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Education for All Educational development General Learning Teaching skills

Education Really Matters: Promoting Authentic Learning

Frank O’Hagan

Learning is for living and for life.

Building a culture of love for learning

When I was a young teacher, I remember a colleague reporting on his child’s first day at school. Let us refer to her as Scholastica for reasons which will become apparent. He and his wife, also a school teacher, had taken care to prepare Scholastica thoroughly for her formal entry into primary education, trying to make certain that she would respond enthusiastically and confidently to her early experiences. The infant class teacher also had made detailed plans to ensure that her precious beginners settled well into their new environment. Initially she gave them the freedom to chat, play and generally explore the classroom and its contents. However, before this first stage of the teacher’s planning was over, Scholastica stood in the middle of the room, hands on hips, and declared that these goings-on were all fine and good but wanted to know when the real learning would begin! 

This anecdote raises questions about the nature and value of ‘real learning’ – or of what might be described more appropriately as ‘authentic learning’. The concept can be interpreted and understood in differing ways depending on students’ perspectives. It is characterised by cognitive activities which are developmental, internalised, useful and practical. Furthermore, it has continuity in the sense that it supports and nurtures the acquisition of added knowledge and a deeper understanding of a topic. It is multi-faceted and certainly is not restricted by a single, formulaic procedure or method. Other features would include learners recognising their talents, advancing their comprehension, giftedness and wisdom, and accepting personal responsibility for making progress.

Of course, purposeful learning is by no means confined to what takes place in educational establishments. It is without boundaries. Active minds of both the young and old find enjoyment in seeking out and finding stimulating learning opportunities within their daily schedules. Learners of all ages can experience intellectual satisfaction through a wide variety of ordinary practices and pastimes. These range across reading, group discussions and watching television documentaries to partaking in computer-based and online learning, research and vocational training. Parents, guardians and teachers need to provide time, in terms of both quantity and quality, to listening to learners’ voices, interacting constructively with them and encouraging a love of learning. A hale and hearty society builds a culture in which all wish to extend their knowledge, skills and expertise.

Engagement and ownership

All enthusiastic scholars have the capacity to ‘learn how to learn’ more efficiently. Educationalists have to take a firm stand against the pursuit of superficial knowledge and be able to demonstrate to students that lessons, tutorials and study have both vital purposes and positive objectives. The impact of neurological factors on learning – for example, in relation to brain development, anxiety, stress and sleep deprivation – is rightly receiving close attention from researchers. Undoubtedly, there is a strong case against viewing learning as simply about cognitive and intellectual processes without also considering personal, emotional and social factors.

At all times, attention is required to ensure that students are neither overly bored nor anxious about their tasks. If they are placed unwillingly into academic or training programmes or fail to recognise the rationale behind what is being asked of them, their eagerness and motivation to move forward can easily fade. Well-expressed enthusiasm on the part of teachers can stimulate students and make lessons more enjoyable. On occasions, they may need time to allow for the incubation of fresh ideas prior to proceeding to the next stages of their syllabus. Related to taking ‘breaks’ is the importance of reflection on problems and hypotheses in the consolidation of new information and its practical applications. 

In worthwhile academic work, students are active contributors within the overall process and fully engaged in reaching both unexpected or planned outcomes. It cannot be the case of a sibling, teacher or lecturer merely dispensing facts and data. There needs to be genuine intellectual involvement on the part of recipients. Key features are ownership of and commitment to supportive learning pursuits which in turn lead to a better grasp of concepts and the development of more complex competences. Participation can include a multiplicity of cerebral and concrete tasks embracing lateral thinking, investigative assignments and verbal presentations. ‘Digital empowerment’ (or what might be referred to as CRISMATICS, namely proficiency in the use of Computers, Robots and Intelligent Software) opens opportunities for independent learning in areas of special interest. Additionally, improvements in the organisation of facilities for hybrid learning across individual, in-group and virtual environments will result in widespread progress.

