I uncovered these #Archive pieces whilst sorting files. I'm posting them as a prompt to further examine how my initial thoughts and understanding have developed over the subsequent 13 years in Education.Originally submitted as part of PGDE course.
Module: Beginning to Teach (ED4018), University of Aberdeen, 2009
Essay 1, part 1.
In recent years the focus of education has undergone a paradigm shift. Increasingly, the teacher will no longer find him/herself taking centre stage in the classroom. Instead, the focus has switched to the child. In essence, there are now up to thirty “centres” in every classroom. With this in mind, the “one-size-fits-all” traditional model of educating pupils en masse has also changed (We Are The People, 2009). It is no longer sufficient to expect a classroom of pupils to all “get it” in the same way at the same time.
This change towards a child-focused approach has been accompanied by a renewal of interest in the psychology of teaching. By understanding how humans learn, educators can better equip themselves for delivering worthwhile lessons which engage and stimulate their pupils. Unfortunately, there is no Rosetta Stone to decode or unlock the secrets of the learning brain and the complexities of the question has led to a number of theories arising, all seeking to explain part, or all, of the learning process.
Given the volume of research into how humans learn, this paper will be limited to examining one of the most popular theories, before going on to evaluate a more recent theory, which is gaining popularity. This will provide some idea of how this research has and is continuing to develop.
The study of how we learn is not a new field of study. In fact there is evidence that academics have been thinking about this particular concept since the teaching days of Aristotle and Plato in Ancient Greece. Yet, it was not until the twentieth century that psychologists started to look upon “learning” as a considered process, worthy of academic scrutiny. One of the leaders in this area was Jean Piaget. Piaget was a Swiss zoologist-cum-psychologist who laid out his initial ideas on child development in his 1929 publication ‘The Child's Conception of the World’. Piaget went on to revise and develop his initial findings in a variety of publications before his death in 1980, and his theory has dominated thought on the nature of children’s thinking and learning since the 1960s (Pound, L., 2005, p.36).
Piaget, like his contemporary, Sigmund Freud, developed the concept of developmental stages. He believed that as children aged they go through cognitive changes, wherein they naturally acquire the skills to deal with more developed challenging thought processes. Piaget suggested that a child would learn by exploring the world around them, adding to previous knowledge or, when the new knowledge clashed with previous understandings, the child would make space for this new found knowledge. (Bjorklund, D.F., 2005, p. 81) However, Piaget claimed that the child’s ability to do this was restricted by their biological maturation, and so he associated each stage with a specific age-bracket. According to Piaget, there are four stages of cognitive development or schema: sensory-motor, preoperational, concrete operational, and formal operational.
Sensory-motordevelopment, understanding of the world through sight, touch etc, was attributed to children from birth until the age of 2 years. Children between 2 and 6 years old were observed by Piaget to be able to categorise objects by colour, shape, size etc. This was the pre-operationaldevelopmental stage. Beyond the age of 6, Piaget noted, children developed the ability to do arithmetic and logic calculations. He defined these as concrete operations and stipulated that children didn’t move beyond the mastering of this set of cognitive skills until the age of 12 (Capel, Leask & Turner, 2009, p.255).
Piaget’s final developmental stage, associated with children from the age of 12 and beyond, highlighted the child’s ability to internalise advanced thought processes which enabled them to organise and structure arguments, logically deduce solutions from a variety of sources, and be systematic in their decision making and problem solving.
In a classroom setting, this theory lends itself to a teacher-centric approach, where the teacher decides what is to be learned and how (see Appendix 1). This allows the teacher to ‘pitch’ the lesson at a level he/she feels the pupil is ready for, both in terms of biological maturation and cognitive development (Fleming, P., 2004, p.36). To meet Piaget’s criteria, the lesson must afford each individual child opportunities to link new knowledge and experiences with previous knowledge and experiences. This process is known as assimilation. Children may also require time to consider new knowledge if it contradicts what they already know, this Piaget calls accommodation. Without the child either assimilating or accommodating this new knowledge, learning will not take place. Thus the teacher must understand the capabilities of each child if he/she is to help each child effectively.
