Long way to go on the road to autonomy

8th September 2006 at 01:00
Testing regimes and lack of time are hindering teachers' efforts to foster independent learning among their pupils, writes Bethan Marshall

If you ask teachers what they value educationally and what actually happens in practice, in most cases you will get two very different answers. As part of the Learning How to Learn research project, funded by the Economic and Social Research Council, teachers in 40 primary and secondary schools were asked about what they valued in teaching and learning and what went on in classrooms. The project focused particularly on understanding how schools could encourage pupils to become independent or autonomous learners - in other words, how to learn how to learn.

It was on this issue that the gap between what teachers believed and actually did was particularly wide. About 80 per cent of teachers placed high value on activities they felt would promote learning autonomy, but did not practise them. The same proportion valued little about the performance-orientated culture in which they worked yet saw it as dominating what they did. But the questionnaire, while exposing this depressing gap, gives little detail about why this might be.

Interviews with 37 teachers involved in the project about their beliefs about learning put some flesh on the bones of the questionnaire findings.

What they reveal is that teachers believe the performance culture acts as a direct impediment to pupils' learning. One teacher's comment about the pressure to cover the curriculum is typical: "The curriculum can interfere in as much as you are pushed for time to get through things, and therefore often it's a race against time. You feel sometimes a slower pace for certain areas would be more useful, but we haven't got the time allocated for it."

This sense of racing against time is implicit in many comments about the pressure of curriculum coverage. Teachers often speak in terms of movement, rush and pace in relation to the quantity of material to be covered.

Referring particularly to the national numeracy strategy, one teacher said:

"There is too much to cover and the level of pace is difficult to maintain." Another said: "The curriculum is so full - you're expected to cover so much in such a short time that you feel it's got to be pacey.

You've got to go, go, go."

The testing regime adds to the pressure. On the promotion of independent learning, one teacher said: "Sometimes, it doesn't work and then you have to say, 'Well, look, you have to do it because it's your GCSE exam. It's here -it's in the syllabus. You have to do it.'" Another participant observed: "What do they do to help themselves to learn when they are forced to learn things by rote, for tests?" Another commented: "At the time of testing, they could do it because they were drilled to do it. They needed to do it. But by the time they come to us, they can't do it because they hadn't really learned what was behind it."

Yet another concluded: "I've written down 'learning versus testing' - I think that assessment impedes learning. There is so much emphasis on it at the moment." Another said: "We move and we snapshot areas and we do it because we have an exam at the end of it, and we have to cover areas that have to be examined. But that stops learning - that stops developing their love of learning."

For many teachers, this creates tension. One said: "The ethical dilemma is simply the fact that you are continually teaching to get good results in exams... and we know that there's a whole love of other stuff that might be in there that's really good learning. They're not going to get kids through the exams. And you know we need to get the balance right between pushing them towards the exam and learning in general."

Then there is the tick-box culture, which helps no one. One teacher said of her class: "There are misconceptions about learning. They have a certain tick-box mentality. If they've done something, they can tick it off their list and forget about it." Another said of herself: "I feel under pressure to press on and make sure I've covered everything and ticked all the boxes, whereas what I'd like to do is go back and teach something again... I sometimes feel I'm teaching in order to tick boxes, whereas actually I just want to get on with using the assessment to teach the next bit, but I'm ploughing through the paperwork."

Perhaps the story these interviews tell is not a new one, but it is one that has a clear narrative theme. The climate in which schools operate is, for most of those involved (be they pupils or teachers), not conducive to learning, which is arguably the main function of schools.

An environment in which only about one in five of the teachers surveyed felt able to practise what they preach needs to change. At present, the Government seems determined to ignore the experiences of teachers and pursue the regime that has given rise to teachers' sense of constraint. But if schools are once more to become institutions with educational values at their core, ministers need to learn from the lessons of the classroom.

Dr Bethan Marshall is senior lecturerin English education at King's college, University of London

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