Curiosity, creativity, problem-solving

The evolution of an enquiring mind and outlook is another feature which is associated with successful learning. Encouraging research, evaluating findings and examining their own ideas and those of their peers are of consequence. Through such strategies students are enabled to widen their interests in new possibilities, are confident enough to discuss and analyse their efforts, and are willing to explore alternative ways of resolving puzzling issues. Albert Einstein (famous for his ‘thought experiments’) is said to have felt that familiar everyday creative actions were the foundation for highly significant innovative thinking. Although imaginative undertakings and group projects in classrooms are hardly expected to lead to the status of international breakthroughs(!), they undoubtedly are able to act as a catalyst for building up learners’ curiosity and sense of wonder. They can provide motivation to master exploratory techniques and problem-solving methodologies and to delve further into a specific theme or curricular area. However, endorsement in itself may not be sufficient. Skilful questioning by teachers can ascertain what students truly know, prompt them to correct inaccuracies and deepen their levels of understanding.

In contrast, to be avoided at all costs is the occurrence of what the mathematician and philosopher, Alfred North Whitehead, famously called ‘inert knowledge’ and ‘inert ideas’. These terms refer to aspects of information which are acquired by learners without a true grasp of their usefulness. They may only serve an inconsequential purpose and can be of a very momentary nature. Cramming reluctantly at the last minute for an examination, only to forget everything shortly after it is over, could be viewed as fitting  into the description of ‘inert knowledge’. To keep knowledge alive, Whitehead felt that it needed to enable learners to undertake effective problem-solving in real-life conditions. Indeed, through an understanding of the faults and failings of inculcating ‘inert ideas’, teachers can appreciate more clearly the genuine value of developing effective tactics to promote indisputable and valid advancement. When engagement in learning is a delightful and satisfying enterprise, the process can build up a dynamic momentum which leads to fresh aspirations and endless possibilities.

The joys of investigation, discovery and verification

A method which can be found to result in augmenting learning is commonly referred to as ‘discovery learning’. This approach focuses mainly on the process of enhancing pupils’ achievements and understanding through providing them with opportunities to explore and find out facts and results by themselves or in groups. In its purest form, advocates adopted a highly non-interventionist mode and, in some instances, this kind of methodology is still to be found. Criticisms of very open-ended pedagogic styles were that they turned out to be too time-consuming within an already crowded curriculum and that learners’ so-called discoveries were frequently inaccurate or frivolous. Certainly such risks exist. Of course, it should not be assumed that children and young people are able to investigate or detect everything; advances in human ingenuity generally build on what others already have ascertained.

Nonetheless, worth consideration as an alternative to a simplistic over-emphasis on unadorned discovery tactics is what might be termed ‘guided discovery’. For example, if required, learners would be given judicious hints, nudges or assistance along learning pathways. Since they may not be able to make progress without suitable backing, lucid instructions on how to move ahead from their prior knowledge will generate success. As a result of the incremental building of self-confidence, they benefit from asking Socratic questions about what they are learning and seek solutions to any inconsistencies or flaws. In time, due to increases in their abilities and autonomy, they can make more rapid steps forward through their own self-regulating endeavours in fact-finding, testing and presentation.

Learning across the curriculum

The need for effective learning and teaching extends across all subjects. We can find many pertinent instances of integrated strategies within any curricular area. The following brief example relating to aspects of personal, social and health education in supplementing some helpful features of life skills and general wellbeing is offered for scrutiny.

Thoughtful tutorials can enable pupils to develop a critical awareness of the messages with which they are targeted through advertising in the media or from reports on political and public affairs. Should they believe what advertisers, politicians, celebrities or, for that matter, some ‘scientists’ are proclaiming? Let’s face it – there is a great deal of spurious and untested information coming their way on a daily basis. Through examining the views and the points being conveyed, they can be asked to explore the intentions of the authors and pundits. If they feel that there are defects in what is being stated, they can proceed to re-examine opinions and identify how much might be exaggerations, inaccuracies, conjectures or misleading assumptions. Cultivating such thinking skills is particularly important if it becomes obvious that there has been a covert aim to encourage them to engage in careless financial practices or to entice them towards dubious or unwanted distractions. Such deliberations illustrate that there are many variables at play in fostering meaningful learning. They also signal the usefulness not only of well-founded knowledge and understanding of specific curricular subjects but also the merits of life and employability skills.

