Author Archives: Andy McLaughlin

Leading Intentionally, Teaching Deliberately⤴

from @ andrewjmclaughlin

Originally posted on Education Scotland's PLL blog

On finishing reading Matt Haig’s “The Midnight Library” as part of a staff book club, I re-read Walden. It features heavily in Haig’s bestseller and I was keen to remind myself of why I had adored it as a student, and why so many people continue to list it in their Top 10 books.

It didn’t take long to remember why it was so universally appealing. Despite being 170 years old, the messages are as pertinent today as they were when Thoreau sat by the lake in his cabin writing it.

I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.

~ Henry David Thoreau, Walden (1854)

I have written previously on this blog about the never-ending plate spinning that we, as educators and school leaders, must undertake. Thoreau, then, describes precisely what we all dream of: the stripping back of our day-to-day struggles and to front only the essential tasks of teaching.

Teaching: the very business with which we all fell in love, before the great Sisyphean boulder of administration and bureaucracy threatened to crush us under its momentum.

As leaders, how do we support our staff to teach deliberately and help them feel valued as professionals? How do we help them take a step to the side and allow the great boulder to hurtle past, without crushing others with additional workload or assumed responsibility? Perhaps, it is by taking a step backwards ourselves. Identify the key objectives, but don’t overdo the management of the process.

In his book, Turn This Ship Around, L. David Marquet quickly gets to the core of this,

 "The problem with specifying the method along with the goal is one of diminished control. Provide your people with the objective and let them figure out the method."

At a recent lecture at the University of Oslo, Dr. Pamela Grossman (Dean of the Graduate School of Education at the University of Pennsylvania) discussed the importance of “a common language for teaching”. In her lecture, she explained that in order to measure something, we must first be able to name it. We must identify the components of practice that we might want to target for improvement, to look at intentionally and over time to better understand what we are doing.

Both Marquet and Grossman point to an informed, engaged and emancipated workforce. A staff which is encouraged to use their brains to think their own way to improved outcomes, ready to enquire and test, to throw in novel ideas, to challenge the status quo. Marquet never relinquished control of his submarine, but he did reverse the flow of information from top down to bottom up. In doing so, he freed up his crew to make decisions based on the evidence in front of them, he asked them to tell him what they intended to do. He then, with the safety of the ship and crew at the fore, could oversee and focus his energies where they were most needed. In a school using the power of the Hive to develop and improve, where every mind is focussed on the end result, how might you better use your energies?

As leaders, it is assumed that we will make the strategic decisions necessary to safely steer our schools on their course to success. Unfortunately, this can sometimes mean we allow school policy and improvement agendas to interfere with the intentions of our professional staff. The issue with that is it diminishes opportunities to listen to the ideas of our staff. Every school enjoys a staff team comprising a wealth of skills, life experiences and ideas, how many fully liberate those minds to make decisions, to think, and to steer? Again, Marquet is direct with his analysis, “If you want people to think, give them intent, not instruction.”

Are you ready to give your staff intent rather than instruction? Are you doing all you can to let your staff to teach deliberately?

Inaugural National Schools’ Minecraft Finals⤴

from @ andrewjmclaughlin

It was an absolute joy to bring the first Minecraft: Education Edition Scottish Championship to Abertay University's School of Informatics and Design this week. I will be forever grateful to Prof. Gregor White for throwing open the doors and welcoming the young people into the heart of the school - and for handing out the prizes at the end of the day too - making for a very memorable experience for all our young people.

On the day, teams from three local authorities were present for both Primary and Secondary finals. The brief was to design a sustainable school of the future and resulted in some fantastic submissions. The judging process was particularly challenging as we found ourselves splitting hairs to finally declare the winners.

What has been quite disappointing is the slow uptake around the country for Minecraft Education Edition. Education Scotland cannot provide this as a national app and the ongoing mismatch of DPIA/GDPR risk appetites/educational benefits within our schools sees many councils opting not to deploy the platform.

This is to the detriment of learning opportunities.
  1. Minecraft is beloved by kids across the nation
  2. Minecraft is a beautiful tool for authentic IDL approaches

For an exploration of the benefits Minecraft offers our learners, who better to ask than Chris van der Kuyl, the Dundee games mogul who brought Minecraft to the console? Here he is back in September last year proclaiming, 

“Not only do I think a creative game like Minecraft has a space in school, I think it is going to become the centre of the learning experience for many kids of today, including children who haven’t even gone to school yet.”

