10 quick lessons from educational thinkers

Praxis, the combination of theory, reflection and practice is precious – as in ‘valuable’ – but it’s not something to be precious or pretentious about. Educational theory is of real use when we reflect on it and apply it in practice. The list below features 10 quick lessons drawn from some of the people featured so far in this blog’s ‘Educational Thinkers’ Hall of Fame’.

Number 10 is specifically about the WEA but has wider application in adult education.

  1. Socrates – Active learning through questioning and discovery leads to deeper understanding of a subject.
  2. Mary Wollstonecraft – Prejudice leads to ill-informed and unfair assumptions about people’s academic potential.
  3. John Dewey – Previous experiences of life and education shape individual students’ personal responses to learning activities.
  4. Benjamin Bloom – Learning can take place at many levels ranging from ‘rote’ learning to active creativity.
  5. Paolo Freire – Education shouldn’t be based on a ‘banking’ system that attempts to deposit knowledge in students’ minds.
  6. Robert Gagne – ‘Teachers have three primary functions: to be a designer, manager and evaluator of learning.’
  7. Jack Mezirow – Transformative education has the potential to set people free from their limitations.
  8. Carol Dweck – The language we use as educators can reinforce the development of ‘fixed mindsets’ or ‘growth mindsets’
  9. John Hattie – Teacher credibility is important in promoting ‘visible learning’ through feedback about students’ progress.
  10. R H Tawney – The purpose of the association [the WEA] is to provide for men and women who want to take their bearings on the world, opportunities of co-operative study, in congenial company, with a leader who knows enough of his (or her) business to be not only a leader but a fellow student.

This blog complements others that I follow, including Pete Caldwell’s at wp.me/p1ynaa-a1 and several others. I’ll list a few in the next blog.

What snippets would you have chosen from any of these or other thinkers to inform practice in adult education?

Praxis

“Thinkers think and doers do. But until the thinkers do and the doers think, progress will be just another word in the already overburdened vocabulary of the talkers who talk.”

Anonymous

This quotation is a reminder that there can sometimes be a gap between theory and practice in adult and community learning. Of course there are theorists who are teachers – and teachers who are theorists – but theory is sometimes remote from practice, where there is a rich experience of tutors intuitively developing creative and successful strategies for teaching, learning and assessment, often working collaboratively. It’s interesting that Twitter and social media are providing means to open up exchanges of ideas and debate, prompting wider professional dialogue on these matters.

Theory and practice come together in the concept of ‘praxis’.

What is praxis in education?

A simple explanation is that praxis is a cycle of theory and purposeful action that incorporates reflection. It helps us to analyse our efforts so that we can develop and improve our thinking, doing and effectiveness as educators.

Praxis2

There are other interpretations and this doesn’t capture the additional elements of informed moral commitment and critical thinking that are commonly associated with praxis. Paulo Freire’s definition of praxis in Pedagogy of the Oppressed was, “reflection and action upon the world in order to transform it.”  Praxis is reflective, active, creative, contextual and has social purpose.

Centuries ago the ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle categorised three disciplines of knowledge: the theoretical, the productive and the practical and some educators see praxis as one of four ways of approaching curriculum theory and practice, based on these three disciplines:

Praxiscurric

  • The syllabus approach can be seen as transmitting a body of knowledge .
  • The product approach assumes an attempt for students to achieve specified outcomes.
  • Learning to learn is the main focus of a process driven approach.
  • Praxis can be seen as an extension of the process approach, where the curriculum is put together through planning, acting and evaluating as in the cycle described above.

Is this model too simplistic? Are the four approaches mutually exclusive?

These are very basic and introductory interpretations of praxis. Although they refer to education as being contextualised, they can imply that the relationship between tutors and students is not shaped or constrained by policy and, in many organisations, by management and governance decisions.

What issues does this raise?

Some organisations are taking imaginative and very distinctive approaches. For example, Louise Mycroft (@TeachNorthern on Twitter) and others have developed a ‘Community of Praxis’ based on Northern College’s teacher education programmes.

As ever, I’d appreciate comments, development of arguments, disagreements, other ideas or links. There is a great deal of expertise on this subject and many people who can add deeper (or different?) perspectives about praxis in education.

What do you think?

Educational Thinkers’ Hall of Fame – What about Socrates?

The best education encourages students to ask questions rather than to accept someone else’s answers in a mechanical transfer of assumed ‘knowledge’. Questioning steers intellectual curiosity and active learning. It’s especially effective in adult education in engaging students as partners with their tutors and with other students in shared learning processes. It should be integral to the WEA’s practice as we aim to, ‘challenge and inspire individuals, communities and society’. Do you agree?

medmo-einstein-explain-questioning

Many questions lead to more questions. They develop threads of learning that continue to play out and lead to a more considered understanding of subjects. Learning through discovery is a much deeper process than the simple acquisition of information. The art of critical inquiry is a precious skill in all aspects of life as we try to make sense of the world around us, especially in an ‘information age’ where we are spoon-fed ‘facts’ via mass media. Questioning trains our minds to engage with and to analyse information, to check facts, to consider other viewpoints and to become more inventive and adaptable when we try to deal with new challenges.

