First thoughts on teaching and learning

There is no doubt that in order to teach well we need to firstly understand the process and theories of learning but also the children that we are going to teach.

I feel that, as a student teacher, it is important to not only familiarise yourself with the theories of learning, but also start considering how they “sit”against the realities of the classroom experience. I tried to find a video similar to the one we watched in the lecture, showing a child playing with the treasure basket.

We can observe how the child explored, experimented with and tried out different objects; he made eye contact with  his mum, cooed and gurgled.  Learning in the early years, as shown by the example of little George, is experimental, social and physical.

So how can those theories relate to the children of today? Contemporary childhood seems to be portrayed at the two extreme ends of the stereotypical spectrum – on one hand we have the failing, obese and technology obsessed generation whilst on the other we are faced with “brave little angels” who cannot cope in the world in which they are over-worked but at the same time seem to always be underachieving (Alexander, 2008). As David Didau, aka Learning Spy, suggests, because of that diversity of pupils’ life experiences, their learning will be just as diverse. It is not just about what they encounter in the classroom, but also what they bring to the classroom that will influence their learning process. In the face of the unstable image of a contemporary child, schools, primary schools in particular, have been cited by children themselves as places where sense of stability, security and optimism for the future is created by the means of promoting the achievement of, amongst others, economic well-being:

“We have schools because we need education and to prepare us for secondary school. Secondary school then helps us to get a good job”. Pupil, Year 6

Looking both at the theories of learning as well as the issues surrounding the contemporary childhood, it is clear that the environment in which the child is exploring and therefore learning is of great importance. Effective learning occurs when it is well facilitated. This doesn’t mean that we should water the curriculum down or lower our standards. Let’s take a minute to consider how George’s learning was facilitated in the video above – he was comfortable with his surroundings, he was reassured when he made eye contact with his mother, he had time to explore and try various things out, nobody was telling him what to do.

Our role as primary teachers is to make sure that learning is facilitated in a way that allows for that exploration to happen in an atmosphere in which learners feel comfortable to consider new ideas and are not threatened by external factors  (Doyle, 1985; Laird, 1985). This notion of teacher as a facilitator was present in the video we watched right at the beginning of the lecture, of children constructing a bridge or a ramp together. The teacher was not visible in the video, however, we can assume that they set up the task and were there making observations. This student-centered learning (SCL) example shows how the teacher influenced the learning process by not focusing on “giving” the knowledge but by stepping back and letting the children get on with it. Some research suggests that SCL, if put into practise correctly, can increase the motivation for learning, understanding and positive attitudes to the subject taught.The role of the teacher therefore is not transmission of knowledge, but that of creating a learning environment.

Eccles Group building

However, as Moore (2000) has argued, there are some tensions between the theories of learning and teaching and “the realities and actualities of classroom experience”. This tension relates to how we as teachers ensure that we bridge the requirements of national curriculum and the standards of pupils’ achievement  (or generally speaking policy) with the theory and practise. For me, this is about a teachers’ toolkit i.e. a range of resources and activities which create opportunities for progress, but also about continuing your own development as a professional, not being afraid of taking risks and keeping in mind that growing teachers equals growing learners. 

References (where links not provided):

Doyle, W.  (1985).  Effective teaching and the concept of the master teacher.  Elementary School Journal 86, 27-33.

Laird, D. (1985) Approaches to training and development. Addison-Wesley: Reading, Mass.

Moore, A. (2000) Teaching and Learning. Pedagogy, Curriculum and Culture. London: Routledge

 

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One thought on “First thoughts on teaching and learning

