Learning and Progress

je dois apprendre aux curieux

Education seems to go in cycles. For the last 5 years there has been a whole school push towards chunked, fast paced lessons. The theory behind this was (to simplify and generalise massively) that by keeping the lesson moving you prevent the pupils stagnating mid-lesson, getting distracted and losing focus.

This was by-and-large a good idea (IMO) and led to pretty much the objectives outlined above. The downside, however, is that students ended up being a bit too reliant on teacher intervention in order to keep that pace going. Students aren’t allowed enough time to think, to reflect, to try and solve problems themselves. As a result I think that we, as a staff, got better at teaching, but the students didn’t necessarily get any better at learning.

A new whole school initiative has begun this term, focussing not on Teaching and Learning, but instead on Learning and Progress. Now at first that sounds like a sound bite and potentially quite hollow. In fact my first response was to ask if that means we no longer have to teach. With a bit of thought, though, it seems quite clear to me that this is actually a pretty sound idea.

An example we were given was of a DT teacher getting his Y7s to make key fobs. When asked about the learning he said that students had learned how to cut acrylic, file it and drill a hole through. In the next lesson his Y9s were making clock faces. They cut some acrylic, filed it and drilled a hole for the hands. The question was asked, “Where is the progress?”. The answer? “It’s a bigger piece of acrylic”.

There is a real danger, especially in ICT, that tasks simply become repetitive. The spreadsheet task in Y9 Рis it really different to the spreadsheet task in Y7? Or is it just bigger? On a smaller scale, if you tell pupils what a row is, a column, an absolute or relative cell reference Рdo they really understand it? Do they really learn it? How do you know?

The emphasis here is not (again, IMO) how can you prove it – but how do you know it? And this is another stumbling block. It’s easy to see this as a millstone, as a burden to provide evidence – but it’s also an opportunity if you take it in the right way.

I’ve just planned a lesson for Y9. We’re in the middle of a term-long project and they need to create a website for their “Grand Designs” company (having designed houses in Google Sketchup).

  • For starters they get mini-whiteboards and have to write down their idea of a purpose for the site.
  • Having discussed the purpose they draw a mind-map or other plan for the site.
  • Having knocked up a quick page they do a very quick peer review (3 stars and a wish).
  • At the end of the lesson they screengrab their page into a project diary and write about what they have done, and why.

The idea is not necessarily that I have written proof to document their progress over the lesson but I can make a judgement based on their whiteboard answers at the start, their drawn plans, their peer reviews and their project diary as to just how much they have understood about audience and purpose (which is the aim of the lesson).

Only the final part of the lesson is kept for posterity, and that is so that I can use their project diary as a tool to assess their work at the end of the unit – but during the lesson I can see how they are doing, I can see whether the message is sinking in and I can adapt, or add extra lessons, to make sure that the students do get the chance to learn the thing that I want them to.

So, yeah. I think Learning and Progress is probably a good idea and I think that by thinking about it I might do a better job at helping my students to learn. Which isn’t the same thing as teaching – although it is pretty close.