One of the significant pleasures in being enabled to unpick how a school works, is that the schools are invariably open and honest with me and are seeking the external view that might nudge them forward in their development. As each school is subtly different, that can mean that interrogation has to look in fine detail at different elements, to determine how they link and possibly how they either support or hinder aspects of growth.
I am also very visual in the way that I think about contexts. I have to have the bigger picture, so that I can explore the constituent parts. Schools, after all, are systems, of interlocking systems, with the key one being the system that operates around each learner, so that they are enabled to make the best progress at that point in time. This also allows for those individuals for whom expectations of the whole group may not be applicable, as a result of issues specific to them. As teachers, we have to accept that life does affect learning patterns. It does for adults, so it does for learners and they are young, so may not yet have built their coping mechanisms.
There are many elements which go together to make up the complex event that we call learning.
Some commentators argue that you can’t “see” learning in a lesson, and yes, perhaps that, as a phenomenon is not easily visible, but, I think it is feasible to explore the learning intentions of the lesson and to qualitatively explore the learning environment, the experiences and the challenge and effort being demanded, so that it is possible to determine the likelihood of whether learning might be taking place at that point.
Knowing where the learners are at the beginning of the discrete series of experiences they will encounter though a series of lessons is essential, so that they will then be taken on a journey alongside the teacher, rather than the teacher running ahead and learners lagging behind in a long tail. Knowing where they are headed is important too. If the “map” is only ever in the teacher’s head, then learners are not aware of the destination, nor can they have an understanding of where they are on the journey. If one was to take a climbing analogy, as I have done in another post, from the base camp, we want to journey to a specific point, or pitch, where we can take stock before moving onto the next one, so that the journey as a whole is always within the learner’s understanding.
Task Setting (What’s the challenge?)
Limitations can be embedded in the activities that are given to children. In my last post, I looked at task setting and it is to this that I’d want to return, as it is, without doubt, the determinant of progress. Real learning, at least to me, requires embedding what is known into overcoming a challenge and solving problems. Much school learning is based on activities, doing, following a set of instructions, rather than applying knowledge and skills to challenging scenarios. This “recipe” approach to teaching can be effective in the right hands, as can all approaches, however in the wrong hands it embeds a limitation, created by the task. A level x task, given to a level x learner, will produce level x learning. Task choice and challenge is therefore an essential skill.
Unpicking the level of challenge, the need for learners to think, to plan, to organise, to select, to determine routes and ideas rather than just follow instructions, is an important aspect. Completing an activity sheet does not necessarily equate to learning. End to end activity sheets does not mean a scheme of work.
The process of learning has to be a dynamic interplay between the learner and the context, making active links between what is already known and what is being laid before them. To that end the interplay of the formal lessons, homework and time between lessons would also appear, to me, to be critical. How much homework is an unrelated activity, just because homework has to be given? What if the challenge was continuous, so that homework became pre-thinking, preparation for the lesson, or a reflection on the learning outcomes of the current one?
Boxing everything would appear to embed potential limitations, in inexperienced hands, but sometimes in more experienced hands, as a result of the system. From that point of view, the diagram at the header is limited as it implies boxes rather than a dynamic.
Knowledge and Skills
Learners need to know things in order to understand the world around them. Knowledge underpins all thinking, but the awakening by teaching or discovery through experience of new knowledge has to be explored in relation to what is already known. Making links is essential.
The knowledge area provides the context for the learning, sometimes in discrete subject areas, sometimes in less discrete manner; the real world does not exist in subject boxes. The discrete area allows specific concepts, (current) knowledge and subject specific skills to be explored and developed to hone the skills over time to provide capacity to explore for oneself, at different levels, each of which, I would argue has validity. One does not have to reach a specific level of expertise before using what is known to explore. As a teenager, I was interested in entomology, not as an expert, but as a way to explore the natural world. It was a specific interest, but linked with GCE and A level studies, allowed deeper insights in a very specific area.
The skills of the subject often provide the process skills, and it is this area that needs careful consideration, as it is within the process skills that reflective practice enables the involved teacher to determine where any gaps occur.
Active Processing- Making Sense of Things
While a teacher might present knowledge in contexts in ways that they think are suitable for the children in their classes, there is never a guarantee that the message gets across to the learner.
- The teacher language style, and the vocabulary being used might preclude a learner from picking up the essential information that they need to make progress. Not all learners are active listeners and even those who are can miss parts of information as they reflect on an earlier snippet of knowledge.
- Even if the message does get across there is no guarantee that the learner will have the capacity to process the knowledge, in some cases because they do not have prior experiences which allow them to link the new information to a known position. They already have a deficit, which, if undetected, embeds and deepens the deficit, by adding another layer of deficit.
- And, even if they have the capacity to take the information in and to process it, there are some learners who have difficulty in expressing what they know in ways that are acceptable as outcomes.
It is a cyclic event, with each successive outcome creating a new baseline of expectation, based on learning outcomes.
So to simplify the diagram at the header of this post.
- Teaching and Learning is a series of interlocking expectations over time; long, medium and short term.
- Analysis underpins the detail of planning, which in turn describes what will happen in the lesson, during and after which the reflective teacher adjusts expectations to evident outcomes, with appropriate records kept as aides memoire.
- Tasks set embed the expectations of the learning, which should be challenging to thinking rather than activity based.
- The product, the outcome and the process are important, with the latter capable of investigation to discover the aspects which a child finds difficult, receptive, processing or expressive difficulty. The former can be compared to aspirational outcomes and investigated for future learning steps.
- You don’t really know what they know unless they can communicate it to you and there are many routes to communication. It’s not just spoken or written.
That is for the teacher and the learner to determine. If exemplars are shared, they can be discussed against the learner outcome, with a descriptor of next steps shared. Once shared, they become a common expectation, for the learner focus. Showing progress can be good enough for an individual. If there is a “bottom line” expectation, this can be explored with learners to establish the personalised route necessary to achieve this. Specific support and guidance may be needed.
This might suffer from being an adult concept, especially for younger learners. Perhaps it would be more useful to talk in terms of what learners are trying to get better at.
Current target setting is also often a hidden agenda, with targets stuck inside book covers, in another booklet, or in a teacher’s planner. It also suffers in some places from lacking a dynamic; three targets set for a half term review. If not achieved, then reset. It sucks the life out of learners putting effort into their learning.
An alternative approach is to
- Put personalised targets on a fold out slip, at the edge of the exercise book, so that during the lesson, the child and the teacher can be aware of the specific targets.
- This can prompt conversations specific to that child, support the learner’s self-evaluations and also support teacher oral and written feedback, as the slips can be folded out during marking.
- Targets can be achieved , then become non-negotiable in future work, with new ones added.
- This approach also supports record keeping, as the slip forms an on-going record of achievement.
We are all, or should be, life-long learners, more often without a teacher. Life offers challenges. We need to create solution finders.