What is Learning?
An article written for the London Progressive Journal by THS Academic Director Dr Faysal Mikdadi
Monday 8th July, 2019
“Live as if you were to die tomorrow. Learn as if you were to live forever.”
After a life time in education I am more convinced than ever that the only route to success within any educational establishment, at any level, is a love of learning.
Maybe this is not a fashionable point of view in a world where utilitarianism rules, where politicians engage with structure by creating academies but ignoring the core purpose of what schools are about: learning and learning only. Within learning are a multiplicity of purposes including acquiring skills that lead to good jobs, passing tests and examinations that lead to useful qualifications and having the basic skills. Along with these, learning is also about enjoying being in the classroom, taking risks in order to find out more, questioning in a childishly curious way, refusing to accept that status quo purely because an adult says that it is so, having a good measure of scepticism about anything which is asserted without any clear and convincing evidence, hypothesising, doing rather than being told how to do, making mistakes without fear or shame, accepting that learning’s outcomes are long term and go on for the rest of one’s life…etc…
When Palestinian teacher, Ms Hanan Hroub, was awarded the $1,000,000.00 Global Teacher Prize, she explained her teaching methods (The Independent , 19 March 2016):
‘I like to see them happy when they learn, to see happy faces, to feel that the classroom is like their home. It is a family atmosphere and we work as a team. When we engage in quizzes and games, I urge them to think victory isn’t individual, but a team victory. Maybe they will be violent to each other, maybe they will lose concentration or be hyperactive. This creates impediments to the learning process. My experience is to never leave them one moment to be bored. I have to grab the attention all the time by moving from one personality to the other. Now I am Hanan. [Wearing a wig and a clown’s nose] I am Zarifa. What did you learn from Zarifa? Maybe Zarifa reads a story to them. As long as you are active, as long as you keep rejuvenating yourself and your role, your students will be interested. This is one way of achieving goals in a quick way. [The children have seen their father] hurt by the Israeli occupation force. [This] pushed me to create a safe and happy atmosphere for every child I teach.’
What? No data? Levels of progress? Examination results? Behaviour for learning? Leadership qualities? Parents’ survey returns? SMSC?... Presumably, OfSTED would, at best, suggest that the learning described above would “require improvements”. More likely, with Ms Hroub’s use of language such as “happy” and “safe” whilst wearing a clown’s nose would require “special measures”.
Sounds familiar? Sadly, for many teachers and their students, it does. For the last thirty or so years, the focus on crushing teachers has caused the education system to take its eye off its core purpose: learning and the joy of learning.
I am equally convinced that the impediments to successful learning are the following:
Local Authority advisers.
These are the main impediments that get in the way of effective learning. Many teachers and other interested parties would add many other impediments such as obsessive use of technology and social media, self engrossment, growing up too fast, dumbing down of all that children and adults do, greed, impatience, religious zealotry, idolatry of sporting activities, worship of an idealised childhood that does not, and never did, exist…etc…
Sadly, as a result of the developments of many such impediments over the last half century there has been an increased and largely unnecessary reliance on the quick fix. Consequently, a massive production line has emerged producing endless self help books, CDs, programmes, therapies, models, drugs and many others that make empty promises about effecting immediate change.
A quick survey of education publications would produce an unbelievably large number of cheap books that are covered in hype about self help for parents desperate to help their child do well in mathematics or English. The claims of quick results are laughable just as are the endless ridiculous January claims for easy, instant and costly diets that work for a few weeks and are forgotten about by the Spring when the weight is piled back on again.
We live in a market that constantly bombards us with interminable promises of quick fixes. One need look no further than the claims made by endless self styled gurus who promise to help the gullible give up smoking in no time for a few hundred pounds – help the desperate to spend huge amounts of unavailable cash to remove the endless signs of ageing – the CDs that promise gentle exercise to produce the body perfect – expensive and largely useless machines that allow one to watch endless television whilst they allegedly do whatever they need to do to help circulation, tone up muscles, remove unwanted hair…etc…
This market would be hilarious if it were not so tragic since it is aimed at conning the maximum amount of money from the maximum number of gullible and often lost souls who want the best but lack the character and determination to do what needs to be done, e.g. eat less, exercise more, take control…etc… in order to lose weight over time in a manageable, sustainable, permanent and beneficial way.