 More ‘real-life’ research requires to be undertaken directly within normal school and learning environments rather than in more remote experimental settings. A greater emphasis on evidence-based findings which identify best conditions, including the application of new technological study programmes, for individual and group learning is necessary. Appropriate explorations would include ascertaining the most productive ways of organising scientific studies for adolescents and how to enable young pupils to overcome cognitive and emotional aspects of anxiety linked with the learning of language or mathematics. Some research findings might lead to dramatic progress in curricular areas as could be the accumulative impact of a variety of small but germane improvements. All trainee and qualified teachers should be supported in further advancing their proficiency as practitioner-researchers to enable them to boost and enrich their cherished ‘learning communities’.

Concluding comments

Learning experiences generally require a set of prerequisites which enable them to be successful and effective. These can comprise personal attributes, the structure of programmes of study, the quality of support provided, and family and environmental influences. When optimum conditions reign, valuable outcomes such as self-knowledge, a thirst for relevant information and understanding, objectivity, open-mindedness and creative flexibility are likely to blossom. Personal characteristics of this kind will ensure that learners can adapt swiftly and appropriately to evolving and differing innovations, discoveries and occupations. Promoting constructive learning styles across all sectors of society is an immense challenge which every nation should welcome and champion. Significant cultural shifts towards meeting this commendable aspiration should be agreed by all as a highly desirable priority.

Key features of authentic learning for children, adolescents and adults, regardless of their ages, abilities or social backgrounds, include:

  • feeling valued and respected within well-planned and stimulating tutorial sessions and other inspiring settings
  • being able to listen, pay attention and take account of the ideas, suggestions and advice of trusted friends and teachers
  • developing versatility in comprehending instructions and tasks and in responding appropriately and imaginatively in different situations
  • having the self-belief and confidence to contribute in both individualised and group activities in order to achieve worthwhile attainments and achievements
  • participating enthusiastically in creative and lateral thinking, experimentation, problem-solving work, independent computer-based activities and online seminars
  • personalising approaches towards scholarship and erudition while accepting that at times learning can be challenging and needs to be perceived as an essential life-long process  
  • embracing a culture which is value-based and encourages the acquisition of useful knowledge, in-depth understanding and an array of transferrable skills for everyday living in a changing world.

Footnote: I wonder what became of Scholastica who clearly was an able and wholehearted learner. I do hope that she found success and satisfaction in pleasant and agreeable undertakings throughout her school career and beyond. Perhaps she became a headteacher or university professor and played a major role in promoting authentic learning for all her students. Assuredly, that is what headteachers and professors do. Don’t they? 

The human mind benefits from lifelong learning opportunities to advance and flourish.

(Dr Frank O’Hagan previously was the Adviser of Studies to Bachelor of Education students at the University of Strathclyde. Later, he was a member of Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Education.)

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Education for All Educational development General Teaching skills

Education Really Matters: In Praise of Inspirational Teachers

Frank O’Hagan

Great expectations

It is no surprise that we regularly come across judgements about teachers at the school gate or in the media. Members of the public frequently express an opinion about the overall state of teaching and education, perhaps highly influenced by their own experiences while at school, college or university. Describing any teacher as ‘good’ or ‘bad’ is often unfair and too simplistic. Such evaluations can easily overlook the complexity of both teaching and learning in everyday practices.

In general, government, education authorities and parents appear to accept, at least tacitly, that teaching is a demanding vocation. Nonetheless, high standards are expected from all stakeholders. A consummate challenge for teachers to-day is to perform effectively and consistently regardless of social factors or quantity of resources. If, as is often said, teaching is both an art and a science, how do we decide on what are the qualities to be most valued? There are formal criteria for assessing teachers but here the aim is to explore the issue of how teaching styles can be perceived within a more wide-ranging civic perspective.

From a discerning public position, effective teachers are those who create stimulating learning contexts for their lessons, taking due account of their students’ ages and abilities. They provide well-judged opportunities to extend learners’ knowledge, understanding and skills while monitoring and assessing achievements at individual and group levels. They use their expertise and experience to plan how best to motivate pupils, making sure to integrate ideas securely within the syllabus being followed. In order to maintain continuous progress, they adopt a flexible and open-ended approach so that they are able to adjust programmes of study with regard to content, pace, outcomes and context. By no means should these capabilities be regarded as trivial or easy. They are challenging and require intelligent, astute and sensitive decision-making and implementation.

