Learning the hard way to do it yourself

28th April 2006 at 01:00
Becoming a student again, while on a term's sabbatical, was a salutary experience for me. I like to think I know about learning. After all, it's our core business but I did not find it easy to become a learner myself.

My problem is that I am a headteacher, and as such, I am used to acting on instinct, diving straight in at the deep end and getting things done. I have no time for messing about and reading university guidelines and I have never read an instruction booklet in my life.

However, this is not a sensible way to behave when doing your Master's degree. My pig-headed refusal to read up on what I had to do did me no favours. Instead it made my task more difficult. But would I be told? No. I had to learn the hard way. As a result, I have gone through a steep learning curve. My poor tutor has the patience of a saint and like teachers in my own school, he did not give up on me; he persevered and got me through.

All the advice I have given to students over the years seemed to by-pass me. It was a question of "do as I say, not as I do". If I had used the framework provided and done my preparation work, I would have finished my dissertation by now. But I haven't and have to suffer the consequences. My sabbatical is now over and I am back at work. The dissertation, alas, will not be finished until the end of August. However, I have learned from my mistakes and I will get there in the end.

My experience as a learner made me think about our efforts to get pupils engaged in learning. This was a key issue for us in our last Ofsted report.

Our inspector described our children's attitude to learning succinctly. He said the children enjoy watching their teachers work hard, jumping through hoops, trying to be both entertaining and educational.

The problems came when they were asked to do some hard thinking and some really challenging tasks. Many found this difficult and were not willing to have a go. The fear of failure was too much of a risk: it was better to not even try. This was not new information for us - it was (and still is) a problem we have been grappling with for a long time.

Having spent years ensuring our teachers are the best they can be; training and developing them to a high standard, we are now concentrating more on what and how pupils are learning. Weaning pupils away from spoon-feeding is not easy.

We want our pupils to take risks and work out the answers for themselves, but it's an uphill struggle. The good news (for us anyway) is that we are not alone.

While visiting numerous secondary schools during my sabbatical, one of the main barriers to learning identified was the same problem: pupils' attitude to learning. Even in the very successful schools (in terms of exam success) I visited, teachers were tearing their hair out trying to get pupils away from a passive style of learning.

Pupils of all abilities were equally guilty and were difficult to motivate and engage. Teachers I spoke to blame the pressure of testing, exams and league tables for exacerbating the problems.

Young people (and their teachers) are under pressure to get the grades at KS4 and need the right answers and good exam techniques, rather than developing transferable problem-solving skills. The problems are compounded when they go on to do A and AS-levels and subsequently on to university, where they need to be independent learners.

We live in a world where there is information overload, where information is readily available and is presented in an entertaining, media-rich, entertaining style, thus educating and engaging us at the same time.

We have become lazy learners as a result. Why read the book when you can watch the DVD or buy the revision summary notes?

I will, of course, pass on my experience to our students but if they are anything like me they won't be listening.

Kenny Frederick is head of George Green's school in Tower Hamlets, east London

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