How can I use my understanding of learners and learning to strengthen the Guidelines on Effective Learning used in my School?






An Understanding Learning and Learners assignment by

Mark Potts











In this assignment I show how my understanding of learners and learning has strengthened a document called the Guidelines on Effective Learning that I designed as a tool to promote discussion about improvements in learning in my School. I narrate how I came to a better understanding of my own view of learning and how this has influenced the document.





















Why Guidelines on Effective Learning?

In September 2001, as Deputy Head responsible for the Quality of Learning, I published the Guidelines on Effective Learning at Westwood St Thomas School[1]. This document was a result of several months of research in to learning and how it can be made more effective within an institution[2]. Over the next twenty months this document, along with a separate Guidelines for Effective Teaching document, was used to review learning in subject areas throughout the School and to write reports on the quality of teaching and, separately, the quality of learning in those subjects. Given that this is a key School document for the purposes of self-evaluation it is important to keep it under review and to update it in the light of my new learning about what constitutes effective learning and the conditions that can bring it about within a School.


In July 2003 I attended a Summer School week at Bath University for my Masters Degree entitled “Understanding Learners and Learning”[3]. This gave me an opportunity to further consider the research in this area so that I could elaborate and tune my own theory of learning so that it keeps track of developments in the field. I wanted my learning to be useful and to have an impact on what I and others do. As Deputy Head I see myself as having a responsibility for improving learning in the School. Therefore, I decided that I wanted to use what I learned to critically assess the Guidelines document and revise it, if necessary, in light of my better understanding.

The assignment is in five sections. First, I explain why I feel there needs to be a disclaimer on the Guidelines document due to the personal nature of the knowledge. Secondly, I outline how I have developed my own personal theory of learning and how it has shaped the revised document. This is followed by a section that outlines how I used my peers as a validation group to critically assess the Guidelines document. I then provide a brief comment on where this leaves me in terms of conclusions about learning.  Finally, I make a recommendation for further development of this document and its’ partner document, the Guidelines on Effective Teaching, as tools for reflection and self-evaluation.


Why the Disclaimer?

Through extensive reading I became more conscious of my own theory of learning and that this is how I perceive effective learning. Consequently the document reflects my theory.  This represents a problem for me in the sense that it contradicts my democratic values as I seek to impose my own theory of learning on others through my position in the social order of the school as Deputy Head. I can reconcile this contradiction by claiming that others have influenced my own theory of learning. The document stands as a basis for discussion. It is by no means presented as representative of any other single person's theory of learning as they create their own through their everyday practice. This recognition led me to recognise the need for a disclaimer at the beginning of the document.

This resolve was further strengthened by Lester's arguments in his paper Learning for the 21st Century where he distinguishes between:


"information, which is impersonal and exists independently, and knowledge, which is constructed by the knower and is necessarily personal, subjective and unique" (Lester 1997).


I am concious that from this epistemological perspective, in writing this document I am constructing my own personal theory of learning and then using it as an external standard for judgement. I recognise this as an inconsistency, however I stress the purpose of the document as a basis for discussion about learning between colleagues within the School. It was this recognition of the personal nature of my knowledge base that strengthened my resolve to write the disclaimer at the top of the revised Guidelines document (See Appendix)[4] The criterion that I use to evaluate the success of the document is "what does it achieve?" If it acts as a prompt for discussion within the School for what constitutes effective learning then in my view it has achieved it's purpose. Having said this, I can see the questionable validity of such a document in being used to monitor the effectiveness of learning within the institution. However, given the increased focus of OFSTED on School self-evaluation:


"Where inspectors find the school's self-evaluation to be frank and accurate, they should report this and give the school full credit for it. Such a judgement should reflect well on the management of the school" (OFSTED 2003)


The Guidelines on Effective Learning document is potentially a powerful tool for providing information about the effectiveness of teaching and learning in the School.


Developing my theory of learning

In this section I follow the content of the Guidelines on Effective Learning, explaining how I have come to my current conclusions about learning. This acts as a narrative of the development of my own learning about learning. I make frequent references to literature that have influenced my thinking. I have updated the Guidelines document as my thinking has developed. (See Appendix)


In the section on "The purposes of this document", I have added a quote from Claxton to reinforce the importance of reflection by teachers:

If teachers are not themselves good learners, they arrest both their own development and that of their pupils" (Claxton 1990)

This supports my view that teachers should model learning for pupils in order to demonstrate that they value it as an activity. This view is strengthened by Fielding when he says:

"A teacher's love of learning has many facets and is essentially about the teacher-as-learner; it is invariably about more than commitment to a particular subject or discipline; it is also about a delight in the process of learning; it is about the teacher-as-learner-about-learning". (Fielding 1996)

One of the key purposes of the document is to promote teacher reflection on learning and what constitutes effective learning. This promotes the idea of the teacher in our School as someone who is a learner about learning.

