How were you taught when you were in primary school?

How often do we hear people say that our schooldays were the best days of our lives? It’s a cliché, of course, evoking a sense of a happy and carefree time before the demands and responsibilities of adulthood weighed down on our shoulders. But I wonder how many of us look back with fondness at what actually went on in the classroom itself, and in particular at the way we were taught.

Which of the following approaches to learning do you recognise from your days at primary school? And which do you perhaps feel you most missed out on?

(1) Did your teacher have you repeating things over and over as a way of getting you to remember them?

When I was 10-years-old the teacher made us repeat the following sentence ad nauseam: “The numerator is on the top line; the denominator is on the bottom line.” When I was studying for my O levels — nowadays they call them GCSEs — at age 16, the teacher of French would ask each student in the class, one by one: “Que préfères-vous? Ce crayon ici, ou ce crayon là.” And each student would reply with which pencil they preferred — in French, of course.

Teachers still teach by repetition, but perhaps not in such obvious ways. Maths is often taught by setting lots of examples of the same type of sum to solve. In this learning approach the teacher teaches from the front of the class and does most of the talking.

(2) Or were you taught to learn the way the brain learns?

This is where you reflect on the learning process: knowing what the learning task is; thinking about what senses are picking up the information; aware of using your short-term memory in keeping information in mind just as long as you need it; keeping your attention focused; manipulating information to complete the task; and finishing the task in such a way that you will remember what you have learned.

In this approach the teacher helps the learner to understand the different levels at which the brain works and encourages practice of each. You become a genuine self-learner.

(3) Or were you a ‘constructor’ of knowledge, establishing what you know already, for example about Norman castles, and building on your knowledge?

In this learning approach, you are in charge of the learning, perhaps working with other learners, sharing knowledge, establishing shared questions and finding out together. The phrase ‘pupil as teacher’ comes to mind. The learning frequently starts with a discussion of what is already known and builds from there; this includes identifying known vocabulary and extending it.

The teacher is actually more of a facilitator than a teacher — acting as a learning guide and scaffolding the learning, for example by raising questions about Norman castles and encouraging discussion of the meaning of words about castles.

(4) Or were you aware of the teacher putting you at the centre of the learning, making sure you were comfortable in your learning and valuing you for your efforts?

In this approach the teacher considers the emotional connection to learning. It is important that the pupil has a good environment to work in and is comfortable in the learning space. A sense of belonging and positive self-esteem are also important for effective learning to take place. See Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs for more about this. Children who are uncomfortable in their environment, disengaged with schooling and lacking self-esteem are not in a good learning space.

So, which style of teaching most applies to when you were at school? And which one did you most miss out on?

How children learn is so important to the life-based approach to learning that it devotes one of its nine life themes solely to children making best use of their brains. In the Mind theme, children are taught a combination of 2, 3 and 4 above:

  • learning the way the brain learns
  • constructing their learning from what they know
  • ensuring they feel comfortable in their learning environment, whether in school or studying at home

Learning by rote and repetition are not a feature of life-based learning. This does not mean that children are discouraged from learning the words of songs or poetry. It means that the emphasis is on the learner leading the learning, not the teacher. The teacher spouting from the front of the class for extended periods of time is a no-no! And yet I would guess that this is the way most of us were taught when we were at school. Too much of it still goes on today.

My thanks to Denicia Padgett for her article outlining the behaviourist, cognitive, contructivist and humanist learning theories: Learning Theories: Understanding the 4 Major Ones for the Classroom.

Image at the head of this article by Vlad Vasnetsov from Pixabay.

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