Having attended a ‘Sharing Best Practice’ session led by Lyndsay Watterson, I became very interested in ‘Language for Learning’ and was interested to see how language – mutually used and understood terms – could impact on learning within the English Faculty and even within the whole school. Currently, each Faculty uses different terminology or mnemonics with students; for example a formal plan for essay writing varies from: PEE (Point, Evidence, Explain: Humanities), PEEL (Point, Evidence, Explanation, Language: English), PQEL (Point, Quote, Explain, Language: English), PEA (Point, Evidence, Analysis: Business). Would shared terminology or ‘whole school’ language allow students to articulate and draw parallels across subjects, consolidate their knowledge and facilitate a common understanding of learning methods? I joined the staff ‘Language For Learning’ working party to investigate these ideas further. Our strategy was intended to develop:
- the key skills needed for 21st century learning
- A common understanding of learning and use of shared language to articulate
- A shared Language that we use in school for Learning
The ‘Working Party’ all found very little specific research on this online. Much ‘Language for Learning’ information related to teaching English as a Foreign Language, or how to support students with speech, language and communication needs. The main information came from working group meetings and resources, however, the following sites provided interesting reading:
Natural Semantic Metalanguage (MSM) www.griffith.edu.au › … › Research
The Importance of Metalanguageenglishscu2011.wikispaces.com/…/Question+15
Vygotsky, Metalanguage and Language Learning: The Language Learning Journal,Volume 41, Issue 1, 2013
We began by issuing a questionnaire to students, testing their knowledge and understanding of the following types of ‘Learners’ – the core elements of ‘L4L’:
- Reflective Learners
- Confident communicators
- Critical enquirers
- Independent self-managers
- Effective participators
We planned a series of lessons, working this language into our Learning Objectives and specifically, repetitively using the terms within our classroom teaching. We purposefully tried to link this language to our current practice, as we felt that these skills were regularly taught across all subject areas anyway. We didn’t want to increase workload or change classroom practice necessarily, but wanted to consistently use key terms and language which students could get familiar with and which could impact on their learning. After a series of lessons, we then re-issued the same questionnaire to see if students’ understanding of this shared language had increased and if they could appreciate their own improvement in certain areas. Would they recognise these ‘Learning Skills’ more clearly across all subjects and had they become more active, reflective and resilient learners as a result?
Impact on Learning (Findings)
Interestingly, our students initially did not recognise the presence of these skills in all subjects, nor could they agree precisely on what the terms actually meant! (In fairness, staff also had slightly different interpretations of the core elements to begin with.) Typical responses included:
- Reflective Learner: ‘A learner who understands and then helps other people.’ (No real sense of personal independence or enquiry.)
- Confident Communicator: ‘Someone who answers lots of questions and speaks confidently in class.’ (Communication interpreted as purely spoken and not really acknowledged as a creative, dramatic or expressive skill.)
- Critical Enquirer: ‘Someone who asks a lot about detail in lessons.’ (No real sense of personal investigation or arriving at creative solutions independently.)
- Independent self-manager: ‘they are aware of their personal work and manage their work well, meeting deadlines.’ (Emphasis put on organisation rather than planning, adapting and succeeding.)
- Effective Participator: ‘Joins in group discussions.’ (Emphasis put on an individual’s contributions rather than on collaboration and teamwork.)
The subjects most recognised for developing certain skills were Maths (Reflective Learner and Critical Enquirer mostly) and English (Confident Communicator and Effective Participator mostly.) It was fascinating that, as teachers, we felt we taught these skills ALL the time and yet students really couldn’t recognise them in relation to their learning. Many students when asked ‘What subjects are you asked to be the following: Reflective Learner, Confident Communicator, Critical Enquirer, Independent self-manager, Effective Participator?’ struggled to link those skills with many subjects at all. Many asked for clarification and many wrote very little in response to the questions! As an English and Media Teacher, I was surprised and disappointed that the two subjects weren’t named more by students, as I felt these subjects regularly facilitate all of the above!
At the end of the series of lessons, students’ responses were much more extended. Typical responses at the end of the lessons included:
- Reflective Learner: ‘they consider different points of view and ask questions about what they have learnt.’
- Confident Communicator: ‘They can express themselves well and their work shows originality.’
- Critical Enquirer: ‘A learner who learns independently and thinks carefully about their work.’
- Independent self-manager: ‘An organised person who learns from their mistakes and gets better.’
- Effective Participator: ‘Someone who works confidently in a group or takes a leading part.’
They did (mainly) offer more secure and confident definitions of the core elements and the final question (as listed above) was answered much more fully. Students listed five subjects which encouraged those skills (on average) compared to the initial average of two. They seemed more able to recognise these skills across the curriculum – in Core subjects more than others – possibly due to having more lessons than option subjects.
Consistent reference to these core elements did sharpen students’ awareness and their reflection on their own learning. This would need to be encouraged and used across the whole school and embedded in all subject areas, however, to make a really significant difference. Being able to recognise skills and reflect on learning skills and strategies is an important skill which ‘Language for Learning’ could further.
Next Steps – Moving practice forward as a result of research
Build this Language into ‘Learning Objectives’ within faculties /across subject areas. Display the core elements and their definitions around the school / in classrooms. Embed key ideas.