Levels of learning

Recently, I was accused of using an educational ‘buzz word’ when I mentioned that providing children with rich, contextualised and real-life learning opportunities promoted “deep learning”.

I am certainly not one for bandwagon-jumping in education (in fact, quite the opposite: I tend to run in the opposite direction if I see the latest trendy bandwagon steamrollering towards my classroom.) However, I do believe that there is a distinction between levels of learning, from a very surface level ability to reproduce a taught skill to a deeper, transferrable understanding of what has been taught.

In his inspiring and thought-provoking book What’s the point of school? Guy Claxton points out that:

…the idea that a teacher can see a child do something and then tick a box to say they “possess” the relevant skill or ability is simply nonsense. You cannot observe that someone did something –solved a problem of one kind, in one context, for one purpose, on one day- and conclude that they will (or even should) be able to “use it” on any relevant occasion in the future. You can’t conclude “does” from “can”… (2009:85)

I’ve been thinking about these levels of learning or understanding recently, in relation to one particular pupil in my class, and trying to work out ways of moving their learning on from the very surface level, to a deeper understanding where it can be transferred to different contexts and situations.

Take learning number bonds of ten, which is what this particular pupil has been focusing on this week. After the TA repeatedly modelled choosing two digit cards to represent a bond of ten and using Numicon to check, the child could do the same, mostly correctly. The child was very pleased and enjoyed experiencing the success of being able to complete the task. The TA commented that the child had “got it”. The next day, the TA repeated the activity with the child in a spare five minutes, and once again the child could take two digit cards to make ten, and use Numicon to check that they were right. If we were using APP to assess children summatively in my school, one more instance of the child doing this would mean a tick or a highlight and the belief that the child was secure with number bonds of ten.

The next day, I gave the child a tower of ten unifix and asked them to find as many ways as they could of making ten. The child looked at the cubes, looked at me and then back at the cubes. They did not know where to begin using them to find bonds of ten. I reminded the child of the work they had done over the previous two days finding pairs of numbers that made ten. Nothing. I modelled breaking the tower into one cube and nine cubes and recording the number sentence 1+9=10 and showed the child how, if I had one cube and nine cubes and put them together in a tower I had ten cubes all together. I then broke the tower into two and eight and asked the child to record the number sentence. There was a flicker of enlightenment and the number sentence was duly written. When I returned to the child a little later, they had independently written all the number bonds of ten, in order.

In many schools that would represent a tick or a highlight on an APP grid, and yet I know that the child does not yet have a real understanding of the link between the two activities or can transfer either skill to a problem requiring bonds of 10 to be used.

As Claxton says,
We can’t just assume that something learned in one context, for one purpose, will automatically come to mind wherever and whenever it might subsequently be useful. (2009:84)

Piaget’s theories support this view:
We have done things to and with the child. In time, the child changes and learns. Therefore our actions “caused” the child’s development. No, says Piaget: the child’s understanding arises out of her self-directed actions upon the physical world. The question we must turn to now is how self-directed activity leads the child to construct his or her own understanding of natural phenomena. (1998:53)

It is, I believe, this personal construction that leads to deep, transferable knowledge. As teachers, if we can provide children with real opportunities to apply taught skills, we are on the way to facilitating that personal construction.

Claxton, G. (2009) What’s the point of school? Rediscovering the heart of education, Oxford: Oneworld Publications

Wood, D. (1998) How children think and learn, 2nd Edition, London: Blackwell Publishing

Why do primary teachers “lie” to their pupils?

On Monday, the first day back after the Christmas break, my Y2/3 class came in to find a packed suitcase and my passport. We were going to go on an expedition, but I needed them to help me work out where we were going.

Item by item, the contents of my suitcase was revealed and discussed. They knew we were going abroad because of the passport: we just needed to work out where. They examined some currency, a flag, items of clothing, sun block, sunglasses… eventually they worked it out: we were going to Australia!

