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A look at learning

| April 5, 2011 | 0 Comments

By Jane Hofmeyr

Consider this: As Gordon e. Moore, co-founder of Intel, predicted, there is 10 times more data in the world every 12 months and, in 10 years’ time, computers will be 10 times more powerful – and smarter than people by 2025.

This means that the content of the disciplines students study at school and university will become more outdated and irrelevant with each year, and pupils will have to keep learning and processing new information all their lives. How then do schools respond to the challenge of preparing pupils to truly become ‘lifelong learners’?

‘Thinking schools’ in other countries
When visiting independent schools in North America, the United Kingdom, Australia and New Zealand, I have been reassured that our best South African independent schools are world-class and compare very favourably with similar schools in these countries – except in one respect: ours lag behind in terms of an explicit, coherent and comprehensive theory of learning that underpins the entire curriculum. A number of our Heads, who have attended conferences
and visited schools in these countries, agree with this observation.

Let me give a few examples of what one can encounter in other countries: schools identified as ‘thinking schools’, a member of staff as ‘Head of Thinking’, and ‘learning’ consultants working regularly with schools. These are only superficial examples of what a school with an underpinning theory of learning means: it has typically studied the findings of cognitive science, researched how best to help pupils acquire the full range of cognitive skills and explicitly addressed these in the teaching, learning and assessment of the school.

Two very different schools – an independent school in Sydney, Methodist Ladies’ College, and a state school, Unlimited Paenga Tawithi in Christchurch, New Zealand – illuminated this for me.

Examples from the Antipodes
Methodist Ladies’ College (MLC) has defined its philosophy of ‘Transforming Learning’ and uses a model that emphasises engagement, offers flexible delivery and tailors learning experiences that put the girls firmly at the centre of their learning:

  • Broadly speaking, students need to be able to learn in teams, collaboratively, as a class, a section, a whole community or alone.
  • Learners need to share learning experiences with their chronological peers and intellectual, physical, creative, emotional and spiritual peers, regardless of age. • Learning experiences need to occur with their own teachers, other experts, students
    from other schools, other countries, on campus and off campus, in the city, in the country, interstate and overseas (even if only via computer).
  • Students need to work within subjectdisciplines, across subject disciplines and on real and rich tasks, be they teacherdirected, teacher-supported/self-directed or totally self-directed.

To enable pupils to acquire these skills, learning is enhanced across its curriculum with the integration of state-of-the-art information and communication technologies in every aspect of school life. For instance, MLC has an interactive Student Online Assessment and Reporting system (SOAR) which allows parents to check their daughters’ progress through an MLC website, make comments, and download and print individual academic reports. Pangaea, its online learning portal, allows staff or students to deliver, disseminate and discuss information, to and with students on a specific topic.

Through the Skoolaborate project, which involves over 30 schools across the world, MLC students can gather in a virtual land full of learning opportunities. Teachers collaborate and create online learning experiences that are then shared, adding value to each participating school’s educational offerings. Its most ambitious project is using technology to benchmark the progress of every pupil in every subject throughout the year, with the aim of determining measurable gains and the value-add of
the school’s teaching and learning.

By contrast, Unlimited Paenga Tawithi (UPT) – in two former office buildings in the middle of Christchurch – derives its special character from the way in which it builds learning capacity in an innovative learning environment where learning spaces have replaced conventional classrooms. The school’s core tenets are that students are central to their own learning; they follow their individual interests and enthusiasms; and curriculum and qualification needs are met through students’ chosen paths and
not a prescribed route.

Consequently, every student has an Individual Education Plan (IEP) and a ‘learning adviser’, rather than a teacher, assigned to them. Each learning adviser guides 15 students’ learning in a close and positive way and meets each one every week. Co-constructed, challenging learning objectives, with outcomes that clearly define what success means, are set for each student.

UPT caters for a wide range of student abilities and enrols many pupils who were drop-outs or were home-schooled. Its approach is to use students’ passions to drive their learning and, where necessary, the school ‘back-fills’ to help them progress well. The SOLO (Structured Overview of Learning Outcomes) taxonomy, developed by Biggs and Collins (1982), is used to evaluate the quality of students’ learning.

