A personal take on Learning Philosophy

by David Mansfield, Headmaster, Dulwich College Beijing

Learning is a very personal thing. We all do it in different ways and yet in recent years a general consensus has emerged amongst leading practitioners on how schools can increase the effectiveness of the learning of its students. A few years ago, many might have thought that learning and teaching were the same thing – students learn what they are taught by their teachers.

We now know that whilst aspects of that are true, students learn far more out of school, from their friends, and from other sources (especially technology nowadays). Neither (amazingly!) do all students learn all they are taught – some aspects of our traditional pedagogy were very poor, we now know, at helping students learn. Many of us who were schooled even up to the 1980s may well have had very traditional teaching – often called ‘chalk and talk’. Research tells us that children retain as little as 10% of what they are told directly by teacher-led didactic methods. For real learning to happen, other things need to take place. This article pursues those vital ingredients.   


Students Who Do, Talk

Learning is first and foremost an activity. To understand something in depth, new connections have to be made in a student’s brain. This means the student must be provided with or find an activity that helps him or her to bring together bits of knowledge and to make sense of them in a new format. This is best done in a task that makes the student think hard about the range of material available and exercise higher order thinking skills to solve a problem or create a new piece of work. Student passivity will not result in learning. Learning takes place through challenge. It happens when the student’s ‘brain aches’ with thinking difficult thoughts that create new pathways in the brain. It is hard work! Learning is quickly advanced by student talk. Silent classrooms are normally not learning classrooms. Research shows that when a student actually articulates his or her views aloud and begins to use information to answer questions or to describe or explain an issue, then the act of speaking reinforces and often clarifies the issue to the student. Learning is quickly advanced, speaking often aids thinking. The great Russian educational thinker Vygotsky argued way back in the 1920s that the act of speech profoundly influences learning. He said that speaking requires an individual to place structure, meaning and coherence on their understanding that may lead to the identification of gaps in that understanding or new connections between formerly disconnected bits of knowledge. The interaction between speaker and listener,  in a conversation can often amplify this process as the parties attempt to work through differences in their perspectives, opinions, and understanding. As a result of a talking priority, it’s obvious that learning takes place best in collaboration. It is in the conversations of pairs and groups where problems are addressed and solutions created that real learning can take place. That is why so much basic teaching in good classrooms is organised through groups. These work best when they are well managed with protocols for ensuring all speak and stay on task. But without a doubt where two to six students talk meaningfully about their work, develop ideas, agree, disagree, help one another, create new knowledge in a group, learning is very often taking place. More than just talking, learning takes place in lessons where children are genuinely engaged and interested. Research on the brain in recent years tells us that more measurable brain growth takes place within the hippocampus when students are excited and having fun. Learning is an emotional experience and teachers who can make the classroom a safe place full of challenge and laughter often generate the best learning environments. Modern psychologists talk much of what is called 'flow'. This takes place in the sporting context when the body and mind are functioning optimally and naturally. Performance spirals up as a consequence. The same is true of students in a classroom. When they are flowing, all measurable learning outcomes go up. Anthony Damasio argues in his influential book  in the 1990s called 'Descartes' Error’,  that real human successes come not through the Cartesian mantra of 'I think, therefore I am', but more, 'I feel, therefore I am.' Students, like all of us, learn best when they feel good! Many modern psychologists, perhaps most famously Martin Seligman, argue now that positive emotion is the key to learning. Being in a happy state releases the neurotransmitters seratonin and dopamine into the brain's limbic system and students find they learn more effectively. They become autonomic learners who are confident and meet the learning challenges full on.  

Perseverance Pays

Our next definition is a direct follow-on of this; learning takes place when the students don't give up! The best learning moment in any student’s life is, according to former UK head Sir John Jones, when they get stuck! Students that press on and meet the challenges demonstrate resilience and resourcefulness. They stick at it until they have a breakthrough; they find help or an additional resource that will aid understanding. Learning takes place when a student has a growth mind-set.  Carol Dweck, professor of psychology at Stanford argues that students with a fixed mind-set, who see their intelligence as static, tend to avoid challenges, give up easily, see effort as fruitless, ignore or react to negative feedback and feel threatened by the success of others. Whereas those who see intelligence as ‘plastic’ or as something which can be developed, have what she calls a Growth Mind-set. They embrace challenges, persist in the face of setbacks, see effort as the road to mastery, learn from criticism and find the success of others an inspiration.  Brian science has proven that intelligence can be enhanced but what we believe about ourselves makes a huge difference in learning outcomes. Try reading Joshua Foer's 'Moonwalking with Einstein', a story of an ordinary man learning to develop his memory over a one year period by using memory techniques and who ends up in the USA Memory Championships. It is yet more evidence that we limit ourselves daily through a wrong mindset. Every child has so much more potential than she (or even her parents) often believe. Success in school, indeed in anything, comes down to hard work and not giving up! Schools see this every day. Students who work hardest and practise difficult activities the most - essay writing, calculations, concept mapping, playing the flute, reciting lines, kicking conversions etc - end up most successful.  

