The issue - Let's turn those raw materials into gold

Transforming insecure post-16 students into happy, confident learners is akin to alchemy. Here's how the magic works
26th September 2014, 1:00am
Carol Azumah Dennis


The issue - Let's turn those raw materials into gold

If you work in post-16 education, you will often encounter students who believe they are unable to learn. So damaged is their self-image that these people discount the role that effort plays in intelligence, instead looking on cleverness as a mystical something possessed only by a blessed few.

Learners like these tend to attract the caring professional, the teacher-therapist whose emotional labour is intended to create an alternative educational future. All they need is love, right?

The danger of this attitude is that it forces students into a passive role, thinking of themselves as the lucky recipient of an empowerment kindly bestowed upon them by someone else.

An alternative is needed. I suggest that the best way to teach students with damaged learner identities is to assume the mantle of the alchemist. And here is how.

Re-establish learning

When the link between learning and effort is broken, students prefer to identify as lazy rather than stupid. Convinced they are unable to learn, they do everything they can to avoid making an effort. In her book Mindset, developmental psychologist Carol Dweck stresses the extent to which such beliefs become self-fulfilling prophecies.

The teacher-alchemist works with students to re-establish the idea that intelligence is an outcome of effort. Explicit discussions about learning form an important part of this. At times these chats may seem to veer perilously close to talk of learning styles. To clarify, I am not suggesting that learning styles are an empirically verified theory. However, they do provide the means for students and teachers to talk about the process of learning in ways that are meaningful and intuitive, and allow students to reflect on their practice.

With these conversations the teacher-alchemist can establish - and then challenge - learners' beliefs about learning, transforming students from people who believe that IQ is fixed and innate into people who see their own untapped potential.

Amplify achievement

The teacher-alchemist must also amplify students' achievements so that they recognise the significance of what they have done.

This means that teachers must offer feedback on how and what students learn. It means pointing out to learners when they have approached a task in the correct way as well as when they have got an answer right. It means helping them to identify which approaches will be successful, and showing them that what makes the difference is not who they are but what they do.

Do not confuse this with unconditional praise, however. Teacher-alchemists should be explicit about the difference between setting and accomplishing learning goals. They should then review how and why goals are achieved. This is a defence of individual learning plans.

These can be tricky little documents. The trouble is that they have been caught up in the drive to meet too many different accountability requirements. As a result, their central function - allowing students to record how they are negotiating the curriculum - has been subsumed.

The teacher-alchemist, however, recognises the difference between learner success and institutional targets. If they write the plans in language that suits the learner, expressing goals that resonate with the student's educational desires, these documents can form the basis of what defines success. Managed well, individual learning plans transform mountainous learning journeys into small, meaningful steps.

Redefine learning goals

But there is a risk. A student's goals can sometimes be vague or even all-encompassing. They do not always fit the teacher's version of what counts as meaningful learning.

Yet, if we are responsible for repairing damaged learner identities, we must always consider a student's targets to be legitimate. The teacher-alchemist insists on listening to students and translating their aspirations into learning goals, even if these are not necessarily sanctioned by the frameworks within which we work.

Go beyond the classroom

The teacher-alchemist realises that what happens in the classroom is only a small aspect of her pedagogy. She explores links between college and home; college and the workplace; college and leisure activities; college and social life.

Learning, that generative dance on the edge of a volcano, is at its most productive when it is on the cusp. Repairing learner identities requires professionals to work out with students when and how learning is positioned in their lives - both physically (between work and other responsibilities) and symbolically (between who they are and who they want to become). Our task is to identify their goals and provide guidance on how these might be accomplished.

Carol Azumah Dennis is a lecturer in post-compulsory education and training at the University of Hull. Follow her on Twitter at @azumahcarol

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