Growing better learners: Are we serious yet?

 

In an ideal world, all the cogs of school are driven by the flywheel of vision and purpose. For things to mesh smoothly you have to give good clear answers to these six questions:

  1. What are the desirable outcomes of education? After we’ve taken care of the business of exams and university / college entrance, what do we want all young people to take away from those 13 long years of school? Education has to be moral: it necessarily derives from value judgements.
  2. Why these ones? What is it exactly that we think all young people need to know, be able to do, and to possess as positive values, attributes and mindsets? You can’t do everything, so why not other ones? Educational choices and values have to be justified: a lot of lives and a lot of money are at stake.
  3. What can we assume children have already, in the way of knowledge, skill and character? What are we trying to build upon? If we don’t make reasonable assumptions about this, we will waste time by presuming too little or too much. Education is a developmental process.
  4. How are we going to go about it? Exactly what content, activities, environments and teaching styles are likely to result in (or at least optimise) all those outcomes? What reasons do we have to believe in their effectiveness? What possible tensions are there between different outcomes we may value (e.g. exam results and independent learning dispositions) and how in practice are we going to reconcile them? Education requires curriculum and pedagogy that are directly linked to the outcomes we desire for our students.
  5. What constraints, requirements and embedded assumptions and habits are likely to obstruct or distract from achieving these outcomes? What’s the game plan for bringing the requisite changes about, in the face of these obstacles and pressures? How are we going to get staff to change their habits and parents their expectations? What are likely to be the trickiest bits and how are we going to nibble away at them? Educational culture change requires committed and pragmatic leadership. 
  6. How will we know if what we are doing is actually achieving those desirable outcomes? It is all very well saying we want kids to be resilient, but how will we operationalise resilience so we can tell if our Year 5s are indeed (for example) sticking with difficult problems for longer, and engaging more resourcefully, than they were in Year 4? Educational progress has to be monitored and assessed.

 

If you don’t have good answers for these questions – ones you have thought about and believe in, not off-the-peg bits of jargon – or if you haven’t even got a plan and a timeline for how you are going to develop those good answers, then you are not serious about independent learning  yet. If you look at that list of questions and don’t immediately ask yourself honestly how well our school is doing, and where we should do better, you aren’t off first base. You are still stuck at the level of fine words, good intentions, perhaps a few of those cheesy growth mindset posters that Tom Sherrington (2017) has written about; or still complaining about all the things you would love to do but ‘they won’t let you’, and by default obsessing about exam results and the next school inspection. If you haven’t thought it through, you don’t have skin in the game. Tough, but true. Creating a coherent education system, or even one coherent school, is hard. That’s why it is worth doing. It’s difficult, it’s possible and it’s intensely rewarding. Just ask Katherine Birbalsingh at Michaela Community School in London, Gwyn ap Harri and Andy Sprakes at XP School in Doncaster, Sarah Martin at Stonefields Primary School in Auckland or Arria Coburn at Springfield Renaissance School in Massachusetts.

For many people in education, one of the top questions is: How can we promote independent learning and create learners for life – at the same time as paying strong attention to literacy, numeracy, test scores and high school/college/university entrance? (I say many, but not all. Michaela has an admirably coherent set of values, but cultivating independent learners is just not one of them.) But for those who do value creating robust, adventurous thinkers and explorers, it can seem daunting or even unthinkable to begin with, especially if there is a bit of mental malware around that says it is impossible. Some people seem to have got it stuck in their heads that there is a necessary conflict between the two agendas: are we going to go for a knowledge-rich curriculum, direct instruction, grades and rigour (and neglect the character thing), OR will we focus on wellbeing and learning power (to the likely detriment of grades and knowledge)?  Or they might have picked up a cognitive earworm that whispers ‘There’s no such thing as “generic skills” anyway, and “learning to learn” is bunkum, so don’t waste your time’. Authors such as Christodoulou (2014) and Bennett (2013) have been particularly influential carriers of these stifling beliefs. 

Luckily there are hundreds of schools around that are living proof that you can have your educational cake and eat it too. XP, Stonefields and Springfield Schools have shown that it is perfectly possible to teach in a way that gets good results AND develops students’ confidence, capacity and appetite for independent learning. But ‘develops’ is the key word. You cannot build resilience or critical thinking by throwing students in the deep end and expecting it to happen. Nor can the attributes that underlie strong, effective learning be taught directly. Attempts to treat these attributes as, for example, ‘thinking skills’ that can be quickly trained and then applied wherever necessary have generally yielded disappointing results. Any benefits tend not to last long, nor to transfer to other potentially applicable situations (e.g. Nickerson, Perkins and Smith, 1985). 

What does work is creating a culture that is peppered with activities, expectations and conversations that require students to gradually take on more and more responsibility for choosing, planning, trouble-shooting and evaluating learning for themselves, both alone and with others (Mannion and Mercer, 2016; Mannion and McAllister, 2020). The teacher’s role develops a side to it that is like that of a sports coach, encouraging students along and creating  a regime of appropriate and gradually escalating challenges that stretch their ‘personal bests’ in terms of their developing habits of mind. 