Another key purpose of the document is to provide a basis for discussion about how to make student learning more effective. Claxton in his paper on Implicit Theories talks about unconscious and uncritical theories of learning that teachers often have. These are derived from their own experience of schooling. They can act as a barrier to effective learning and need to be questioned and subjected to open criticism. Teachers can then start to construct a theory of learning that is more consistent with the research on learning. Claxton states this the need as follows:

"Making implicit theories explicit is an important precursor to supplanting them with better theories" (Claxton 1996).

Claxton's ideas strengthen the purpose of the document in seeking to raise discussion about what makes for effective learning.


In the section on "What is Learning", Claxton's ideas strengthen the proposition stated that:

Į    Learning is not constrained to classrooms, schools or interaction


with teachers.  (Potts 2000)


I have added Claxton's definition of learning as follows:

"Learning at its most general is the business of improving our theories, elaborating and tuning them so that they keep track of the changes in the world and come to serve us ever more successfully." (Claxton 1996)

This stresses the personal nature of learning and the need to constantly refine our theories as circumstances dictate. This is helpful in maintaining the focus for the reader of the document on learning by learners and how to facilitate  the development of their own learning.

Accepting Claxton's comments on the importance of making theories of learning explicit, I feel that it is important to state clearly the basis of the view of learning being presented in the Guidelines document. I have therefore included a paragraph referring to the constructivist theoretical basis for the document. (See Page 3 of Appendix). My decision to firmly root the document in the constructivist tradition is reinforced by the work of Needham in his article "How do Children Learn?", in which he says a constructivist view of learning acknowledges that:

 "children construct their own knowledge through personal interaction with natural phenomena and through social interactions with adults and peers.

Implicit in this view is that learning is an active, not a passive process. Whilst the teacher has responsibility for getting students engaged in appropriate learning activities, it is the learner who is responsible for the learning that occurs." (Needham 1987)

This is a useful way of distinguishing the role of the teacher from that of the learner. It is also a way of explicitly linking this conception of learning as:

"the active construction of meaning and interpretation"

and this conception of teaching as:

"getting students engaged in appropriate learning activities. What the student does most determines learning." (School Improvement Network 1996)


As I read the literature about learning and review the eight themes of learning in the Guidelines document, I conclude that it would be useful to include another theme of "Collaborative Learning". I first recognised this when I was reading and reflecting on Michael Shayer's article on Vygotsky and Piaget. Shayer says:

"The main source of mediation for adolescents is their peers, rather than 'scaffolding' by adults"

and that it is therefore the teachers job to:

"manage the lesson so that peer-peer mediation is maximised" (Shayer 2003)

He bases this on the research of Vygotsky and his idea of a zone of proximal development (ZPD), stressing the importance of social learning and creating the social conditions in the classroom that will allow:

"a communal ZPD to operate with further consequences for the promotion and completion of individual pupils' ZPDs." (Shayer 2003)

Needham stresses the value of collaborative learning in terms of extending the range of ideas that exist in the classroom. Fielding talks about teacher's responsibilities in making the group work as a learning community:

"Students' confidence in their own ideas needs to be partnered by respect for the ideas of others. It is important that students are supportive of each other and learn to value difference and diversity". (Fielding 1996)

The importance of promoting collaborative learning is summed up for me in this section from the Research Matters bulletin from the School Improvement Network, which brings together research from a range of sources:

"Processing between learners leads to higher order skills, so that co-operative cultures and group investigation methods give better academic results as well as improved communication skills and positive multiethnic relations". (School Improvement Network 1996)

I have stressed the importance of collaboration for learning in the Guidelines document by making it a separate theme. I have included quotes from Shayer (2003), Fielding (1996) and the Research Network Bulletin (1996) on page 5 to indicate the sources of research on collaborative learning and I have included it as part of the research instruments. In evaluating lessons, observers are asked to comment on whether students are supportive of each other. In evaluating students work a question is asked about the existence of evidence of peer assessment. When interviewing students they are asked; “Are students supportive of each other in lessons in this subject?” This is derived from Fielding’s (1996) comments about the importance of students feeling supported by each other. Another question to ask students to gain some insight in to the effectiveness of learning in the subject is “How often do you get to engage in discussion with other students about what you are learning”? This is based on Shayer’s (2003) comments on peer-peer mediation.


