Schoolzone: Understanding learning

Understanding learning

By Sheila Roberts

When planning your teaching where do you begin and what criteria do you use to decide how to deliver the curriculum? Is your emphasis on what you have to teach or what the pupils need to learn? In setting learning objectives and identifying learning outcomes, are you paying enough attention to how pupils in your class learn and the barriers to learning that might exist? Are there ways in which you could make your teaching more effective by shifting the emphasis from teaching to learning and thinking of your role as a supporter/director of pupil learning?

The problem for busy teachers is remembering that each learner/pupil is unique. With classes of 30 plus, the temptation is to think 'group' rather than 'individual'. But within any group there will be different types of learners with their own needs and their preferred ways of learning. Time spent helping pupils understand how they learn and how they can improve their learning is time well spent.

Design and build
Most teachers do not wear their underwear over their tights, super though they might be, so planning 30 plus individual learning programmes for each lesson is utopian. But a teacher can be more effective by building into each lesson, activities which reflect different learning styles, thereby increasing the opportunities for learners to 'switch on' during a lesson. Methodology as much as material can increase motivation.

Research has shown that teaching pupils how to learn and helping them develop skills to manage their own learning pays off. Both teachers and pupils need to explore effective learning styles so that teaching and learning does not confront too may brick walls.

Constructive approaches
A) Partnerships in learning

  • Pupils need to recognise their responsibilities to their learning, personal development and progression. Wean them off the 'spoon feeding' approach and onto hands on 'buffet-style' learning as they move through the Key Stages. National curriculum diet it maybe, but you 'go get it' to suit your style of eating/learning.
  • Teachers are not solely responsible for pupil learning, nor for single-handedly bring down barriers to learning. You can only do so much as a subject teacher or tutor. It is important to recognise professional barriers and when to involve others from within school and outside. Other partners include: heads of year, senior managers, careers advisors, personal advisors, SENCO, E.W.O. health workers, social workers, parents/carers
  • Home-school links, though not always easy to establish or maintain have a significant role to play in supporting an holistic approach to learning. Most parents /carers want to know about and contribute towards their child's learning and development. They can be involved in identifying and monitoring personal/social and academic targets and in recognising when they have been achieved, which is equally important

B) Focusing on learning

  • Teachers tend to teach subject content, but the starting point should be: how do I teach my pupils how to learn? You cannot expect them to build knowledge without giving them the tools and materials to learn and understand. From primary, pupils can start to explore different ways to learn and evaluate which strategies and contexts are more effective for them. Early identification of what does not work for an individual, can help prevent the formation of a barrier to learning
  • We need to involve pupils more in the learning process so that they have a clearer picture of what we want them to achieve. How common is it for a teacher to start the lesson by sharing the objectives and end with a brief evaluation of the outcomes? Pupils need to know what the 'game plan' is and like to know when they have scored
  • Specific and regular feedback, written or oral, motivates. Pupils should not be left wondering why they only got a B
    Target setting, which is SMART (Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, Time-bound), is fundamental to good learning planning. Pupils are more motivated if they have been involved in the setting of targets, which they can relate to. But targets must be reviewed and achievements praised, if the process is to have value

C) Learning as part of personal development

  • Not all learning is academic with outcomes measured in terms of test scores and qualifications. All pupils are capable of learning and developing as individuals.
  • Progress and achievement should be promoted and recognised in a range of contexts not least because success is not based exclusively on academic prowess
  • Do we pay enough attention to building pupils' confidence and self esteem, especially for those students who struggle? Pupils switch off when they pick up the 'thick as a brick' vibes. Even able pupils under-perform without praise and teachers showing an interest in them as individuals
  • In secondary schools, tutors are increasing taking on the role of 'supporters of learning', helping pupils monitor their progress and plan how to build on achievement. Targets are negotiated for academic, social, personal and career development. Links are made with subject assessment, reporting and recording, to provide a co-ordinated approach to pupil-centred learning

Master builders
Teachers can be Christopher Wrens or Fred Dibnams, building or demolishing an individual pupil's desire and capacity to learn. A clearer understanding of learning and the ability to apply that understanding, to help pupils maximise their potential, can help raise achievement.


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