Masters Unit: Learners and Learning.
Ros Hurford January 2007
How has my own development as a learner influenced the changes I have made in the way I teach, and how has this affected the learning of my pupils?
In this assignment I want to outline briefly the course that my personal development as a learner has taken, how my understanding of learners and learning has been influenced and formed, and how this ongoing personal and professional development drives the changes I make in my teaching methods with the aim of enhancing the learning of my pupils.
I intend to examine my own learning experiences and look critically at the theories that have fascinated and intrigued me since I became curious about how we learn and how learning can be promoted in others.
Finally I want to look at the way in which my embodied knowledge about learning and learners directly influences the way I teach, and whether that in turn genuinely impacts on the children's learning. The issue that concerns me is whether I actually teach in a way that is in harmony with my learning theory or whether my teaching approach satisfies other exterior pressures, but actually fails to maximise the children's learning and develop their view of themselves as learners.
What is Learning? Where did my own Living Theory of Learning Originate?
Everything was new and everything was exciting. Very different from school. She wanted ,suddenly and quite desperately, to learn. Cheek, M. (2006)
Look at any dictionary definition of learning and it will focus on the development of skills, ability or knowledge, gaining information, being able to do something that previously you could not do. As Marianne, a young disillusioned wife with no qualifications discovers in Mavis Cheek's book, learning is not just something that happens within the confines of a statutory education. Her experience is sadly not unusual, as conversation with too many adults has confirmed. This is typical of the 'shallow' learning described by John Burnham-West (2006) as 'adequate for a world, which operated on high levels of compliance and dependence in the work place and society.' (p6) Our world is no longer such a place, and will be even less so in the future.
This is where my own learning theory began. From personal experience, from reading and discussing the personal experiences of others, it appears that often the learning we remember best, or are most enthusiastic about, is not that which occurs during the time of statutory education. My concern is not that we learn beyond school; indeed, I am a firm advocate of lifelong learning, rather that school learning seems to lack the close links to 'real' life or a sense of purposefulness. If we are not engaged in learning anything of value to us in school, then what are we achieving, and why is the end result often a lack of enthusiasm for learning?
I agree with Csikszentmihalyi (2002) when he states that:
'Ideally, the end of an extrinsically applied education should be the start of an education that is motivated intrinsically.' (p141)
This is echoed again in the analysis of learning by John Burnham-West (2006) and I feel there is much to be gained from his ideas of deeper and profound learning levels, the former being concerned with the 'creation of knowledge, which the learner is able to relate to their own experience and use to understand new experiences and contexts' (p8) and the latter with being 'an authentic human being who is able to accept responsibility for our own destinies'.(P9)
It frequently appears that much of what happens within the school day is not beyond the shallow level of learning, influenced by the demands of curriculum. My own wish is to make a desire to learn intrinsic in my pupils.
Influences in the formulation of my own theory.
My own theory of learning comes from a variety of sources. Some I remember with clarity and the impact they made on me, others are vaguer. Indeed this is one of the difficulties in defining your own learning theory. Because learning implies an element of growth and change, a theory of learning must therefore be a living and growing theory; a complex and intricately vibrant jigsaw where the picture is likely to undergo constant change as new knowledge or understanding is added.
The only thing of which I am sadly certain, is, that on leaving teacher training college in 1975, I knew in outline the theories of Piaget, Skinner and others, popular at that time, but I hadn't learned how to apply or make use of these theories in my own practice. They rather resembled the braking distances 'learned' for your driving test; accurate recall of information but only of academic interest until the day when you have to avoid an accident. Occasionally I would catch glimpses of Piaget's stages of development, see the conditioned reaction to the school dinner bell, but it didn't appear to connect to the learning that went on in the classroom; largely the transferring of my knowledge to the minds of the children – or not..
This was probably typical for the time. Interest in learning theories and what happens in the classroom have only recently received more central attention.
Since then my awareness of how learning takes place has gone through many developmental phases. Initially the range of different theories was interesting but without a common thread between them.
As part of my professional development in 1996 I took a course in mental maths strategies. Here I met Vygotsky'ls zone of proximal development and the work of Bruner, involving scaffolding, and began to realise that I was developing my own ways of learning and an understanding of how children learn. I was already using a form of scaffolding, and this continues today in that I dislike limiting children by predetermining by worksheet the level they may achieve.
