Charles Dietz examines the work of Guy Claxton, professor of education at Bristol University and fellow of the British Psychological Society.

Professor Guy Claxton’s interest in ‘learning to learn’ goes back to his own schooldays. After obtaining mediocre O-level results he began to pay attention to his study habits, strengthening the most effective ones. Academic success in the form of a double first from Cambridge and a doctorate in psychology from Oxford ensued. Subsequently, over more than 25 years, he has brought together his interests in learning skills and psychology in numerous books, lectures, workshops and research projects.

Claxton thinks that the widespread view of intelligence as a fixed, innate property is pernicious. It puts a ceiling on what students can be expected to achieve and tells them that they are either bright or stupid. It leads to resignation among low achievers and a lack of resourcefulness on the part of the ‘bright’ producing school leavers unequipped for a rapidly changing world. What students require is not to be spoon-fed facts, many of which they will never make use of, but the ability to know what to do when they don’t know what to do. This, for Claxton, is true intelligence – something that comes from somewhere deeper than the conscious, rational mind.

Identifying the problem 

In Hare Brain Tortoise Mind (1997) Claxton brings together evidence that much of learning is unconscious, done by osmosis or imitation, and that too much thinking can get in its way. This doesn’t mean that he denigrates reflection; indeed, he thinks that modern society overvalues speedy thinking, producing ‘premature articulation’. To this Claxton juxtaposes the idea that ‘slow is smart’ – that the best ideas are the product of contemplation. Logical thinking has its place, but many of the problems we encounter in life call for imagination and intuition – indeed, he argues, the latter quality may be almost a pre-requisite for winning a Nobel prize.>Wise Up (1999) Claxton goes on to outline his view of what makes a good learner in the environment of the early 21st century. The particular relevance of his approach for G&T pupils can be seen from a piece of American research that he quotes in his book.

Professor Carol Dweck gave a class of high-school girls workbooks to complete. Some of them contained extra questions that were above the girls’ level. The girls not given the inserts performed normally on the test, but among the others the normal pattern of high and low achievement was actually reversed. The bright girls, who usually coasted along, panicked when they came up against the unknown – their confidence, based on the idea that they were ‘clever’, crumbled when they didn’t automatically know the answers. Claxton agrees with Dweck that what makes someone a resilient learner is their underlying belief that ability is not fixed but expandable, that as we learn things we can become smarter.

Theory into practice

Claxton’s Building Learning Power (2002) deals with the practical application of his ideas. In it he introduces us to four new ‘Rs’ that he would like to see replace the three traditional ones:

  • Resilience: ‘being ready, willing and able to lock on to learning’. Being able to stick with difficulty and cope with feelings such as fear and frustration.
  • Resourcefulness: ‘being ready, willing and able to learn in different ways’. Having a variety of learning strategies and knowing when to use them.
  • Reflection: ‘being ready, willing and able to become more strategic about learning’. Getting to know our own strengths and weaknesses.
  • Relationships: ‘being ready, willing and able to learn alone and with others’.

Claxton wishes to progress beyond some of the flaws he sees in the pioneering approaches to ‘learning to learn’. Study skills and thinking-skills methods have tended to be treated as ‘clip-ons’, last minute additions to learning that are unable to develop a major shift in the way students think. Learning-styles approaches such as visual audio kinesthetic (VAK) have failed to take account of the fact that people do not act the same way in all situations. A student labelled as a ‘kinesthetic learner’ may fail to take up certain challenges.

Learning Coaches

Claxton thinks students need to be ‘ready and willing’ as well as ‘able’. To this end teachers need to become ‘learning coaches’. Good coaches support athletes in pursuing goals; as good learning coaches teachers can give students feedback, encourage them to stretch themselves and provide a good personal model. Students cannot be forced to want to learn, but a good learning coach can raise their motivation. And this, says Claxton, is what is happening in the dozen LEAs where his type of approach is being used.

Taking responsibility for learning

Methods such as self-report questionnaires enable both student and teacher to track progress in learning skills. Students can see where their strengths and weaknesses lie, what they need to work on and where a strength in one subject might be transferred to another.

From here students can be helped to develop their own learning programs. They are encouraged to think about their feelings towards learning and weigh up its costs and benefits.

Meanwhile, teachers no longer need to be seen as infallible: as learning coaches they can say, ‘I don’t know the answer, let’s work it out together’. Schools that adopt a culture of learning allow students and teachers alike to become more creative.

Claxton doesn’t want to throw out the traditional ‘content curriculum’. What he proposes is a ‘learning curriculum’ that would shadow it at every stage. His ultimate emphasis is on equipping students to lead more fulfilling lives, but the promise is that these methods will also lead to results in the classroom.

References

Hare Brain, Torotise Mind: Why Intelligence Increases When You Think Less, Fourth Estate: London (1997)

Wise Up: Learning to Live the Learning Life, Network Educational Press: Stafford (1999)

Building Learning Power: Helping Young People Become Better Learners, TLO: Bristol (2002), www.buildinglearningpower.co.uk