Successful education is predicated on successful learning – and little else.
Successful learning is dependent on working hard over the long period in order to accrue the long term benefits necessary.
Genuinely successful learning becomes a habit – a life time habit of the much lauded, and often ignored, life time learning.
A habit for learning becomes so ingrained that one can not do without it – in other words, learning becomes a joy in itself.
As a teacher over a very long time, my students were kind enough to use epithets such as “inspirational”, “legendary”, “exciting”, “funny”, “ambitious” and other similar terms. Looking back, I could never fully understand why they did so apart from their wish to be kind to a teacher who was happy to be in the classroom. Indeed, I always felt that I needed to do a great deal more to help my students. I also felt that my hard work in the classroom was constantly being hindered by events beyond my control. For example, I often found myself neglecting marking my students’ work because a rather stupid headteacher wanted me to attend a useless meeting in County Hall or to fill in a complex form for the Department of Education or to attend lengthy after school meetings to listen to him pontificating about everything except the students’ life chances. I also missed lessons because the Local Authority adviser instructed me to drive hundreds of miles to attend several days of ridiculous nonsense about multicultural education that bore no relation to my students’ needs in the classroom. I remember the frustration that I felt when these occurrences took place – more frequently than I would have liked. Add to those impediments the many others imposed on me as a classroom teacher by hours wasted preparing for a pompous inspector’s visit – an inspector, incidentally, who had not been in a classroom for over twenty or more years! Of course, as a teacher then, little did I know that I was destined to become one of this happy band of idiots once I gained my own personal idiot’s certificate!
It took me a very very long time to learn to take control of my classroom, to learn to focus on my students’ learning to the exclusion of all else and – most importantly, to acquire the courage to stand up to power absorbed headteachers, power hungry senior leaders (“Mice training to become rats” as one deputy headteacher put to me in 1982 before he went on to become a mediocre rat himself), Local Authority obfuscators, insipid inspectors and so many others. Needless to say, once I accepted to do nothing but focus on learning and on learning only, two things happened.
Firstly, I became a truly good teacher as testified by my students, many of whom are still regularly in touch, many after nearly forty years. I can only apologise to the large number of those students who claim that my teaching inspired them to become teachers themselves. I am truly sorry for having done this to you!
Not really. Teaching is, in my view, the only truly and genuinely noble and honourable profession. But then, I would say that, wouldn’t I? England, a country overcrowded with education experts born of the common experience of school attendance, has little respect for its exhausted and overworked teachers.
The second thing that happened; my life was made absolute hell by those whose job appeared to put endless obstacles in the way of my passion for learning. Eventually, I learnt even to ignore their barbs and endless threats. Indeed, I developed a quirky pride in being reprimanded for all kinds of perceived infractions of their unnecessary demands that bore no link whatever to students’ learning and eventual success.
I was in education to help students learn. That was the golden rule. Indeed, all else, was commentary put there to entertain the pompous, the vacuous, the self engrossed and the self important.
Teachers need to focus on the core purpose of our existence.
Learning – learning, and learning only, to the exclusion of all else.
Recently, a highly respected headteacher with a national reputation, expressed a concern about my argument that all that mattered was learning. He understandably felt that it was teaching, surely, that we had to focus on in order to get learning right. A few weeks later, during a briefing that I was giving in London, a visiting Minister of Education also expressed a concern that learning can not be our focus without teaching being, in the first place, successful. I enjoy these little discussions where we parry ideas and thrust this way and that until one of us wins. Indeed, that is what dialogue for learning has always been about in my classrooms.
Needless to say, I did not fully convince either successful professional of my belief in the importance of learning as the main agent for success. I always think of the clever answer way after the meeting is over! All I could offer them was a lifelong passion – to the point that one of them called me “a romantic”.
I was very happy with that compliment. For, if an interest in my students’ learning, and my students’ learning only, makes me “a romantic” then so be it… I wish to be the eternal romantic.
