What makes for good learning? This is a question that all people involved in education wrestle with. I am convinced that the question is too important to be buried under answers that stifle further thought and development. One of the greatest threats to learning is when we think we have hit on the one formula that will provide all the answers. Strategies are very helpful, but must not be allowed to become straitjackets, formulae by which we limit what is deemed good practice or dogmas that prevent creative thinking.

Good learning is a rich and complex process that involves the whole person. It requires that teachers create a positive climate for learning, understand how people learn, have a good knowledge of the subject discipline, recognise the barriers to learning and understand how to remove them. Learners need a readiness to learn. Good learning is built on positive relationships with clear values, exciting experiences and behaviours that bring these to life (see diagram ‘Relational dynamics to learning’). This will be different according to the needs and background of each school and its communities and responses to them need to be explorative and questioning rather than narrowly accepting. There is nothing new here. The question is how we pull all this together.

One of the challenges to a programme such as Healthy Schools is to demonstrate the links between wellbeing and learning. This prompted me to use Healthy Schools in Buckinghamshire to fund a project that brought together thinking, wellbeing and values – or in the words of trainer and speaker specialising in thinking skills, Philosophy for Children (P4C), religious education and citizenship education Will Ord, to develop ‘great learning’. Together we developed the ‘Great Learner Project’ (GLP) which ran over a full year with a number of schools working in clusters. Our ultimate purpose was to engage ‘those for whom learning is not a high priority’ in learning, and thus to improve achievement in our schools.

In other words we wanted a project to make an explicit link between Philosophy for Children (P4C) and Ofsted ‘good to outstanding’ in the context of the emotionally inclusive classrooms, genuine whole-school opportunities for spiritual, moral, social and cultural development (SMSC) for personal development. We used the following working framework:

Spiritual: To do with questions of meaning, purpose and value in life; what does it mean to be human? To be me?

Moral: Raising questions about right and wrong, based on our spiritual values, and how we decide. How should we live our lives? Moral issues.

Social: To do with relationships between people and groups of people, based on spiritual and moral values.

Cultural: Different ways of experiencing, responding to and expressing the above.

This helps us to recognise the centrality of SMSC in education (because it is to do with flourishing humanity and relationships) and thus helps schools shape pupils’ learning and experience.

We were very clear that this project is more than P4C. It is P4C + – a reference to the 11+ that Children in Buckinghamshire sit as part of the selective system.

What is P4C?
In a P4C session the children or young people are introduced to a stimulus, from which they draw the big ideas and frame them into philosophical questions. One question is chosen for the enquiry, which takes the form of a discussion facilitated by Socratic questioning. P4C promotes the four Cs of creative and critical thinking, caring and collaboration. (For more information, see ‘Philosophy for SEAL?’ in issue 64 of SELU). P4C was chosen for the Great Learner Project as it is ideally suited to developing the skills of a great learner!

Our key messages

  1. Relationships and values are core.
  2. ‘Failing Well’ is a step to learning.
  3. Staff model learning – risk-taking, dealing with confusion, setting goals
  4. Outstanding lessons (Ofsted criteria) demand more than cognitive skills.
  5. Skills, attitudes and dispositions need to be developed and nurtured.
  6. ‘Golden lessons’ allow schools to focus on deeper learning.
  7. Fixed versus growth mindsets impede or accelerate pupil learning.
  8. ARTs – action research teams – are a way to engage staff and pupils.

The role and importance of P4C
One of the factors behind this project right from the start was that we wanted it to be more than ‘just’ Philosophy for Children. The whole purpose was to get schools to think deeply and broadly about learning so that P4C would have a greater impact – both cognitively and on skills and dispositions.

