The Learning Study approach is a model for Teacher Professional Development engagement with teachers in the classroom. Learning study embraces an explicit learning theory, namely variation theory. This is a pedagogical theory for framing the learning experience and addressing the learning gap often evident in learners.
The theory gives teachers a language for explaining how learners respond in the class, thus enhancing their capacity for diagnosing learner misconceptions. The Learning Study pilot was funded by Capitec, and has had significant influence on the way future interventions have been planned at the Schools Development Unit (SDU). The outcomes have led to the extension of the theory to other subject areas, namely English and the Sciences.
The Schools Development Unit (SDU) is situated in the School of Education at the University of Cape Town (UCT). The SDU operates in the fields of mathematics, the sciences, literacy, and life skills—though school-based work, materials development, and teacher training—within the framework of the national curriculum.
By integrating cutting-edge theory with the dynamic context of the modern classroom, the SDU not only works to improve teaching practice, but also engages with NGOs, partner organisations, and government departments. In keeping with UCT’s reputation for academic excellence, the SDU’s work is driven by research, which contributes to national and provincial education policy and curriculum development.
The Field of Teacher Professional Development (TPD)
There are many service providers that work in the field of TPD. Generally, TPD work targets shortfalls in teachers’ subject content knowledge, pedagogic and classroom management skills. Traditionally the model for TPD has been to run teacher workshops and short courses. This has sometimes included in-school support for the teachers. The SDU has also subscribed to this model, with the inclusion of a part-time Advanced Certificate in Teaching (ACT), previously known as the Advanced Certificate in Education (ACE). This two-year qualification is an effective vehicle for re-qualifying teachers for a subject or grade that they have not taught before. ACTs are generally funded by external sources because teachers cannot afford the cost.
The traditional model of school-based projects delivered by the SDU has included:
- ACTs, short courses or workshops that focus of subject content and pedagogy
- In-school support, including classroom support
The disadvantage of this model is that often there is disjuncture between what is offered in workshops, and what teachers are currently teaching. This is inevitable because:
- Courses and workshops include teachers from different schools
- School visits span a few weeks. Inevitably some teachers would be teaching a different topic by the time their school visit occurs.
A Pilot TPD Project inspired by current research
The Learning Study approach is a model for TPD engagement with teachers in the classroom. Learning study embraces an explicit learning theory, namely variation theory. This is a pedagogical theory for framing the learning experience and addressing the learning gap often evident in learners. The theory gives teachers a language for explaining how learners respond in the class, thus enhancing their capacity for diagnosing learner misconceptions.
The learning study model is an extension of the lesson study model. It establishes the classroom as a ‘research space’ where teachers and education specialists can collaborate on how to cater for different learner needs in a large class. The teacher is empowered to design the learning experience in a way that enables learners to focus on the critical aspects of the object of learning. They do this by introducing appropriate patterns of variation. The theory is grounded in the principle of collaboration among teachers, to plan and reflect on lessons using a common vocabulary. In this way the theory builds a collaborative professional culture within the group of teachers. The theory has also being implemented in the University of Witwatersrand’s Maths Connect Secondary Project.
- Adler, J. (2015). Researching and Doing Professional Development Using a Shared Discursive Resource and an Analytic Tool. Accessed 06 July 2018 on https://files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/ED572495.pdf
- Kirkman, J. (2014). The Potential Of Learning Study To Enhance Initial Teacher Education And Continued Professional Development At The University Of Birmingham. Accessed on 02 July on https://www.birmingham.ac.uk/Documents/college-social-sciences/education/research-centres/U21-learning-study-report.pdf
- Pang, M. & Ling, L. (2012). Learning study: helping teachers to use theory, develop professionally, and produce new knowledge to be shared. Accessed on 02 July on https://www.jstor.org/stable/pdf/43574702.pdf?refreqid=excelsior%3A1fb65f8656456213327b539d477d1ea7
Principles of engagement
One of the advantages of providing a TPD programme at the site of learning is that the programme could be modified to suit the current content being taught. This eliminates the risk of disjuncture experienced in the traditional model of engagement. At the initial meeting with a school, the teachers identify the current content topic, which would be the context for introducing the principles of the learning study (LS) model. Teachers would then be able to apply these same principles to other content areas.
