What is learning?

I have been a teacher for over 30 years. It has been my passion. I have always strived to learn more about the craft, to improve it and to develop it. I have been privileged to attend conferences around the world hoping to learn more about this craft. But today I attended a lecture at the IB Global Conference in Vienna that stopped me in my tracks. A lecture by Will Richardson. He challenged us, as teachers, to define excellent learning. As he predicted it wasn’t easy. For too long I have thought about high performance teaching and what that looked like, rather than focus on what high performance learning looks like. I had always assumed that excellent teaching led to high quality learning. I had not thought consciously what makes excellent learning?

In schools, these days, excellent learning is increasingly measured by scores in a test. Pupils ask what do I have to do to get higher marks in the test? How do I get the A *? Is that good learning? As a teacher I was proud if I had inspired future geographers, proud if they wanted to pursue an area we had discussed in class and came back the next day with material they had found. But to me it was ancillary benefit to my teaching – my performance as a teacher was measured by the performance of my pupils in their final exams.

Richardson, however, argued that productive learning was wanting to learn more, if you don’t want to learn more, then that is unproductive learning. If you learn just to pass the test, you will forget what you have learned as soon as you have passed the test. Unproductive learning.

It made me think. As teachers are we valued for teaching pupils to want to learn more or are we valued for teaching them to pass the test? In an increasingly complex world into which the girls are moving, their capacity to thrive will depend on their lifelong commitment to want to learn. We need to develop “learning animals”, help them to find a passion, encourage them to want to learn deeply, to want to learn more. Learning is not waiting to be taught, it’s about being curious to find out more.

Our role as educators is not to fill empty vessels but to ignite fires. By focusing on passing the test we can fail to ignite the fire. The one competitive skill that will set the girls apart is the skill of being able to and wanting to continually learn. It is not an ancillary benefit of teaching, it is the sole purpose of teaching and is the one thing that cannot be measured by the test.

Jo MacKenzie, Headmistress, Bedford Girls’ School

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