Facing the Learning Challenges.. not side-stepping them.

Every week I get to visit lessons and talk to teachers, curriculum leaders, school and college leaders about the learning challenges students face and possible solutions for overcoming them. Every time I’m struck by the obvious reality that the dynamics of classrooms are where the core action is in terms of finding the solutions.

The fundamental challenge of teaching a group of learners with different prior knowledge, hidden thoughts and a range of personal motivations and effort levels, all at the same time – is a complex one. And yet, it seems to me that the good bets for supporting teachers to be effective in this endeavour are reasonably clear.

First we need a well-sequenced curriculum for the material in hand… with resources to match – to support learners in the schema-building process. This all needs to be well understood by each teacher so they are confident in mapping out the path through the knowledge and experience learners all need.

And then we need a repertoire of effective teaching techniques to implement the curriculum, including strong daily responsive teaching habits and some important occasional activities. There are lots of summaries of these things:

The truth is that all of this is easier said than done. The people tasked with doing all this -teachers and curriculum leaders – need to be on a continuing journey of improvement, reflecting on their practice and striving to hone their craft through deliberate practice – both in general terms but also in relation to reaching specific learners. A ‘great teacher’ can have all kinds of difficulties getting Michael, Safia and Abdi to grasp the concepts – even while everyone else seems to be flying. It’s hard. Sometimes, really hard.

Of course all of this can be supported by a wider organisational culture and systems that sustain the reinforcing norms around behaviour, work ethic, wider reading and so on.

And yet… there is just SO MUCH going on out there, so much noise that is not about these things. There are so many side-show initiatives, random pots of money, strategy roll-outs, newspaper commentaries and reports by educational grandees , box-filling proformas and platforms for checking up on people – that have very little to do with with these two core agendas: designing a strong curriculum and teaching it effectively in real classrooms.

For example, I rarely visit a lesson and deduce that the issue is a lost decade of knowledge-rich curriculum rhetoric. If anything, issues in learning persist because teachers are still on a long journey with grappling with how to sequence the knowledge in their curriculum and how to teach it well. It’s not that they are on the wrong path, it’s that the path is long and tough. If you want to climb to the top of the mountain, it’s no good being told to go around it or to climb a different one.

I rarely visit a lesson and talk to a teacher and think that what everyone here needs is a drop-down day of resilience-building or so-called motivational activities with an external provider or better apps on their devices or to focus less on the science of learning or to teach more critical thinking or for the teachers to do a week of show-boat lessons or for everyone to get a kitkat or to scrap the exam system because then they’d all learn more stuff. Nope. None of that helps a single student add those fractions or connect to ‘Suddenly he was awake and running. Raw‘ or understand ‘carbon zero’ or create a magnificently powerful art piece.

Normally there are two things that people crave:

Time is the number 1. Time to plan, time for iterative CPD processes, time for sustained coaching, time to engage in meaningful feedback with students, time to read up on their curriculum, time to engage with their subject community, to collaborate with their colleagues, to meet with more students on a 1:1 basis every so often. Time!

Resources: Materials that are good enough not to be reinvented, that fit the curriculum and don’t constrain it, that everyone can access, that can be adapted, that support everyday teaching routines (visualisers and whiteboards), that support students to build agency around retrieval practice and study habits…

Let’s spend our energy facing the learning challenges and addressing them, not side-stepping them in the hope they’ll disappear. They won’t. Why don’t we focus relentlessly on the things that matter. Creating time and resources for teaching and curriculum and using them as well as we can. Everything else is largely noise.

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