Tuesday, 22 May 2012

Being known, as a condition for learning

One of the few good things about being ill over a bank holiday weekend is that it gives you a chance to catch up with those videos you've been meaning to watch for ages - in my case, a documentary called "We Are the People We've Been Waiting For", distributed with The Guardian a couple of years ago. The film is a call for transformation in the educational system, to give the next generation the creative and human qualities (and not just the employability skills) they will need for the road ahead. The case is well-made and engagingly stated, though I don't think there's anything in it which would be new or surprising to anyone working in the field.

Except perhaps one thing. The film featured an American school called MetWest High where they have a zero per cent drop-out rate and a 96% graduation rate, which Eve Gordon the Principal explained by the three conditions for learning which they aimed to fulfil. When she started her list, the very first item surprised me completely and had me scrabbling for a notepad.

What would be your top three conditions for learning, those circumstances in which people learn best? My guess is that most learning theorists would include the second on Gordon's list:

"People learn best when they are intrinsically motivated, when they are learning about something that they chose, that they are excited about, that they have real questions about."

The third of her conditions for learning might not occur quite so readily to people in higher education:

"People learn best when they do mind and hand learning together."

Manual operations of course tend to be ignored or disparaged in universities, as though the only learning processes of relevance to their curriculum are purely intellectual.  We acknowledge the importance of "active learning", but we tend to conceive this only in terms of mental activity. Perhaps we should be more explicit about the importance of physical action even in academic learning: the physicality of writing actual notes and actual answers, the embodiment of knowledge and understanding in physical artefacts, the physical transfer of resources from one location or context to another. I found myself thinking that we still have much to learn from school education.

But it was Eve Gordon's very first condition for learning which was the surprise for me.

"People learn best when they are known well, in the context of a relationship."

Now the importance of relationship is  I believe seriously under-acknowledged by theorists. My experience is that if you try to talk about it, people think that you're talking about learning communities or social learning: about peer relationships between learners, not what Gordon is talking about here, which is the fundamental relationship between learner and teacher. Ken Robinson described it like this, elsewhere in the film: " The kids who are not doing well suddenly find themselves in a programme with a teacher, somebody who looks into their eyes and sees who they really are, gives them a different way of doing [things], and they come back to life."

Practitioners have long acknowledged the importance of knowing your learners (in the sense of connaƮtre, acquaintance, rather than savoir, cognition) and of giving them a sense of being known. It's why at the Open University we have from our foundation put much more effort and investment into tutorial support than other distance learning providers; when students come to us short on self-confidence or familiarity with high-level study, the sense of there being someone else who believes in them may make all the difference between their being able to marshal the resources to continue and giving up the unequal struggle. In our learning materials, where the relationship with our students is mediated through text, we always address the student in the second person, as "You", adopting the voice of what Derek Rowntree called "a tutorial in print" - and when we get it right, as I have found in my research, students do indeed feel that there is a teacher who knows and understands them, and with whom they develop a relationship of trust.

I wish there was better theoretical understanding of how this works: what's happening in the learner when they have this sense of being known, of there being someone who believes in them, who will hold the promise, the future for them, and how it is that this can affect their learning so profoundly. What is it that the teacher reaches in and touches, that brings about this transformation? If somebody understands this, I wish that they would tell me.

Reference: Derek Rowntree, Preparing Materials for Open, Distance and Flexible Learning: An Action Guide for Teachers and Trainers (Kogan Page, 1994), p 14.

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