At our Prizegiving last term, I drew the attention of parents to the fact that the most important thing that happens in a school is learning. At our first assembly of the year, I developed that a little further when I suggest to pupils that it was fundamental for them to be constantly asking themselves this question regularly: ‘What am I learning in this situation?’.
If this seems unnecessarily obvious to the reader, I recommend asking a teenager after an academic lesson, or a musical instrument lesson, or a drama rehearsal, or a sports practice: 'What is it that you were meant to be learning during that period of time?' Many often don’t know, or haven’t thought about it.
The Director of Music at Monkton (see http://musicatmonkton.wordpress.com/) helpfully draws a distinction between playing the piano and practising the piano. Similarly, there is a difference between doing practice papers for an exam, and seeking to learn how to do the questions on a paper which one currently isn’t able to do. There’s a difference between going down to run around with a rugby or hockey ball, and practising skills or planned moves for a team. There is a difference between completing a practical leadership test, or a Duke of Edinburgh Walk, and learning from it.
In each case, focusing on the intended learning points is a high value activity. When students do a practice exam paying special attention to the questions they can’t do, looking up the answers and the method, and practising lots of similar questions, their marks go up. If they simply complete lots of past papers without considering why, their marks might go up, but they won’t go up by much.
A teenager who turns up for a rugby practice simply to run around like a headless chicken, probably won’t get much better. One who simply plays their way through pieces of music repeatedly, won’t get much better either: practice is repeating small segments of a piece are found difficult, until they are played exactly as desired.
I am convinced a large number of school pupils see the learning activities of the school days as things to get through: lessons, courses, activities, experiments and practicals. Viewing such activities in this way deafens the participant to the learning that can take place. Instead, being alive to what teachers call the ‘intended learning outcome’, and responding to it is important. Every student can accept that the habit of asking ‘What am I learning in this situation?’ is one they can master, and which might help them to use their school experiences more productively.