all of the time. We are assailed by a wide range of experiences, some organised, some in an informal, unexpected form, which leads to responses and, where appropriate, retention of information.
School learning is largely organised and formal, while “life” in general throws things up at different points. Having the facility to engage and respond appropriately can make a significant difference to learning. A wide range of disabilities can hamper a child’s ability to take in information in a form that allows for progression in learning, which is why personal knowledge of the children making up the class is essential, if appropriate intervention is to occur.
Every topic area had it’s own “Topic Spec”, which detailed the specific knowledge areas that needed to be learned during the experience. These were developed with County Inspectors and Advisors, spending time with subject managers to refine and hone the expectations across the whole Primary school. It provided a coherent learning journey. Teachers who could see an alternative way to combine Topic Specs, to make greater gains were enabled to do so, as long as the knowledge gains were secure.
Arrange as an annual plan, the teachers could then focus on the current topic, with an eye on the next one. See Planning
Where possible, first-hand experience underpinned learning, with early recording, as drawings and simple writing, as well as photographs supporting narrative retelling and discussion. High level communication was encouraged, starting with description, then through scaffolded questioning to consider similarities and differences to other experiences. Creating a clear visual imagery, we felt, was important to support future, more abstract thinking. The “Picture It” visualisation stage supported the majority of children through the infant stage, although many were also within the “Test It” stage.
Challenge in tasks was a hallmark of topic activity, and had been throughout my earlier career. Activities that seemed like “busy work”, if seen, were always challenged for a clear rationale.
Learning to think clearly, for yourself, is an important aspect of learning in general, which is why modelling thinking, aloud, in front of the children, enables them to, at least, gain an insight into how individuals think. One reason that I think sets often fail children is the narrowed opportunity to engage with higher achieving models of thinking. Sharing, peer to peer teaching can sometimes be as powerful as through a teacher.
Before the terms were “invented”, I think, naturalistically, as a school, we were effectively doing “Growth Mindset” approaches and looking for “Marginal Gains”. These two elements, to me fall naturally within the teacher mindset, in that they also embed an investigative approach to thinking that charges the teacher with detailed questioning to really seek to understand the learner thought processes and to address their needs.
Was learning organised across time to enable knowledge and skills to be used in future topics?
Were topics based on knowledge rather than just skills?
Were challenges created to check learner independent competence and retention of knowledge?
Did teachers share knowledge/facts with children?
Did children follow up in-class learning with home activities?
Did children enjoy the process of learning?
Did children regularly succeed at 85% of cohorts at age expected levels?
The answer to every question is yes.
Children were taught, then challenged to use and apply their knowledge. Outcomes were good and they enjoyed the process of learning.
That’s why I am a “progmatist”. I believe that children can learn in the right circumstances. It’s the adult job to create the right circumstances.
See the work of Reuven Feuerstein (1921-2014), Israeli clinical psychologist, whose ideas and theories developed from working with refugee children after World War 2.