We spent the rest of the morning busily making passports and tickets, researching some of the places we could visit, and packing suitcases full of appropriate clothes and supplies. We found Australia on globes; looked at it in atlases; and worked out how we could get there, and how long it might take. There was a determined, excited buzz about the room.

After lunch, the children came back into the classroom to find that the tables had been moved and the chairs had been set up in rows, as if on an aeroplane. They handed me their tickets and passports, found their seats and off we set. We watched a video of a plane taking off from Heathrow on a grey, wet day and then an in-flight safety video. We worked out what time it would be in Sydney when we landed and what time it would be back in the UK when we landed. Then we watched a video of a plane landing on a sunny day in Sydney. Now we had arrived we needed to find out what we could do in this foreign country: we set-to with travel brochures, large outline maps of Australia, scissors and glue, and made large collages of the things we hoped to see and do.

At no point did I say, “We’re only pretending to fly to Australia”. There was a tacit understanding that what we were doing was ‘make-believe’ and the children bought into it fully, immersing themselves in the excitement of going on holiday to a foreign country. At 3.15 many of the children came and told me that this had been one of the best days ever; that they had loved flying to Australia and that they wanted to learn more about the country. The next day they came in with photos, books, souvenirs and a thirst for knowledge about all things Australian. They were hooked and wanted to learn more.

So why, I wonder, do some teachers regard such activities as dishonest and duplicitous? Last night @oldandrewuk tweeted (about another blogpost):

“This is the 2nd time I’ve seen a blog about primary teaching based on lying to the kids. Are people okay with this?”

I couldn’t help but reply, and an interesting “debate” ensued, where @oldandrewuk tied my words in knots and tripped me up over semantics.

However hard he tried to make me look foolish and question my ideology, @oldandrewuk cannot convince me that we are “lying” to children in any sort of sinister way and that immersing children in their learning through drama or simply through setting up scenarios that encourage them to suspend their disbelief is a practice that needs “justifying”.

Whether teachers engage in Dorothy Heathcote-esque Mantle of the Expert scenarios or enterprises that last for days and weeks, or whether they arrange to “lose” the class soft toy so that the children write authentic wanted posters and character descriptions, immersing young children in experiences in this way creates an enthusiasm for learning and contextualised situations for children to apply knowledge and skills. It’s also great fun, builds on how children themselves role-play to learn, and enables children of all abilities to access learning on an equal footing.
In the past few years I have found WWII kit bags in the school grounds; built meerkat burrows in the school hall; buried (and dug up!) Roman artefacts; written letters to the school from the government; discovered secret fairy doors; opened a cursed Egyptian chest and engaged in all sorts of “make-believe” with my pupils. Why? Because setting up these situations and scenarios works. They engage and enthuse children. They give them situations in which they either need to apply knowledge and skills or work out what skills and knowledge they need, before learning them and subsequently applying them.

If you want your pupils to write a newspaper report, you can either show them what an exemplar newspaper report looks like and ask them to write about the school fair that happened three weeks ago and no-one really remembers, or you can find a WWII kit bag in the school grounds (just up from the genuine WWII Prisoner of War camp on the edge of the school grounds). Then, in order to write a newspaper report, they will need to work out what skills they need to write about this exciting discovery; what a newspaper report consists of by examining contemporary and historical real-life examples; take photos; interview witnesses and school staff and plan and prepare their final reports for publication.

I know which I’d rather do. I know which my pupils would rather do. And, more importantly, I know which situation will enable the children to write the best newspaper reports.

However much @oldandrewuk and others of his ilk try to convince primary teachers that setting up learning situations is “lying” to children I will remain convinced, through my own experience, that taking children on these exciting learning journeys is an effective way to learn. And if it’s more fun for everyone too, that’s an added bonus.


During the course of my discussion with @oldandrewuk, the notion of deep learning also surfaced. I think I’ll ponder on this for a few days before a new blog post begins to stir…