Reflecting on… A Model for a Learning Sequence

It was interesting to hear Mr Gibb blame teacher workload on education academics whom he described as being “invariably” the root cause of the problem.  This is in direct contrast to my own experience both of academics and of their impact.  The education academics I have met and worked with have never been driven by ideology.  They have invariably been greatly interested in how their ideas are applied in the classroom and keen to work in partnership with teachers to the benefit of learners of all ages.  Nor have I met academics who are not deeply aware of teachers’ workload and keen that their ideas make a positive contribution to getting impact for input.  Nearly all work closely with teachers in the course of their research and actively engage schools, teachers and other stakeholders in their research.  Furthermore, the vast majority have, at some time, worked as teachers and they retain and draw on a strong understanding of what a teacher’s life is really like.  The same, sadly, can be said for very few politicians with responsibility over educational policy.

Admittedly the application of academic research in the classroom is not always obvious.  This may be because it is designed to help us think and reflect rather than give ‘easy solutions’ to what academics recognise to be complicated problems.   This can lead to tempting simplifications of complex ideas and the impact is not always positive on either learning or workload.  However, this is generally the result of a complex interplay of factors, and far from “invariably” the fault of the academics.

More importantly, at other times, academics produce beautifully simple ideas with immediate relevance for the reflective practitioner.  (At this point they are just as likely to be condemned for ‘stating the obvious’ as praised for elegant simplicity!)

I was introduced to one such idea in a seminar by Dr Gill Boag-Munroe this weekend.  Amongst a review of theorists of learning she presented this beautiful and, for me, highly intuitive, model of a learning sequence by Professor Anne Edwards:



This clear and simple model may not look like much although it was a breath of fresh air as we were deep into Vygotsky and Engestrom.  Even when first conceived it may not have felt new and revolutionary in terms of changing or challenging teachers’ practice; but this could well be part of its genius.

Upon close examination it feels almost like something you could come up with yourself … though I never have.  It certainly seems to capture what I’m trying to do in my learning sequences.    But the acid test always has to be utility.  In most cases this means helping to clarify thinking and do things a little better – which is often much more applicable than radical changes in thinking and direction, especially in the middle of the school year.

In this case, reflecting on Edwards’ model  brought rapid clarity to a learning sequence that had not worked.  Thinking back to a sea of confused faces I experienced just last week, it highlighted for me that I had spent far too little time in stage 2 and been too keen to accelerate to stages 3 or even 4 for a variety of reasons.  This lack of structure had left the students unable to apply key concepts and reach the higher levels of thinking I seek for them and left me a little stumped going forwards.  I have now planned some more tightly structured tasks for our next lesson to help better scaffold them towards the more complex application.

Of course, Edwards does not say that you have to follow this in a prescriptive way either insisting that you start at box 1 or that you move through in order.  But this sequence would be the most typical.  I looked at the model to review some learning sequences I have planned for the next couple of weeks.  In two cases it suggested to me some tweaks I could make to improve the flow of learning.  For one sequence of lessons I could see clearly that I was about to repeat the same error and skip far too rapidly through “tightly structured” tasks which may well leave some or all of my learners struggling to apply the information in more open-ended tasks.  In another I feel that my assessment plans jumped to quickly from stage 2.  If learners are not given the opportunity to explore and apply learning in a risk-free way it is unlikely that they will really think about it and achieve the confidence with the material I would like, even if they do ‘pass’ the assessment.

I’m sure this model wouldn’t apply to all learning or appeal to everyone and no-doubt there are limitations which will become obvious with further use.  This is one of the main reasons why it is rarely helpful to turn any single, useful tool into a prescriptive requirement.  But for this weekend I was excited by the clarity the model gave my thinking and the immediate applicability of Edwards’ ideas.  If this is the kind of addition to workloads that academic research leads to then I remain open to hearing more of their ideas.

Questions that help me reflect on academics’ research and ideas:

  • How would this apply to my teaching, students and other contextual factors?
  • Does this speak to my current needs as a practitioner?
  • What can I do differently because of this idea and what impact would I expect it to have?
  • How much work is involved in using this tool or applying this concept and is it worth the likely outcome?

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