Learners First – Rob Stokoe OBE

 We live in interesting and challenging times as educators.  Challenging in that we know so much more about how we learn and how positivity, happiness and wellbeing have the ability to enhance learning and transform classrooms. As a consequence we are continually adapting as we embrace new understandings.  We also live with another truth which is pertinent to today and tomorrow, the only constant is change. If you accept that our lives are dominated by challenge and rapid change then pause for a moment, the students in our classrooms today will see the 22nd Century and the best way to manage change is to prepare for it.

New Visions of Learning

Today we are able to give consideration to new visions of learning; better suited to the connectedness and the increasing influence of the knowledge society. Educators have a greater understanding as to how learning takes place and how the brain seeks to make connections as it grows and learns. Within our schools and beyond them we have the potential to rephrase how learning occurs and where; to engage and empower students to pursue knowledge, to connect learning and to inform their interests and unique potential as they actively participate in their own learning.  Connecting student interest and curiosity to academic success, encouraging them to think about their learning, metacognition.  Teachers are adopting much more varied roles as they activate and generate learning. These ‘choreographers of learning’ think about learning as being relational as well  as linear, they shape lives as they support and guide students and  encourage risk taking as students gain greater ownership of their learning. They create opportunity for learning through the creation of safe and secure learning experiences where positivity informs the learning process and individual growth.

Building Capacity

Amongst many other things great learning is born of effective relationships at all levels, and an understanding of the perspectives of others.  The same can be said of great schools. In this paradigm, to be effective, change must focus upon successful, engaging learning which offers purpose and seeks to build capacity.  Unlocking the individual and collective potential within our schools is not the remit of individuals it must be a well-orchestrated, collective effort. As we place learning experiences before our students we need to clarify the purpose of any learning activity and its link to previous experience where applicable. This approach encourages students to become more self-aware, more able to see connections in their learning which promotes intentional learning.  These positive attitudes of mind and this growing self-awareness are capable of enabling students to integrate knowledge, to be confident in their learning potential and to become active and engaged learners.

Happy and Positive Learners

As educators our purpose is to inform successful learning for all of our students, to assist in the development of their capacity to live resilient, happy and fulfilling lives. They in turn want to be involved in the process of learning, they want to understand, and they want to be happy. We strive to develop skills and understanding, positive attitudes and resilience, and (most importantly) to sustain every student as a happy, successful learner, a creative curiosity machine.  Our students want to engage in positive learning experiences, to be involved in the process of learning, and to experience continual growth. As educators our purpose must be to inform successful learning, to make students aware of their success and able to celebrate it, continually growing their skills, their potential. Crucially, we must also maintain their creativity and curiosity as well as their positive attitudes and resilience.

Professional Collaboration

On issues related to learning, to learner growth and development over time there is a clear need for professional collaboration with authentic and purposeful engagement. It is the foundation of our professional context and growth. We need to come together to create better learners. To do this, we need to connect regularly as professionals and develop professional networks where educators are not only encouraged but wish to collaborate.  Teachers need to create a new paradigm for powerful learning, one in which we co-evolve, escaping our own thinking bubbles.  Collaboration through professional thinking teams presents the opportunity for teachers to think together and grow their collaborative abilities. This context will allow teachers to share insights into their strengths and successes; ultimately setting higher goals and expectations. Connecting professionals in such a meaningful and purposeful way is at the heart of improving schools and is a driver for innovation, focused change and ongoing challenge. Professional collaboration has the potential to energise and even transform classrooms in meaningful ways as long as we remain focused upon the notion of continually nurturing great learners and students who are emotional millionaires.  We would always acknowledge that genuine positivity is motivational, actively encouraging engagement, creativity and resilience.

Building Capacity for Change

Leading and managing such collaboration is not without challenge or risk but if we build consensus we will strengthen capacity for change, change that is cohesive and highly engaging. Effective leaders are skilled influencers. They build strong interpersonal relationships, engaging the abilities and often untapped potential of teachers to generate individual growth and great learning to the fullest. The best leaders are talent recognisers. They enhance teacher quality and capability by building people from within. They are great listeners who offer genuine interest and have an aptitude of humility. They think beyond their self-interest.  The most effective leaders actively seek to empower others. They give them opportunities to think, to innovate and to grow as they continually identify, encourage, support and reward our educators to release their true potential creating strong futures for their schools and for the wider profession.  Striving to develop the individual within allows us to build opportunities for an increasingly positive impact upon pupil learning, behaviours and character development.  As educators, continuous improvement is our moral imperative and a focus upon student wellbeing our moral compass. When we grow our individual learning potential we will be happier as will our students and our colleagues. It is my belief that every educator looks to learn continuously, responding to their professional, want to learn.