In modern education, it is clear that Piaget’s categorisation based on a child’s age is too restrictive. The vast majority of schools utilise a similar approach when building pupil classes. In Scotland, pupils start school at 5 years old and progress through school every calendar year, moving into secondary education at the age of 12, a similar marker as laid out in Piaget’s work. While these age-brackets are a suitable guideline for many children’s development, and avoid stigmatising slower developers from the outset, there are a great many that are excluded or let down by them. Schools today continue to compile classes of age cohorts rather than of children of similar developmental maturation. A recent example of why this may be cause for concern comes from a Scottish secondary school wherein a single class simultaneously must provide appropriate learning for two disparate children. The first is the region’s highest scoring pupil on the standard ‘MIDYIS’ baseline test and the second is a pupil with the developmental maturation of an 8 year old. With such a range of abilities, differentiation of class work will likely fall short of helping either extreme, and to avoid this, the school must employ additional support staff to prop up the less developed child and to stretch the more developed child.
Motivation and Learning
Hierarchy of Needs
In the ninety years since Piaget’s ground-breaking work was first published there has been a succession of alternative and counter theories regarding child development and learning. In 1943 Abraham Maslow released A Theory of Human Motivation in which he outlined the needs which drive humans forward in life. From this he constructed a 5-stage pyramid of motivation (it has since been extended to 7-stages) which outline human motivation from basic biological and physiological needs such as air, food, water , shelter and sleep up through categories of safety, belongingness and love, esteem needs to self actualisation (personal growth and fulfilment) (see Appendix 2).
By understanding, or at least acknowledging this hierarchy of needs, a teacher can be better placed to get the most out of their pupils. One student recently found himself removed from class by a teacher who was struggling to hold his attention and stop his disruptive behaviour during a pre-lunchtime lesson. Once in a one-to-one environment, the pupil revealed that he had not eaten all day despite having a 5am start due to his paper round. It is clear that the lack of food and sleep may have contributed to this pupil’s inability to concentrate. This falls neatly within Maslow’s basic needs criteria and would need to be addressed. A teacher should promote health and wellbeing and model these behaviours to help maximise every child’s ability to learn in class.
Maslow built this hierarchy on a study of a small group consisting specifically of highly successful individuals, such as Albert Einstein. He refined his study in such a way because he believed that studying “crippled, stunted, immature, and unhealthy specimens can yield only a cripple psychology and a cripple philosophy" (Maslow, A., 1954, p.236). Despite the limitations of his foundation study, it is clear that Maslow’s hierarchy of needs is relevant to every human, underpinning the forces which drive every human, regardless of cultural or regional variances which may affect what precisely contributes to each stage.
Learning to Learn
More recently, motivation has become a major focus for psychologists who are keen to understand how people learn and how to help people learn better. Professor Carol Dweck is currently at the forefront of this field, and she too has used Albert Einstein in her work, but unlike Maslow, Dweck prefers to highlight Einstein’s work ethic and the attitude he adopted for overcome challenges and problems rather than as a torchbearer of human learning.
Dweck’s most popular research looks at how students perceive intelligence, the development of “mind sets” and how these can change (depending on subject, teaching styles etc). These theories were outlined at the Scottish Learning Festival 2009 (SLF09). The crux of this work compares the Growth Mindset and the Fixed Mindset.
Growth Mindset learners believe that intelligence is not fixed, and they understand that “even Einstein wasn’t Einstein before he spent years and years and years of dedicated passionate labour” (Dweck, C., SLF09, 2009). These learners look for ways to overcome difficulties and focus on long term goals. In essence, in a Growth Mindset, “talent is just a starting point; you jump off from there” (Dweck, C., SLF09, 2009).