By extending my own knowledge I was increasing my own awareness of myself as a learner. This was the start of realising that learning could be tailored to suit the individual much more than I had been aware of, and that learners have different preferred styles of learning such as promoted by the work of Howard Gardner. That gave rise to a much heightened awareness of using visual and kinaesthetic teaching strategies to a greater degree than I had previously. The focus of Gardener's learning styles has recently returned as an issue with personalised education and the introduction of the SEAL programme at school. I feel, however, that this is an area to develop further in the future in collaboration with the children, leading to a greater involvement by them in the planning of their own learning activities.
Also in harmony with what I was already trying to develop was Bloom's taxonomy of questioning, which found in me a fertile ground in which to grow, with the realisation that I was already tending to ask higher order questions of my pupils, if only because the lower ones appeared to be unstimulating, and the more interesting responses required a development in my questioning.
I could list countless more theories and theorists whose writings have influenced me. Edward De Bono with his lateral thinking, Richard Dunne with the 'Big Idea', Tony Buzan and his work on mind mapping and memory – ideal for a newly aware visual, adult learner – Guy Claxton with his ideas about lifelong learning and working in D mode when trying to solve a problem, Robert Fisher with thinking skills and the work on teaching philosophy by Matthew Lippmann.
In Building Learning Power (2002) Claxton explains that::
'Being a good learner is not just a matter of learning a few techniques...It is about the whole person: their attitudes, values, self-image and relationships, as well as their skills and strategies.' (p15)
The various theories appear at first to have no common link and I am only too aware that in describing my work as an educator, I have largely focused on myself as a learner.
The significance has only recently begun to 'come together' – the link between all these different theories is myself – my own development as an adult learner, my awareness of how I learned as a child, or how I was expected to learn, my constantly ongoing learning, the sense of understanding myself as a learner , sometimes with great clarity and at other times with a bewilderment about the whole process, and how, with all this hotchpotch of theories and intuitions ( I call them that because sometimes I can find no 'authority' to validate my theory and am grateful for the continuous validation from my peers at the Tuesday evening Bath University sessions and colleagues who point me in the direction of research that is already one step ahead of me) I can help the next generations become good learners – how I can enthuse them for learning in it's widest concept, make them efficient and robust learners and travel with them as a co-learner in their life learning journey. Each new theory, as I come across it, is tested out against my own internal learning awareness and embodied theories. It is in this that I agree with Dweck (2006) when she writes about developing a growth mindset:
How can growth-minded teachers be so selfless?...the answer is.. they love to learn. And teaching is a wonderful way to learn. About people and how they tick. About what you teach. About yourself. And about life.... (p195)
So how do I understand learning and learners?
Learning, in my experience, has an emotional base. To learn requires some type of motivation, positive or negative. We learn for pleasure, because our curiosity is aroused, because we want to achieve a specific goal or because we want to avoid something unpleasant or painful.
We learn skills and we learn facts. In life situations the skills outlast the memory of facts, unless these are rehearsed at intervals. And yet the curriculum is still largely content and 'memory' based.
'Our capacity to learn is the result of an incredibly complex equation of which neural processing is only a part. It would be difficult to produce a list of all the factors influencing learning without listing everything informing who we are as people.' (Burnham-West, 2006, p14)
There is no simple definition of what I understand as learning or being a learner. It involves too many factors, as John Burnham-West indicates. For me today the children do not arrive in my class as empty containers waiting for me to fill them with information. Their 'learning' is not limited to what I can teach them.
Although the curriculum is largely content based, and I wish them to succeed in the system, even if I would wish the system changed, what I see as successful 'learning' is not restricted to the memorization of facts. The aspects of my job that I see as most vital, and most rewarding, are those that enable the children to develop the skills and attitudes of good learners, such as those outlined by Costa (2006), echoed by many other learning theorists, and in my experience of great importance.
Many of these skills are proposed by the 2020 Review Group, an example of which can be found on p10 of the report, which is an encouraging development in education.
What is the issue or area of conflict?
