Tag Archives: climate

The Appearance of Learning** (‘We must be seen to be doing…’)

Italiano: Maschere veneziane - Baùta

Italiano: Maschere veneziane – Baùta (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

We have just returned from an inspiring two weeks in Stirling with two groups of dedicated practitioners. We have had a number of conversations which generated ideas for blog entries. However, the ‘appearance of learning’ became the ‘pebble in my shoe’ and now it’s time to get it out!

In teacher training college, I (Andrew) had an hour-long lecture on the display of learners’ work. I still remember the lecturer saying, ‘informative, interactive and, wherever possible, 3-dimensional’. We were informed of the pros and cons of ‘double-mounting’ and why staples were preferable to drawing pins as fixings. We were never informed of the truth about classroom display…and the politics involved.

There should have been a practical workshop on ‘Backing Paper’ – how to put it on display boards without tearing, creasing or ‘bubbling’ it…and how to get it perfectly horizontal! Oh, the trials that face the newly-qualified teacher! (Also, where do all the blue ‘Bordette’ rolls disappear the day after they arrive in the stock room…when they subsequently never appear on anyone’s walls?) There should be a module on writing loan agreements for staple guns.

For me, classroom display is a multi-purpose tool to celebrate, inform, inspire, involve, engage. However, it should always have the learner as the focus not the teacher (or the headteacher!). It is not the same as decorating your living room!

 Classroom display should not be ‘wall-paper’. One purpose is the celebration of learners’ effort and achievement. However, achievement should not be equated with ‘perfection’. It is a snapshot of their learning at a point in time. 

 The reason for this blog arose from a discussion where some practitioners mentioned that school policy dictated that only ‘perfect’ work could be displayed in their schools. Written work could not be displayed which had spelling mistakes, poor grammar or sub-standard handwriting. Graphic work would not be displayed unless it conformed to a ‘model’ demonstrated by the teacher – so was often ‘improved’ by adults (without the learners giving consent or being present). These are displays of work which have the ‘appearance of learning’. 

 Believe me, I do understand where this motivation is coming from. Schools which are aiming for excellence believe that displaying only ‘excellent’ products will create an aspirational culture. I think there is definitely room for celebrating high quality work but not at the expense of the truth. Shouldn’t we be honest about variation and engage the learners in a dialogue about the progressive nature of quality? Encourage aspiration by all means but engage learners in an honest way of achieving their goals. Otherwise, isn’t this the same mentality as ‘We are judged by our grade results. Therefore we only examine learners who achieve high results. We are judged to be a high performing school…by appearance.’

 A concerned practitioner expressed how her display of students’ work did not look perfect but was accompanied by students’ annotations which indicated that they were aware of what they had achieved but were also aware of what their next steps would be. For me, this is a ‘display of real learning’. It shows students engagement and makes the learning ‘visible’. It is not merely the ‘appearance of learning’.

 Like most things in life, I think the answer is balance. Some schools will go to the extreme of having only student work on display. I think there is nothing wrong with having engaging and informative ‘commercial material’…as long as it is engaging and of interest to the learners! However, I have also seen the other extreme where a classroom was ‘plastered’ in commercial posters and pull-outs from teaching publications. Information overload…no student work. No celebration of learning.

 Once, I had the experience of an enthusiastic headteacher showing me a classroom as example of excellent display . Wow! It was colourful, informative and lots of 3-D creations. A few commercial posters, a bulletin-board, class rules. Signs with beautiful lettering which had been painstakingly cut out, double-mounted and laminated. There was NO student work. None. Later, I gently pointed this out to the headteacher. She had never noticed. It may have been a ‘beautiful’ environment for the students to exist in but there was no student ownership. No sense of ‘our’ classroom. It was very much the teacher’s classroom. This gave the ‘appearance of learning’ but in reality there was no evidence of it. Not a scrap – except that the teacher had learned some interior design tricks. Another extreme.

 Balance. Teachers are part of the class learning community. Why shouldn’t they have some of their ‘work’ on show if it enhances learning and the learning environment? Or, like many teachers, be a co-creator of a display of learning.

 When I was 11 years old, my teacher ‘gifted’ us a display board. We populated it with our artwork, origami models, magazine clippings. She taught us how to mount work and design labels. We shared things that we valued and never abused the opportunity. She must have been way ahead of her time. 

 I have never witnessed this as a negative extreme. However, I imagine a classroom where learners select all the display but there is never teacher engagement about quality would be as bereft of ‘visible’ learning as a ‘perfection only’ classroom. 

 Balance. If space allows…why not have displays created solely by learners; displays of learning co-created with teachers; samples of high quality product to inspire and samples of ‘visible’ learning showing progression; and also some information from the world outside. Inspire, inform, engage, involve, celebrate.

 Finally, one of my most hated phrases is ‘we must be seen to be doing’ – usually before some type of school inspection. Huge amounts of time and energy wasted on creating the appearance of something happening, which in day-to-day reality is not. Time and energy that could be spent on managing change positively rather than resisting it (…but appearing not to). I am not saying that all change is good but it is inevitable. We need to be responsive as opposed to reactive. I believe changes should be challenged and honest debates held – especially where changes are imposed to score political advantage points.

 However, that will not happen while inspection systems create a climate of fear and make snapshot judgements based on the ‘appearance of learning’. Results can be achieved without ‘real’ learning taking place. ‘Appearance of learning’ culture is transmitted through current hierarchies. Ultimately, we all lose out and our education system continues to be incongruent with the values most of us espouse. Or, do we just have the ‘appearance’ of an education system?


**Thanks to Eddie Schulberg for the phrase ‘appearance of learning’. 


Filed under Education, Learning, Quality Learning, Reflective Learning, Single Steps Learning, Values