Theoretical and Practical Insights on the Science of Learning - An Interview with Keith McDougall

Principal of Broadmeadows Primary School

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What goals and outcomes did you set for your school, classroom and teaching practice?

The performance of the school has centred largely on an attempt to build capacity in our teaching staff. We sit at the 12th percentile for disadvantage in Australia, and we decided that we wanted to be a very average school, so we've always targeted the state mean.

Our data sits around the state mean at the moment and above the national mean. It's been a performance that we've been able to maintain, and now we are one of the highest performing low socioeconomic schools in Australia.

 

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How did you make changes in your school based on the science of learning?

Judy Willis’s work has been pivotal to our thinking and development in this area and having her work in our school for a day in February was an amazing experience for our staff. From this work we had conversations around the science of learning; building a dialogue amongst adults and children to enable the establishment of relationships and conversations around learning. Building a common language across the school has been a significant part of what we’ve developed as a result of the science of learning.

Relationships are really important to schools - particularly between the adults and the children and their families. We wanted to make sure that within those relationships the conversations are centred on our core business - and our core business is learning. We’ve made no attempt at all to dumb down the language, and we’ve been consistent in applying that across the school.

We’ve now got preps who can talk about their persisting, or what a metacognitive process sounds like in their heads, and reaching to even more sophisticated approaches with the older children.

The sharing of learning intentions, the move from procedural to conceptual learning intentions, priming learning, the use of novelty and surprise are all parts of Judy’s work that are now commonplace in our school.

 

What were the results of these changes? What impact do those have to learning outcomes?

The results of the changes have been about building a language about learning.

We set a goal to build an understanding of how children best learn, recognising the influence that distinct learning behaviours have on learning outcomes.

This occurs not only in our learning spaces but also in the playground and at home, particularly with regards to sleep, diet, hydration, screen time and the importance of being organised before you leave in the morning so that you have all your learning tools together.

Also relevant is the importance of effective play, so that when children come back from the playground, teachers are not distracted by students’ playground issues. We develop the children's skills for dealing with those issues; so that when they return to the learning space they are not distracted from their learning.

The impact on learning outcomes is apparent, particularly around the conversations that children have about their learning. There are improvements in the conversations children have around learning, strategising and moving from procedural to conceptual tasks.

Our approach has also helped students gain a deeper understanding of the conceptual framework of maths. The work in literacy has been a little slower, but some of the high end comprehension skills have definitely grown. I believe we will start to see some substantive change in literacy outcomes by the end of 2015. Indeed the anecdotal evidence is starting to point to that.

 

How has this affected your staff and their teaching style? Has it led to a paradigm shift towards student centred learning environments?

There are two distinct instructional models with which we are engaged.

We engage in a direct teaching model that has a focus on learning intentions, success criteria and a feedback loop; all supported by anchor charts. There’s also a move to a more concept-based learning model. We’re experimenting with a SOLO Taxonomy, which will enable children to develop a scaffold to support their learning.

If there’s a paradigm shift to student centred learning, that’s where it will come from, and we’re hopeful that over time, a concept-based learning model will start to morph itself into our direct teaching model.

 

Computers and learning

 

How does the atmosphere and environment of the classroom affect the success of this approach?

The atmosphere and environment is pivotal to the relationships that we build with kids, and in having them feel safe and secure. We’re always demanding answers to the question: “What constitutes a safe, secure learning environment?”

Our school is purpose-built; we don’t have corridors and classrooms. Our learning spaces are flexible and encourage collaborative planning and team teaching. The children are able to “relationship shop” to find the adult that best suits them. This has had a huge impact on the environment.

 

What role do you think technology plays when it comes to improving learning and approach to different students?

There’s actually no research-based direct link between technology and learning outcomes other than through engagement. We’ve spent a lot of time working with companies like Microsoft, Intel and Cisco to develop a better understanding of the use of IT.

My belief is that if it’s used as anything other than a tool we’re probably wasting our time and money.

 

Has there been an increase in students being empowered to take responsibility for their own learning? How has this manifested itself within the classroom?

Through our work with SOLO Taxonomy, scaffolding concept-based learning, particularly with older children, has started to develop their own academic and learning behaviour goals. It’s a goal to have our children understand their own learning and understand how to develop it.

This is a significant transition from where we are currently - from a direct instructional model which is currently teacher-centred. There’s a lot of work being undertaken with the older children around this. We’re also doing some trials with younger children in Years 1 and 2, which are starting to bear fruit which is fantastic.

 

Do you think the science of learning helps students in managing their own stress levels?

The impact that home life can have on stress levels is probably something we’re more concerned about.

We hope that the way in which we approach our day is beneficial, as we have children checking in with their emotions first thing in the morning, and stress is one of the emotions that we ask kids to acknowledge. We can then have a conversation about how they are feeling, and have them ready for learning. What we do know about stress from the neuroscience is that if children are stressed or anxious in any way, learning is probably not going to occur in any significant manner.

 

What do you perceive as the key motivator to get children learning in the classroom?

I think it’s a number of things. It includes having children want to come to school, children having positive relationships with the adults in the school, having a positive relationship with their peers, and understanding what is required for them to be an effective learner including sleep, diet and hydration.

