Flexibility is key to success;Opinion;Platform

24th September 1999 at 01:00
Peter Mortimore discusses some of the latest thinking on teaching and learning that is examined in a new study of pedagogy by his Institute of Education colleagues.

Interest in pedagogy is on the increase in English schools. Its original meaning - involving Greek attendants leading boys to school -is now obsolete and, on the continent, the word is rarely used in relation to classroom teaching. In contrast, in England, considerable attention is turning to the effects of different methods of teaching on pupils' learning.

In a new book, Understanding Pedagogy and its Impact on Learning, academics from the Institute of Education examine recent findings about different approaches. Each of the 11 chapters focuses on the teaching of different kinds of learners, from the under-fives to adults, in educational or work settings. All the authors are researchers or lecturers.

What we know about pedagogy The most general definition which emerged was: pedagogy is any conscious activity designed by one person to bring about learning in another. The evidence suggests that the most effective practice takes place when its goals are very clear. This sounds easy but is seldom so.

One of the most compelling arguments for clear aims stems from the work with very young children, by the Movimento da Escola Moderna in Portugal, described by Iram Siraj-Blatchford. With its learning focus on a group rather than an individual and with its emphasis on communication, co-operation and negotiation, this approach is able to support pupils' social, intellectual and moral development.

At the other extreme, the "connective" model described by Toni Griffiths and David Guile sets out clear goals of helping learners in work settings to make connections between their formal study and the work organisation.

It is clear from learners' experiences that the best pedagogy is imbued with high expectations and promotes motivation. This is certainly the case with the early years High Scope work, with all the aspects of school effectiveness, and with the models of "mastery learning" described by Sue Hallam and Judy Ireson.

One of the themes recurring throughout the book is the need to develop pedagogies which encourage learners to take active control over their learning. While this might be most obvious in adult or college learners, ideas to do with metacognition (thinking about thinking)and self-regulation are being recognised as increasingly important among school and even preschool children.

The book's contributors argue that teaching has to be technically competent and appropriate for its purpose. They show that it is a complex task requiring thorough preparation, high-quality presentational skills, the setting of suitable assignments and the provision of constructive feedback.

One of the generic skills of teachers is the ability to match the learning activity to the learners' needs - and then to stretch the demands a little more.

As Jenny Corbett and Brahm Norwich argue, in the chapter on special educational needs, the use of behavioural analytic models can help teachers to focus their teaching methods appropriately. It is clear, however, from the chapter on new technology that the availability of vast amounts of information to the individual learner makes the role of the teacher as the source of all knowledge no longer tenable.

Where teachers are aware of their own need for learning, their pupils will benefit. As Caroline Gipps and Barbara MacGilchrist argue, where teachers themselves are determined to keep learning about how their pupils learn - and to model active approaches to acquiring knowledge and skills - they are likely to be more successful.

The chapters remind us of the importance of the context of learning. We have to teach the skills of boundary crossing: from one kind of learning institution to another; from school to work; and from academic learning to learning about life.

What we still do not know about pedagogy Light would be cast on many controversies about inclusion, selection, streaming and setting if we knew more about whether it was best to integrate or segregate different kinds of learners. These questions also touch upon whether society needs a small proportion of well-educated individuals and a larger proportion of others, or whether we are striving for a more inclusive ethos.

We are still not clear about the relationship between assessment and learning. While it is obvious that "formative testing" (giving clear feedback on progress at vital stages of a learner's career) aids learning, it is by no means clear that "summative assessment" (the formal mark awarded at the end of a course) also does so.

Furthermore, despite the political commitment to overcoming disadvantage, it is clear that learners from families struggling with poverty are unlikely to be able to compete successfully with richer ones. We still do not know how we can avoid increasing the learning gap with their less advantaged peers.

Finally, our enthusiasm for information technology has led us to spend much money to provide many fascinating experiences for learners. We have not yet, however, found many ways to use the technology to think or to learn in radically different ways.

The debate, informed by academics, practitioners and policy-makers, needs to continue. All too often in the past we have blamed the learner for failing to succeed when we might have blamed the teacher. Today there is a growing tendency to do the opposite.

Both approaches are equally wrong. If we are to have a truly learning society, we must find ways in which teachers and learners can recognise their similarities and can develop their skills together using, where appropriate, the latest technology. There will be risk for both parties but, in a competitive world, the nation which finds more effective ways to learn and better-matched ways to teach will flourish.

Professor Peter Mortimore is the director of the Institute of Education and president of the British Educational Research Association. "Understanding Pedagogy and its Impact on Learning" is published by Paul Chapman Publishing

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