Fixed Mindset learners are less likely to feel they can overcome significant challenges. “When students are in this mindset they worry about how clever they are. They don’t want to take on challenges and make mistakes; they want to stay in their comfort zone” (Dweck, C., SLF09, 2009). The Fixed Mindset student believes that talent or intelligence is fixed and innate, and “failure means you don’t have it. And if you don’t have it, you will never have it” (Dweck, C., SLF09, 2009)
In a Fixed Mindset it is important to appear intelligent at all times, and to make learning look effortless. Effort, challenges and struggles are seen as negatives by someone with a Fixed Mindset because they show apparent weakness. However, these “negatives” are precisely what contribute to a Growth Mindsetlearner’s achievements. “They say, the harder you work at it, the better you’ll be at it. They think that even geniuses [like Einstein] have to work hard” (Dweck, C., SLF09, 2009)
Pupils can choose whether to be a learner or a non-learner (Dweck, C., SLF09, 2009), but the teacher can affect this process, in effect teaching a mindset to a pupil. That is, a teacher can reinforce negative attitudes by praising results or can help a child to become an independent learner where the pupil learns to see difficulties as problems to be solved rather than the limit of their abilities.
To do this, Dweck calls for a change in traditional forms of praise as a means of motivation. Rather than praising an individual’s high scores in a test, the teacher should praise the level of effort shown in the test. In presenting feedback this way, Dweck suggests firstly, that the teacher can convey the idea of valuing effort over talent. By valuing effort, the teacher prompts pupils to try harder instead of coasting along on natural talent alone, and this in turn provides the pupil with the resilience, tools and ‘mindset’ to meet much more difficult challenges in the future. This refocus of praise will avoid further entrenching “Fixed Mindsets” in the pupils who have achieved well and have a lot to lose if they now “do something that might show that [they] weren’t clever after all” (Craig, C., LTScotland, 2009).
Dr. Carol Craig, of the Centre for Confidence and Well-being in Glasgow promotes similar ideas on self-confidence, motivation and the ability of a learner to learn. Dweck’s principles can help to increase class motivation. In many Scottish secondary schools, motivation is more likely to affect attainment and class learning than bad behaviour, and while praising or punishing behaviour can be a very motivating system in a school, praising effort is a much more potent tool.
In a class of 14 year olds, many will have learned to follow whole school behaviour policies and will not actively disrupt a class, but few will have learned how to learn. Ask a class how they feel they coped in a recent test, and it will soon become clear which of the pupils have developed fixed mindsets. A teacher wishing to increase the level of involvement a pupil has in his or her education must first rid the classroom of apathy. Using Dweck’s effort-praising model is one way in which this can be done. In one secondary school, teachers following a Positive Assertive Behaviour Management scheme have adapted some of its elements to raise student effort levels by building pupil confidence. The effect of this strategy has been the empowering of the students so that they feel able to make mistakes and to learn from them. But praising effort alone is not enough, it must be followed up by the teacher imparting the class with learning techniques and study strategies that will enable the learner to become a life-long, independent learner. This may be a high risk strategy though, as some children may resent not being praised on an occasion when the work simply wasn’t challenging enough to stretch them. Lastly, the change in emphasis from result to effort in a single class is not one which most pupils (nor parents, nor employers) hold much store in. At the end of the day, real success will be viewed in how well they have achieved, unless this shift of focus also takes places throughout our whole community.
Assessment is FOR Learning
While Dweck’s effort praising will contribute to a child wanting to do better, it does not help the teacher to help their pupil. Any teacher needs to know that what they are teaching is being understood in class, and also if any pupil is struggling to get to grips with the content of the lessons. To further include pupils and teachers in the learning process, the Scottish Government introduced the Assessment is for Learning (AifL) strategy (see Appendix 3). This sought to ensure that “evidence of learning is gathered and used in appropriate ways” (LTScotland website).
“Assessment for learning shifts the emphasis from summative to formative assessment - from making judgments, to engaging in ongoing activities that can be used to support the next stages of learning” (LTS Video: Assessment for Learning, 2007)
The Assessment FOR Learning process revolves around setting out learning intentions, goal defining and giving timely feedback. This process should allow both teacher and pupil to better understand the learning which is occurring in the classroom and to refine or revise any areas where learning has been less successful. It is just as important for teachers as it is for learner, because if a teacher discovers that many members of the class struggled to grasp the purpose of a class, then it may be that the teaching is at fault. As a teacher you are “using information to adapt your teaching, or the learning” (William, D., November 2007a).
Learning & Teaching Scotland’s Curriculum and Assessment Programme highlights that research clearly indicates that children learn best when they understand what they are trying to learn and what is expected of them, are given feedback on the quality of their work and advice on how to improve it. Children should also be involved in deciding what needs to be done next, and know who can help them if they need it(LTS, Curriculum and Assessment Programme, AifL section).
