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learner led learning research

This is a short version of a complex topic - you'll probably have to wait ages for the longer version! If you want a quick conformation of why learner led matters, this short video interview with Michael van Ostram (thanks Michael!) in one of our Spanish SEK school is honest and convincing. Maybe start with his comments... And here is a whole section, Spanish and English, narrating the UCJC / SEK learner led project that Michael was a part of.

And then, although there are many exceptions, and these are broad generalisations, roughly speaking I would identify three clear sequential phases in post-war educational research:

Globally, we are just into the last phase in scale, although there is plenty of prior work to confirm how effective it has been already. To unpack them briefly (I've kept the text short; you do need to view the 3 videos):

children as subjects: this short video from the 1986 EURIT conference in the Netherlands is illustrative - in 1984 the Macintosh appeared and I wondered just how much children could achieve with a consistent and graphical interface - so arranged sessions with mixed age children to explore just that. The children were the research subjects, and we learned plenty - beginning a strong lobby for them to have fully functioning software - which self evidently they were capable of harnessing - rather than the cut down "educational" stuff. We won that argument.

children as co-constructors: probably we could characterise technology as the Trojan Horse that opened the door to co-construction with children - often because they seemed to know more about tech-things than their teachers. In this later research (1993 - 2000) example, the Learning in the New Millennium Project, you will see from this short LiNM video that the conditions were created for a mixed age, on-line community of practice /of purpose, and we sat back to see what the children made of it, with Nortel's researchers. Great swathes of the progress - for example with digital video and animation - were developed in a dialogue with the children. This rare longitudinal project was a prime source of insight for the incoming New Labour government's policy on ICT which we helped to write, as we had helped parties before and after too.

children leading: The gains keep on getting better! Co-construction brought engagement, and some better ideas - child led brings ownership, full agency, reflective practice, engagement, broad based research... and some better ideas. Listen to these students from Lampton School in West London chatting about the classroom they created in a video we recorded to help inform university vice chancellors about their resultant expectations for Higher Education. Their teacher @julietteheppell protected their autonomy (read her popular free iBook about it! - it's a big download, but includes videos from the students themselves), but in particular hear their pride in what they have created. None of this was built on just their opinion - in every decision it was their research into what worked that informed their choices. Juliette's book tracks their gains in academic progress.

Let's explore Child Led further then...

When the learners lead - whether it is by observing and commenting on lessons, designing their learning spaces, managing sound and light in the school, and much much more, three positive outcomes occur:

firstly: many students researching ways to make learning better discover a lot of good ideas, and because learning is such a significant part of their lives, have wise views about what ingredients of effective learning might be harnessed to build a local recipe for success. The dialogue that results also helps them to appreciate the professionalism of some colleagues ("oh, now I understand why you try so hard to get feedback to us quickly").

secondly: the engagement with the task of making learning better is in itself hugely engaging. Students really care about making learning better, because it is their learning, and it is interesting. Engagement is, as a mountain of literature confirms, the secret to raising standards and making learning more delightful, as well as more effective. In @julietteheppell's project a parent emailed to say that:

" got to the point that she was in school all the time. Instead of having a row with her in the mornings, we stopped arguing about her being late in, but argued about her being late home, because she wanted to be working on the project in school"

finally: the inevitable result of all this is reflective practice in the students. Again, forests of papers on the power of reflective practice and meta-cognition in professionals - no surprise then that all those gains can be observed when we get reflective practice in the learners too.

So, more and better ideas, real gains in engagement, all the power of reflective practice - what's not to like?!

The Sutton Trust focussed on schools receiving the UK's pupil premium. Asking what was good use of the limited extra funding in terms of educational attainment? Well, it wasn't smaller classes, or homework. Professor Steve Higgins, Professor of Education at Durham University, and main author of the toolkit, said: "The aim is to help teachers make best bets, based on research evidence, which will help them improve the learning of their pupils.". So what worked?

"providing effective feedback on pupil's performance, encouraging students to think about their own learning strategies, and getting pupils to learn from each other. Implemented correctly, these approaches can increase pupils' performance by an extra eight or nine months in a school year for a very low cost, according to the guide"

So how do we action this?

Be clear: this is not asking children what they want, or what they think; it is asking them to be action researchers, to find out what has been effective elsewhere, to reimagine that in their own school context, and to be in a constant cycle of doing this iteratively. You don't do it once and then ossify - the constant here is not some new model of learning that emerges, it is the continued questioning of how good learning might be.

In every case, you need a budget. They will find the d iscipline of working down to a budget, or of having to fund raise, hugely helpful in making choices about the use of scarce resources.

An example:

In this SEK school in Spain the students had researched and understood the impact of noise on learning (see aural learning environments). Their beautifully designed - and well ahead of the game - school materials from the 1970s - thermoplastic floor tiles, concerete ceilings, parallel glass surfaces, and so on. They thought by reducing ambient noise the could make their learning spaces better, but where to prioritise their efforts?

Using a simple free app, a decibel meter (free for iPhone and Android - there are several available)

decibel meter on a phone

The students were able, at 9.00, 11.00, 13.00 and 15.00 to sample sound levels around the school and plot the levels on an ouline of the premises - colours for each step of 10 decibels (which is roughly a doubling of sound each time). By overlaying the colour maps they could see the sound peaks that were persistent throughout the day. the canteen was noisy, but only at meal times. Their identified a stairwell and beneath the stairs the sound peaked at around 100db. Cue research into what else is that noisy (a motorcuyycle race, a rock concert...).

So they thought this was a valued focus for their efforts and they tried a few things - we explored hanging soft materilas - rugs, sheets of egg boxes - vertically alongside the stairs, but the students suggested what you see happening in this image:

stair noise research

In short, two are standing top and bottom of the stair with iPads measuring sound levels (that free app again) whilst their collegues walk up and down the stairs, filming their feet as they go. The idea was to discover a quieter way of walking (as revealed by the decibel meter) and to then share it with the rest of the school (via the videos captured).

In practice the quieter way was to walk on "tippy-toes" - it was the heel hitting the stair that caused excessive sound - walking on "tippy-toes" meant the ankle was an effective form of suspension and noise levels fell siubstantially.

You can see the gains here: quieter school, noise aware reflective students, some good tech project work (and next building a Raspberry Pi noise alert light - flashes red if you walk to loudly?), student led, student solved. Ownership, better ideas... oh and even better learning in that quieter school.

As I was assembling this page, Chris Hopkins (@Mischievous78) at Hampden Park Public School in Tweeted to say this about his own learner led design project at Hampden Park School in New South Wales:

chris' tweet

and you can visit his students' progress with their library from here. I particularly enjoyed Chris' "they own this space" comment.

And a favourite from Silkeborg (in Denmarks)'s Thorning School is impressive at every level - I really liked the way the students' research of Skyping to other schools and swapping "effectiove iongredients" has led to a unique and effective local 'recipe" including a Skype Bar alongside the learning space.

Project Cycle

Just to reiterate the project cycle: this is what you ask them to do:

If you think co-construction is effective, just wait till you try learner led. Talking with a group of students who had led research into "making learning better" at their school I asked them for their top tips for others following in their footsteps. The said, wisely:

I'd agree - of course - with all of that.

Professor Stephen Heppell 2011, last updated for video file formats Friday, October 2, 2020 3:06 PM

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