Search for the meaning of learning

26th November 2004 at 00:00
Pat McDermot answers your leadership questions

Over the past year we have been looking carefully at lessons taught from the point of view of the learning that takes place. As a leadership team we now realise that we need an answer to the question: how are we going to develop a definition of learning for our school? Could you offer us some advice?

It is one of the great mysteries of our education system that we do not possess a common definition and a universally accepted understanding of what we mean by "learning". Therefore, part of the question you pose for your team is fundamental if you are to move forward together. That is: what is learning?

However, your question contains another, equally important, dimension. It is about the "how". You are inviting professionals to enter into a conversation about learning, but teachers are not confident in talking about learning. They are expert in conversations about teaching, but when it comes to learning, they become more reticent. One area where you will have to work hard as a team is in providing staff with the vocabulary to talk about learning. Without this, formulating an agreed definition of what learning is will be very difficult, if not impossible, to achieve.

One way into this area may be to tap into recent work on learning styles.

The premise of this approach is that learning can be optimised for each person if pupils and their teachers know whether a person is a visual, auditory, or kinaesthetic learner. This idea can also be used with the work of David Kolb (is the learner an activist, pragmatist, theorist or reflector?) and Howard Gardner (with his multiple intelligences). The leadership challenge is to identify the factors most likely to facilitate the learning of your pupils and to develop the necessary strategies that will maximise learning experiences for them. However, the most important part of this is to ensure that each individual develops an understanding of themselves as a learner.

This process is sometimes referred to as metacognition. This means that learners are given as many opportunities as possible to reflect not only on what they have learned but, as importantly, on how they have learned.

This is one of the principles behind the key stage 3 national strategy Assessment for Learning. Assessment should be for learning, not just of learning.

It is an interesting exercise to model metacognition with staff at a meeting or after an inset day. Instead of asking them what they have learned, ask rather how they have learned what they have and what facilitated or hindered their learning. This will lead to a rich discussion of what learning entails and develop a shared language in your school about learning.

Another interesting feature that emerges when a school gets serious about learning is that teachers prefer to teach rather than facilitate learning.

Indeed, some insist on covering whatever it was they had planned for that lesson whether or not anything is learned by the pupils. A serious focus on learning presents a real challenge to the traditional role of the teacher for some people. The shift from "sage on the stage" to "guide on the side" goes too far for some.

The leadership challenge here is immense. This involves a culture change as well as instigating a reappraisal of the core purpose of the teacher in the classroom. Pedagogy based first on learning and only second on teaching will require you to re-examine the subtle relationship that exists between learner and teacher in your school and ask: has this accepted relationship passed its sell- by date? If you reach this question with your leadership team and school community then you will be entering the realms of innovation!

Patrick McDermott is head of St Joseph's Catholic college, an 11-18 girls'

school, in Bradford. This is his third headship, and he has been a head for 12 years and a teacher for 27. He is a facilitator for the National College for School Leadership and mentored Catholic heads for 10 years.Do you have a leadership question? Email

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