What Really IS Our Learning Future?


I spent a thought-provoking, and at times moving, day at Noadswood School, near Southampton this morning. Noadswood is one of our Learning Futures schools, and I came away reflecting on the impact of our project, set against the backdrop of another tumultuous week in UK education policy. We seem to be so much against the grain of current government thinking, but right on the button when it comes to global discussions about  future needs for schooling.

More than anything, I came away wishing our Secretary of State for Education could have been with me. I can say this because I was getting regular twitter feeds describing how he was spending his morning – which was introducing a Free Schools Conference. Now, I have no ideological objection to Free Schools. In fact, I think they could be a good thing. But, even if they are successful, they are still going to make up a small minority of schools. The rest, schools like Noadswood, are being battered by a raft of policy changes when they were told, last May, that what schools really needed was a period of stability.

Noadwood are developing a programme of ‘coaching for learning’, as applied to students, staff and parents. They are adamant that it should not be seen as a ‘quick fix’ to improve  exam results. Instead, it’s about understanding the power of motivation in learning, of students setting their own objectives, and how adults (including parents) can support kids to become genuine lifelong learners.

There’s nothing revolutionary going on here. This is simply about meta-cognition, children learning how to learn. But Minister Gove seems to think this is all fluff and navel-gazing. That’s why the emphasis in the new curriculum review will be about turning kids into ‘fact accumulators’.

In a separate announcement, Mr Gove this week said that teachers would, in future, be able to confiscate mobile phones and Flip cameras from students, since they could be misused in school: bullying, happy-slapping, Twittering, etc. But on that basis, he may as well ban pencils on the basis that you could poke someone’s eye out with them. Smartphones and Flips are essential tools in how young people communicate these days. Social media connects us to a repository of knowledge which is barely comprehensible in its scale. It’s therefore dumb to yearn for an age of Govian scholasticism, when the world our young people are moving into has changed so dramatically. As I’ve argued elsewhere, information is ubiquitous. Surely we should instead be concentrating our efforts on the skills which help us apply the knowledge that’s freely available; develop our learning power: synthesise and connect ideas: develop resilience when we get stuck; know what we need to know next?

I very much doubt that these questions were at the heart of Mr Gove’s speech today. But they were uppermost in the minds of the Noadswood parents that I listened to.

One of the real tragedies of the so-called ‘accountability framework’ is that we’ve robbed parents of a language which can connect the hopes and dreams they have for their kids to what needs to happen in the classroom, to the vital importance of learning relationships. Having been told for so long that the only way to determine a ‘good’ school is by its exam results, the language of grades is the only language parents are left with.

Whether testing equates to long-lasting learning is highly contentious – as queried by Alfie Kohn this week. But here’s what I heard this morning:

“My child doesn’t want to do her maths homework. She asked me ‘When am I going to need Algebra?’ What could I say? I’ve never used Algebra since the day I left school”

“My son asked me how long it would take to learn how to play the guitar well enough to play in my band. I said that if he practiced an hour a day, probably a year. He practiced two hours a day, and within 8 months he was on stage playing with me – that showed me the importance of motivation. To be motivated, he had to set his own goals, not the ones I (or school) set for him.”

“My daughter has become so used to taking exams that, when she went for an eye test, she didn’t tell me how her vision was, she said “I think I got most of them right”’

The saddest point in the morning was, when asked to say how many of them thought they were creative, about 4 hands (out of 40) went up. Most felt that they were creative when they were kids, but that school had somehow knocked it out of them as they progressed through the system.

But this session was also moving because, as the morning progressed, parents started talking about learning, and what makes powerful learning, without reference to results, or expectations.They left with the advice that ‘your role, as a learning coach, is to help your child reflect on what they’ve learned rather than what they’ve been taught‘. I swear I could see light bulbs switching on above their heads.

And these aren’t ‘pushy’ parents – they’re caring parents. They want their kids to be engaged, to love learning and to keep learning throughout their lives. I would love them to start a free school based on such instincts.

And this is where it all seems somewhat confused. The Minister has encouraged free schools, in order to stimulate the freedom to innovate, whilst also threatening a highly prescribed, and narrow, curriculum. He holds up Hong Kong as an exemplar model of education, but derides the focus upon ’21st century skills’ that Hong Kong is transforming its system around (according to this week’s TES).

The coaching lesson from the morning was clear: if you want to assist learners, you have to put away your own pre-conceptions of how you learned, stop putting your perception of how they should be as learners ahead of the kind of learners they want to be, and really listen to what they want from their learning.Then, and only then, can you really support their learning.

And then I got a tweet saying that Mr Gove was talking about education, purely in terms of something which is done to students, not with them.

So, what kind of learning future do we want?

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4 Responses to What Really IS Our Learning Future?

  1. Alex Bellars says:

    And how do we work towards that learning future in spite of all the guff that is handed down from above? Ignore it? After all, at the most, Gove will be with us for 4 1/2 years (although Lord Puttnam, who may or may not have some kind of “inside track” on this, feels he will not be there in 6 months…Great post!

  2. Mark Rollins says:

    I agree entirley with your comments and congratulate you on the way you’ve put this across in a measured way. I have one child who is on the cusp of being abandoned by the government policy of increased tution fees and scrapping of EMA and two younger children starting out on their education; my heart sinks on how this government is endangering all of their educations, by subjecting my younger children to ‘fact accumulators’ and notion straight from Victorian teaching practices and the abandonment of my eldest to a debt ridden future. I teach at an FE college and have notices a distinct decline in motivation of my AS students since the announcement of Fees increase and more so by the lost of EMA. Over 40% of my students receive EMA and not so they can spend it on frivolous past time but to be able to afford the £300 pounds a year they spend on bus fares so they can attend College, and maybe afford a potion of chips and beans for lunch. I have been in education for 16 years and have never been as concerned for its future, its time educators stood up and make their fears and concerns heard across the country and in the heart of Downing Street. We live in the 21st century and the skills our children need are not the ability to regurgitate facts and congugate verbs but to be creative, reflective and to be in a stimulating and motivating educational environment.Rant over……Mark Rollins a Father and Lecturer

  3. camaxwell says:

    An interesting read, raising a lot of issues. Fortunately most teachers DO ignore what is passed down from above. They understand that there’s a massive gulf between what is called ‘education policy’ and what actually needs to happen in the classroom. Teachers are in touch with their pupils, while the politicians and senior education managers are only in touch with other bureaucrats. They need to shut up and start practising their listening skills.

  4. Rob Robson says:

    A very inetersting post, David, as always. I have read some of the ‘think tank’ material that has influenced MG’s thinking. My main objection to this is that these reports cherry pick information that fits the ideology and so you read that Singapore does this and Canada does that that without reference to the whole system that operates in those countries. This is the same of Hirsch’s work which MG is so keen on. There are some sensible things suggested by Hirsch but they need to be in the context of everything he says. I agree with the government’s desire to free schools but I can’t see how that fits in with with central control over ‘facts wot everyone should know’.

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