Monday, November 23, 2015

Are Schools Designed to Help Children Learn?

In trying to wrap our hands around learning about learning, we continue to look to Chris Watkins, an independent consultant and leading authority on meta-learning in the UK and former reader at The Institute of Education, London Centre for Leadership in Learning. Chris’ research has helped us understand how to personalize learning by focusing on the learner first. He launched a new site,, where he uploaded over 150 of his articles, handouts, presentations and publications on learning. Watkins’ Key Issues shows that learning is rarely a focus on classroom life. He identified three sources he calls “space invaders” that take up the space as teaching, performance and work instead of what they should be focusing on: LEARNING.

Space Invader #1: Teaching

“Teaching and Learning Policies”, “Teaching and Learning Strategies”, and so on would be better if called Teaching and Teaching Policies! The real attention given to learning is minimal, and just because a teacher is teaching, does not mean students are learning. Chris emphasizes that we need a better articulation between teaching and learning, so it becomes clear that we need a richer articulation between teaching and learning. This means separating the two before articulating their connection more effectively. Sometimes this is interestingly started by discussing the question “which do you think happens more often: teaching without learning or learning without teaching?”

Space Invader #2: Performance

When policy-makers make schools focus on measurable outcomes of a limited sort, performance comes to be a poor proxy for learning. When schools are placed under performance pressure, the risk is that teachers just pass it on into the classroom culture. But performance is not learning, though it may develop from learning. Performance tests, performance tables, and performance management are inventions that influenced the culture of schools in a way that often creates pressure to perform. But this does not get the best performance: learners with a learning orientation do better than those with a performance orientation and the biggest single variable underlying current patterns of school performance is whether students are self-regulating learners. Look at this previous post on our site from Chris on Proving Performance vs. IMproving Learning.

Understanding the connection between performance and learning is crucial. In a review of 100 classroom studies (Watkins 2010), one of the key messages is “a focus on learning can enhance performance, a focus on performance can depress performance”.

Space Invader #3: Work

Be cautious of the word “work.” You probably heard statements like this: “Get on with your work”, “Have you finished your work?”, “Stop copying my work”, and so on. Chris suggests substituting the word “work” with the word “learning” so the tensions are clear. The discourse of “work” shifts the locus of agency.  As Harrison, an 8 year old said to Chris: “When you work, you work for someone  else and when you learn, you learn for yourself."

So let's rethink learning and listen to Harrison so learners are the ones learning for themselves.

School changes what kids believe what they are supposed to learn. If you ask kids around 3rd or 4th grade what they are learning in school, you might hear answers around how to behave, be a good listener, or how to do well on a test. We learned how to be compliant and follow the rules. Is this really what we want as the focus of school?

The idea of starting with the learner is all about learning and noticing how we learn. We previously shared Chris' publication “Learning: a sense-makers guide”, commissioned by ATL, in a post on the union for education professionals across the UK some time ago but it is definitely relevant now. He brings up four concepts:
  1. Notice Learning
  2. Have Conversations about Learning
  3. Reflect on your Learning
  4. Make Learning an Object of Learning
When you see learners noticing and reflecting on their learning during their learning, that is the Wow of learning. This is the higher-order thinking skills we want our children to adopt: learning about learning and thinking about learning. This makes learning visible. This is what shakes up the classroom dynamics, because when the teacher is lecturing, learners are supposed to be listening. Are they? When you shake up the learning so learning is visible and learners are talking about their learning, the classroom environment is different. This change is the culture shift, the change that learners want now. 

We encourage you to check out Chris Watkins' new site We highly recommend that you download and read his publications, handouts, and presentations. We are looking forward to his new Handbook on Life in Schools and Classrooms: Past, present and future visions coming out Spring, 2016.


Chris Watkins' Bio

Chris Watkins is an Emeritus Reader in Education at the University of London Institute of Education and an independent project leader with schools. In 1999 he founded the MA in Effective Learning and since that time has been involved in projects with a range of schools and local authorities on developing learning-centered classrooms and schools.

Publications at include:
  • Learning, Performance and Improvement (2010, International Network for School Improvement) Effective Learning in Classrooms (2007, Paul Chapman/Sage, with Eileen Carnell and Caroline Lodge) 
  • Classrooms as Learning Communities: what’s in it for schools? (2005 Routledge) 
  • Learning and Leading (2004, National College for School Leadership) 
  • Learning: a sense-maker’s guide (2003, Association of Teachers and Lecturers)

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