Don’t we want pupils to be independent learners?

25th March 2016 at 00:00
Students are becoming totally dependent on teachers in the drive to raise attainment

While delivering a CPD course recently, I overheard a question: “Could we arrange a meeting to discuss your results?” Somewhat rudely, I interjected by asking others to guess the roles of both the speaker and the person being addressed.

The result was unanimous: everyone correctly identified the speaker as school senior management and the person being addressed as a classroom teacher. Indeed, many readers might even wonder what other response there could have been, which is a worrying thought.

My question is this: should it have been so obvious that the question was being posed by a senior manager to a teacher? The remainder of this article will argue that it should not.

I must first point out that two aspects of the raising attainment equation are at odds with each other: teacher support and independent learning.

It is my contention that the delicate balance between the two has been disrupted over the years, and one symptom of this is the scenario cited above. I’m not trying to argue that conversations like this should not take place; what I am trying to show is just how far the necessary equilibrium in the equation has been disturbed. Of course, it is important that we teachers strive to improve our teaching, but isn’t it at least as important (or even more so) that students improve their learning?

Transfer of responsibility

It is as if one side of a partnership has been deleted. To find out why this has happened, it is worth deploying the method of substitution well known to modern mathematicians and to more seasoned linguists.

The variable of pupil application is one that is essentially outside the control of headteachers, senior managers, principal teachers and teachers – or even parents.

And this applies in two contexts: outside the classroom, homework is basically unenforceable; within the classroom, levels of pupil application are equally uncontrollable. Behaviour is another significant aspect of this variable, as many colleagues will recognise.

It is within this broad context that the opening question – posed by a senior manager to a teacher – has been normalised, simply by default, because the independent application of students is something over which we simply have little or even no control. Teachers, though, are a different matter; they are eminently controllable. And so those who should also be asked the opening question – the students – have been substituted by the teachers who teach them.

This transfer of responsibility is not a good thing, and by allowing it to happen at all we are adding to an already significant problem.

Recently, I was drawing up a rubric for a master’s-level assignment. I then had to provide a guide, followed by a schematic plan, followed by graded model responses. With comments. And this at master’s level – almost the highest level of academic achievement possible. This is just one of the consequences of the course of action that we have allowed to develop in our schools.

It would appear that the imbalance between teacher support and independent learning is ever-growing, and that the zone of proximal development – ie, the difference in attainment between a child with support and one without – is being stretched towards the limits of tolerance.

Additionally, this growing imbalance is directly proportional to the political pressure applied to increase attainment. I’m sure that this is a state of affairs that most classroom teachers would recognise, and it is well worth considering its potential impact on both the teacher and the student.

The primary effect on students is a kind of pedagogic infantilisation – we treat them as dependants and so they become dependants. Therefore, they expect dependency and so the cycle continues. But more on this later.

Another even more worrying effect on students is the stress caused by unrealistic expectations generated by increasing levels of support (designed to meet the raising attainment agenda). These expectations are often disconnected from ability and/or application.

Teachers will have seen this – students stretched beyond their capabilities. But for teachers, the effect is equally negative, and their collective position becomes simply impossible. Teachers are placed under even more stress than their students to achieve (on behalf of their students) the highest grades possible. Yet even when attainment is raised astonishingly well, still the cycle continues.

In the 2015 National 5 English examination, for example, nearly 40,000 candidates attained grades A-C. Prior to this, credit-level awards (the National 5 equivalent) at standard grade were around the 15,000 mark for much of the life of that examination.

Even taking this as a rough measure, this is an astonishing increase.

Breaking the cycle

But what is the human cost? Teachers can expect to work for 40 or more years in education. By any measure, that’s more marathon than sprint, and yet they are expected to function as if it were a sprint, holiday recovery periods notwithstanding. And has the attainment drive stopped? Apparently not, as we now face a new iteration of national testing.

But let’s return finally to the dependency cycle – because it is, paradoxically, the whole raising attainment agenda that prevents us from breaking free of it.

Who would accept a reduction in standards? Well, let’s pose another question: would a reduction in the number of, say, Higher English passes actually be a reduction in standards? Or would it represent an increase in independent application by students?

Right now, teachers are buckling under the burden of a task of Sisyphean proportions and this has to end, because currently the raising attainment agenda is simply invalid; it has become more a measure of teachers’ ability to improve their students’ results than a measure of student achievement. What’s the solution? Well, that’s another question.

Willie McGuire is a senior academic at the University of Glasgow’s School of Education

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