Simon P Walker is the inventor of Human Ecology Theory which redresses the erosion of social capital

To read more of Simon Walker's social and educational analysis:
- Follow him on this blog (just subscribe) and on twitter@simonw762

Thursday, 20 March 2014

Real rather than synthetic failure builds resilience in young people

I wanted to commend a blog post by Thinking Head Richard Backhouse. Backhouse is a Headteacher in the UK and thoughtful about the nature of experiences that build character as well as success in life. His school's strap line is 'A Foundation for the Future' and I read into that a deliberate pun.

Backhouse writes about the difference between real and what he calls synthetic failure.

Real failure is the kind that genuinely threatens us.
The other, he notes, is manufactured....

The one he suggests can create the kind of resilience that makes people succeed throughout life; the other does not.

You might like to read why at http://athinkinghead.blogspot.co.uk/


(c) Simon P Walker 2014

Monday, 10 March 2014

Our new research on how we learn

I've been silent on the blog for a couple of weeks whilst I finish a set of exciting new papers. Over the past two years I have directed a major research project at my company Footprints Programme for Schools into how yr 10 students (14-15 year olds) learn; it's almost time to release the findings.

The project has been collecting a new kind of data on the intrinsic and environmental factors that influence student learning in secondary schools. You know that I have been blogging about this for some time now, releasing snippets of ideas. Behind this is solid empirical data that identifies what, psychologically, goes on between effective and ineffective learners and their environment.

I'm planning to release the first of these papers on the Centre for Human Ecology Theory web site in the next 10 days. I'll post links on my blog as well as highlighting the key findings that are relevant for teachers and parents.

Thanks for your patience.


How does Footprints relate to Human Ecology Theory?

The Footprints Programme for Schools is an educational technology that analyses and optimises the learning state between a learner and their environment. It is based on a data model of seven dynamic constructs within Simon P Walker's Human Ecology Theory which he identified in 2000. Further information can be found at:

Footprints Programme for Schools</a>











Centre for Human Ecology Theory

(c) Simon P Walker 2014

Monday, 24 February 2014

How children learn no 6: Learning WHY?

There is no doubt the UK government sees education as a major solution to the societal challenges we face (I suspect other Western governments do too).

Education is seen as the route to increased social mobility (and charities such as the Sutton Trust have long been champions of this cause). It sees education as the stumbling block to our competing in the global economy (witness the fear associated with our low PISA ranking). It also, conveniently, tends to blame society’s woes on our education system and professionals. To drive the system harder the current Education Secretary, with his simplistic conflation of strong discipline with good learning, cannot resist imposing new metrics to drive what he calls ‘under performance’ out of the system.

But what do we actually mean by learning?

I wonder what you think your children, or grandchildren, are acquiring through their schooling?

In this series of blogs I want to look at some of the research that is out there, as well as some of our own research at Footprints, to dispel some myths about how children learn.

The blog titles are:
1. Learning WHAT?
2. Learning HOW?
3. Learning WHEN?
4. Learning WHERE?
5. Learning WHO?
6. Learning WHY?

If these kinds of thoughts concern you as a parent, then these forthcoming blogs are written for you. I write myself as a parent, but also as an educational researcher and practitioner and as a learner myself.

Please tell your friends and fellow professionals and send them a link. http://simonpwalker.blogspot.com




SIX: LEARNING WHY?

So, why learn? What is the goal of our children learning? Is it stuffing children with as much knowledge as we can? Is it to ensure our children do not fall behind, do not lose the best opportunities in life?

The writer in the book of Ecclesiastes in the Hebrew scriptures sets out on an epic quest to acquire knowledge. He studies; he embarks on great construction projects; he gains intimate relationships; he gathers around himself all the sources of life’s experiences. But in the end each on their own, and all collectively, fail to bring him either happiness or wisdom.

In a famous passage from chapter 3, oft read at weddings or sometimes funerals, he reflects on how time is given to us as series of seasons or moments each with a distinct character. “There is a time for everything under the sun...”

He goes on to reflect that “God has made everything beautiful in its time.” In this pregnant phrase he is implying that each event comes to us with its own time and that there is beauty woven into time as a result.

Time is not just a sequence of seconds, a quantity that passes; rather time is a series of given moments each of which has a specific and unique purpose, character, colour, texture. In each moment of time, there is opportunity for a given response- a time for laughing, for building, for mourning and so on.

The writer reflects on his quest to find wisdom in acquiring things and people. His discovery is that wisdom, meaning, purpose and fulfilment cannot be acquired and possessed. Instead, it can only possess us. It is us who need to be possessed by wisdom.