Learn Through Change

Schools have been and inevitably still are instruments of social control, of values impartation, of polishing the product for the world its parents and politicians think is ‘good’ for it. None of these things is in themselves wrong, but if that pursuit limits real learning, then the school has slipped on its core responsibility. Because learning is such a personal experience, each student will have different needs. Children attending schools that are deliberately and consistently adjusting the curriculum, learning support provision and teaching pedagogy to suit the needs of its students are very likely to learn best. Schools need to be consulting students on what works for them, so teachers can adapt to student strengths and preferences. This challenges old practices so can be threatening, which is why not all schools are as flexible as the learning agenda demands. Educational research in the last 15 years has shown that students and teachers need to use what is technically called formative assessment routinely to ensure maximum learning is taking place. The work of Dylan Wiliam (UK) and John Hattie (NZ) in particular shows the incredible importance of feedback to the students on how their learning is going. Each student needs to know how well he is doing and what he needs to do to improve his work. This dialogue with the teacher and other students creates a deep self-awareness in each student, which in turn realistically addresses the best way to improve learning. Students end up confident and taking responsibility for their own learning both in and out of school.  

Three Princes

Good modern teachers are equipped with an array of strategies to improving learning. However, ultimately learning is what goes on inside each child’s brain and so whilst a teacher can aid this process, even the best cannot guarantee learning. That said, teaching for learning does everything it can to provide the best scaffolding possible for the creation of the ideal learning context. The skills of drawing out student thinking using higher order questioning based on Bloom’s taxonomy aids learning. Using new tools in ICT appropriately aids learning. Founding learning on the students’ prior experience so it’s alive and relevant aids learning. Linking learning to the future world of work and referencing the skills required for employment success aids motivation and hence learning. Deliberately targeting the development of thinking skills (metacognition) through managed classroom talk and subject orientated thinking and learning skills aid learning. However, despite all this fantastic facilitation, learning can only happens in the student’s brain. It is not ‘done to them’ and is ultimately the individual student’s responsibility. Students need to become lifelong learners and so develop the skills and self-image necessary to continuously develop. That’s all very well and good, but what is it that we want our young people to learn? Education has, since the Second World War, wrestled with what has been termed the ‘Skills v Content’ debate. Let’s try to unpack this a little by looking at three important words – knowledge, skills, and understanding - the three princes of educational objectives. Most good lessons seek to improve proficiency in all three of these areas. So, for example, if I were to be teaching the Cultural Revolution in China, I would, by the end of the lesson, want students to have knowledge of the key events, dates and personalities, the skill of using this information to explain the main causes of the Revolution, and the understanding of how the Revolution fits into the broader developments of the 20th century, both in and outside of China. So learning would happen when knowledge is increased, skills developed, and understanding deepened. In all academic subjects these three flow together, knowledge informs skill development which in turn enhances understanding. They are inextricably linked.  

