Elements of learning

What knowledge, concepts, skills, values and attitudes are to be learned in formal education?

Pupils at school acquire knowledge, concepts, skills, values and attitudes, and they do so through their work across the whole curriculum and beyond.

Knowledge and concepts to be learned are often suggested by national curriculum frameworks, and may be complemented by promotion of the skills and disposition of ‘learning-how-to-learn’. Some of these elements of learning, such as the basic skills of literacy and numeracy, are typically given priority in the formal curriculum.

Values and attitudes are no less important. Scotland’s Curriculum for Excellence is said to be underpinned by the values inscribed on the mace of the Scottish Parliament – wisdom, justice, compassion and integrity. However, the tacit messages that go out from the ‘hidden curriculum’ of everyday experience may have a particularly direct influence. Teachers thus have enormous responsibilities not just for the content of what learners may learn, but in contributing to the values and attitudes of our future citizens. Nor can this responsibility be declined, for pupils will develop values and attitudes in any event.

Curriculum

Balance: does the curriculum-as-experienced offer everything which each learner has a right to expect?

As HMI (1985) put it: 'A balanced curriculum should ensure that each area of learning and experience and each element of learning is given appropriate attention in relation to the others and to the curriculum as a whole’. If areas of learning are organised in terms of subjects, an appropriately balanced allocation of sufficient time and resources is crucial.

Elements of learning – knowledge, concepts, skills, values and attitudes – are taught within each curriculum area and again need to be balanced. Over-emphasis on knowledge or skills sometimes de-motivates learners and should be complemented by support for conceptual understanding and opportunities to develop personal perspectives. Such goals are clearly dependent on having an appropriate pedagogic repertoire.

Pedagogy

Repertoire: is the pedagogic expertise sufficiently creative, skilled and wide-ranging to teach all elements of learning?

Educational objectives are wide-ranging and the challenges of factors such as classroom space, pupil organisation, time, task, activity and routine are formidable. A range of teaching approaches is therefore required. Alexander (2008) suggests that three broad aspects of pedagogical repertoire can be identified:

  • organising interaction: whole class teaching, collective group work, collaborative group work, one-to-one activity the teacher, one-to-one activity with peers;
  • teaching talk: through use of rote, recitation, instruction, discussion, dialogue, etc; and
  • learning talk (by pupils): such as narrate, explain, speculate, argue, negotiate, etc.

To make provision for all elements of learning to be taught through classroom activities and tasks, teachers need to be confident users of a range of pedagogic approaches.

Assessment

Validity: in terms of learning, do the forms of assessment used really measure what they are intended to measure?

Assessing things that are easy to measure is not necessarily the same as assessing things which are educationally important – but it is tempting to do so none-the-less. In classrooms for example, it is routine to test forms of pupil performance, but much harder to assess deeper understanding. Learning is not always ‘on the surface’, so we have to find insightful ways of investigating and analysing.

In general, it is easier to assess knowledge and skill than it is to assess understanding and attitudes. The former tend to be more amenable to categoric questions and tests. Understanding and attitudes are likely to be revealed more through dialogue, discussion and demonstration and to require teacher interpretation of the available evidence. Again, to draw out these crucial elements of learning in valid way, a confident pedagogic repertoire is needed.