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           Home >  Culture  > Education  :

Speaking of tipping points

Laurie Loper - 30/08/2010

Imagine a situation where all but a handful of students might become top learners, for that's the exciting prospect that the Nuthall research holds for tomorrow's students, their families, and their teachers. While Nuthall's challenging revelation that learning is done in an "inherently inefficient" way in all classrooms (Nuthall, 2001) brings new hope in dealing to under-achievement, the new insights he's provided have proven rather difficult for the education sector to accept. Nevertheless, finding out the precise things that are preventing the learning process from delivering for students what their "remarkably similar" capacity to learn would lead us to expect (Nuthall, 2001), is a huge breakthrough, giving the hope of much better things to come. But hold the champagne. Unless the sector takes notice, the rosy future that otherwise beckons all students is but a mirage. In fact hold everything, for entering stage left is yet another factor that few know about. Called "teaching culture" (Nuthall, 2001), it operates entirely beneath the radar as a powerful conserving force, insulating teaching from change. It ensures stuff like the Nuthall research doesn't register, it's as if it all gets automatically consigned to Trash. Importantly also, since nobody is aware of this going on, there's no scrutiny of this culture's influence. The net result is that education's core business – learning – continues to be starved of opportunities to improve, all without anyone noticing. Fortunately, time is bringing a growing realisation that far too many students – not just the strugglers either – are missing out on the quality of education that's rightfully theirs. Moreover, as the economy tries to ease out of recession, the electoral and other costs of student failure has politicians worried, while looming seriously large for them further down the track is the spectre of negative social cost.

The Nuthall research, then, has been up against it from the start, nobody believing that there could be anything amiss with the learning process per se, with the quite counterintuitive nature of much of it getting a sceptically reaction from the few who did read it. So almost a decade on from when the research was reported, there's no obvious sign of it being acted upon. Under-achievement causes such concern, you'd think the sector would have already had it hard at work. Nuthall, though, fully expected the education sector's reaction. He knew things like teacher's erroneous beliefs about learning, teacher reliance on its ineffective learning model, and that change-resistant culture, would count against acceptance of his findings. He knew people thought learning was just common sense stuff. Learning's learning, what else is there to know about it? If students are failing, have them try harder, find where they're going wrong, try a different approach. Attitudes like that are hard to crack, few are going to accept there's anything suspect with a learning model that's perceived to have stood the test of time. How then to get a change of heart that'll see the uptake of Nuthall's research-based discoveries and what might a programme based on them look like?

What's it going to take to turn around this inherently inefficient way classroom learning's done?
Rather than talk in the abstract, let me speak from a basis of work in progress. With learning efficacy not being commonly listed anywhere as a factor causing under-achievement, promoting it as a lynch pin issue is very hard work, as I know to my cost. However, put the same proposition to trainee secondary teachers in a workshop situation so they can both examine the issue and see the possibilities of Nuthall based ideas, a much more positive outcome results. Parents, especially if they have children who are not doing well, also take to the idea very readily. The general public, too, seems quite persuadable, leastwise it seems so from feedback I've had from letters. Editors, too, have given lots of my letters a prominence I certainly didn't expect when I started out. I could say the same about articles, and to a lesser extent, conference papers. Here and there some lower decile schools have shown interest as well. In sum, such admittedly meagres evidence as I can muster suggests that the more knowledge people have, the more likely they'll be persuaded. (All of which, of course, suggests a public education campaign would be well worth considering.)

Further encouragement has come from work done in constructing a new learning process, in that a change model I've developed and trialed was recently accepted as a research project. This model is quite different from the typical intervention approach that tries to squeeze improved learning results out of the fundamentally flawed learning process all classrooms use. Operating on the principle that seeing is believing, the plan is to raise the profile of the efficacy explanation by creating a working example of a successful school change model in action. The objective is to have one South Island secondary school a year take on the model for the foreseeable future. Using action research to build a knowledge community, the newer ones can learn from the experience of the schools that went before. This'll ensure the development of the new teaching technologies that the new knowledge will require. Keeping change time to a minimum is a priority. School change typically takes between 4 to 15 years but change of the sort involved here might otherwise take another two or three generations. To cut that to a minimum, the approach chosen draws on well springs of motivation born of long dissatisfaction by Maori with the current situation. Hopefully that'll ensure the commitment and urgency to see the job gets done with despatch. Being backed also by agencies with the resources and skills to see it through, gives further grounds for optimism.

