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False expectations of learning;Platform

Joyce Watt says we need a clearer understanding of the nature of disadvantage

Most research can show that pre-school education leads to immediate gains in educational and social development but only high-quality provision leads to benefits that will persist into adolescence and adulthood. The most important learning is in terms of social skills, task commitment and feelings of self-worth. Significantly, while all social groups gain, the greatest gains are found among disadvantaged children. We have learnt important lessons about children's learning in their own homes and communities and about the vital roles parents play in the long-term education of their children.

There are, however, two issues where I think educational research, for very understandable reasons, has to date failed young disadvantaged children. We have failed to take seriously the relationship between children's learning inside and outside school. Second, despite the relative success of pre-school research, there has been a great neglect of what happens to children and their learning as they move into the first years of the primary school. Given today's culture of achievement in a climate of "efficiency and economy" which will be unlikely to recognise the social context in which children learn, I fear for those children who may quickly find themselves early on the path to educational failure and social exclusion. That is why research should concentrate on the first years of primary school and the social context of children's learning.

Children bring with them their early models of what is worth learning and what, for them, constitutes "achievement". In the interactions between children and teacher in the first months of school, the learning experiences which children have already had will provide the framework for what they see schools as being about. Yet these interactions, particularly in schools in disadvantaged areas, are often conducted within a relationship of mutual ignorance. Often young children have little understanding of what we would call the "culture of the classroom" and even less idea of what part they are expected to play in it. When it comes to learning and achievement, they may be totally unaware of the nature of the task set before them: what the task is about, what the goal is or what is expected of them. Only gradually do children come to understand what is expected, what they are aiming for and how one part of the task links to another.

This understanding will only come through continuing and sustained interaction with the teacher. In its absence, children may well conceptualise the task wrongly from the beginning and be set on a learning pattern that leads inexorably to failure. I recall the Dundee child looking over her workbook with me where she had filled in outline pictures meant to stimulate her understanding of number. Look, she said, "I can do balloons and I'm quite good at fishes but I can't do flowers."

For the child from an advantaged background, of course, where learning interactions with adults have been commonplace, where there has always been an encouraging parent around to explain the task, to identify the goal, to suggest alternative strategies and find sub-goals which the child can achieve in the process, the understanding will be much more developed. Just as significantly, where achievement in terms of solving puzzles, painting pictures, listening to stories, talking about shared experiences are all seen to be important, the culture of learning and achievement of the school will be familiar.

Children from a disadvantaged background, however, will need a lot of help along the way. If it is not forthcoming, they are likely to enter a spiral of relative failure from the beginning. That "failure", commonly interpreted in terms of academic outcomes - failure to read, write or count at an acceptable level - may, however, be of a more insidious nature; the failure to engage at all with school learning, to understand what it is about, or to identify with its goals. Above all, it may be a failure even to take the first few steps along the road which might lead to the kind of self-directed learning which is part of successful achievement.

It may well be that failure to learn appropriate strategies at the earliest stages may set an inexorable pattern of disaffection with school and educational failure right through to adulthood. If teachers are to help young children to learn in the full meaning of that word, they must be aware not simply of what children "know" and what they can "do" but also how they learn, how they react to success and failure, and what their culture of learning and achievement has, to date, been about. A further danger is that if teachers do not understand children both as individuals and as products of a particular culture, their expectations of those children may be wildly misjudged. They may expect too much: just as bad, they may expect too little.

The field of teacher expectation and its link to achievement in early childhood education is well documented by Colin Rogers. Rogers distinguishes between the "self-fulfilling prophecy" and "sustaining expectancy". The former occurs where initially inaccurate expectations have the effect of making the expectations come true; the latter where initially accurate assessments have the effect of maintaining the status quo although outside influences present the potential for change. He argues that the self-fulfilling prophecy is more likely in education, especially with younger children and especially with those who are disadvantaged: "The younger the child, the less information the teacher will have available about academic qualities and the greater will be the role played by social expectations."

In other words, the younger the children the greater the danger that a teacher's perception of their social background will influence their expectations of them, and, in the case of the disadvantaged, those expectations may be artificially low. The effects may not be immediate but they may be buried deep and exert their influence into adult life. As Rogers put it: "The feature of early teacher expectation most worthy of our future attention will be the effect of this on the pathway that the individual sets out on rather than on the immediate identifiable consequences of the first few steps."

The problem, of course, is that teachers do not have enough information about children's abilities as they enter school. There are many reasons for that: for example, there has been a long-standing debate about what kind of records should be passed from nursery to primary school, how that knowledge should be used by primary schools, the role parents should play in sharing information and what kind of knowledge is most worth having.

What I want as my research priority is a review of how teachers, particularly in disadvantaged areas, can be helped to understand and use the culture of learning which children bring from their home and community lives. If disadvantaged children are going to have a chance of success, their teachers have to know them in a way which, at the moment, I think we hardly begin to understand. That knowledge has to come in large part from the educational process of interaction between teacher and child in the classroom. It needs professional knowledge and commitment. It also needs time and that is what few teachers of young children have.

Joyce Watt is reader in education at Aberdeen University. She was recently made a fellow of the Scottish Council for Research in Education. This is an extract from the address she gave at the award ceremony.

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