At the start of my Education MA (long overdue!) I am writing my theory of learning. After 12+ years of classroom teaching, with all its relentless endeavour and aspiration and questioning, this is something near to what I think.

Reactions from immediate colleagues have been that it is,”aspirational given the Ofsted culture but almost the essence of Montessori style early learning.”

Of course, the vision is how to enact these (Montessori?) principles in a (relatively!) non-selective secondary classroom environment. As is a given, the Ofsted culture prioritises external performance measures. I also think that the methods needed to enact the above won’t necessarily work in social casualty schools/areas. They also require MUCH photocopying! But this is what I was doing in Beijing.

Finally, as with all such thoughts, they rail against task-based teaching where teachers discuss a production line of interesting tasks that students┬ácomplete. Inspiring through doing stuff, rather than working with ideas and fostering experiences, is an approach I disdain. However, ultimately students do need to ‘do stuff’, and this theory is nothing if not tested on a daily basis with my learners.

Theory of Learning, 2016

Learning is more than the external performance indicators sought by schools and governments. The inner-life of learners should be of fundamental concern to teachers, not least because the external performance indicators of learning are affected by the inner-lives of learners. The inner-life of a learner interacts with the outside world through how it constructs the range and skill of? perception. The perception of a learner of what is happening, and why it is happening, and how that relates to them socially, emotionally and spiritually, is not only something that is incredibly difficult to ascertain, but also something through which the teacher has very little, if any, direct control in a classroom scenario.

Learning is the gaining of knowledge, and the understanding of dominant ways to ‘hang’ that knowledge ‘together’ (Stotto). Knowledge should be (more?) prized in contemporary learning, and there should be a judicious humility in learners to understand and express the dominant ways of ‘hanging knowledge together’. In other words, learners need to feel connected to existing structures of knowledge. Developing such schema (such as understanding socialism and its application in different forms, rather relying upon Googling for abstract factoids) forever affects, and develops, perception, and then allows mature evaluation of such models of ‘hanging knowledge together’, and even (hopefully) the discovery and creation of more effective models in the future. Without an awareness of what has come before in the field, learners risk working earnestly just to develop half-understood versions of what already stands as a model.

Creativity in learning, a contemporarily essential component, is not just doing entirely new things with no reference to previous contexts at all (poetry with no conscious crafting written for an audience). Creativity, rather, is understanding previous contexts for something (such as the development of the sonnet form of poetry), and responding with a new model that could reference existing knowledge and assumptions (an unbalancing of rhythm, or rearrangement of rhyme). Of course, this acknowledges that sometimes something creative can be disturbingly original and outside all previous models: how that is received and perceived by others depends on what has come before (see Pollock, for example).

Finally, learning is thinking about concepts over a length of time, and in a repeated fashion. Simply completing tasks, such as those that are (considerately) available on sites like the TES, does not lead to learning, even if teachers do create measurement criteria for observers to appreciate rapid and sustained (exponential?) progress. There needs to be an open, repeated and aspirational expectation for learners to think about their learning, and to think in lessons. As all learners are cognitive misers, it is essential for teachers to focus students and what they ‘really’ need to think about, and to return to these concepts on a regular, periodic basis.

What underscores these principles is that learning needs to feel visceral to the learner. It needs to feel relevant. Boredom through difficulty and abstraction and failure needs to be acknowledged and celebrated(!). Motivation is a misnomer; students need discipline. Boredom, though, through a lack of purpose is atrocious, and destructive to the learner’s inner-life. Instead of focusing on making tasks ‘fun’ and ‘engaging’ to alleviate difficulty, abstraction and failure, teachers should focus on making tasks relevant, purposeful, and the experience of learning profoundly real: this requires a social component and public performance beyond simply showing students work on the board and using social media – the completion of such tasks needs to feel part of their identity, and something that will affect their perception (hopefully in a positive way! At least in a maturing of perception).