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:
- Learners at the centre
- The social nature of learning
- Emotions are integral to learning
- Recognising individual differences
- Stretching all students
- Assessment for learning
- 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.