Worthy of mention too is the work done by Derek Robertson nearly a decade ago around the use of Minecraft in the Scottish classroom and it was great to be able to have Derek join us for part of the day to see the activity.

Lastly, a huge thanks to colleagues from Dundee, Aberdeenshire and Edinburgh councils for pulling together to make this event happen. A hat-tip to Dean and Aspire2Be - the Welsh outfit put in a pile of work to ensure the event took place, with Dean helping run regional competitions as well as the big final. And also, my thanks to Louise Foreman at Education Scotland for joining us for the day, and helping ensure the judging was impartial.

Capture, Cleanse and Weave⤴

from @ andrewjmclaughlin

Originally posted on Education Scotland's PLL blog

With Tartan Day celebrated on 6th April, the news was awash with stories of Brand Scotland being celebrated and promoted internationally. With Social Media timelines jammed with digital shortbread tins and heartfelt pleas to those in charge of American business budgets, it was all feeling a bit like Brigadoon had set up home in the Metaverse.

One story caught my eye though, that of Moray-based tartan textile specialists Great Scot. The firm have created a new 'Ukraine Forever' tartan using the colours of the Scottish and Ukrainian flags as a gesture of support the war-torn Ukraine. Apparently, it was a real team effort leading up to the production of this tartan. The idea came from their online community and everyone in the company was involved in the creation, from seamstresses to the delivery team.

It is amazing the opportunities that can arise when people work together.

On a frosty November morning, back in 2020, I joined the “International Blether” with Dr. Simon Breakspear of the Gonski Institute in Australia. Simon was invited by Education Scotland to share his thinking about leading through the complexity of that first year of Covid, and how to make the most of the opportunities that came with that uncertainty. Like the new tartan, Simon emphasised the need to spot those new opportunities. He challenged those listening to capture, cleanse and weave those opportunities into our established practice.


The pandemic was both furnace and tsunami. It applied heat and pressure to established practices, stress testing them for weaknesses. And didn’t we all see systems that just could not stand up to that new pressure. Covid also acted like a giant wave – disrupting the ways we worked as it crashed down on us, but also revealing new complexities and insight as the initial impact ebbed again. We were all thrown around by the impact, but we flexed and made small changes to how we worked. I’ve spent the last year encouraging staff not to let all that learning be forgotten.

The use of Teams to share work across Faculties leads to much more effective moderation and is a blessing for any Faculty leader trying to pull cover together during absences.Recording quick expositions, as was common due to the need for anytime, anywhere learning, now saves classroom teachers from having to repeat themselves, freeing up time for more targeted support instead.Using voice notes for feedback avoids the need for teachers to write screeds on student work, and also allows the student to re-listen as they redraft, making the effort far more worthwhile.

While it has been tempting to return to ‘normal’ due to the stresses of the last two years, some changes are definitely worth hanging on to.


As schools now return to something much more akin to our old ‘normal’, have you and your team snapped back to the old, established ways of working or did you take time to make deliberate decisions about how you wanted to move forward, learning from the innovations of those turbulent Covid times? Whether it is lengthy paper trails or poor communication, think about all those frustrations that have impacted on your team’s ability to deliver. This is your chance to unpick from the complex systems any aspects that are no longer fit for purpose. I’ve been lucky to visit many schools over the last 9 months and it has struck me that in some, those new modes are still battling with old practices. In some schools, online parents’ nights (although challenging at times) were incredibly successful, allowing for additional dates to be added, tighter control of time slots, and greater flexibility for parents – in those schools, these might be preferred to the old in-school setup.


The hardest part of all of this perhaps, is seamlessly bringing the new practice in alongside old systems to create a whole new way of working. Having unpicked that which no longer works for you, this is a chance to create systems that allow you to build on the successes of the past whilst enabling greater improvement, weaving innovations into the fabric of your team.