Wisdom is what takes hold of us and leads us into the gentle rhythms of life as they come to us. Wisdom is what guides us into the humble participation of the moment that is now at hand. Wisdom is what disciplines us to remain attentive and committed to the task required in the moment before us.

Thus, we find that in the Hebrew book of Proverbs, Wisdom is personified as a strong, capable woman who leads, guides, provides, cherishes, shepherds, shelters us by enabling us to receive life as it is given to us. Not as a quantity to be exploited, to be made productive, but as a gift to participated within.

What is the relevance of all this for learning, and more specifically, for the learning of our child?

The goal of our children’s learning is not the obtaining of knowledge but the gaining of wisdom. Wisdom is what leads us to live well in the world.

Life without wisdom is not a less knowledgeable life, it is a diminished life; it is a life out of step with, out of time with, the world that is now at hand. To be unwise is to miss the moment. It is to be busy but doing the wrong thing.

What do we mean?

Consider how soil forms. It is laid down by a process of composting. Rotting vegetation from last season’s growth, decomposing, broken down by bacteria, aerated by worms. The gardener knows how to compost his fallen fruit and vegetation. It takes months. He must patiently dig it in. It enriches the soil.

The child becomes wise in the same way. He patiently digs into his soil the fallen fruit of the last cycle of growth- the death of a project, the harvest of books read and ideas learned, the disappointment of the recent failure, the fertiliser of a new idea, the hopes for a new year. As the child learns to dig this detritus into his soil, so it becomes fertile. Over time, it is prepared for what may grow from it.

New ideas are sown, planted into this soil. Some take root. Others die. Some he waters. They grow shoots. Alongside these in spring, shrubs, tubers and bulbs sprout- older structures of understanding and thought which have the power to bud perennially, giving permanent shape to the garden. His garden is structured but full of surprises; he anticipates more learning each year as unexpected plants take root in the soil. He relishes the uniqueness of his garden, enjoying its particular character, different from all the other gardens around.

The child becomes wise as he learns to trust what grows from his garden soil. He is purposeful but not frantic, hard working but not driven. He cultivates but does not over water. He protects but does not fret. He is patient and times his growth for the right season, the harvest. He learns to live well, to grow well.

The child becomes wise as he learns not to be distracted by false promise. He learns to be hopeful, and yet accept the failure of the harvest through circumstances he cannot control. He is composed, resilient, not simply through mental toughness but because he trusts that his soil is rich enough- that what he needs will indeed grow.

The child becomes wise as he learns to walk his garden. He lays secure and pleasant paths by which he can lead others around his emotional and mental landscape. His thoughts are clear, well informed and make sense. They can welcome visitors. His garden is a hospitable place, a space of welcome, interest and charm. In time, others will find life there.

Within the garden there are scars; marks where guests have carelessly trampled, intruders have stolen, vandals have defaced. These marks are not erased but incorporated. In time the harsh scars are softened, becoming part of the history told through the landscape.

At the same time, the child becomes a careful guest in other people’s gardens, knowing where to walk, how to notice new shoots, what to avoid stepping on. In time, he will use these skills to cultivate many gardens- of his own children, or staff, or friends, or strangers.

The child becomes wise when he can strain his back to harvest a crop in season. He is expectant of a good harvest, eager to sell what he grows, hungry to be fed from the fruit of his land. He is shrewd but merciful in his dealings with others. Through his life, his garden provides for him.

The child becomes wise as he takes the pruning shears to his garden. Dead-heading, and pruning back past thoughts, old growth. He is disciplined in stripping out dead-wood thinking, old attachments, decaying ambition, rambling belief. He is not afraid of killing off the favoured plant which has grown to crowd out the light, preventing new shoots springing up.

And, over the years, the child becomes wise as he recognises the rhythm of the seasons. He recognises the patterns of the weather. He knows the time for growth and the time for death. He knows that all life leads to death. He knows that, even though the strength and vigour of his own garden may decline, his own garden is but itself a seed.

And that seed is planted in deeper soil. For his garden is held in the gaze of the One who created it, whose attention is upon his garden and whose footprints are left in the dew when he walks in the garden in the cool of the day.


P.S.

One of the liberating realisations for parents is that the transition into adulthood is going to be a much slower one than it was for us.... This gives us the opportunity to focus on cultivating a rich, ongoing relationship that shepherds our children into life rather than one that launches them into independence at twenty! Let's enjoy it!

