Kate Wall describes the main findings of the Learning to Learn in Schools Phase 3 project evaluation and looks at some of the implications for schools

The Learning to Learn in Schools Phase 3 Evaluation was a three-year project investigating practical approaches to improve learning and teaching in classrooms and to foster positive dispositions towards learning. It built on findings from earlier phases of research. Phase 3 started in 2003 and involved 33 schools from three local authorities (Cheshire, Cornwall and Enfield). It aimed to investigate:

  • the relative importance of different Learning to Learn approaches in raising standards
  • how the adoption of Learning to Learn approaches impacts on teacher motivation and capacity to manage change
  • whether, and if so how, Learning to Learn approaches support the development of confident and capable lifelong learners.

Ultimately the project has always been about partnership between schools, the Campaign for Learning and the university team to collaboratively learn and to jointly construct understanding about what is meant by the term Learning to Learn and what the pragmatics are of putting this knowledge into practice in the classroom.

The research was based on a model of professional enquiry through action research with support and wider evaluation by a team from Durham and Newcastle Universities and the Institute of Education at London University. Teachers in the research partnership schools were supported in completing empirical investigations of the approaches and strategies they believed would enhance learners’ skills, knowledge and attitudes for Learning to Learn. This was done through a process where the empirical research built upon the teachers’ normal practice of plan-do-review.

This approach gives the teachers control; they identified their own research focus as well as their own intervention methods. Using Stenhouse’s model of ‘systematic enquiry made public’ (An Introduction to Curriculum Research and Development, London: Heineman, 1975), the teachers have been encouraged to initiate changes they feel are appropriate and then the university team support and facilitate their enquiry, giving advice on existing research evidence which is likely to be helpful and possible research techniques in terms of collecting data, analysing results and writing up the projects.

Each year the teachers made their findings public through the production of reports describing and explaining what they had learned. The university-based research team, the Campaign for Learning and a local authority coordinator additionally supported this process in schools. The research team completed analysis of additional data, from the case studies and from project-wide data collection, to explore and evaluate the impact of the project.

The Learning to Learn in Schools Phase 3 Evaluation outcomes include:

  • 85 case studies written by teachers across both primary and secondary schools 
    • 33 in the first year (2003-4)
    • 21 in the second year (2004-5)
    • 31 in the third year (2005-6)
  • two annual reports (January 2005 and 2006) summarising emerging findings l final report (May 2007): summary, descriptions, analysis and technical appendices.

Findings of teacher-led case studies

Specific L2L themes were explored across the case studies. This was done through an analysis of the focus and scale of the teachers’ research and evidence provided in specific sections of the case study reports.

Engagement through professional enquiry:

  • Nineteen schools out of the 33 completed at least one case study in each successive year of the project. Another three schools completed case studies for two out of the three years and a further six schools completed one. 
  • Schools that produced two or more case studies represent development of L2L approaches by teachers which is progressive, evidence-based and cumulative.

L2L approaches used in schools:

  • Talk-based aspects of learning have consistently been productive across schools. The development of a language for learning and communicating about learning to others (including outside of the school) has been valued and effective. 
  • Formative assessment strategies have become an increasingly common focus across schools. This includes assessment for learning, peer-assessment and self-assessment approaches and in all cases there is a strong focus on talk for learning.
  • There has been a move away from implementing specific ‘off the shelf’ packages or separate L2L lessons; the teachers are more likely to develop and tinker with approaches to meet the needs of pupils in their class and to suit the context in which they work.

Scaling up: 

  • Many of the teachers started off the project as isolated innovators. For some this did not change, but for most there was a process of expansion and dissemination of the innovations. 
  • Scaling up was challenging with teachers finding that it was not just about spreading the word, but required supportive professional development. 
  • Many teachers are exploring knowledge transfer (translation) processes. 
  • For effective implementation of L2L approaches across a school there needs to be sustained dialogue about the associated pedagogy and time for the development of new skills for both pupils and staff. 
  • Teachers need to be encouraged to adapt approaches through enquiry and make them their own. This requires time, space and support.

5R Focus: 

  • The 5Rs model of dispositions (readiness, resourcefulness, remembering, resilience and reflection) has been a useful and effective basis for developing L2L approaches in schools.
  • There are some indications that these could usefully be developed further to include a social dimension with a sixth ‘R’ focusing on responsibility or reciprocity.

Research findings

Data were analysed across the project focusing on the development of L2L and its impact on learners, on teachers, on schools and on the wider community. In addition conclusions were drawn about what is understood by the term Learning to Learn.

Learners

Consultation with learners has been an import part of the project; by the third year all schools were consulting pupils as an important part of their case studies. 