Right now, I’m working on how we make better use of data in our schools. I certainly don’t want to ask teachers to create more data (goodness knows we have an abundance of high quality data in our schools already), but I have to ask if we are using all that data effectively. I hope that small changes and simple innovations can help us share that data around the school more easily, using digital tools to synthesise and analyse different sources and generate reports to help build clearer pictures of our learners, our classes, and our schools. In essence, weaving the data that has always been generated with a new process to tell an enriched story.

Like a new tartan, your weave of old and new will in itself tell a story of your team. The old ways, customs and traditions rooting you in your locale, while the new ways celebrating your ability to, not only survive, but thrive under the pressure, heat and crashing power of the Covid crisis.

A Squash and A Squeeze⤴

from @ andrewjmclaughlin

Originally posted on Education Scotland's PLL blog

For those of you who don’t have young children influencing your professional reading, then the term “A Squash and a Squeeze” will cause little pause for thought. For EY colleagues and parents, Julia Donaldson and Axel Scheffler’s first collaborative effort is an exquisite distillation of the importance of perspective.

''Wise old man, won't you help me, please? My house is a squash and squeeze.'' What can you do if your house is too small? The wise old man knows: bring in a flappy, scratchy, noisy crowd of farmyard animals. When you push them all out again, you'll be amazed at how big your house feels! – so reads the synopsis.

The idea of perspective is key in leadership. I know that there are some days when I look at my diary and see countless school visits and meetings, and wonder when I’ll have time to “get work done”. Luckily, that feeling is short-lived, because I have learned to remind myself – conversations with colleagues are the most important part of my job.

Perspective is at the heart of Education Scotland’s Leading a Specific Change Project PLA, where participants are asked to engage with Fink’s Change Frames to support reflection and professional dialogue with colleagues to help establish why the change is needed and what it will entail for all involved. Fink asks us to interrogate the ‘change’ from Purpose, Passion, Political, Structural, Cultural, Learning and Leadership viewpoints before establishing an action plan for the change project.

The role of the Empowered Learning project team, of which I am one small part, currently rolling out 40,000 devices across the City of Edinburgh, is very much to lead change. For some of our schools, the arrival of these new devices is an update to their current setup rather than an entirely new way to work, for others it marks the first step on a transformative journey. For everyone though, it represents change. And we all know how scary change can be. During our early deployments, I have been acutely aware that we have been asking some colleagues to take a leap of faith, whilst others are asked to undertake significant administrative and logistical tasks to get these devices into the hands of our young people. And we have been doing this in a year that has already been squashed and squeezed by an array of pressures affecting school communities, from Covid absences and exam changes to national recruitment droughts and hikes in the cost of living.

It has been vital then to ensure that our key contacts, our staff and our school communities understand the benefits of this project so that they can weather the short-term pain as we get it off the ground. Following the oft quoted suggestion of Simon Sinek, we have sought to “Start with Why”. We have collaborated with partners and brought together various networks of colleagues to discuss the aims of the project, and we have communicated home our ambition. That ambition, that the tools and training being made available to staff, students and parents/carers will create space for greater workflow efficiency, greater equity of opportunity, more effective interventions and support, and more creativity and enjoyment in the learning process for all.

In short, to take a little bit of the squash and the squeeze out of education.

3 Leadership Lessons from the Arctic⤴

from @ andrewjmclaughlin

Originally posted on Education Scotland PLL blog.

It might not be everyone’s idea of relaxing, but my February breaks pre-Covid were spent leading charity treks in Arctic Finland. 3 days of walking on frozen rivers and lakes, winding through forests, and sleeping under the stars (and frequently, the Aurora Borealis). At the start of the week, a bunch of strangers would climb aboard a flight to Rovaniemi, excited and nervous in equal measure, with great hopes for both the journey and the funds being raised for their chosen cause. At the end of the week, the beginnings of a team would emerge, new friendships being formed as they battled through blizzards and temperatures as low as -35°C.

Whilst these treks have always been great fun, they have acted as a microcosm in which to hone my leadership style.

In the week leading up to the treks, we had a small advanced team in Finland mapping a trail, navigating obstacles, observing potential hazards, preparing the way for these novice adventurers so that their experience was challenging but enjoyable. Often, due to the weather, all we could offer was Type 2 fun and challenge far outweighed the enjoyment at the time. Early in my career, this was how I viewed leadership – leading from the front, tackling challenges head-on, hopefully making it easy for others to follow me.