As was shown by OfSTED in the nineties, the focus on teaching in evaluating educational provision led to a serious slump in teachers’ morale. Whenever anyone goes into a lesson to scrutinise what the teacher does, s/he, by necessity, is going to create an atmosphere of threat since their purpose is to criticise rather than encourage.
Secondly, when a lesson is observed to see what the teacher is doing, there is an assumption of what it is that constitutes good teaching. Indeed, teachers, as a result of OfSTED, adopted a very formulaic response to the inspector’s visits by having a tick list of what they believed the inspector was looking for. At one point in the nineties, we reached the ridiculous position of having examination and test results deteriorate during the year of an OfSTED visit because the school became too busy preparing for the visit to focus on the core purpose of their very existence: the students’ learning.
Over the twenty six plus years since the start of OfSTED, even that rather ugly behemoth came to the inevitable conclusion that the only valid way of judging educational provision was to look at the individual student’s learning. Furthermore, even behaviour could be looked at only in terms of its impact on learning (behaviour for learning).
There are very good reasons why the focus should be on learning and on learning only:
What the teacher does can only be deemed useful if it has an impact on the student’s learning. If the student does not learn, the teacher can prepare exemplary lesson plans, give a magnificent performance worthy of an Oscar and spend half the night marking endlessly – it is all useless if learning does not take place.
The focus on teaching took away the locus of responsibility for learning from the students and placed it squarely on the teacher. This is clearly unhelpful. Years ago parents would reprimand a child for a bad school report. Today, most parents rant and rave at the teacher and at the school for their child’s unacceptable school report. This is almost as if neither student nor parent has anything to do with learning. It is all up to the teacher, thus putting the teacher in the same bracket as those idiotic quick fixes so common these days.
By focusing on learning, the teacher takes the responsibility for learning away from being exclusively his/hers and distributes it where it belongs: first with the student, then with the parent and other family members, onto other stakeholders in the student’s life including, most importantly, other students.
If learning becomes a distributed and shared responsibility, then it becomes an equally shared discussion. One of the biggest contributors to successful learning is the students’ engagement in a dialogue. The students need to talk about their learning, what they have learnt, how they know that they have learnt it, what they need to do next, how well can they do next and what they need to do to extend their learning…etc… There is a great deal of evidence that dialogic exchanges build on learning and embed it (Pask, 1975; Baker et al, 2002). Dialogues also extend learning so that the student becomes an independent thinker. They also produce effective learning opportunities for imparting knowledge and for encouraging students’ more complex thought processes.
The students taking responsibility for their own learning also means that they become independent learners. This, in turn, also means that they become independent thinkers who are willing to ask difficult questions. As our society develops further into a compliant and conformist body politic, we desperately need inspirational and courageous men and women who would question everything and who would take control of their lives in the most personally beneficial way. Taking control of one’s destiny is the first step to real freedom and the main foil to tyranny – not only political tyranny, but also the more insidious social tyranny as exercised by the media, the multinational corporations and the market. It is often stated that the country needs critical thinkers. Yet, schools do a great deal to militate against critical thinking. Indeed, I have often observed teachers deem a student’s critical thinking response as “rudeness”, “arrogance”, “cheekiness” and many such negative qualities. Teachers will also have endless examples of critical students being deemed “subversive” because they refuse to conform. I have never had any problem with a student telling me that s/he did not like Hamlet’s or Macbeth’s soliloquy as long as they gave me reasons preferably supported from the text. Indeed, I have always insisted on students interpreting Othello, as a play about love, jealousy, betrayal, hatred, adultery, racism, sex, envy, stupidity, inferiority, politics, oppression, feminism, paternity, Islamophobia, weakness, strength, psychology, war, military complex, misogyny, family, love, hatred, bestiality, innocence, guilt, power, cowardice, glory… and many other possibilities as long as my students supported their views from the text or clear historical context where available. I have gone further and suggested links should be made with the little bit that we know about Shakespeare’s life based on my belief that most fictional writing is essentially autobiographical – and where it is not, we can imagine it as being such – hence our own rewriting of great literature over and over again through many readings of the same text during a life time. My students delighted in taking these unknown journeys into unknown worlds.