If you feel these kinds of questions are of importance, then these blogs are written for you. I write as a parent, as an educational researcher and practitioner and as a learner myself.

Please tell your friends and fellow educational professionals and send them a link.
http://simonpwalker.blogspot.com




(c) Simon P Walker 2014

Sunday, 23 February 2014

How children learn no 5: Learning WHO?

There is no doubt the UK government sees education as a major solution to the societal challenges we face (I suspect other Western governments do too).

Education is seen as the route to increased social mobility (and charities such as the Sutton Trust have long been champions of this cause). It sees education as the stumbling block to our competing in the global economy (witness the fear associated with our low PISA ranking). It also, conveniently, tends to blame society’s woes on our education system and professionals. To drive the system harder the current Education Secretary, with his simplistic conflation of strong discipline with good learning, cannot resist imposing new metrics to drive what he calls ‘under performance’ out of the system.

But what do we actually mean by learning?

I wonder what you think your children, or grandchildren, are acquiring through their schooling?

In this series of blogs I want to look at some of the research that is out there, as well as some of our own research at Footprints, to dispel some myths about how children learn.

The blog titles are:
1. Learning WHAT?
2. Learning HOW?
3. Learning WHEN?
4. Learning WHERE?
5. Learning WHO?
6. Learning WHY?

If these kinds of thoughts concern you as a parent, then these forthcoming blogs are written for you. I write myself as a parent, but also as an educational researcher and practitioner and as a learner myself.

Please tell your friends and fellow professionals and send them a link. http://simonpwalker.blogspot.com




LEARNING WHO?

So who are the children who are the best learners? And what makes them the best?

It’s a question that every parent asks them self at some point of other along their child’s school career; generally after a disappointing parent’s evening.

Why can’t my Sal be like that Jill who always comes top of the set? What’s different about her?

It goes without saying that, of course, there are physiological factors. ‘You can’t put in what God’s left out’ as the old saying goes.

But equally, you can get out what God’s put in... and that’s where our part as parents or teachers comes in; ensuring that we draw out of our children what’s been put in.

So how do we do it?

We are not flying blind here. Recently the Education Endowment Fund conducted a survey of the literature on studies into what interventions accelerate learning in schools. It happened to be at roughly the same time as John Hattie, the New Zealand educationalist, did much the same. The two sets of results support each other.

Among the list is development of collaborative learning. Working with peers, learning from peers is generally more successful as a strategy than working solo. At the same time, self-agency (sometimes called resourcefulness) is highly important; the means not just looking to others to solve the problem but stepping up to find solutions ourselves.


Parents who don’t like seeing their child struggling to do something can trip up on this one. They step in to ‘help’ with their homework because they don’t want their child to get a bad mark. But this may stunt the development of self-agency in their child, leaving them to rely on others to give them the answers and sort out problems.

Another characteristic is resilience; the capacity to overcome set backs. By definition, learning involves making mistakes. If we don’t make mistakes then we haven’t tried anything hard enough. Being a parent or teacher involves, in Vyogotsky’s language, moving them into the zone of proximal development; that sphere that is just beyond what they are capable of doing. Not too far, so they are inevitably defeated; but far enough so they have to strain, stretch, try new things... feel a little uncomfortable. Effective learners are children who learn to be comfortable being a little uncomfortable; being a little beyond what feels easy and known.


But the top quality that effective learners have is that of metacognition: the ability to think about how they think.


Imagine there are two ballet dancers and both want to get better. One thinks about how she dances, trains, follows instructions and dances; the other just trains, follows instructions and dances. Which one is likely to improve the most over the long run?

The answer is the first; the one who thinks about how she dances. By watching herself in the mirror, comparing her posture to the ideal techniques, reading books and watching videos she is building up a mental map of what progress looks like. Moreover, she knows where she is currently on the map and where she is trying to develop to next. She has an overview of her development and can take responsible and control over it.

This ballet dancer has metacognition; the second doesn’t.

In a previous blog Learning WHEN? I showed how the most academically successful students adapt their thinking strategy for the subject before them. In other words, they have an internalised metacognitive map about which strategy would be most suitable for the learning activity in hand. Weaker students are not able to make those choices so effectively.

Is this metacognitive map something those students were just born with? Possibly some students are more adept at building the map than others; but all students can be taught that there is a map, what its key features are and how to move around it.

Choosing the optimal thinking strategy is not magic; nor is it the preserve of the genetically advantaged. It can be taught and we should do so.



If you feel these kinds of questions are of importance, then these forthcoming blogs are written for you. I write as a parent, as an educational researcher and practitioner and as a learner myself.

