'We go to school so that parents can go to work'

Karen Thornton

How do you know you have learned something? When you go from "err?" to "aah!" according to young people in Aberystwyth.

Teachers from 10 primaries and two secondary schools in the west Wales town asked their pupils what they thought about learning - and say the results have changed the way they teach.

Key findings included that many primary-age children think they go to school because their parents are at work, while older pupils seem unaware of their own role in learning. Some felt learning was something that only happened at school, although many said they learned better when working with others.

When asked why they went to school, many referred to friendships, parental wishes, passing tests and getting a job. Some did not even mention learning.

After listening to pupils' views, project leaders say the findings have led to changes in teaching practice. For example, teachers have included more group and pair work in lessons, or changed their questioning techniques.

Ceredigion local education authority instigated the project, which brought LEA officers and a teacher and senior manager (often the head) from each school together to review research findings on effective teaching and learning, supported by academics at London university's Institute of Education.

There are plans to extend the project to a second group of Ceredigion schools. Stella Jones, an English teacher at Ysgol Gyfun Penweddig, told delegates at last week's learning and teaching conference in Cardiff about the responses from her pupils.

"No one had asked them what they thought about learning. Many were not sure how to answer. There were looks of utter confusion when I asked some 11 to 14-year-olds, 'when do you know you have learned something?'

"For many of them, learning is 'what's that?' There was no idea that they were part of it. Intelligence or ability is something you do or don't have (they say). If you don't, you often give up. There is a learned helplessness, which is often difficult to challenge."

She suggested teachers concentrated so much on their teaching, rather than pupils' learning, because of the focus in inspections on lesson planning and meeting learning objectives.

"This project got us back to what do the children perceive as their learning," she added.

Catherine Woodward, one of the Ceredigion advisers who led the project, said: "Teachers have changed as a result of their involvement in this. They have been amazed when they have sought out pupils' views. They were shocked that none of them referred to 'learning'."

Tanya Hancock, a teacher at Plascrug primary, Aberystwyth, said: "One of the strongest things that came through was children's lack of understanding about learning.

"One of the key stage 1 children said, 'I come to school because mummy and daddy are at work and I can't be at home alone'. I never knew that half the children thought this.

"We must talk about the language we use. Are children aware of what they are learning each day? Do we say, 'get on with your learning' rather than 'get on with your work'? Would that make a difference?"

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Karen Thornton

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