How do children learn best?
It is a complex question isn’t it. It is striking that as teachers we may be knee-deep in our pupils learning for most of the working week and yet we may well be foxed by such a seemingly simple question.
When you get thinking, what may first come to mind is the very aims and purpose of education. We may quickly move to memory and remembering for learning in relation to curriculum design; perhaps we add subject knowledge and vocabulary; we may draw upon a knowledge of cognitive science, of behavioural psychology, of emotion, motivation and metacognition. We may delve into pedagogy and how we make the curriculum accessible to our novice pupils. The list may go on for a while yet…
As the saying goes, ‘it’s complicated’.
Clearly, the vast web that encompasses learning, and of course teaching, requires a detailed mental model of how children learn. Many great teachers know many aspects of this mental model tacitly, but may not be able to cohere it into something that is easily communicated. Too often, in too many schools – pressed for time and with too little continuous teacher training and development – we will press on with our teaching without much shared understanding of how children learn best. For example, principles of memory – over a century old – become new, exciting truths heralded at INSET training.
As so we busily attend the countless demands on our school time and our focus on learning gets lost. Our incoherent approach to career long development and training sees teachers grappling with curriculum changes without an adequate mental model of learning to deal with such changes.
Well-meaning over-worked teachers struggle to connect curriculum with learning. Incoherence reigns.
Promoting Curriculum Development
Over the past year or more OFSTED, Amanda Spielman and Sean Harford and more, have been promoting the central importance of curriculum. Spielman makes their priority very clear:
“In recent years, we have thought a great deal about the role of leaders and the importance of teaching. We have also given a great deal of our collective time to exam grades and progress measures. These are undoubtedly important. However, at the very heart of education sits the vast accumulated wealth of human knowledge and what we choose to impart to the next generation: the curriculum.”
Indeed, Sean Harford goes further and states:
“We discussed the need to build a conversation about the curriculum on a clear understanding of how children – and indeed all of us – really learn, over time.”
It is language that is entirely welcome. It is a shift in emphasis related to inspection that many teachers and school leaders would celebrate. And yet, those same teachers and school leaders are still beset by the tyranny of tracking, data drops, lesson observations, ‘learning walks’, target setting, target checking and reporting. Still afeared of a high stakes league tables, high profile testing, and the dread of inspection, there has been too little bolstering of thinking about curriculum and learning.
We know we are leading the learning of young people, not leading management systems, but it is hard to shift such practices just based on supportive speeches. School leaders need exemplar models of schools that are developing a broad and balanced curriculum that also meets the demands of league table measures. Compliance is a bedfellow of incoherence. For a few years at least, schools need to feel confident in matching curriculum with their expectations of compliance.
No doubt, there is a training gap that is holding back schools. As a school leader and teacher for fifteen years, I have spent lots of time responding to curriculum changes and new specifications, but I have spent little time on the theory of curriculum design and development and how that relates to a child’s learning. I am pretty much self-taught. We should question of training pathways if teachers and school leaders are relying upon being self-taught regarding what is deemed paramount to education.
As Sean Harford says, we need to “build a conversation about curriculum” and to go about developing a mental model of how children learn best. For me, this has significant implications for so many aspects of our education system. Consider just some of the following:
- Initial teacher training;
- Continuous professional development for teachers in the early years of their careers and beyond;
- Evidence-based support materials and tools to support school leaders, subject specific teams and different phase teams with regard to the “conversation about curriculum”;
- The role and support of external trainers, such as subject associations, universities etc.;
- The incentives we can offer schools to help support and steer a “conversation about curriculum”;
- The workload implications for such training and support (curriculum redesign is heavy lifting);
- Textbook publisher and exam board expectations and support resources.
Of course, we need to tackle how national assessments, the inspection process and league tables incentives drive the real conversation happening in schools. To do this we need to reach beyond policy makers and ‘experts’ and consider the needs of busy school teachers and leaders. I suspect teacher requests will involve tools, training and time.
If all the factors that drive compliance remain in place, will schools really shift their thinking? If we offer no real incentives and too little supports to develop thinking and action around curriculum, will we ever fend off incoherence?
If we are to have a successful “curriculum conversation” we need to talk first about how we provide schools with the requisite support factors of time, training and the tools to hold that conversation.
- Christine Counsell has initiated an important dialogue on her blog about developing curriculum leadership HERE.
- Cognitive scientist, Dan Willingham, has written an essential research paper on ‘A Mental Model of the Learner: Teaching the Basic Science of Educational Psychology to Future Teachers’.