Can too much signposting put a block on learning?

Too much signposting may have the unintended effect of sending learners towards a brick wall. Instead, to free up their thinking, let them negotiate the roads themselves, says Andrew Copeman
18th December 2020, 12:00am
Can Too Much Signposting Put A Block On Learning?
Andrew Copeman

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Can too much signposting put a block on learning?

https://www.tes.com/magazine/archived/can-too-much-signposting-put-block-learning

Supplying signs to councils must be a lucrative job: venturing down almost any British road, you can't fail to notice the sheer amount of street furniture on display. Many of these signs are superfluous, indecipherable and often contradictory, leading to drivers becoming overloaded with the extraneous information with which they are bombarded.

It's a sign of councils becoming too risk-averse: they desire to control every movement of the road user to make things safer. However, their well-meaning interventions can unconsciously cause more problems. Attention is taken away from the road, confusion reigns supreme and avoidable accidents occur.

Hans Monderman, a Dutch road-traffic engineer, recognised the problems with the way streets are designed and came up with a radical alternative called "shared space". By removing features such as kerbs, road-surface markings and traffic signs, Monderman found that traffic efficiency and safety improved.

It wasn't rocket science: redesigning roads so that motorists, cyclists and pedestrians share the space encourages everyone to think and negotiate their movement directly with others. Monderman's pioneering approach was based on a faith in the driver's ability to use intelligence and common sense rather than an overreliance on street signs.

Why exactly am I telling you this? Because I think that we could use a little Monderman thinking in schools.

Teachers are sometimes accused of spoon feeding, which can lead to pupils becoming overly reliant on what they are being told, rather than engaging with their own thoughts. This becomes tedious, joyless and frustrating for pupils, not least as they often have the capacity to figure out the problems themselves but are too lacking in confidence to trust their judgements.

A Monderman approach would mean the redesign of classroom approaches to reduce teacher input and increase pupil autonomy, through processes in which students gain experience of overcoming problems, thinking on their feet, learning through failure and working cooperatively. Such methods serve to build resilience and help confidence to take root among learners.

Stuck in a cognitive jam

Why would this work? The brain has a limited working memory. Much like the driver who quickly becomes disoriented by a proliferation of signs, pupils experience cognitive overload when given too many instructions. This problem is compounded when accompanied by a lack of coherence. Monderman's championing of simplicity serves to remind teachers of the need to consider the quality, clarity and amount of instruction they impart.

Equally, we need to look at overreliance. All too often, stories hit the press of drivers ending up in rivers, dangling off cliffs or experiencing other inexplicable situations. It usually turns out that the Faustian pact the driver entered into - exchanging common sense for a mapped-out route on their satnav - led to such a predicament. Slavishly following the signs Monderman bewails leads to similar unhappy conclusions.

Likewise, an overdependence on teachers risks turning pupils into mindless automatons and actively prevents them from developing their own skills or knowing how to tackle problems when they encounter them. A few years ago, the phrase "satnav A levels" was coined for this very reason. Heavily structured exam papers guided students towards the right answer, but in so doing failed to instil understanding or long-term knowledge.

You may think that such an unscaffolded approach would lead to chaos, but that's not necessarily the case. Influential proponent of shared-space traffic systems, Martin Cassini, likens traffic to the flow of water. "When you dam a river, it is going to overflow and flood," he says. "In a similar way, when you interrupt traffic flow it leads to congestion." If you are ever to encounter a situation where the traffic lights are out of action, you may be surprised to see how quickly road users adapt, negotiate and cooperate. As with water, traffic flows faster when blockages are removed.

Oversteering ends badly

In schools, scaffolded plans and other step-step measures, although well-intentioned, serve only to inhibit the flow of students' ideas. Indeed, so detailed can they be that they act as the proverbial red light. To unlock creativity and encourage freedom of thought in our pupils, we need to be careful not to cause intellectual congestion with restrictive frameworks.

Unlocking children in this way also affects their social development. When teachers step in too quickly, they remove the learning opportunities for children to manage difficult human interactions.

Obviously, a balance needs to be struck - and this is where the notion of shared space becomes appealing. Rather than controlling and dictating pupil behaviour, teachers should remain alert, offer a steer and only step in when absolutely necessary. Much like the removal of signs and road markings, such an approach might feel counterintuitive, but placing trust in pupils' ability to self-manage often yields unexpected dividends.

School leaders should also bear this in mind with the management of staff. Micromanaging inhibits, suffocates and deskills. Adopting a standardised approach with a one-size-fits-all philosophy is myopic and destructive, leading to poorer outcomes for all. When teachers are given greater flexibility to dictate pace, content and delivery, their performance is enhanced - as is morale.

So, let's all be a little more Monderman. His idea centres on letting human nature take its cooperative course. School is designed to teach pupils how to think, not what to think - a philosophy very much in tune with his shared-space strategy.

Andrew Copeman is assistant head of year at Latymer Upper School. He tweets @ARCCopeman

This article originally appeared in the 18/25 December 2020 issue under the headline "The signs are that learning should be a 'shared space'"

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