‘Learning is the eye of the mind’ French Proverb
Fiction is bursting at the seams with characters who can transform into another form. From werewolves to sorcerers, Count Dracula to the more modern Remus Lupin from Harry Potter, shapeshifters can enhance a fascination between the pages of a book and add to the magic of an author’s craft. Since becoming research informed, my teaching practice has been shaped and has shifted and student learning has too. Explicit instructional guidance to independent practice, bridged with responsive teaching taken from student cues, has helped me conceptualise this teaching structure. It’s about making the novice student the expert student. This could apply to not only key stage students, but trainee teachers too. The published paper ‘Putting students on the path to learning: the case for fully guided instruction’ is well worth a read.
What if learning was to be considered metaphorically as a shapeshifter? What identities would it take and what would be the connections to the visible development of student learning? This question took me on the journey of looking into the different definitions of learning, and how they might have looked in my classroom this week. Shift has definitely happened in my student learning through planned and responsive teaching strategies. Content has been moulded and shaped to secure student understanding and student conceptual knowledge has grown broader around literature texts too. Memory has played a large role in my strategies, as has modelling, based on a firm foundation of knowledge. Can learning be linked to a definition, or does it have such a complex structure that it takes many forms and shapes to eventually change the novice learner into the expert learner? I am not a neuroscientist or a psychologist, but through intuition and an injection of inspiration by Daniel Willingham’s ‘considerations of learning’ blog, I reflect on my recent classroom teaching and the idea of learning taking the form of a ‘shapeshifter’.
John Hattie’s definition: ‘The process of developing sufficient surface knowledge to then move to a deeper understanding such that one can appropriately transfer this learning to new tasks and situations.’
Our English faculty is into their fourth week on Macbeth. Student concepts of ambition, the supernatural, patriarchal society and James I (to name a few) are being channelled to develop a secure understanding of Shakespeare’s methods. What’s the goal? To understand the play Macbeth, yes – but it certainly shouldn’t be to teach simply to the examination. What is being taught is transferable, but there is other learning happening too, and that learning counts. From the outset, a student discussion around the concept of a patriarchal society with a comparison to society today (and Priestley’s society of 1912 banded about too) made for a deep and thoughtful start to the lesson. Lady Macbeth hadn’t even begun with her soliloquies and yet the learning had been so much more than surface. It was deep and thoughtful and carved the way for more ideas and concepts to be firmly built. So the shape of the iceberg had shifted in one lesson. It had started from the bottom. To ignite all the deep learning which had come first in following lessons, the word patriarchal became the surface trigger – the iceberg had shifted again. The students had also learned how to spell patriarchal and had memorized this. That’s learning too.
Kirschner, Sweller and Clarke: ‘Learning is a change in long term memory.’
Learning shapeshifts again into a demonstration of memory via trigger words on a whiteboard. Students recall as much knowledge as they can to explode the weird sisters’ “fog and filthy air”. They connect lots of knowledge, focus on key words and images – something which is much stronger than before. But this time, the ‘learning shapeshifter’ is only outwardly visible. What did my students’ long term memory look like before? Was it ‘shapeshifter one’ that prompted it to change – that deep conversation supporting what is recalled with a trigger word? Was it a picture of the Mars and Venus symbols representing male and female that student x sketched in their book as a result of applying dual coding? I know that students at my place of work will apply dual coding in their work within most subjects, but after life in secondary school, will they forget this strategy? If so, ‘shapeshifter two’ – the long term memory, will change its shape again.
Greg Kimble: “Learning is a relatively permanent change in a behavioural potentiality that occurs as a result of reinforced practice.”
Enter ‘learning shapeshifter’ number three and what I think is attached to the idea of habit. I go for a run on the fells, I put my fell shoes on. I run on the road – road shoes. I decide to make a coffee, I switch the kettle on. No one has to remind me. I don’t have to question it. I just do it. Research suggests that around 45% of our daily actions are habitual (Wood et al; 2002). If I use whiteboards in my classroom for the deliberate practice of recall, and I repeat this in the same context, the whiteboard will become a cue for the recall activity. Trigger words or pictures will become a cue for knowledge and hence, through its contextual repetition, becomes a habit. I learned to scuba dive several years ago. It began in a swimming pool. Every piece of equipment became something to think about – how to put on my fins, how to inflate and deflate my diving vest, ensuing panic when my mask began to leak. With deliberate practise, my fins, vest and mask became something I didn’t have to think about. I could free my mind to focus on my timed descents, ascents and my oxygen. We give students examination practice so it becomes habit forming – that quick plan, underlining specifics in the question and text and working to a specific time schedule. I see ‘learning shapeshifter’ three as one of collective cues to ensure consistency. However, it would seem that ‘Learning shapeshifter’ one and two also use these cues.
So now I pose the question to conclude my own reflective understanding – ‘can learning be defined with a one size fits all definition?’ I don’t think it can. I am certainly not advocating that the research definitions considered are wrong – they have their own place attached to research projects and context. In this blog, I have reflected on how the shape of learning can shift identity depending on the overarching teaching objectives of what that learning is to be. An understanding of cognitive science in the classroom is undoubtedly helpful. Building on teaching knowledge and practice through being research informed is refreshing and engaging; there is helpful, straightforward information for us teachers out there. There is also a lot of information out there that I think would be difficult to apply in the context of the classroom. That’s where the research informed ‘best bets’ come into their own. Each ‘best bet’ adds a little bit of abracadabra to learning. Understanding the methods which maximise student learning, certainly adds to the magic of a teachers’ craft too.
Main Picture. Brusheasy.com. 1 exploringyourmind.com 2 themuse.com 3 Neurobicsforyourmind.com