Learning about learning - RSA

Learning about learning


Given the growing possibility that the movie ‘Meltdown 2 – this time no one is safe’ is about to be played out across the UK, I feel an urge to write about the economic crisis. Maybe I will over the weekend. But today - before moving on to my main topic - I’ll make do with asking ‘what should us ordinary folks do?'. Yesterday morning my old friend Robert Peston -who increasingly sounds like Private Frazer from Dads Army on mood altering drugs (‘we’re doomed but, hey, it’s kind of amazing’) - used the word 'Armageddon' twice on the Today Programme. The other night I chatted with someone who had spoken recently to both a group of financial industry folk in Japan and hedge fund traders in the UK, all of whom apparently said they has bought and stashed gold bars. I don’t know where to get gold bars, even if I had the readies to buy them so what should I do: wait and hope, buy basic provisions, take my cash out of the bank? Any useful tips out there?

For the time being I will apply one of the bits of advice offered by RSA chairman Luke Johnson in a piece in the FT on this week In which he helpfully suggested varied various ways of keeping our chins up in these tough times: if you can’t change the big things, focus on the small stuff you can achieve.

Right now, my manageable (I hope) task is to give a good speech to South West region branch of the National Association of Head Teachers. The subject of my first speech (worryingly, they have asked me to deliver two!) is schools of the future.

I am thinking of taking as my theme the idea of untapped resources. The point being that if there is no new money in schools (whatever the Government says, essentially there isn’t) then they have to squeeze their assets more effectively. The key aspects of this strategy can be grouped under three headings:

Schools as hubs for a local culture of learning.

Some of the points I want to make here are: the importance of the messages that children receive in the 75% of their waking hours spent outside school; the influence of parental engagement in children’s learning; the generally under-exploited potential for stronger collaboration between schools and the wider community and local economy. How can schools generate a feedback loop in which they turn their focus and resources more outwards thereby helping to create a local context which in turn makes their own work of educating pupils more effective and more powerful?

Schools as intelligent communities

The idea here is that key to mobilising the resources in a school is that there is a strong shared mission and approach underpinned by strong norms and expectations. On the one hand, this means engaging pupils as citizens within the school who understand, appreciate and apply its core values. One example of this is the impressive work schools like the RSA Academy in Tipton have done in getting pupils to support each other’s learning and also tackle unacceptable behaviour like bullying. On the other hand, some soon to be published RSA research on ‘satisfactory’ schools suggests these schools might more accurately be described as ‘performing inconsistently’ in that there is some good teaching practice but the organisational culture (of which leadership is, of course, an important part) is not helping the good spread across the school and drive out the mediocre.

Learning about learning

A unique attribute of human being as a species is that we are capable of thinking about thinking. This capacity for reflexivity is a big part of what enables us to learn and develop so quickly and why aspects of human development have accelerated since the enlightenment. In terms of culture, commitment and innovation it is vital that learning institutions are precisely that; institutions that learn.

If by now we know one thing about teaching, learning and curriculum it is surely that the challenge in not to find a single best way of doing things or to privilege one particular outcome but continually to explore how best to reconcile different challenges and methods. In particular schools need to reconcile three imperatives for children's development: imparting knowledge, developing skills and competencies, and discovering and developing enthusiasms. Without the first children will lack the foundation for higher level thinking and achievement (particularly vital for children from disadvantaged backgrounds); without the second children may lack the attributes necessary to succeed as citizens and workers in the modern world; without the third, education fails to draw on the most powerful engine of learning and self esteem - children's own curiosity and motivation.

Balancing these imperatives is not something than can be done once and for all but instead involves a constant process of experimentation, negotiation, adjustment. The staff (explicitly) and students (implicitly) in a learning school are able to answer two questions: first, as part of its commitment to research and development in what areas is the school currently experimenting and what is it learning; second, what are the key components of the core theory of learning and human development which underpins practice in this school?

One reason why the latter is so important lies in research showing the impact on young people of their theory of learning. Putting it simply, it seems that children as a whole are more motivated if they see learning as about enthusiasm and effort and less if they see it as simply about finding out who has aptitude and then squeezing the most out of this fixed quantum of ability.

None of my three challenges are easy. For many schools simply surviving in the face of growing pressures and expectations is a big enough battle. But to attempt to tap into the hidden assets in and around a school is surely better than simply submitting to a decade in which a combination of falling budgets and tougher academic demands from the Government threatens to turn schools into ever narrower, less joyful institutions?

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