Please tell your friends and fellow educational professionals and send them a link. http://simonpwalker.blogspot.com




(c) Simon P Walker 2014

Friday, 21 February 2014

How children learn no. 4: Learning WHERE?

There is no doubt the UK government sees education as a major solution to the societal challenges we face (I suspect other Western governments do too).

Education is seen as the route to increased social mobility (and charities such as the Sutton Trust have long been champions of this cause). It sees education as the stumbling block to our competing in the global economy (witness the fear associated with our low PISA ranking). It also, conveniently, tends to blame society’s woes on our education system and professionals. To drive the system harder the current Education Secretary, with his simplistic conflation of strong discipline with good learning, cannot resist imposing new metrics to drive what he calls ‘under performance’ out of the system.

But what do we actually mean by learning?

I wonder what you think your children, or grandchildren, are acquiring through their schooling?

In this series of blogs I want to look at some of the research that is out there, as well as some of our own research at Footprints, to dispel some myths about how children learn.

The blog titles are:
1. Learning WHAT?
2. Learning HOW?
3. Learning WHEN?
4. Learning WHERE?
5. Learning WHO?
6. Learning WHY?

If these kinds of thoughts concern you as a parent, then these forthcoming blogs are written for you. I write myself as a parent, but also as an educational researcher and practitioner and as a learner myself.

Please tell your friends and fellow professionals and send them a link. http://simonpwalker.blogspot.com




FOUR: LEARNING WHERE?

School is for learning right? Right. But so is home.

Children attend school for only seven or eight hours a day. It’s quite obvious that we need to think about how life beyond the school gate enables them to learn. Principally, this involves our homes.

One of the weaknesses in government campaigns to drive up social mobility through education is that relatively speaking, so much of what influences a child’s learning and development happens outside the school. Teachers can’t influence that.

But parents can.

Many parents are willing but ignorant of what this would involve. How would one make one’s home an environment in which children can learn? Turn the TV off? Turn the TV on? Limit internet access? Encourage internet use? Listen to the radio? Encourage reading? Talk? Be silent?

It’s confusing and there’s much confusing advice around.

In fact, we should be guided by what we know works in school (where there has been a huge amount of research). I wrote about this in my first blog Learning what? What works in school is dialogue: it is the quality of conversation that takes place between the student and the teacher.

The same is going to be true at home. A home in which children are stimulated and enabled to learn will be one in which children and parents engage with each other in a rich dialogue.

Let me flesh this out a bit....

Think of your home as a place that inspires curiosity. What might that look like? Well, here are some ideas from a talk I give on the subject:



Let me pick up on a couple of these.

‘Voice your own questions’. It is a great value for our adolescent children to hear their parents voicing genuine questions they themselves have; political questions, religious questions, historical scientific, economic, cultural questions... any! Parents need to model that they themselves are learners and asking questions is how we learn... And listen to your children’s answers.

For that matter, it’s no bad thing for us to be trying to learn a new skill ourselves (the piano, a language, brick laying, composting, blogging, Facebook... whatever). All the better if we have to ask our children to help and teach us; the best learning is to teach others (research tells us this not just granny).

For that reason, change your opinion of some things. Model how to revise your ideas, accept new evidence, shift position. If you never change your opinion then you yourself are stuck; you’ve stopped being a learner and are heading for a cul-de-sac of intellectual stagnation.


So here’s a couple of questions for YOU:

- What have you been learning with your child that is new for you as well as for them? (Think not only of the topics but of the skills...)

- Many parents try and teach their children some maths or english when helping them with their homework. Have you asked your child how you could teach them better?

- When was the last time you said sorry for getting something wrong?



P.s. Parents can also ask better questions of their schools. Most parents look a bit like this when they come to secondary school parents evening:


We haven’t got a clue what we should be asking; instead we find ourselves sitting there, dumb and stupid, nodding as we are shown stats and grades (“Is C++ good honey??” whispered under breath as one slips away from Maths to go to Science).

So here are a couple of questions to ask at parent’s evening:

- Can you tell me the skills you are seeking my child to develop through this topic? (evaluating, reflecting, connecting, analysing, presenting.... etc..)

- Could you describe the next step my child needs to take on their learning journey in this topic? (i.e. what is the next skill my child needs to develop)

If you feel these kinds of questions are of importance, then these forthcoming blogs are written for you. I write as a parent, as an educational researcher and practitioner and as a learner myself.

