The OECD’s seven principles of learning

There is a book on my shelf titled ‘The Nature of Learning’ edited by Dumont, Istance and Benavides for the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). I sometimes dip into it because it contains a chapter by Dylan Wiliam on formative assessment that is a good summary of the arguments that he makes at length in his own books. There are also some chapters that I am less impressed with. For instance, there is a chapter on inquiry learning that doesn’t really mention the criticism that has been leveled at the approach.

In the final section, the editors summarise seven key conclusions that they have drawn from the different chapters. I hadn’t realised that these have taken on something of a life of their own and that some schools are using these seven principles to inform their teaching approach. There is a handy summary document on the OECD website that covers these seven principles and I want to address some of the claims that it makes.

The document suggests that the seven principles are drawn from the ‘learning sciences’ and yet I don’t recognise much science in the discussion. For instance, it claims that, “Today, the dominant concept [of how people learn] is socio-constructivist in which learning is understood to be importantly shaped by the context in which it is situated and is actively constructed through social negotiation with others. On this understanding, learning environments should be where: Constructive, self-regulated learning is fostered; The learning is sensitive to context; It will often be collaborative.”

This seems to be built mainly on Vygotsky’s theories and I would not personally describe these as settled or established science.

The seven principles are:

  1. Learners at the centre
  2. The social nature of learning
  3. Emotions are integral to learning
  4. Recognising individual differences
  5. Stretching all students
  6. Assessment for learning
  7. Building horizontal connections

Some of the claims made in discussion of these principles are fairly innocuous, others are potentially misleading and some are outright wrong.

The idea of placing ‘learners at the centre’ is a bit of a trap for those of us who advocate for whole-class explicit instruction. We advocate for these methods because we believe that they provide the best outcomes for all students. We have the students’ interests at the forefront of our minds when making these claims. However here, as elsewhere, placing learners at the centre is associated with specific teaching methods. In this case, if you place learners at the centre then you are obliged to follow a, “mix of pedagogies, which include guided and action approaches, as well as co-operative, inquiry-based, and service learning.” So an approach based on explicit instruction is essentially ruled-out.

It’s not clear how guided the ‘guided and action’ approaches are but we are told that learning activities must, “allow students to construct their learning through engagement and active exploration.” To most interpretations, this would rule out a teacher standing at the front, speaking and asking questions because this would be seen as passive. As I have already mentioned, the evidence for the efficacy of inquiry learning is weak and so I don’t see why we need to include this strategy.

On the other hand, there is some evidence to support cooperative learning. However, as Slavin suggests in his chapter in ‘The Nature of Learning’ – and elsewhere – in order to be effective, you must have in place group goals and individual accountability. Very little group work that I have observed applies both of these conditions and they are not stressed in the seven principles, meaning that teachers taking their cue from these principles may well implement ineffective group work. Moreover, the principles imply that cooperative learning is essential and state that, “Neuroscience confirms that we learn through social interaction – the organisation of learning should be highly social.” I don’t think this is true and the appeal to neuroscience seems spurious (see Bowers on the issues surrounding the use of neuroscience to support education arguments). I think we can all learn perfectly well without any cooperate learning at all. Learning by reading a book is an obvious example.

We all recognise that emotions are important but it’s not clear what should be done about this. For some students, placing them in a group will create negative emotions. Others will be anxious about tests. But we know that testing is effective so if we allow students to opt out then their learning will suffer. I think this is where the art of teaching comes in – the ability to monitor a room for its emotional backstories – and I think this is why teachers won’t be replaced by robots any time soon.

The dodgiest of the seven principles is the one on recognising individual differences. The summary document mentions learning styles – an idea thoroughly debunked by science. And it can lead to the same vicious consequences as any other method that focused on student difference: labelling and lower expectations for certain groups of students. 

Stretching all students is a noble idea that is at odds with the direction to recognise students differences. Assessment for learning can certainly be an effective approach but we have seen in England the way in which this turned into pointless marking policies and jargon. Finally, building horizontal connections is definitely a good idea – although hardly a principle. It might lead us into error if the only way that you can do this is assumed to be through inquiry learning.

Any school designing their learning around these principles places themselves at a great risk of harming the education of their students and wasting the time of their teachers. For a truly scientific set of principles, I would recommend the Deans for Impact report instead.


8 thoughts on “The OECD’s seven principles of learning

  1. I know from reading your posts, that you are against the use of inquiry learning because you believe ( based on evidence you have shared) that it is less effective than explicit instruction. I have said before in my responses to your posts, that I do not understand why you keep pitting explicit instruction and inquiry against one another as though one must choose to use only one
    or the other approach. How narrow-minded and not at all supported by valid data from the realms of math and science teaching.
    To my knowledge, explicit instruction is a form of pedagogy, therefore “using a mix of pedagogies” , as you stated, would not rule out the use of explicit instruction, and could in actuality include both a strong focus on explicit instruction that is skillfully interwoven with strategically-used exploration/inquiry. I believe that explicit instruction is an essential form of teaching, and so is giving students time to explore and gather information guided by focused inquiry questions and close teacher monitoring and input as needed.
    You quote from the book ” learning activities must allow students to construct their learning through engagement and active exploration,” and ” to most interpretations this would rule out a teacher standing at the front, speaking and asking questions because this would be seen as passive.”
    I agree that it has long been the practice for people pushing what they claim to be constructivist methods of teaching to contrast what they call active, hands on, exploration, discovery learning, etc, with what they call passive forms of learning such as a teacher telling students what they are to learn , or direct instruction. That all or nothing dichotomy has continually tended to shut down much needed discussion around ways to combine research about how people learn, and you seem to hold this all or nothing perspective yourself. When I read your posts, I bet the sense that you are not so much inquiring into how can we teach effectively, but rather, you are promoting explicit instruction over any form of inquiry, unless it is a little bit here and there. I find it difficult to believe that in your research towards your Ph.D., you have not found any examples of inquiry-based instructional frameworks or models which contain evidence of both student exploration and very explicit teacher instruction interwoven effectively throughout a sequence of lessons all focused on a cluster of learning targets. One such example would be the 5E Learning Cycle Framework used to teach Science, but also applicable to teaching Mathematics.y
    The constructivist theory of learning is that people construct their own knowledge and understanding based on incoming information, no matter the manner or source of that information. Research from how people learn informs me that when minds are engaged, however, and for whatever reason, learning occurs more effectively. I do not agree with your claim that learning would be viewed as passive just because a teacher stands at the front and speaks and asks questions.I am sure you know that learners can be highly engaged in such cases, or bored to tears and tuned out. The same applies when they are asked to do some exploration/inquiry in some way or another.
    I think of inquiry and explicit instructional strategies/ approaches as tools to use to help me teach the best way possible. The tools I choose and the order in which I use them depends on the specific content I am trying to teach, the students in front of me, and the time I have to teach it in, as well, of course as the resources at hand.
    From your posts, I find myself thinking that you must have experienced only ineffective, unguided, open inquiry lessons with little teacher input. I assume you have never experienced a sequence of lessons taught using an effective mix of pedagogues such as should occur during a 5E Learning Cycle.
    This is one of many links to the Learning Cycle outline.

    Click to access EJ1058007.pdf

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