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Learn to ask how, not what

Elizabeth Buie and Neil Munro report from last week's SETT show, organised by Learning and Teaching Scotland

Scotland's approach to curriculum reform, set out in A Curriculum for Excellence, should be about the 'how' of teaching, not just the 'what', one of the world's leading academics on teaching styles said in her presentation.

Barbara Prashnig, director of training and research at Creative Learning Systems in New Zealand, used the example of her daughter's under-achievement while she was at school - which she admitted she had not noticed.

The lesson for schools, Professor Prashnig said, was that teachers'

learning styles and those of students are very different. Picking up on one of the principles behind A Curriculum for Excellence, she said "successful learning" would only take place when students knew how to learn best.

Her daughter, she later discovered, learned best when she sat in the middle of the floor at home, with her cat and dog beside her, nibbles at the ready and music playing in the background - not doing her homework in silence and sitting upright at a desk, as she had ordered her to do .

"I have seen many pupils being miserable because they have to sit on wooden chairs in front of desks, often being affected by excessive lighting," Professor Prashnig said. "This leads to frustration and under-achievement."

Commenting on the Scottish Executive's renewed drive against under-achievement, announced last week, Professor Prashnig said Scotland was not alone in experiencing a gap between those who achieved and those who did not.

But she warned that those students who feel under pressure in class would change from their preferred style of learning to their learned style, "and they will fail". Research she had done with the US army, studying the reactions of soldiers under stress, had revealed this.

Professor Prashnig, who spent the beginning of this week working with teachers in Dumfries and Galloway, suggested that the aims of the Executive's curriculum reforms would not be realised unless schools considered how young people learned.

The development of "confident individuals" would only be achieved when pupils are confident in themselves and when they know what their learning style is, she said. And the aim of making pupils "responsible citizens" will only become a reality when they feel good about themselves and therefore care about others.

"Learning styles have to accommodate diversity," Professor Prashnig concluded. "We have to accept that, where students are behaving in ways that are different from us, they are not weird - just different."

A similar theme also featured in a lecture by Guy Claxton, professor of the learning sciences at the University of Bristol, who was described as "one of the UK's foremost thinkers on creativity, learning and the brain".

Professor Claxton said it was necessary to "build learning power" for pupils, developing "mental muscles" in the same way as people who go to the gym. "Pupils often don't know what to do when they don't know what to do, and this leads to their disengagement from learning," he said.

He criticised apparently new ways of defining learning which amounted to no more than old-style labelling of youngsters, particularly the current vogue for the "VAK" model to describe youngsters as visual, auditory or kinaesthetic learners, as though these qualities are "bred in the bone".

A youngster who has been told he is a kinaesthetic learner will feel he is no good at reading, Professor Claxton said. "Is this just another box he's been stuffed into, another label to hang on him? It gives him a limited sense of what he can achieve, rather than a developmental sense of his capacity to achieve."

He said building learning power, on the other hand, would give pupils the qualities they needed to become good learners - resilience, resourcefulness ("so they know what to do when they don't know what to do"), developing persistence, managing distractions, the ability to be reflective and "the relationship side of learning" - (when to learn on their own and when to work with others).

Professor Claxton said involving children in what they are doing is the best way forward. This would include getting them to set challenges for themselves, rather than waiting for the teacher to do it. And pupils should also be encouraged to develop interesting questions such as "why do the stars only come out at night?"

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