  • Pupils involved in the project were overwhelmingly positive about L2L. They were more motivated to learn and more aware of learning as a process. 
  • Development of a vocabulary for talk about learning was apparent in L2L classes and there was progression in this language development linked with time in the project and with pupil age. 
  • Pupils provided evidence of knowledge and understanding of their own learning. They not only understand the learning process but can also be skilful in the way that they approach learning across different contexts. 
  • Quantitative data on pupil attitudes showed pupils to have positive dispositions to learning and that this was more likely where a school-wide approach to L2L was adopted. 
  • In all of the schools the teachers believed that L2L had a positive impact on learning; the majority of schools (65%) had research evidence of the impact of L2L on assessed and tested attainment at group and class level, though this was not necessarily evident in school level results.

Teachers and teaching

The positive impact of the project on the professional development of the teachers involved was clearly demonstrated. 

  • Teachers valued the professional autonomy that the enquiry-based approach to action research afforded in terms of the investigation of L2L approaches as well as their own practice.
  • Teachers have been consistently positive about involvement in the L2L project and have expressed increased motivation for their work. 
  • Adopting L2L approaches has allowed teachers the capacity to manage change effectively, moving towards new approaches and policy developments from a critical and professional standpoint.

Schools

There has been great variety in the impact of the project on schools. This has depended on the scale of the project and the profile of the lead researchers. 

  • The culture and structures of some schools have a better fit with the implementation of L2L. 
  • The success of L2L in schools has depended on the enthusiasm and commitment of key individuals, although these people are not necessarily in typical school leadership roles. 
  • In some schools L2L has provided a set of practices which have encouraged certain types of leadership and CPD and development processes for all staff.

Wider community

In many schools the project has extended beyond the school to include the wider community and the increased involvement of parents understanding learning in schools. 

  • Four schools focused their research explicitly on innovations for consulting and involving parents’ interaction and involvement related to learning.
  • L2L approaches have improved relationships and communication about learning between school and home.

Impact of ICT

ICT has supported the professional work of the teachers and the development of L2L in classrooms. 

  • ICT was integral to the research approach 
  • It was the focus of a number of school-based investigations where it was found to contribute to effective teaching and learning. 
  • ICT can support pupils’ reflections on learning as they develop their understanding and develop their learning capabilities.

What is meant by the term Learning to Learn?

Throughout the project there has been consultation about what is meant by the term ‘Learning to Learn’. 

  • L2L is not simply a set of activities or techniques which can be implemented in schools, rather it is range of interlocking methods and approaches that can be successful in supporting the development of effective learning habits and dispositions. 
  • An approach based on collaborative professional enquiry into L2L through the use of practical classroom strategies is clearly supportive of such development.

Conclusions

The impact on pupils and their learning is clearly positive, with both qualitative and quantitative data providing evidence of improved learning, clear indications of positive attitudes and dispositions for learning as well as improved achievement and attainment associated with the project and Learning to Learn activities which the schools have undertaken. After three years of work in their schools the teachers involved are positive about their involvement in the project and clearly value the opportunity to develop professionally while investigating what ‘learning to learn’ looks like in their schools.

Within the L2L project there is evidence to show that pupils are more aware of metacognitive processes (thinking about their learning) than pupils outside the project. There is some evidence that for these pupils there is a greater relationship between thought and talk. It seems likely that there is some sort of interaction effect between the prioritising of talk about Learning to Learn in the classroom and the way in which the pupils individually reflect on their own learning processes. This would confirm some kind of virtuous circle between what the children are thinking about their learning and what they are talking about.

We can conclude that the Learning to Learn project has been successful in enabling teachers to focus on improving the quality of learning in their schools and that this can be identified in pupils’ assessed performance in tests and examinations as well as in their attitudes and achievements more broadly and furthermore that the teachers have valued the opportunity for professional development and enquiry provided by the project.

Some clear challenges have also emerged. It is difficult to maintain a development focus over three years in schools with so many competing demands on time and attention. Where the scale of the development work has increased, this has created its own challenges as new colleagues are involved with different understandings of what is makes Learning to Learn successful.

Finally the diversity of schools, teachers and approaches makes it difficult to draw clear conclusions about precisely what the benefits of Learning to Learn in this project are and how they have been achieved. We believe that a range of factors have contributed to the success of the project in the schools involved. These have included the particular Learning to Learn techniques and approaches investigated by the teachers and the process of enquiry itself.

