Friday, June 06, 2008

Learnish - the language of learning

Gave a talk yesterday to a packed audience of hundreds of teachers with Professor Frank Coffield and Professor Guy Claxon. It was an exhilarating day as the audience was really up for it - very feisty.


Professor Guy Claxton kicked bogus learning styles theory into touch. He heard one teacher pointing to a hapless lad at the front of her class, "This is Brendan, our kinaesthetic learner. Aren’t you Brendan”. ‘Kinaesthetic’, he said, was teacher code for naughty! He abhorred this pseudo-academic talk in the classroom. True to his word he gave a lovely, relaxed talk around the language of learning. In a fascinating observational study, teachers were found to use the word ‘work’ far more often than ‘learning’ (98% to 2%). By simply shifting towards the language of ‘learning’ (learnish) you can see a whole change in attitude by teachers and learners.

He is right on all of this. There's too much bogs theory and language floating around in our schools. Learning is getting the brain to do something it often doesn't want to do. This needs the language of encouragement and persuasion, not the language of 'work'. He was a joy to listen to.

Frank Coffield
Frank Coffield is a hero of mine, as he swept the whole ‘learning styles’ obsession into the dustbin with a brilliant research project that brought the whole house of cards tumbling down. Then there’s his brilliant critique of educational policies and organizations, where he laid bare the whole Byzantine mess. He is a great speaker and very good writer. Just a few of his bon mots:

DIUS – Department for Ingenious but Unworkable Schemes
ALL principals should teach
Have a definition of learning
Understand learning theory
WhiteBoards – 2 major studies (London and NE) show they are ineffective
Get back to teaching and learning

Terrific day
We all got a very positive response and as the excellent organizer, Jo Trump, reported by email, ‘a terrific day yesterday. Staff went away buzzing and are fired up to examine practices and assumptions and to make some changes’. She was absolutely right, the chair couldn’t get the audience to stop talking to bring the event to a end.

Strange suggestion
I knew we had hit the right note when one teacher, during my Q&A, stated that I shouldn't be allowed to speak at such conferences. Now, as I put forward some radical ideas around the use of technology in learning, I've been heckled and had some pretty aggressive 'baby boomer' reactions, but complete censorship has never been suggested. Should someone like her, so unwilling to learn and listen to the views of others, really be allowed to teach? Luckily her colleagues came to my defence in their droves. They were pretty much a fine bunch all round.


Anonymous said...

I was at the conference and thought you had plenty of interesting things to say; before you started speaking I was tired and bored. By the end I was thoroughly entertained.
I think you pushed the role of technology too far. Even you are critical of mobile phones so must accept that technology is not always beneficial. However, this was not something you stated explicitly. While I agree that technology is good I believe that it is a tool that can be used well or used badly. I was disappointed that this issue was not addressed.
You made an excellent point about the addictiveness of games compared with books. However, your argument is flawed in several ways. Books provide alternative views on the world that games fail. They provide alternative political and epistemological approaches that games don’t. Also, by failing to produce visual images they improve imagination. While I would agree that being addicted to either is wrong I know which one I would prefer.

Donald Clark said...

Thanks Nathan.

I have never argued that technology is ALWAYS beneficial. Indeed I stated specifically that Whiteboards, mobile learning and the over-use of games are all wasteful and harmful. These are just a few examples of technology being used badly.

On books, I am a committed reader, recommender of reading and spent some time promoting the use of Amazon. It's not just a matter of reading versus online activities. It's a matter of balance. I just believe that education is too unbalanced in its obsessio with print. Reading is not the only way to learn. If anything teaching is way too text heavy. You and I may prefer books but many don't.

Anonymous said...

Then I think we are in agreement. ALthough there have been some really good uses of web 2.0 in teaching. My head of department, for example, has created a blog to keep all students up to date and has placed the entire scheme of work on-line ( It’s very useful. However, at the same time, classroom learning is important (but not as important as the students think it is) because it consolidates what the students do at home. I encourage the further use of technology as long as it used well.

Donald Clark said...

I agree - we agree!

One thing that has surprised me is the attitude of contemporary teachers to learning at home (not homework). My two teenagers receive nothing at all in most subjects and precious little in the remainder. Some of the teaching staff clearly don't belive in it all, others, I suspect, just don't want the hassle. This, I think, is a tragedy for 'autonomous' learning, and puts far too much focus on classroom teaching. It also drives academically ambitious parents round the bend!

Anonymous said...

It is brilliant that you know you hit the mark because you had someone trying to ban you!

It sounds like a fascinating conference.

Anonymous said...

Why is there this contradiction. What all I have been reading in your and some other learning professionals' blogs is it's all kinda blending. That is bound to happen as we cant tie children to books, if games are available they will play. Some studies say that these improve hand-mind coordination. That surgions too practice these games for precision. A silly thought here, is too much of luxury in the case of West preventing the thrust that we need for learning? Though my kids are in one of the best schools here I do not know why but I keep telling my elder one. You will have to work hard to earn your bread. Though there is no need to as he is acedemically brilliant. He is designing an operating system . Here I would like to take back my statement, no learning seems to be independent of the need to prosper in some cases. Still learing is the only way to ensure a good life in developing countries. Maybe this incentive lacking and maybe this is dipping the curve in the West. Silly comments but it's a thought process, not a comment exactly. Thanks for sharing and that teacher is not right in trying to tell you to keep things to your self. There are arrogant peole everywhere.

