Saturday, 21 April 2012

Building Learning Power

'peace with myself'
Let’s take a look at public secondary schools in Argentina. What kind of environment do teenagers learn in? Chances are most schools you analyse will have plenty of dull rooms packed with students sitting still (they simply can’t move!). If you have a closer look, you’ll see some of them are listening to the teacher or copying down facts while others simply ignore whoever stands in front of the class. You may find places where group work is being fostered, but only if students are silent, calm and follow teacher’s instructions carefully. What will happen if you head to the teachers’ room? Well, you’ll probably listen to educators complaining because teenagers do not show respect or accept what they are told.

This sounds familiar, doesn’t it? Even though many of us have been trying hard to make things change, it seems most public schools are they way they have always been: traditional institutions focused on obedience, content and test results. Do we want 19th century values and habits to dominate our school system? What kind of mindset are we cultivating? Are your students becoming 21st century explorers or 19th century clerks? These are some of the topics Guy Claxton focused on in his conference on Building Learning Power in Rosario last Tuesday.

It would take a particularly long post to share all of the knowledge I received (in fact, I am still processing most of the information!), but I’d like to share with you a summary of the things that struck me the most:

1- Your brain is like a muscle (or a group of muscles).

Guy Claxton says it clear and says it loud: it is possible to get smarter; the ability to learn is itself very learnable. Research has shown that intelligence is not a fixed-sized pot or bucket that you were born with and has to be filled in with valuable stuff. Instead, he compares the mind to a group of muscles. What are the main groups? Curiosity, resilience, imagination, reflectiveness and reciprocity (click here for a complete list). We all know what happens if you train muscles hard: they become stronger and SO DO YOU! Powerful mental muscles will make our students more intelligent!

2- Schools should be mind gyms.

In many of Sir Ken Robinson’s world famous talks he describes the factory/assembly line approach to schooling. Partially complete “products”, that is to say children, are sent to teachers and each educator works on an individual step of the process until students become “productive citizens”. If students fail, it's either their fault for not trying hard enough or the fault of the teachers, who obviously need more training (click here to listen to him explaining this in detail). Guy Claxton’s new metaphor is a change of paradigm. For him, teachers should stop being the experts who add knowledge to students in factory lines, and become “learning power coaches” who will construct “exercise regimes” that will help students get smarter. Subjects must be compared to exercise machines and students should be able to adjust the level of difficulty of each task in the same way we change the weight in these machines. The result of this new approach: smart teenagers won’t get bored and slower ones won’t be left behind.

3- Let’s exercise new habits of the mind!

Classes are not neutral; they are always exercising some habit of the mind. If concepts are presented as facts to memorize, students will be learning credulity, retention and regurgitation. It is by changing the way we deliver our classes that students will start cultivating new habits of the mind. Our schemes of work should be written taking into account the mind muscles. You can learn history AND empathy AND imagination, if you stop lecturing and let students walk in other people’s shoes. If you are teaching the 19th century Italian immigration to Argentina students could imagine they are immigrants who have just arrived in Buenos Aires and write letters to their relatives back in Rome or Sicily. Facts would also be necessary to write good letters, but they wouldn’t be the main focus and the activity would be much more fun! Other, maybe smaller changes, such as letting students decide how many people per group would be ideal for a given task, will also make a big difference in the long run.

What do you think about BLP? I’m planning to start using this approach with my students. Would you use it? Why/why not?

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