I found Barbara Gross Davis’ (1999) points about how to encourage students to become self-motivated independent learners, helpful in reviewing the questions that are asked of students in order to ascertain their level of motivation in the subject. As a result, I have added two more questions to the interview sheet. They are:

“What do you think of the level of difficulty of the tasks that you are set in this subject?”


“To what extent are your opinions and feelings valued in this subject?”

The first question seeks to probe about the degree of challenge felt by the students. Vygotsky, Piaget and others suggest that the learning activities need to be sufficiently challenging, but not overly so, in order to stimulate the learner. The second question raises the issue of whether the student feels “heard” by the teacher and others in the group, a key factor in motivation.


In the section of the Guidelines on learning environment it seems to me to be consistent with my current view of learning to include reference to Michael Fielding on the responsibility of teachers for creating an environment that is conducive to learning:

Teachers need to do all they can to provide learning environments which are comfortable, accessible and non-threatening; enable different ways of working; are able to celebrate success and value difference; are challenging and stimulating". (Fielding 1996)

Here, Fielding provides a useful set of criteria for evaluating the learning environment in terms of its suitability for learning. I have therefore included these elements as indications to observers for what to look for in making judgements about the quality of the learning environment during a lesson observation (Page 8 of Guidelines). 

I return to Claxton with reference to the learning environment and include a quote from him on the reason for a lack of learning.

"If people's learning power does not develop, this is due not to a 'lack of ability' but to the absence of appropriate experiences, and/or of the emotional or situational conditions which enable those people to explore and extend the current boundaries of their skill as learners" (Claxton 1990)

It seems to me that this directly challenges a flawed learning theory implicitly believed by some that learning ability is fixed and cannot be enhanced. It is therefore important to include this in the document. It seems to me to be fundamentally about creating the right learning environment and although it has wider implications than in the classroom, it is important that teachers are conscious of the need to create a learning environment that provides the right experiences and conditions for learning.


In the paper by Michael Fielding (1996) entitled "Why and how learning styles matter" he talks about the centrality of dialogue. The section of the Guidelines document on 'feedback', is strengthened by reference to the work of Mary Simpson (1995) on the importance of the relationship between pupil and teacher in providing the context for interactions to take place that support the learning process. Stradling and Saunders (1993) talk about "differentiation by dialogue". Their research shows that this is perceived by students as being much more effective than other types of differentiation. I ask the lesson observer to reflect on the quality of the dialogue between the students and the teacher (See Page 9 of the Guidelines document). In the section of the Guidelines concerned with evidence (Page 15) I have strengthened the section on individualised learning by suggesting that a source of evidence for this might be observation of the teacher giving appropriate individualised feedback. This is what I understand Stradling and Saunders to mean by “differentiation by dialogue”.


It was difficult to decide which section to include this in. As such, this dilemma highlights the highly interactive nature of these themes. They are not to be read as separate themes, independent of each other. Identifying separate themes as I have done could be seen as a weakness in the document.


I call again on the work of Fielding to strengthen the section on individualised learning. In talking about different learning styles he sees:

"the possibility for developing an approach to differentiation which is centrally concerned with understanding and utilising the different processes of learning, which values them equally, and which seeks to develop future learning in ways which extend and expand existing preferences and capacities." (Fielding 1996)

This stresses the potential for meeting individual learning preferences in an enriching way. I subscribe to a philosophy that places equal value at the heart of what I do. I have included in the evidence section (Page 15) the suggestion that students be encouraged to adopt a range of learning styles and intelligences.

Silver, Strong and Perini (1997) refer to students choosing “assessment products” as a means of individualising their learning to suit their preferred intelligence and learning style. This has influenced my choice of language for the checklist for evaluation of students work (Page 10) where the evaluator is asked to look for evidence of different types of assessment product.


