Open letter - Deep learning still needs 'zing' in the classroom

19th October 2012 at 01:00

Dear Mr Russell,

A seven-year-old friend returned from school. She told her mother about Curriculum for Excellence: "It is about successful learners, confident individuals, responsible citizens and effective contributors." Sadly, when the mother enquired what these words meant, the seven- year-old did not know.

I think we might all agree that CfE is about more than pupils (or teachers) reciting mantra-like phrases. My reading is that CfE has a heavy emphasis on what is variously called "meaningful" or "high level" or "deep" learning.

Some 50 years ago, a teacher in the Nicolson Institute wandered into my class to do a "please take" in history. One Albert.

The class was transfixed by his lesson. We had never experienced history his way. Let me quote his conclusion:

"In the late 18th century, warfare took a shock. A bunch of colonial guys rebelled. And some of these rebels formed an alliance with the natives. So the English armies in North America would put on their red coats, polish their buttons and have breakfast. Then they would go out to the plains to meet the pesky rebels. No army met them on the plains. `These cowards are hiding in the forests - let us go and have a look.'

"Up in the trees, the rebels and their native pals, none of them in uniforms, would draw on their bows. There would be a `zing' and a red- coated brass-buttoned soldier would bite the dust.

"And thus, class, was created: 1) the United States of America; 2) guerrilla warfare; and 3) camouflage. All new concepts: and all three concepts changed the world for ever."

Albert is long dead. But his lesson sticks in my mind. He had engaged me in deep learning.

We understand today a lot about what will engage school students in deep or meaningful learning. Albert would have scored highly on "use appropriate language" and "summarise the main concepts". His lesson, while meaningful (at least to me), might have scored lower in other respects. His only use of AVA was to illustrate the "zing" by pointing his left fist towards the class and drawing his right knuckles back.

As Scottish teachers of the 21st century grapple with these issues, they have more secure evidence. Deep learning is encouraged by a) stating learning objectives at the beginning of a lesson; b) the use of peer assessment and self-assessment; c) the use of learning logs; d) personal learning planning; and e) giving extended thinking time to school students before expecting a reply to a deep question.

But, fundamentally, it is about lessons with a "zing". Perhaps, Cabinet Secretary, some of your CfE documentation on "experiences and outcomes" loses sight of this just a little.

Yours sincerely, Iain Smith

Iain Smith was at one time a dean of education in the University of Strathclyde. He writes in a personal capacity.

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