Back to classroom skills

2nd February 1996 at 00:00
Teachers need to be able to stand back and reflect on classroom practice

It might seem like a question so obvious it doesn't need asking. But a researcher of long standing asked recently: "Why is there suddenly so much fuss about learning and teaching?" There is evidence of a growing emphasis on this area, at all levels. The Scottish Office has just published the latest in a series of reports on Effective Learning and Teaching in Scottish Secondary Schools. Douglas Osler, the next senior chief inspector, described last year what the new standard school inspections would focus on, and gave first mention to "the quality of interaction between pupil and teacher".

Several local authorities and many schools have recently produced statements on learning and teaching. The Scottish Consultative Council on the Curriculum has set up a programme on learning and teaching, and is collaborating with Moray House on the action, research and curriculum programme to help teachers undertake research into their current practice. College courses focusing on teaching are well subscribed, Strathclyde University's thinking skills course, run in collaboration with Highland Region, and St Andrew's College's support for learning course to name but two.

It could be argued that this emphasis is neither new nor different. The Scottish Office has long produced reports on learning and teaching, and this is necessarily the focus of the classroom teacher's daily routine. There is a growing feeling, however, about the need for the education service as a whole to refocus on this area, and for individual teachers to be given the opportunity to stand back and reflect more deeply on their everyday practice. Why should this be?

A prime reason is the continuing pressure for the education service to improve the quality of its provision. While management and development planning have their part to play in this improvement it cannot occur without a focus on learning and teaching. Schools and colleges exist to help students learn and to help them become more effective learners. The most significant factor in ensuring that they do that effectively is the quality of teaching. Senior staff in schools, colleges and local authorities are aware that no matter what indicators are used to judge the success of the education service - exam results, attendance figures, drop-out rates, destinations, school or college ethos - success is directly dependent on this factor.

There is growing concern that in recent years learning and teaching have somehow taken a back seat amid a welter of curriculum and organisational change. Major curriculum reforms have overlapped one on top of each other. Each has laudable aims (the latest example being Higher Still's aim of providing "opportunity for all") and were introduced to tackle needs which the teaching profession, among others, had identified. They have meant major changes in course structure, content and assessment; on what is taught and when and to whom; and how it is assessed and certificated.

Each initiative has been designed to encourage and enable specific improvements in the quality of learning and teaching and in methodologies in particular. Higher Still is designed, among other things, to tackle what the Howie committee identified as the two-term dash and to allow for what the programme documentation calls the "extension of learning and teaching approaches".

But what has been the result of these major changes on the quality of learning and teaching and will the Higher Still reforms actually put an end to the two-term dash and affect methodologies in S5 and S6? In what ways have schools and colleges improved the way they help people to become more effective learners?

Such evidence as there is, from the work of Mary Simpson into differentiation and the series of HMI reports referred to above, shows significant variations across organisations and between individuals, subjects and sectors, and indicates that while there has been improvement, there is room for more. A second concern about recent initiatives is the effect they have had on teachers. Even if one argues that large-scale national reform was necessary to bring about the changes required in a sufficiently short time-scale, and that a lot of effort was expended on consulting with teachers and involving as many of them as possible, the scale and pace of change have been such that many teachers believe that it has been imposed on them and have left them feeling unsure about their role and professional standing.

In part, the increased focus on learning and teaching is a reaction to this situation and is indicative of a heartfelt desire among teachers to get back to what the job is fundamentally about. This is to be welcomed, and supported. The Scottish Consultative Council on the Curriculum set up a learning and teaching programme earlier this year to help provide this support. The main outcome of the programme so far has been the publication of a paper for discussion and development entitled Teaching for Effective Learning. The paper is written specifically for teachers and draws heavily on Donald Schon's concept of the professional as a "reflective practitioner". On one level this seems a fairly obvious and sensible idea. Most people think about their work at some point or another and few would deny the importance of thinking about what you are doing if you want to develop your practice.

The kind of thinking Schon proposes, however, is deeper, more searching and more complex. It goes beyond simply thinking about what you do, to reflecting about the purposes and principles on which what you do is based. It requires teachers to ask questions about themselves as people as well as what they do as teachers. Schon's argument is that only this kind of deep thinking will lead to new insights and to developments in practice.

Schon's ideas are attractive and extremely important for the teaching profession, but we are under no illusions about how difficult they will be to apply. There are some obvious practical questions, such as where do teachers get time to reflect? What do they reflect about? On what do they need to reflect? How do they actually go about it? Who do they reflect with? How does reflecting relate to their everyday practice? These questions can only begin to be addressed in a school environment which encourages and supports teachers' reflection.

Questions of support and time are paramount, but are not issues which a curriculum council programme can address. Teaching for Effective Learning is the result of a concern that teachers do not have easy access to current thinking about how people learn and what we now believe constitutes effective teaching. The paper aims to make this thinking accessible and to help teachers develop strategies for personal and professional development.

Over the next few months the curriculum council will work with schools, with local authorities and with teacher education institutes to explore how teachers can be helped to use the paper for a range of purposes and in a range of contexts. The initial version will be amended in the light of this work and a revised version will be made widely available to schools by late spring.

Ian Barr, Denyse Kozub and Ian Smith are with the Scottish Consultative Council on the Curriculum. Further information about Teaching for Effective Learning is available from Ian Smith.

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