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Age weakens thirst for knowledge;Briefing;Survey

Thousands of 11 to 16-year-olds were polled by MORIon their attitude to learning. Jeremy Sutcliffe reports on the results

What do young people think about the learning process? How do they prefer to learn and what motivates - and demotivates - them?

Some important answers are provided in a MORI survey of more than 4,000 pupils, aged 11 to 16, published this week by the Campaign for Learning, an independent charity.

Perhaps most striking about the findings is the difference in attitude between boys and girls, between ethnic-minority pupils and the mainstream, and between younger and older pupils.

The overall picture suggests that girls, younger pupils and ethnic-minority children like learning best, while boys - particularly as they get older - tend to have more negative attitudes. Older children, however, (along with ethnic-minority children) feel they have more control over their own learning.

Overall, a large majority of secondary pupils are positive, with nearly four in five saying they enjoy learning new things. Younger children and those from black and other minority ethnic groups enjoy learning most.

But while most are keen to learn, more than half believe learning is hard work and one in five find it boring. Few are keen to think for themselves. Boys have significantly more negative attitudes than girls, with more than a quarter finding learning "boring", compared with fewer than one in six girls.

MORI asked pupils a series of questions about where and how they liked learning best. Encouragingly, 91 per cent believed they learned something every day of their life, 6 percentage points up on a similar MORI survey two years ago.

Unsurprisingly, young people feel they learn most in class at school. But intriguingly, the television is perceived to be the second most important learning medium - easily outstripping libraries, computers and newspapers. Gender differences again surface, with girls more likely to believe they learn best at school (83 per cent, compared with 73 per cent of boys) and at home (girls 35 per cent, boys 26 per cent). Boys are more likely to believe they learn using computers (boys 30 per cent, girls 24 per cent).

Age is also a significant influence, with younger pupils more likely to feel they learn most at libraries (Year 7 pupils 45 per cent, Year 11 pupils 18 per cent) and from using computers (Year 7 pupils 32 per cent, Year 11 pupils 19 per cent).

Older students are more likely to feel they learn more from watching television (Year 11 pupils 64 per cent, Year 7 pupils 30 per cent). The shift away from the library and the computer to the TV appears to mirror increasingly negative attitudes to learning as children get older.

The survey contains ammunition for critics of whole-class learning. Asked what learning styles they preferred, more than half of pupils chose learning in groups. Other popular methods were practical work, using computers and learning from teachers. Learning in silence and thinking for oneself were least popular.

Once again, boys' views differed markedly from that of girls, with a clear bias in favour of doing practical things (39 per cent boys, 32 per cent girls) and using computers (24 per cent boys, 17 per cent girls). Girls, in contrast, are more likely to favour learning with friends (34 per cent girls, 23 per cent boys).

One of the survey's more intriguing findings is a clear shift towards enjoying learning for personal development reasons, compared with MORI's last survey two years ago. Asked what they liked most about learning new things, more than a third cited a sense of achievement, up 7 percentage points since 1996.

More children also said they liked learning because it enabled them to gain new skills and increase their knowledge. While most continue to say they like learning because they think it will help get them a job or qualifications, this is less strongly felt than two years ago.

Children's perceptions about the main factors which prevent them learning new things (reported exclusively in last week's TES) are perhaps the most controversial findings in the survey. More than three-quarters identify poor teaching as a stumbling block, indicating that most young people come across ineffective teaching at some stage during their secondary schooling.

This perception is particularly strong among students. As many as 85 per cent of Year 11 students cite poor teaching as a factor, compared with 70 per cent of Year 7 pupils. Similarly, 80 per cent of 15-year-olds cite teachers who do not understand them, compared with 64 per cent of 11-year-olds.

Significantly more 11-year-olds are likely to be put off learning because they fear criticism from their friends, while girls of all ages are more likely than boys to be deterred because they feel unhappy.

Half of secondary pupils say they enjoy learning at school, considerably less than enjoy learning overall (78 per cent). But only 16 per cent find learning at school unenjoyable.

Girls are somewhat more likely than boys to enjoy school-based learning (54 per cent girls, 47 per cent boys) as are children from black and other minority groups (56 per cent).

Again, younger pupils are significantly more likely to enjoy learning at school (Year 7: 69 per cent, Year 11: 44 per cent).

Asked what changes they would most like to see at their school, most young people opted for more visits to places of interest. But there was also marked support (32 per cent) for more work experience placements. Just 4 per cent, however, said they would like to see more homework Adult learners' poll, page 33 * MORI obtained information from 4,245 pupils drawn from 179 English and Welsh secondary schools. Fieldwork, based on self-completion questionnaires filled in during lesson time, was carried out between January 19 and February 13. The survey was commissioned by the Campaign for Learning, 8 John Adam Street, London WC2N 6EZ.

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