The Nature of Learning

At the recent Learning Forward Conference in Vancouver, I had the opportunity to be part of a study group with Rod Allen. Rod was an assistant deputy minister at the Ministry of Education in British Columbia and is now the superintendent in Cowichan Valley, BC. He has led education transformation efforts in B.C., including working to revise curriculum to create a more flexible and personalized education system. B.C. is one of the highest performing educational jurisdictions in the world. Back in a superintendent role, Rod is now focused on implementation of the transformations in teaching and learning.

In preparation for the session with Rod I had been sent a report, The Nature of Learning: Using Research to Inspire Practice,   published by OECD. One of the items in the report identified seven principles to guide the design of learning environments. I thought the seven would provide a great focus for staff conversations, PLC reflection, and coaching exploration as you return to begin teaching and learning in 2017.

#1 Learners at the Center: How actively engaged is the learner and with an understanding of their own activity as a learner? The students should be developing as self-regulated learners who set specific personal goals and are capable of monitoring their progress.

This principle aligns with my thinking about identifying learning production behaviors: not just for teacher planning but to inform students as to “why” specific tasks are being suggested or assigned. The student is at this center or completing this assignment not “to do work” but because the activity can produce his desired learning outcome. This approach by the teacher should lead to fewer common assignments being given to the entire class.

#2 The Social Nature of Learning: Neuroscience confirms the role of social interaction in learning. Quality collaborative learning opportunities have shown benefits to achievement as well as behavioral and affective outcomes.

PLCs are a great spot to examine how to build social, collaborative elements into the design of learning opportunities. Peer and instructional coaching provide teacher feedback on “what is happening” during collaborative activities, thus identifying successful design structures and the need for changes to increase effectiveness.

#3 Emotions are Integral to Learning: Emotions, motivation and cognition are intertwined in learning. Positive beliefs about oneself as a learner are critical for deep learning. Attention to motivation makes learning more effective, especially students’ attention to their own motivation.

Consider having your leadership team do an “emotional audit” series of observations throughout your school. Where do you find student emotions positively impacting engagement in learning? Do you have emotional sterile zones? When coaching, ask teachers about their consideration of student emotions in management and instructional decisions.

#4 Recognizing Individual Differences: Students differ in prior knowledge, ability, learning style and strategies, interest, self-efficacy beliefs, social-economic and cultural backgrounds and more. Learning environments need a continual focus away from “one size fits all”.

In the session with Rod Allen, he mentioned that a major shift occurred when educators changed their language from focusing on outcomes for ALL students to EACH student. As school leaders, what questions are you asking that bring teachers’ attention to each individual student?

#5 Stretching All Students: All students should be challenged enough to reach above their existing level and capacity.  While avoiding learning being a grind with fear or extreme pressure, as well as avoiding coasting, each student should be stretched.

What questions are coaches and principals asking regarding the goals that teachers are focused on with individual students?  Do teachers share their goals in PLC’s where they are reflecting upon the challenges they are presenting to learners?  If students are to be continually stretched….so must the educators in their schools.

#6 Assessment For Learning: Formative assessment should be substantial, regular, and provide meaningful feedback. Self- regulated learners need clarity of expectations for what they are doing and “why”. Feedback is critical to maintaining motivation.

PLCs can provide an opportunity for teachers to share and coach each other on the feedback provided to students. Coaches might interview students about the feedback they get from teachers and the impact it has on their learning. Teachers can have student write reflections on feedback they have received to increase student and teacher understanding. Teachers as learners, need feedback too. What’s your role?

#7Building Horizontal Connections– Connections across areas of knowledge and subjects as well as beyond the school to community and the wider world increase understanding and encourage transfer of learning. This authentic learning promotes deeper understanding.

Is problem-based learning creating opportunities for teachers and learners to be examining horizontal connections? In what ways are you engaging teachers in collaboration with colleagues that builds horizontal connections? How are you blurring the lines between inside and outside the school learning?

An important point was presented concerning these seven principles: They are all important. In the absence of one, effectiveness cannot be maintained with a greater emphasis on another.

Take a look with your leadership team. Does a priority focus arise?  As a coach ask teachers to reflect on the seven. Where are the teacher’s strength? Where is there a missing or under represented principle?

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Steve Barkley

For the past 35 years, Steve has served as a consultant to school districts, teacher organizations, state departments of education, and colleges and universities nationally and internationally, facilitating the changes necessary for them to reach students and successfully prepare them for the 21st century. Read more…