I’ve been giving some thought this week to some of the great myths of schooling and one of the greatest myths we need to dispel as a profession is “not every student can learn.”
I have experienced a deep seated belief in some schools that certain students are simply not capable of learning, or learning what the teacher purports to know they need to learn. It is often reinforced by leaders and the industrial structures of schooling that both expect, and institutionalise failure for certain groups of students.
I often ask parents if they expected their child to walk and talk and their immediate response is yes. But when I ask them whether they taught them in 45 minute periods using a whiteboard or textbook, the answer is a resounding no. They learned to walk and talk by doing the walking and talking, trying things; being encouraged to retry and so on.
Parents work with what they have to ‘tailor instruction’, which is why John Dewey believed that school life should be a continuation of the activities of home life.
If ever there was an example to dispel this, it would be the story of Ramona Pierson. Not only is it a powerful message about resilience and courage but about our capacity as humans to learn and re-learn. I encourage you to listen to her remarkable story and work on TED.
What I found fascinating was that it wasn’t a teacher who helped re-educate her but a group of senior citizens who came together in what Pierson refers to as ‘radical collaboration’ to teach her to speak and learn again. The group of seniors matched their skills and talents to her learning needs. We call it personalised learning and it was the catalyst for the incredible work she is doing now in education using data and algorithms to draw down just in time content and information for individual learners. It supports the view that there is no one size fits all model of schooling.
Pierson is using her science background and interest in data to understand the processes not the outcomes of learning. How do students learn, what modalities work best and what content is needed to build progressions?
Do we need to see a radical collaboration between science and teaching? Should we be working with scientists on how we can effectively personalise learning in today’s world? We have the tools but do we need to reinforce the connections between the art and science of teaching?
In her TED interview, Pierson talks about a pilot in Indiana called ‘The Power of You’, in which three students whose learning outcomes were not improving were exposed to multiple approaches to learning. At the end of six weeks, the students returned to school and had caught up with the rest of the class. What was unprecedented was that the three students were able to tell their teachers which modalities worked best for them. The students were not only in control of their learning but they became confident learners in the process. Personalised learning is about giving power to the learner and that is a powerful lesson for all teachers.
The myth that ‘not every student can learn’ is well and truly busted; Ramona Pierson is living proof.