And the approach has to be school-wide, so that students experience the different (but overlapping) nuances and capabilities of, say, persevering in maths as opposed to French, or developing disciplined curiosity in science as opposed to art. Through this varied diet of experience, habits of mind that originated in specific contexts become more ‘disembedded’ and develop greater breadth and flexibility of application. Hirsch (1987), Wiliam (2018) and others are right that there are no generic skills that can be plopped ready-formed into students minds; but they are quite wrong to infer from this that it is impossible for such habits to gradually become more generic (Perkins, 2009). It is perfectly possible, but it takes the right kind of teaching, and the right kind of ethos in a school, for it to happen.

Research around the world has been converging on a common understanding of the kinds of answers a school (system) needs to give to my six key questions if they are to be successful at getting great results the right way: the way that builds independence. It comes from Harvard’s Project Zero (Ritchhart, Church and Morrison, 2011; Berger, Woodfin and Vilen, 2016); Stanford’s Carol Dweck (2000) and Jo Boaler (Boaler and Staples, 2008); Michael Fullan’s international collaborators (e.g. Fullan, Quinn and McEachen 2018); and many more. I and my colleagues have recently synthesised this emergent school of thought in a series of books under the general rubric of The Learning Power Approach (LPA: see Claxton et al. (2020) for details). Here is some of what we now have good reason to believe. 

  1. The attributes that underpin an independent, proactive approach to learning (both in school and beyond) include curiosity, perseverance, focus, learning agility, intellectual humility, conviviality, oracy (confident, accurate and respectful articulation), critical thinking (appropriate scepticism) and the ability to adopt multiple perspectives.
  2. These attributes have been shown to predict long-term success in life from a wide range of perspectives.
  3. If children are given a range of challenges to select from, in an environment where an adventurous spirit is encouraged, they learn to choose, and increasingly to generate, challenges for themselves that are of the optimal level of difficulty.
  4. Independent learning develops naturally in classroom cultures that encourage experimentation and exploratory talk, and where teachers talk about the processes of learning and model and encourage the use of a specific learning- rather than performance-oriented vocabulary.
  5. Whole school culture change requires a particular constellation of leadership skills, attitudes and sensibilities. These include confident, fluent, flexible and continual articulation of the vision; focus on strengthening a whole-staff culture of supportive and open peer-to-peer learning; and sensitivity to the shifting balance between ‘tight’ and ‘loose’ framing of the requirement for staff to try out new ‘tweaks’ to their teaching styles.
  6. Regular and honest monitoring of culture change progress involves both quantitative and qualitative data gathered regularly from staff, students, families and visitors. Students particularly should be involved in collecting data and suggesting next steps and revisions.

With this information, we are now well on the way to accelerating the speed with which schools in increasing numbers shift from a ‘results at any price’ attitude to an effective ethos of both increasing attainment of conventional tests and the development of epistemic character traits of broad utility to the upcoming citizens of the mid to late 21st century.

 

References

Bennett T (2013) Teacher Proof. Abingdon: Routledge.

Berger R, Woodfin L and Vilen A (2016) Learning that Lasts. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Boaler J and Staples M (2008) Creating mathematical futures through an equitable teaching approach: The case of Railside School. Teachers College Record 110(3): 608–645.

Christodoulou D (2014) Seven Myths about Education. Abingdon: Routledge.

Claxton GL, Robinson J, Macfarlane R, et al. (2020) Powering Up Your School: The Learning Power Approach to School Leadership. Carmarthen: Crown House.

Dweck C (2000) Self-Theories: Their Role in Motivation, Personality and Development. Philadelphia: Psychology Press.

Fullan M, Quinn J and McEachen J (2018) Deep Learning: Engage the World, Change the World. Thousand Oaks CA: Corwin.

Hirsch ED (1987) Cultural Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know. Boston: Houghton Mifflin. 

Mannion J and Mercer, N (2016) Learning to learn: improving attainment, closing the gap at Key Stage 3. Curriculum Journal 27(2): 1–26.

Mannion J and McAllister K (2020) Fear Is the Mind Killer: Teaching Children How to Learn. Woodbridge, Suffolk: John Catt Educational.

Nickerson RS, Perkins DN and Smith EE (1985) The Teaching of Thinking. New York: Routledge.

Perkins DN (2009) Making Learning Whole. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Ritchhart R, Church M and Morrison K (2011) Making Thinking Visible. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Sherrington T (2017) School walls are oozing with unhelpful growth mindset cheese. Available at: https://teacherhead.com/2017/10/15/school-walls-are-oozing-with-unhelpful-growth-mindset-cheese/ (accessed 9 June 2020). 

Wiliam D (2018) Creating the Schools Our Children Need. Palm Beach: Learning Sciences International.

 

Share your experiences with educators globally by joining the discussion below. How do you believe we grow better learners?

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