Socrates and Socratic questioning
Socrates, the Greek philosopher, was born in Athens around 470 BC and sentenced to death by hemlock poisoning in 399 BC after a trial on charges of ‘corrupting the youth’ and ‘impiety’. His alleged crimes had been the posing of philosophical questions about Athenians’ commonly acknowledged gods.

Socrates

Socrates

He accepted his fate with dignity and was said to have been humble about his own perceived lack of knowledge.

True wisdom comes to each of us when we realise how little we understand about life, ourselves, and the world around us.

Socrates

His students, most notably Plato, wrote about his life and work including the concept of Socratic questioning. The Socratic method still forms a sound basis for an inquiry-based approach to teaching, learning and assessment and Socrates’ ideas have influenced many subsequent educational theories, including Bloom’s Taxonomy of Learning. They support the notion of teachers as intellectuals who continue to learn and of students who are active, critical thinkers.

The aim of education should be to teach us rather how to think, than what to think – rather to improve our minds, so as to enable us to think for ourselves, than to load the memory with the thoughts of other men.

John Dewey

There’s more detail on ‘The Role of Socratic Questioning in Thinking, Teaching and Learning’ on the Critical Thinking Community’s website at: http://www.criticalthinking.org/pages/the-role-of-socratic-questioning-in-thinking-teaching-learning/52 and more on Socratic Dialogue at: http://www.socraticdialogue.be/socrates.html.

I can also recommend the Critical Thinking Community’s ‘Begin here” pages at: http://www.criticalthinking.org/pages/critical-thinking-where-to-begin/796

What do you think about integrating Socratic questioning in teaching, learning, assessment and in everyday life? What are the pros and cons?

Any other good resources, examples, ideas or comments to share?

Teaching, Learning and Assessment the WEA Way

This link takes you to a ‘storified’ collation of tweets and comments from a WEA event that focused on embedding the WEA’s vision into teaching, learning and assessment through our 4 educational themes of Employability, Health and Wellbeing, Community Engagement and Culture.

http://bit.ly/16BFshl

The event wasn’t all discussion although that was an important element.

The day included a lot of practical work on developing sample learning outcomes and assessing our courses’ potential impact. This built on recent WEA impact surveys aligned with continuing research by Community Learning Trusts and the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills. The tweets didn’t capture the full scope of the event but they give a flavour of some of the issues that were considered.

The WEA’s vision is: “A better world, equal, democratic and just; through adult education the WEA challenges and inspires individuals, communities and society.”

Educational Thinkers’ Hall of Fame – John Hattie

I’m including John Hattie in the Educational Thinkers’ Hall of Fame because of his reputation for research into positive influences on students’ learning. He was already a well-known academic when he made an international impact with his 2009 book, ‘Visible Learning: A Synthesis of Over 800 Meta-Analyses Relating to Achievement’.

Hattie Visible Learning

Visible Learning – 15 years of research
He based this book on the biggest ever collection of evidence-based research into the most important influences on school-aged students’ achievements. He considered many factors. These included the influence of home, school, curricula, teachers and teaching strategies. His findings are relevant to adult education too.

He analysed all the evidence that he had collected and ranked the various factors in order of their ‘effect-sizes’. Some of his variables, such as ‘feedback’ or ‘acceleration’ can mean different things to different people and Hattie explained them more fully in his narrative.

Hattie’s average effect-sizes
He used the following descriptions to explain ‘effect-size’ as used in the table below:
• An effect-size of 0.5 is equivalent to a one grade leap at GCSE
• An effect-size of 1.0 is equivalent to a two grade leap at GCSE
• ‘No. of effects’ is the number of well-designed studies producing effect-sizes that were averaged in the table’s right hand column.
• An effect-size above 0.4 is significant and above average for educational research.

This extract from a table of his findings shows some of the highest scoring factors that Hattie identified, ranked by their average effect-sizes. Some of his results seem to be highly significant given his explanation that a score greater than 0.5 can raise students’ GCSE grades. His analysis identifies feedback as being massively influential.

effect-size-table-john-hattie

Hattie’s conclusions
Hattie is careful not to use his research to produce superficial ‘how to’ guides for teachers but he outlined some signposts to excellence in education in the last chapter of ‘Visible Learning’.

He came to important conclusions about the power of teachers and feedback, developing a model of teaching, learning and understanding based on his ideas of ‘visible teaching and visible learning’. He concluded that we need teachers who are empowered by being educated about how learning is best achieved and who are enthused about their position and responsibility in helping students to achieve as much as possible. He proposed that the best teachers have a powerful sense of personal agency and a belief in their ability to intervene and to make learning happen.

More recent work
Hattie continues to update his research and findings. He has written a follow-up book, ‘Visible Learning for Teachers: Maximizing Impact on Learning’ and, in December 2011, he published an updated version of rankings in his table of classroom interventions based on 141 more meta-analyses, adding 14 more variables to his new list.

The highest new entry of high-scoring influences, in fourth place, was ‘teacher credibility’. This factor wasn’t listed in his original study.

