I have a favourite clip from the movie, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off that I have used many times in my presentations and workshops. It’s where the teacher is attempting to elicit responses from an extremely unresponsive and disinterested group of students… (see below)
The scenario lampoons the archetypal characterisation of many ‘traditional’ classroom settings. The emphasis is on a transfer of content. The pedagogical approach is to use questioning and the approach suggests that the measure of success for the lesson might be anticipated in the form a test designed to measure the recall of these sorts of facts.
This clip evokes all sorts of responses in my mind – thoughts about the nature of knowledge and learning, the use of questioning as a pedagogical device, learner engagement and so on.
But the thing I am challenged about most is the fundamental problem of practice that is exaggerated here for effect – that is, the belief that it is the teacher who is the ‘expert’ in the room, responsible for the transfer of knowledge into the minds of learners, and for ensuring somehow that this transfer has occurred.
The rapid-fire asking of questions based on the assumption that the students should know the answer is akin to a quiz show format – and characterises what my own kids and I used to refer to as GWITTH learning when they were at school (for Guess What’s In The Teacher’s Head). In their time a school it was not uncommon for our dinner time conversations to be along the lines of…
- Me: What’s happening at school for you at the moment?
- Daughter: Oh, we’re doing a project on [insert topic here], and we’re working in groups to create a [insert artefact here].
- Me: Sounds cool! Why are you doing this?
- Daughter: Because it’s in the curriculum – it’s what the teacher planned for this term.
- Me: Are you going to be assessed on it?
- Daughter: yep.
- Me: How? What do they want to you do know or do?
- Daughter: I don’t know – we just have to create the [insert artefact here] and hand it in. The teacher will do the marking.
- Me: (thinking to self) So you’re doing this interesting project, working with a group to create a [insert artefact here] in order to meet the requirements for an assessment, but you have no idea what the teacher will be looking for or the basis upon which the assessment is being made?
In the absence of the things that characterise authentic learning, including the explicit sharing of project objectives/intentions and assessment criteria, learners are left to make their own assumptions about what the purpose is or what will be looked for in the assessment. This is what my kids characterised as GWITTH learning – Guess What’s In The Teacher’s Head.
While we have certainly seen great progress in the pedagogical approaches taken in most classrooms today, and replays of the sort of characterisation shown in the clip above are rare, the beliefs around knowledge and learning implicit in the clip continue to influence the way we design learning experiences today to some extent. What I mean here is that the curriculum defines bodies of knowledge that we must ensure are transferred to the minds of learners and the purpose of assessment is to ensure that this transfer (learning) has occurred. This view of education is evident among those whom Guy Claxton refers to as enthusiasts of Direct Instruction in a Knowledge Rich curriculum (DIKR) and those who subscribe to cycles of ‘Explain – Practise – Test – Retest’ (EPTR). (I thoroughly recommend Guy’s latest book, The Myths of Teaching for a more thorough unpacking of this.)
In the past few years I’ve helped countless teachers and schools investigate the common problem of lack of engagement among their learners, and almost always the learners will tell us that they aren’t really sure about why they’re doing what they’re doing or what is expected of them. To understand the extent to which this may (or not) be the case in our own classrooms or schools we must ask a fundamental question: “who owns the learning?“.
Some questions to help clarify your response to this are:
- To what extent are the learners involved in the selection of what is being learned and how it is being learned?
- Is the teacher’s permission or advice always sought before the ‘next steps’ are taken, or are learners able to make decisions about their own learning and pursue pathways based on their own interest?
- When confronted with a problem do learners generally appeal to the teacher for assistance, or do they have access to a range of strategies for solving this themselves, including access to sources of information about what is expected?
- Are learners clear about what is expected of them and how they will know that they’ve been successful – or is that success dependent on waiting for feedback from a teacher once their work has been ‘marked’?
Of course, there’s never an absolute ‘right or wrong’ answer to any of these questions, and this certainly isn’t an exhaustive list, but I’m confident you’ll see suggestions implicit in each of them about how shifts in the ownership of learning may be made.
The presence of GWITTH learning is seldom the result of intentional design by the teacher. The sad truth appears to be that the pressures imposed by timetables, the need to ‘cover’ the curriculum, demands made by external assessment processes etc. all conspire to reduce the attention we give to those strategies that are empowering and enabling of the learners as self-directed, self-managing learners. As a result, we have learners who are dis-engaged, un-interested or simply confused as they find themselves dependent on the teacher for all forms of instruction, direction and support.
If this is something that concerns you you may like to incorporate some of the following strategies as you design your programmes for next year:
- Find ways of introducing new themes or topics of study that involve the learners more to capture interest from the start. This may include anything on the continuum from having them actually select the theme/topic themselves through to articulating the rationale for the study in ways that are invitational and make it appealing to them.
- Share the learning outcomes for the theme/topic at the start, using a rubric to provide indicators of what achievement ‘looks like’ at various stages of the progression. Encourage students to use this as they plan how they will undertake their study, and to be intentional about gathering evidence along the way to demonstrate where they are on the continuum.
- Encourage learners to regularly engage with each other, to discuss their approach to what they are learning and the progress they are making. This will help them think more explicitly about their learning, in addition to thinking only what they are learning about.
- Plan for some time at the end of the study for a ‘celebration’ and sharing of what has been learned. Encourage feedback that provides ideas for next steps and areas for further development. Keep the focus on the learning competencies and dispositions that are being demonstrated – not simply on the content of what has been learned.