How might we start to ‘see’ learning in a classroom?

My brain hurts and I have a dreadful cold with the nose blockage from hell. But I have been trying to make the idea of ‘seeing’ learning make sense in my head and can’t. So I am going to try and write thoughts down. Sometimes the view becomes clearer when I do this and sometimes not. Have to see what happens as I type. Actually, I am not sure I know what all my thoughts are!

Firstly, it has worried me that we can’t see learning. @learningspy blogs about only being able to see performance in a classroom and that teachers who try to make that performance visible to themselves and to an observer might be damaging the learning that eventually results from the lesson. That, I think you will agree, would be quite a worry.

I am not sure if that view is at odds with Hattie’s requirement to make learning visible to the teacher. Will our trying to make learning apparent so we can do something about those children who are not learning as well as they might actually make the possibility of learning less likely?

Also Robert Coe’s views that we kid ourselves, and Ofsted kids itself, that by observing a lesson they can say something sensible and valid about the learning in that lesson. He identifies that we don’t really see learning in classrooms but we use a number of proxies, some better than others, but all somewhat distant from the intention of observation which is to see and evaluate learning. He suggests that observing lessons is fraught with inaccuracy. Different observers see and value different things and that there is no evidence of a link between lesson observation and improvement in the quality of the teacher. Presumably we would all agree that one of the main purposes of lesson observations would be to, in some way, lead to teacher improvement. Bit worrying of the process is so flawed that there is little chance of that happening.

Party this depends on the definition of learning we use. My working definition is that a child has learned if:

  1. there is a change in their behaviour
  2. they know or understand something new, or more deeply
  3. they have remembered the learning for long enough for it to be valuable
  4. the learning has some validity

I think that one of the reasons we are not able to see learning happening in a lesson is simply that fact that learning happens over time. They may be able to answer a question during the lesson but will they be able to answer that question some time after the lesson?

I at trying to accept that we can’t see learning in a lesson but that we might be able to identify the proxies we can observe that will allow to be able to say that it is likely that learning will happen. What are these proxies? That is what I have been puzzling over with my semi-solid filled nose! Sorry!

Change in behaviour.

I think this is most obviously seen in whether or not children can answer appropriate questions posed by the teacher. the questions will have been planned so that the teacher is trying to make the learning visible, as Hattie says.

There will be other opportunities such as children being able to do the work set; the practices that teachers give for children to see if they can apply their new understandings to similar but different problems. How well are they able to use the intended learning?

What do they write and take note of? Are these the critical things that relate to the learning? Are they able to identify what matters?

They know or understand something new, or more deeply.

I guess this is tested by the behaviour changes. Can they answer the questions and how difficult are the questions they can now answer? Are they using their previous knowledge to help them find answers to the more difficult problems? What does the teacher do to get them to use their previous, relevant knowledge?

They have remembered the learning for long enough for it to be valuable

This is an area I have been thinking about for a while. It is the need to support children to remember what they have learned. What does the teacher do that evidences the need for children to remember?

There will be things like the clarity of the initial introduction of the material. How is the confusing mass of information pared down initially so that the learner can focus on that which really matters in the early stages of learning? How are the potentially distracting features minimised so that working memory is not overloaded? If we make the hook so engaging the hook is remembered rather than the learning intended.

What strategies has the teacher used to make the content memorable? Not making the event surrounding the learning memorable but the actual material that is meant to be learned? For me the difference between these two is critical. Don’t try to make the learning fun as the fun itself can easily distract the learner. They might just remember the fun! I don’t want you to try to make it boring, just make it not distracting when they are first learning. If you allow for too much interpretation by the learner you risk allowing too much misinterpretation by that learner.

So what do we see the teacher doing that will support remembering? Could be a homework that requires the learner to commit to memory the work covered.

The learning has some validity.

This has a couple of elements. Firstly is the work that which should be covered. Is it part of the scheme of work for this class?

The second is about the match of the difficulty of the work with the current abilities of the class.

I am dismissing this element in quite a cursory manner not because I think it is unimportant but because it is, I believe, easier to evidence than the other three.

So, a lesson observation proforma for the process might look some thing like:

What is going on in the lesson?

Is material from previous lessons being used?

Is the material being presented clearly with minimal distraction?

Are key learning points emphasised?

Is there then graded practice?

Is the teacher choosing when to intervene?

Are students focussed and working hard?

What is done to secure the key learning? What memorisation techniques are used?

Is feedback making children think? Is the feedback on the task? (Given we can’t see learning)

D I RT  Is time given to improve work following feedback?

Robert Coe says that “Learning happens when people have to think hard.” Perhaps this is the key. When observing can we evidence children thinking hard?
That could well be it. I guess there would also be some quality measures.

I wonder what else and what other strong proxies for the possibility of learning to happen?

4 thoughts on “How might we start to ‘see’ learning in a classroom?

  1. Thanks for this Peter.

    I think part of the solution is look at those practices that are mostly likely to result in learning (long term retention and transfer) and focus on developing those.

    This would make classroom observation more meaningful, but the emphasis would have to be on what the teacher is doing NOT what the kids are doing. This might usefully lead to Lemov-style practical practise training.

    What do you think?

  2. Yes. I think it is a bit of both. What children do as a result of what the teacher did. If we don't try to connect these two in some way the teacher could do things that the children had no response to. But I do think the balance will be that the teacher is doing the right things. And I am and have been since I visited schools in New York and New Jersey and saw the stunning work going on there.

  3. For 'Change in Behaviour' this _is_ performance, not learning. Answering questions in a lesson is full of the cues of the lesson. It would be better to teach one thing and ask questions about a completely different thing, at least you wouldn't be misled about learning in that way.

    Amazing that you have avoided the idea of tests as a method of learning here too. Surely the best idea is study – tes, test, test, – test. Clearly improvements via test shows that learning has happened.

  4. Not sure I am getting your points, anonymous. Learning is often defined as leading to a change in behaviour, ie a child might act differently if they knew something, because they had learned it.

    Testing is a way of checking learning but I am trying to see what proxies for learning might be visible in a lesson. What the teacher might do to get the children to attain new learning and also what the teacher might do that could be leading to securing learning.

    I know about the testing effect. I am not certain that a test will show learning always. Imagine teaching something at the start of the lesson and testing it in the middle of that lesson. One could not say learning had happened because there would need to be a time lapse before we could say learning had occurred.

    Thanks for the comments. I'll certainly think about them.

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