Learning in the beginning
When was the last time you attempted to really learn something, something really new and challenging? As adults in our sphere of home and or work we are often cocooned in processes that might require us to evolve something, but rarely to learn something completely new. As an adult when was the last time you really faced that precipice and tackled something you weren’t naturally inclined to? That leap of faith over the cliff into something new and unknown is rare if not non-existent in a substantial number of our lives, so we forget how daunting it is. In a good school students are facing this experience regularly as they are pushed and challenged to progress. Their ability to manage the unknown and to tackle the new is paramount in enabling them to succeed now and in the future.
This is one of the reasons why we like our staff to continue learning; not only does it create a dialogue about the process, but we then all experience these feelings and remember how unnerving learning is, and how resilient you have to be to tackle the unknown.
At my school, as already stated a significant majority of students had already experienced failure. They had taken the leap and crashed down the cliff into the abyss. Often this abyss was then ignored, as the next terrain of learning needed to be conquered. No crampons, or alternative climbing gear were ever fitted to them, so they couldn’t climb out of the hole and back up the mountain of knowledge. Their learning was left in the ravine. Many of these students had huge gaps in their learning.
For those who were able to cross and climb the mountain of key stage 2 assessment, they did it with significant aid. This hadn’t come in the form of a guide helping them to solve the problems and find their own way to the solution. It had come in the form of rote learning, somebody leading the way, which allowed them to cross the path of knowledge but gave them little opportunity to turn back and find their way again when they needed it. They had not learned to avoid the misconceptions or grasp a deep understanding, but they could cross the mountain test on one day in the year. This however did not translate to long term memory and sustainable knowledge.
After 7 years many learners were wary and reluctant to tackle change. Their next step on the mountain of knowledge felt precarious, and the foundations behind them were uneven. This scenario does not breed the type of learner necessary for success. Learners need to have a deep -set knowledge base and the ability to persevere with resilience when learning gets tough. Constantly moving students on, when they really haven’t secured learning can create individuals who are limited in their ability to dig hard when they are finding a problem, making new learning difficult. Many never really achieved success in learning by themselves.
For a teenage student that is struggling, it can make sense emotionally to give up and attempt to fail spectacularly, rather than to place exceptional effort into something difficult. To be seen to be placing this effort, and then to crash land down the ravine of failure is a complete embarrassment to them, and something to be avoided at all costs. So why should they try when it hasn’t worked in the past?
Their literacy issues compounded the problem as their inability to talk and explain ideas and/or share their thought processes in tackling a problem restricted them further. Their inability to read fluently left them working hard to translate text. With little time or skill left to tackle the meaning of that text. Again, added pressure for a teenager. Can they admit to not understanding something they are reading in a class? No, not in an environment like the one I am describing.
Actually, to learn you have to be prepared to fail spectacularly and to change. Even the brightest child will at some point face the failure of not achieving secure learning from their first attempt. Without the confidence and resilience to pull yourself back up and carry on, learning stops. *
Failure at the school was the daily experience for many, but hidden and shameful. Camouflaged by poor behaviour, significant absenteeism, and/or the ability of a child to disappear into the corner of a classroom unseen and unheard. For the majority, they saw success as being unattainable and aloof. Success was felt to be a thing others attained through their genes, not something that was gained through hard work and perseverance.
At this time all high attaining pupils were sectioned away in separate classrooms and sets (a strategy to try to attract higher ability students) – they were the elite. Even for the highest achievers this success again seemed to be more to do with luck in genetics than strategies and skill sets. When attempting to really challenge this group of individuals the same fear and resentment appeared in the classroom. Real push had been rare for them and they were used to succeeding without the need for resilience and perseverance. Their initial stages of learning had come easily to them. Their learning style was often copious note taking, which they then regurgitated.
To sum up: learning at the school was a mystery, something that some students got lucky with but the majority failed at.
* One of the biggest mistakes that I and other teachers have made is where we plough on with the content we need to cover rather than ensuring that students are secure in their learning. Better to learn two thirds of a curriculum thoroughly and securely than the whole poorly. With the hike in expectations in the national curriculum and the pressure on teachers to tick the box in primary to confirm students have passed set markers, we are likely to see more ravines emerging in student learning and more students who have shaky foundations to their learning. Is speed of learning really the solution to improving education?
* This is often seen in highly capable female students who come crashing down in year 13 (18) or the 2nd year of University when faced with significant challenge for the first time.