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Pupils turned off learning by work

Conference told that children can achieve much more without the negative connotations of traditional teaching methods. Steve Adams reports

Classrooms need to become work-free zones, according to a leading educationist.

Speaking at a "focus on learning" conference at Lampeter university, Chris Watkins told 250 delegates from across Wales, the UK and Europe that the negative connotations of work have become a barrier to learning.

Mr Watkins, based at London university's Institute of Education, said the emphasis in schools was now on teaching and performance - rather than on learning - and that traditional teaching methods were failing pupils and teachers alike.

The conference, jointly organised by Ceredigion and Carmarthenshire county councils, offered teachers and educational professionals an insight into the use of alternative teaching methods to enhance learning and create not just better students, but also better citizens.

"School should be a work-free zone," said Mr Watkins. "Pupils should be encouraged to realise that they are not in school to work, but to learn."

Mr Watkins said the word "work" created an atmosphere that did little to encourage learning. "Consider an environment characterised by the word 'work' compared to an environment characterised by the word 'learning'," he said.

The conference offered a series of seminars where teachers or, as Mr Watkins would prefer, facilitators, showed how interactive and discussion-based classes produced better results and more willing pupils.

One strategy proving fruitful at various schools was an increased and improved use of questioning, both of and by the pupils.

Mary Jones, a teacher at the bilingual primary Ysgol Y Ddwylan in Newcastle Emlyn, Carmarthenshire, undertook a study of the learning experience in her classroom and was shocked by the results.

"The children did not see themselves asking questions as part of the learning process, but thought that people who want to learn and understand must be seen to answer questions.

"Does our present school system only value people who can simply regurgitate information? Questions are the big thing," she said.

Julie Makin, a science co-ordinator at St Padarn's Roman Catholic primary, in Aberystwyth, also sees the use of questions as fundamental to the learning process.

"What is our purpose when we ask our pupils a question? Often it is simply to check they are listening, or a way of checking on our teaching," she said.

She has adopted a "no-hands-up principle" in her classes. This allows her to ensure every child is given the opportunity to ask and answer questions, no matter what their confidence or ability levels.

"Teachers need to be more flexible in their approach and think more about thinking itself and how to encourage it," she added.

"It is important that we move from what we want to teach to what pupils want to learn about the subject. We must make questions more meaningful.

"This means that pupils are far more likely to be involved and see a purpose in their learning. They develop of sense of ownership of the classroom experience, and because of that they become more independent learners."

The importance of creating free-thinking learners was a recurring theme at the conference, where teachers from across the country echoed Mr Watkins's view that teachers were not the only ones who had to reassess their reasons for being in the classroom.

"A classroom is the most complex place on the face of the planet," he said.

"We need to get children to recognise their their role in their own learning."

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