What is learning really all about? And is it just about ‘knowing stuff’?
From the moment we are born, we start the learning journey that we call ‘life’. Some people think that life just happens to us and that we just go about our day to day without even having to think, living autonomously. But every single thing we do and have done before has been learnt; learnt from our parents, our siblings, our friends, our teachers, even strangers. As curious beings, we are built to observe and make meaning of what we have seen.
The past dominant view of learning is that it only happens in schools. As a teacher for 13 years, I can say that yes, it definitely does happen in schools, however it happens EVERYWHERE!
Teachers spend a lot of their time providing parents with workshops and support evenings on how to help their children to learn at home, along with reems of ‘homework’. Getting everyone to understand consistently what the best ways are for children to learn is very difficult – parents often fear the dreaded maths homework, as they either don’t know how it is taught in school and refer back to their ‘old methods’ which ends up confusing children even more or just letting them get on with it and risk being spoken to by the class teacher.
So what are the fundamental points to remember about learning?
We all know that learning is important but what really is important is not just what we learn but how we learn. Thinking is hard work. When we think, we are having to actively use our brains. It takes energy. So instead we rely upon what we have already learnt, our memories. We recall what we already know and this is much easier than having to think, for example when we brush our teeth or drive a car.
Ofsted’s School Inspection Handbook (2019) talks heavily about the importance of not only teaching the curriculum but checking that is has been learnt or remembered.
Learning happens when the environment is just right. Some call it the ‘Goldilocks moment’. It all starts, of course, with the child. What do they already know? What do they needs to learn next? It sounds simple. But getting that right can be tricky, especially when you have 30 children in your class.
Getting to know all of your children individually is vital. Spend time getting to know their personalities, what makes them tick and how to get the best out of them. Speak to previous teachers (if there are any) and parents. They are your informants! Children learn more when they actually like their teachers so build trusting relationships with them. Combine this with a deep knowledge of the curriculum and you’ve cracked it as a teacher! Remember, it takes 10 plus years to be an expert at anything and even then you need to still keep reflecting and thinking about your practise. I was always on the drive for continual improvement and relished any feedback given to me.
The curriculum is all about giving children knowledge and making sure they keep that knowledge. When we learn something new, it goes into our working memory and we can only hold about 5 things in our working memory at any one time. Then what we have learnt should move into our long term memory, where we store what we have learnt so we can pull things out and make links when we need to.
To do this we need to learn and re-learn things by practising. This looks different in different subjects but the more we practise something the more permanent it becomes. This is known as developing fluency. Then we can use this deep knowledge in new and more complex ways.
Barak Rosenshine, an educational professor and researcher, has spent many years studying effective teaching. He has created 10 Principles of Instruction – in other words, 10 ways how to teach! I have used them in my teaching and observed the very positive impact they had on short and long term outcomes for children. What is great about them is that they can be applied to any subject and they link to cognitive psychology (the study of mental processes).
They are strategies that you will recognise and think ‘I’m doing this bit already’ but when you do these with more intention you get greater effect. A lot of schools are using these and have tweaked them to fit their own model of teaching and learning. Cognitive overload is also avoided. This is a whole other blog topic…
Another teaching gem is the learning journey. I have used SOLO taxonomy as a basis for this. In simple terms, this means increasing the complexity in understanding during a single lesson or across a series of lessons.
It is easier than it seems but does rely upon secure subject knowledge and the ability to plan purposeful learning, where links can be made. It moves children’s understanding from surface level to deep where they make connections and use information in new ways. This links closely to Bloom’s Taxonomy, which is a hierarchical ordering of cognitive or thinking skills. You may have already heard of this as the ‘Bloom’s verbs’. They both have overall very positive impact for most learners.
As all learning starts with the learner, engagement is key. As children lose interest their rate of learning drops. Creating stimulating, fun lessons is very desirable but we must not forget that we want the children to remember the learning and not the ‘nice activity’. I have seen many teachers fall into the trap of making a beautiful activity, like building a Tudor house, but the children don’t recall anything about the Tudor history.
It’s how you sell it to the children – I always ‘became the child’. Would a 4 year old like to learn in this way? Would a year 5 child enjoy and remember if I taught the lesson this way or used this resource? Give learning a purpose; make it meaningful to them! I can remember the most effective lessons I ever taught were when all children were actively engaged purposefully in their learning. I had planned specific opportunities that I knew would interest them an move their learning on.
So you have planned an amazing learning journey, thought of how to hook the children in and gain maximum participation, developed your teaching and learning strategies to have maximum gains in the lesson… Is there anything else? Yes!
The last thing to mention is self-belief. Fostering a growth mindset in children has so many positive benefits and not just for learning but for their emotional well-being as well. This can be so difficult as children come from all sorts of backgrounds and belief systems. Teach them that it is ok to make mistakes (and to learn from them) and that they can do it! Specific positive encouragement rather than praise for completing a task makes children believe in themselves. This will need to be modelled and repeated every day in every lesson.
A great text to read if you’d like to know more about this is Why Students Don’t Like School? by Daniel T Willingham. It’s not an easy read but well worth the time spent. So, phew! There is a quick overview of learning. After taking it all in, go and make a little BIG difference in your children’s lives.