  1. Facilitator not an instructor
    In response to Karolina’s blog post I would like to further examine the statement that ‘The role of the teacher is not transmission of knowledge, but that of creating a learning environment’.
    What struck me most about the two video clips shown in the lecture was the role played by the adult in learning, that of a facilitator and not an instructor.
    Clip one showed children from three consecutive class groups, reception, year 1 and year 2 tackle the same problem, given the same materials. They had to build a bridge to transport cars from one side of the classroom to the other. They had a choice of building materials including different size wooden blocks and a length of tubing. The younger children tended to work individually to make their bridge and they did not really work collaboratively. The older children however planned and discussed their solution; they used technical vocabulary and made reference to the real world. The teacher was not visible during this activity and they did not speak but you had the sense they were close by, facilitating from the side line or possibly behind the camera. Some children were more aware of the camera than others and were seen to look towards the adult for signs of reassurance and encouragement.
    The second clip showed baby Jamie, aged seven months exploring the contents of a treasure basket. Through sensory play she was developing her fine motor skills. She explored different shapes; compared and contrasted different textures, shapes and tastes. She persevered and concentrated for a long time. Her mum was sat close by and Jamie was seen to look at her for reassurance and feedback.
    If I had watched these video clips before starting this PGCE, I would have thought they showed little evidence of teaching. After watching the clips in this lecture and during the discussion that followed it was clear that in both situations learning had taken place.
    The characteristics of effective learning are (EYFS, 2012)
    • Playing and exploring – engagement
    • Active learning – motivation
    • Creating and thinking critically – thinking
    The children/Jamie explored; were willing to have a go, were engaged, persevered, motivated, involved, concentrated, made links, kept on trying, and chose ways to do things.
    There are multiple theories of how people learn but three theories which have influenced teaching and learning in primary schools are behaviourism, constructivism and social cognition (Pollard, 2008). Behaviourism assumes a learner is essentially passive and is responding to environmental stimuli. Learning is defined as a change of behaviour in the learner. Early behaviourist work was done with animals and extrapolated to humans e.g. Pavlov’s dogs.
    Constructivism states that learning is active and knowledge is constructed rather than acquired. New information is linked to previous experience and enables pieces of information to be connected mentally. The most important contributor to this theory was Jean Piaget. The teacher acts as a facilitator, encourages the students to discover principles for themselves and build knowledge by working to solve problems. In primary schools there is considerable emphasis on learning concepts and skills through pupil-chosen topics.
    Social cognition theory was developed by Lev Vygotsky (1896-1934), a Soviet psychologist who lived during the Russian Revolution. He proposed that social interaction plays a fundamental role in cognitive development. He also proposed that learning takes place in the Zone of Proximal Development (ZPD), which is the distance between independent problem solving by a pupil and the pupil solving the problem with adult or peer support. Teaching is therefore about finding the level which is the next step forward from what a pupil already knows (Pollard, 2008).
    This website provides a really useful summary of different learning theories:
    http://www.learning-theories.com/
    Both video clips show examples of student centred learning (SCL), there is no teacher intervention but it is facilitated from the side lines. The focus is on the learner(s) and their needs rather than being centred on the teacher/parent’s input. For more information on SCL I found the following link really useful:
    https://www.westminster.ac.uk/__data/assets/pdf_file/0004/41782/StudentCentredLearning.pdf
    There are a number of ways in which learning was facilitated for both Jamie and the school children. They were given time and space to explore, a safe space was created, and the resources provided were carefully selected and were age and stage appropriate. Teaching is about giving children space, setting up resources and moving away to allow learning to happen. It is about making observations, then making sense of those observations and using experience to identify the next steps. In order for this approach to be successful the teacher must be aware of the diverse backgrounds of their pupils, of their abilities and attitudes, family and community background.
    This lecture has really challenged my notions of what teaching is and what it is to teach. When I was a pupil in primary school, the emphasis was on being taught from the front by the teacher or individual learning through reading text books, very much a Teacher Centred Learning (TCL) approach. SCL is therefore a new concept for me.
    In my placement school, the year 4 class is divided into groups based on ability. After whole class input, children go to their assigned tables and are encouraged to work as individuals on differentiated work. Although the pupils sit in groups I have seen little evidence of children working as a group. Perhaps I have not been in my placement school long enough yet to observe SCL. Or maybe it is more difficult to teach using constructivist methods for key stage two primary children?

    References
    Pollard, A. (2008) Reflective teaching (3rd edition). Continuum International Publishing Group

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