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Is your curriculum full of JONK?

If you know the answer to the question, are you learning?  Or is it just testing what you already know?image  If you already know that young people know the answer, why are you asking the questions?  Is there a common language for what learning actually is in your classroom / / department / school / whatever?

Thoughts have struck me recently as I’ve moved from a relatively sedate life in a role I knew and was comfortable in to hurtling along on the roof of a bullet train.  Kind of like flying a glider and then waking up at the controls of a space shuttle.  In some ways, I feel like a novice again, and it feels great.  I know that we have an exam system and that we need to ‘recognise that sometimes learning is dull and repetitive’ (Hattie, Visible Learning p240).  Indeed, learning should be a beautiful struggle.  But do we actually know what learning is?  When I ask students, they often tell me that learning is about getting good grades, but that’s one of the outcomes of learning, not the process.  It strikes me that many, including myself, are guilty of using the term ‘learning’ without proper consideration of what we mean by it.

For example, in secondary schools, do we really know what our children know what to do already?  I spent most of the day on Friday talking to Primary school Heads telling me about how familiar they are with processes of learning. Stuff like (but not limited to) effective communication; perseverance;  creativity; remembering stuff; planning; enquiring; connecting; knowledge; synthesis; proper grammar and spelling and so on.  I wonder if teachers really know what students already know so that they feel challenged and learn new stuff, rather than become bored, disengaged and develop the ‘jumping-through-hoops-like-a Sealike-mammal’ approach?  Do teachers just know what young people should be taught at a certain age based upon well worn lessons and schemes of work, or do they (deep breath) actually speak to young people to find out?  I know what we need, a National Curriculum that tells people what they should know at every stage of life, because after all, one size does fit all.  Oh, yeah.  It doesn’t. 

Do we talk about what needs to be done to learn new stuff, or just the outcomes.  Now, don’t confuse this with some learning to learn argument – you can’t learn stuff out of the context of subjects. But, it does raise the question of whether adopting a common language for learning could improve achievement and attainment? 

I can illustrate this with a couple of examples from Geography where children study a local issue.  What actually happens is that these young people just study the same local thing in KS1, 2 and 3.  Or,  at secondary schools where we devote a whole half term to teaching map skills.  It turns out that if you give them an Ordnance Survey map and ask them to tell you about a place from it, they very often can.  The difference is in assuming we know where children are and actually knowing where they are.  In these two examples, I took a leap of faith.  The result was moving quickly onto harder stuff and using skills in context.  I also hate teaching map skills unless I’m actually up a mountain, so it made my life more interesting too.

This way, in the words of a Primary Head, we fill our classrooms with the Joy of Not Knowing (JONK).  I wonder how much time we spend planning how to make children stuck?  More importantly, have we given them the tools to get unstuck? Does our feedback allow them to move forward, or just tell them what they got wrong? Do we use feedback from young people to judge whether our lessons challenge them or are just covering the same old fluff over and over again?  For example, I studies Tudor history, it seems, for ever at secondary school.  I also studied it at primary school.  Yawn.  That made me into a passive learner. Don’t misunderstand me, teachers are professionals and we know our stuff, if you’d asked me at age 13 what I wanted, I would have said more trips, flying lessons, rugby, swimming and shooting. Oh and some games and tips on how to pull girls.  But, I could have told them what I already knew.

Watch this (Sorry can’t embed due to the video privacy settings).  Our job as teachers is to never allow students to reach their potential but to smash it.  I agree with this.  I wonder what the effect of grade chasing has been on young people? I wonder if the effect of exam boards moving grade boundaries would have been as pronounced if we pushed every child to do their best, rather than encouraging them to make do with hitting the C spot on.  When navigating through white out conditions on mountains, you always aim a little bit past your destination.  If you try to hit the mark spot on, it’s easy to miss.  We did this at Priory Geography by telling students that they were more likely to get a C if they got over 40 marks in their Controlled Assessment.  Technically, they could have got around 30 marks, but why set our expectations so low?  Once the Controlled Assessment project was completed, and most children did well, they were motivated and encouraged to do better in the examinations.  We also used to subvert the target grades, very much like as described in David Didau’s excellent post here.  Why is it ever good enough just to get a C grade? 

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