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Beliefs in error, lives in jeopardy: new perspectives on learning

Laurie Loper - 23/08/2010

"A finding that 97 per cent of students share a 'remarkably similar' capacity to learn raises the possibility that, by employing an efficient process, huge across-the-board improvements in learning outcomes could be obtained." - Nuthall

Professor Graham Nuthall's address on the nature of the learning process, (NZARE Conference, Christchurch, 2001) provided the most credible understanding yet of why underachievement is so prevalent and so difficult to combat. He reported that few students learn as well as they might because the learning process used in all schools is "inherently inefficient". The Nuthall research showed things like teachers' widely held but erroneous beliefs about learning, the very labour-intensive management model of learning they all use, and a host of previously unknown facts about the way learning works in classrooms, all limit learning effectiveness. Nuthall also discovered that there's an ancient teaching culture involved. It acts in a powerful, beneath-the-radar way to ensure teachers continue to use those beliefs and practices that make learning problematic. Nuthall's research advances our understanding to the point where it's now realistic to think the achievement gap could be closed by the use of an efficient learning process. Even more importantly, a finding that 97 per cent of students share a "remarkably similar" capacity to learn raises the possibility that, by employing an efficient process, huge across-the-board improvements in learning outcomes could be obtained. That finding makes it realistic to think that just about all students could become top learners.

No one had previously suspected that the learning process itself might be such would want to tackle the huge waste of human potential this inefficiency is causing.

A very sharp razor must also be taken to the previously mentioned culture that a major cause of students not learning. Even today, nearly a decade on, practically nobody does. Ignorance of, and disbelief about the Nuthall research, aided by that culture that ensures those erroneous beliefs and that inefficient management teaching model remain in place, all make for a formidable barrier to its acceptance. For this information turns on its head the conventional wisdom that says failure to thrive educationally is primarily down to things like poverty, cultural dissonance and social disadvantage. Its message is simply that underachievement is primarily a learning issue, it must be dealt to as such, but an efficient learning process is a necessity. Seemingly though, the cultural shift involved here is too large at present to allow Nuthall's unequivocal research to be accepted as the weapon of choice in combating underachievement.

That inherent efficiency explanation of educational non-thrift and underachievement makes sense in so many ways. It explains why conventional intervention has never been able to make substantial, permanent inroads into underachievement, why the achievement gap never closes, and why so many students across the board never seem to learn quite as well as they should. It emphasises that unless a more efficient learning process becomes available, there is virtually no hope for those presently caught on the wrong side of the achievement gap. It allows a clear cut, no blame path for action – simply develop and apply a learning process that's efficient.

But the potential the Nuthall research has to boost the achievement of every student, even the top ones, makes the most perfect sense of all. Boosting every student's performance is important for two reasons. Firstly, the knowledge that 97 per cent of all students possess a "remarkably similar" capacity to learn turns each one of them into an opportunity ripe for the picking. Secondly, it's been estimated that about one half the total learning capacity possessed by the nation's young is not being developed (Loper, 2007). Of that, those trapped the wrong side of the achievement gap account for only about 20 per cent. Cost effectively, they're the most difficult of high fruit to reach. By comparison, students in the larger 80 per cent are the lowest hanging fruit here, offering an easy chance of massive gains.

We must keep in mind that practically all students could be top students. What's it going to take to ensure they all can be? Somehow soon, the education sector must embrace all of that new Nuthall research information, for the present situation is untenable. What other large enterprise that contributes as much as does education to national wealth and well being, would go on operating its core business – in this case, learning – without a single evidence-based theory to guide its functioning? Those erroneous beliefs must go. So must that teacher learning model that so overburdens teachers with busyness, preventing them from knowing what's going on. In must come an efficient model that's based on the new evidence. Any sane government, you'd think, has for centuries, Mafia style, "godfathered" the present learning process, subverting along the way each and every educational reform that's looked likely to threaten it. This will be a major undertaking and will not be accomplished by pretending the issue doesn't exist. Since the whole education sector is caught in this culture trap – regrettably, so too is the public – given it's a universal phenomena, deprogramming the culture around learning looks to be a global industry in the making.

As said, that universal trademark teaching model – the one that makes teachers into workaholics whose attention is so hopelessly divided anything up to 60 per cent of what's going on in class is missed– simply has to go. As learning happens inside a student's head, and is unique to individuals, teachers cannot in real time know with any accuracy what any student knows or doesn't know. Since learning is so student driven, they need to be taught to be involved in all the major decisions about their own learning. The model developed would need to mimic closely what's now known about the learning process. For instance, time tabling must accommodate the discovery that the information about any new topic/idea/concept must be experienced in full a total of 3 times. After the initial experience, each repeat needs to be at 2 day intervals. Otherwise learning simply doesn't happen. For Nuthall, this discovery became a success predictor with an 80 to 85 per cent accuracy rating.

Nobody reading the Nuthall research could possibly miss how student-driven the learning process really is. What his research signals is that students, not teachers, do the learning and make all the decisions that count. They decide how it will be done, what understandings will be extracted, what their motivation is for engaging. The kind of efficient learning model the Nuthall research is signalling virtually demands that students take full command of all aspects of their own learning. That makes sense for virtually the only person who knows what any student knows is the individual student in question. Where evaluation is concerned, the democratic principle, no taxation without representation gives a lead. The educational maxim is there should be no evaluation without student input. Teachers, who have long regarded themselves as being the sole evaluators and assessors, must find another role here.

Parents need to be better able to contribute to making the learning process more efficient. Past practice has effectively sidelined them from providing the sort of support parents from all walks of life are well able to provide. Neither has the concept of learning support been explored to the full so there's plenty of scope for development there too. There's a need for a new kind of support model that will see parents more actively and productively engaged in the learning process than ever before. That there's already one such model in existence shows it's possible to develop these sorts of new approaches.

While other more specific changes must follow in the wake of those outlined, the pattern to effect the changes needed is clear. The Nuthall research discoveries must be taken up and integrated into every aspect of the education sector, taking care to include the policy makers. With inherent inefficiency exposed as being such a severe and unnecessary impost on student learning, efficiency has to be the standard by which every bit of learning practice is judged. As said, that'll involve applying all of the new information specific to learning. Across the board, results need to show a trend toward even and high-ended learning outcomes. A sharp eye must be kept on the learning process itself. For such is the power of that reform-averse culture, it'll remain a threat till the day its demise is confirmed. It can be expected to cling on and/or go underground - it must be stopped dead in its tracks. Optimism that the Nuthall research can achieve that is justified. The same can be said about it achieving all of the other necessary improvements involved. With better options now available, to be still trying to squeeze learning efficiencies out of that old inefficient learning model is just crazy, the use of high tech ICT notwithstanding. As that's placing in jeopardy the life chances of just far too many students it makes absolutely no sense at all.

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.
Loper, L. (2007) Notional Diagram. Unpublished.

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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