A key to transforming practice – Spiral vs Linear Learning Part I
- On 07-10-2014
A class begins, something is taught, hopefully something is learnt, the bell rings and then the next class begins. A unit of learning is begun, there are a range of activities occuring across days – weeks – months, hopefully something is learnt, then the unit ends and the next unit begins. A school year begins, a wide range of activities occur, assignments – possibly tests – are done, culminating projects are run with varying success, hopefully something is learnt, the year ends.
When one thinks about the flow of most of the learning that occurs within schools there is a particular pattern that arises – there is a beginning, a middle and an end. Sometimes the beginning, middle and end occur in one session. Sometimes it stretches across a few weeks and sometimes across the whole year. However, the habitual pattern is that there is a beginning, middle and end. So does it surprise you that over the years of schooling a learner could naturally develop the perception that learning is linear?
I had this insight recently during a conversation with a group of teachers at a primary school. The predominant unconcious context, and thus the subsequent habitual practices, within the school indicate that learning is perceived as linear by the students AND teachers. I then started exploring if that was the case in other schools, both primary and secondary, and found the same pattern. When I brought up my thinking with the teachers they all agreed. The way they often operate as educators could certainly develop a perception in their learners that learning is linear – start topic, do activities, end topic, next topic.
Learning, by its nature, is non-linear. The gaining of knowledge, whether by the individual or by humanity as a whole, is non-linear. Vygotsky coined the term “zone of proximal development” as a way of indicating that an individual learnt in a non-linear way. Piece by piece we gain knowledge and build a mental model through which we perceive the world. We begin with an incomplete model, given by our personal observations, the opinions and beliefs we grew up with. It is filled with misconceptions and misunderstandings. As we learn we slowly come to a more organised and consistent perception and interpretation of our world and how it works. The learning is non-linear but the explanations and ordering stem from an organised viewpoint . What often happens in schools though is that we “teach” in a linear fashion without honouring the non-linear nature of learning and thus engender a linear way of thinking about learning.
Context is Critical
“So what!” you may say – isn’t that the way schools have to operate?
As the saying goes, our context will eat our strategies every day of the week.This underlying context within the way that we teach will undermine any and all good evidence based initiatives because it stems from and leads to a particular mindset. How we as educators think abut learning influences our habits, our practices, and the way we create learning for others.
Let’s look at some of the common issues and complaints in schools that we could infer stem from this context:
- The students aren’t showing high order thinking or transfering their learning across subjects
- Students who struggle developing fixed mindsets (“I’m not good at Math, English, etc”) rather than growth mindsets
- Students aren’t being responsible for their learning
- Lack of motivation by students (and staff at times)
- There is a lack of resilience and persistence in learners
- Mathematics teachers don’t develop literacy in their lessons even though it is a major source of why students can’t answer worded questions
- Teachers are focused on covering content rather than ensuring learning is occuring
All of these definitely have a range of underlying causes to why they occur but one of the common features is the way that teachers think about learning and thus operate as educators.
If we take the case that teachers have a big say in how learning is perceived by learners, then by shifting the context of the teachers implies we can shift the way learners perceive learning. Look around you at the dominant habits and practices of the teachers within the school.
- What do they tell you about the context they hold about learning?
- Do their habitual practices show that they are linking learning across lessons, classes, subjects, days, weeks, years?
- Do they have anchor contexts and visible displays (which are constantly referred to) where students consistently and coherent develop the perception that they are exploring and building upon their understanding of the world?
If you think not then then the teacher context needs to shift to enable good pedagogical practices to occur.
If we begin by focusing on developing teachers to think from the context that learning is a spiral of increasing understanding and richness then I assert that these issues will start to shift. From this focus context teachers can begin to build habitual practices that are consistent with this context.
In Part II we will discuss what I mean by Spiral Learning and also give some simple HOWs teachers could use to go about shifting their context so as to develop a spiral learning context with the students.
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