NQT Special: What are the six conditions for learning?

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This article was written for SecEd magazine’s NQT special supplement and first published in November 2016.  You can read the original version on the SecEd website here.  You can download the full 8-page supplement here.

You can read more of my monthly columns for SecEd here

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Occasionally, on my teacher-training courses and when the mood takes me, I ask colleagues to draw a picture of something familiar, something a child might doodle. A boat. A car. A desert island. A house.

I give them five minutes and ask them to work alone and in silence. When the five minutes are up, I ask them to swap their drawings with the person sitting next to them so that they can peer-assess their artwork. At this point I reveal the assessment criteria.

If I had asked colleagues to draw a house, say, I might inform them that if they have included a front door, their neighbour can award them five points. If they have drawn a path leading up to that front door, they can have a further five points. If they have five or more windows, each with curtains, they can add another five marks. A chimney with two chimney pots gets them another five; a garage, five points; a driveway with a car parked on it, five points; and so on.

Trainees then calculate their partner’s total score and equate this to a grade before handing it back. It is rare – unheard of, in fact – for anyone to get an A or a B. More often than not, colleagues get an E or an F.

Having shared the group’s grades – in a deliberately public, humiliating manner – we discuss how this makes people feel and, invariably, trainees tell me they feel upset that their hard work and creativity has not been recognised.

Some say they feel angry and cheated because they were given a vague task and yet the criteria against which their work was assessed was specific and arbitrary. Others say they feel dejected and demotivated, unwilling now to dedicate any real effort to the next task because of the unfairness of the first. This inevitably leads us to the following conclusions…

Learning objectives

We agree that learning objectives and task instructions must be specific and that the objectives and the assessment criteria must correspond.

We also agree that the assessment criteria must be shared with students before they embark on the task and that, ideally, students should be involved in agreeing that success criteria.

For this task, for example, I could have engaged colleagues in a discussion about the features they would expect to find on an effective drawing of a house.

Such a discussion would not only have made it clearer how students would eventually be judged – therefore, ensuring greater chances of success and mitigating against feelings of unfairness and arbitrariness – but would also have ensured that students took ownership of the task and had a vested interest in completing it to the best of their abilities.

We also agree that the assessment criteria should allow for a degree of creativity and flair, and not be too prescriptive.

And, finally, we agree that feedback should be formative, focused on what students need to do to improve (your drawing was creative and had many good features but, next time, consider including … for example); rather than summative and final (you got 20 out of 40, that’s a grade E which isn’t very good).

In short, we decide that it is important to share the “bigger picture” with students, to make explicit what they are learning, why they are learning it, and what success looks like.

Practice and preparation

Next I ask trainees to think of something they are good at and to think about how they became good at it. I then ask them how they know they are good at it – on what evidence is their judgement based?

We decide that most people become good at things through practice, by learning from their mistakes, by experimenting.

People learn best when they engage in a process of trial and error and when they repeat their actions several times, making incremental improvements each time. After all, as the Danish nuclear physicist Niels Bohr once said: “(An expert is) someone who has made all the mistakes which it is possible to make in a very narrow field.”

My colleagues and I also conclude that most people know they have a right to feel positive about their achievements because of evidence given in the form of feedback, particularly when it comes packaged as praise, and also as a result of receiving a reward for doing well.

People also know that they can feel positive about their achievements when they are asked to help others achieve the same end-goal and when they are able to see the results of their labours for themselves.

Conversely, I ask delegates to think of something they are not very good at and to consider why – what went wrong when they were trying to learn this thing and who, if anyone, was to blame? I then ask them to think about something they are good at now but didn’t initially want to learn. What kept them going in lieu of motivation?

My colleagues and I conclude that, when learning fails, it is usually because the learner did not engage in a sufficient amount of practice, did not work hard enough or lacked focus. Perhaps the feedback the learner received was poor or else they did not act upon it, or at any rate did not act upon it in a timely manner. Perhaps the communication between the teacher and the learner was poor.

More often than not, though, learning fails when the learner lacks sufficient motivation, when they simply aren’t interested in learning the thing being taught because it is not personally meaningful to them. So what, I ask, in the absence of motivation – when students do not have the want to learn – keeps students going until they succeed?

My colleagues and I usually conclude that it must be the need to learn – having a rationale, a necessity to learn, and therefore taking ownership of the learning – that keeps people going and helps them to overcome their lack of intrinsic motivation to succeed.

Finally, I ask colleagues to think of a time they have helped someone – ideally not a student in a school setting, but perhaps a friend or family member – to learn something. To what extent, I ask them, did they understand the subject better once they had taught it to someone else? And did assessing that person’s learning help them to understand the subject even more deeply?

Our subsequent discussions usually conclude that by teaching something to a third party we learn more about it ourselves because the act of teaching enables us to gain feedback and make better sense of a topic.

Teaching is also a form of learning by doing, of learning through practice. The fact we have to teach something to someone else also addresses the need to learn it (we have to learn it in order to teach it to someone else, after all) and we confront the want to learn all the time we are teaching – or indeed the lack of motivation.

When we prepare to teach something, we also develop pedagogical content knowledge (to complement our existing content knowledge). In other words, we learn to pre-empt students’ questions and misconceptions, and we learn how to explain complex concepts in a way that makes sense to students.

Once we have taught something and we assess our students’ learning to see if we have been successful, we learn it for ourselves even more deeply because we discover all the mistakes people can make and we discover all the different ways in which students can make sense of a topic. In short, we gain lots of feedback about how to teach the topic next time. Assessing someone’s learning is also another means of learning by doing. And assessing someone else’s learning forces us to define and redefine the standards of students’ achievements.

Piecing all of these discussions together, and reminding my teacher-training colleagues of the initial task whereby they drew a picture of a house without knowing the criteria on which their pictures would eventually be assessed, I share with them what I term “the conditions for learning” – in other words, the state of affairs that must exist in order for our students to be able to learn effectively.

There are, to my mind, six conditions which must be in place in our classrooms in order for learning to happen. These are:

  1. Intrinsic motivation.
  2. Purpose.
  3. Practice.
  4. Feedback.
  5. Meta-cognition.
  6. Assessment.

Let’s take a look at each of these six “conditions for learning” in turn…

Intrinsic motivation

In order to create the conditions for students to learn, we need to establish their want to learn – we need them to be motivated to learn. This involves them understanding why it matters that they learn what we intend to teach them.

Purpose

In order to create the right conditions for students to learn, we need to establish their need to learn – we need them to have clear targets and to know why they need to learn what we intend to teach them and how they will use that learning later.

Practice

In order to create the conditions for students to learn, we need to ensure they are afforded opportunities to learn by doing, and to learn from their mistakes (what we call “the open loop”).

Feedback

In order to create the conditions for students to learn, we need to ensure they receive – and produce – information about what they have mastered and what they still need to practise.

Meta-cognition

In order to create the conditions for students to learn, we need to ensure that they are afforded opportunities to explain key concepts to each other and learn by teaching, thereby taking ownership of their own and each other’s learning. In practice, this means that students need opportunities in lessons to self-monitor, self-assess, and self-adjust their work, individually and collectively, as the work progresses.

Assessment

In order to create the conditions for students to learn, we need to involve them in making judgements about their own and other’s achievements against specific and explicit learning outcomes.

Conclusion

Once all six of these conditions for learning are in place, students will not only be able to learn but will also be able to transfer their learning from one context to another – which, I would argue, is the measure of true learning.

Download the full 8-page NQT supplement here.


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