Can we see learning take place?

When I carried out my first learning walks as Assistant Head I announced to staff that I was popping into lessons to look at the learning that was taking place not the teaching. My aim was to shift the focus of my observations from the teachers themselves onto the students to try and make lesson observations less threatening and scary for staff. So what was I looking for? Engaged students who were working hard, students who looked like they were enjoying the lesson, students who could apply what they had been taught to their work. And I did see all of this – in pretty much every classroom students were happy, they were producing lots of work and were freely answering questions the teachers had posed and engaging in class discussions.

So did this mean that all of our students were actually learning? Well what does learning actually mean? If we learn something we are storing this information into our long-term memory so we can recall it and use it at a later date. This is not what I was witnessing in a 10-minute snap shot of a lesson.

What I was actually looking for when going in to observe lessons is what Rob Coe calls ‘poor proxies for learning’. All of those things I was looking for can take place in a lesson but it they can happen without any learning taking place at all. So rather than assuming learning is taking place due to these things occurring in our classrooms, what we can we do as teachers to support the acquisition of knowledge in our students?

Firstly, we can ensure that the environment in the classroom is conducive to learning – remove all unnecessary stimuli so that students’ working memories are free to focus on the important aspects of the lesson. They will then be more likely to transfer this into their long-term memory. Secondly, retrieval practice: we can provide opportunities for students to recall and apply information they have learnt in previous lessons. For example, a starter activity with questions from ‘last lesson, last week, last term’ will encourage students to delve into their long-term memory and pick out and use this information.

As teachers we can provide students with personalised feedback to help them move onto the next step in their learning journey. We should provide students with adequate time to practice what they are learning and to embed this information into their long-term memory. We can also encourage them to take ownership of their learning and support them to make decisions about the next steps in their learning, for example when to increase the difficulty.

We will never be able to actually see learning taking place, something anyone carrying out lesson observations should remember. Instead we can think about the opportunities student have to own their learning, to apply what they learn and to retrieve it regularly.


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