Let a Thousand Bloom’s Flower

However, there has been an attempt by educationalists to separate these three princes. This has often happened for very good reasons – the perception that gaining a thinking skill may be more important to the child’s future than specific content, and the desire to declutter the curriculum to allow deeper learning to take place. However, the effect has sometimes been to allow the splitting of skill development from its knowledge base in the belief that skills are discrete and transferable. Often the curriculum has been reduced in content and in the eyes of some ‘dumbed down’. I believe very strongly that a wide range of important content to be a key part of all students’ learning diet. John West-Burnham argues learning is only shallow when it is just learning facts or routines by rote for a test. He describes deep learning as making links between these facts, and profound learning as when they take on meaning and provide real understanding of the world for an individual. Benjamin Bloom’s 1956 taxonomy of educational objectives set out the cognitive or mental processes that a learner needs to move through to be a master of a subject. They start with remembering and comprehending information, then the next level sees the student apply that knowledge to solve problems and analyse it (organise it, see trends) and then ultimately to synthesise a lot of knowledge together to produce new ideas and understanding, and in the process evaluate or rate theories, to make judgments on the validity of other’s ideas as one’s own are being fashioned. Bloom’s taxonomy is the blueprint for the cognitive skills that children need to develop to be ‘good learners’. But these skills emerge in the context of specific knowledge bases. The founders of modern education, the Ancient Greeks, divided learning up into three phases: grammar – in which the basic knowledge of a topic or language was learnt often by rote; logic – in which the facts were processed normally through Socratic dialogue or in discussion with a questioning master to allow the student to gain an understanding of how to apply these ideas; and finally, rhetoric when the new material was reworked to express the student’s own view, a synthesis of all he had learnt presented, often publically, in his own well argued perspective. This is embedded knowledge and understanding which is core to Bloom and all our ambitions for our students.  

Content is King

But deep learning does requires a significant content component. To disaggregate knowledge from skills weakens both. Professor Michael Young from London University emphasises the importance of content and knowledge in developing student learning.  He is very wary of the growing trend towards functionality, vocational content and themed delivery at the expense of subjects in their foundational content. Subjects are not 19th Century relics but date from very early times as the key means of reinforcing the learning that we need to have to understand the world we live in and who we are. Learning takes place when students see the big picture of how material fits together. Prof David Lambert suggests that the worrying trend is to teach by ‘sat nav’ without providing students with the bigger picture is problematic. Real learning takes place when children’s experience combines with the fundamental, developing knowledge, theories, vocabulary and context of our subjects. Learning does need to be linked to subject domains at least by upper junior level – whether this is in discrete subject lessons or collectively in a creative curriculum is less important. However good learning does require recognition that subjects are ancient, tried and tested.  They give a sense of place, time, identity, and of understanding without which we are ‘impaired as people’.  ‘The best that has been thought and said’ is what we should learn about was Matthew Arnold’s view in 1869 (Culture and Anarchy). Subjects give context to debate, conjecture and new ideas and to try to learn skills without them is foolhardy. We therefore should resist the pursuit of generic skills without context.  The press of good causes like environmentalism, ‘thinking skills’, ‘the vocational agenda’ and ‘learning to learn’ to dominate over subject content needed to be resisted. They will be learned within the well-taught curriculum. Learn your citizenship from History, the environment in Geography. Subjects are disciplines – disciplines of mind and of content – and the receptacle of real learning. Subjects provide context.  They develop ways of thinking.  They create passion and engagement creating a hinterland of understanding and also provide the high ambition of something complex and challenging.  Developing subject passion is an important part of learning. E.D.Hirsch builds on this knowledge theme and has controversially argued that more knowledge is needed to aid real learning and understanding. He says if children do not have a bedrock of basic and agreed knowledge later development will flounder as connections and links will not be made. Wittgenstein maintained ‘the limits of my language means the limits of my world’, and so ensuring children have a good basis of knowledge on which to build their own world on is vitally important. Hirsch was dismayed that many students in the US lack basic skills and knowledge and this increases their disaffection.  New knowledge is growing all the time and this must impact on curriculum development and on CPD for staff.  

Learning by the Book

Finally, learning takes place when a child reads a lot. This brings the skill and knowledge debate together in great self-led learning. Early reading widely and consistently is a great predictor of future academic and professional success. Extensive reading develops learner autonomy. It helps develop general, world knowledge. Reading is, by its very nature, a private, individual activity. It can be done anywhere, at any time of day. Readers can visualise and interpret what they read in their own way. They can ask themselves questions (explicit or implicit), notice things about the language, or simply let the story carry them along. This helps them to consolidate what they already know and to extend it. Many, if not most, students have a rather limited experience and knowledge of the world they inhabit both cognitively and affectively. Reading opens windows on the world seen through different eyes. It helps improve writing. There is a well-established link between reading and writing.  Basically, the more we read, the better we write and the better we learn. For educators and parents alike the findings of brain science, psychological insights linked to pedagogical theory have changed the game of education since I was taught to teach. We are all better off now as we continue to learn to learn and aid the learning of our young people.  

By David Mansfield Headmaster Dulwich College Beijing Chair Excellence in Learning and Teaching