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The Learning Classroom or more of the same?

I have recently been revisiting a book first published in 2008 by Brian Boyd who was then a professor of education at Strathclyde University in Glasgow. This is 'The Learning Classroom' in which Boyd tried to set out conditions needed for teachers to be able to create a classroom that would really facilitate and promote learning at its core. Boyd looked at a range of evidence and research available at that time around what the best 'learning classroom' could, or should, look like. He recognised that this would be by no means a definitive descriptor and he was already anticipating the impact of new technologies, research and pedagogies and how these would develop the 'learning classroom' further. He was also perhaps recognising the continuous process of school and individual development, and the on-going necessity for continuous career-long professional learning.

He suggested, similar to Howard Gardiner's multiple-intelligences theory, that there could be well be different types of classroom that teachers might need to create, and move between, depending on personal, local and national contexts. These types of classroom included, the formative, the thinking, the motivated, the democratic, the enterprising, and so on. Boyd writes about each of these in some detail, but perhaps he used this construct to merely aid his dissection of what types of activities helped make classrooms truly 'learning' ones which used a range of pedagogies and approaches to help all learners learn.

In his concluding chapter Boyd lays out what he identifies as the key ten principles of the learning classroom. The first of these is the importance of relationships. A classroom culture built on mutual respect and sound inter-personal values were crucial to supporting learning. Teachers also need to understand learning and the causes of underperformance, and have an extensive range of strategies to support pupil learning and help them be successful learners. It is worth noting here that Boyd was one of the original architects of Scotland's Curriculum For Excellence, and this is reflected throughout this work. The second principle was around assessment. He recognised that assessment use could be for learning, of learning and as learning.  The importance of Black and Wilian's 'Inside The Black Box' which was a key driver in pedagogical development in Scotland at the time of publication. In the learning classroom teachers would thoroughly understand formative assessment theory and practice and use this to ensure learners were active participants in their learning. There was no mention of standardised testing as a key principle. The learning classroom should encourage, promote and allow time and space, for deep thinking. This was about metacognition in learners, to better help them understand and improve their own thinking. It was also vital that teachers should be good models of thinking individuals. Engagement was also key. Not only should teachers have the highest expectations of all learners, it was vital that they created the conditions and challenges necessary to engage those learners. Such engagement could be facilitated by collaborative working, across both disciplines and sectors, and by the provision of engaging and new learning opportunities. Participation was the next principle Boyd considered. This would be facilitated by moving away from more 'coverage' and instead seeking to promote depth in learning, with this being facilitated by allowing learners more time to deepen their understanding. Pupil responsibility was another principle. Pupils needed to be encouraged to be active paticipants  in their learning, with an ultimate aim of creating true 'learner autonomy' and independence. Such learning would be facilitated through collaboration with peers and others. We should have no labels, where pupils are labelled according to prior learning and perceived ability levels. He identified the problems with 'setting'  and felt this had no place in the true learning classroom. Such a classroom would support and promote pupil dialogue and collaboration. He referred to the work of Vygotsky which identified learning as a social process facilitated by dialogue, questioning, team-work, debate and argument. All of these strategies would help our learners become critical thinkers. Of course  the learning classroom would be characterised by intelligence at all levels. Already he was recognising and touching on the work that was to follow from Carol Dweck around mindsets. He still felt that too many teachers and students had fixed mindsets and still saw intelligence as fixed. This position needed to be challenged and continue to disappear from our classrooms. His final principle was about the importance of making connections. He felt that schools and teachers could still be a little divorced from the real world and we were not good at making the connection between the learning in school and real life. when learners could see those connections, learning and understanding was facilitated and deepened.

Brian Boyd first penned these observations almost nine years ago. He certainly tapped into the Zeitgeist of the time and his work was informed by many leading thinkers and their research that was then emerging. I would argue the case he makes is still a strong and valid one, but we are not there yet. As he points out in his conclusion, many of the researchers he quotes have visited Scotland and spoke about their research and insights. These have been shared with system leaders and government, and there was a period where we may have thought our practice and systems might change as a result. Now I am not so sure. It seems we are still hell bent of travelling a route that flies in the face of such expertise and insights. More of the same, with the same depressing results for learners and learning, seem to be heading our way once again. Lets hope I am wrong!


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