How does your school approach ‘learning to learn’? A bit of ‘accelerated learning’, a few ‘thinking skills’, some ’emotional intelligence’ and a commitment to ‘assessment for learning’ for good measure? The QCA has acknowledged that schools need a coherent, consistent approach to learning – Graham Powell examines how to do it

For the past six years, I have been working with a range of secondary schools throughout the UK, trying to help them make sense of learning in order to support teachers’ understanding and broaden students’ achievement. In every school, I initially ask school leaders and teachers to describe the nature of their students as learners. Invariably, I am told ‘they do like to be spoon-fed’. I wonder if this is the case; or have they come to expect to be spoon-fed, by hard-working teachers who are driven by the understandable need to ratchet up standards? As a headteacher, I knew that our own examination results were improving in step with our students’ dependency on their teachers.

It is heartening that QCA has recognised that improved attainment levels may not be the whole story and that the development of personal, learning and thinking skills (PLTS) will be a statutory requirement in the new secondary curriculum. At the same time, many schools are adopting SEAL as an addition to the curriculum. Meanwhile, the Specialist Schools and Academies Trust (SSAT) identify deep learning as one of their four priorities for schools, defining a more profound learner somewhat opaquely as: ‘an articulate, autonomous but collaborative learner, with high meta-cognitive control and the generic skills of learning…’

The language of lists
Unfortunately, this quotation characterises the current confusion about learning in our schools. There is no shortage of words from a variety of sources to describe learners and their attributes, but there is no commonly held language about learning that lends itself to professional discourse in staff rooms and classrooms. All teachers get is ‘yet more lists’. For too long, our approach to ‘learning to learn’ in schools has been like an uncoordinated firework display: a bit of accelerated learning, a few thinking skills, some emotional intelligence and a stated commitment to assessment for learning.

Although QCA’s six skills areas – independent enquiry, creative thinking, reflective learning, team working, self-management and effective participation – are helpful, they do not get to the foundations of learning. There is a danger that these skills areas will be bolted onto the curriculum rather than allowed to infuse and inform day-to-day classroom practice. It will be another lost opportunity if schools adopt an approach that relies on skills days and stand-alone ‘learning to learn’ courses.

I have been fortunate to work with schools such as St Paul’s in Milton Keynes, Alderbrook in Solihull and Park View in Chester-le-Street (see Learning & Teaching Update March 2008), all of which have adopted a more strategic approach designed to build their students’ learning capacity across the entire curriculum and throughout all year groups.

In many schools, like these, there is a recognition that the discourse about learning can only happen if there is a commonly held language that can be understood and enacted by students and their teachers. In addition, they have noticed that sharing this language with parents improves the quality of dialogue at consultation evenings and has real impact on assessment for learning. Like most parents, I do not want to hear overmuch about my son’s attainment levels but I am interested in how he is learning and what we can do at home to encourage his disposition to learn in a variety of circumstances.

Shared skills
Each year, I spend around 200 hours in secondary classrooms, working with teachers and helping them see how their students are learning. The most effective teachers that I have observed – no matter what area of the curriculum – do four things well:

  • secure emotional engagement and commitment
  • build cognitive stretch
  • enable collaborative teamwork
  • ensure formative reflection.

Some teachers do this instinctively just because it feels right. They have the knack of planning their lessons around how they want their students to learn, not just what they need to know.

Ian Bacon – formerly of St Paul’s Catholic School, in Milton Keynes – is a very good teacher who knows that his job goes beyond teaching mathematics, to building students’ learning capacity. The first lesson that I saw him teach was good by any standards. Our discussion after it drew out the qualities that made it effective.

We had a constructive conversation that enabled us to see how the lower-ability Year 8 group was learning, and what he was doing as a teacher to orchestrate the lesson with learning in mind. Ian, generously, acknowledges that he has become an even better teacher now that he understands what he is doing. He is making conscious choices about his leadership of learning, based on a language for learning that is shared with his colleagues – and the students themselves. If students are to become – in SSAT’s words – meta-cognitive, they need a language to understand themselves as learners, and teachers who give them opportunities to choose how they learn. The Year 10 student at Park High in Harrow who was taking 10 minutes out of collaborative group-work to think things through before joining her group was one of the most meta-cognitive young people that I have met; able to tell me about how she learns, and to exercise choice, the better to improve her capacity to learn.

The fab four
The four things that all good teachers do well relate to the four domains of learning: the emotional, cognitive, social and strategic. These are the foundations on which QCA’s personal, learning and thinking skills (PLTS) are built. Helping teachers to understand what these four domains mean in practice is the prerequisite to developing the six skills areas in students.

Guy Claxton’s distillation of international research in his practical learning handbook Building Learning Power digs beneath the surface of these four learning domains to uncover the habits that lie within. His rhetorical construct – now well-known as the ‘4Rs’ of resilience, resourcefulness, reciprocity and reflection – has provided a useful common language for many schools. His most important work, however, has been in identifying what it takes to be resilient, resourceful, reciprocal and reflective and, moreover, what teachers can do to foster these habits and dispositions.