Kate Wall, lecturer in education, Newcastle University

School case studies

Exploring student resilience, Treviglas High School, Cornwall

Treviglas joined in the third year of the project as the lead teacher had moved from another L2L project school and wanted to stay involved in the project. For this piece of research the idea of student resilience was explored and how it could support student motivation to persevere with mathematical challenges and achieve success. It was found that an advance planner could have a positive impact on students, predominantly in the guise of increased motivation and the development of a perceived importance of the subject. However, the section of the advance planner requiring pupils to state ‘how they learned’ was often completed without consideration and so further investigation of how pupils could be supported in this type of reflection could be important. Detailed analysis of the 2006 SATs results in comparison to the 2005 SATs results showed a marked increase in the number of higher levels attained by the group as compared to a control group from the previous year.

Specific L2L-focused days, Brannel High School, Cornwall

This research used a whole-school approach. The aim was to introduce the whole staff to the idea that developing learning dispositions was the key to learning and if done successfully could have an impact on motivation and pupil attainment. While staff were at liberty to develop their own strategies there would be a compulsory area of development for staff with the introduction of a Learning to Learn (L2L) programme. After a year of this approach it was found that pupils enjoyed working with their friends and tutors and were beginning to understand themselves as learners.

However, some staff found the compulsory programme challenging with older pupils and some pupils resented missing some of their favourite subjects within the rolling programme. There was a statistically significant improvement in attitude to learning across the whole project with particular success in Years 9 and 10 and there appeared to be an improvement in attainment in Year 9.

Cooperative learning approaches, Fallibroome High School, Cheshire

In the first year cooperative learning approaches and the strategies needed to implement them across Year 7 were investigated. It was found that the practical nature of cooperative learning was appreciated by staff and that the strategies had a positive impact on students.

The focus in the second year was divided between two case studies. One continued the work of year one looking at how cooperative learning affected pupils’ levels of engagement, finding that this kind of development needs a professional learning programme to be successful.

The second looked explicitly at peer assessment in geography, finding an improved quality in classroom tasks and in homework.

Continuing to scale up the research profile in school, three case studies were produced by the school. The first followed up the teacher learning aspect of successful L2L innovation finding that research provides useful information to inform this process, while the other two looked at the specifics of innovation in the classroom in geography and DT.

Addressing boys’ underachievement, The Roseland School, Cornwall

This research explored whether teaching English to single gender groups of Year 9 pupils would support underachieving boys’ learning. It was found that marks in the Key Stage 3 SATs were higher and the gender gap had closed with the boys doing much better than previously. Pupil attitudes were also positive, particularly from the boys.

In year two, the same classes continued in single gender classes into Year 10 and the policy was extended to the new Year 9. There was continued success with both Year 9 and 10 groups showing improved attainment data, particularly in writing-based assessment. Students and teacher attitudes continued to be positive.

The research aims were followed through to the final year, with the target group sitting their GCSE examinations. The findings showed that the gender gap had been reversed, with boys outperforming girls in English where single gender classes had been used. Assessment for learning strategies were found to complement the approach well.

Mind-friendly learning, Henbury High School, Cheshire

This case study focused on mind-friendly learning approaches and how they could be applied to the learning of Year 7 students across five tutor groups. The students were encouraged to investigate, alongside their tutors, how they learned best and how they could maximise their ability to remember, in particular focusing on mind maps. The research found that the students had become more involved in the learning process and that they applied the different strategies across contexts. An increase in student motivation was also seen alongside a curiosity about a wide range of teaching and learning strategies used in school. Mind maps were concluded to be a powerful tool for student learning.

Promoting learning processes, Ellesmere Port Specialist School for Performing Arts (Sutton High School), Cheshire

The research initially focused on how mind-friendly starter and plenary activities could be used to support learning in Key Stage 3 humanities and mathematics. From the first year of research it was found that mind maps were particularly useful at introducing content and encouraging discussion. The latter was also promoted through the use of peer support. Involvement in the project supported pupils’ awareness and understanding of learning processes and improved motivation.

In the year two project this focus was extended to include the use of ICT as a tool to support these mind-friendly activities; in particular, PowerPoint presentations were investigated in mathematics lessons. The findings were very positive for pupils and teachers alike with an apparent readiness to learn attributed to the starter activities. The activities were also seen to improve pupils’ remembering skills of mathematical factual knowledge.

The aim of supporting pupils’ ability to remember information was followed up in the final year of the project where an approach first used in infant schools was adapted for use in secondary maths: learning mats. The mats aimed to provide the pupils with topic-based factual information to support learning. The students began to devise their own learning mats based on their own targets and they were used successfully to support GCSE revision.

For further information (including downloads of the case studies and reports) see the Campaign for Learning website