Some thoughts on ‘the schoolroom assumption’

I thought I had posted this a couple of weeks ago but just found it in my drafts so here goes…

As I have recently been working in a school for the first time, Donald Taylor’s latest post (The perils of the schoolroom assumption) caught my eye.

As is often the case with Don’s work there is a lot to reflect on, even in this relatively short article, I’ve tried to capture some of my initial response below.

Remembering the past

Don hits the nail on the head that the issue with adults reflecting on school is that there are:

“assumption[s related to]… the way we remember being taught at school”. 

(The emphasis, on “the way we remember being taught”, is mine).

Having worked in a school, even briefly, you see elements that bring back long forgotten memories.  This awakening of childhood familiarity crosses across what I now know as content, pedagogy, equipment and much more.  However, as an adult (or at least as someone with a learning profession background), you can see how the teachers are attempting to scaffold learning and develop student skills over time. 

This is no different, in many ways, to what I have worked on in higher and workplace learning – where we are tackling competency challenges over time.  The greater test for teachers appears in that there are far fewer assumptions that can be made about their audience.  Whilst we stream students in most of higher education via entry requirements and at work through interview processes, job grades, past experience and resulting remuneration there is no such process in a non-selective school.  This said, teachers have the advantage of regular contact with students to develop a picture of their audience’s capacity, preferences, etc.  In contrast this is often where workplace learning falls down, either that pre-work before synchronous sessions is not completed, the wrong people are on the wrong programme (see * below) or that incorrect assumptions are made in the instructional design (often due to the influence of managers and/or in-availability of participants for influencing design). 

Learning events vs support scaffold

Don highlights one of the issues, with learning events, as the *“I’m here because I was told to come” problem.  In this regard, of course, there are parallels with school.  Bad talent management, sending people on training they are unaware of or have little interest in, is effectively the corporate mirror of school’s enforced instruction where the learner has little choice in terms of location, duration, curriculum, etc.

Don’s demand is for L&D to be supporting “self-starting” learners and “fostering that attitude of responsibility”. However, realistically, managers control workers hours, restrict the locations work can be performed and much more.  Thus, I would argue that whilst L&D can support and guide, as Don’s blog post suggests, one has to be realistic that the ability to develop in the future has to be supported in, at least, a semi-structured way. This is, in part, akin to my previous argument that competency models can actually be helpful in helping people understand what they do not know and show how they might be able to up-skill for horizontal or upward career moves (even if the models can be a nightmare to build and maintain). 

The clear thing, from working in a school, is how limited self-motivation often is and I would suggest children are little different to the many ‘happy where I am’ workers who may (or may not) find themselves left behind as time passes.  Yet there is an assumption adults will leverage the support L&D offers.  Ultimately motivation is hugely important and schools, universities and organisations face the same challenge as we head into the 2020s – with such negativity about the future (with climate change, etc) how do we maintain positive energy and keep people wanting to learn and better themselves? Whilst the enforcement of “the adult-child power structure” (as Don calls it) school certainly still exists in schools, I would say this is far less about learning or teaching but instead the fact that compulsory education is, ultimately, enforced childcare that hopefully includes learning. Thus tackling the M(otivation) and E(nvironment) issues in a KISME analysis are huge for our talent management and sustainability of organisations but also makes the model useful for schools.

Schools as homes for learning

In terms of actual learning and teaching, I would say it is a massive simplification to think that large room didactic teaching for rote learning is the only form of classroom teaching.  However, this is how people often, as in the earlier quote, remember being taught. I’m not saying such instruction did not happen, for example I remember being dictated large volumes of content for copying into a book in GCSE history class, nor that it does not still exist.  However, my experience in the last year agrees far more with with another of Don’s points, that rather than focusing on didactic approaches:

“Most schools today adopt a variety of approaches to teaching, including discovery and debate”

Unless I am missing Don’s point, it feels like the wheels come off a bit in the article from here on as its seems to then ignore this statement about variety and reverts to instead considering classrooms as purely “conveying information into pupil’s heads”.  When suggesting that “there are good reasons why, under the current system, schools have to run the way they do” this is seemingly referring back to the “conveying information into pupil’s heads” approach rather than acknowledging the “discovery and debate” reality (never mind that discovery and debate existed back in the day but people tend to remember/focus on the rote aspects which seemed to be where the article was going with the original point about the way we remember being taught). Indeed the never ending ‘kill lectures’ argument within and about higher education also tends to forget the actual reality, for example I remember a number of highly valuable one-to-one and small group sessions, even as a first year undergraduate in a reasonably big cohort – lectures are rarely the sole model of learning in HE.