The day before the treks, we would complete two very important tasks. The first, a kit-check, to make sure all the trekkers had the right equipment and had listened to our advice on kit ‘admin’ (sorting dry bags into ‘spare clothes’, ‘extra rations’, ‘sleeping kit’ etc). This gave us a chance to have a quick 1-on-1 chat with every member of the party and soothe any anxieties. The 2nd task was an introduction to snowshoeing. Often, the ice was hard packed and snow shoes were not needed, but in fresh snow, the use of snow shoes was essential – saving effort, time and energy and ultimately making completion of the trek far more likely. But snow shoes take some getting used to, so a chance for the trekkers to don a pair and acclimatise was essential. When we seek to build Teacher skills in schools, giving your team a chance to air their concerns and questions ,and a chance to try things before adopting new systems, is key if we want staff to come onboard.

The format of the treks was straightforward. Wake early, eat breakfast, strap into our pulk harnesses and then walk pulling our sled full of kit until the sun had disappeared. Stop for camp, sit around the fire having a good chat, then sleep. Every day the trek would be led by two staff, one at the front and one at the back. The ultimate leader: the one at the back. They set the pace, watched each trekker for signs of injury, fatigue or disengagement, offered encouragement (and sometimes took some of the weight from the struggling trekker’s sled). The one at the front was simply there to show the way (and stop eager beavers from ‘running ahead’ too far and getting into potential issues). 

As a team leader in school: 
  • Are you too busy leading the way to sit back and observe? 
  • Who are you giving the chance to take the lead and show the way?

Takeaways from the frozen north:

  1. Leadership is not always about bashing ahead with ideas. Sometimes you need to let your team members go first, then observe, coach and support them to success.
  2. Don't scrimp on the kit check and practice walks. Talking to your team will help you establish competencies and support needs. And remember that, despite general feelings, classroom observations should not be tests to see how brilliant a teacher is (they already passed a ‘crit’ at university).
  3. Take the stress out of the situation, use these opportunities to kick-start coaching conversations about the support your team members need after a hard slog, nothing beats sitting down together for a social chat (campfire ideal but optional). Building those bonds and sharing those stories of success and failure mean when the weather closes in, your team will pull each other through, and they’ll help you too.

From the archive (2) – Originally submitted as part of PGDE course.⤴

from @ andrewjmclaughlin

 I uncovered these #Archive pieces whilst sorting files. I'm posting them as a prompt to further examine how my initial thoughts have changed in 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 2.

Curriculum for Excellence

The problem with Education

Understanding that the child is now the centre of learning is the underlying principle of both ‘Assessment is for Learning’ and Carol Dweck’s research on intelligence and motivation.  The National Debate into the future of Scotland’s education enlisted the help of approximately 20,000 people and asked them 'what, where, and how should children learn?’ (McBryde, M., National Archives Scotarch email, 22/04/2002).  One of the key outcomes of this debate was the call for a review of school curriculum.

In Lord Puttnam’s recent film, educator Sir Ken Robinson explains “public systems of education paid for from taxation were invented to meet the needs of the industrial economy, when we needed a workforce who could do certain sorts of things”.  Governor Bob Wise further explains that “the High Schools of today were designed in the nineteenth century and they reached their zenith in the 1950s” (We Are The People, 2009)

Things have changed quite considerably since the nineteenth century; the workplace, the economy and the culture we live in today is almost unrecognisable when compared even with the 1950s.  But while the world has gone through this change, Annika Small of Futurelab recognises that “the form, the content, the method of learning within schools is desperately out of synch with the way that young people learn elsewhere and with what they value” (We Are The People, 2009).  The relevance of formal education is dissipating, she continues. Thus it is quite clear that school systems, and curricula need to change with the times if they are to provide young people with the skills, flexibility and ‘know-how’ they need in an ever-changing world.

Furthermore, this gulf between school values and what young people need today has led to the system failing many young people.  David Torn, Teacher of the Year 2007 quotes his daughter’s teacher by observing that “we value what we measure” but we do not necessarily “measure what we value” (We Are The People, 2009).  Andy Powell, Chief Executive of Edge, takes this a little further by explaining that “it’s demoralising for young people to spend years in an education system which does not value their abilities” (Powell, A., 16/11/2009 interview).  In addition to making education relevant, a reform must take into account the values of young people and of society at large if it is to bridge this divide.