Finally, I have added a section to explain the focus on "progress". This is influenced by the work of Shayer (2003) on Vygotsky and by Carl Rogers. Vygotsky talks about progress in terms of children internalising processes as a part of their independent development. Shayer then suggests:

That it should be part of the teacher's art to offer a learning situation in which the instruction marches ahead of development and leads it" (Shayer 2003)

I include Carl Rogers definition of significant learning in the progress section. His reference to personal involvement, self-initiation and self-evaluation resides with my own belief in learning as the development of personal knowledge as referred to at the beginning of this assignment and in the disclaimer on the Guidelines for Effective Learning. As such, I have strengthened the checklist for evaluating students’ work by changing “Is there evidence of improved standards of work…?” to “Is there evidence of learning…?” (Page 10) I have also changed the section on evidence of progress to include “makes a difference in the behaviour, the attitudes, perhaps even the personality of the learner”. (See Page 15)


There are now nine themes of learning in the document and I have indicated how I have strengthened all aspects of the document as a result of my improved understanding of learners and learning.


Validation of the document

In constructing my own theory of learning, it is important for me to listen to the views of others and review and refine my theory. I have narrated in the previous section how the literature on learning has influenced my theory and the Guidelines document. In this section I outline how a group of critical friends can help in the process of reflection and refinement.


As I stated earlier, I was engaged in a Masters degree unit at Bath University on Understanding Learners and Learning. I took the opportunity to undertake a validation exercise with the members of the group. I felt that it would be useful to hear the views of a group of practitioners not from my own school and not therefore constrained by the hierarchical power relations existing in my school with myself as Deputy Head. I photocopied and circulated the Guidelines document as it stood in its’ original form to all 13 members of the group. As I explained the context of the document, specifically the distinction in our management structure between the person responsible teaching and the person responsible for learning, there was an audible gasp from some members of the group. I interpret this “wow” factor as an indication that I had struck at the very heart of some people’s developing thinking on learning. It would have been useful to have captured this on video to validate this claim. However in the absence of this record of evidence, it is a claim that can be validated by those present.  I then circulated a question sheet to gather responses. I recognise the danger of closing off responses in a questionnaire, hence the inclusion of the seventh question “Are there any other comments that you would like to make regarding the Guidelines on Effective Learning?” I did this a day before the responses were required, allowing time for members of the group to read and reflect on the document before responding. Before gathering the responses I gave the group time to check their responses with others by inviting them to discuss them in a small group and make changes or add extra comments to their sheets before giving them to me. This opportunity for peer-peer mediation was designed to strengthen their responses.


As I read through the responses I feel the power of the voices of other members of the group as they show their own understanding of learning. I am influenced by many of the comments. I outline the comments that made me consider changes to the document and my response to them.


1.    That there are better ways of assessing whether or not effective learning is taking place, such as through student-led conferences, working portfolios and presentation of student portfolios. Such approaches do put the onus on the learner to evidence their own learning. They do not however challenge existing, implicit ideas about learning. The Guidelines on Effective Learning are a means of holding the subject teachers to account for the quality of student learning and are a prompt for discussion about learning.


2.    That some members of staff may see this as threatening and coming with a hidden agenda of being a way of finding out staff who are not performing. My response to this is that it is designed to challenge particular implicit theories of learning. It is also designed to be used as an evaluative tool and one that leads to reflection on practice leading to improvement. Put bluntly, If student responses indicate a poor level of learning the member of staff needs to know this and be helped to respond to it in an appropriate manner.


3.    That it needs to be more of a collaborative document and engender as one respondent put it “a spirit of co-operative self-analysis”. This is an interesting point as the document is designed with self-analysis as one of the objectives: “to inform and encourage teacher reflection on the student learning that is taking place in the school”. At the time I was developing an understanding of learning as something that could be imposed and seen as universally true. I now see that to be a falsehood and that we can only come to construct our own theory of learning by understanding learning better, hence the disclaimer at the start of the new document. Therefore the criticism that the document does not explicitly engender a spirit of co-operative self-analysis is a valid one. I have attempted to address this by including the suggestion for use of the document as part of a collaborative process of analysis of learning under the purposes on page 2. This links with the next point raised by another member of the group.


4.    That there needs to be a plan for following up the outcomes of the research. This is a pertinent point and one that I wholly agree with. The benefit of such a document can only be realised through subsequent dialogue between the teacher concerned and the students and between the teacher and a colleague. This may be most effective when the colleague is not a line manager or a senior manager but a peer. Collaboration between a colleague with more positive responses and one with more negative responses could develop a dialogue and a sharing of good practice. I have made this explicit in the revised Guidelines on Effective Learning document under the purposes on page 2. I have also encouraged dialogue and collaboration by including a section for “agreed actions to take this further” on page 9 of the document.


