Teaching learners to be explorers

10th August 2007 at 01:00
Success in exams is not the same as having the skills to unearth knowledge, writes Adi Bloom

TEACHERS NEED to teach pupils to learn, rather than assume that they will acquire the necessary skills themselves.

David Miliband, a former schools standards minister, described learning to learn as "one of the core functions of 21st-century education".

But Guy Claxton, of Bristol university, claims that while many schools express similar sentiments, they fail to act upon them. He says: "Being a successful learner often turns out to mean nothing more interesting than doing well in exams."

Professor Claxton outlines ways in which teachers can encourage curiosity and reflection among pupils. For example, cognitive neuroscientists believe that the brain learns by imitation. Pupils, therefore, pick up their mental habits from the people around them.

So, he reasons: "It becomes part of a teacher's professional role to be continually saying: 'I don't know', 'Oops, I didn't expect that to happen' ... Their job is to ask themselves, 'How can I best model curiosity, or open mindedness, or empathy for my students today?'

"Students like their teachers to be fallible and inquisitive."

Equally, experimental psychology indicates that tolerance for vague hunches or intellectual confusion is essential to learning.

"People who are more receptive to their own faint hunches are better problem solvers than those who must have everything clear cut," Professor Claxton says. "Those who have no tolerance for uncertainty have therefore had their capacity to learn reduced."

He also highlights the difference between acquiring a skill and developing a disposition to use that skill. For example, the ability to ask questions is a skill. But asking questions can make the questioner vulnerable the question may be obvious or easily ridiculed. So, the capacity to learn depends on being willing to take a risk.

"You need a sense of entitlement: the belief that you have a right to be curious, to ask questions, to discuss," Professor Claxton says. "Some students don't feel they have that right."

He recommends that teachers do not handle thinking skills in the same way as they would an academic subject. Instead, they should organise their lessons so that, along with conventional curriculum topics, pupils are learning to think more broadly and flexibly.

Professor Claxton believes that teachers can convey subject knowledge and develop learning capacity simultaneously. They can then use regular questions to encourage self-analysis among pupils. Examples include asking: "How did you do that?" or "What would have made it easier or harder for you?" and "How could I have taught that better?"

Teachers can encourage pupils to discuss opportunities in which their learning is relevant in another context, for example by asking: "How would you use that skill at home?" This kind of conversation can then be encouraged through group discussions and reflective writing.

"School isn't really about the Tudors and periodic table," Professor Claxton says. "It is about becoming a brave and skilled explorer, a cunning detective, an imaginative creator ... in whatever field of life they want to work and play in."

* guy.claxton@bristol.ac.uk

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