Anonymous said...

Ouch seems like I got it wrong son is making man-machine interface, he tinkers with open source alot. Couldn't sleep till I made this correct. Seems like a typical mother am bragging about my child! Sorry for this wrong information.Now I can sleep well.

Unknown said...

That teacher was commenting that your values seemed inconsistent.
She said that if you didn't approve of lecture style learning, which you certainly appeared not to, then why had you agreed to come and give a lecture. I suspect the point she was trying to bring out was that ideas are often hard to put into practice.
I thought you had some interesting points to make and I agree with setting up some conflict (eg the games debate) but the reason the audience was largely hostile was because you spent a lot of time criticising teachers. Come and stand in my shoes for a while. Previously I worked in the finance industry and this job is much much more challenging. Your talk was really slick and interesting - could you do 5 more for tomorrow when you get home tonight? On top of reviewing all the evaluation forms from the conference? Sincerely, most of us are doing our absolute best. We probably could do even better if someone somewhere (parents, journalists, politicians) actually showed a smidgeon of support.

Donald Clark said...

There's a difference between criticising 'teaching methods' and 'teachers' themselves. My criticisms focused, not on teachers (whom I generally admire), but on what I regard as education's outdated methods. I was very specific in pointig out some basic theory from the psychology of learning to back my points up. It was not an ad hominem attack.

On the apparent contradiction, I am frequently asked to speak at these conferences, and the organisers are specific in that they don't want speakers who simply deliver what the audience already believe. Contention encourages debate and, I believe, is generally constructive. What is not helpful is someone taking the view that, because the speaker says things they don't personally believe, they shouldn't have been invited to speak. That is just 'closed mind' thinking, and certainly unworthy of someone in the 'learning' profession.

An additional practical point is that many in the audience perhaps don't read blogs, engage in online debate or read the relevant research. You sometimes have to go to where the audience is if you want to reach out to them. As Maslow said 'If you walk around long enough with a hammer, everything starts to look like a nail'. That doesn't mean that hammers are never useful.

I also stated, and believe, that talks, such as the one I delivered, are designed to induce attitudial shift, not the transfer of knowledge or skills. My point was that far too much 'chalk and talk' focuses on the latter to the exclusion of other aims and methods.

I agree that teaching is hard, and have taught myself. My arguments focused on making teaching easier by not having to deliver, day in and day out, lectures, talks and other methods of knowledge transfer that can be done more effectively using technology. I want to reduce 'chalk and talk' teaching time and marking, by taking the load off teachers' shoulders. Honestly, I'm on your side.

Donald Clark said...

Thanks Rina. I've really ejoyed reading your comments and it's great to see someone who is open enough to listen to the debate and take on board some different ideas. Thanks again.

Unknown said...

You have misrepresented or misunderstood that teacher's comment. She did not disagree with you about the technology but about your principles.
You said that classroom teaching had not changed since you were at school and it was boring. This IS an attack on all the teachers who do spend time improving their practice and do give a variety of learning experiences in the classroom. The majority of the audience fell into this category.
You have criticised the "attitude of contemporary teachers" in your blog. This is an attack on all teachers based on a very small sample set of the teachers that teach your children. The homework complaint is often heard by teachers who religiously set homework. Could it be that sometimes children are not entirely truthful....?

Donald Clark said...

A 'principle' is a moral belief and being critical of contemporary teaching methods could hardly be called immoral.

I have personally witnessed poor use of whiteboards, poor differentiation and poor teaching. This is not to condemn all teachers. At this conference the entire audience cheered and clapped when Frank attacked both politicians and DIUS, which he described as the Department for Ingeneous and Unworkable Ideas. It would seem that it's fine for teachers to attack others, crudely and en masse, but any slight criticism of their methods is 'immoral'!

If one is not allowed to criticise current practice, how on earth is it meant to improve. I backed up my points with established research, and stick to my belief that education puts far too much focus on classroom learning and has failed to grasp the wonderful opportunities that techology offers.

To take offence just because the points are contentious is to close one's mind to options, the foundation of critical thinking and learning.

My observations on homework were based on formal interviews with KS3 students, statements from teachers who 'don't believe in homework', endless complaints from parents, and recommendations at recent teacher union conferences on limiting and scrapping homework.

Anonymous said...

I have fallen in like with this guy, Donald Clark. He has said all the things I've been saying for some time but I am taken as not professional or too old-fashioned. How do I get in touch with Mr. Clarke? I enjoy this blog. Theories of teaching these days is all over the place. Everyone wants to pretend she is the hero and knows everything. Whatever happened to the old-fashioned methods. The funny thing is that when I learned my flawless French, I learned it with a book and a strict disciplinarian and I learned it indeed. Today, I bring games to class, we use technology, an overhead projector, songs and dance and the students are never satisfied, neither are the parents and noone learns a darn thing. Education in Korea is seriously flawed. HELP!

I AM SINKING! Can anyone help? Mr. Clarke? Are you out there? Can you come to the rescue?

Anonymous said...

How can I get in touch with Donald Clarke?


I too attended this conferene and really enjoyed your presentation. Interestingly enough I will be runng an INSET session on checking learning. Where did you get the opening clip of the hapless high school teacher getting no response from his students? A very funny clip