The power of collaborative learning

#TLCONF17 @OsirisEdu 2017 | Alex Camenzuli

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How do I learn? Have you considered this question? When John Hattie presented this question at the Osiris Education Teaching and Learning  2017 a room full of T&L specialists and school leaders found themselves unable to answer the question.

It was agreed that this is what makes it so difficult to articulate to students the ‘best’ learning strategies. Hattie’s work has attempted to make these ideas more concrete in his ‘Visible Learning’ project by carrying out large scale meta analyses of key research studies. ‘Effect sizes’ have been calculated and attributed to different Teaching and Learning strategies in an attempt to quantify those which have the most significant impact on outcomes. Hattie acknowledged that different methods have varying impacts on surface and deep learning, and that both types of learning can be effective for students in different contexts. He argued that the best students know when to be surface learners and when to be deep learners, and that flexibility is key. As teachers, it is useful for us to consider the best ways to transfer surface learning into the long-term memory, to avoid overloading the working memory which can only cope with around five key ideas at one time. This is why we must aim to use ‘chunking’ strategies to make the key learning points more manageable. Hattie also promoted self-efficacy as an important part of the learning process. It was further acknowledged during later discussions that students have to experience a degree of success in order to gain self-confidence, which is vital for motivation. Alex Quigley, in particular, emphasises that instilling confidence in our students leads to sizeable learning gains. As teachers, we therefore need to set manageable targets for our students to enable them to experience success, which should motivate them to want to engage in deeper learning experiences.

Hattie also emphasised the importance of deliberate practice and ‘over-learning’, along with summarising and comparing. Higher order thinking skills need to be employed in the context of subject knowledge to enable the application of facts. Hattie also recognised that we cannot simply reduce learning to a simple list of effect sizes. The variability in the calculated effect sizes is large, as context differs so widely between research studies and, of course, between different classrooms and schools. Different teaching and learning strategies are also useful for different outcomes. Whilst direct instruction is particularly effective for surface learning, problem-based and enquiry strategies are more effective for deep learning. Similarly, ‘failure’ is unhelpful for surface learning, where precise facts are valuable, but overcoming mistakes is a useful part of the deep learning process in order to analyse and evaluate information. He explained that the majority of effect sizes in the ‘Visible Learning’ project are linked to surface learning, because that currently represents the majority of learning experiences in most classrooms. Overall, though, the best learners are good at adapting – recognising the strategies that are most effective for them in different contexts, and moving on to different strategies where necessary.

This is why it is so useful to develop the language of metacognition in our classrooms, and to encourage self-reflection as part of the learning process. Resilience is therefore best taught in the context of typical lessons, instead of aiming to teach 21st century skills discretely. This was also echoed by David Didau, who argued that we need to focus on the acquisition of knowledge first, as students cannot apply what they don’t know! He also argued that most 21st century skills are in fact innate skills that we have evolved over time, that naturally come to the fore when required. He used the example of students organising a night out – they are more likely to make effective use of teamwork and problem-solving skills in that context than when trying to work out an academic dilemma! Didau did, however, recognise, that we all have different natural strengths and that finding opportunities for students to develop these skills in the classroom can be effective.

Throughout the day there was an overall message about the importance of critical thinking and evidence-informed practice. Cat Scutt, from the Chartered College of Teaching, presented the wide array of research sources, whilst also noting that time-poor teachers are not able to make use of them. This is why it is valuable for us to make use of opportunities for discussion in school, to share ideas and disseminate the key findings of new research, whilst bearing in mind the need for context specific analysis too. In light of the current evidence basis, Allison and Tharby emphasised the need for us all to ‘go back to basics’ and develop the key strategies and skills that we use in our classrooms most of the time. They define these as: challenge, explanation, modelling, practice, feedback and questioning, as detailed in their book ‘Making Every Lesson Count’

The Osiris Education Teaching and Learning Conference 2017 has provided much to consider and reflect on over the summer and into the 2017/18 academic year and will no doubt inspire several future Breakfast Club and whole school INSET sessions.


Author: TeachAldenham

Online profile of TeachAldenham, Aldenham School Teaching and Learning Group. teachaldenham.wordpress.com Find us on twitter @teachaldenham

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