We wanted to go beyond – or perhaps deeper than – mere skills development, to the nurturing of dispositions and it is important (and this was the main thrust of the GLP) to be explicit about this with staff. Placing this in the context of a relational understanding of learning with values (SMSC) at its core, helped to make this more explicit. What are the skills for great learners? Will Ord shared these: empathising, questioning, ‘failing well’, self-motivation, open-mindedness, metacognition, being resourceful, risk-taking, enquiring, independent thinking, reflecting, critical thinking, being confident, learning to learn. When we looked at these we appreciated each had a motivational and dispositional element to them. For example, ‘enquiry’ is not simply a skill, it is a mindset or disposition towards learning; questioning is for many reasons (clarification, to ask for reasons and evidence, to explore alternative views, test implications and consequences) and requires us to accept responsibility for our own and others’ learning and willingness to take risks. In other words, the skills of a great learner cannot be developed in a tick-box vacuum, but only in a values- and emotionally-rich climate.

Relationships are crucial and need to be dynamic if they are to enable children and adults to be open, creative and adventurous in learning. Learning becomes engaging and to do with the whole person, not just the academic and as a consequence, the learners take in and on a lot more of the academic.

Elements of the project
Launch for headteacher and key/lead Great Learning Project (GLP) teacher – with an introduction to the thinking and approach and to ensure whole-school involvement and commitment.

Day one training for three staff from each secondary schools and two from each primary – to include the lead teacher. This provided background information, philosophy, approach and some techniques for thinking and questioning, as well as the background to and basics of P4C. We provided time for reflection for teachers to consider how to implement strategies in the context of their pupils and plan for bespoke school CPD with Will Ord.

One day of deeper school-based CPD Schools chose from a menu of possibilities, having had an opportunity to implement what they had explored on day one. For example schools could choose from:

  1. Whole day staff Inset.
  2. Meeting time with Will for curriculum leaders/SLT to review and plan ‘great learning’ developments, ideas and structures.
  3. Small group Insets throughout the day with a limited number of staff/TAs (and governors too?).
  4. Will to observe one lesson with feedback time.
  5. Will to model one lesson with feedback time.
  6. Confidence, ‘failing well’, and risk-taking (ref Carol Dweck).
  7. Thinking skills, learning, and planning.
  8. Philosophy for Children (speaking and listening, PLTS etc)
  9. Questioning (both teachers and pupils).
  10. Reasoning.
  11. Four Cs of thinking (creative, critical, caring, and collaborative).
  12. Evaluating progress.

Day two also included SAPERE P4C level 1 training for the key teachers and LA officers involved.

Reflection and celebration conference for wider range of schools and LA senior staff in which participant schools shared practice, reflected on impact and considered how to take this forward.

How schools took this on
Both Will and I have been tremendously impressed by the diverse ways in which schools have taken this on to meet their priorities and the needs of their pupils. The schools themselves represent a broad age, ability and socioeconomic range: what they shared in common was a commitment to engage with and enhance learning.

Will had introduced the image of a tree as an analogy for the great learner and this helped staff go back to their schools and immediately get people to think about what ‘great learning’ looks like, what the roots of great learning are and what ‘nutrients’ are needed to nurture it. This meant that schools were asking the questions, rather than just implementing someone else’s solutions.

Most schools initially worked independently, but two primary schools split their time with Will so that they could have a shared whole-school Inset day followed by a half-day each of more specific input. This enabled a fruitful sharing of ideas and expertise.

All schools recognised the long-term nature of this project, building it in as a three- to five-year development within their school improvement plan. This was recognised as a key aspect of the process, as it placed a high priority across the whole school on developing great learning.

Reflection upon the work of Carol Dweck proved to be an inspirational, transforming eye-opener for all involved. One headteacher developed a questionnaire for adults on mindsets. He was impressed by the impact the GLP had had on staff beliefs about pupil ability on learning and how some members of staff had themselves been transformed as a consequence.

A primary school which has introduced the GLP first into FS and KS1 commented: ‘The staff have also considered the work of Carol Dweck and discussed fixed and fluid mind sets. We have focussed on the idea that getting everything right is not great learning! We learn through failing well and making mistakes. Praise must go to effort, strategy and concentration rather than pages of ticks.’