Much of what I teach is content driven and chosen for me by government, local authority or school management. Whilst I accept that I have to conform to these requirements, and would do the children a disservice within a framework of testing, standards and results, I also feel it is important to teach how to learn, how to love learning and what makes a good learner. The research project carried out by Hart et al (2004) in Learning without Limits identified the same type of conflict. Part of their research focused on how:
'Teachers reconciled their own values and beliefs about ability and learning...the compromises they had to make and the ways they found of creatively mediating external expectations and requirements.' (p47)
I am keen to avoid labelling or limiting the children by ability. The current, to my mind, obsession with differentiated planning causes me endless difficulties. The problem is not so much the concept of suitable, differentiated work, but rather the constraints involved in having to prove it. By grouping children according to a previous test result you deny them the chance to succeed or grow at their own rate. Maybe we cannot excel at everything, but how will we know if we don't try, and sometimes all that is needed is an expert to assist, a 'master' to work with or slightly longer in which to reach that point. As Hart (2004) states:
The new emphasis on target setting and value added measures of achievement have made it increasingly difficult for teachers who reject the fixed view of measurable ability to hold on to their principles, since they are continually being required to act as if they subscribe to it' (p9)
What is it that I want to achieve, why and how am I going about it
In Building Learning Power (2002) Guy Claxton states that:
'Teachers can promote learning power through a) what they explicitly value and discuss with the whole class; b) how they talk to groups and individuals about their learning and achievement; c) the activities they select; and d) what they themselves model about learning.' (p69)
This was very much a starting place for me. I decided that if I wanted the children to be good learners, with my understanding of what that required in Claxton's identification of resilience, resourcefulness, reflectiveness and reciprocity, then I was going to have to teach this alongside the current 'official' curriculum. These were the core features of the Building Learning Power, to which soon were added, following an increase in my own learning, the necessity of being physically 'ready' and able to learn, the Crucial C's of Lew & Bettner (1998), and the emotional and social aspects of the SEAL programme. None of these are in opposition to another, although there are many areas where they overlap. It may well be that in the future my area of conflict will be eased as the curriculum becomes more skills based and the recent focus on learning becomes the main purpose, not an added extra. The future, in this aspect, is promising to address crucial learning issues which have been sidelined for a long time since the initial introduction of a National Curriculum, and particularly Key Stage testing.
My initial approach to this was to create informative displays of learning styles and what makes a good learner, which I then discussed with the children during circle times and they use daily to identify their own feelings. This is still ongoing as unpicking the complex ideas have worked best by a gradual drip feed into discussions. Using P4C and circle times to develop social skills and emotional literacy has greatly helped with this. The link between successful learning and emotional intelligence is well documented, particularly by Goleman (2005), Claxton (2002) and Dweck (2006).
As Sharp (2003) states:
We need to understand our emotions to be effective learners' (p3)
I also felt it was important to make learning skills explicit as well as the content learning objective for lessons, so the children were aware that I was looking for skills such as co-operation or perseverance, depending on the task. This is still very much in the planning stage, as I share my ideas with colleagues and the children I teach. For me, involving the pupils in a decision about how I marked their work was an important step for me, and marked a definite move away from seeing myself as the source of all they needed to know, to a co-learner with more developed skills.
As a result of reading Dweck (2006) and her ideas about growth mindset, my teaching methods have taken on yet another new angle in that I am now praising and rewarding the processes and attitudes, rather than academic achievement, for as she states:
'The belief that cherished qualities can be developed creates a passion for learning....The passion for stretching yourself and sticking to it, even (or especially) when it's not going well, is the hallmark of the growth mindset.' (p7)
The pupils are responding well to this, less confident children appear to me to be showing greater confidence in trying difficult tasks, and 'able' confident children who find 'failure' difficult are taking more risks.
Involving the Children in their own Learning: examples of what I have tried and the responses.
My current class is a lively, vocal group of Year 4s. They are mostly able to work co-operatively in groups and have good social skills. For literacy they are set with the partner class by ability. This year I have been teaching the upper ability set for the first time. My initial response was delight in having children who could write and spell, thus opening up a greater opportunity for independent work than I had experienced previously with the lower ability children.
