Tuesday, September 09, 2008

Powerful processes or in depth learning - or both?

Developing 'learning capacity' or developing students interests, talents, passions and dreams - or both?

A few things have been worrying me of late.

One is this emphasis on 'learning capacity' ( as seen by key competencies) as the central purpose of education . Another is the sidelining of in depth knowledge and the neglect of developing students talents and passions and the last is, what has really changed in primary classrooms to develop this learning capacity? Currently literacy and numeracy 'gobble up' most of the learning time. Is it all just rhetoric?

Learning, Mary Chamberlain from the Ministry says, has been strengthened in the New Zealand Curriculum through the inclusion of the key competencies and by an emphasis on pedagogy. She asks what is it that makes us want to learn? Her answer is if we feel have competencies and a positive disposition, it is these things that influence who we become.

Do they?

Is how students learn just as important as what they learn? Reading Mary's talk it seems the former but my experience of interesting people it is what they know and can do that singles them out. Obviously it is both.

Mary sees the competencies as 'the enablers' but I question is what what drives students to want to learn, and in the process develop these 'enablers'.

Students, Mary says, need to know you believe in their ability to learn and that you will support their dreams and encourage them to value effort and practice. No one would disagree with the above. I would just put more emphasis on the dream bit.

My worry is that the new emphasis on learning capacities and competencies is encouraging teachers to neglect in depth content. I see too many shallow studies where all that can be observed is an emphasis on learning capacities students have developed resulting in 'fragile' learning.

I do agree with Mary that plastering classroom walls with 'mind maps' and 'thinking hats' etc is not the answer, although, unlike Mary, I would not include Gardner's multiple intelligences because they are at the heart of what drives learners to learn.

To achieve in depth learning, Mary says, students need to be able to set goals, persist, work with others and look for links with other learning areas. Nothing new in any of that.

Quoting Margaret Carr ( University of Waikato) Mary continues that for a student successful learning is also a matter of inclination, of confidence, of knowing what is appropriate, and believing you have right to be curious to ask questions.

The right to be curious and to ask questions is, for me, the key to all learning.

Curiosity is an evolutionary drive as is the need to continually learn about whatever attracts the learner's attention. Curiosity is at the heart of all disciplined learning and leads into idiosyncratic talent development, or specialisation, and a growth of in depth of 'know how'. As A S Neil wrote , 'true interest is the life force of the whole personality'.

Competencies are obviously important but the development of lifelong deep interests are as important.

A few changes of emphasis in Mary's talk and I would have few arguments. Students obviously pick up learning habits from those around them who talk about their own learning. Fair enough but they are also inspired by seeing talented people demonstrate their skills. Students do need to be surrounded by adults who model and articulate competencies but are more impressed when such people demonstrate admirable talents that appeal to them.

Teachers need to focus on creating learning situation that inspire learners, that tap into their curiosity as well as focusing on developing learning capacities. I guess I am making a case not to lose the power that is gained from achieving ones personal best in an area that is meaningful to the learner as a compensation for an unbalanced approach to process. As Elwyn Richardson, one of New Zealand's pioneer educators wrote, ' a study without content is a study at risk'.

How the content is learnt is the issue and this is where a co-constructivist pedagogy comes into play; teachers rightfully being seen, as Mary says, as 'learning coaches' who are able to subtly 'scaffold learning' through feedback and focused assistance. Process and content knowledge are both vital. In my argument the coach does needs to know, his or her, content if fragile learning is to be avoided. A good 'coach' Mary says uses a 'split screen approach', an idea attributed to Guy Claxton, where the teacher teaches content/concept development with one part of the screen and strengthens learning capacity with the other. This is a valuable metaphor.

It is obvious that Mary has been influenced by the writings of Guy Claxton who has written that simply achieving does not make better learners. To be a competent learner students need the disposition to support their own continual learning and this is where the competencies come into the equation. Being a self learner, equipped with strategies, is vital.

I am simply making a case to value students interests and potential talents and to help students 'dig deeply' into such areas; to do fewer things really well.

Mary suggests that to develop learning as an active process it is important to look carefully about how time is used in the classroom.

This brings me back to classrooms I observe where the day is almost given over to literacy and numeracy leaving little time to expose students to a wide range of potential interests and ideas. This ought be impossible to justify but it does not seem to concern many principals or the Education Review Office. Or even the Ministry.

Mary shares idea about classroom environments from Claxton and Carr where they talk about 'inviting' and 'potentiating' classrooms. Inviting room make learning attractive but not necessarily 'stretching' while the latter are both appealing and challenging - developing capacity and new content.

Such rooms are aligned to the creative classrooms I have aways believed in. Guy Claxton believes such classrooms develop 'learning power' based on four Rs: Resilience, resourcefulness, reflection and relationships. He has written that 'learnacy' is more important than literacy and numeracy.This is obviously not what school are currently reflecting!

Mary concludes that 'expanding capacity to learn in these ways is a key goal of education' and that 'openness to learning is a key to success'.

I am just reminding people that another vital component is for students to develop their own set of personal interests and talents and to dig as deeply as they can into all they learn about.

I agree with Mary that if the curriculum is successful we will see our kids becoming more confident and more capable in the face of uncertainty and complexity.

I just want talented future orientated citizens as well.


Anonymous said...

I am with you. Worthwhile education results in something to be proud of, to use as a personal benchmark to improve on. But the student must do the 'seeking , using and creating' as mentioned in the NZC.

Bruce Hammonds said...

I am not against 'learning capacity', or 'learning power', or 'key competencies' it is just that it ought to be developed hand in hand with in-depth learning about whatever the class is studying.

Anonymous said...

I have had the opportunity to visit a number of classrooms recently and am concerned at the lack of quality learning to be seen. Process means little unless something worthwhile results.

Bruce Hammonds said...

A focus on process ( 'learning how to learn') that results in quality learning is the point I was making. 'All procees' is as bad as 'all content'. I think primary teachers like process because their knowledge base is not strong in some Learning Areas.