Once teachers are in the habit of thinking this way about their students, they begin to identify how their teaching already builds these capacities and what they might begin to incorporate into their lessons in order to counter the prevailing dependency culture. For students – as much as for teachers – it is all a matter of habit. Thus, if we want our students to be curious questioners, for example, we have to build that learning habit. We need to find ways to stimulate enquiry-mindedness in the ways we start and develop our lessons. Teachers need to break the habit of readily providing answers and solutions when their students are stuck. They need to say ‘I wonder… what if… could be…’ a little more. The work of David Perkins, from Harvard, is particularly useful in showing us how modest changes to the routine ways in which we talk with students can radically change the learning climate in the classroom.

It is important, tactically, to let students into the secret about how they are learning. Telling them how they will be learning at the start of the lesson is as likely to grab their attention as telling them what their learning objectives will be. Far more effective is for teachers to be clearly intentional about how their students will be as learners, and then asking them to reflect at critical points on how they have been learning and what choices might help them to take things further – and deeper. This is what the teachers at Park High had done for the student I mentioned earlier. For example, when working with student groups, I talk about building their learning muscles; making them stronger at noticing, imagining, planning and listening, for example. Shrewd teachers are tactically skilful at knowing what, when and how much to let their students know. After all, it is developing student awareness that is the key.

Review the learning
Many schools – including those mentioned above – have found it useful to work with me on a review of learning. Working with a team of colleagues from within the school, we focus on the specific emotional, cognitive, social and strategic habits that students are being allowed to develop in lessons.

At Dr Challoner’s Grammar School in Amersham, a team of students and teachers observed a large sample of lessons, using a pro-forma I had developed for the purpose. We gathered a wealth of process data about learning but, more importantly, we stimulated an ongoing discourse about learning that continues, more than 12 months later. Going into lessons to learn about learning – in a focused and rigorous way – has become established practice in the school and the major plank in the development of students’ learning habits. Using students as researchers – and presenters of findings – has been a particularly powerful feature of students’ voice in the school.

At its best, this approach leads to mature dialogues about learning. In St Paul’s, Milton Keynes, I have seen teachers in coaching conversations with each other, as they tease out how learning takes place in given lessons and how it might be enhanced. Their approach is never to tell colleagues what to do but – in the spirit of an effective coach – to enable them to discover learning needs for themselves. This habit has become prevalent at St Paul’s and was noted by Ofsted as a positive feature.

After helping conduct many reviews of learning in a wide range of secondary schools, there are a number of common features that emerge about how young people are learning. The vast majority of young people comply and cooperate with their teachers’ requirements. The older they get, the more dependent they become on their hard-working teachers. They become less inclined to ask curious questions and explore things tentatively and hypothetically. Although they cooperate well with others, they are given few opportunities to genuinely collaborate and acquire effective teamwork skills. Their reflective habits – the capacity to adapt and revise approaches on the basis of experience – could be enhanced.

As QCA has acknowledged, there is a pressing need to adopt a coherent, consistent approach to learning. It is important that we start with a robust understanding of the four domains of learning, encourage professional dialogue in our schools, and build these habits of mind into our lessons and schemes of work.

Building the 4Rs: how to identify key traits and approaches

When working with teachers, I encourage them to ask themselves the following questions about the classes that they teach:

Are they emotionally committed, resilient learners?

  • Do they stick with challenges?
  • Are they able to manage distractions?
  • Do they lock onto tasks and notice/detect details?
  • Do they become rapt by their experiences of learning?
  • Do they keep going under their own steam and with others?
  • Do they exercise initiative and take personal responsibility?

Are they cognitively engaged, resourceful learners?

  • Are they curious and willing to ask questions of themselves and others (including teachers)?
  • Are they able to capitalise on internal and external resources autonomously?
  • Do they make links between diverse experiences in/between/outside lessons?
  • Are they able to reason things through logically and systematically?
  • Do they use their imagination to consider possibilities?

 Are they able to work effectively with others as social learners?

  • Do they know when it’s best to work alone or with others?
  • Are they able to use a range of roles in collaborative group work?
  • Do they listen to others and understand how they are thinking?
  • Are they able to pick up habits from other people and imitate preferred ways of doing things?

Are they reflective and strategic learners?

  • Do they plan what they have to do and make sound decisions?
  • Do they adapt, change and revise their work as they proceed?
  • Are they able to pull out the main learning points from what they have done?
  • Do they understand themselves as learners and use this knowledge to support how they learn?
  • Do they make genuine choices about how they learn?

Formerly a headteacher and senior inspector, Graham Powell works throughout the UK, supporting schools in their commitment to deepening students’ learning. He has worked in association with Professor Guy Claxton – developing his work on building learning power – for six years.

Graham Powell: Principal Consultant TLO ltd