As educators demonstrate their care in nurturing safe, consistent and supportive learning relationships, their consistency will develop trust – a pre-requisite for effective classrooms and effective learning. Trust will always be built upon authentic emotions such as concern, care and empathy. Maintaining high levels of trust allow us to offer intellectual challenge developing opportunities for the ongoing protection and development of personal attributes such as curiosity, creativity, mental agility and resilience. Demand for innovation and progress determine that we educate beyond core skills, we must build further, think deeper and engender creativity, intellectual curiosity and honest inquiry. These attributes will equip students with the security and confidence to adapt to new learning situations. When partnered with the coherent integration of new technologies and the world beyond the classroom, this will greatly enrich and enliven their curriculum experience. The real test of a broad and balanced curriculum is the ability of students to confront a new problem and to have the confidence and skills to seek a new solution.

Creativity, Curiosity and the Ability to Think

We should not risk our students losing their creativity, curiosity and ability to think. Instead we should create a context where we enhance the potential of our learners through the use of imagination and intuitive creativity in an emotionally secure environment. However intentional learning, creativity and problem solving will always bring challenge and therefore risk. Positive emotional states can inform learning and are conducive to creativity yet we must balance this against the fact that to learn deeply and effectively, to be creative is never easy.  Creativity and learning causes us to think about things in a new way, it can be a breakthrough experience, such as the ‘Eureka’ moment, but this is a rare event. More often creativity and learning is a building process. It needs many, often small incremental changes which in high frequency bring about growth and collectively can inform wider change.  Creativity more often requires that we walk the path of most resistance, the path least often taken, because that is where the most creative solutions lie.

Core Competencies

Effective learning environments need to provide a range of learning experiences and opportunities offering a blend of structured activities that inform the development of key skills and accessible core competencies, critical reflection and the ability to ask focused questions. At the same time our classrooms need to offer potential for collaboration, play, exploration, creativity and mental agility. It will be interesting for us to consider what these core competencies need to be. A starting point may be the following:

  • Social competence, personal and team engagement, the ability to collaborate
  • The ability to ask questions and effective written and oral communication
  • The ability to influence, both on an individual and collective level.
  • To be able to access information and data.
  • To be curious, to analyse, to think and to innovate

I am sure the list will extend well beyond this but the key message is that in order to deliver this we need to integrate, to connect our learning experiences rather than continue with our current approach to curriculum delivery which was founded on the Carnegie principles of 125 years ago. Education had a different purpose then. Learning environment for today and tomorrow must make a deliberate step away from: This is what we do; the one subject area at a time and the one-shoe-fits-all approach. How can we possibly develop a blueprint for what children are to become? We have the adults of the 22nd Century in our classrooms today.  What is certain is that the less compartmentalised and rigid our curriculum is the more we offer potential for curiosity and creativity and the ability to think and solve problems.

Accessing Integrated Knowledge

In activating such powerful learning we must ensure a curriculum experience which is connected and accessible.  Accessing integrated knowledge that makes sense to students and is perceived as useful can provide a strong framework for personal growth, reflection and intellectual thinking. Such a curriculum must focus upon enquiry, critical thinking and increasing student capability as young people experience various ways of learning, new experiences and challenges that respect their unique talents.  These experiences will be offered in a diverse setting accessing written, oral and social means of learning which will include teamwork and collaboration. When this dynamic and positive context is realised, we will have created the best of learning situations, the best of schools.

Today’s educators must demonstrate the courage to risk, to seek meaning, in order to develop strong, robust learners. We need to nurture self-confidence in our learners as we walk the path of realisation that our mistakes are positive learning experiences.  Working in collaborative environments, we need to accept that students construct learning from diverse experience as they draw upon their previous knowledge. We need to choreograph active and engaging learning in environments where inquiry and critical thinking, curiosity and creativity are shared and valued every moment of every day.

I believe that great educators want to collaborate, contribute to and believe in innovative schools. Schools where every classroom is full of compassion, creativity, challenge and Innovation, and where mindful action creates intellectual and social learning environments that foster academic success and emotional security.

We create opportunities for our students to gain confidence in themselves as unique learners, building their individual capacity to learn, and we give them the confidence to use it as they respond to their curiosity, inquire and meet the challenges life will offer.  Our students expect great futures. For our part, we must provide environments that increases every learners’ sense of success and resilience in meeting the trials and challenges of today, preparing them for a better tomorrow.

Rob Stoke OBE is Managing Director at Al Futtaim Education Foundation

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