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Radical new approach to learning failure

Radical new approach to learning failure

Two Massey University education researchers are pioneering a radical approach to learning failure – a problem impairing the lives of one in 10 schoolchildren.

In some, usually poorer low-decile, schools up to 25 per cent of children are in a so-called “cognitive cul-de-sac” and the problem is getting worse, say Associate Professor John Kirkland and Dr David Bimler from the College of Education.

“Many classrooms have stalled students,” says Dr Kirkland. “Our view is that in their current mind-sets they’re unable to proceed. “In addressing this, what we are doing is beginning from a different place,”

“Many of these students have been misguided, they come from extremely demanding living conditions where the main focus is upon personal survival, they are fearful and constantly on the look-out.

“In such circumstances, they become emotionally exhausted and as a result there is no room left for thinking, exploring without fear, or asking questions without put-downs.”

The researchers say it’s not surprising that these students unwittingly elect to withdraw any good will from formal education and the students have long given up making any attempts to grapple with impossible intellectual demands.

“When you have poor achievement at the level of at least 10 per cent then society suffers. You have a serious problem to address, and one that isn’t getting any smaller. It’s like global warming. Except instead of environmental catastrophe it’s much more personal.”

Drs Kirkland and Bimler aired their radical approach at the recent New Zealand Association for Research in Education National Conference held in Rotorua. Their paper, “Learning Recovery”, outlined some key themes such as direct perception, visual analogies and bridging the feeling-thinking divide.

“We’re born to be inquisitive,” Dr Kirkland says. “Exploration and curiosity are fundamental to development. When this is stifled, we cease to use our initiative, and this is critical for learning because without it, we cease to grow and we lose our capacity for learning. Every pre-school educator takes this for granted. What we’ve done is to place these activities into a broader theoretical frame.”

Activities involving memory and identification games, expand pupils’ basic judgements and discriminations – all of which, according to the researchers, are trainable skills.

In one example, students are shown a series of line drawings that have exact matches. Students are asked to identify and group those that are the same. Then the matches are removed and they are asked to group the remainders with those that are similar.

“We use visual analogies to explore the skills we use every day,” Dr Kirkland says. “We have mapped out in our minds how to differentiate basic things, but we need to build on these skills in order to build our own maps. “It’s about taking an ecological approach to education which encourages discovery-based learning. It doesn’t assume that basic skills needed to learn curriculum-based material are there from the start, because when it isn’t, there’s no hope of making progress.”

Drs Kirkland and Bimler say from the hundreds of projects, short-term pilot-studies and extended trials, school failure remains. This is definitely nothing to do with the efforts of dedicated teachers trying hard in difficult situations. “Our approach is not going to solve this matter. But the evidence is quite clear it’s time for both investment and commitment to a new approach to these issues, rather than pushing reading, writing, and arithmetic on students based on assumptions of their cognitive skill levels.”

The researchers say there is a need to unlock the capacity for learning in non-achievers, and that resources and techniques need to be developed which enable it to happen. At this stage they are focussing on failure among students in the 9 – 12 age range. “It’s important that this takes place in the pre-pubertal phase, before growth-spurt hormones kick in and begin to flow, prior to critical chemical changes within their development. Because once that’s occurred then whatever was going on before tends to become hardened and more resistant to change.”

The next step in this undertaking is to work with schools, finding out how to apply this theory and research to the design of grass-roots programmes for “key-starting” these students. The idea is to spark the necessary curiosity that is natural to students, and kindle this as a means for introducing them to the wonder of learning.

“Of course this is not to deny the importance and need for acquiring other necessary skills such as numeracy and literacy in educational contexts like homes, pre-schools and schools. Our point here is that there is another, less travelled route, and that can make all the difference.”


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