The first tenet of the LS model is collaborative planning. This implies that teachers of a grade sit together to plan the lesson. They share resources and skills. In our experience many teachers do not plan efficiently. We have regularly encountered lesson plans that consist of a text book page reference for the exercise learners will be given. The LS model demands a high level of specificity:
- The objects of learning (what exactly should learners be able to do at the end of the lesson?) Embedded in this is a deep engagement with the topic, particularly the content for the specific lesson
- Exemplification (the examples that will be used):
- To start off the lesson
- To develop the lesson
- To introduce a concept
- To ask questions
- To explain further
- For learners to practise/consolidate
- Language (what terminology will be introduced / encouraged?)
- Time (micro-planning of the time spent on each element of the lesson)
- Activity (When the teacher is in focus, what is the learner doing? When the learner is given something to do, what is the teacher doing?)
The second tenet is related to the first – the lesson belongs to all the teachers who were involved in the collaborative planning thereof. This eliminates the negativity associated with blame. Everyone is responsible for the decisions taken in the lesson planning space, and everyone acknowledges when something didn’t work well and collaborates on modifying that element of the lesson strategy.
The Learning Study short course
The course offered to teachers at the two schools was Using Learning Study for High School Mathematics Teachers. This SACE-approved NQF Level 6 short course was not conventional, because it included practical activities linked to the LS theory. The course comprised a set of lectures and discussions framed in the LS paradigm, based on a pedagogic theory, i.e. Variation Theory. Besides completing tasks linked to research papers, the teachers needed to demonstrate an ability to implement the theory to design, develop and reflect on detailed lesson plans that focused on the chosen objects of learning. Ultimately they were required to submit a portfolio that included an analysis of three academic readings, as well as lesson plans and reflection on five lessons.
Two schools were selected by the funder for the pilot.
At school A three recently qualified teachers signed up for the short course. Their level of experience ranged from one to three years. The school is well-resourced and the mathematics department is well-organised. There were isolated discipline problems but all the ‘pilot’ teachers had a reasonable measure of classroom control. The context for the short course was Grade 11 Technical Mathematics, with a focus on Angular Velocity. The teachers were eager to learn and afternoon reflection and planning sessions sometimes extended beyond 17h30. The school programme was predictable, which made our task manageable.
At school B initially five Grade 9 teachers signed up for the short course, but one fell out after the second session. The level of experience of the remaining teachers ranged from six years to more than 20 years. Teachers were not all teaching the same topic, which necessitated our negotiation to work with a topic that nobody had started yet, namely Probability. In addition, various community-related issues led to early school closure on two occasions, which impacted on the time table. Teachers were reluctant to meet beyond 16h00, which added to the challenge of meeting all the criteria of the LS model. Most of the time we were able to compensate for after-school time by meeting during free periods and intervals. The school borders on a gang-infested area, which impacts on classroom management, particularly in the junior grades. Teachers displayed varying success in strategies to cope with undisciplined classes, and some of the undisciplined learners showed good potential. Initial evidence suggested that introducing a more learner-centred approach has been productive.
Comments on the in-school experience
Working with teachers in their space yields different insights that one experiences in the workshop / short course environment.
School A, though a relatively well-resourced ex-Model C school, did not have working data projectors. Teachers relied on the text book as their only resource. The LS planning sessions challenged them to drill down into the content, particularly in determining the objects of learning. The process exposed some limitations in their own understanding of certain concepts and we introduced them to the wealth of resources available online. Particularly, we focussed on relevant resources aligned to variation theory.
Surprisingly, although they are tech savvy, none of the teachers had referenced YouTube or other online resources to clarify issues they might have needed help with. The school culture had entrenched the practice of not questioning the authority of the text book. The teachers found the experience liberating and have, since then, continued to extend their resources beyond the text book and become more discerning in their selection of resources.
At School B teachers were older and less open to change, although they were really keen to learn how they could change the classroom dynamics at the school. None of the teachers used the textbook slavishly. They were all au fait with the Internet as a resource, but our sense was that they sometimes used online resources indiscriminately. The initial engagements, particularly around lesson planning, were challenging.
Teachers could not make the paradigm shift to collaborative planning, and individual teachers persisted in introducing elements into lessons that were not part of the collaborative lesson plan. Ultimately the facilitators decided to extend the programme with an additional three days of lesson preparation, observation and reflection. This proved to be a successful strategy from which we learnt lessons for future implementation.
