Tuesday, 5 August 2014

Students, Pupils and Learners

I've been looking at www.juniorcycle.ie instead of getting a life and enjoying the holidays. I mean, I am enjoying the holidays but feel compelled to season this enjoyment with the piquant sting of looking at where Irish education is headed. I blame the Twitter. We really should have a gentleman's agreement to suspend school-related content, at least for August.

One thing -  among many - that strikes me about juniorcycle.ie is the recurring reference to students as "learners".  For example:
-"learners' overall well-being must be supported alongside their intellectual development."
-"This skill [working with others] helps learners develop good relationships and to appreciate the value of cooperating"
-"The learner's junior cycle programme builds on their learning to date and actively supports their progress in learning"

I've been asking myself where I stand on this. On the one hand, I'm all for it. It's not ungrammatical and it reinforces the idea that that's what school is for: learning stuff. Learning is also something students do for themselves, so the emphasis on learning and learners should, in principle, recognise the responsibility of students for their own effort.

So far, so positive. A little doubt niggles away at me that the intended benefits of renaming students as "learners" may soon be lost. I'd say it'll be lost the day they start referring to themselves as "learners". For example we might soon hear "We, the learners, demand that our individuality be recognised and catered for through personalised learning" or more likely "We, the learners, object to the removal of Lucozade from the vending machines".  When we make "learner" a synonym for "student" the word no longer implies that the learner is doing any learning. Soon all you will have to do to be a learner is enrol in, and perhaps attend, a secondary school. I can think of a few pupils I've had, particularly early in my career, whose school life was unfortunately not characterised by learning but by other activities.

You might say the same about "student", which implies that the person does some studying. Again, this term is presumptive but nowhere nearly as much as "learner". You can study without learning anything, if you study badly. For example you could read a chapter of "Discover History" ten times the night before a test. You'd have studied but it's unlikely you'd have committed anything to your long-term memory.  I would say, in fairness, that all those in secondary school do some study, at some point. If you're studying you know you're studying but if you're learning you don't necessarily know you're learning. I don't mean this in an "I'm having so much fun in this engaging, group activity that I didn't notice the stealth fact-attack". I mean learning happens at a subsensory level and we only really know we learned something when we try to remember and succeed. "Trying to remember" itself could be a sign of partial, or imminent, forgetting.
Learning is hard. It takes a lot more than just showing up for school (though that's a start that far too many are failing to make).

When I was in school "students" attended third level. We were "pupils" as we were still in prison at school. As far as I know that's how children in primary school are still referred to. I can see why we've moved on from there as the term, at least to my mind, does not recognise the input a person should, by the time they're a teenager, be able to put into their own education. I'm sure there was an analogy in "First Aid in English" that said "Teacher is to pupil as shepherd is to sheep", or "Pupil is to teacher what shrub is to gardener". So I'm fine with "student" as long as it means secondary student and not "young adult who's entitled to wander in with a take-away coffee and take an à la carte approach to the timetable".
I've noticed that I've begun to use "learning" quite a bit, especially in language classes where methods of  acquiring and practicing new vocabulary are taught as a matter of course. I talk about becoming an "effective language learner", as acquiring another language requires effort and technique. But the key word here is "becoming".  MFL is one of the few areas that the phrase "learning to learn" has meaning. The skills of language-learning are almost infinitely transferable, a reason why there's absolutely no need to worry if a student chooses a language other than their parents' preferred option.

Really though, "learning to learn" is a misused aphorism that confuses "learning to drive" and "learning to swim" with what students do in school. Students in school learn  (hopefully) and the more you know, the easier it is to learn new things. "When it comes to knowledge, those who have more gain more" Daniel Willingham writes in "Why Don't Students Like School"  There are more and less effective ways of studying but learning itself, thankfully, is an innate ability of the human brain. You don't need to learn to learn, any more than you need to learn to think
"Learning to learn", if interpreted as it is here by former Minister Ruairi Quinn at 2 minutes in, has the potential to seriously damage education. The phrase can be used to suggest that it doesn't matter what students learn in school as long as they're learning the skills of learning. Quinn for example states that "learning to learn" has taken over from "learning to remember". This new definition of learning does not seem to involve memory, which is extraordinary. Students can leave school with no knowledge as long as they have acquired the skills of learning. Of course, as teachers, we know this is nonsense as you can't acquire the skills of learning by any other method than practice and if you've learned something you remember it. Nevertheless the concept of learning without remembering persists.  Take today's call from the ESRI, for " a greater use of project and team work to equip young people with the type of skills they need for lifelong learning and the labour market". Whether it's Chinese or Klingon, programming or origami, European geography or the Enneagram- so what? School is really only an apprenticeship for the adventure that is life-long learning. As such it doesn't really matter what learners do or if they do it badly. We'll allow for false starts and abortive attempts. If a child does a project on earthquakes and still can't tell the Richter scale from the Beaufort, does it really matter once he or she has selected an area of interest, done some collaborative research and produced a nice multi-media presentation? After all, we don't have teenagers in charge of monitoring these things.

Does this change in language matter? I'm not sure. I know that teaching in a single-sex school obviates the need for a term for our charges as we universally refer to them as "the girls", and our counterparts in the other-gender school across the road refer to "the boys" or"the lads". Colleagues at mixed schools do tend to use "students" more often. Very few use "pupils". Will "the learners" catch on, outside of official literature? I think it could be case of the Department attempting to make something so, by saying it is so.  If we phrase things so it sounds like children are taking responsibility for their own education, they'll step up to the plate. And if we call all the young people enrolled in our schools "learners", well they must be learning something.

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