5.    That collaborative learning ought to be a theme. Three respondents mentioned this. They, like I, had clearly developed an understanding of the importance of collaboration in learning. As already stated, I have made this a ninth theme in the revised version.


6.    That it would be helpful if there were some specific learning strategies woven in to the themes. I am not sure whether the respondent means learning or teaching strategies. I have some difficulty in understanding how learning strategies could be woven more explicitly in to the themes. I have outlined a wide range of possible evidence to indicate effective learning in the section on evidence on page 15 of the document. I do think that discussion of teaching strategies is a natural component of any discussion about learning arising from use of this document. This links with another point raised by a member of the group.


7.    One member in the group asks about the relationship between this document on learning and a companion Guidelines on Effective Teaching. As I said earlier, this document does exist in my School. Together they are used to evaluate teaching and learning in different subject areas throughout the School. Someone else wrote the Guidelines on Effective Teaching. It needs to undergo the same critical review as the learning document and part of that review should consider how it reflects the Guidelines on Effective Learning. Here is a job for the future to be done in a collaborative way.


8.    An aspect that I had not considered prior to this validation exercise concerned the cultural dimension of the document. The group members are teachers in a wide range of cultures. There were doubts from some about whether the research instruments would work effectively as evaluative tools. For example, one respondent said that if students were asked to complete the student questionnaire they would respond positively to every category because they are culturally bound to agree with all that the teacher does. Though I cannot ignore the cultural dimension in my own School, I am satisfied that it does not invalidate the research instruments in this way.


This validation exercise was a useful way of gaining the perspective of critical friends. They have influenced my thinking about learning and about the design and uses of the Guidelines on Effective Learning. Had I been able to conduct the exercise again, I would have initiated a whole group discussion. This would have had the benefit of enabling the members of the group to talk through their responses and mediate them as a result. With their permission, I would have recorded the discussion on videotape so that I could have analysed it for key messages.




In Lesters words

"conclusions are pragmatic, temporary stopping-points which inform current action, as opposed to necessary generalisations or truths across time and space" (Lester 1997)

This assignment and the revised Guidelines that result from it are an indication of where my thinking is currently regarding effective learning within my own institution. The Guidelines, alongside the Guidelines for Effective Teaching, will be used to inform action through self-evaluation for the next two years. The content remains subject to enquiry and review. As at this point I am satisfied that the Guidelines are sufficiently comprehensive so that when implemented, they will give a clear picture of the effectiveness of learning within our School. The most significant change that I have made in this review is to add the section on collaborative learning. An interesting next step will be to compare them to the information on effective learning produced by OFSTED as part of the new Framework for Inspection from September 2003.


I will work be working alongside Heads of Faculty in a collaborative way to use the Guidelines to monitor and evaluate the effectiveness of the learning in their subject area. Each subject will be reviewed as part of a biennial cycle. The review will consist of lesson observations conducted by the Link Deputy Head and the Head of Faculty, work sampling by the same, interviews with students about the subject and questionnaires to students analysed by the Head of Faculty. The findings will be analysed and a report written jointly by the Deputy Head and the Head of Faculty indicating the strengths of the subject and areas for development.  A strategy will then be agreed for implementation to address the areas for development and this will include a programme for monitoring and evaluating the strategy using the Guidelines. As we develop our Middle Leaders in the School we will look to open up the debate on learning and empower them to review the Guidelines and develop their own documentation with research instruments that they can use. My role as Deputy Head would then be to moderate the judgements of the Middle Leaders.


This will encourage staff to develop their own theories of learning through a spirit of collaboration. This will go some way towards us becoming a learning organisation. I leave the last words to Fielding:

“Education is ultimately and immediately about teachers and students learning from and through each other in community. As learners/teachers and teachers/learners gain confidence in the sound and power of their own voices as persons, they realise that difference is not a precondition but a developing aspect of our shared, still forming humanity”. (Fielding 1996)
















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[1] Westwood St Thomas School is a mixed 14-19 comprehensive Upper School located in the most deprived ward in Wiltshire, UK.

[2] The development of the Guidelines on Effective Learning document was the subject of an earlier assignment that I did as part of my MA in Education with the University of Bath.

[3] Tutored by Paul Denley

[4] All changes made to the original document are written in bold text on the Guidelines.