The Art of Learning

screen-shot-2016-09-11-at-3-31-13-pmIn my school, we are on a development journey to shift responsibility for learning from the teachers to the students that may take 5 years. This requires a shift in mindset by all involved, including the community, who put most of the pressure for grades on the teachers. To compliment this, we have shifted our attention when observing classrooms. Rather than focus on the behaviour of the teacher, which is common in many classroom observations, we are carrying out learning conversations with selected or random students in the room. Once the class is underway with a task, the “observing” teacher sits down with a student or group and asks what at first seem like obvious questions:

  1. Do you know why you’re learning this?
  2. How do you know how well you’re doing?
  3. What would your best attempt at this look like?
  4. What’s your next step?

These might seem obvious when considering the apparent purpose of education but parents and teachers themselves can get quite a shock to find how often the answers are not clear to the average student. This is because we have developed education systems that place such an emphasis on teachers issuing education to students, that as long as work is being completed, the learners can feel quite separated from the reasons they’re there in the first place.

“Let’s just get this fiNished”

In a BYOD environment it is common for students to develop habits where they gravitate towards the same app and output format because it becomes the most familiar and thus quickest with which to complete work. So in my school, I am finding that teachers offering free choice of expression are still receiving predominantly presentation slides as the output of choice. So, during a number of my learning conversations, I decided to find out how much thought was going into considering approach to a goal and the actual output produced.


Here is a summary of these conversations from multiple classes of 15 year-olds:

  • Teacher: “why are you learning this stuff?”
  • Student: “cos it’s probably useful”
  • Teacher: “Why are you using Keynote?”
  • Student: “it’s easy and teachers say we get higher marks for colour and pictures but we don’t know why”
  • Teacher: “why is that slide a useful one in the presentation?”
  • Student: “it’s got words and pictures … I don’t know really”
  • Teacher: “If you’re all doing Keynote presentations on the same topic, how do you know they won’t all be the same?”
  • Student: “… How about … we not talk to each other!”
  • Teacher: “what grade are you hoping for?”
  • Student: “Above average.”
  • Teacher: “Do you ever aim for a top grade?”
  • Student: “If I like my teacher or am already good at the subject”

Answers like these are common in schools around the world. They are also eye opening to teachers who don’t spend enough time discussing learning and focus too much understanding course content. The lack of genuine engagement in what one is doing is symptomatic of an understanding that what is taking place is a teacher devised workload, not a learning experience that one is part of. The drive for results can reduce the art of teaching to an ability to produce completing, compliant students, but what about the art of learning?

Engagement relates to locus of control

It is time that classrooms place the emphasis on students making nearly every decision regarding what, when and how they go about learning. It is time for teachers to focus on challenging students on their decisions whilst realising that through practice, students will develop an understanding that they are in charge of and thus responsible for their learning. When I’m talking to students in a year’s time, I hope to receive detailed explanations as to how and why their learning is happening the way it is.

I would not have understood this by carrying out a standard teaching observation. I would have reported on wonderful teachers carrying out their lessons with nice compliant children. Let us worry more about developing learners than topic absorption and we will eventually shift the pressure from that of compliance to that of students articulating their own learning success.

More like this in my book A learner’s Paradise: How New Zealand is reimagining education.