The purpose of this essay is to look at the ways in which a child retains information, how that information is processed and the possible barriers involved. There will be some focus on the theories of learning and the strategies and practices employed in the classroom. At this juncture it must be stated that ‘ensuring’ may be an ambiguous word, and that ‘enabling’ the understanding may be more precise, as no matter how vociferous the intention to ‘ensure’ there will always be pupils who fall through the net or may even have developed their own strategies to cope with not understanding yet leading the teacher to believe they have. Surely the answer to this statement must begin with good ‘communication’. It is recognised that communication is a ‘two way process’, starting as far back as pre-birth as stated by Elisbeth Hallett in her book ‘Soul Trek Meeting our Children on the Way to Birth’ (1995).
If this idea is to stand the test of time, the pupils must therefore be given the opportunity to verbalise their level of understanding before a task is attempted. This relatively obvious procedure may not be possible in pupils with any existence of special educational need. Difficulties affecting the brain’s processing ability and auditory impairment may not always manifest themselves but will result in poor communication (Dittrich and Tutt, 2008). Therefore the need for effective two communication and pupils feeling empowered to be able to ask for help becomes a priority in teaching. Ed Balls (2007) states ‘effective communication and language skills are fundamental to young people’s learning, developing social skills and fulfilling their potential’.
Whatever the age of the learner, the cognitive ability, the language or SEN barriers, good clear, age specific, decipherable communication must be the key to understanding. Piaget (cited Pound, 2005) believed that children learnt in stages dependent on age and awareness of their environment and surroundings. These stages will also impact on the ability for a child to understand an explanation. Therefore before logical thinking arrives at around 7-11 years of age, visual, tactile clues and instructions, will be more easily absorbed. However the need still exists to enable understanding of the need to progress on to attempting and succeeding. Creating that perfect classroom setting where the teacher delivers the starter and instructions and the class independently commences the task without any clarification is an ideal not often witnessed.
This could be for many reasons; the class size, noise levels or even visibility of the teacher. Psychologists such as Maslow (1954) talk about the 5 levels of need in life, from the very basics of environmental issues to self-actualisation and problem solving. Therefore being conscious of these factors, room layout, and temperature, even lighting, may influence the ability to understand and disseminate instructions independently. These physical ideals are not always possible, given the large number of pupils in the classroom. As reported in a study by the Dfe (2011), ‘research findings from England show that in smaller classes, individual pupils are the focus of a teacher’s attention for more time; there is more active interaction between pupils and teachers; and more pupil engagement’.
Taking all these possible barriers into account and the different learning styles that exist, it is paramount therefore to create the correct atmosphere conducive to learning in the classroom. Planning should incorporate this and the use of good vocal skills will promote confidence and assertiveness (Bruce, 2005). Instilling a sense of self belief and esteem that encourages children to engage and be able to ask for help or explanation. However despite all these strategies being in place it must be noted that levels of understanding will differ and aiming the teaching at the correct level of ability is essential. Froebel (cited, Pound 2005) states ‘to begin where the learner is’. A valid statement that is underpinned by most theorists who believe that cognitive understanding relates to developmental stages in age and maturity. Piaget believed that learning was supported by action. That thought is developed by experiencing and active experimenting. With the knowledge of all the impediments in place let us know consider the classroom strategies available. A tried and tested method is to ask the pupils what they think their course of action will be. For example ‘what do you think I want you to do when you have read through the text?’. (Case, 2010).
This in itself for some, may take some coding and decoding and therefore present vast possibilities of misunderstanding (Denby, 2012). Obviously the message has to be first ‘coded’ by the teacher , in other words putting it into a form that can be understood, this may be visual or written. As many theorists claim however, interpretation of the spoken word is not only auditory. Approximately 35% of meaning is in the way it is actually said and a further 55% in body language and facial expression (Mehrabian, 1971). Highlighting as previously mentioned the importance of the positioning of the teacher in the room and the classroom layout. If the pupils cannot see the teacher, they may miss important facets of the instruction that will then mean them having to fill in the gaps by guessing. As Piaget states ‘ learning is a process of active discovery’ (Piaget sited MacNaughton, 2003). As teachers there is a need to facilitate the understanding by firstly using age and ability levelled speak.
If the cognitive level is pitched too high there may only be a small number of the class that understand. Merely asking “do you all understand ?“, is as good as useless as Swift (2007) demonstrates. This question will leave those that haven’t understood too shy to admit it and some that think they have understood but may in fact have not. A more successful way would be to ask them to repeat back the instructions, making sure a less able pupil is asked so there is a better gauge of the whole class and not just the brightest pupils. It may be a practical task that two pupils could demonstrate to show their level of understanding, or if it’s a written task, they might offer the answer to the first question for instance.
A further method for tasks that are known to the pupils, ask them what they think they have to do. This draws on prior learning and offers the teacher information for future planning also. It may be possible to just give instructions for the first part of the lesson. Stopping half way through to do a mini plenary, and then giving the second set of instructions to finish the task can also help to pace out the amount of instructions being given. Having the explanation and expected outcomes within the Learning Intention that the pupils write in their books can offer help to those who may wander off track too. Or indeed having them all written on the whiteboard or displayed on the IWB. (1339)
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Denby, N. (2012) Training to Teach- A guide for students. London: Sage Publications.
Department for Education, ( 2011). Economics, Evaluation and Appraisal Team Education Standards Analysis and Research Division. [online] at : https://www.education.gov.uk/publications/eOrderingDownload/DFE-RR169.pdf
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