Learning from things schools get wrong

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Learning from things schools get wrong

By Dr Nina Hood

I recently read Jared Cooney Horvath’s latest book 10 things schools get wrong: and how we can get them right (co-written with David Bott). While following what has become a familiar trope in education books, I none-the-less found it engaging and thought provoking.

During the recent webinar Jared did for The Education Hub, I discovered his ability to provide a nuanced and research-informed perspective on some of the most controversial and divisive issues in education. This same ability is on display in the book. While not much of the book is startlingly new, the ways in which the ideas are presented has prompted new insights and different ways to frame my thinking.

Thinking about agency

Agency seems to be everywhere at the moment in education. However, despite its prevalence in education rhetoric, it’s something of an elusive concept, being variously defined by different people and in different contexts. For some, it relates to giving students choice over ‘the what’ they learn. For others, it’s providing choice over how (and sometimes when) students complete particular tasks or learning objectives. For others still, it is connected closely with effective assessment practices. Horvath and Bott frame agency around the notion of students having a deep understanding of how the learning process works (from knowledge, to contextualisation, to adaptation). In schools, this translates to ensuring that the learning process – how we learn – is made explicit to students and that students are given scaffolded opportunities to practice the process of learning in varying contexts. For until students truly understand how learning operates (from a cognitive perspective) and have opportunities to actually practice learning, they will struggle to become agentic learners.

Embedded within each tool is a world view

This statement was made in relation to grades and modern assessment practices. While in many ways it is an obvious statement, it none-the-less has provided me with a new way of thinking about decision making at all levels of education. It is easy to understand how a curriculum document or assessment system promotes a particular world view. However, I’m not sure we always think carefully enough about how the resources that are used, the interventions that are selected, or the particular content in indiidual that is taught in individual classrooms make reference to an overarching view of what education is, what it is for, and how we position our role within it. As such, the statement serves as a useful prompt for thinking deeply about the factors influencing our decision-making processes and, potentially, for questioning much of what we take for granted in education.

The mediating influence of the teacher

The influence of the teacher on student learning is well known, and almost is not worth repeating. However, the way in which Horvath and Booth make this point in the book does, I believe, provide a useful reminder as to the centrality of the teacher. They write:

Most tools simply do not, in and of themselves, produce large gains. The reason for this is the teacher. Teachers (and the craft of teaching) are the primary mediating factor that determines whether or not a tool will impact learning.

Too often in education we focus on the tool without paying enough attention to the learning and support teachers will need in order to make effective use of it. We see this playing out time and time again at the policy level as well as at the individual school level. Implementation frequently is viewed as an afterthought rather than central to a particular tool (or initiative’s) success.

Form follows function

Horvath discussed this concept during our webinar in reference to designing learning opportunities for students, and the need for teachers to first identify the objective of a particular unit, lesson or task before designing what that unit, lesson or task will look like. That is, the design should match the objectives and outcomes we want. In the book, this concept is expanded to focus on the purpose of education.

Every decision in education stems, consciously or not, from how the question ‘what is the purpose of education’ is answered. As Horvath explains, ‘the true source of academic disillusionment [in contemporary schooling] does not spring from issues of engineering’. Many people in education are focusing (at least in the first instance) on the wrong targets, thinking about “the how” without first thinking deeply about the destination. Until we change or at least collectively agree on the intended target in education, all our decisions regarding what we need to do will be misaligned, in tension, or poorly executed.

While this is where Horvath and Booth ends their book, it seems that it is in fact exactly where discussions about our education futures need to start.

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