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The Sacred Gift of Learning

Schools are distracted from a higher purpose as they try to change old ideas into new versions, defining learning and education to fit a political paradigm of the 21st-century.  As old ideas, they had the young person at their heart. Newly defined, they have found the information of the curriculum replaces the needs and growth of the child and the roles of the teacher and the learner are transformed to serve the curriculum. The sacred gift of learning is pushed aside.

Learning has become the acquisition of skills needed to manipulate the information in different elements of the curriculum.  The skills of maths, science, english, history, P.E. and so on. Education pops up and greets the learner when they have acquired a sufficient breadth of skills across a broad curriculum. Now young people have become educated. The purpose of the teacher is to lead young people to internalise the information. This is the resource for young people to demonstrate their abilities in the skills of the curriculum. The part the child plays in this story is to be passive, acquiescent and compliant. Willing to be filled with information for which they rarely find relevance, and then to acquire skills which have little practical application beyond the classroom. Parents and carers look on, caught in the headlights of curriculum jargon, in a state of transfixed confusion, unclear of their role in this story of the curriculum.

The consequences of this redefinition are that schools see their purpose in very limited terms. It has become to increase the quality of teaching to improve young people’s ability to manipulate information and raise levels of achievement. This has all the aspiration of choosing to conquer the highest peaks of Norfolk. The problem is that Norfolk has few peaks and teaching has a very limited capacity to continually raise levels of achievement. Although levels of achievement have risen through improvements to the quality of teaching, they are now stalling and there is little productive scope for doing more of the same. The results of trying, are the stress, anxiety and worry endemic in schools and an increasing disinterest of people to seek the vocation of teaching.

Remembering the integrity of their purpose, learning regains the child at its heart and is seen as “a permanent increase in capacity which has nothing to do with maturation or ageing” (Knud Illeris “How We Learn”). It invites schools to lead young people to embrace new beliefs and values,  increasing their  capacity to make choices which have value for themselves and others. Education is no longer a skill set for a toolkit, but rediscovers its identity from its Latin root, “to draw out”. To draw out the intrinsic capacities we all have as learners. These capacities are shy souls and need the emotionally intelligent environment of learning, if they are to emerge from their enforced hibernation, brought on by the chilly winds of teaching. The purpose of the teacher is now to mentor young people to grow from being tourists in the classroom, to become heroes of their own learning. For their growth as learners to lead to continually rising levels of achievement. Parents and carers now engage in a conversation about their children’s learning and education as they become co-authors of a new story of learning.

The quest is not to change what learning and education are, but to think new thoughts about how they can support every child becoming a hero of their own learning. To be the means through which schools rise above the political expectations placed them, not to ignore them but to exceed them.

There are five steps to thinking new thoughts about how the integrity of learning and education can lead every child to become a hero of their own learning and continually raise levels of achievement.

Step 1. Measure the engagement of young people in the classroom. Lead their levels of engagement to increase, and better understand themselves as learners, and this will raise levels of achievement for everyone. Assessment for learning leads assessment of learning. To do this explore the work of Ferre Laevers.

Step 2. Develop collaborative approaches to learning.  This will have a positive influence on well-being and further raise levels of achievement. The pursuit of raising levels of achievement by improving the quality of teaching focuses on the individual and is competitive, leading to stress and anxiety, and creating a false ceiling for achievement. Raising levels of achievement by increasing levels of engagement, is collaborative and breaks the ceiling. To do this have the group set themselves a collaborative quest in learning, embracing new beliefs and values. For example: “How can we become more courageous, and raise levels of achievement by taking more risks in our learning?”

Step3. Be creative, and no longer see the curriculum as a largely irrelevant end in itself, but as a resource for learning. A resource through which young people build a bridge of understanding between the classroom and their wider world. Understanding comes from the beliefs and values which are in the information of the curriculum, and can be applied in the classroom and discovered in the learner’s wider world.  

To find the beliefs and values, ask of the information of the curriculum; “Why is it important that the young people should learn this information?” Whatever the answer, ask why is this important? Repeat this until you have asked “why” five times. By the fourth or fifth time, beliefs and values, understanding and purpose will emerge from the information.

Step 4. Lead young people to take responsibility for their learning, as they set themselves individual quests. The narrative around the quest unfolds during the collaborative activities using the information as a resource for learning. Their quests might be: “How can I find value in collaboration and contribute more to group work?”

Step 5. Begin conversations with parents and carers about the influence learning new beliefs and values in the classroom is having on the young people’s behaviour at home.

For schools to become places which value the sacred gift of learning and where everyone chooses to learn, then all that needs to happen is to remember what learning and education are. Not to try to change them to fit a parochial and narrow view of the purpose of schools, but to think new thoughts about their value to the growth of the child and in defining the role of the teacher, as a mentor of learning. To remember the words of Oscar Wilde:  “education is an admirable thing, but it is well to remember, from time to time, that nothing that is worth knowing can be taught”.  

Teaching is the faithful servant of the sacred gift of learning.

Mike Brearley 1951 - 2018

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