What messages are we sending about learning?

Some educators make you think, challenge your assumptions and leave your head spinning with questions. Mark Church of Harvard’s Project Zero is one such educator. I spent an afternoon with Mark recently and left inspired and keen to seek answers to the challenges he posed. This post is a reflection on some of the questions that arose throughout the afternoon. Hopefully you will find that many of these apply to your setting too and that looking to answer them might allow you to refine the messages you send.  
The big question posed by Mark is one that lies at the centre of the research of Project Zero; "What messages are we sending our students about what learning is and how it happens?” The trouble with a question like this is that reaches into every aspect of what we do as educators. Our public facing values and aims are where we are likely to focus our attention. We would hope that we are sending messages about the value of learning, that it is an active process and one that should be a life-long goal. Somewhere in there we will state that learning involves change; the adoption of new habits and dispositions. Learning will be explained as a consequence of thinking, a process associated with attention, effort and motivation. We will have rhetoric about growth mindsets and we will encourage our students to value deep understandings rather than learning for recall. In our public and conscious messages about what learning is we are likely to hit all of the right markers. It is what happens behind the scenes though that has the real impact.
What do we do when we ask our students questions? What types of questions do we ask and what kind of answers do they require? Are we playing a game of guess what is in the teacher’s head or is there scope for a multitude of possibly correct answers? Do we require our students to think deeply with what they know? Do we call on the first hand raised or offer the time required for a more nuanced response to bubble forth? And this is just scratching the surface of the messages we send with our questioning techniques during class discussion. 
Who does the talking in our classrooms? Who does the thinking? Did the best thinking take place while the teacher wrote the programme? Is it the teacher who talks the most or is it the students? The answer to this question will reveal much about who is required to do the thinking in our lessons and subsequently who is doing the learning. It will also reveal the reality of learning as an active or passive process in our classrooms. Do we require more from our students than active listening and how can we be certain that even that is happening? Is our classroom a place of rich debate where ideas are argued, analysed and torn asunder? Do we encourage our students to take risks, to share their ideas, to argue with evidence and show healthy skepticism or is it clear that there is but one source of truth in the room?
What do our assessment processes say about learning? Do our students leave our rooms excited by the new concepts and skills they have mastered or the percentage increase they achieved on an exam? Are our students evaluated by the teacher or is self-evaluation an essential part of their learning? Can our students articulate what they do well, what they can improve on and how they might do so? Are our students excited to receive feedback and value it as a part of their learning or do they dread the moment when papers are handed back? Are our assessments aligned with our beliefs about the conditions required for learning or an artificial subset of what it truly requires?
When do we talk with our students about how they learn? Do we empower them with tools for self-reflection and metacognition? Do we have rich conversations about the many factors which make learning successful? Do we share stories with our students about how we learn and what we do when faced with challenges and road-blocks? Do our students see us as learners or as ready-made experts in every field? 
What do want our students to do when they learn? This was Mark’s follow up question. Again it raises many questions but the key point is that we should seek to ask our students this question. Will they mention that we expect them to think, to pose questions, activate prior knowledge, seek collaborations, argue with evidence or will they believe that we want them to get the answer right and remember their homework.
How can we take more notice of the culture of our classrooms and what it communicates to learners about the value of thinking? - This question brought it into sharp focus. The messages we send to our students about thinking and with it learning are conveyed most strongly through the culture of our classrooms. Shiny brochures, mission statements and philosophies of education are all very well but the culture of our classrooms tell the truth. 
by Nigel Coutts