“We need a much deeper understanding of the nature of learning”

Alex Beard

Alex Beard, a senior director at Teach for All and former teacher, is reimagining learning and education. In the first part of our interview, he discusses institutionalized learning and how culture influences the way we teach our children.

Caroline Smrstik Gentner: You say that most schools today are not teaching kids how to learn. Why is that?

Alex Beard: We lack a common understanding of what education is and what purpose it serves.

We set national targets and arrange institutions and organize people so that they can deliver on those targets. This managerial thinking has been around for 100 years. But by standardizing things in this way across classrooms, you undermine the efforts of educators. Teachers are overwhelmed with bureaucracy and that holds them back from being as good as they could be at their profession.

Andreas Schleicher (OECD Deputy Director for Education) points out that in teaching, you have the most highly educated workforce of almost any sector. Teachers are highly qualified, smart people – they all have degrees – and yet we put them in a system that limits their autonomy and their ability to learn, research, and improve their practice. In the UK, we dictate to them what they should be doing on a daily or even hourly basis. And that then feeds down to the experience of the students.

CSG: Has the focus on curriculum and measurement taken away from learning?

AB: If your aim is to create a highly efficient system, then you limit the number of things you want kids to learn and you standardize the way you educate them. In general, I think people don’t fundamentally understand what it means to learn – and to teach. Most policymakers don’t, and I certainly don’t think that people outside of education really do. Our society imagines that teaching means standing at the front of a classroom and talking about ideas. If we want to begin to create a better system, we all need a much deeper understanding of the nature of learning: the science of learning; how we develop different faculties; the role of play, practice, or memorization.

“People don’t fundamentally understand what it means to learn – and to teach.”

CSG: When teaching is about directing children to perform standardized exercises, doesn’t it attract a certain type of person? And the people who want to think about how each child in the room is learning won’t want to go into teaching because of the constraints imposed by the system.

AB: Every teacher ought to be a scientist of learning and ask: How can the most learning happen for my children in my classroom in my subject? We should be in a continual process of inquiry into that question. When I was in Finland, I observed more of that professional inquiry in teachers’ work. They were empowered to take greater responsibility, with a more collegial atmosphere in the schools. In the UK, schools are quite hierarchical with many layers of middle management.

The way we’ve framed the role of teachers in the UK means we discourage people with bigger aspirations and more imagination for what teaching could be.

CSG: Where is this being done better, besides in Finland?

AB: In Shanghai, they have a very interesting professional development model. Teachers have 240 hours a year for professional development. They become real specialists, not only in subject areas but also in student age groups. Teachers also watch one another’s lessons and discuss those lessons frequently.

“Every teacher ought to be a scientist of learning and ask: How can the most learning happen for my children in my classroom in my subject?”

Another example I really liked was High Tech High in San Diego (California). This is a network of charter schools that also has a graduate school of education. Its teacher training process is very much focused on engaging teachers in active research or practical inquiry. The teachers set themselves a challenge over the course of a year, asking themselves questions like “What aspects of my students’ learning am I going to try to improve?” And then they work with a group of peers across the school to achieve that goal.

That’s the kind of professional atmosphere that you would want to exist within an ideal school, where the teachers are trusted, autonomous, self-improving professionals. And the systems around them are enabling rather than suppressing their efforts.

CSG: From a teacher’s perspective, that’s great – but what about the students?

AB: The two positive learning cultures I’ve seen in different places benefit students in different ways. One type is very much about autonomy and democracy and self-organizing groups, and about developing skills individually and together (High Tech High). And there’s another type that is a more structured learning culture, where clearer and more tightly controlled systems of learning are in place but nonetheless learning is happening (Shanghai). I think there’s room for both approaches in the world, because they both ensure student learning.

CSG: You suggest that very different learning cultures all have something to offer. Is what works best a matter of cultural preference?

AB: Culture certainly plays a huge role in education. What I find interesting in the UK and the US is the diverse range of school types. We seem to assume that different kinds of kids require different types of schooling, and I think that’s wrong.

“If you change schools and get that right, you can influence society and how it’s structured.”

Different societies have different answers to the question of who we want our kids to become when they reach adulthood. And depending on your answer to that question, you’ll set up your education system to achieve it. Finland wants to create responsible, engaged individuals who are part of a collective. In the UK we have a rather hierarchical society and we’re quite competitive, and you see that reproduced in the school system.

I am confident that if you change schools and get that right, you can influence society and how it’s structured.

In the second part of our interview, Alex Beard will expand on how society can be changed by changing education and discusses the role of technology in 21stcentury schools.

Alex Beard Is a former teacher and self-described “accelerated evolutionary.” He is senior director at Teach for All, a growing network of independent organizations working to ensure that all children have the opportunity to fulfil their potential. His book Natural Born Learners, a user’s guide to transforming learning in the twenty-first century, was published in April 2018. BOLD recently reviewed the book.

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