Learning & Teaching in 2011

Thanks to those colleagues who left comments or emailed me directly. I find it really useful to hear from those who practice on the front line; it’s very easy to lose sight of the practical implications when working nationally across the country and globally across education systems which can differ quite radically. The strange (but not surprising) conclusions are exactly the same regardless of where the learning takes place: The United Kingdom; The United States; Australia and Canada for example; teachers and educators all share a common ambition and there is common agreement regarding the most appropriate practices for 2011.

This is my first post of the New Year and I wanted to go back to my grass roots and focus on learning and teaching within schools. So, given that, where to start?

Once upon a time, there were three Billy Goats Gruff. The little Billy Goat was called The Learner, the middle Billy Goat was called The Teaching Profession and the Big Billy Goat Gruff was called The Curriculum. Together, they wanted to cross the bridge and taste the green, green grass in the land of Learning and Teaching in the 21st Century.

Any kind of curriculum change requires a teaching profession that is modern and is capable of delivering learning with today’s young people. This is the first challenge; the culture that teachers and educators work within can be restrictive and doesn’t always provide an opportunity to explore creative pedagogy. In a world where pre-school children can navigate through the applications on an iPhone, play games on the Nintendo Wii and surf the internet for episodes of Ben 10 Alien Force (reference to my four year old), is it any wonder that the historic “blah blah” of the chalkboard does not stimulate or engage?

Learning and teaching is such a massive topic for discussion that it would be near impossible to describe it all in one post. As such, I’ll be general and ask what is having the most impact on learning and teaching, today? Clearly, technology is at the top of this list, with the use of virtual learning environments, computers, the internet and interactive smart boards bringing with them an interesting methodology in which young people can learn.

This is why (not solely) school leadership is important; there must be drive and empowerment to use the technology available. This needs to be consistent and not simply a fad which sees the equipment pulled from a dark and dusty box once every few months. With a staffing compliment of 100 FTE, 5 creative teachers thinking out of the box is not good enough.

Connections between different lessons need to be much stronger, making full use of transferable skills and building upon a core composite of literacy, numeracy and health and well-being. This is where the true depth of learning takes place. Personalisation and choice is paramount. In an ideal world every young person will choose to study something that is both relevant to them and appropriate to their learning progression.

Supportive transitions between episodes of learning are essential if outcomes are to be improved. Strengthened by the need to focus more on achievement rather than simple attainment; every young person must be entitled to the support that they need in order to make a transition successful, whether between primary and secondary or upon leaving school and entering higher or further education, training or employment.

Practices within the school to raise attainment and to support learning and teaching need to be more innovative; individualised target setting for every child and young person and a programme of mentoring to support them is required. For most, this will simply be a guiding word here and there, for some, intensive pastoral care is likely to be needed with support from several agencies.

Differentiation is now a thing of the past; individualism and personalised, supported learning is the phrase of 2011, with information, advice and guidance on tap.

Using techniques such as Cooperative Learning and Restorative Approaches is becoming increasingly popular and there is evidence that these can lesson anti-social behaviour, reduce the number of high level referrals and create a more conducive ethos. Self-esteem and motivation can be helped along here, but this needs to be a consistent whole school approach led by senior leaders if it is to work effectively.

School partnerships with colleges and other providers of learning must pave the way forward. To plan and deliver a Senior Phase which is built upon the broad, general education there must be a range of learning opportunities and experiences which connect the different episodes of learning and provide the young person with a relevant and appropriate curriculum. There are inherent challenges for schools in establishing productive networks and relationships as there needs to be open and honest communication, the sharing of resources, mutual respect and reliability. This is embedded within the cultural and structural changes required to make transformational change within the curriculum (and to the way in which the timetable is produced) and that is why it is difficult to manage.

That doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t try to overcome challenges as innovation does not happen without an element of risk.

Managed risk taking amongst staff is vital and the extent to which teachers are supported to do this very much depends on the school leaders. Although related to the practice of learning and teaching, there is often little encouragement to do something new or out of the ordinary as the outcome cannot always be predicted. Adverse publicity or negative outcomes are a big turn off for leaders and managers, though the short term outcome needs to be weighed up against the longitudinal ‘end game’. If you’re lucky enough to have a manager who encourages distributed leadership and provides room to manoeuvre then you must embrace the opportunity!

So, in conclusion, these are the things most likely to have a positive and effective impact on learning and teaching in 2011:

  • Drivers behind curriculum change and innovation;
  • Information Communication Technology within (and outwith) the classroom;
  • Improved school leadership (and distribution) and management which encourages managed risk taking, creativity and focuses more on the outcomes of the individual;
  • Stronger connections between strands of learning which highlight common and varying skills across the curriculum and illustrates the value of education;
  • Better transition planning for all young people but especially those with Additional Support Needs, between Primary and Secondary and into the Senior Phase;
  • School wide practices to reinforce target setting and individualised learning plans;
  • More relevant and appropriate personalisation and choice throughout the curriculum;
  • Modern approaches to positive behaviour, restorative approaches embedded within the ethos and culture of the school;
  • Use of Cooperative teaching and stimulating lesson planning and delivery to engage 21st century learners;
  • School partnerships and collaboration with the community, other providers of learning and organisations to support young people will expand the curriculum portfolio;
  • A higher focus on achievement rather than just attainment;
  • The opportunity to deepen learning within literacy, numeracy and health and wellbeing right across the curriculum.


My penultimate conclusion, I hope you agree, is the transfer of knowledge and continuing professional development that teachers and educators aspire to achieve regularly, either through INSERVICE or through other collaborative tools such as blogs, Facebook and Twitter.

The learners have moved into the 21st Century and the teaching profession has started to move forward too (some teachers faster than others – but that is not surprising) and now the opportunity to bring the curriculum into the 21st Century is a tempting siren.

Only when the learner, the teaching profession and the curriculum have crossed the bridge together and tossed the troll of tradition into the stream, will the green, green grass taste better. This must be our focus for 2011!


Academic Staff University of Glasgow and Author of Science Fiction

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Posted in Learning & Teaching

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