Learning Together

Two recent events have reminded me that people like to learn together.

The first was E.D. Hirsch’s Policy Exchange lecture.  If someone wanted to understand Hirsch’s ideas, I would argue that they’d have been better-off getting hold of his books, reading summaries of his work on the internet or watching his interviews and lectures on YouTube. Yet a few hundred people happily gathered in a dark school hall to hear from Hirsch himself.  Several of the people I spoke to had endured long train journeys to attend the lecture.  The audio recording and transcript of the event was probably available online by the time they got home.

The second was Doug Lemov’s Teach Like a Champion 2-day workshop, which I was lucky enough to attend last week.  It was a great course – I loved practising Lemov’s techniques with colleagues and other delegates, and it was brilliant to have Doug on hand to settle any queries.  Yet I probably gained a better understanding of Teach Like a Champion from reading Lemov’s updated book over the summer and taking notes on each technique.  The cost of those two days in August was £20 – the cost of the book.  The cost of the two-day course last week was over £500.

A glance towards popular culture would suggest that we like to do things at the same time as others, even when changes in technology allow us to do things in our own time.  14.5 million of us gathered around television sets to watch the Great British Bake Off final last week, even though we could catch-up in our own time on a range of devices over the next month.   It’s the same with sports events, concerts and other big TV shows – we prefer sharing experiences with others in real time, rather than catching up in isolation.

How might this desire for shared experiences play out in schools?

When it comes to CPD for teachers, we should do more to encourage teachers to read the best work that is out there on the areas they lead on.  If we want our Assistant Principals to understand assessment principles, why not buy them a copy of Koretz’s Measuring Up, along with links to blogs and academic papers, rather than sending them on a costly course?  We could spend the money we saved on a staff library for all teachers to enjoy.  Or take growth mindset, for example.  I would be amazed if this £400 course teaches delegates anything that they won’t learn from reading Dweck’s £7.99 book, or from amazing resources like THESE that Larry Ferlazzo and other passionate and generous educators share on the internet for free.

It’s as if we’ve forgotten that educational thinkers collate their best work in books and blogs with the express purpose of sharing their theories.  It’s great to see more schools creating staff libraries and book clubs, such as this one at the school of Shaun Allison and Andy Tharby.

Like their teachers, our students seem to prefer to learn together rather than grapple with challenging concepts in isolation.  Anyone who has worked in schools over the last ten years will have noticed increasing numbers of students attending ‘intervention’ classes on Saturdays, after school and in the holidays.  For the same reason that we tend to get a better workout when we join a gym class than when we jog in isolation in front of the muted evening news on the plasmas, our students seem to enjoy the security of group revision – ‘just bring yourself along and we’ll do the rest’ (much like teachers attending a plush hotel for a day of CPD).

The risks of relying on group learning for students are clear, e.g. (a) it disempowers students, (b) it puts pressure on teachers and (c) there is no group work in exams.  Group learning is also at odds with the fact that true gains in understanding tend to require deliberate, focused, and repeated practice, which I would argue is far more likely to occur in isolation than in groups.

Perhaps sitting in groups in the classroom is another example of the comfort students gain from company, even if this safety-in-numbers eludes them in the exam hall.

One of the schools I work with is trying to tap-in to the benefits of collective learning while maintaining students’ responsibility for their own studies.  They’ve done this through an extended day for Year 11 in which – for the final additional hour of the school day – the whole year group studies in exam desks in the hall.   Teachers can withdraw students who need targeted support (days are allocated for each subject), leaving the remainder of the year group to work in focused and supervised silence in the hall.

At the heart of our desire to learn together is the fact that we are social creatures who like to engage in shared experiences.  Schools can benefit from the shared language and collective accountability that flows from group experiences.   But we also need to recognise that learning and improving practice is tough – for students and for teachers – and we need to be honest about the individual responsibility required for true learning to happen.

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