Please tell your friends and fellow educational professionals and send them a link. http://simonpwalker.blogspot.com


(c) Simon P Walker 2014

Thursday, 20 February 2014

The third thing you need to know.... Learning WHEN?

There is no doubt the UK government sees education as a major solution to the societal challenges we face (I suspect other Western governments do too).

Education is seen as the route to increased social mobility (and charities such as the Sutton Trust have long been champions of this cause). It sees education as the stumbling block to our competing in the global economy (witness the fear associated with our low PISA ranking). It also, conveniently, tends to blame society’s woes on our education system and professionals. To drive the system harder the current Education Secretary, with his simplistic conflation of strong discipline with good learning, cannot resist imposing new metrics to drive what he calls ‘under performance’ out of the system.

But what do we actually mean by learning?

I wonder what you think your children, or grandchildren, are acquiring through their schooling?

In this series of blogs I want to look at some of the research that is out there, as well as some of our own research at Footprints, to dispel some myths about how children learn.

The blog titles are:
1. Learning WHAT?
2. Learning HOW?
3. Learning WHEN?
4. Learning WHERE?
5. Learning WHO?
6. Learning WHY?

If these kinds of thoughts concern you as a parent, then these forthcoming blogs are written for you. I write myself as a parent, but also as an educational researcher and practitioner and as a learner myself.

Please tell your friends and fellow professionals and send them a link. http://simonpwalker.blogspot.com




THREE: LEARNING WHEN?


Imagine this is you. It’s 8.30a.m. and it is the start of your school day. You face all of these lessons over the next seven hours.

Each lesson is in a different location. You have to move from classroom to classroom every forty five minutes. In each room you have to settle quickly in a different desk, before a different adult starts to tell you things you have to pay attention to.

What they are telling you relates directly to the last time you were in that class two days ago; you have to try and connect what you are being told now with what you left the room understanding then. Then you get up and leave.

Every forty minutes the social group you are in changes. You have to negotiate the social rules of this particular group, and then the next, and then the next.

The kind of mental tasks involved in one lesson are entirely different to the next; you go from a physical task, to logical sequencing, to abstract maths, to language learning, to writing dialogue, to observation, to measurement..... Each of the skills required for these different activities has to be at the ready to be utilised without hesitation and delay, at the teacher’s instructions.... before you then adjust to the next.

By 4pm the ordeal is finished. The school day is over. Tomorrow you face the same thing.

No wonder many children find school an inhibiting environment in which to learn.


When you think about it, the design of the secondary school day is bizarre. Who would design an office day like this?

Who would think that the most productive work would be done by juxtaposing random, contrary tasks and activities requiring entirely different skills in different locations and with different groups and different rules, norms and goals every forty minutes? Surely this is a recipe for waste, inefficiency and mental disorder?



In fact, research we conducted in 2012 suggests that it may be. We studied the ability of higher and lower academically performing 15 year olds to adapt their cognitive thinking strategies on the Footprints Assessment Platform from lesson to lesson.

We found that academically successful students adopt measurably different cognitive strategies when tackling maths and science tasks compared to tackling English or arts tasks.

This is not surprising: thinking yourself into a character in a novel involves very different regions of the brain than solving quadratic equations.

One way to think about this is that different subjects tend to ‘broadcast’ themselves on different cognitive wavelengths. Maths knowledge uses a different wavelength (more analytical and procedural) to an arts subject (more empathic and sensorial), which is different from a humanities (more concrete and observational) or science (more conceptual and theoretical).


A student is a bit like a radio operator; in a lesson they have to try and tune their cognition in to the subject wavelength, to pick up the signal clearly in order to understand the message.


We found, in effect, that higher academically performing students were better radio operators than lower performing students. They were able to adjust their cognitive thinking strategies more effectively than the lower performing students, to tune in to the signal, as they moved from subject to subject, lesson to lesson.


Lower performing students failed to accurately attune to the optimal thinking strategy required for the lesson. Like the green wavelength, they were out of synch.

Higher performing students were more accurately able to attune and choose the optimal thinking strategy for their different subjects.

What are the implications of this?

One of course, is that improving the adaptiveness of student thinking strategies will have an immediately positive impact on their learning. We are evaluating the impact of an exciting strategy (Footprints Raising Attainment) do just that in a London school as I write.

A second is that schools must think carefully about the nature of transitions (entries and exits) between lessons. Weaker students can be helped by consistent routines and rituals at the start and end of each lesson.

Lesson length (a continual point of debate) is also impacted by this research. Why have seven transitions when you could have four?