Challenges and potential pitfalls

The demands on teaching professionals are constantly changing and on occasions it is difficult for them to keep abreast of developments. If this is the case, think of the confusion which can befall students, parents and employers. As specialists, dedicated teachers are not afraid of innovation. However, they are aware of the need to look out for unnecessary fads or gimmicks which are publicised commercially but are of little value to children and young people. From time to time, they will be willing to undertake potential risks in using new teaching materials and methods, evaluating their worth in the process. They also will allow or encourage their students to adopt a similar stance as in extending their personal skills through independent, computer-based learning, for example if appropriate, in the effective use of massive open online courses (MOOCs). This open-minded, philosophical outlook will be evident in their attitudes and practices. To paraphrase the views of that outstanding Scottish scientist, James Clerk Maxwell, the committed teacher’s standpoint is: “I would never dissuade young people from trying an experiment; if they do not find out what they want, they may discover something else.”

There are two false dichotomies which need to be confronted and clarified when teachers’ contributions are being judged. The first is linked to the unhelpful dispute concerning which is the more important – learning or teaching. It has echoes of the alleged medieval debate about how many angels can dance on the head of a pin. Learning and teaching can be seen as two sides of the same complex process within classrooms or lecture theatres. Investigations show that both are significant and perhaps we should leave it at that. Stated simply, a principal focus of teaching is on high quality learning by students, coupled with a genuine concern for their personal and social wellbeing. 

A second debate relates to the issue of the value of theoretical knowledge versus skills. Even when I was training to be a teacher – sadly long, long ago – I recall reading a treatise against skills. There was an elitist view – which unfortunately can still be found today – that skills were somehow inferior to knowledge. This regrettable opinion may remind readers of the supposed time when some colonial grandees felt that the British Empire could best be run by classics graduates with Oxbridge backgrounds. It is necessary for teaching to include principles, facts and skills, with the development of practical competences being neglected at society’s peril. All these features are intertwined and improve through study, application, experimentation and creativity. Proficient educators ensure that young people have suitable and up-to-date opportunities to advance in a broad and integrated manner.

Support for students

Steady progress towards personal, long-term targets are often more important for a pupil than test results and can provide a secure pathway to later academic success. Professional expertise helps in promoting pupils’ belief and confidence in their own abilities and competences. It facilitates the creation of positive mindsets regarding further attainment and enhances multi-faceted progress.

As well as students’ individual achievements, the main aims of education must address the collective needs of society. Well-judged group activities on communal issues identified by pupils – employment, human rights, homelessness, pollution etc. – can endorse a sense of citizenship and social responsibility. (A bonanza for teachers is that they can learn about topics in greater depth through preparing for and then implementing their lessons and tutorials!) There will be occasions when pupils can internalise information and concepts more fully by being asked to make presentations to their peers on matters which they have researched. Building motivation and encouraging upbeat attitudes concerning teamwork, resilience and planning for the future are on-going duties which require constant vigilance. They are among the most valued characteristics of the gifted educator. 

Account also needs to be taken about the specific obstacles which students – depending on their age, ability and social backgrounds – may experience in diverse curricular areas. Subtle, varying approaches and strategies are often required regarding learning and teaching in different subjects such as history, art and design, mathematics and technology. Indeed, further meticulous research is needed to ascertain how best to structure and present programmes of study in various components of the curriculum, including in computing and science education.  

At times, teachers have to support students in confronting their negative feelings about academic setbacks and provide guidance for them to triumph over barriers to learning and progress. Through their flair in identifying difficulties and advising on learning strategies, they can assist students in building what might be termed ‘intellectual buoyancy’ – their ability and determination to come back from disappointments and to overcome challenges of different kinds.

A passing thought: Albert Einstein, one of the greatest minds of the 20th century, does not appear to have been regarded as a truly exceptional student at school or higher education. However, he did make some thoughtful comments on the nature of teaching, for instance: “It is the supreme art of the teacher to awaken joy in creative expression and knowledge.” He clearly believed in this vital role bestowed upon teachers.     