A very Scottish solution

The Curriculum for Excellence (CfE) is the Scottish Governments response to these crises.  The CfE is designed to provide a 21st Century curriculum which can handle the ever-changing needs of 21st Century learning, while promoting the values of Scottish society at large.  CfE should provide flexibility in the learning environment so that the system can evolve to meet the needs of all pupils.  The underlying principles of the CfE are ‘Challenge and Enjoyment’, ‘Breadth’, ‘Progression’, ‘Depth’, ‘Personalisation and Choice’, ‘Coherence’ and ‘Relevance’.

By analysing a selection of these principles, it should be possible to gain a greater understanding of changes the CfE hopes to initiate.

According to CfE guidelines, “young people should find their learning challenging, engaging and motivating. The curriculum should encourage high aspirations and ambitions for all. At all stages, learners of all aptitudes and abilities should experience an appropriate level of challenge, to enable each individual to achieve his or her potential. They should be active in their learning and have opportunities to develop and demonstrate their creativity. There should be support to enable young people to sustain their effort” (Scottish Government, 20/03/2006).

In the classroom setting this means leaving behind the ‘chalk and talk’ approach in favour of more active strategies.  This might be done through group-work and a variety of media which allow the students to learn principles and concepts through the exploration of their own ideas.  An S3 Modern Studies class being introduced to the principles of democracy engaged in an exercise based around a post-apocalyptic scenario in which they need to rebuild the mechanics of representation, government, law and order.  In groups, the pupils compiled their ideas before investigating systems which exist or have existed to map out possible outcomes.  This was done in one S3 Modern Studies class of just 12 pupils - the results fell into 3 very diverse political set-ups: Nazi Germany, Post-Revolution Tsarist Russia, and X-Factor democracy.  Because this exercise was not prescriptive the pupils were allowed to think freely on the topic.  As the class developed new issues were brought to light, which meant they had to further develop their ideas and adapt to changing circumstances and priorities.  The teacher merely led a plenary, which probed the students on the dangers inherent in some of these systems, partnered by a 5-slide presentation of images (see Appendix 6) for the students to contemplate and discuss.

The CfE guidelines also specify that “The curriculum should respond to individual needs and support particular aptitudes and talents. It should give each young person increasing opportunities for exercising responsible personal choice as they move through their school career. Once they have achieved suitable levels of attainment across a wide range of areas of learning the choice should become as open as possible. There should be safeguards to ensure that choices are soundly based and lead to successful outcomes” (Scottish Government, 20/03/2006).

In Angus, a school with lower-than-average attainment levels has recently made changes to its syllabus to provide alternatives to academic subjects.  This school runs the Young Sports Leaders Award as an elective course within the curriculum.  The award course enables students with a talent or aptitude in sports or leadership to excel in an environment which enables them to shine.  If it was not for this alternative route, it is quite possible that the senior students involved would have been lost in the system and would have disengaged from school at a much earlier stage.  This particular elective also provides the pupils with a sense of achievement, life skills and a qualification which is nationally recognised by Further and Higher Education institutions and employers, providing these young people with real prospects for their future (see Appendix 7).

 We have looked at a small selection of the benefits of this new curriculum, but it is clear that it goes some way to putting the child firmly at the centre of education.  CfE makes learning relevant to the pupil and to the world around them, and prepares them for a world which is changing far faster than it ever has in the past.

Through the adoption of the Curriculum for Excellence, Scotland can now put a stop to what UNICEF’s Dr Cream Wright describes as schools steeping themselves in static knowledge, failing to capture the here and now, failing to prepare young people for contemporary society and for the emerging issues of our time (We Are The People, 2009).


