Jackie Beere looks at how schools can help learners to become self motivated and independent

Jackie Beere was headteacher of Campion School, a specialist 11-18 language college in Northamptonshire with 1,500 students on roll. She now works as a school improvement partner and L2L consultant for the Campaign for Learning. Campion School has been involved in research into transforming learning since 2001 as part of the Campaign for Learning L2L project. This article reflects how ideas on ‘Learning to Learn’ have developed.

In 1999 Campion School introduced Learning to Learn (L2L) lessons for Year 7, one of which was televised on the BBC’s Breakfast programme and was described as being ‘groundbreaking’. Chris Woodhead, then chief inspector of schools, was interviewed on the same programme regarding L2L and scathingly said: ‘I just do not understand how new research into the brain is meant to affect the practical aspects of classroom teaching.’

Eight years on, the 2020 Vision document published by Ofsted and edited by the new Ofsted chief inspector, Christine Gilbert, mentions learning how to learn half a dozen times, as it describes the imperatives for developing the 21st-century curriculum. In the last decade, it seems that we have established the notion that an appreciation of the ‘how’ students learn is at least as important as ‘what’ they learn. The National Strategies at primary and secondary level are promoting learning competencies and the mantra for Every Child Matters includes enjoyment and engagement with learning as a key outcome.

The journey, however, is far from over and there have been many dead ends on the way. Early introduction of ‘accelerated learning’ programmes and the drive to get students to self-assess their own multiple intelligences and learning styles led, in some schools, to the creation of another raft of data for teacher’s mark books rather than the yearned-for development of self-motivated independent learners. ‘VAKed’ schemes of work looked great on paper – but were teachers really delivering brain-friendly, dynamic learning experiences that were less ‘chalk and talk’ and that promoted self-motivation? The Learning to Learn lessons that were introduced in schools were mostly very popular and successful but did value-added KS3 results improve – and could we be sure it was L2L that made the impact?

Cramlington College was one of the first schools in the project. They soon found, as we did, that they needed to change the curriculum towards a more competency-based approach if they were going to embed the principles of Learning to Learn for life. They have gone on to achieve national recognition for their curriculum innovation and Campion has moved on to develop a project-based approach to learning in Year 7 that has had a remarkable impact on student achievement.

The main thrust of the competency-based curriculum was to put the life skills of emotional intelligence (resilience, empathy, optimism and interpersonal and intrapersonal communication) at the heart of what was taught, along with a novel method of delivering subject content. The RSA introduced Opening Minds which provided a model for such a curriculum, where students studied projects that were based around competencies not subjects.  The Learning to Learn course morphed into Learning to Learn through Opening Minds for Year 7, where students were able to work on projects for 11 hours a fortnight. The projects delivered National Curriculum content but were underpinned by competencies that help students learn how to learn (see the case study on p7). The new QCA KS3 strategy is supporting this type of approach in schools, so it is now an exciting time to be developing a Learning to Learn strategy.

Introducing a new KS3 curriculum which uses L2L will have a major impact on delivery of learning but schools have struggled to develop and embed L2L approaches as part of the whole-school ethos.  Analysing what has worked best and what lessons have been learned through the research and attempts at implementation has been a crucial aspect of the Campaign for Learning’s continued research projects.

A new way of looking at the curriculum
The argument that children should understand themselves as learners and acquire more independence and resilience has been reinforced by some of the latest developments in neuroscience. With the development of assessment for learning, citizenship and the ECM agenda, the whole configuration of the curriculum is suddenly being viewed in a different way – a way that values the students’ ability to think about themselves and their own responsibilities as a learner.

The skills and competencies needed to develop these responsibilities put learning how to learn at the heart of schooling. Implemented effectively, it will mean students will be working harder than their teachers and develop the motivation, self-discipline and self-awareness to become successful employees and happier, more participatory, citizens.

If the above curriculum changes are allied to a rigorous behaviour policy which focuses on choosing to learn and an active student voice programme which encourages a sense of ownership, enterprise and responsibility, the possibility of engaging students in a learning culture become more likely. If emotional intelligence skills such as persistence, optimism and self-management are modelled and taught across the curriculum – in all subjects – then engaging students in the learning culture becomes even more likely.  Lessons taught in a brain-friendly manner are those where active participation, variety and challenge combine to make learning exciting but demanding. The educational environment will need to cater for flexible approaches which create individualised learning opportunities and provide a safe and inspiring backdrop to learning experiences. This flexibility may necessitate redesigning the timetable, the school terms and, of course, the classrooms.

The assessment for learning principles are very powerful in creating active learners who know how to learn and who are aware of their strengths and weaknesses. Armed with this knowledge and, therefore, with the minimum of guidance from teachers, students should be able to travel through their learning programmes as and when they are ready, with mixtures of ages in each class reflecting a really individualised approach to progress. Embedding formative assessment for learning will help students to track their own progress through learning programmes which can be rigorously moderated by teachers or other adults who support their learning. There is more evidence of the positive impact of embedding assessment for learning on raising achievement than for any other strategy introduced in recent years.

Finally, the whole culture of schooling could move toward one of active learning centres where the day is flexible and built around individual students’ learning needs. A wide range of extra-curricular activities would form part of the package of opportunities and choices. These together with academic achievements would build up a rounded portfolio of competence that will profile accomplishment and success throughout school life.

Innovate or abandon?
In conclusion, in developing a 21st-century approach to learning we must also think about what we need to abandon in addition to where we need to innovate. For schools wanting to introduce a L2L approach the thoughts outlined in the example table above should underpin all that they do and all the decisions they make.

As a consultant now working with the Campaign for Learning, helping schools to embed L2L strategies, I am working with heads who are starting from scratch developing an ethos for personalised learning. They find that L2L is a good approach, both at primary and secondary level because it puts the focus right where it should be – on learning.

This article first appeared in Learning and Teaching Update – September 2007