Black and Wiliam define Assessment For Learning as 'all those activities undertaken by teachers, and by their students in assessing themselves, which provide information to be used as feedback to modify the teaching and learning activities in which they are engaged' (Black, P. &William, D., 1998, p.2).
To enable children to understand clearly what they are to learn and what is expected of them, teachers should clearly outline the learning objectives at the start of every class. These can be in the form of statements or questions, but should be clear and appropriate to the level of the class (see Appendices 4 & 5).
If assessment is to be a meaningful dialogue between teacher and pupils then, Black and William assert, “opportunities for pupils to express their understanding should be designed into any piece of teaching, for this will initiate the interaction whereby formative assessment aids learning” (Black, P., & William, D, 1998, p.11).
Through open dialogue, effective questioning and self- or peer-assessment strategies, the teacher can build up a good picture of how their pupils are learning.
In addition to setting learning objectives it is imperative that the teacher also clearly states what knowledge or skills he/she expects the pupils to have learned by the end of the lesson (see Appendix 5). These success criteria will help the child know whether the lesson has been a success with regards their own learning, and if they feel that they can’t match those criteria, they can discuss with their teacher what they might do to gain that knowledge or skill, or clarify anything they are unsure of. This is all the more effective when pupils can collaborate with the teacher to set out “success criteria” for an activity. By taking responsibility for developing the success criteria, pupils become more aware of what it expected from them and will better understand the activity.
This quality feedback is essential for effective learning and teaching because it helps the planning of pupils’ ‘next steps’ in learning (LTScotland website, 2009). Feedback is an integral part of the formative assessment process and should be both given and received by pupil and teachers alike. Without feedback neither would know how to improve their own work. Feedback can happen in any number of ways, and it is important that a teacher builds this skill within the classroom so that pupils understand how to engage with the process. Similarly, teachers should introduce feedback as a means of gauging learning, and not necessarily, as a means of judging pupil’s abilities or aptitudes.
A common strategy for self- and peer-assessment is traffic-lighting, where a pupil/or a peer will mark the piece of work as red (not understanding), amber (getting there, but still needs some support/more though) and green (fully understanding the subject matter). By doing this, the pupil will become more aware of what they or their peer perceive to be deficiencies in their knowledge. The pupil can then take it upon his/herself to work a little harder to build up their knowledge until they are comfortable with the subject matter. An alternative to using colours to indicate how pupils feel about their learning is to use thumb signals (both thumbs pointing up for “good”, horizontal for “ok” and down for “struggling”).
Dylan William remarked that during research into formative assessment they saw “students being very, very effective commentators on each other’s work and giving very, very sound advice” and he emphasised that the feedback that children give each other can be “a lot harder than the teachers would give; children [would be] much tougher on each other than the teacher would dare to be due to the power-relationships in the classroom” (William, D., 2007 b).
A teacher should heed caution when introducing these systems to pupils however, as it has been noted that due to the subjective nature of this assessment, there can be a discrepancy (especially when used in self assessment) between perceived capability and the child’s actual level of understanding. Most notably, boys tend to over-estimate themselves, while girls are more likely to underestimate their own understanding of a subject. Furthermore, in a recent class where the “thumbs up, side or down” strategy was introduced, a minority of pupils took the opportunity to ‘play the fool’. This novelty soon wore off, and with the teacher reinforcing the idea that the activity was taking place to help the individuals to learn, and that if this strategy was used responsibly they could help shape future lessons, this became a very useful tool which is used regularly with the class to great effect.
“Two stars and a wish” and “Pink for Think, Green for Go” are common marking strategies which are utilised in Scottish secondary schools. By not simply marking work with a quantitative grade, pupils are less likely to disengage from the marking process. By using colours to indicate strengths and weaknesses, and using effective comments, questions or suggestions the pupils gain knowledge about the quality of their work and how they might improve it. These comments can also further prompt a pupil to discuss their work with the teacher, reinforcing the teacher’s knowledge of the child’s learning, and empowering the child to take responsibility for his/her own learning.
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