F17 Developing a language for learning

F17 Developing a language for learning

More Teaching Procedures 1st Edition, page 45
January 2012

Principle of teaching for quality learning 11 (see Principles of teaching for quality learning) runs as follows:

11.  Regularly raise students awareness of the nature of different aspects of quality learning.

This is a key aspect of learning how to learn. Students typically have no vocabulary to discuss learning. It is very helpful to build a shared vocabulary and shared understandings by regular, short debriefing about some aspect of the learning that has just occurred. Having a rotating student monitor of a short list of good learning behaviours can be very helpful.

The procedure of developing a language for learning is central to implementing this strategic principle and, as such, is much more medium to long term than most of the others in that it refers to teachers setting out to build in their classroom a shared vocabulary for different aspects of learning and sometimes teaching.  In doing this, teachers are encouraging students to engage in the difficult task of reflecting on and talking about learning experiences.  It is hard to reflect on good and poor learning experiences if we do not have a shared vocabulary and many PEEL teachers have realised the value in agreeing on terms that might better describe learning experiences and learning actions in a classroom context, eg,. fat versus skinny questions, linking, literary sociogram, good listening (which does not just mean being quiet).  In the meeting reported in Insights From the primary PEEL Collective Meetings, the (primary) teachers at the meeting realised that the biggest change in their practice had been in how they talked to their students about learning and the tasks they set and the shared "Language for learning" that they developed.

The articles grouped under this procedure describe teachers and students thinking and searching for the words that express important features of learning. The articles also include invitations and encouragement to the reader to continue to clarify what is important for their colleagues and students.

This procedure overlaps with F16 Student generated list of good learning behaviours, however in F17, the vocabulary may include terms for things other than good learning behaviours such as aspects of thinking, or teaching procedures and the terms may also not be generated by the students, but introduced by the teacher.  It is important to do this gradually and preferably after students have had a concrete experience of the aspect of learning or teaching that you wish to provide a label for. Bree Moody s article (Learning about Learning) documents her experience of doing this.

Damien Toussaint  (A student centred Parent Teacher interview) extended his work with students on developing a language for learning to parents. During parent teacher interviews students had to share their learning not just of content, but of good learning behaviours and procedures, with their parents. This shifted the focus from the parents asking typical questions about their children s spelling to how they have approached their learning.

A shared language for learning changes how teachers can introduce activities by including in the introduction discussion of the learning/thinking purposes of the activities.  This has been particularly noticeable when teachers are introducing a Sequence of procedures (see F32), where it is important that the students are clear on the different purposes of the different procedures in the sequence, the ways by which they are linked and the logic of the order.  Sarah Foley (Project Time: Aaaaargh! Fat and Skinny Questions Save the Day) found that having a shared language for learning enabled her to quickly solve a problem of classroom management.

Jo Osler and her colleagues (Developing models of effective learning) have developed models of learning which capture the important terms and understandings that reflect the shared language of each of their classrooms.

The article PEEL: Making more sense of teaching and learning discusses how PEEL helps both teachers and students make sense of classroom practice along new dimensions; what follows is one of the dimensions for students:

A teaching and learning dimension


All of the above points have consequences for both developing and using a shared language for learning.

Developing a shared language takes time. Sarah Foley (Where we ve come from, where we re at and where we want to go.) worked with her class over an eighteen month period. In the beginning this involved telling the students the names of the learning procedures that they were using in class, and having some informal discussion about how the procedures work, and what thinking they encourage, or what they do to information (e.g. summarise, compare).  This progressed to more formal verbal and written reflections that occurred on a very regular basis. As the students became more competent and confident in discussing the range of learning activities, Sarah moved to more sophisticated discussions of learning.

Jo Osler (Using the interactive whiteboard to promote reflection) takes photos of students working in her classroom. She then first asks students in the class not featured in the photo to annotate the photo on the whiteboard screen with what they think about the learning that is taking place. Then she asks the students featured in the photo to share (and record on the photo) their reflections about what was really happening. Jo reported that initially students made comments about the physical actions that were captured, but, as students develop more effective reflective skills and have built richer understandings of what effective learning involves and looks like, their comments begin to reflect this development; â??I was checking the criteria and making a decision about when to move on,â??... â??Sam looks like heâ??s enviro walking and looking for ideas to help with his literary socio-gram.â??


These comments are then placed in student portfolios. In this way students develop understandings of the learning process and simultaneously develop a language for describing their learning.


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