Skills for life that school cannot teach

6th October 1995 at 01:00
John MacBeath says influences outside the classroom are the real key to success.

It is not too extravagant a claim that what you learn out of school is the key determinant of success. What you learn in school is never of itself sufficient.

There are essentially two categories of students who leave school with an attested certificate of scholary success.

One group comprises those who have the stamina, the support and a mastery of the stragetic ploys to negotiate examinations successfully . Many in this group manage to leave school with a superficial scraping of an education.

The second group consists of those who have developed what Entwistle describes as "deep" approaches to learning. They have something left over when the content is no longer lodged in short term memory.

Most young people in these two groups have developed their own home-cooked approach to school achievement. At least that is what we have found in our Scottish research over the past five years. Our research into homework (1990 and 1994) and study support (1992 and 1993) arrived at a number of disturbing conclusions.

Homework was not designed to develop or enhance learning skills. It was, by and large, ad hoc and uncoordinated across the school. Pupils were either left to devise their own approaches or the advice they were given was unrealistic and took no account of individual learning style or domestic context ("find a quiet place. Sit at a desk ..." and so on).

Course work has increasingly demanded more and more research and study skills, and pushed the balance even further towards those who had o parents with skills to support independent study o parents who could do the work for you, or just o parents.

Schools and secondary departments which did particularly well in adding value were often those where students had private tutors, in some cases as many as 90 per cent of a secondary class. Study support began to take off the 1990s because it offered to disadvantaged, and often disaffected, young people a place to go in the evening, before or after school. It provided people to help and advise, resources to use, and above all a collegial environment for collaborative learning.

Its main intention was not to simply provide a place to do homework but to give guidance to young people in developing skills for learning.

Study support initiatives have generally been extremely successful for those who have attended them, mainly in boosting the self-confidence of young people who had become convinced that learning was not for them. They have been less successful in developing learning skills. This is because skills are difficult to teach, particularly when there is a 10-year backlog of bad habits and when teachers do not themselves have confidence in what those skills are. Teachers often found it difficult, and even deskilling, to try to help pupils learn rather than teach them.

One of the main achievements of study support has been to throw a beam on to in-school learning and its relationship with what happens out of school. Learning skills and learning effectiveness are now moving up the agenda in many schools.

It is a curious anomaly at a time when the Government wants to put the emphasis back on to teaching, but if we cannot equip young people with deep-rooted skills for lifelong learning we have to ask: "effective schools" - for what?

Professor John MacBeath is director of the Quality in Education Centre at the University of Strathclyde in Glasgow

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