“The key is the students’ perception that teachers have credibility in enhancing their learning,” he said. “Students are very perceptive about knowing which teachers can make a difference to their learning. And teachers who command this credibility are most likely to make the difference.”

“The effects on achievement are high and the reason is that teachers who constantly show students they care, and know about the difference and impact they are having on them, are ‘visible’ and welcomed.”

About John Hattie
johnhattieJohn Hattie is a Professor of Education and Director of the Melbourne Education Research Institute at the University of Melbourne, Australia and was until recently a Professor of Education at the University of Auckland in New Zealand. This is a very brief and basic introduction to his work, which is current and developing.

A feature in the Times Educational Supplement on 23 September, 2012 (http://bit.ly/R47OJj} described Hattie as, “one of the most divisive figures in world education.” It went on to say that, “Opinion is split between those who know of the New Zealander and praise him as the author of teaching’s “holy grail”, and those who know of him and accuse him of being an “egotistical, self-serving” academic, too keen to bask in the limelight.” Strong stuff!

Some readers might have met John Hattie, heard him speak or been influenced by his work. Please feel free to add any further information or links to more resources – or to add your thoughts on the impact and usefulness of Hattie’s research in improving teaching, learning and assessment.

The Secret Teacher, senior leadership, management and focus

A Secret Teacher writes....

A Secret Teacher writes….

‘Senior leaders are drowning in paperwork rather than inspiring others’, says Secret Teacher, in the Guardian‘s ‘School Leadership and Management Hub’ on Saturday at http://bit.ly/ZwlyWh

Senior staff need to be brave enough not to be distracted from the focus; that of creating a culture of good learning. We need to keep in mind what’s important and shift the focus back to enabling students to do the very best they can and getting teachers to feel as empowered and motivated as possible..”

The WEA isn’t a school but we face similar issues. We’re a voluntary sector adult education organisation with more than 1700 tutors across England and Scotland. The quotation above is a good guide for our senior educational leadership and management. This blog is about what we’re doing to ‘shift the focus back’ following a recent restructure and review of priorities.

We’re usually swimming against a tide of emails, deadlines and competing priorities as Secret Teacher says. We do risk drowning in paperwork but we’re trying to make careful choices along the way as we develop new ways of working.

10 things we’ve done recently to focus on a “culture of good learning”

1. We refreshed our vision and reaffirmed our commitment to adult education for social purpose. This gives clearer direction for our teaching and learning.

2. We cut the number of posts in our Senior Management Team. This aimed to cut overheads.

3. Trustees took part in a development event in October, using ‘active learning’ methods to focus on their roles in promoting excellence in teaching, learning and assessment. They wanted this to be at the forefront of strategic planning as the restructured Senior Management Team began to work with them in new ways.

4. Trustees now have a standing item on ‘teaching, learning and assessment’ on the agendas for all their meetings. Using this precise wording is creating space to ‘shift the focus back’.

5. ‘Teaching, learning and assessment’ is also a standing item on the agenda for all Senior Management Team meetings and teleconferences, reinforcing colleagues’ deep and shared interest and ambition for the WEA.

Our senior managers care about teaching and learning

Our senior managers care about teaching and learning

6. Trustees have changed the way that they run their Education Strategy Committee. They concentrate on an individual aspect of teaching, learning, assessment and impact for part of every meeting. Committee members have agreed that they will always ‘challenge the status quo’. Chris Morton, the Chair, invites people with a range of roles within and beyond the WEA to take part in these sessions so that the Committee members learn from different perspectives.

7. We have rooted our self-assessment, improvement and development processes in our work. Many people take part in determining what’s good about our teaching, learning and assessment and what we should improve. Using the AfL approach (Assessment for Learning), our self-assessment is FOR progress and not just OF progress.

8. We now manage student services and support from within the Senior Management Team so that we know about students’ needs, opinions and learning experiences as we make plans and check progress on teaching and learning.

Fiona Parr, Director of Student Services

Fiona Parr, Director of Student Services

9. We are encouraging people to exchange views about theories and practice of teaching, learning and assessment so that we’re actively thoughtful and thoughtfully active about how our students learn.

10. We are continuing to develop Community Learning Volunteers who work beside some tutors and provide classroom support. (This direct learning support is in addition to many Branch volunteers who organise courses and to other active volunteers.)

We’ve got a lot of work to do and I don’t underestimate the challenges but Trustees and senior education managers are regularly asking the question that Secret Teacher poses: “Is it going to directly improve learning?” We need to keep asking the question throughout the WEA, no matter what distractions there are. It’s also a message that all education policy makers, from Government Ministers to teachers, should apply whenever they make professional decisions.

We have to rely on colleagues with expertise in other specialisms to run excellent services alongside education. Teaching and learning would be impossible without them. Their vital roles and professional skills deserve equivalent status and the more that they do to free up educators to educate the better.

It would be interesting to know how senior managers ‘keep the focus’ in other educational organisations. We’re unusual in having such a dispersed and democratic model but we try to be open about what we do and we’re always willing to learn from others’ good practice as we develop.