The change model in question has been built around a number of ideas, the main ones of which are now discussed.
First up, nobody is likely to change something that's been habitually done for centuries if they don't understand and accept the need and basis for it, especially if that basis is something entirely new. It's taken as read that even though the education sector won't admit to it's learning process being inherently inefficient, there's a general awareness that student underachievement is an issue. Understanding the basis, then, becomes a matter of educating those teachers involved about the nature of learning and the way it works in classrooms. The means used in the change model is to challenge teachers about their learning beliefs. A Beliefs About Learning Questionnaire (BALQ) has been constructed to do this. Respondents are asked to say which of a number of common beliefs about learning are true or not true. An accompanying document, based on Nuthall's findings, has been written to facilitate each teacher's evaluation of their own responses. This evaluation raises awareness of beliefs and their influence. It allows individuals to identify their own mistaken beliefs, moreover to understand in what respect they are mistaken. When done as a group exercise, this activity creates much discussion, and it otherwise opens up the way for individuals to work on their own erroneous beliefs. The questionnaire is a fun way to introduce Nuthall's research, a good start point for further reading, and a way to establish a good climate for change.

Who does the learning?
The idea writ large in the Nuthall research is that learner's do their own learning, nobody else can do it for them, especially not teachers. Everything Nuthall's discovered about the learning process and the way individual student's gather/create their own knowledge, ideas, concepts and understandings makes it glaringly obvious that individual students drive their own learning, even in the most prescriptive of teaching situations. Student independence, ownership and control of learning are concepts that must therefore be given opportunity for adequate expression. Since motivation for every act of learning is also student – not teacher – generated, this too is something the change model takes into account.

Ensuring that there's a learning model that matches the demands of the new knowledge is a major idea underpinning the change model.
Early in my Special Education career – finding the demand for classroom support for students not learning well enough always outstripped supply – I undertook a number projects aimed at improving student performance across the board. One of several things developed was a learning model, called Self Directed Learning (SDL). Designed to overcome the problem of dependent learning, the new learning model incorporated aspects of both scientific method and the IEP (Individual Education Plan) that's used to cater for students who had special needs. Some 20 years later when the Nuthall research became available, it was obvious there was close match of the SDL model with his findings. SDL is a six stage learning process that aims to put the student in control of all major decisions in relation to their own learning. In the many situations in which it's been trialled, it has more than matched expectations. Students as young as 7 years can learn to use a simplified version of it to become independent learners and it has been used successfully with all age groups including adults.

Support for learning is another key idea employed in the change model.
As generally practised in education, support as a concept is clearly an underdeveloped and undervalued part of the learning process. The use of positive feedback and the use of students as a support resource for fellow students, their teacher and their parents, are examples. Much experience of training teachers to use specific positive feedback with students; some with training students to use it with fellow students, their teachers and their parents; some also with training parents to use it with children, their teachers and other adults, convinces me not only of the efficacy of the Praise Training Programme used, but also that there's a vast reservoir of support for learning that's hardly been tapped as yet. (Research on 42 teachers found very pleasing rates of specific positive feedback still being used some 3 years after initial training.) Space limits a full account of the overall benefit a more widespread use of specific positive feedback might achieve in society but it wouldn't be hard to imagine it rivaling religion.

Another support example needs special mention, it concerns the learning support parents provide, rather, might better provide to ensure the efficacy of the learning process. What is well known but rarely admitted, is that there is much more rhetoric around parent partnership in education than substance. The change model most certainly envisages parents being involved, and is aiming to make their contribution far more productive than ever before. A parent learning support resource, with several unique features to it, has been developed, the materials covering 16 different facets of support that either directly or indirectly influence the development of learning. Called Chance is a Fine Thing (CIFT), it has been trialled in a number of settings with success. Because CIFT has the capability of being presented in multiple formats – raising the prospect of it being able to engage every parent in one way or another, irrespective of their life circumstances, – it's potential is as yet untapped. One of the most important things about CIFT is that parents of all walks of life have accorded it unprecedented acceptance.

Space limits make it impossible to cover every facet of what's needed to bring about the changes in the learning process that would make it efficient. In a real sense, the full story of what it'll take to replace the current inherently inefficient learning process can't be told until there are some successful examples of change for people to see. That the Nuthall research is a vehicle that's capable of effecting the change is undeniable. But just as undeniable is that the adversary fronting the change model in question – the existing learning process that's backed by it's very inefficient teaching model and that change-resistant culture – has all the momentum of history on its side. There are very high stakes involved here, social, political, economic, not just educational, so something needs to happen. Wouldn't it be great if the tipping point here proved to be something as simple as having just a few successful examples of this change model in action. Unless we give something like the change model in question a go we'll never know. If that's perceived as taking a gamble, at least it's betting with the best trump card possible up the sleeve, the most cogent information on classroom learning the world has ever seen. What better alternatives are there on the horizon?

Nuthall, G. (2001). The cultural myths and the realities of teaching and learning. Address to the Annual Conference of NZERA, held in Christchurch, Dec 2001.

About Author

Laurie Loper is a former teacher, social worker, educational psychologist and special educator (1950 – 2000). Nowadays writer/critic/advocate, focusing on improving student achievement.

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