On learning (or getting the horse to drink)

In this third and final series of posts looking at how tackling ignorance should be a principal aim of schooling, I reflect on the actual process of learning.

You can lead a horse to water but you can’t make it drink.

This proverb has been a perennial plague for teachers and schools. Exacerbated by an accountability system which fails to take into account any of the cognitive or social psychology about how learning happens, teachers have searched for years to find ways to force that pony to drink the well dry.

Over the past year or so, curriculum has become the new vogue. Intent, implementation, impact. The curriculum is the progression model. Powerful knowledge. Cultural capital. I have no problem with this refocusing. For too long, schools have not paid enough attention to curriculum. So much so that an entire generation of teachers hasn’t had to engage with curriculum and is now suddenly expected to do so. In shifting the focus from the horse to the water though, I would raise a warning that we can’t forget about the horse completely.

The main reason why I am so passionate about curriculum, and the unifying thread to this series of posts, is about tackling ignorance and inequality. By providing wider access to knowledge, including cultural capital, we are levelling the playing field. So we rewrite our curriculum, and we map out all of the experiences which will expose students to cultural capital.

The water in the oasis now looks lovely. It looks cleaner and more plentiful than it’s been in years. Let alone taking a drink, this middle-class, white, degree-educated educationalist would happily dive right in. Paddling around I look around and realise that everybody else in the oasis looks just like me. We engage in similar conversations. We have broadly similar views. I look beyond the oasis and there’s a bunch of people stood around (next to the recalcitrant, now-thirsty horses). Why aren’t they coming in?

This is the challenge: how do we make sure that students, especially those from more disadvantaged backgrounds, see school and knowledge as something for them? It is their attitudes, both individual and collective (be they family, community, etc), which we need to address. The education system seemed content for some time to produce a vastly unequal range of outcomes; it almost seemed to be hardwired, a deliberate design. Indeed the tripartite system of grammars, secondary moderns and technical schools was almost that explicit. Disadvantage was born of disadvantage. In some cases, educational failure was almost a badge of honour. More commonly, parents who didn’t do well at school struggled or simply didn’t see the point in trying to help their children do better than they did.

For all the hoo-ha which the British right have raised about educational disadvantage being made worse by the school closures of the Covid-19 lockdown, their narrative seemed to ignore that a) these inequalities have long existed and are just being exacerbated and b) teachers have been trying to do everything they can to address them, often in spite of the system, for a lot longer that their opinion pieces have been raising the issue.

Part of what we can do, and what many schools are doing, is to plan a knowledge-rich curriculum. We will teach knowledge because knowledge matters. Previous strategies of teaching ’21st century skills’ and suggesting that Google had rendered the teaching of knowledge obsolete have thankfully been consigned to the long grass (in the large part anyway).

We can also teach in a way which reflects how the brain actually works. We can have high expectations of everyone, but by careful planning based on gradualism and motivating students by allowing them to experience success, we can avoid them giving up on knowledge because it seems too hard. We can harness homework, revision and lesson time in a way to build strong memories with the help of methods such as knowledge organisers and retrieval practice.

And we can practice tough love. We can establish strict routines in the classroom and across school. It should be clear that students come to school to learn and there will be zero tolerance for behaviours which go against that. We can make it clear that homework is critical and sanction those who don’t do it. When standards aren’t met, we need to engage with parents and families. There cannot be an opt out from engaging with your child’s school in a meaningful way.

There was a notion, that our children’s generation would grow up to have more opportunities and a better life than our generation, or at least an equal chance. This was so widely held, and for so long a reality, that it almost formed part of our social contract. A perfect storm of events, some unplanned (e.g. Covid-19) and others very much deliberate (e.g. Brexit) have rocked that notion almost to the point that I can’t imagine many people believing it anymore. This is a tragedy for our national narrative. It must be corrected. By tackling ignorance and tackling inequality, schools can play a part in making that notion a reality again. We must give children a sense of optimism for their future. Hope matters.

Postscript (the bit you don’t really have to read unless you really want to, though I think it is just as good)

When I set out to write, I wasn’t initially intending to write three posts. We’d had some INSET on cultural capital, which started those thoughts rolling. It then occurred to me that ignorance was at the heart of the problem. Tackling ignorance therefore became the best way to frame the solution: that is what schools must aim to do.

Amidst my thoughts though, two points kept recurring to me, though neither of them fitted neatly into any of the posts themselves. They’re both personal points and as I refer to in both this post and the previous one, I am conscious that ‘positionality’ matters. I know that I am writing as a white, middle-class, degree-educated teacher and this massively affects my world view. In acknowledging this though, those two points are relevant:

  1. A significant barrier to getting students to effectively learn is when we, as teachers, forget what it is like to be a novice. A chapter in Paul Kirschner and Carl Hendrick’s glorious book, How Learning Happens, highlights the differences between how a novice and an expert approach learning. It is important that we remember what it is like to be a novice. As I have documented in other posts, I have spent some of my lockdown time dividend learning how to cook properly. I have also started refreshing my German (studied up to GCSE) using the app DuoLingo. I’ve even got back out on my bike (after over half a year) and the golf course (after over six years). When reading How Learning Happens, I have repeatedly recognised myself and those learning experiences. Then in planning, I have drawn on these recent experiences of being a novice to help get into the minds of students and think about how to sequence knowledge, gradually and to address the likely challenges and common misconceptions. While it would be difficult to mandate, I think every teacher should make sure they remind themselves of what it is to be a novice.
  2. When engaging with the idea of cultural capital, I often think that despite my own educational history, I have still often felt isolated by not knowing things that other people seem to have had access to. Of course, I don’t mean things that people have actively sought to learn or specialise in. I’m not talking about quantum mechanics! But when people mention musicians, or artists, or historical figures and the reference triggers blank in my memory, I think ‘why don’t I know about that’ and that dents your confidence, it makes you feel inferior. Its not just conversation of course. I’m normally quite happy reading The Economist or the front half of `The Spectator, because my geography education plus my political geekery means I have a pretty good grasp of enough knowledge to get through most articles. Turning to the arts & books section, or heaven-forbid picking up The TLS, and I am left feeling like a man overboard in a cruel sea of cultural references in which I struggle to stay afloat. And I speak, as I said before, as a degree-educated, middle-class bloke. For sure I could have read differently, but those gaps were not all of my own making. Where those gaps – that ignorance- emerge from differences in schooling, these are the unacceptable inequalities that we can do something about.

4 thoughts on “On learning (or getting the horse to drink)

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