New approach puts the object of learning back into focus
WHEN LAI MENG-CHOO, teacher development consultant at the Hong Kong Institute of Education, spent her time in the classroom more than six years ago, teaching for her meant reading the textbook.
She rarely gave thought to whether her students understood what she said in class until she adopted a new teaching and learning approach that illuminated gaps in their knowledge.
Learning study, inspired by a century-old Japanese way of teaching, is the brainchild of a group of dedicated educators in Hong Kong led by Lo Mun-ling, head of the Centre for Learning-study and School Partnership at HKIEd.
'Each student,' Dr Lo said, 'has his or her own way of seeing an object of learning. Different perceptions result in different learning outcomes.'
She said some students underperformed because they had a poor understanding of what was to be understood, and learning study helped them by putting the object of learning back in focus.
'The key to effective learning is not to provide a good learning environment or overwhelm students with activities, but to handle the content of learning to ensure students discern the critical aspects of the object of learning,' she said.
Learning study consists of teachers and education researchers getting together in weekly meetings to choose an object of learning from the curriculum, identify critical features (often meaning difficulties students have in understanding a topic), formulate lesson plans and evaluate classes.
Dr Lo explained: 'We carry out a pre-test to find out what students don't know about a topic and seek ways to address the problems. It often takes six or seven weeks to devise a lesson plan which teachers implement in class as experts observe and video tape. Students are then tested in a post-test immediately afterwards on what they are supposed to have learnt. Evaluation is ongoing and involves both teachers and researchers.'
Learning study was first experimented with in Hong Kong in 2000 when the University of Hong Kong and the Education and Manpower Bureau, later joined by the HKIEd, tried to revitalise two poor-performing primary schools. The EMB and HKIEd later carried out two projects to introduce learning study to about 90 schools. In September the pair launched a three-year initiative in 125 schools.
Ms Lai, who had taken part in learning study projects both as a teacher and a teacher educator, said she became more sensitive to students' needs. 'I now realise the importance of knowing my students. Learning won't be effective if we waste our time teaching stuff students already know.'
Brenda Lam Sze-man, a general studies teacher in Yuen Long Public Middle School Alumni Association Ying Yip Primary School, said teachers often took for granted what children did and did not know.
'It's important for a teacher to see from the students' perspective,' she said.
Not only does learning study alter the lens through which teachers perceive teaching, it also opens the way for students of varying abilities to develop.
According to Dr Lo, in general most students scored higher marks in post-tests, with those in the lowest quartile improving most, narrowing the gap between the higher and the lower-scoring pupils.
John Elliott, emeritus professor of education at the University of East Anglia and an external evaluator for an EMB-funded learning study project, said teachers made small changes to their teaching that had major impact on children's learning.
'Teachers continue to use a wider range of resources in planning lessons, and to engage pupils in a more active learning process than [previously],' he said.
But implementing learning study was not without problems. Teddy Tang Chun-keung, principal of the Hong Kong Management Association K S Lo College in Tin Shui Wai, said teachers' workload increased over the learning study period. Although most teachers were initially put off by the prospect of more work, they eventually came to realise its benefits, he said.
Another problem, Mr Tang said, was a shortage of experts drawn in to design and analyse pre-tests and post-tests, and to come up with ways to enable students to get a better grasp of the teaching material.
Dr Lo said schools should build teams of in-house experts on learning study.
Since 2002 the HKIEd had delivered intensive mentoring courses in which more than 1,000 teachers had participated, and was now running seminars for teachers and principals, she said. She suggested 10 to 16 pilot schools be supported as learning study models from which other schools could 'mirror and learn'.
Permanent secretary for education Fanny Law Fan Chiu-fun said at a recent conference on learning study that to pool resources, a centre should be established outside higher education.
Professor Elliott disagreed, saying learning study should be situated within higher education-based teacher education. He said the EMB should be a sponsor and user of learning study to facilitate the reforms.
For Dr Lo, a visionary principal was indispensable to keep the spirit of learning study alive. 'A good principal sees the need to develop learning study beyond a mere project, and hunts out resources to do so in the long term,' she said.