The essential facts of learning
Brian Boyd and Kevin Logan (TESS, May 17) contrasted the "cult of managerialism" with what they hoped was an emerging emphasis on "how children learn, the role of the teacher and even the notion of the 'learning school'. " They also referred to the "national debate on education which is beginning to look like an attack on the comprehensive school", instancing David Blunkett's distancing of Labour from mixed-ability teaching.
Since then, of course, Tony Blair himself has stated that "in government we will start from a general presumption in favour of grouping according to ability or attainment" (TESS, June 14) while David Blunkett has gone on to criticise student-centred teaching methods by indicating that "we want an appropriate whole-class approach when information is being disseminated, nothing to do with dogma or ideology, just practical common sense" (Radio 4, June 9).
Boyd and Logan also drew a persuasive medical analogy: GPs are expected to keep up with current research in their field while, by contrast, teachers are urged to ignore such "theoretical" knowledge in favour of Blunkett's "practical common sense". Kurt Lewin, the original business management guru, once famously remarked that "there's nothing so practical as good theory". Yet, as Boyd and Logan observed, so much of what passes for educational debate seems bereft of any theoretical basis. If theoretical knowledge is regarded as an essential underpinning of effective practice in medicine and business, is it not ironic that it should be ignored in education?
To make any kind of sensible progress in this debate we surely need to stop "skating along the surface" and take a long hard look at the fundamental issue that ought to underpin all our practice: the nature of the learning process itself and what we currently know about the conditions which will best support it in schools. Our knowledge of the way the brain functions, for example, has advanced significantly in recent years so that we can now identify with some confidence the ideal conditions for learning. Unsurprisingly, these turn out to be the same for children of all so-called "abilities", although that does not mean that they should all learn together all the time.
The notion of "ability" itself, as some all-defining, permanent attribute of a person, is strongly challenged by much recent work. For example, Professor Howard Gardner of Harvard University has developed a powerful case for the presence of seven distinct sets of abilities, all of major significance in our lives. The term "mixed ability" thus takes on a whole new meaning since any group of learners is bound to be a complex mixture of many combinations of abilities.
We also now know that people learn in distinctly different ways and respond differentially to visual, auditory and kinesthetic stimuli. Yet few teachers are even aware of these differences, let alone applying this knowledge to improve their students' learning. (I say this in no sense as a criticism of individual teachers. I was myself unaware of these differences until quite recently.) In the typical classroom, therefore, the teaching style will favour a minority of students and disadvantage the majority, whatever their "abilities".
Clearly much can be done to raise standards in schools but simplistic arguments about organisation and methodology which ignore relevant theoretical insights are unlikely to prove helpful. Boyd and Logan referred to the Scottish Consultative Council on the Curriculum document Teaching for Effective Learning, "which looks at theory, research and practice and seeks to inform the debate in schools". Last October, Lothian Region published Promoting Quality Learning, a discussion paper which covers similar ground.
Like the curriculum council's document it is based on a detailed study of relevant research and official documents, and suggests fundamental principles whose application will help raise achievements by providing favourable learning conditions for all of our children. School and classroom ethos should minimise stress and promote self-esteem. Stress is the arch-enemy of effective learning. Many causes of children's stress lie outwith the control of schools but much can still be done to create supportive learning environments. A key element is the level of expectation placed on a child. Selection and permanent ability grouping can have a depressing effect on self-esteem especially when allied to the erroneous notion of "ability" as an all-defining, permanent characteristic.
Learning experiences should enable children to become autonomous individuals. "Autonomous" is defined as "articulate, knowledgeable, purposeful, responsible, skilled, self-disciplined, self-motivated, self-reliant, and able to co-operate effectively with others". Autonomy is most likely to develop through activities such as co-operative learning; the promotion of thinking and learning skills; and regular opportunities to articulate and reflect upon values for long-term well being. All of this has significant implications for organisation, methodology and course content. None of it implies that simplistic appeals for a return to "traditional" methods are the answer to the problem.
Learning experiences should encourage the extensive use of all forms of language. Learning for understanding - "real" learning - involves the active construction of personal meaning, not simply the passive absorption of other people's preformed ideas. It is now widely recognised that the foundation of effective learning is co-operatively achieved success, and that this success is built on language and other forms of communication through which children are encouraged to engage in reflective thought and so reorganise and develop their existing knowledge and understandings.
Since children think and learn in different ways and have preferences for different kinds of stimuli, it is clear that no one system of organisation or teaching methodology can be effective. We need to group children by levels of achievement - at times. But we should encourage children of varying achievement levels to work together since the beneficial effects of such "mixed-ability" collaborative activities are well documented. We need to have "an appropriate whole-class approach to the dissemination of information" - at times. But there must also be extensive opportunities for individual and small group practice and reflection.
The work of Professor Mary Simpson and her colleagues at Northern College on differentiation has clearly demonstrated that the most significant factor in promoting effective learning is the quality of the interactions between learners and their teacher. As well as subject and methodological knowledge, teachers, like GPs, must develop their insights by keeping abreast of relevant research and theory.
Finally, Boyd and Logan's reference to a talk by Professor Sally Brown of Stirling University to the recent General Teaching Council conference on learning and teaching reminds me of a typically telling comment Professor Brown made in her 1992 Scottish Council for Research in Education fellowship lecture. "Management," she observed, "seems often to fill the role of a displacement activity when educational thinking about the problem looks as though it might be difficult." Both the curriculum council and the Lothian documents represent serious attempts at the kind of "educational thinking" which needs to underpin management decisions. The key issue is how to develop methods of applying such principles not only in the classroom but to the management of schools and the education service as a whole.
Colin Weatherley is a former headteacher and now an educational consultant. He was leader of Lothian Quality Learning Programme and chief author of Promoting Quality Learning.
12 H TESaugust 9 1996