Signs of Spring?

It’s been a long cold few months in England and the Summer term has started without Spring having really arrived. And, for many of the teachers I have been working with, that goes for the educational temperature too.

For the air is predictably full of arguments over what should or should not be in the National Curriculum, what will happen to EBacc, whether TechBacc will happen, and even some mischievous suggestions that teachers should work longer hours and have shorter holidays. Don’t get me wrong. There’s no reason why we should not take a good look at the amount of time that students spend learning. It’s just that most of the research shows that it is what learners do that matters and much less so how much time they spend doing it.

Which brings me to expansive learning and some signs that we are beginning to achieve critical mass in England and, increasingly, across the world.

eedNET’s expansion
In the last few months a number of significant organisations have joined the Expansive Education Network including Fieldwork Education, Teaching Leaders and SSAT. With the last of these, SSAT, Guy and I have teamed up with a number of other academics to help orchestrate a sector-led debate about how we can redesign schooling to make it more expansive. Already we are hearing from headteachers that this is the kind of direction they would like to go in. We have some emerging principles:

1. Schools have a broad in preparing learners for a lifetime of learning

2. There are a set of wider life and learning skills which need to be deliberately cultivated in the context of the curriculum and beyond

3. What learners believe about themselves matters and a ‘growth mindset’ is both a powerful motivator and a predictor of success

4. Parents and the wider community have a significant role to play in pupil’s learning alongside schools

5. When teachers actively continue their own learning and model this in their classrooms learners achieve more

6. Learning works well when it builds on pupils’ prior experiences, is authentic, has clear and stretching goals and is undertaken in an environment full of formative feedback with many opportunities for reflection

7. Learning requires opportunities to develop emotionally, socially and practically as well as intellectually, individually and with appropriate theoretical grounding and understanding

8. Learning is learnable and improves when learners have a set of metacognitive strategies which they are able to use confidently in a range of contexts.

What do you think?

Greater precision of definition
Last year the Australian Council for Educational Research, in conjunction with the Open University Press, commissioned us to write a book which we are calling Expansive Education: teaching learners for the real world. They asked us to scan the world for examples and we have just finished doing so. In the process we had the opportunity to stand back and reflect on how expansive education is different from a range of ‘progressive’ approaches and I offer a taste of what we have written here:

Expansive education is expansive in four senses.

First, it seeks to expand the goals of education. Traditionally, a school framed its success in terms of its exam results, the quantity and quality of its students’ university places, its ratings by independent assessors (such as Ofsted), and by its students’ achievements on the sports field and in the concert hall. How students fared after leaving—whether they had genuinely been prepared for the rigours of further study, vocational training and the informal challenges and demands of life—was little monitored and hence little valued. Expansive educators are happy to include these traditional ‘success criteria’, but insist on adding some more: the extent to which young people’s horizons have been broadened so that they have really been prepared to face the tests of life.

Secondly, ‘expansive’ means expanding young people’s capacity to deal with these tests. Whereas traditional educators tend to see young people’s capacity to think and learn as relatively fixed—they talk about students as if they were simply ‘bright’, average’ or ‘less able’—expansive educators focus on the extent to which our psychological capacities are themselves capable of being stretched and strengthened. What David Perkins calls ‘the emerging science of learnable intelligence’ has made it clear that a good part of people’s so-called intelligence is actually made up of mental habits that can be developed in positive ways. We know that willpower, for example, behaves exactly like a mental muscle that can be strengthened by exercise, and depleted through use. Likewise resilience, concentration, imagination and collaboration are all qualities of mind that can be coached and cultivated. This science gives licence to teachers to think of themselves as coaches of the capacities to think and learn.

Thirdly, we are expanding our compass beyond the school gates. Expansive education assumes that rich learning opportunities abound in young people’s other lives of music, sport and community and family activity. In 1987, Lauren Resnick drew attention to the growing evidence that knowledge acquired outside school can contribute to the development of young people in school—and vice versa. Schooling, Resnick reminds us, is very different from learning outside school.

Briefly, schooling focuses on the individual’s performance, whereas out-of-school mental work is often socially shared. Schooling aims to foster unaided thought, whereas mental work outside school usually involves cognitive tools. School cultivates symbolic thinking, whereas mental activity outside school engages directly with objects and situations. Finally, schooling aims to teach general skills and knowledge, whereas situation-specific competencies dominate outside.

To thrive in the real world young people need to experience an expanded palette of learning opportunities or it is unlikely that they will acquire the kinds of habits of mind they need to thrive. Expansive educators ensure that their pedagogical and instructional processes reflect such an expanded conception of learning.

And fourthly, expansive education has profound implications for the role of teachers. Just as a central clutch of desirable dispositions in young people involve experimenting, noticing, critical thinking, questioning, reflecting and adapting, so the same is true for teachers. Teachers who exhibit these capabilities produce better educational outcomes. John Hattie puts his finger on it most deftly in Visible learning: a synthesis of over 800 meta-analyses relating to achievement:

The remarkable feature of the evidence is that the biggest effects on student learning occur when teachers become learners of their own teaching, and when students become their own teachers.

In the first half of the sentence, Hattie encapsulates precisely what expansive educators tend to do. They move beyond reflective practice to adopt a more scientific and rigorous mindset with respect to all of their teaching They become better observers of their own effects on students, and more interested in undertaking, publishing and sharing systematic action research with other colleagues. Thus, expansive education requires expansive and enquiring teachers.

Does this help? Do let us know.

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