In the last couple of weeks of term before Christmas 2006 we had to cover play script writing on our curriculum plan. I knew from experience that this was a unit the children enjoyed, particularly when it involved an opportunity to perform.
Their motivation was likely to be naturally good and I didn't want to plan anything that would curb their enthusiasm. Torn between what I felt would be a good learning opportunity for the children and the pressures of literacy target and planning sheets, which frequently stunt my own creativity as a teacher, I opted for the former.
The first couple of days were given over to reading, analysing structure and performing plays that I had written for them. In this way I was able to present myself as a model writer involved in the unit beyond teaching, thus enforcing the idea of adult as co-learner. The planning sheet looked rather bare for the week as the work was going to be largely skill orientated; dictated by the children, rather than content led by the teacher, and this doesn't fit neatly into the planning format boxes. For me this was unnerving but exciting. Without the list of learning objectives and details could I prove that the children had been learning, even if my embodied intuition told me they were?
Having set the task of writing a play scripts I then found I was virtually redundant as a 'teacher'. Instead I became a convenient dictionary, audience and co-performer – the children were inviting me to become part of their creativity. There was a very real sense of being a fellow learner, albeit one with greater experience. When I shared this feeling with colleagues they were confirmed my sense of having handed the responsibility for learning to the children as being a mark of success in teaching. For when the children no longer need to be told every step to take, they are on the road to autonomy as learners.
Usually fidgets in lessons these two were enthusiastically on task the whole time.
Looking later at the photographs I had taken, and in discussing them with the Tuesday group, I was struck by the looks of concentration and motivation on the children's faces. If the session had been videoed then you would also have had the animated body language and buzz of enthusiastic activity. Their response was exactly what I wanted to see – and would love to see in every lesson - a love for what they were doing.
At the end of this I congratulated them on how they had worked; their co-operation, enthusiasm and creativity and asked them why they thought they had responded like this. Their response was that it had been better than 'normal' lessons because they could choose what to do and the work came from them, rather than being imposed by me. We then discussed how to keep that learning spirit alive, with the result that they chose to use ICT Literacy time to work in detail on improving and editing a piece of work per term, starting with their plays.
Because it had been such a motivated learning experience I shared the photographs with the children and asked them to identify why I might think they were behaving like 'good learners'. They too identified the same qualities of concentration, happy enthusiasm, co-operation and not even noticing the pictures being taken. They were very much in Csikszentmihalyi's sense of flow.
The most overwhelming response was how involved they were in what they were doing – the emotional engagement with the task, the sense of ownership they had. They were demonstrating many of the qualities of good learners outlined by Claxton (2002) in Building Learning Power. They were demonstrating to me that they did not constantly need to have their learning provided by me, but that given the skills input could then turn to their own creativity and control their own learning.
Claxton (1998) puts this so powerfully when he states that:
'Within the learning curriculum what matters most is not (reinventing) the wheel but the inventing – and the strengthening of the powers of invention which occurs through being allowed and encouraged to invent.' (p220)
The issue with this is that in many ways teachers are encouraged to stick to official guidelines and 'play safe' in what they try to achieve in the classroom. There has been immense pressure to teach 'content' to the exclusion of skills and attitudes because of the dominance of national testing and the power of statistics. Yet, the focus on content ignores an important area of creativity and the emotional, personal link between the learner, what they are learning and the quality of their learning.
2. Philosophy and P4C
Robert Fisher and Matthew Lipmann are strong advocates of teaching philosophy to children, highlighting the valuable skills the children develop as a result, and how this impacts on other areas of the curriculum by developing the children as learners. Having developed my own ability to facilitate philosophy sessions I have begun to use them more in other areas of the curriculum in an attempt to blend my own learning theories with necessary curriculum restraints.
One development from this which has just been given 'official' management blessing to be tested, is the use of philosophy sessions once a week during the designated literacy lesson to enhance the speaking and listening capability of the children and increase their ability to investigate, question, analyse and look for hidden layers of understanding.
The long term results have yet to happen but the attitude and response of the children has been very enthusiastic and encouraging. The TA supporting an EBD child was amazed at the sophisticated level of questioning, and the involvement and enthusiasm of particular children who in 'routine' lessons showed minimum engagement. For some it appeared to open a pathway to their opinions and thoughts which the content driven curriculum does not encourage.