I well remember attending a lecture by Professor Stenhouse in January, 1979 wherein he suggested that research helps improve teaching. I was impressed by the idea which eventually morphed into Professor Sutherland (the first HMCI and probably the only one of any meaningful substance) who suggested that what we inspectors did were small pieces of postgraduate research that improved teaching and, consequently, students’ learning. Professor Stenhouse concluded: “A direct way of stating this would be to say that the application of case-study research requires a comparative study of your own case. You must weigh up your own situation against the accounts of other situations”. He saw such research as producing hypotheses that needed to be proved or discarded and replaced. In other words, Stenhouse was encouraging reflective professionalism. Learning and the discussion of learning produces precisely such an effect. Teaching itself can be dramatically improved through the practitioner carrying out small scale research based on classroom practice.
Learning is for life. Teachers disappear after compulsory schooling. The habit of learning, once gained, stays with each human being until their last breath of life – or should do.
In today’s fast changing, fast moving, fast developing world, learning is crucial as a tool to carry one through a life wherein s/he may have to change professions several times. Each profession may – and often will – require the learning of many new skills. Furthermore, the very all powerful concept of competition means that each individual is constantly under pressure to excel through learning from experience and through day to day observation. Added to this is the crucial need for character building best aided by intelligent learning.
Citizenship and its responsibilities are best taken on board through an ability to learn quickly and competently. Every day in an individual’s life brings new things to learn – often things that they had not even thought existed. At its most dramatic this could be exemplified by my father turning to me in August 1969, as Armstrong stepped on the moon, and saying, “I was born when horses were our mode of transport. My horse threw me off when we encountered our first ever car which fascinated me. Even flying was not on the horizon. My first trip from Palestine to Europe involved walking, riding a horse, sitting in a carriage drawn by a horse, going in a steam ship and travelling on a steam train. An airplane was fantasy and landing on the moon was Jules Verne’s fiction!” Almost a quarter of a century later, just before his death, he made a similar comment about computers and those incredible “wireless phones”. He laughed to remember his own father throwing down the first telephone he had ever seen because he mistrusted its intent despite his son asking the caller to recite holy verse. Grandfather marvelled at Satan’s ability to recite God’s words on this infernal machine. As I write this, I wonder what our grandchildren will be taking for granted that we have not even thought of – Eternal life? A peaceful world? Justice? Happy schools? Respected teachers? Today, this last one is nothing but a passing fantasy.
Social and economic responsibility are easier to understand and take on if the individual is educated and capable of learning developmentally and with genuine enjoyment.
Emotional responsibility, which has suffered seriously in recent years, can only be assumed in a controlled and intelligent way if the person concerned has the learning skill necessary to analyse behaviour, adjust according to need and make the best of perceived failures (although I have never believed in failure. I have always told my students that the verb FAIL stood for “First Attempt in Learning” – I am sure that they excused the clumsy preposition which in today’s world would not even be seen as remotely clumsy).
Economic regeneration and equalising opportunities are at the top of every government’s agenda. In his seminal work Capital ( Le capital au XXIème siècle , Editions du Seuil, 2013. Translated by Arthur Goldmann as Capital in the Twenty-First Century , Harvard University Press, 2014), the eminent political economist Thomas Piketty argues that wealth creation and economic growth over the last hundred years have created glaring inequalities. He suggests that in order to equalise opportunities, societies need to spend significantly more on education and on the acquisition of skills. Learning to learn during one’s whole life time is the only way to achieve this laudable and, indeed, desperately needed aim.
When a school’s culture shifts from a focus on teaching to a focus on learning, students have nothing but positives to say about the impact, as this selection of student statements selected from a small scale research shows:
“Lessons have been set up a gear. Kids pay attention.”
“Long lessons now feel so short”
“This makes me think about what I’ve learnt.”
“Things have improved. For example, we chat a lot more about what we’re doing.”
“There is less teacher talk so we can get on with it.”
“Our teachers are much more involved in what we’ve learnt.”
“We can argue about what we’re learning and why.”
“I now have think about what I’ve done and what I should do next.”
“I think that I understand what my teacher means when she comments on my work. We can talk about it.”