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MEP learning pack

Masters in Educational Practice: Literacy

4

Literacy and learning spaces

4.2

The pedagogical learning space

Before considering the physical learning environment, it can be helpful to think about how we learn and the ways in which this learning can reach its full potential.

This topic considers two ways in which the pedagogical learning space might be considered:

  • Theories of learning.
  • Learning literacy through talk.

Theories of learning

There are key learning theories which underpin the ways in which we learn and these can be observed in many classrooms and activities. In primary school much of the emphasis is meant to be on group learning and interaction which is based on the theory of social constructivism. However, in secondary classrooms, Skinner's model of behaviourism can be more commonly found.

A 'Theories of Learning' PowerPoint is available to support this activity.

Activity 4.2

Look at the ‘Theories of Learning' PowerPoint and familiarise yourself with the different features of each theory. You may need to read around each theory to support your learning from the slides.

The theories of learning can appear to be somewhat removed from the day-to-day learning and teaching but this is a myth. The following activity provides a bridge between your theoretical reading and your practice.

Activity 4.3

Theory to practice

Watch the following clip of a Year 5 literacy lesson and note down examples of different learning theories. Sometimes the theories overlap and interconnect but try and reflect on how the learning is taking place.

An example of a response can be found here.

Children learn best if the environment includes a variety of the theories of learning and there are some authentic opportunities for constructivism and socio-constructivism. It is these theories in particular which promote a love of learning and the potential for lifelong learning.

A few words about the Foundation Phase philosophy

The philosophy of the Foundation Phase aims to move away from the behaviourist approach and allows children the pedagogical and physical space to explore the world around them and understand how things work by taking part in practical activities that are relevant to their developmental stage.

The Foundation Phase places great emphasis on children learning by doing. Young children are given more opportunities to gain first hand experiences through play and active involvement rather than learning through teachers delivering information.

A best practice case study for the Foundation Phase (external link) and a more academic article on learning and teaching outside the classroom (external link) are available.

Activity 4.4

Phase swap

Organise an opportunity to go and observe the teaching of literacy in another phase/school to the one in which you teach.

Look at how the children learn the skills of oracy, reading and writing in relation to the learning theories. Try to focus on how the learning takes place rather than what the children are learning.

You may like to look at the opportunities for paired or group work, learner choice, investigative approaches and more open-ended outcomes.

Which approach seems to work best and why?

Learning literacy through talk

The fundamental importance of securing good levels of oracy cannot be understated and is reinforced by Estyn:

Research shows that early progress in reading and writing is dependent upon the learner's oral language development. Developing good oracy skills is therefore vital to success in learning to read and write for learners aged five to seven years of age. Around one in seven learners in Wales do not achieve the level expected of seven-year-olds in oracy. Difficulty in oracy limits learners’ progress in learning to read and write and in all other areas of learning.

Best practice in reading and writing (Estyn, 2009)

The importance of developing oracy skills as a precursor to teaching early reading is explored in Topic 6: Reading early. However, it is also worth considering how different types of classroom talk can help or hinder all aspects of the literacy curriculum. The types of classroom talk are closely linked to the learning theories and you may like to engage in some further reading around this area of practice.

Activity 4.5

Types of talk

Consider this quote taken from a seminal text.

Children need to be placed in situations where it becomes important for them to communicate- to discuss, to negotiate, to converse – with their fellows, with the staff, with other adults. This is how oracy grows: it is to be taught by the creation of many and varied circumstances to which speech and listening are natural responses.

(Wilkinson, 1965)

Reflect on a recent lesson and think about where the learners had an opportunity to participate in discussion, negotiation and conversation with a range of different people.

Were there any missed opportunities? Were the learning and teaching very teacher-led? Was there an over-reliance on independent work instead of learning from and with others?

Creating a pedagogical space where learning through talk is valued will support the development of literacy skills. However there is one element of this pedagogy which is worthy of further consideration and that is 'teacher questioning'.

Teacher questioning and literacy

Questioning is the most predominant way in which teachers engage learners in talk. However, it is an area which can be under-developed in practice and lead to a dominance of initiate-respond-feedback (IRF) types of exchanges. For example:

Initiate-respond-feedback example
Teach initiates Learner responds Teacher gives feedback
What do we call a describing word? Adjective Teacher gives feedback

In this example, the question requires the learner to remember facts without demonstrating any understanding or being given the opportunity to apply knowledge. It is a somewhat concerning statistic that the majority of teacher questioning functions at this level and does not move onto higher-order thinking or discourse.

One way of introducing and preparing higher-order questions is to consider the ways of thinking outlined in Bloom's Taxonomy.

Figure 1: Bloom's Taxonomy
Figure 1: Bloom's Taxonomy

The lower levels of the taxonomy relate to more recall/remembering/describing types of questions whereas the higher levels of the taxonomy relate to more sophisticated levels of thinking.

Using higher-order questioning in an intuitive way takes some degree of preparation and practice. You may like to consider using Bloom's Taxonomy Action Verbs (external link) and Bloom's Taxonomy Verbs (external link) support resources, which offer some useful suggestions for phrasing the higher-order questions.

Activity 4.6

Planning for higher-order thinking

Choose a very simple narrative, for example 'Goldilocks and the Three Bears', and plan a series of questions which link to the levels in Bloom's Taxonomy.

(Remember to invoke a response – you may just use a statement rather than a question.)

An example response to this activity is also available.

Once you become more familiar with the types of higher-order questions and the ways that they can be used to elicit responses from a range of texts, the learner's ability to engage with the more sophisticated levels of Bloom's Taxonomy will be more evident.

However, there are just a few points to note about common occurrences in professional practice.

  • Higher-order questions need to be planned into lessons.
  • Most teachers use 'remember and recall' types of questions as a default.
  • Using the word 'why' can be deceptive and does not necessarily explore higher-order thinking. It may just require a different level of remembering.
  • Not enough thinking time might be given (the average wait time for a response is three seconds before a teacher intervenes, prompts or moves on to another learner).
  • ‘Think, pair share’ generates better responses than the traditional hands-up.

For more information on higher-order questioning and reading, you might like to consult the Estyn Guidance on Literacy Inspection.

Summary

In this sub-topic you have considered the pedagogical learning space in relation to the theories of learning and classroom talk. You have thought about the quality of teacher questioning and how this potentially impacts on the acquisition of literacy skills. Both of these aspects are key topics in learning and teaching and you may like to develop your understanding by undertaking further reading, for example, Robin Alexander is a leading educationalist in examining classroom talk.

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