Literacy and Numeracy across the Curriculum

Almost a quarter of Scottish adults and one in five of all Scots have “low literacy skills” according to the Literacy Commission’s report released on 4th December 2009.  Simply put, literacy deprivation is a major issue facing Scottish society in the 21st Century.  Literacy is clearly a core skill, needed in all walks of life.  Indeed, within Curriculum for Excellence, literacy is defined as “the set of skills which allows an individual to engage fully in society and in learning, through the different forms of language, and the range of texts, which society values and finds useful” (Learning & Teaching Scotland, CfE: Literacy across learning, 2009)

Numeracy skills levels in Scotland are similarly weighted, with approximately 23% of Scottish adults lacking even basic numeracy skills (Scottish Executive, Adult Literacy and Numeracy in Scotland, 2001).  To tackle numeracy levels, ‘Building the Curriculum 1’ asserted thatAll teachers have responsibility for promoting the development of numeracy. With an increased emphasis upon numeracy for all young people, teachers will need to plan to revisit and consolidate numeracy skills throughout schooling” (Scottish Government, CfE: Building the Curriculum 1, 2006)

With that assertion, Curriculum for Excellence made a stand against ‘literacy and numeracy’ poverty, making it clear in this new policy that all educators are teachers of literacy and numeracy.

For a subject teacher of History and Modern Studies, this may seem an odd demand.  However, when that teacher looks at the contents of his/her lessons, he/she will quickly realise that there is a great wealth of material already being used which will enhance and develop the teaching of literacy and numeracy skills to young people.


And numeracy is everywhere in History.  A teacher can represent the patterns of migration in visual form to younger pupils, and in tables of figures for more advanced/senior pupils.  The use of timelines and teaching children to understand the chronology of history will in effect give them a sense of how numbers work.  These skills can be developed as the child progresses through secondary school, and with each subject they can understand a little more about using and understanding numbers, whether that is in the abstract form of algebra in Maths, measuring quantities of flour in Home Economics, or in the use of currency in a topic on Weimar Germany’s hyperinflation.  Combined, these efforts will allow a pupil to develop the kinds of skills outlined by CfE as “numeracy”

Being numerate, according to CfE, means an individual has developed “the confidence and competence in using number which will allow [the individual] to solve problems, analyse information and make informed decisions based on calculations” (Learning & Teaching Scotland, CfE: Numeracy across learning, 2006).  It is clear that every area of the curriculum is also well placed to add to a child’s understanding of numbers.


Similarly, the literacy skills sought after can be introduced across the whole school with a mere change of focus.  As we have seen earlier, the introduction of AifL and CfE in Scottish schools strives to make learning pupil orientated.  By helping a child to understand what they are learning, they will more readily learn, and so it is with literacy.  If a Modern Studies teacher flags up in class that “today we will be working on our literacy skills”, the pupils will already be primed to develop that set of skills.  So when the class is asked to discuss an issue regarding rights and responsibilities, they will be simultaneously learning the subject matter and developing the associated skills.

CfE has deliberately used the key phrase “texts” rather than “printed media” or “books and journals” when setting out literacy goals.  This is because CfE recognises that the preferred medium of the day changes.  Fifty years ago no-one would believe that we would be carrying around 300 newspapers in our pockets, but modern mobile phones allow us to access any number of articles from anywhere in the world at the touch of a button.  Furthermore, the world continues to change, and the ways in which pupils gather information and read about subject matter is changing with it.  Indeed, Dr Michael Wesch of Kansas State University compiled a study of students and found that while on average they would read just 8 books in a semester, they would read 2,300 web pages and 1,281 Facebook® profiles over the same time span (Wesch, M., A Vision of Students Today, 2007). This clearly outlines how society and literacy is changing, and how CfE has been positioned to change with the times and adapt to new media which society comes to valueand find useful.

So with such a wealth of information easily available via the internet, handheld communication devices spread across the nation, and no end of strategies to involve students in discussions, debates, performances or recitals, literacy is something that we can all teach - parents, teachers, peers.

By focusing on these fundamental issues of numeracy and literacy, CfE and the Scottish Government are making giant leaps towards social inclusion by breaking down barriers and providing the kinds of skills that young people will find relevant and useful in the world which they will inherit.  By putting the child at the centre of all learning activities, we not only ensure their chance to learn, but also to become well rounded members of our society.  These strategies and policies should enable each child or young person to be a successful learner, a confident individual, a responsible citizen and an effective contributor (Learning & Teaching Scotland, CfE: The four capacities, 2006).

Continue reading

From the Archive – Originally submitted as part of PGDE course.⤴

from @ andrewjmclaughlin

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.

Learning Theories

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.


Developmental Epistemology

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 Mindsets

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 thateven 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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