Another primary school developed the wonderful acronym ‘First Attempt In Learning’ to encourage the whole school to see that far from being a stumbling block, failure is a necessary aspect of learning and progressing!

Many schools took up Will’s challenge for teachers to model learning, with staff publicly saying that they were going to learn a new skill (eg to play an instrument) and that they would demonstrate their learning in assembly on a periodic basis. The headteacher and staff in one of our schools learnt hula-hooping on the Wii, playing the recorder and the piano, juggling, African drumming, tap dancing and speaking Greek!

Some schools identified year groups or departments to lead on the project, while others pitched in fully as a whole school. It was clear that whilst there was some initial skepticism amongst their staff back in school as to the appropriateness of this in early years and KS1 or with less able pupils, in fact it was effective for all ages and abilities if done appropriately – ie the teachers using their professional skills and judgement to apply the principles to their pupils’ learning. Most schools actually reported back that the group of pupils who struggled most were the most able, because they were more of a fixed mindset and found it hard to adjust to a learning experience in which there may be no one right answer.

All schools had to work persistently (with staff as well as pupils) on the disposition towards and skills of good questioning. For younger pupils (FS and KS1), but also for older KS2 pupils from lower socio-economic groups, a lot of ground work on what a question is and then different types of question, had to be done prior to any enquiry taking place. The quality of questioning was something that did not come immediately, but by using the P4C techniques, when pupils and staff did hit on it, it improved rapidly and with some amazing results.

Some subjects/disciplines were considered to be more closely aligned to the P4C approach than others. The humanities, English and creative subjects were very open to the approach (RE especially worked well and in one secondary school that was inspected just as we were doing the final conference, the RE department got outstanding comments for its learning and teaching because of the GLP and the wider impact contributed to an overall outstanding judgement). However, some schools were pleasantly surprised at the impact the GLP had in, for example, maths and science.

One primary school in Year 6 maths had an open enquiry into ‘how many words are there in the library?’ (A fixed mindset such as mine would answer 2!!) After a lengthy process this culminated in the children doing a presentation to the parents. The focus of this project was on the learning process and the importance of questions. A secondary school actually sent a science teacher as the key teacher and this sent out clear messages. The importance of good conceptual thinking in science (which after all is a methodology for enquiring into the nature of the world and universe) is too often buried beneath factual recall. Great learning in science (relational, values-focused, enquiry-based) – we are really looking forward to finding out how this progresses.

So what impact did it have?
We asked schools to feed back on the impact it had on pupils, staff, leadership, learning and parents/community. There were some issues, mostly (as one of the teachers noticed as we discussed them) stemming from adults! Skepticism was in most cases easily dealt with by the transforming nature of the work. Reluctance to experiment or take risks, worrying about parental or government pressures – all these things need to be contended with.

Two schools were inspected in the course of the project. Both schools achieved outstanding and in both cases the GLP/P4C was cited as a main factor, not least because of the engagement, involvement and enthusiasm of the pupils in their learning.

One school with a high percentage of lower socioeconomic families, noticed a dramatic improvement in KS1 achievement and their results for L2 + 3 rose last summer. This cannot be proved to be because of GLP, but that was the major difference to previous years and the school is convinced!

Both primary and secondary schools have noticed improved behaviours inside and outside the classroom, improved relationships in the classrooms between pupils and pupils and pupils and staff. In many schools, parents have commented on how much more their children are enjoying school and talking about it at home. The overarching impact has been how much more enjoyable, worthwhile, challenging, meaningful and fulfilling learning has been – for both pupils and staff.

And was it worth it? So next steps?
As one teacher said – ‘This needs to continue. It is the best thing I have ever been involved in as a teacher.’ So our challenge is now to use the contextual framework and get a core of staff in Bucks trained at L1, L2 and L3 P4C so that this can become self-sustaining. We like a challenge!

Bill Moore is inclusion manager, Universal Provision School Improvement Service, for Buckinghamshire CC