I will probably get to a post about ‘how I’ve changed in the last decade’ but one area I have changed is that I’ve become less vocal in my support for online learning ahead of all other formats. Indeed one area where I have come to as a conclusion during my time in L&D is that the following statement from Don’s post is certainly true:

“There are times when a physical environment is the best place to learn, and times when an expert instructor or facilitator is invaluable.”

My early career fanaticism for online (now digital – keep with the times) learning has died down in the face of reality, in part as I have worked with some excellent facilitators who really add value to learning sessions.  In a school environment this is only more so, the requirement for age and level understanding amongst staff is paramount – for example, I find myself using metaphors or cultural references that I am sure would be fine with a group of adults but just hit blank faces with children.

The assumptions actually have little to do with the schoolroom?

In terms of Don’s “insidious effects” from the “schoolroom assumption” there seem to be another couple of big logic jumps:

“First, there is the assumption that all learning – rather than some – should happen via a course in a classroom. Each of these can be useful for learning, but neither is necessary, or even optimal for all learning.”

Is this still true? It feels like something that I might have argued against during my ‘fanatical period’.  Surely most people will have moved on from this and realise it is not the case?  Students graduating from school and university in the last ten (or twenty?) years will certainly have experienced learning beyond the classroom (even if just watching YouTube videos and Googling answers) – if workplaces are still classroom only they are ignoring this as well as how people actually learn (i.e. the informal/formal balance).

“Second – and to my mind more importantly – are the implications for personal responsibility.”

The argument made that “adults usually know what they need to know” is often not true.  In my career, thus far, I have seen a lot of ‘I wish I had known that’ moments and ‘you do not know what you do not know’ types of issue.  At the same time those who know their desired end state, usually a specific job, will rarely know the detail behind how to get there.  That’s why those competency/capability models can be helpful as well as talent management by an organisation that incorporates ‘career advice’ (for want of a better word). More recently AI is starting to take over in helping identify workers unconscious incompetence and other knowledge and skill status. Thus, we could actually argue that all learners (including school children) should be able to delegate at least some of this responsibility (the key part of Don’s arguments) to technology.

Lessons from the 1990s

I’ve recently just started watching Teachers again on DVD.  I loved the show on Channel 4 originally and it is the second or third time I’ve watched the box-set since buying it 10-ish years ago. 

There are many things to like about it (I’m currently on season two), one is the presentation of the ‘adults’ issues via the experiences of the children and vis-versa. These cover topics such as identity crises, career choices, relationships, smoking, etc.  There are also lots of things to consider from a learning and teaching perspective – and it is now very much a period piece, the series showing blackboards in classrooms and a heavy reliance on photocopying.  The computer teacher is still ridiculed as an odd geek for his IT obsessions and I’m pretty sure there has been no mention of “educational technology” thus far.  Indeed the show contrasts an attempt at a vibrant debating style of pedagogy (from Andrew Lincoln’s English teacher character) versus more ‘get them ready for the exams’ instruction demanded by management.  In regard to the latter little has probably changed.  I’ve got a feeling I’ve blogged about Teachers before so I’ll shut up on that for now at least.

Now I would say schooling has failed to develop in some ways since the 90s that would seem to make sense, for example I’ve previously posted that Tin Can would surely offer a sensible way of tracking online activity for young learners yet seemingly exists only within the workplace learning bubble.

Ultimately if we strip back all the tech, issues of responsibility, etc. there has always been a challenge between approaches to teaching and learning and their purpose – to simplify this can be framed as: holistic education vs simply passing exams.

Ed tech to personalise the schoolroom?

Similarly to the Tin Can issue, personalisation via branching eLearning and other tools would seem to make sense considering the lack of homogeneity in school learning groups. Indeed the wide variety in our ability to learn was illustrated recently, when figures were released to show 1 in 5 entries received 25 per cent extra time in GCSE, AS and A level exams in 2018-19.  This is a huge spike to my own time at school where, albeit at a selective school I can only remember people getting extra time for physical injuries.  There is an argument, of course, that we are over describing childhood behaviours as ADHD and other learning issues.  However, the 1 in 5 figure goes to illustrate the huge number of students needing at least some kind of ‘special’ treatment in school – this is where perhaps rote learning in the past got a particularly bad name, i.e. those people for whom traditional learning environments were never going to work. However, this is an assumption and it would similarly be difficult to assume that school ‘works’ for four fifths or some other percentage. Ultimately it is very difficult to assume anything about our individual learning (something that is intensely personal in a way that perhaps nothing else is) – what we can assume is that governments and other organisations will need to support their people to develop to tackle the challenges in our shared futures and for that schoolrooms will continue to play some part.

Finally on teachers…

…this made me chuckle from the #OEB19 twitter backchannel:

Author: iangardnergb

My name is Ian Gardner and I am interested in various topics that can be seen as related to learning, technology and information. To see what I am reading elsewhere, follow me on The Old Reader ( and/or Twitter (@iangardnergb).

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