Royal Commission on Learning Report: Short Version

Royal Commission on Learning


How learning happens

Let's lay it on the table: This Commission has an unshakeable bias which influences every aspect of our work. All of us happen to love learning. All of us love books. We love the thrill of discovering new writers and new ideas. We love wonderfully written literature and provocatively written essays. We love to know and are frustrated by our inability to know more than we do. We love to debate, to discuss, to argue, to learn from each other and from those we meet. And nothing would satisfy us more, and contribute more to the education of our children and the well-being of our country, than if schools could play a greater role in instilling this love of learning into every student who goes through the system.

This was the starting point for our re-assessment of what goes on in the classrooms of this province at every level. We knew that we wanted our students, from the earliest years in school right through to graduation, to master an enriched and challenging curriculum. We also knew that this new curriculum for literacies, as we decided to name it, had to be accompanied by improved, continual assessment methods, with feedback carefully designed to be used to improve the performance of both the individual student and the system itself. So what we had to do was to absorb as much as we could about the nature of learning, about child and adolescent development, about effective teaching, and about the best methods of assessment.

We've already discussed good teachers in our section on teachers as one of our four intervention strategies. Here we'll give just a taste of Chapter 5 of the main report, "What Is Learning?"

It doesn't take long to know what a positive learning atmosphere is. When you enter a new school, it often takes little time to sense if it's one where kids count, are cared about and are ready to learn. The same is true when you enter a real learning classroom: you can almost feel the excitement, the dynamics, the activity, the interactions, the energy between students and teacher and among the students themselves. Nor does it take long to discover what learning is not: it's not just listening and memorizing, and it's certainly not regurgitation. Teaching is not just telling, knowledge is not just facts, learning is not just recall, although some telling, some facts, and some recall are obviously necessary. It's certainly not the teacher at the front of the room pouring hundreds of bits of data down the throats of a roomful of passive students.

In fact learning happens to each of us all the time, wherever we are; the question is what we learn, and what we understand of what we are taught. We are even capable of learning from our mistakes, and teachers must use kids' mistakes as opportunities for learning, not as excuses for punishment.

We all have to practise what we learn to absorb it thoroughly, but the best practice isn't mechanical. As good teachers know, you don't write out French verbs twenty times a day, you write a letter to a friend in Quebec about staying part of Canada. In every field, kids learn by seeing the usefulness or relevance of a subject, whether grammar, geometry or Shakespeare. Poor Will! No individual got a rougher ride from the students we spoke to than old Will Shakespeare. It seemed clear enough to us that no-one took the trouble to explain to most of them why Shakespeare is perhaps the greatest English-language writer of all time instead of a long-dead Englishman who uses funny language and is often very difficult to understand.

We learn when we get one-on-one attention, and we learn from each other, too. That's why teacher-student dialogue is enormously important, as is working in pairs and in groups, and peer and cross-age tutoring. All of these techniques have been demonstrated time and again to be invaluable learning tools, which is why we believe that one of the key literacies should include group skills and inter-personal skills. But none of these skills can be learned or productively practised without careful teacher monitoring. Putting kids in a group to do a project without careful instruction and on-going guidance, and leaving them entirely to their own devices is hardly a recipe for successful learning.

Motivation to learn is obviously very helpful, but we need to be motivated by something more than direct rewards or instant gratification. The best teaching finds ways to motivate kids to want to know, to want to figure things out for themselves, to want to be able to explain things. As we?ve already explained, with proper guidance, computers have been shown to be great motivators for many students to work independently or in small groups, and to want to solve problems on their own.

But there's a real problem in our system at the high school level for the majority of young women and men who are unlikely to go on to university. High schools are clearly geared for the university bound, as they've always been, creating a real crisis of confidence and motivation for the rest. Our ideas for re-shaping high schools revolve around our attempts to provide a serious, purposeful education for every student, regardless of his or her post-high school destination.

If kids feel the subject, or even the school, has nothing much to do with their lives or what matters to them, they'll see little point in learning and probably won't. That's one of the reasons why we talk a lot about inclusive curriculum, in which all kids can see a part of themselves, whatever their backgrounds or gender.

Finally - as we crunch a major topic into a couple of pages - if kids feel defeated, they give up. For reasons we don't entirely understand, there's a lot of mockery of attempts by schools to enhance their students' self-esteem. That doesn't mean we think kids should just advance through the system regardless of whether they learn anything or not; we unequivocally do not. But it's common sense, as well as provable, that like anyone else, kids who feel they're hopeless failures conclude that they'll never succeed and quit trying. This is one of the great self-fulfilling prophecies in the world of education, like living up - or down to their teachers' expectations. It should be crystal clear to all by now that we want every student to get a rigorous and enriching education. No-one should graduate without it. But special attention must be paid to students who do poorly, to ensure they get all the extra assistance they need. As we see it, self-esteem may well come from achievement, and achievement depends on self-esteem. That's how a lot of learning happens.

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