Empowered Learners & The Great Traditionalist/Progressive Debate

Too many children sleepwalk through their school life being compliant, playing by the rules and allowing a combination of children and adults to do most of the thinking and learning for them.  It’s an easy trap to fall in to (intuitively we are programmed to follow the path of least resistance) but one that, if we’re not careful, we can allow children to exist in when really we should be making sure that they work ‘at least harder than their teachers and parents’.  For many years now, schools have been moving towards a focus on the learning rather than the teaching (many schools even went to the trouble of changing the words ‘Teaching’ and ‘Learning’ around on their policies) but, in reality, unless children are consciously handed more responsibility and accountability for their learning, they will continue to rely predominately on teacher-led, direct instruction – becoming participants in (rather than the owners of) their education.

Cue a familiar conversation that plays out as follows:

Whoa, wait a minute. What’s wrong with direct instruction?

Me: There’s nothing wrong with direct instruction. It remains a really effective way of teaching children basic facts and knowledge but teaching is also more than that, so we have to look at other approaches and styles to make sure that children are really engaged in the process of learning like self-regulation and meta cognition.

That all sounds a bit like wishy washy nonsense to me Tom. My children just need to learn to behave & listen so I can fill the gaps they have in their knowledge and understanding.

Me: Yes it’s funny how so much research and great practice that takes place in schools can still manage to be perceived as ‘wishy washy nonsense’ isn’t it?’. The Education Endowment Fund carried out extensive research which shows that up to 8 months additional progress can be made in a single year by using self-regulation and meta cognition strategies yet still, we have more to do in terms of transferring this into classroom strategies and practices more consistently. It stands to reason that when children are more engaged and involved in the process, they will learn better.

That all sounds great but, at the end of the day, children need to pass tests and our appraisal targets says I have to get them through, so I’m going to do what I know works to get them there.

Me:   That’s your end of the day. My end of the day is that the 5 year olds in my school today will probably still be working into the 2070s and I need to make sure that their formative years provide them with the foundations to go on and lead a successful and happy existence in the future, not just jumping through some high stakes testing hoops to keep OFSTED at bay. But, as I’ve already pointed out (and as is backed up by substantial research), these progressive teaching methods do actually improve those test scores too.

As the writer, I get the last word this time but there’s a real debate that’s waging in education at the moment between progressive and traditional types of instruction which is important to understand.   Too often, we can see these arguments played out either in the press or through social networks which play in to the predictable media format which is to firstly find the issue of the day, and then find two people to be quoted or interviewed who have opposite views who can argue, provide readers with brief entertainment or distraction from their daily lives and then move on without finding an answer. This often then reduces a useful debate to an ‘or’ argument where approaches or teaching methods become pitched against each other such as:

The Arts or Technology?

Discrete teaching of subjects or a connected curriculum?

Group work or individual work?

Mixed ability groups or sets?

Technology in education or a complete ban on all types of devices?

Detentions or a free for all on behaviour?

PSHE as a core subject or high academic standards?

Reducing these issues to simple closed options does the debate a disservice. Professor Guy Claxton illustrates a more nuanced version in his blog describing the three ‘tribes’ in the education debate from the book, ‘Educating Ruby’, which he and Bill Lucas offer real hope and direction for those who want to see progress in education policy and practice.

In Educating Ruby, we offer a potted guide to the educational scene. Basically there are three tribes: Roms, Trads and Mods. The Romantics believe that children will blossom if we leave them alone. The Roms have almost completely died out – except in the mind of the second tribe, the Traditionalists. The Traditionalists seem to believe that all would be well if we had lots of old-fashioned grammar schools teaching Latin and algebra. They blame all educational ills on the (non-existent) Roms. If kids don’t do well at school it’s because the ‘trendy liberals’ have mucked things up – or the kids are too unintelligent (‘low-ability’) or lazy. Trads like to keep things simple, even if their beliefs are damaging or wrong. The third tribe is the Moderates, which includes the vast majority of people who work in or care about education. Where the Trads are simplistic and pugnacious, the Mods like to think and tinker (or ‘thinker’, as Michael Ondaatje put it).

Empower Definition

So back to the original point about how we can empower learners…

The empowered learner works harder than their teacher.  They spend time both in and outside of the classroom genuinely interested in their studies and asking questions of their teachers, parents and peers which consolidate their understanding and extend their thinking.   They remain curious for longer than their less empowered peers who will switch off quicker and are less keen to play an active role within the classroom. The empowered learner is able to make independent decisions about aspects of their learning (self-regulation); they are also engaged in thinking about the learning process they are involved in (meta cognition).   Having genuinely empowered learners in your class or school is a privilege and a pleasure but they don’t occur by chance or good fortune; this empowerment has (usually) been carefully permitted, delegated, authorised and unshackled skilfully by teachers using a range of progressive teaching methods.

As a self-diagnosed ‘mod’ with a tendency to ‘thinker’, I’ve pinched the three definitions (Teacher-Led, Co-construction & Child-Led) from Professor Stephen Heppell’s typically refreshing and useful post around learner-led learning research and have adapted them to describe different styles of curriculum or learning experiences which empower children in the learning process at different levels in the following table.

Co-construction

I often return to Professor Heppell’s definitions when we’re developing new ideas or looking at curriculum projects and it’s been a really helpful gauge when we’ve introduced our Design Thinking curriculum approach over the last two years at Simon de Senlis as we constantly look at where we can loosen the reins and allow children to take more of a lead, without losing the necessary rigor within the curriculum. The irony of empowering learners in UK schools is that we often allow most responsibility to our youngest learners.   At 4, children can use the toilets as and when they need to within their daily provision; by 10, usual practice is for them to have to wait until break times and by 14, the chances are that the toilets are locked until the bell goes as children can’t be trusted to use them without supervision. A similar pattern exists with learning styles – the freedom that we see our youngest learners with, gradually erodes until suddenly at 16, the common room and study periods allow it flooding back in again. Have we really got it right?

But anyway, the debate will go on. Some will say that the children should be set free and allowed to take more of a lead; others will say that the teachers know best and that if they just listened and did what they were told, things would be better. I know that I spent far too much of my own school life feeling bored and frustrated, responding to closed questions and listening to lectures, anecdotes or extracts from teacher’s unwritten autobiographies – how many children would still say the same today? Some people think that we could get so much more from the children if we tapped into their interests as starting points and allowed them flexibility in how they work; others think that the discipline they learn from a well organised and structured academic curriculum is what it’s all about. I think that there’s a bit of truth in it all and, whilst we all accept that some fads have just been fads and distractions (learning styles springs to mind), we can’t ignore necessary, well-researched change for the convenience of doing what we’ve always done.

TR

This post was originally published in the March edition of ‘The Feed’, an online educational publication by MIcrosoft Education UK. It was also published in the Guardian Partner website.

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