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Defining Learning: Becoming a school with learning at its core

Dr James Dalziel, Former Head of East Campus
Stuart MacAlpine, Former Director of Teaching and Learning, East Campus
Tuesday,14 June 2016

It might appear self evident that every school has learning at its core. Some would wonder what could possibly be at the core of a school if it’s not learning. But the truth is that many schools focus on teaching strategies, on the learning environment or on exam results when they talk about learning: these become proxies that can distract from a school’s core purpose, which is to stimulate an internal change that is taking place within our students—their learning.

Defining and developing a shared understanding of learning is critical for any school. The definition should arise out of a school’s shared culture and context and, most importantly, should help us to understand the difference between the actual internal learning that is taking place (within people) and the external conditions for learning that may (or may not) be in place around us. Martin Skelton, a well known educationalist and founding director of Fieldwork Education, often uses a medical analogy to explain the difference between focusing on conditions for learning, and learning itself. Imagine a hospital that focused on “things that help health,” rather than patients’ “health”:

Surgeon 1: Was the operation a success?
Surgeon 2: Yes, I did everything I was supposed to: scrubbed before surgery, completed the procedure as described in the textbook, debriefed with staff, and it was a complete success.
Surgeon 1: How is the patient?
Surgeon 2: Oh, well, he died.

Unfortunately, this is similar to some conversations we have heard in schools around the world: “I taught a great lesson but for some reason, some kids didn’t get it,” or “I love that teacher’s classroom, students always look engaged and he uses popsicle sticks to randomise questions, so kids must be learning.” To help every member of our community learn, we must focus on learning itself before looking at conditions for learning. This helps our teachers and students identify the learning taking place. In this way, when we evaluate our practice, we make a professional transition from ‘‘how did the teaching go?” to “what learning took place for students?”

This diagram explains how the elements of the UWCSEA Learning Programme fit together. The Learning Principles define the conditions that help to support student learning and are based on our definition of learning.

This diagram explains how the elements of the UWCSEA Learning Programme fit together.

At the College, our definition of learning is:

Learning is a life-long process in which learners engage with and reflect upon information and experiences to construct new or modify existing understanding as well as develop and apply skills and qualities.

The student definition is:

We learn all the time. We learn about things, how to do things and to understand things. Sometimes we learn something new; sometimes we are getting better at something we’ve done before. When we learn we change the way we think and feel.

A good definition of learning can make an enormous difference to students. This example from a Theory of Knowledge (TOK) class highlights when a student was learning about ‘ways of knowing’ and how to use them to explore how we ‘know’ something to be ‘true.’ This example is paraphrased but real.

“Because this is a skill, and it is new for me, it still feels really awkward. I just need more practice with a partner to build habits around this. I understand the concept of ‘ways of knowing.’ I know the different ways of knowing in TOK—that was easy I just make an acronym with an online anagram maker. So, I guess what is most important is to get some more practice and feedback on the skills until they are a bit more solid.”

The student in this case is able to participate in this kind of sense making and self direction in part because students and teachers both know about learning and have a clear definition of what it is in our context.

Great schools define greatness by the learning of their students. Great schools have a common and culturally-accepted definition of learning woven into their cultural fabric. Students and teachers in great schools use this language to make sense of what they are doing, and assume congruent behaviours. Great schools focus on actual learning gains and are not distracted by perceived improvements in the ‘conditions’ for learning.

Great schools review their definition of learning and keep it up to date, both with research and with practical examples from the precise context of the school. They are disciplined in their focus on the definition and conditions that affect learning and hold colleagues professionally responsible in conversations to differentiate the conditions for learning from the actual learning itself. They also are tenacious collectors of learning data not in terms of quantity, but instead in terms of quality. Quality learning data (high quality evidence of student learning gains) can only be planned, opportunities provided, and evidence collected and analysed if there is a high degree of shared understanding and accuracy regarding the desired learning and the numerous ways that students might demonstrate learning gains in knowledge, skill, understanding or dispositional learning.

So if the idea of a learning-focused school seems like a tautology, this may go some way towards explaining why staying focused on learning can be difficult and complex, but is no less necessary and rewarding for that.