3. My Learners opinion of me as a Learning Asset or Hindrance
Following several sessions on learning styles and habits I asked my class to draw or write how I, as a teacher, help or hinder their learning. Initially they found the concept of me 'hindering' quite difficult and some were reluctant to put 'criticism' on paper, until I reassured them that this was to help me help them learn. Their responses made interesting reading. Several complained that I talked too much while they were trying to concentrate, I nagged or dealt with behaviour issues during a lesson, or that I gave them extra work when they had enough to complete already. On the positive side I appear to be good at explaining using a variety of ways to demonstrate something, listen to them and make lessons interesting. One child felt I helped his learning by shouting at him when he wasn't concentrating! Perhaps the most rewarding response was from the child who said I gave him the courage to try. I cannot deny that I was profoundly touched by this as this aspect of teaching is of great value to me.
The Learner's view of themselves as a Learner
The learner's own view of themselves as a learner is of equal importance to me as my own theories of how we learn. As a teacher I know the type of emotionally safe and encouraging environment I want to create in my classroom -the type of environment where children are not afraid to encounter 'failure', mistakes or take risks, where Dweck's growth mindset can develop. However, the views of the learners are important in being able to create that environment, because their learning is the reason that I am there. It is from them that I can learn what helps and motivates them and how they learn best.
As an educator I try to see them as individuals with different talents, strengths and abilities, respond to them as individual learners, but at the same time draw them in to the idea of learning being a social and collaborative activity; the deeper sort of learning outlined by Burnham-West and reflected in the theories of Claxton and Dweck.
Taking into account the views of my learners is gaining more prominence in my theory of learners and learning. When I began my teaching career it never occurred to me to consult my pupils about my performance, only to grade theirs as a result of my input, or sigh over the external factors I appeared to have no control over.
Experience and learning has taken me to new areas, and it is with confidence that I now feel my way forward is to tap into the views of those I actually teach. For if I want my learning styles and ways of understanding accepted when I embark on learning as an adult, shouldn't I also take seriously the views and feelings of my pupils, even if they are not able to explain their own theories with sophistication? Even in that, I feel I may well be underestimating how much they understand about their own learning.
My next stage will be to involve the children in the creation of a marking system that reflects the amount of effort or perseverance they have put into their learning, as opposed to only acknowledging the curriculum learning objective. We have already discussed ideas for this. Then I want to begin involving them in planning their own learning experiences and needs. With personalised learning already waiting to be developed, this is indeed an exciting prospect.
Burnham-West, J. (2006) Understanding Learning. Retrieved 2/1/07 from http://edlinked.soe.waikato.ac.nz/users/jan/EL/learningpdf
Cheek, M. (2006) Yesterday's Houses London; Faber
Claxton, G. (1998) Hare Brain Tortoise Mind London; Fourth Estate Ltd
Claxton, G. (2002) Building Learning Power Bristol; TLO
Claxton, G.& Lucas, B. (2004) Be Creative. London; BBC Books o:p>
Costa, A. (2006) Habits of Mind. Retrieved 2/1/07 from www.artcostacentre.com
Csikszentmihalyi, M. (2002) Flow London; Random House
Dweck, C. (1999) Caution – Praise can be Dangerous. American Educator, Vol.23, No.1, pp. 4-9. Retrieved 29/12/06
Dweck, C. (2006) Mindset New York; Random House
Fisher, R. (2005) Teaching Children To Think. Cheltenham; Nelson Thomas
Goleman, D. (2005) Emotional Intelligence. New York; Bantam
Hart, S, Dixon, A, Drummond M & McIntyre, D. (2004) Learning Without Limits. Maidenhead; OUP
Lew, A & Bettner, L. (1998) Responsibility in the Classroom Connexions Press Newton Centre MA
Sharp, P. (2003) Nurturing Emotional Literacy London; David Fulton
2020 Vision – Report of the Teaching and Learning in 2020 Review Group Retrieved 29/1/07 from www.teachernet.gov.uk/doc/10783/6856/DfESTeachingandLearningpdf