The school day is a precious resource, a great investment by society into the generation. We should think carefully how we structure that investment to provide the maximum and not the minimum benefit.


If you feel these kinds of questions are of importance, then these forthcoming blogs are written for you. I write as a parent, as an educational researcher and practitioner and as a learner myself.

Please tell your friends and fellow educational professionals and send them a link. http://simonpwalker.blogspot.com


(c) Simon P Walker 2014

Wednesday, 19 February 2014

How children learn no.2: Learning HOW?

There is no doubt the UK government sees education as a major solution to the societal challenges we face (I suspect other Western governments do too).

Education is seen as the route to increased social mobility (and charities such as the Sutton Trust have long been champions of this cause). It sees education as the stumbling block to our competing in the global economy (witness the fear associated with our low PISA ranking). It also, conveniently, tends to blame society’s woes on our education system and professionals. To drive the system harder the current Education Secretary, with his simplistic conflation of strong discipline with good learning, cannot resist imposing new metrics to drive what he calls ‘under performance’ out of the system.

But what do we actually mean by learning?

I wonder what you think your children, or grandchildren, are acquiring through their schooling?

In this series of blogs I want to look at some of the research that is out there, as well as some of our own research at Footprints, to dispel some myths about how children learn.

The blog titles are:
1. Learning WHAT?
2. Learning HOW?
3. Learning WHEN?
4. Learning WHERE?
5. Learning WHO?
6. Learning WHY?

If these kinds of thoughts concern you as a parent, then these forthcoming blogs are written for you. I write myself as a parent, but also as an educational researcher and practitioner and as a learner myself.

Please tell your friends and fellow professionals and send them a link. http://simonpwalker.blogspot.com




TWO: LEARNING HOW?

People over fifty tend to think that the best teachers are the experts in their subject. They look at the school staff list and are pleased to see the odd MA Cantab, or DPhil. These people are sometimes effective teachers but not always; perhaps not even often.

The reason for this is that overwhelmingly, studies show that it is not how much the teacher knows about the subject that matters, but how much they know about what the student knows that really counts.

In other words, the experts one needs in teaching are not subject experts but experts in their students; in accessing and responding to what is in the student’s mind.

Recent meta-research published by the Educational Endowment Fund showed that overwhelmingly research from the past thirty years highlighted that the single most effective intervention to accelerate the learning of a class of students was to improve the quality of feedback between them and the teacher.

Feedback from the student to the teacher is when the student is able to tell the teacher ‘This is what I know about x or y.... and this is what I don’t know or can’t do...’. This is locating feedback; it enables the teacher to locate where the student is and what, precisely, is the next step they need to take in their learning. Learning is a journey that can only be taken one step at a time. It is useless for the teacher to keep pointing to the mountain top when the student is in the foothills.

Feedback from the teacher to the student is when the teacher is able to tell the student. ‘This is what you are doing well- keep doing it- this is what you need to do next’ . The teacher offers accurate, precise (what is called formative) feedback to the student about their next step forward.

We are talking then, about a dialogue here; the quality of dialogue that exists between a teacher and their students.


Now dialogue is not something that teenagers find easy- especially in front of a class of peers. Adolescence is a period in which our self-concept is shaped principally by the evaluation of our peers rather than our parents. Therefore, the greatest risk for a teenager is that one’s peers will laugh and mock what they are trying to say in class.

Embarrassment is the chief emotion that must be overcome if a teacher is to foster the kind of effective high quality dialogue that research suggest they must (OK, so now you are thinking back to your own teachers who regularly used to ‘shame’ students in front of the whole class..... yes, genuinely appalling and destructive....)


The most important characteristic of an outstanding school lesson, then, is the dialogue that is flowing back and forth and around the classroom.

This is not restricted to verbal dialogue. Good teachers develop simple, effective means of enabling what is called ‘the pupil voice’; peer groups; buddies; triads; giving pupils little individual whiteboards to write up their questions or responses; post it notes; shout-out walls; talk partners; physical signs for children to indicate the level they have understood an idea, and many more....


Have a look at this exceptional marking.


-The teacher has described the achievements required as clear statements.
-She has then set out a scale to grade where the student was at the start of the topic (purple) and where he is at the end (green), showing progress and building encouragement.
-She has two checkpoints for the student below, so the student is self marking.
-Then the student has written his own evaluation at the bottom of what he thinks he needs to do better.
-Finally she returns a comment to the student encouraging progress.

This is the kind of precise, ongoing effective dialogue that enables a student to move forward and own their own learning.

It is also an illustration, again, of why Gove’s rote learning, with students sitting quietly in rows, is simply flawed.