Ultimately the choice of schools for the pilot afforded us an opportunity to work with a cohort of inexperienced and experienced teachers respectively, and to pilot the model of engagement in very different contexts. We have reflected on the differences between the two cohorts, and recognise the need for differentiated orientation, workshop activities and support for teachers based on their level of experience and the context of the school. However, unless schools are well-managed and function optimally, there would be limited success because teachers would be less motivated to participate in a programme that makes demands on their time.
An initial evaluation of the programme indicates a measureable level of success. The measures used were analysis of the term tests, followed by a focus group meeting with the teachers.
Analysis of term tests
A detailed analysis was done of the Third Term Common Assessment. The test included a section on Angular Velocity, which was the content covered on the short course. As one of the four Technical Mathematics teachers did not attend the course, his class was used as a control group. In addition, this teacher had set the test, of which Angular Velocity comprised 16%. None of the course participants were involved with the drafting of the test questions. The graphs below show the performance of the three classes involved in the intervention, compared to the control group:
The data shows that:
- The control group had a better overall test score than any of the ‘project’ classes. However, on average, all ‘project’ classes performed better than the control group on the questions pertaining to Angular Velocity.
- Although Angular Velocity comprised 16% of the test, 68,4% of ‘project’ learners obtained more than 16% of their marks from the questions pertaining to Angular Velocity. Only 37,1% of control group learners followed this trend.
The outcome of term test did not lend itself to a fair analysis because:
- The phrasing of some questions was problematic and confused learners
- There were numerous marking discrepancies, some of which were linked to errors in the memorandum.
The HOD was made aware of the problems and undertook to amend inaccuracies in learners’ final marks. In addition, the Grade 9 teacher who did not participate in the programme, was reluctant to submit his class’s marks for analysis. This meant that we did not have a control group against which to measure the performance of learners.
Below is a graphic representation of the learner performance of the four teachers who participated in the pilot.
Although the analysis of the School B assessment task also indicates that the LS model of engagement has yielded positive results, we take a lesson from the problems experienced. From the School B experience we recognise the importance of including the topic ‘the setting of formal assessments’ as a workshop focus. We would also build in support for the setting of assessment items.
Teacher focus group
After the conclusion of the course, six of the seven course participants attended a focus group meeting where the programme was reviewed. Discussion was framed by two questions:
- To what extent did the process of collaborative planning benefit you?
- Has the course made you think differently about your practice?
Summary of teacher responses:
All teachers reported that the course / intervention impacted positively on their lesson planning and reflection practices. Teachers benefitted from collaboration and from the framework provided for these processes. The intervention was a genuine professional development experience and all of them have extended what they learnt to other spheres of their teaching. The teachers at School A have advanced their collaborative planning and reflection practices further than those at School B, but the latter are keen to catch up.
All teachers were honest about how their previous practice did not include meaningful lesson preparation and that they were indiscriminately dependent on the prescribed textbook as a resource. The teachers at School B had also used the 140 lesson plans provided by their curriculum advisor. Both groups of teachers indicated that they had become more discerning in their use of resources since doing the course.
The following issues were raised:
- There is much value in working with schools individually. The intervention will not have the same cultural impact if teachers from different schools work together.
- There is a possibility of including the intervention into the schools’ improvement plans (SIPs). Of the 9 focus areas, this project supports Quality of Teaching and Learning, as well as Learner Performance. Feedback of the pilot should be given to school management for this purpose. In addition, if the report were disseminated to the WCED, it could ensure buy-in at that level.
- Teachers do not have enough time for planning and reflection. High teaching load and extra-mural responsibilities are energy-sapping. The WCED Game Changer should consider meeting teachers’ need for time to collaborate. They should be freed from extra-mural activities on one afternoon per week for planning and reflection.
- Learners benefitted because all learners received the same lesson with the same examples. This gave them the opportunity to engage in cross-class discussions.
- Learners are thinking differently. There is evidence that they are showing signs of thinking about the mathematics, although they do not possess the vocabulary to verbalise their thoughts. The fact that they are thinking about the mathematics is a significant first step.
- Now that the pilot has ended, it is important to canvas those teachers who were not part of the intervention.
- The meeting confirmed that cultural shifts have begun in both schools, as evidenced by a spirit of collaboration and support for one another.
The Learning Study pilot has had significant influence on the way future interventions have been planned at the Schools Development Unit (SDU). The outcomes have led to the extension of the theory to other subject areas, namely English and the Sciences.
The SDU would like to thank Capitec for the opportunity to break new ground. There are currently plans to collaborate with academics at other universities in South Africa and abroad.