Relevance to our context

At a national level, learning philosophies and taxonomies of cognitive skills are very important in curricula and assessment. In South Africa, the cognitive outcomes of the National Curriculum Statements are based on Bloom’s Taxonomy, one of best-known taxonomies of learning. It identifies skills and abilities in the knowledge-processing hierarchy from the highest to the lowest level, or order of complexity and difficulty.

These skills are evaluation, synthesis, analysis, application, comprehension and knowledge. The school curriculum should enable pupils to master the full range of these skills by the end of Grade 12 so that they leave school with a repertoire of cognitive skills that are central to success in higher education and the world of work.

In order for a curriculum to build the range of cognitive skills, it needs to contain an appropriate balance of content. If a curriculum, both in its intended (policy) and enacted (teaching and learning) forms, deals only with low-level content that does not challenge learners to the highest and most complex level, they will be denied a chance to develop high-level thinking skills. The more high-level skills, such as evaluation, synthesis and analysis, are embodied in a curriculum or examination, the higher the cognitive demand. If the cognitive demand of examinations is too low and it is not challenging enough, it can have a backwash effect on the curriculum through watered-down teaching and learning, thus creating a cycle of conceptually less-challenging examinations, leading to a weakened curriculum that produces graduates with inadequate skills. Conversely, if the cognitive demand is too high, the examinations will be beyond the reach of the average learner, who will fail.

When a country has introduced a new curriculum and types of assessment, it is a huge challenge to get the cognitive demand pitched at the right level in each subject and examination: hence some of the assessment problems of the last three years of the Grade 12 examinations. The current revision of the curriculum in the form of Curriculum and Assessment Policy Statements (CAPS) is faced with the same challenge. A recurring comment by subject specialists in the ISASA submission on the draft CAPS illustrates this point:

There is concern that cognitive demand in two key subjects, Mathematics and Science, is pitched low. It is felt that this will have the net effect of lowering the cognitive demand across the curriculum.

South African initiative
While in general I believe that South African schools have not given enough attention to learning philosophies, research and strategies, there are schools that are grappling with this challenge. I was very interested to learn from Mary Williams, Head of Roedean School (SA), how it has grasped the nettle. She has been inspired by insights about cognitive development gained from conferences and school visits in Australia, New Zealand and Singapore.

In 2008, Roedean began a review of its strategic direction and effectiveness in the development of young women for their adult life. After intense debate and a careful process involving the entire school community, one of the areas identified as a strategic curriculum imperative to take the school to the next phase of its development as the teaching of thinking skills across the whole school, from Grade 0 to Grade 12. The Roedean staff identified a number of learning strategies for different stages
of cognitive development, but the challenge was to fit these methodologies into an overarching framework of thinking skills that could be implemented at various levels of sophistication. The solution came from the work of Professor Art Costa on the teaching and learning of thinking, called Habits of Mind.

According to Costa, educators should be interested to know not only how many answers our pupils know, but also how they behave and think when they don’t know. Habits of Mind are performed in response to questions and problems, the answers to which are not immediately known. The focus should be on student performance under challenging conditions that demand strategic reasoning, insightfulness, perseverance, creativity and craftsmanship to resolve complex problems – a high level of cognitive demand. According to Williams, the key task is to “create an ethos and opportunities in which all members of a school community have to engage in a more meta-cognitive approach to their thinking skills, i.e. learn skills which enable them to think about their thinking”. The result has been a significant change in Roedean’s life skills curriculum. (More about this will be written up in a forthcoming article for Independent Education.)

If we want engaged and challenged learners who understand and take responsibility for their learning, 21st century schools need to narrow the gap between the rhetoric of life-long learning and the actual practice of teaching and learning in the classrooms. This requires conscious attention to thinking competencies, strategies for building learning power and real-world learning, which can only serve to enhance the quality and relevance of the education a school provides.
1 Kurzweil, R. (1990) The Age of Intelligent Machines.
MIT Press.

Category: Autumn 2011

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