Support for staff

Educationalists are greatly assisted in being able to sustain high-quality practical skills if they look after their own physical and mental health. Amid the pressures placed on education in today’s society, teachers need to be to be alert and resilient in maintaining their vigour and wellbeing. Stress, at an individual’s optimal level, can be a positive factor in increasing motivation and engagement when undertaking tasks. However, there are many potentially harmful features which can impact on performance. These may include a toxic combination of disruptive behaviour in class, rapid changes in the curriculum or assessment procedures, an endless demand for higher standards in formal examinations and, at times, over-demanding parents or administrators. All teachers need to be knowledgeable about how to identify threats to their mental health and to make effective use of ways to combat them. 

Lifestyles which embrace a healthy balance across work and leisure, support from trusted colleagues, and the use of individualised therapies can have a central role in maintaining confidence and positive attitudes regarding teachers’ daily duties. Importantly, staff should not regard undue stress as simply belonging to them alone or always occurring because of personal traits which indicate their fault. Excessive workloads arising from organisational failures within disorderly environments require to be examined in such circumstances. Effective managers are skilled at recognising stumbling blocks, taking steps to reduce unnecessary tensions and building job satisfaction through improving the ethos in which their staff are expected to operate.

In fairness to teachers in all sectors of education, it should be emphasised that promoting affirmative outlooks, fostering a love of learning and ensuring academic success are not simply their responsibility. Although these characteristics should be fundamental and central within all educational settings, they also must stretch far beyond their boundaries. Education must never be viewed as the exclusive property or responsibility of schools, colleges or universities. No classroom, lecture theatre or institution is an educational island; flourishing links with and support from local communities, the general public, industry and government are paramount. 

If a country wishes to raise accomplishments in specific curricular areas or across all subjects, then there needs to be a positive, collective agenda for improvement. To a large extent, a noble endeavour of this kind often requires cultural changes – not only within individual classes but at whole-school and societal levels. Momentum will be accelerated if, as a nation, a much more forthright approach is taken towards recognising, sponsoring and paying tribute to first-rate benchmarks reached in learning and teaching. The plain truth is that capable teachers help to create excellent centres of learning which, in turn, facilitate and foster tolerance, respect and economic development amongst the wider society.

Summary

What then contributes towards becoming an inspirational teacher or does it simply depend on whom you ask? Although one may come across various zany answers, there appears to be some overall agreement with regard to the following characteristics. 

Talented educationalists:

  • are skilled at motivating, organising and assessing
  • care about ensuring that their teaching styles are exemplary and that students benefit from the instructional episodes which they have planned
  • build from ‘where scholars are at’ and provide clear, helpful feedback on strengths and progress to all relevant stakeholders, particularly those learners for whom they are directly responsible
  • are leaders within their class or subject area but willingly ‘give away’ their knowledge and expertise
  • encourage their students to cultivate self-belief, confidence, open-mindedness and independent learning skills within the complex and evolving requirements of modern cultures
  • believe in the importance of research and development in education, in improving their own professional competences, and in evaluating in an honest manner their successes and disappointments with regard to raising standards of attainment and achievement.
‘Education is not filling a bucket; but lighting a fire.’ (Willian Butler Yeats)

Key questions and issues for further consideration

Does society sufficiently value and commend those teachers who consistently perform above and beyond the formal requirements of their profession? Is the autonomy of teachers being eroded through the imposition of unnecessary bureaucracy and market-led directives? How can schools and learning environments adjust to the rapidly changing circumstances of contemporary society?

Nothing stands still, including the demands made concerning methods of tutoring and the acquisition of knowledge and skills. The delivery of education for all is creaking from many pressures. Further ground breaking means of utilising technological advances should continue to be developed for both within educational establishments and beyond the normal school day. How can these innovations be used more effectively in the promotion of the principles and attributes underling high quality teaching? How best can students benefit from them in more practical, accessible and flexible ways?

(Dr Frank O’Hagan previously was the Adviser of Studies to Bachelor of Education students at the University of Strathclyde. Later, he was a member of Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Education.)