What learning is and what it looks like. The apparent endless debate between all those with a vested interest in any kind of education system around the world. The search for the ideal approach to learning provision by governments intent on raising educational outcomes for their young and future workforce. And yet, with education having existed for so very long now, why is the search continuing? Surely we’ve had enough time to define learning and in turn know how to ensure it happens?
As I continue to explore literature surrounding teaching practice and learning needs of students, one key factor is becoming abundantly clear. Practitioners and policy makers cannot reach agreement on what ‘learning’ actually is, and what it looks like. Simplistically put, it would appear there are two major camps of thought with a significant chasm between them.
In the first camp are those who view ‘learning’ as the serious business of the three ‘rs’ (and other such significant and important subject areas). That children who are actually doing the business of learning are heads down, bums on seats and pencil firmly gripped as they plod away on the task set for them by the highly knowledgeable and expert teacher. That learning is measured on the output of the student, and on the final product – usually in some manner of written format. Reading levels, writing production, aptitude in solving equations all indicate a child’s progress in their learning and if a child cannot demonstrate these under test conditions, then they clearly have not consolidated the lessons they have been exposed to in their classroom setting. Heaven forbid if a child is not kept busy with a focused task (again, usually written) and any time is wasted in opportunities for ‘learning’. They will not seek out any learning independently and as such need to be corralled into lessons in order to fill them up with the knowledge those in this camp feel necessary for a successful working life ahead.
The second camp advocates for a more developmental approach to a child’s learning progression. It argues that children are natural learners, and that, if left to their own devices (but not on their own completely) they will begin to inquire and adopt a curiosity to the world around them. They will seek to understand phenomena, concepts, events and issues that will require them to learn tools and skills in order to find answers to their own questions. They will learn to research, they will consider ways to communicate their learning or messages (this might actually include some writing) and they will endeavor to solve mathematical problems, when required, to address real-life problems they themselves have posed. And through all of this, they will only consider themselves ‘playing’. Their learning will be a haphazard approach sometimes, and at other times fiercely intensive and passionate. It will be messy and loud, and other times quiet and calm. It will be big and fast and active, and other times small, slow and passive. Those in this camp of thought advocate for children to be supported to explore and engage with their interests and passions and to drive their own learning, often through play, drawing from the skills of adults around them that can help scaffold their knowledge and learning further.
“Their learning will be a haphazard approach sometimes and at other times fiercely intensive and passionate”
As both a teacher and a new Mum to homeschooling, I continue to be amazed at the insidious nature the first camp of thought has had on my expectations of learners……most recently my own children. I firmly sit in the second camp – trusting that my children will have enough gumption to explore their passions, if I create the right conditions for them to do so. I do not sit them down from 9am – 3pm with worksheets, text books and pens and paper and have them do their ‘schoolwork’. Instead, we make learning relevant, active, purposeful and meaningful – at all hours of the day and night. We cover a variety of topics and have no time frame as to when these begin and end. I do not run a formal reading time or maths lesson. We use the tools of reading, writing and mathematics to access information required to continue driving forward with the interests and passions the children have. Accurate measurement, for example, is required when making anything involving food. Inaccuracy in measurement results in very different baking as we have discovered. Key skills such as how to compose a letter are important to get right when advocating the need for conservation measures for the Bobcat, for example.
It is a hard ask to have those firmly ensconced in the first camp to consider that the traditional methods of teaching and learning are now facing considerable and significant research that contradicts their foundation. Those that are beginning to move in their philosophy and pedagogy from this camp qualify this decision as recognising the learners of today learn differently to those of yesteryear. And yet, put simply, it is that we in fact now have the knowledge, backed by significant evidence, to understand how children actually learn. That they are not empty vessels ready for the filling – but unique and curious and inquiring minds eager to make connections with their world around them.
If we know how children learn, and have access to clear research around the effect play-based child-centred learning has on the motivation and engagement of our learners, then what makes it so hard to shake those from their well-established camp of traditional education delivery? Government policy doesn’t help. Reporting to arbitrary standards and comparing progress of students to teacher competency are such policies that do not allow teachers the opportunity to bravely pack up their gear and embark across the chasm to the opposing camp. The fear of failure in either of these areas reflects directly on the personal capability of the teacher.
A lack of control as well as a lack of trust also limit teachers in taking chances to allow children to take control and trust their own abilities with their learning. And let’s face it – if you’re a clean freak, the idea of mess and chaos within the four walls of the classroom with 30+ children is nothing sort of coronary-inducing. It takes a significantly brave control-freak to let go of the brakes and start the process of becoming a facilitator to the learning needs of each individual student in their large and loud class.
“And let’s face it – if you’re a clean freak, the idea of mess and chaos within the four walls of the classroom with 30+ children is nothing sort of coronary-inducing.”
Children learn. In all interaction and in all situations there is learning to be had. With the right conditions and support, learning can be joyous and meaningful. It can build foundations for further learning, or it can provide pathways to entirely new learning areas. Educators need to decamp and work together to respond to the individual and valid needs of the learners they have in front of them. Motivation and enjoyment need to be at the core of any classroom program. Not outcomes, not levels or standards. If a child is happy and can be given the opportunity to inquire and explore, learning will occur in its most natural and meaningful state. Reading, writing and ‘rithmatic will be accessed as tools to further knowledge and understanding, skills will develop with meaning and purpose. With appropriate scaffolding from adults around them, students have the potential to make significant progress – if it interests them and if they see meaning in their learning. And throughout their entire experience they will be engaged in the very purpose of childhood – play.