Learner orientation

What are the drivers for learner orientation?

It’s helpful to think of learner orientation in two ways: firstly, how does the learner orient themselves toward learning? And secondly, how does the school and community orient themselves towards supporting that learner?

Let’s look at the first one. For a long time, learners oriented themselves toward the end point of learning — the outcome, the grade, the qualification. It was assumed that if the learner emerged from school with a credential or certificate, that would open doors for them as they made their way through the world. And for a long time that was true — if you got school certificate or a degree, you could use that to secure a job and then learn all of the other required skills while in that job.

But now there are so many people with qualifications (this generation is the most highly qualified we’ve ever had) that having a credential or qualification is no longer enough. Tony Wagner, Harvard Professor of Innovation says, “... the world no longer cares about what you know. What the world cares about is what you can do with what you know.”

What is the impact of this trend?

The various New Zealand curriculum documents have anticipated this shift toward actionable knowledge really well and all of them emphasise the importance, of learners orienting themselves towards not just knowing, but also towards doing. Applying our knowledge to make a contribution to our schools, communities and the wider world. Think of something like the key competencies in the NZC- participating, contributing, relating to others, making meaning. But when the NZC came out, there were a lot of people who flipped through the front half quickly in order to find the things that were comfortable and familiar to them: the achievement objectives, organised by learning area. The spirit of the NZC is to think about teaching learners, not subjects, and many people are going back to the front half now and thinking about ways to honour that spirit.

Which brings us to the second way of thinking about learner orientation: the way that schools are orienting themselves to support learners. When many of our current teachers were in formal education themselves, schools operated like benevolent dictatorships: teachers chose the right material and level of difficulty for the majority of the class and planned accordingly. I can still remember the old manilla folders and overhead transparencies my teachers would use, dog-eared after year after year of use, sometimes teaching the same course to first parents and then their children when they eventually arrived. But the more we learn about the brain and effective pedagogy, the more we know we need to meet all learners where they are, not where we’d like them to be.

Everybody brings with them different levels of experience and interest when they arrive at class, and while some things need to be coherent and consistent, many other things need to be personalised. Frameworks like Universal Design for Learning encourage us to think about how different learners need things represented to them in order for learning to stick: reading written material, listening to a story, looking at a picture. Or different ways of expressing their knowledge- does everyone need to write a paragraph or an essay to demonstrate that they understand this concept? Or can they tell you orally? Could they make an animation or a short video? If we’re looking to maximise outcomes for learners, and the point is to have them demonstrate their knowledge, why would we put barriers in the way of some learners? These examples are reminders of how we’re working toward orienting ourselves towards learner need.

Implications and challenges

Wisely, some schools are taking a systems thinking approach to this view of learner orientation, recognising that in order to make progress, they need to reconsider,  not an individual component, but all of the elements we put in place to cause learning to occur:

  • Pedagogy: how we teach. How we orient ourselves to meet learner preferences, and these preferences change through a sequence of learning.
  • Curriculum: what we teach. How much is determined by the school and the curriculum documents, and how much space is left open for the students?
    Assessment: how can we give students more control and ownership over what counts as evidence of learning?
  • Community: How do we tap into the learning opportunities and resources that exist in our communities
  • Physical environment: If spaces are not designed to command and control, but to activate learning in all its many different forms, what physical environments are needed?
  • Technology: what role does technology play in personalising learning? How can it make teachers lives easier so they can focus on the most important thing?

Out of all of these, technology is probably the fastest moving, with the changes that are taking place at the moment, the web,  adaptive learning and creativity tools. What we’re increasingly coming to realise is that it’s not any one of these that will make a difference, but the interplay and the relationships between them all, and more importantly how we can look at the physical environments as an activator for this interplay. By taking existing or new physical environments that allow a much closer focus on learner orientation and what learners need in order to ramp up their learning, we will see schools move further and further away from the isolate, single-cell type classroom that has dominated schools for a long time.

We’re seeing teachers starting from their pedagogical vision of what powerful learning looks like for the learners sitting in front of them, and begin to give them more space to build and make things, or find a quiet corner to get their head down, or get outside to do something or gather data, to work with a teacher on a piece of targeted direct instruction.We call them modern learning environments, or flexible, open, agile environments, but really they’re just environments that allow us to orient ourselves towards the needs of learners.

Learn, participate, and share

CORE staff are using Bundlr to collate links to articles and information relating to learner orientation in a Bundlr collection. There is the option for you to choose to follow the growing collection over the next few months.