(c) Simon P Walker 2014

Tuesday, 18 February 2014

The first thing to know about how your child learns: Learning WHAT?

There is no doubt the UK government sees education as a major solution to the societal challenges we face (I suspect other Western governments do too).

Education is seen as the route to increased social mobility (and charities such as the Sutton Trust have long been champions of this cause). It sees education as the stumbling block to our competing in the global economy (witness the fear associated with our low PISA ranking). It also, conveniently, tends to blame society’s woes on our education system and professionals. To drive the system harder the current Education Secretary, with his simplistic conflation of strong discipline with good learning, cannot resist imposing new metrics to drive what he calls ‘under performance’ out of the system.

But what do we actually mean by learning?

I wonder what you think your children, or grandchildren, are acquiring through their schooling?

In this series of blogs I want to look at some of the research that is out there, as well as some of our own research at Footprints, to dispel some myths about how children learn.

The blog titles are:
1. Learning WHAT?
2. Learning HOW?
3. Learning WHEN?
4. Learning WHERE?
5. Learning WHO?
6. Learning WHY?

If these kinds of thoughts concern you as a parent, then these forthcoming blogs are written for you. I write myself as a parent, but also as an educational researcher and practitioner and as a learner myself.

Please tell your friends and fellow professionals and send them a link. http://simonpwalker.blogspot.com




ONE: LEARNING WHAT?

Patently school is no longer about ingesting knowledge. The significance of the internet, principally, is that it has moved memory from the singular to the collective.

Let me illustrate. When a 50 year old needs to plant onions, he thinks back to how his father did it; then he recalls doing it himself; finally, he consults his gardening book.

When a twenty year old does the same, he searches Google.



Memory these days in located collectively on the web. We have outsourced it. The need for the individual to retain memories of knowledge, for the sake of access and recall, is nearly redundant if we see ourselves with immersive access to the internet 24/7.

This has implications for our resilience as a species. I would argue that I am more resilient and well resourced than my children because I can do without the internet for knowledge; I have retained it and have other sources by which I can access it. They, however, are dependent; they have regressed to a suckling relationship with the feed of collectively held knowledge and memory located on the web. If that goes down, they have no back up.

Michael Gove, the current Secretary of State for Education is right, in one sense, when he makes an appeal for a return to learning the old facts. Without internalised facts, the individual is fragile and vulnerable.

However, there is an additional reason why internalising knowledge is important. This is because we cannot form complex concepts in our minds until we have absorbed sufficient particulars.

Conceptual thinking is the great advance of our minds; the ability to relate concrete instances into over-arching wholes cannot be achieved by other species. Conceptualisation enables us not only organise our experience but also to interpret it. We can only understand the meaning of the current deluging pattern of rain in the UK if we can locate it within a wider system of weather patterns, even climate. The particular is just data unless it has context to give it meaning. Without conceptualisation we cannot predict, plan, act, live.

But, critically, in order to form complex abstractions such as weather systems, climate models, a philosophy of industrial ethics, a framework for corporate responsibility, an economics of recession, individuals must personally internalise, retain and be able to access a huge amount of concrete knowledge.

This is the real risk for the twenty year old: having always been able to access knowledge from Google, he risks never having internalised it such that he can conceptualise from it. He risks being stunted at the concrete-operational Piagetian cognitive level of the pre-adolescent child.

So, there is an importance in WHAT we learn; that we learn things, events, truths, ideas, FACTS. We cannot strip the memory of such things out of schooling without infantilising the next generation.

However, learning is more than retaining these instances and events as memories. It is the cognitive capacity to USE these ideas.

Over recent years educational researchers have produced countless studies identifying the qualities that will enable our children to use their knowledge. It appears Mr Gove is ignorant of such studies for he speaks like who believes that injecting children with more knowledge will improve their education.

These are the critical six qualities that will mark out a student who is able to use their knowledge in practical intelligence:


There are some sacred cows which must be sacrificed on this list. Let’s look at a few.

Take no.1 A curious child will be more successful in life than an academic one. Now, it may be the case that an academically successful child is successful at school because they are curious; but it is not always the case. Good grades can be achieved by rote learning, rehearsal and hard work. But the best schools look for curiosity in their students not just grades. Why? Because most real-world problems can only be solved by the curious and not by the diligent.

Or no.2 and no 4. These suggest a student who is willing to be a little maverick, turn their thinking on its head, try something new. Often, they may be slightly off the mark, may score less well than the reliable, consistent student who sail close to shore, gives the conventional answer. Schools often reward the conventional because exams assess for conventional responses. But, evidence shows that the willingness to over-turn one’s own thinking, to get things wrong correlates with higher performance in the long run.

