Better to focus on the 'meta'

4th January 2013 at 00:00
A primary school is urging pupils to reflect explicitly on the ways they learn best. Peter Tarrant reports

Meta-learners are better learners. That's what the staff and pupils of Roslin Primary will tell you.

For about a year they have been developing the "language of learning" in school and looking for ways to make such "learning talk" more explicit.

'The idea is to give children the tools for reflecting and to get them talking in a much more focused way about their learning," says headteacher Jennifer Allison.

She realised that efforts to encourage pupils to think and talk about their learning were being held back by their lack of understanding of "how" they learn.

With input from the University of Edinburgh, the Roslin staff thought about ways to make the language of learning more explicit. It was agreed that each teacher would use "think alouds" and narrate their own thinking when they were teaching.

Words like "wondering", "thinking", "exploring", "choosing", "problem-solving" and "sorting" were displayed in the classroom so that it was easier to articulate the kinds of learning and ways of learning.

Teachers modelled the use of these words as they introduced their lessons. Pupils were encouraged to identify and discuss them to describe their learning, and card games were used to encourage discussion about the kinds of learning:

"We were trying to be organised; we put everything in different piles."

They were then asked to consider "how" they developed their skills and the barriers to doing so.

"I kept changing my mind and I had to keep moving things until I was sure, but this wasted my go, I need to think about it more before I act."

Some teachers worked with a lesson introduction where the kind of learning was made clear: "Today we are working on remembering. We are thinking of things to help us remember our spelling patterns." Throughout the lesson reference is made to "remembering" and ways of remembering. At the end, pupils are asked: "What kind of learning were we doing?"

This focus on learning is paying dividends. Pupils can see that they are being encouraged to think about their learning and ways to support it.

They talk about how they manage to remember, or to use strategies such as organising information or trying an easier example in order to solve problems or come up with ideas.

The Roslin project highlights how partnership between university and school can pay off in terms of a better understanding of learning and practical ideas for teachers.

The link to personal learning plans has been enhanced, as pupils appear much better at reflecting and setting themselves targets based on their skills and aptitudes. They have a range of things to consider in terms of the "way" they learn, and how they might work on "learning better".

Pupils were trained to conduct interviews with a peer or "learning buddy". They get the buddy to talk about his or her own learning, while they say as little as possible and see if they can get the buddy to work out what they did, why they did it that way, and how well it went.

At first they said: "It was impossible."; "I kept asking the same question."; "They kept saying yes or no."

But after a while they began to enjoy their facilitative role: "I thought it was better having questions prepared because making them up was hard."

"When helping them it is important not to do it for them or tell them. Instead you need to try to ask the questions so that they can find the answer themselves."

The school is now exploring the idea of a learning council. This group of pupils (representing P2 to P7) is responsible for finding out what learning means in their school. They ask: "What do you learn?", "How do you learn?" and "What helps you to learn?"

Answers are fed back to the staff with suggestions, such as pupils want more choice in their learning or they like active, fun things to do.

The hope is that the peer learning interactions, where they meet with a learning buddy from another class and reflect on their learning, can feed into the work of the learning council to make effective changes across the school.

The approach is also being used by teachers, who pair up to discuss their own practice.

Staff have taken on board the research project into meta-learning and the reflective practice of peer learning interactions. Development of learning in class is seen as directly connected to professional reflection.

"I became much more aware of 'thinking about thinking' myself. In order to prepare the pupils for their metacognition, I found myself reflecting on what it was I wanted them to do and to learn. I was much more focused on the what, why and how of learning and teaching."

Soon they hope to introduce a "lesson study" element, where teachers work in pairs to identify areas of their practice to develop and then jointly plan how to make things better. Plans are implemented and monitored by their learning partner so that modifications can be made, reflections articulated and real lessons made about learning and how we learn.

In so many ways this is a thinking school. As one 10-year-old put it: "We think about what we are doing and why we are doing it, and about how we are learning, and so we can help each other to learn better."

As the head says: "It doesn't matter if you are an adult or a child in school, we all want to progress our learning and by thinking about 'how we learn', we can improve on the 'what we learn'."

Peter Tarrant is a teaching fellow at the University of Edinburgh and former primary head. His book, Reflective Practice (SAGE), is out this month.

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