A lot of our kids have the capacity to influence these themselves instead of being influenced by the adults in their life - particularly as they get older. It involves children understanding the importance of thinking about their thinking, the importance of doing things well and striving for accuracy and precision. All these are really important parts of how we engage children in their learning and what children bring to the learning process. From our adults’ perspective, it is about understanding the importance of a routine, the role that novelty and surprise plays, thorough planning and an overall desire to want to be around children and support them in their learning.

 

What are some of the practical suggestions you have for teachers to get students’ attention and improve their concentration skills?

My practical suggestions are centred on the science of learning. These learning behaviour suggestions are developed around having children understand what is required for effective learning to occur, including paying attention, concentrating on the task at hand and persisting with that task.

Attention and concentration are both heavily centred in neuroscience. Our work also considers individual differences and we work within the paradigm of the students’ personal ability to attend to their work and their own ability to concentrate over a period of time, and build those skills using the learning behaviours work that we’ve developed.

 

What strategies would you recommend to other schools when learning doesn’t happen?

The strategies would involve getting the adults together to get a collective understanding as to what’s going wrong. Aspects of the discussion would include defining the detriments, determining if the site is a safe, secure learning environment, determining if instruction is effective and if the instructional models are consistent across the school. With regards to the children, it would be to determine if they know what is expected of them and if there is a language of learning that’s occurring within the school context, and if other successful planning models are being utilised.

The notion of a safe, secure learning environment is a critical starting point. This isn’t just about student discipline and code of conduct. It goes to the very core of the activity of the school in its entirety.

 

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Can students who are under-represented in higher education be engaged at an earlier stage to improve and encourage educational success?

I hold a fundamental belief that the postcode should not determine one’s educational or life outcomes.

So far we’ve been successfully engaged in what we call ‘aspirational conversations’ with students’ families. A number of parents of children in low socioeconomic environments have not had favourable experiences at school, have left school early, have been expelled or have been failed by the school. We need to engage those families in conversations around aspirations for their children that build a language of understanding.

Within our context, a majority of families know that their kids need to go to school but don’t know why. They don’t know how to access the important aspects of subject choice towards VCE, or around understanding what’s available in terms of VET, VCAL, trade, university or TAFE entrance.

Schools have an obligation to have meaningful conversations around these topics, but that’s not happening enough. I think there’s too much focus on VCE and university entrance and not enough focus on what children want to do, are capable of doing and what’s meaningful.

 

In general, what do you believe to be the biggest topics in education and learning in Australia will be over the next 2-3 years?

Currently education is probably one of the greatest political footballs of our time. The Gonski review has politicised education funding. I don’t want to engage in a funding debate. What I want to debate is what constitutes an effective learning model or models, effective instructional models, the most effective impact on learning, and the detrimental effect that a lot of parenting has on children’s learning; these are really hot topics in my head.

It’s also about our core business. Some may say that we can’t attend to our core business without appropriate funding and, while I agree with that notion we can’t continue to expect tax payers’ money to be continually poured into schools with little or no accountability. I don’t think just money is the answer. We need a structured accountability process and a funding model that supports a research based and highly developed understanding of how our kids best learn. 

 


Next interview #2: Dr. Judy Willis

Comments

Kaye Tribe - 13 May 2015

A very inspirational article thank you Keith McDougall.
I teach Adult Learners in the VET sector in Melbourne mostly and sometimes in Regional areas of Victoria.

This statement made by you really appeals to me - "We need a structured accountability process and a funding model that supports a research based and highly developed understanding of how our kids best learn" but I would apply that to adult learning as well!

I mainly work in the area of Complementary Medicine as well as the training of teachers for adult learning environments and we often describe the medical practitioner as the educator. The adults that I teach enroll into a part time, two year mostly face-to-face delivery mode course (during February) and I observe that the phase where they are most likely to withdraw is during the Easter Break which is about 2 to 3 months into their studies. This is due to the emotional load that they encounter; 'emotional' because they have never been taught how to learn or which learning mode suits them best.

This statement also applies in my field of teaching and learning "The notion of a safe, secure learning environment is a critical starting point. This isn't just about student discipline and code of conduct. It goes to the very core of the activity of the school in its entirety."

My adult learners also need to feel Safe and Secure enough to make mistakes and to 'not know everything' straight away!

I shared your interview on my personal Facebook page because many 'friends' are also teaching colleagues and I also shared it on my business Facebook page - The Academy of Yoga Learning to support my current students and graduate teachers. The first year students were recently complaining that their 'brains hurt' so I introduced them to the concept of neuroplasticity. It helped a bit but the holiday break helped even more.

I look forward to reading the interview with Judy Willis. Kind Regards, Kaye


Ann Williams - 12 May 2015

I agree! I think its un-ethical to use strategies or programmes that are not evidence based. I also agree that if a child is anxious or stressed, learning is not going to happen.

The PISA reports show that, in some cases, the most disadvantaged kids in one country out performed the most advantaged in another.


 


Image credits: Children at computer terminals, Monkey Business Images, Shutterstock. Nursery teacher and children, Robert Kneschke, Shutterstock. Teacher and pupils working at laptop, wavebreakmedia, Shutterstock. Children running with kite, Zurijeta, Shutterstock