Most recently, in 2013, our own Footprints research with UK GCSE and A Level students demonstrated that higher academically performing students correlated with being will to question rather than trust their own ideas, opinions and qualities. Low performing students, on the other hand, were happy to trust their own qualities and ideas (sometimes out of complacency, sometimes out of defiance or self-assurance).

This give the lie to the myth that high self-confidence is key to learning; in fact it is No 3. resourcefulness that really matters. Self-efficacy- the capacity to identify and choose a strategy to move forward is critical. Self confidence – a belief in oneself- is often counter-productive.

This also relates to no 5. Resilience is the ability to overcome set backs. Many school high achievers don’t know what it is to fail. Come failure in life and work (which WILL come) they lack the emotional resilience to cope. Again, inventiveness does not come from success but overcoming failure (Edison and his light bulbs). Many of the banking strategies that led to the crash and the loss of other people’s money were pursued in the face of evidence. Why? Because the (principally male) bankers did not have the resilience to cope with losing face, with admitting they were wrong, with posting a loss. The inability to admit failure is critical to the psychological health of us all, not least in those we entrust with our financial system.

And no 6. is counter-intuitive. We prize the competitive student, the one set on beating others; we assume they will be more successful at school. The evidence is the reverse. It is students who are willing to share, to learn from others, to work in groups who learn most effectively.

This IS one lesson that young people understand in a way their parents do not. Social media, collective memory held on the web, a culture of free published content are part of a world in which young people instinctively share and disseminate their ideas rather than protecting and shielding them. They dialogue. In this they have broken the chains of the culture of the macho independent thinker/leader. And it is a good thing too.

If you feel these kinds of questions are of importance, then these forthcoming blogs are written for you. I write as a parent, as an educational researcher and practitioner and as a learner myself.

Please tell your friends and fellow educational professionals and send them a link. http://simonpwalker.blogspot.com


(c) Simon P Walker 2014

Monday, 17 February 2014

Six things you need to know about how your child learns

There is no doubt the UK government sees education as a major solution to the societal challenges we face (I suspect other Western governments do too).

Education is seen as the route to increased social mobility (and charities such as the Sutton Trust have long been champions of this cause). It sees education as the stumbling block to our competing in the global economy (witness the fear associated with our low PISA ranking). It also, conveniently, tends to blame society’s woes on our education system and professionals. To drive the system harder the current Education Secretary, with his simplistic conflation of strong discipline with good learning, cannot resist imposing new metrics to drive what he calls ‘under performance’ out of the system.

But what do we actually mean by learning?

I wonder what you think your children, or grandchildren, are acquiring through their schooling?

In this series of blogs I want to look at some of the research that is out there, as well as some of our own research at Footprints, to dispel some myths about how children learn.

I am primarily talking to parents; those of us with children going through or about to go through the schooling system. This is such an important period of one’s influence over our children and their future; yet it is also one that is very hard. It is long, convoluted, confusing and constantly evolving. Twenty years ago, it could be taken as read that decent school grades would lead, fairly inevitably, to a decent degree and then a decent job. That equation just doesn’t hold any more. Look at youth employment statistics nudging 50% in European countries to see that being educated does not equate to employment today.

So, what is the point of it all, this massive educational investment in our children? Is there any? If so, what is it? What are the skills, values, goals which are worth digging for, which will last, which will show a benefit in any economy, any society?

The blog titles are:
1. Learning WHAT?
2. Learning HOW?
3. Learning WHEN?
4. Learning WHERE?
5. Learning WHO?
6. Learning WHY?

If these kinds of thoughts plague you as a parent, then these forthcoming blogs are written for you. I write myself as a parent, but also as an educational researcher and practitioner and as a learner myself.

Please tell your friends and fellow professionals and send them a link. http://simonpwalker.blogspot.com


(c) Simon P Walker 2014

Tuesday, 11 February 2014

Introducing new pages now available on the blog

I've created new pages on the blog to bring together some of my past sets of posts. You can find these pages below and on the right menu.

Simon Walker produces original writing and research for all those concerned about the world we are bequeathing to the next generation.

Ten strategies to increase social mobility
Nine lessons for advent
Five charts to explain your children's world
One fable to renew societal health


To learn more about the work he and his wife Jo are pioneering in schools visit
The Footprints Programme for Schools


(c) Simon P Walker 2014

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