What are they learning?
Learning is never neutral. Although I have no empirical evidence, I’m pretty sure that it’s rare indeed for children – or indeed anyone – to learn nothing in a given situation. My contention is that children are always learning something even if that thing is not what a teacher wants or expects them to learn.
In a lesson, students might learn what we have planned for them to learn, or they might learn a misconception. Equally, they might learn that their teacher has low expectations, that they ‘can’t do’ maths, that school is rubbish, or that messing around results in greater social recognition than being studious. The point is that learning is something which comes to us very naturally: taking on new thoughts and ideas and integrating them into the interconnecting networks of information in long-term memory to arrive at new understandings is easy. And we do it all the time.
Some things – speaking, understanding the basics of biology and physics, applying critical reasoning to social situations etc. – we seem especially good at learning. Some would even say we are ‘hardwired’ to learn these things through a process of evolutionary adaptation. Other things – reading, writing, acquiring and applying abstract concepts – we find it harder to learn. These tend to be things we’ve only recently discovered or formulated as a species. We’ve only been reading for a few hundred years whereas we’ve been speaking for millennia. Some things we’re programmed to acquire, other things are a struggle.
If all we valued was for children to learn how to acquire this ‘biologically primary’, hardwired stuff we wouldn’t need school. School is for the hard stuff, the ‘biologically secondary’ add-on modules that, left to their own devices, children are highly unlikely to just pick up.
When I trained as an English teacher in the 90s we’d rather lost our way in this respect. The fashion at that time was to teach children creativity and empathy. We’d read young adult novels and ask, How do you think the characters feel? How would you feel in that situation? Then we’d say, Write a letter to the character expressing these feelings. Other stuff – like grammar – we’d assume children would just pick up if they read enough young adult novels and wrote enough letters. Children then sat assessments which tested their empathy and neglected to test their knowledge of grammar and we congratulated ourselves on their successes.
My point is that it should never be good enough to ask, Are students learning? Or, Are students making progress? Instead we should always ask, What are they learning? And, What are they making progress in?