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

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.


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


  1. Replies
    1. Thanks Oeds- glad you found it stimulating. Tell me where your interest lies?


Share it