Active participation is key to students' voice

When my daughter was born, she was our second child. Like most parents, we were a little more relaxed than with our first-born.

Sensing this, the midwife asked if a trainee midwife could watch the birth. Then a couple of new nurses who had not seen a delivery asked if they could also watch. By the time Imogen finally decided to make an appearance, I had to elbow my way through a pretty crowded room to see her arrive.

I sometimes wonder if our approach to the observation of teaching and learning is moving in a similar direction as we focus more and more on what the teacher is doing in the classroom. Recently, a number of schools and colleges have begun to use students as formal observers of teaching and learning. These are clearly thoughtful and worthwhile projects that deserve to be evaluated, but is there a danger we could overlook the importance of teaching students what they can contribute to the teaching and learning process?

In my college, we seek to get students' views in a number of ways. We often use questionnaires and externally processed surveys. We have student conferences and focus groups. Students are invited to speak to governors in meetings, and in general we try to understand the student experience of life in college as thoroughly as possible.

There is nothing new in this. Most colleges will adopt similar approaches. But where we are developing some particularly interesting work is in connection with the student's role in learning.

Clearly, learning at its best is an active, demanding and, we hope, enjoyable endeavour in which success depends not only on the work of college staff, but also on how a student engages with the experiences on offer.

Our standards and quality team has, through a process of consultation with students and staff, sought to summarise key aspects of the student's role in learning. In part, this covers familiar territory in terms of outlining what the college expects from students with regard to appropriate behaviour and the contribution an individual can make to a positive, communal learning environment.

However, the aspect of this work that has provoked most discussion concerns the attempt to capture and teach the successful behaviours, attitudes and beliefs of effective learners. Informed by much recent research by the likes of Geoff Petty, as well as our own experiences, the latest consultation document produced by our standards team attempts to answer a student's question: "How can I become a more effective learner?"

The suggested answers highlight beliefs and behaviours that we believe can be learnt and developed. For example: "Effective learners actively seek information they need - for example, through listening, questioning, observing, reading, online research and other strategies." They are "willing to work beyond their comfort zone" and they "see constructive criticism as a useful aid to their learning".

Our consultation document offers approximately 25 characteristics of an "effective learner". The point is not simply to give students the list and say, "There you go - get on with it." It is rather to support students in developing these characteristics through sensitive and responsive teaching.

Many will welcome the renewed importance given to personalised learning and thinking skills in the new diploma qualifications, and our work is clearly connected to these developments.

Colleges are trying harder than ever to listen and respond to students. Teachers are being exhorted to deliver ever more stimulating and creative lessons. And, of course, all teachers should be as aspirational and ambitious as possible in their approach to very important work.

But perhaps rather than training student observers to watch teachers, it is time to encourage students to ask not what their teachers can do for them, but how students can have an input to their teachers' lessons.

Mike Dixon Head of Park College, part of Sussex Downs College.

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