Tuesday, 25 August 2015

What do we know about the nature of learning? (2015 Term 3 Week 7)

As a field of professional endeavour, over the last couple of decades education has developed a deeper, broader and more well-established understanding of learning. Through rigorous educational research, through the input of other fields such as positive psychology and neuroscience, and through consideration of the capabilities required in the 21st century, we have a better understanding of learning itself. Our better understanding should also translate into improvements in the ways that we approach teaching and learning.

And so we should! I doubt that any of us would be reassured to know that our doctors were continuing to treat us according to the knowledge of generations gone by. Nor would we want our buildings built according to standards and codes that have been replaced by superior ones.

School education is unique as a professional field, in that everyone has experienced it as a student (for good or ill), most parents have an interest in it (at least with reference to their own children), but for the most part it takes place outside of our sight. It's not that we aren't interested, but the question 'What did you do at school today?' can evoke a wide range of responses from a grunt through to an interminable recount of the minutiae of who played with whom. The reassurances that a parent might seek regarding the quality of the teaching and learning, the solidity of the knowledge-base on which it stands, and the reasons why it happens the way it does, are harder to come by.

From talking with a number of parents about these matters, it is evident to me that some might be interested in a more substantial explanation of what we know about learning and the way that this knowledge shapes our practice. Over the next few weeks in this blog, I hope to provide some of this information.

Image result for OECD nature of learning

I will be engaging with a really helpful publication of the OECD Centre for Educational Research and Innovation. The full report was published in 2010, but the OECD have also published a summary booklet called The Nature of Learning: Using Research to Inspire Practice in 2012, which is much more accessible. This practitioner guide is not a lengthy read, running to about 12 pages, and it is a straightforward read for anyone with an interest in learning. If you have the time, I recommend printing and reading it over a cup of coffee. If you don't, over the next few weeks I plan to provide a very brief summary of the summary! 

As a starting point, the research makes it clear that emotions and motivation are the gatekeepers to learning. Positive emotions about the learning experience and positive motivation to engage in learning, helps students to become more effective and powerful learners. 

The booklet identifies eight elements that motivate students to engage in learning.

  • When they perceive stable links between specific actions and achievement
  • When they feel competent to do what is expected of them
  • When they value the subject and have a clear sense of purpose
  • When they perceive the environment as favourable for learning
  • When they experience positive emotions towards learning activities
  • Students direct their actions away from learning when they experience negative emotions
  • Students are more persistent in learning when they can manage their resources and deal with obstacles effectively
  • Students free up cognitive resources for learning when they are able to influence the intensity, duration and expression of their emotions.

All of which is to say that learning is not a purely rational cognitive process divorced from the hubbub and turmoil of emotion; the head is not independent of the heart! To take just one of these elements for consideration, if a student does not believe that she/he is able to achieve success, there is very little reason to try. A growth mindset, appropriate scaffolding, and the experience of success, all play a role in helping a young person to be motivated in their learning.

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