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The Importance of Learning Conversations

by Jacqui Zervos
Executive Director Educational Innovation

I have often written about the importance of the School’s focus on helping students develop self-regulatory and metacognitive capacities. These processes require students to take ownership of learning and possess mental strategies to plan and evaluate the quality of their engagement and what they produce – two capacities often identified in educational research as having a significant influence on student outcomes.

I am pleased to report on an important activity conducted this week that supports this focus. Students in Years 7 to 12 were involved in learning conversations with their Form Tutors to encourage reflection on their academic performance and progress, and to support them in setting and achieving their goals. While the outcome of the conversation for each boy is important (the stated goals and planned actions), the process itself is equally valuable.

We have learned a great deal over recent years working towards students using their personal data more effectively. As a result, Head of Learning Analytics Mr Nick Holland and his team have committed much thought and effort to reviewing and refining the data dashboards students analyse and use to prepare for their conversations, as well as the learning conversation process itself. Students are encouraged to access and consider a wide range of data about themselves drawn from the academic, cocurricular and wellbeing areas. While they were engaging in this process and making preparations for the conversations, so too were Form Tutors who took time to consider each student’s data and, working with Heads of Year, planned for the meetings in advance to optimise the time spent with students.  

Each student developed his individual learning plan to start the discussion, declaring individual learning goals and the specific actions and behaviours he will commit to in pursuit of these goals. Throughout the course of the conversation, students were challenged to fully consider whether their goals were relevant and realistic, and their actions achievable. As a result, some students may have been encouraged to make adjustments or refinements to goals or actions, to ensure their plan is coherent, focused and practical.

Form Tutors will stay in regular informal contact with students about progress on their goals and this formal school-wide event will be repeated again next semester to ensure ongoing reflection and adjustment as the year progresses.

Over time, we seek to build students’ abilities to acquire skills in accessing and analysing their own data, and to take individual responsibility for developing, actioning and reflecting on their progress. Parents are able to support their son through the following actions:

  • Ask him to explain the learning plan he has developed and encourage his active engagement in the process
  • If the plan changed as a result of his conversation with his Form Tutor ask him to talk through how he reached a decision to change his plan
  • Encourage him to act on his learning plan and check in with him periodically

Parents can also help nurture self-regulation and metacognition by offering praise focused on process, learning and effort, and not on product. For obvious reasons this approach is very important and one that is central to developing a positive learning disposition. It is helpful to be conscious of our use of language when discussing learning with students so the focus is on the value of learning and not the production of work. Often in our language we can unconsciously focus on a task as something to get done quickly and tick off as completed. When talking about the learning plan and the actions to be undertaken, remember that learning is the goal.

Another effective approach is to challenge and not rescue your son when the learning journey gets tougher or the plan goes off course. If he encounters difficulties, don’t jump in to solve the problem and save him. If you do, you teach him nothing other than he doesn’t need to persist because you will come to the rescue when called upon. This can be very hard for parents because it’s naturally not very pleasant watching your son struggle, but I need to stress that it will pay off if handled well. Refer your son back to his goals and the actions in his plan if necessary and ask questions that will help him develop independence and responsibility for his own learning so he can think through a problem, and identify and choose the course of action to move him forward. The language needed here is of encouragement, not solution. If he continues to struggle, the approach should shift to him seeking the appropriate help he needs to seek at school and then monitoring and encouraging along the way.

Heads of Year and Form Tutors are committed to working with students to assist them to use data to facilitate personal growth.

BGS Publications

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