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“Learning Power is the Teaching that will Most Help Your Pupils Tomorrow,” says Professor Guy Claxton

March 8, 2018, 4:27 GMT+1
Read in 7 minutes
  • Professor Guy Claxton tells us why too many schools today are neglecting the teaching that will be most helpful for pupils tomorrow…

To those unfamiliar with it, how would you summarise the learning power approach?
It’s a deliberate attempt to create a culture in schools with two main objectives. One is to maximise the levels of achievement of all students in the school, and the other is to do that in a way that deliberately and systemically builds their capacity to ‘be their own teachers’. It’s teaching in a way that progressively cultivates students’ ability to organise, manage plan, design and troubleshoot learning for themselves.

That’s different from ‘traditional’ teaching, where the risk has always been that you can get good results, but in a way that builds increasing dependence, rather than independence; with a narrow focus on correct answers and test results, and not on building students’ capacity to be more curious, imaginative, resourceful and resilient in their own right.

Is there are a part that parents can play in this?
The first thing they can do is understand and support the schools adopting this kind of approach to education. I previously co-wrote a book [with Bill Lucas] called Educating Ruby to help parents identify various unhelpful practices at home which, often without thinking, they can be steering their children towards.

Carol Dweck’s research has shown that children are able to pick up a ‘growth mindset’, whereby they’re less anxious in the face of failure. Parents – and teachers – can communicate a fixed mindset attitude to their kids by the way they react when their children are struggling or frustrated. Parents who react as if that’s the child letting themselves down, that they’ve done something wrong, are more likely to have children who develop an anxious, striving approach to learning.

You’ve previously talked of teaching children ‘positive habits of mind’ – can you expand on what those are?
We’ve done a lot of work on trying to identify the different ingredients in children’s minds that steer them towards a more positive, optimistic, resilient approach to learning. It’s curiosity, being inquisitive, wondering about things. Resilience, persistence in the face of difficulty and the ability to be both an effective collaborator and a good solo learner. Then there’s concentration – the ability to stay focused despite distractions, which is a huge asset in the modern world where there are all kinds of things on screens trying to distract you.

The learning power approach is underpinned by a big shift in psychology, which is understanding that what we’ve thought of as ‘intelligence’ isn’t some fixed pot of ability kids are given when they’re born and which doesn’t get any bigger. On the contrary, it’s almost like an orchestra of mental abilities, all of which one can learn to ‘play’ better.

Is there a way of ensuring teaching standards are being maintained and improved, without enacting punitive measures on the part of teachers and leaders?
Of course, accountability’s important. With whatever we’re doing, or intend to do, in schools we need evidence as to whether we’re being effective or not. Nothing in the learning power approach is contrary to the need to evidence the progress or development of these mental attributes, but we do need to be careful.

There are many ways of, to use my preferred word, ‘evidencing’ progression. They include using portfolios or questionnaires, peer reports, teacher judgements or parents’ judgements. In business, people are perfectly used to having 360° appraisals once a year in terms of their attitudes and their performance at work. There’s no reason why we shouldn’t embrace a mixture of quantitative and qualitative methods.

If you buy into the rationale of why developing these qualities of mind is so important, then you’ll go looking for more effective forms of evidencing and accountability, rather than throw your hands up and say ‘It’s all too nebulous, we can’t measure it’.

Would it be fair to say you see the ‘traditional versus progressive teaching’ debate as a ‘phoney war’?
To me, it seems unnecessary to start from an assumption that there’s some kind of opposition between the desire to help children develop strong and supple minds that equip them for the 21st century, and the desire to teach them sums, spellings and whatever else. There’s no contrast between those two things.

The way we look at it is that every teacher is always in the business of cultivating some kind of attitude towards learning. You can’t not be. I tend to see what happens in classrooms as layers of flow in a river. Knowledge is being acquired on the surface; it’s fairly visible and quite fast flowing. Skills are lower down, moving a little more slowly – the development of literacy and numeracy, for example. Down at the bottom of the river is the gradual development of attitudes and habits of mind.

Our argument is simply that we ought to be more conscious and intentional about what’s going on at the lowest level and ensuring that it’s producing confident explorers, rather than these anxious little test takers.

In what single way could the primary education system in England, as it currently stands, be improved?
There are many starting places! I’d want you to give me every primary school headteacher in the country for a day, in a very large room, and get them to the point where they understand what’s possible and desirable; where they can see that it really is a living, practical possibility, both psychologically and educationally, to turn out kids who are robust, resilient and unafraid of complexity or difficulty.

Kids who know how to talk to each other about the process of learning. If we could create that mindshift – and I know that’s a big thing – then everything else will follow from that.

Career timeline

1963 “O Levels surprisingly good. Decided to try to be ‘bright’”
1973 “Oxford doctorate savaged by examiners. Nine months’ rewriting boosted my resilience no end!”
1999 “Published Teaching to Learn, the first book about learning power”
2002 “Published Building Learning Power and started a new career as an educational consultant”
2008 “Founded the Winchester University Centre for Real-World Learning with my friend Bill Lucas”
2017 “Retired – and busier than ever!”

Guy Claxton’s latest book, The Learning Power Approach – Teaching Learners to Teach Themselves is available now, published by Crown House Publishing