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What have we learnt today?

Bethan Marshall reports on a research project in which pupils were taught how to assess themselves and each other.

Education is rife with jargon, much of which seems to have little to do with life at the chalk face. The most recent batch of buzz phrases, however, appears at least to have the virtue of being about the main business of schools - learning. We now have learning styles, learning organisations, assessment for learning, personalised learning and learning to learn. All these trip off our tongues, some even finding their way into government ring-binders. Yet the question facing an educational researcher is what, if anything, do any of these mean, what might they look like, do they work, and how, if they do, might schools encourage teachers and pupils to benefit from the initiatives that lie behind the phrases?

These were the questions facing a group of education lecturers and researchers at Cambridge university, King's college London, the Open university and Reading university four years ago when we asked what learning to learn might be and whether it was related to any of the above phrases. We wanted to know how effective it was in improving the educational experience of pupils and how schools might embrace it.

The Learning How to Learn project was part of a larger initiative called the Teaching and Learning Research programme, which was designed to encourage educational research to ask practical questions. More than 40 primary and secondary schools, involving some 1,300 teachers, helped us to investigate the issues involved in learning to learn. They answered questionnaires and took part in interviews. They allowed researchers to video lessons and attended regular meetings to update the research team on the progress of their work.

The data is now all in and the provisional findings are beginning to emerge. The picture is more complicated than a glossy, Department for Education and Skills ring-binder might suggest. These tend to emphasise the procedures rather than the underlying principles of, for example, assessment for learning.

Our research has shown that adopting simple procedures, in the classroom or at school level, brings about only superficial change and a more principled approach is needed if more substantial benefits are to be felt.

If we compare two Year 8 English lessons, the difference between what we have called "procedural" and "principled" practice becomes clearer. One of the key findings of earlier research on assessment for learning, undertaken at King's college London, was that sharing the criteria (or the way in which they will be judged) with pupils, as well as peer and self-assessment are beneficial. These are, if you like, both procedures.

In both Year 8 English lessons the teachers shared the criteria with the pupils by giving them a model of what was needed. The pupils then used those criteria to assess their peers' work.

In lesson A pupils were looking at a letter they had written based on a Victorian short story, and in lesson B they were asked to consider a dramatic rendition of a 19th-century poem. Both had the potential to enable pupils to engage with the question of what makes for quality in a piece of work - an issue which is sometimes hard for pupils to grasp.

The teacher in lesson A modelled the criteria by giving the pupils a piece of writing which was full of errors. They were asked to correct it on their own. The teacher then went through the corrections with the whole class before asking them to read through and correct the work of their peers.

In lesson B the teacher and the classroom assistant performed the poem to the class and invited the pupils to criticise their performance. From this the class as a whole, guided by the teacher, set the criteria. These criteria then governed both the pupils' thinking about what was needed when they acted out the poem themselves and the peer assessment of those performances.

Two crucial but subtle elements differentiate these lessons. To begin with, the scope of the task in lesson A gave pupils a much more restricted understanding of what quality might look like, focusing instead on those things which were simply right and wrong. Pupils in lesson B, on the other hand, engaged both in technical considerations, such as clarity and accuracy, as well as higher order interpretations of meaning and effect. In addition, the modelling of what was required in lesson B ensured that pupils did more than imitate that model. This is because the tasks, including encouraging the pupils to create their own criteria, helped them to think for themselves about what might be needed to capture the meaning of the poem in performance. In other words the sequence of activities guided them towards being independent learners. The procedures alone (in lesson A) were insufficient to enable this last beneficial outcome of lesson B.

Part of the difficulty of encouraging pupils to learn on their own may well, however, be the current climate in which teachers work. One of the other major findings of the project is that teachers feel constrained in the classroom. While all believe, to varying degrees, that it is part of their job to encourage pupils to be independent, the majority, feel that in practice they do not do this as much as they would like.

What is also evident is that teachers believe that they concentrate more on improving pupil performance, instead of learning, than they would wish.

Many factors may contribute to these findings. Teachers and pupils work in a system dominated by the demands of the curriculum and examinations. The pressure is always on to cover the course or teach to the test rather than take the time to explore pupils' ideas and understanding.

It is also possible that teachers' own beliefs about learning contribute to the picture. Early analysis of teacher interviews and questionnaires suggests that the beliefs teachers already hold affect the way in which they interpret initiatives such as assessment for learning in their classrooms. Underpinning lesson B, for example, was the teacher's conviction that her job was to make her classes less dependent on her and more on themselves and each other. Unlike the teacher in lesson A, her beliefs about learning all centred around a move towards the greater independence of her pupils.

These findings are provisional but they have clear policy implications for the current pressures on schools to perform and the way in which government initiatives are rolled out. The broad thrust of "Do this, or follow these procedures, and standards will rise" is not born out by our research.

Classrooms are complex places and teachers and pupils come to them with views about learning. Schools in our survey started from very different places and approached the task in very different ways. Getting beyond the procedures to the principles involved, in order to alter pupils' experience and a school's culture and ethos, proved challenging. But it is the fruits of these deliberations that make it worth pursuing - confident, articulate young people who are engaged in what and why they are learning.

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