How can progress be both ‘rapid and sustained’?

22nd July 2016 at 00:00
Ofsted’s requirements are contradictory, simplistic and belie the nuanced realities of measuring learning

These are challenging times in FE: constant churn of policy initiatives; high-stakes Ofsted inspections and accountability measures; reduced funding; increased workloads…and now, wait for it – drum roll – the next expectation from on high is this thing called “rapid and sustained progress”.

As is so often the case with such buzzwords, which are flung around by Ofsted inspectors, managers and observers, there has been very little clarification of what this actually looks like in a learning environment.

The conflation of “rapid” and “sustained” is the first point for discussion. Is it even possible to have these two juxtaposed adjectives working in tandem? I would contest, from my humble position as a teacher with almost 20 years’ experience, that progress is not always rapid, sustained or even visible to an observer – or a teacher, for that matter.

The notion of rapid and sustained progress comes from a very specific conceptualisation of what learning is. The measure on which we are all being assessed – as learners and teachers – is the cognitive model of learning, which is currently the dominant approach in UK education. This model contains very definite notions of what learning is. For example:

There is a distinct cause-and-effect relationship between teaching and learning.

There is transmission of knowledge between teacher and learner, identified in predetermined, short-term learning objectives –therefore, learning becomes an entity that is both measurable and observable.

There is transferability of what is learned in one learning environment to another, or to another context, such as the workplace.

Is this really what learning is? Learning is not a stable entity that can be decided by the teacher in advance of a lesson – it is a complex combination of processes with unstable outcomes, which involve a transformation of being. Transformative learning occurs when we experience a deep, fundamental shift in our consciousness, which changes the way we think, feel and act; it alters our way of being in the world.

Traditional learning theories have little to offer if we want to try to understand these processes. Bateson’s framework for transformative learning suggests different levels. The lower levels can be summarised as “learners becoming apprenticed into what it means to be a learner in a given context”.

Learners acquire the rules and patterns of behaviour expected within a learning environment, meaning they learn how to be a learner: how to please the teacher, how to answer questions, how to work in groups. I would argue that, in fact, much of what is being observed in lessons by teachers and Ofsted inspectors is learning behaviours such as these, not learning. It is a focus on what learners do, not what they learn.

To meet the complex social, economic and environmental global challenges of our 21st-century world, learning needs to be so much more than this.

Learning is about the social interaction that takes place between learners. It is constructed in unique contexts through dialogue, and the sharing of prior knowledge and experiences to explore and discover and create new meaning – that is what learning is from a sociocultural perspective.

‘Fetish’ for data

This approach to learning creates opportunities for discussion and debate about issues that concern young people, initiated by young people. However, this is a model of learning that is unpredictable and certainly not measurable, so it does not fit with our current fetish for data-driven accountability systems.

In my travels to different further education institutions in recent times, I have seen and explored practices that teachers have developed to promote individual development. The main way to achieve this is for learners to set their own objectives.

These can be negotiated at the beginning of lessons, with the teacher introducing the general objectives but, within that, the learners setting their own individual targets. This approach can work in variety of areas, but can be most successfully used in practical skills-based lessons and revision sessions.

Progress towards individual objectives can be assessed during the lesson, with questions and feedback being tailored specifically to each learner’s goals. Then, as part of the self-assessment of achievement, objectives can be promoted through a variety of purposeful plenary activities.

In this way we can play the game of demonstrating progress, but whether it would meet Ofsted’s criteria for “rapid and sustained” is still up for debate.

Sasha Pleasance is an FE teacher educator, a founding member of Tutor Voices and the author of Wider Professional Practice in Education and Training, published by Sage @SashaPleasance

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