“So what are we learning today, sir?”


Product design and programmable electronics, all designed and made by the student, combine to create an electronic product. Not bad for a fifteen year old!


In the last few years a concerted effort has gone into reshaping the way in which teaching is carried out in this country.  The changes build on solid research about learning and underscore the relationship and tension between the two activities;  teaching and learning.  Of course we always hoped that good teaching would result in good learning and, I suppose, any teaching which did not lead to learning would have to be regarded as bad practice.  None the less for many teachers their day to day activity was closely related to performance art, entertainment skills coupled with a dazzling display of their subject expertise.  Well here is the trap; a friend of mine as a young priest once broke a raw egg over the head of the vicar during a sermon, he had a point to make and thought it a good way of doing it.  When I heard about the story I wanted to know what the point of it was and nobody could tell me, not even my friend.  Did he get and hold everyone’s attention? Certainly.  Did he teach something?  Probably.  Did his congregation learn anything?  Well quite a lot about him and the vicar but clearly not a lot about the point he was trying to get over.  I have argued before that great teachers are focused on their pupils and learning more than on subject knowledge.

One of the results of this focus on learning was that teachers were expected to tell their classes what they were going to be learning at the start of each lesson, to share what the outcome of the lesson would be, so that every child knew what they were going to be expected to do to show the learning,and  to put the learning into context, to give the big picture about why the learning was important.  Strangely for teachers of design and technology this idea posed a considerable challenge and I suspect it still does for many of us.  Who has not faced a child or class demanding to know why they have to learn this or that?  Who has not responded with the stock answer which goes something like this, “Well if you learn this you will do well in your exam and get to go to college and have a good job and live a better life”?  Now be honest, when you were twelve can you not remember that the idea of being twenty one was unimaginably distant and that of all the things that motivated you, the prospect of applying yourself to something that you didn’t want to do so that you would get to college when you were that age was pretty low on the list?

What came as a shock to me  was that so few teachers had thought about the value of what they were teaching in sufficient detail to be able to write learning objectives in simple terms.  It turned out to be quite hard to do.  A lot of us started to frame them in terms of what the children were going to do during the lesson, not what they were going to learn.  This was especially challenging with older pupils who were designing and making large scale projects over quite a period of time.  “Can we get straight on with it, Sir?”  We knew intuitively that this was a good thing to do but we found it hard to analyse what was being learned by doing it and how to explain its importance.  Once you start to engage with what you do at this level the complexity of what is going on while a group of children are just “getting on with it” starts to emerge.  A pupil may be learning a range of project handling skills and work planning, they will certainly be learning to work independently, to use creative techniques, to manipulate materials and processes, to use a range of IT applications, to analyse and evaluate.  Well, pick a learning objective from there!

What I find really useful is the kind of conversations that this leads to with pupils about how they learn, metacognition, and why they are learning.  For example one lesson I show a group basic silversmithing techniques and ask them to write a work plan which they will have to use next lesson.  I tell them that I am going to abandon them in the workshop,(though of course I don’t)  so they will have to use their own plans.  Next lesson we can have a conversation about the degree to which they learned silversmithing by watching, by recall and reproducing and by doing it themselves, we have also modeled some independent learning and project management.  The next lesson the learning objective is to learn how to work from their own plans, though we have a conversation about body learning silversmithing as well.  The way that we will know they have achieved this is if they all have a completed product without asking we questions of procedure along the way.  The reason we are learning this is that this is a skill all designers use, oh and by the way it frees me to have really important conversations with individuals, to support them with specific interventions and to ask them some deep questions.

Doing this kind of thinking and making it explicit to your pupils is powerful in a number of ways.  Immediately the focus is now on learning, not teaching, the responsibility for learning moves from teacher to learner.  The really significant aspects of the learning are now in the spotlight; by no means all pupils will go on to become silversmiths but they will all go on to use the skills we have focused on.  At a deeper the process of wrestling with your subject and working out what is important about is will change the way you teach, the content of what you teach and the experience of your pupils.  If education is for life then the learning abilities, attitudes to learning and conceptual framework that we can give our pupils will be theirs for life.  Now that is something worth striving for.


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