Help us stop the pedlars of snake oil

17th September 2004 at 01:00
With all the talk of personalised learning David Hargreaves and his team need to know which new ideas and methods really work

Over the past decade or so educators have been more concerned with learning than with teaching. The profession has long understood the uncomfortable truth that it is possible to engage in teaching without any learning taking place as a result.

By putting learning first, teachers and their assistants clarify and focus on the end (learning) before choosing the appropriate means (teaching). The effects of this shift in focus are profound. Teachers are talking to one another about student learning more than ever before. Indeed, they are also talking more with students about their learning in highly explicit terms: what it means, what forms it takes, how best it is done.

Whereas most teachers have studied some learning theory in their initial training, and have familiarity with the great names (Piaget, Vygotsky, Bruner), the working vocabulary of practitioners is relatively straightforward and simple, if increasingly enhanced with terms drawn from the academic literature -such as scaffolding or meta-cognition or constructivism.

Moreover, there has been a flurry of innovation, often through partnerships between academics and practitioners, that have introduced new ideas, such as assessment for learning, thinking skills, accelerated learning, multiple intelligences and learning styles, as well as novel applications of new technologies.

In addition, there are the major projects, such as those run by the Campaign for Learning or by the RSA in Opening Minds or by the Economic and Social Research Council's Teaching and Learning Research Programme.

Of particular importance here is the idea of "learning to learn". If students can acquire this capacity through what teachers do, then they become more effective learners during their school years, but will also be much better prepared for lifelong learning. If students can be helped to learn how to learn, then all students can become successful and more independent learners.

So this is a good time to take stock, to reflect on the potential value of a more consensual working vocabulary about learning, one that helps educators in their professional activities, but also one that can be shared with, and understood by, students and parents. For it has become clear that if we want to improve learning and thereby raise achievement, we need to be able to talk about it more easily and more fully. This will also help to prepare the ground for the continuing growth of new ideas about learning, coming both from practitioners and their partners, and from the academic community, especially from the rapid advances in cognitive science and the neurosciences with powerful new research tools.

In this welter of new ideas and practices, the profession should nevertheless be on its guard. For how much of all these new ideas and practices about learning is just fad or fashion? How much is snake oil rather than evidenced-based improvement? As our professional knowledge base expands, how much of it is truly robust? The challenge will be to ensure that "good practice" really is good.

Should students be given some specialised or dedicated sessions on learning to learn, which then get applied through the normal curriculum, or can learning to learn be taught entirely through subject teaching? Moreover, if it is true that students can learn how to learn, how do we know that they have indeed done so? How might we measure this capability?

Presumably students can get better at learning to learn: the skills of a child in key stage 1 will be less developed in this regard than an 18-year-old about to enter higher education. Is it possible to demonstrate and record progression in learning to learn? If not, then is learning to learn a relatively simple skill which, once acquired, can be applied throughout life and across many different contexts? In which case, at what age and in what form is learning to learn best taught? Or is learning to learn for the older student simply more advanced versions of critical thinking and problem-solving, and the higher meta-cognitive skills?

Take the case of "learning styles". There are several ways of describing these. Are some approaches more valid than others? Does the fact that schools and teachers adopt different approaches to learning styles affect students as they move from teacher to teacher and school to school? Are there dangers in labelling students - or in students labelling themselves - by their preferred learning style? The introduction of the concept of "personalised learning", by which the profession shapes students' experience of schooling so that the needs of every one of them is more fully met than ever before, reinforces the need to be clearer in what is meant by learning and how it is best promoted.

Is it possible to personalise learning without engaging in some hard thinking about what it is that is being personalised? All these questions explain why David Miliband, school standards minister, has established a small working group, consisting of three cognitive scientists, professors Charles Desforges, Usha Goswami and David Wood, and three headteachers, Jackie Beere, Maggie Swindells and Derek Wise, chaired by me, to provide advice on these matters by the end of 2004.

The outcome will be a publication by Demos, who are managing the project.

We would very much welcome hearing about the ideas and achievements of any individuals, groups or organisations that are committed to the improvement of learning.

Our terms of reference are to be found at Submissions should be made by the end of September to or to Hannah Lownsbrough, Demos, Third Floor, Magdalen House, 136 Tooley Street, London SE1 2TU.

David Hargreaves is a fellow of Wolfson college, Cambridge, and chairman of Becta


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