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What the learners told us;Platform;Opinion

Researchers Margaret Maden and Jean Ruddock asked for TES readers' help two years ago. Now they report back on their Nuffield Foundation research project,'Improving learning: the pupils' agenda'

Our starting point for this research was the question, "If our concern is to increase pupils' achievements, why don't we include their own accounts of learning in our agenda for school improvement?" On the basis of earlier work at both Homerton College Cambridge and Keele University, we established three themes:

* Catching up and keeping up;

* Pupils helping other pupils with their learning;

* Creating a positive learning culture.

Following our TES article, "Listen to the learners" (July 4, 1999), schools volunteered their experience of one or more of these, and we were helped by the research division of the Office for Standards in Education and local authority advisers in identifying more schools. We examined accounts from more than 60 secondary and 40 primary schools, augmented by detailed evidence from visits to 20 schools where we talked to pupils and teachers.

Our first theme proved elusive, partly because support programmes are not always specifically concerned with helping pupils to catch or keep up - but they nonetheless do both. Irrespective of attainment levels, pupils are often sharply aware of where they need to plug gaps in their learning:

"I've only started coming recently because I realised how much work I had to catch up on, but before I just didn't think about it." (Year 11 girl); "I was just having trouble with maths and physics, trying to understand and worried about getting homework in and how to do it." (Year 10 pupil); "When we asked students what they found most useful, keeping up and doing better were most important to them." (Teacher).

On our second theme, we found that when pupils help each other in their learning the mutuality of peer mentoring comes through strongly:

"I found it quite hard, maths, when I was in the first year and, because I got better at it, I thought I might as well help someone else, because I know how they feel." (Year 10 pupil); "I was very low on my times tables - very low. It helped me to improve a lot on a one-to-one basis with Stuart and it helped my self-confidence as well." (Year 7 pupil); "You are also helping yourself when you teach someone ... You are kind of teaching yourself at the same time." (Year 5, primary).

Whatever the name - "peer tutoring" or "study buddies" - most schemes were started for two main reasons: concern about academic attainment, and a belief that pupils would make better progress and feel better about themselves as learners.

Accounts of how schools are trying to create a positive learning culture often include such support systems, but this larger aspiration requires a more whole-school approach. Initiatives tend to be school-wide, with many aspects and reflect three high-profile principles: that learning and achievement matter; that pupils matter; and that teachers and the quality of teaching matter. Above all, our case-study schools base their approaches on developing a culture which emphasises the importance of learning. Approaches include:

* increasing pupils' autonomy as learners;

* giving pupils more responsibility;

* responding to what they have to say about teaching and learning;

* respecting their concerns about the environment of the school ;

* involving pupils in evaluating their own work;

* signalling to pupils that they are trusted and respected members of a learning community.

Such approaches reflect the strength of teachers' commitment to consider pupils' perspectives. Schools listen to pupils partly because encouraging pupils to articulate their experiences in a reasoned, constructive way is part of the practical agenda of "education for citizenship" and studentship.

We identified five things that we think are particularly important and that we see reflected in teachers' accounts of their practice:

* talking about learning with pupils so that they develop a more "professional" language for discussing learning and for reviewing their progress;

* explaining aspects of learning that we, as adults, take for granted but which pupils may not always fully understand (like the purpose of homework, or what learning by problem-solving involves);

* sustaining the excitement of learning and making sure that it is something that pupils value for its own sake and not just for a test or an exam;

* Acknowledging that learning can sometimes be a struggle, and that you don't need to feel embarrassed about seeking help from others;

* Encouraging pupils to develop positive images of themselves as learners so they know and can talk openly about their strengths and their weaknesses -and do not disengage because they think that their teachers and their mates see them as "useless".

Such principles and processes are impressive and encouraging, but we also believe they point to how policy should develop for a national, sustained hiking-up of pupil achievement and engagement.

More explicit attention should be paid to how schools take account of pupils' experience. Sweden has the Student Barometer and France La vie scolaire, which both require that inspection schedules include the issues we have described. It is equally important to find out yet more about how schools develop a positive learning culture - where pupils (and teachers) feel it is "cool to learn" - often against a background of scarce resources and competing priorities.

'Improving learning: the pupils' agenda' -Primary Schools by Doddington, Flutter and Ruddock, and 'Improving learning: the pupils' agenda - secondary schools' by Flutter, Rudduck, Adams, Johnson and Maden. pound;4.50 inc. postage from Alan Russell, Homerton College, Cambridge CB2 2PH.

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