Going beyond the limits of learning

9th July 2004 at 01:00
It is possible to have an education system that does not label people, says Mary Jane Drummond

How many times in a normal working week do you hear the apparently harmless little words "bright", "less able" or "average"? Are they part of the air you breathe, unremarked and unremarkable? Or do you hear them with an ill-defined sense of disquiet, with an unspoken concern about the effects of these labels on the people you teach?

Do you challenge them, out of your commitment to every child's future and your principled resolve to drive the determinism of ability labelling out of your school and classroom?

In 1999, a group of researchers at the Faculty of Education in Cambridge advertised for teachers who shared that commitment and resolve, inviting them to join a research project that we called Learning without Limits. We were looking for teachers motivated by a particular view of learning: learning free from the unnecessary limits imposed by ability-focused practices, free from the indignity of being labelled top, middle or bottom, free from the wounding consciousness of being treated as someone who can only aspire to limited achievements.

We argued that while decades of research have demonstrated the damage done - to children, teachers and curriculum - by ability labelling and other practices derived from false assumptions about IQ and fixed ability, there was still no credible, articulated alternative to ability-based pedagogy.

It was a matter of profound concern, we felt, that these assumptions not only continue to have currency in schools, but in recent years have been given new strength and legitimacy as part of government-sponsored initiatives to raise standards and improve practice in schools.

We believed that studying the work of teachers who resolutely maintained an optimistic view of human educability would enable us to propose an alternative model and agenda for improvement, backed up by hard evidence.

And so it turned out.

The nine teachers who joined our research team worked in a variety of different contexts, and had expertise in different curriculum areas. While their practices were distinctively individual, we found that they all worked from within a radically different mind-set, a different way of making sense of what happens in classrooms, based on a radically different orientation to the future.

Rather than accepting apparent differences in ability as the natural order of things, and differentiating their teaching accordingly, these teachers worked to transform their students' learning capacity. They did not see the future of their students as predictable, andor inevitable, but worked on the assumption that there is always the potential for change. Things can change for the better, sometimes even dramatically, as a result of what both teachers and learners do in the present.

For these teachers, the concept of inherent ability, an inaccessible inner force responsible for learning, residing in the individual and subject to the fixed, internal limits of each individual learner, had no currency or value. In its place, we discerned a powerful alternative concept of learning capacity, which resides both in the individual learner and in the social collective of the classroom, and is by no means fixed and stable.

This concept of learning capacity, evidenced in the various daily practices of these teachers, released them from the sense of powerlessness induced by the idea of inherent ability. Convinced of their own (and their students') power to make a difference to future development, they used their rich fund of knowledge about the forces - internal and external, individual and collective - that shape and limit learning capacity to make transforming choices.

Working on the principle that classroom decisions must be made in the interests of all students, not just some - a principle we have called "the ethic of everybody" - and rooting their work in the fundamental trust they have in their students, the project teachers made good their commitment to the essential educability of their learners.

It is our hope that the empirical evidence we have amassed shows that teaching for learning without limits is not a naive fantasy, but a real possibility, in good working order, accessible to observation and analysis.

True, there is much still to be done to test and elaborate the model, and to explore how it might be developed on a school-wide basis.

Equally important will be to develop ways in which schools can work in partnership with parents and local communities to enhance young people's learning capacity.

But we hope that our work will convince teachers that our model is a practical and empowering way of realising their commitment to young people's learning. We hope, too, that it will convince the Government of the need to replace current policies with an improvement agenda committed to freeing education from the damaging effects of the fixed-ability mind-set.

School improvement need not be dependent upon schools being put under constant pressure, bombarded by a succession of externally imposed initiatives. In our model, the drive to improve things, to keep looking for ways to increase and enhance everybody's learning capacity, is inscribed in the very nature of teaching.

Learning without Limits by Susan Hart, Annabelle Dixon, Mary Jane Drummond and Donald McIntyre is published by Open University Press.

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