Former headteacher Tim Small, a member of of ViTaL Partnerships, introduces some excerpts from his colleague Ruth Deakin Crick’s new book on learning power and the effective lifelong learning inventory (ELLI)

Many readers of Raising Achievement Update will be familiar with ELLI – the Effective Lifelong Learning Inventory – that provides teachers with a new language for understanding, explaining and improving the way people learn. One exciting research study used ELLI in conjunction with Antidote’s School Emotional Environment for Learning Survey (SEELS) to show that learning power – the qualities that support good learning – grows best in an ‘ecology’ that includes the school being emotionally literate.

Learning stories

In her new book, ELLI project leader Ruth Deakin Crick tells a series of stories that explore how learning power evolves in practice. These link ELLI with many aspects of education, including values, citizenship, enterprise, emotional health and wellbeing, behaviour and self-evaluation. She goes on to offer plenty of constructive suggestions about how reflective teachers and leaders can develop their practice.

Ruth explores the links between learning power, personal development and wellbeing. She shows how the values, attitudes and dispositions of learning power also have an impact on behaviour and provide a framework for the spiritual, moral, social and cultural development of students.

Research has shown that developing learning power is about:

  • taking responsibility for our own growth
  • learning to respect other people’s learning and growth
  • valuing ourselves and valuing others
  • making a positive contribution.

The seven dimensions of learning power:

  • Changing and learning – having a sense of myself as someone who learns and changes over time
  • Critical curiosity – asking questions and wanting to ‘get beneath the surface’
  • Meaning making – making connections and seeing that learning ‘matters to me’
  • Creativity – risk-taking, playfulness, imagination and intuition
  • Learning relationships – learning with and from others and also being able to learn on my own
  • Strategic awareness – being aware of my thoughts, feelings and actions as a learner in a way that helps me to manage my learning
  • Resilience – enables me to cope and keep going when things get difficult

Learning relationships

A theme running through the book is the importance of ‘learning relationships’ that are characterised by trust, affirmation and challenge. Ruth describes how our relationships with ourselves and each other weave their stories into our learning identities and become part of our learning power:

Relationships are the currency of learning power, such that we could describe this approach as ‘relational learning’. Learning power is nurtured within a complex web of relationships. In the classroom, the most obvious relationships are those between the teacher and students and between the students themselves.

However, equally significant are the students’ relationships with themselves. The relationship I have with myself endures over time and has been profoundly shaped by other key relationships – with my parents, my family and my community. The traditions or stories that shape my culture and my community also play a part in my sense of identity.

Right at the heart of the idea of learning power is a student’s relationship with herself as a learner. It’s about self perception and awareness, taking ownership of her own learning process and taking responsibility for her own learning. If our teaching and learning strategies don’t encourage this sort of personalisation of learning, then they are not really learner-centred.

Human brains are ‘hardwired’ to find meaning, identity and purpose in the context of relationships. When students enter the classroom they carry these webs of relationships with them. The quality of relationships that the teacher and school are able to create is critically important. We know when we experience a good relationship although it is hard to measure. Positive relationships are a product of who people are, as well as what they do. Attending to the inner life of the teacher as well as to his capacity for building healthy relationships is part of what it means to be learner-centred.

Time and story matter. My story is one of the most significant ways in which I make meaning out of my life. My story has a past, a present and a future, which shapes my hopes and aspirations. And my story is enacted in the context of relationships.

Learner-centred teachers

The book explains how the ‘ecology’ of learning power needs ‘learner-centred teachers’ who are sympathetic to these stories, and create an environment in which they thrive. An important distinction is made between a ‘learner-centred’ approach, the ‘child-centred’ one associated with the Plowden Report of 1967, and the ‘knowledge-centred’ model that has been so dominant since the National Curriculum and its assessment arrangements were introduced in 1988:

Being ‘knowledge-centred’ leads to a learning climate where transmission of knowledge, skills and understanding becomes the most important value, and learners and teachers are judged by how well they impart or acquire that knowledge.

Being ‘child-centred’ leads to a learning climate where the child’s experience is most important and learners and teachers are judged by how relevant the learning processes and outcomes are for the child.

Whilst both of these are necessary, focusing on one at the expense of the other is unhelpful.

Being ‘learner-centred’, by contrast, means that we recognise the importance of both the child and the knowledge, but the focus is on the child as a learner and the process of learning. When we integrate personal development and attainment, we begin to harness learning power and we become ‘learner-centred’ in our approach rather than ‘knowledge-centred’ or ‘child-centred’.

When we focus attention on the learner and learning and we combine this with what we know about teaching, school and classroom organisation that best promote the highest levels of motivation and achievement for all students, then we are being ‘learner-centred’.

The first chapter in the book refers in more detail to this important research from Dr Barbara McCombs. This established four key ‘domains’ of ‘learner-centred’ practice, found in teachers whose students see them as being excellent at:

  • creating positive interpersonal relationships in the classroom
  • honouring the students’ voice
  • stimulating higher-order thinking
  • adapting to individual developmental differences.

Mandy’s story

One of the stories in the book concerns Mandy, the headteacher of an inner city primary school. A Year 6 class in her school was proving to be a particular challenge. Nearly half of them were on the special needs register. Several had been excluded from other schools. Though ‘wonderful’ as individuals, they had become ‘boorish, apathetic and irresponsible’ as a group. ‘Street cred’ ruled and ‘sticking with the crowd’ was a big issue. They would keep themselves ‘in control’ for teachers they rated, but were totally dismissive of any unknown or unrated adult.

Mandy and her class teacher, Jane, decided to make a concerted effort to change the climate in this very disengaged class. After all, there was nowhere to go but up. They wanted to see a shift from students who were disinterested, rude and unmotivated to students who were engaged, enthusiastic and self-motivated. They wanted to shift from a climate of fear and passivity to a climate of trust, engagement and pride.

This was a rather tall order. Their very talented and experienced teacher was at her wits’ end and already two of the youngsters were in trouble with the law. They decided to get a single message across to these students – you have the power to change yourself!

They began a class discussion about Learning Power and asked the students to rate themselves on a scale of one to five for each of the learning power dimensions. They developed their own language for each of the dimensions and displayed this around the classroom.

Gradually, the students began to get the message and set targets for themselves. Their targets were realistic, and all about behaviour. It’s as though these youngsters knew that before they could achieve anything they had to sort out their behaviour.

These targets and the language of learning became part of the fabric of the classroom over the year and students began to realise they could take control of their own learning and get more satisfaction that way too. The teacher spent time with the class each day reflecting on how they were doing and the positive difference it was making. The teacher’s evaluation of the work at the end of the year showed that this ‘embedding and living’ the values of learning and talking about learning and specific learning targets on a regular basis across the curriculum was the critical success factor.

The climate of the class changed dramatically – they became cooperative and began listening to each other. Slowly, their work began to improve.

Evolving knowledge

The partnership between Antidote and ELLI has been an important source of learning for all involved and continues to thrive. Antidote runs courses on the links between learning power and emotional literacy.

The ELLI R&D programme, working through another charitable company, ViTaL Partnerships, designs and manages action enquiry projects with schools and other organisations, using ELLI to develop learning power and investigate issues and questions in their own unique settings.

The Effective Lifelong Learning Inventory (ELLI) is an online self-evaluation tool developed out of research at the University of Bristol. Find out more about ELLI from:


  • Deakin Crick, R (2006) Learning Power in Action: A Guide for Teachers. London: Paul Chapman.
  • McCombs, BL, and Whisler, JS (1997) The Learner-Centred Classroom and School: Strategies for Increasing Student Motivation and Attainment. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.