Wednesday, 21 November 2007

Thinking about Learning: Building Learning Power

Against a backdrop of constant pressure on schools to produce better and better results, there has been an on-going debate over the last ten years about what constitute effective teaching. Interestingly enough, the focus on teaching has shifted to learning, hence a multiplication of programmes aiming to develop independent learning skills. Amongst Thinking Skills, Learning To Learn and Critical Thinking programmes, Building Learning Power (BLP) has the appeal of the “let’s get back to basics” sort.

In the latest ATL Report, Guy Claxton, its creator, who is a professor of learning sciences at The University of Bristol Graduate School of Education and associate director (learning) for the Specialist School and Academies Trust, talks about Building Learning Power as “the tortoise rather than the hare” amongst such programmes, defined by a series of small achievable steps building towards deeper change in learning habits.

BLP has four clear aims:

· To raise standards of achievement
· To increase levels of student engagement
· To make teaching more satisfying
· To prepare young people to deal with out-of-school challenges by expanding their capacity and appetite for real-life learning

As students develop their skills, they become more willing and able to take on more responsibility for their own learning. As passivity decreases, off-task messing about is also reduced because students know how to cope when learning gets too challenging. As teaching is not interrupted by off-task behaviour, it becomes more effective and more gratifying and the results go up too.

According to Guy Claxton, “The trick is to put the development of those transferable habits of mind at the centre of everything a school does: then all else follows”. If it sounds easy to implement, don’t be deceived. Consistency is probably the hardest ideal to achieve in a large school, probably even more so in secondary schools where students can be taught by 5 different teachers in a day are more likely to be exposed to mixed messages. Linking the BLP concept therefore needs to be embedded in as many school activities as possible to be slowly absorbed into the school ethos.

As BLP is not just hints and tips to help learning taking place, nor a stand-alone course on “thinking skills” or “learning to learn”, it needs to be “ woven through normal lessons”, with the implication of massive buy-in from the teaching staff.

Guy Claxton justifies BLP’s cross-curricular rather than discreet approach by the fact that Research shows that discreet courses, “though they are well received students, often leave disappointing residues”.

BLP invites teachers to think about their regular lessons in “split-screen” terms. On one screen is the content (Ordering a meal at the restaurant) or specific skills (literacy) they want to develop in the lesson and on the other screen, there is the “general learning capacity” they want their students to think about and develop.

BLP can also be developed with the support of paper-based and DVD resources that can be bought. The resources document hundreds of such small-scale, manageable shifts to teaching methods aiming to develop strong learning approaches and habits.

As students are being coached in how to be usefully reflective about their own learning journeys, they are also developing collaboration skills and developing a richer language in which to talk, not just about the content of learning, but its process as well.

At the City of Bristol Academy the teachers include their termly reports a rating on students’ levels of resourcefulness, resilience, reflectiveness and learning relationships. They also need to mention an overall level reached by each student in their learning independence.

The academy’s percentage of A*-C grades at GCSE has tripled over the last five years, largely, says the deputy principal, as a result of coaching and rewarding students’ developing independence.

Easy? Simple in principle, but there is a tricky bit: Teachers will need to be learners too and change some of their teaching habits as well as challenge some of their perceptions about what is effective learning . I would call it simply challenging.

The 4 Rs and 17 Learning Muscles of BLP

Resilience-locking on to learning
· Perseverance: sticking with difficulty
· Absorption: becoming engrossed in learning
· Noticing: looking for patterns and clues
· Managing distractions: strengthening concentration

Resourcefulness-a flexible toolkit for learning
· Questioning: digging down into things
· Connecting: making links and metaphors
· Imagining: developing the mind’s eye
· Reasoning: disciplined thinking
· Capitalising: creating your own support

Reflection-being strategic and self-aware
· Planning: anticipating obstacles
· Revising: redrafting and self-evaluating
· Distilling: looking to apply what has been learned
· Meta-learning: thinking and talking like a learner

Reciprocity-the social side of learning
· Interdependence: giving and taking feedback
· Collaborating: being a good team player
· Empathy and Listening: seeing through other people’s eyes
· Imitation: learning new ways to think by watching others

Building Learning Power Home Page

Building Learning Power Powerpoint

Sunday, 18 November 2007

Test Your English and Feed The World

FreeRice is the invention of US online fundraising pioneer John Breen. The FreeRice game is at and tests the vocabulary of participants. For each click on a correct answer, the website donates money to buy 10 grains of rice for the developing world.

Companies advertising on the website provide the money to the WFP to buy and distribute the rice. FreeRice went online in early October and has now raised 1bn grains of rice, which is enough rice to feed 50,000 people for one day.

How does playing the vocabulary game at FreeRice can help your students?

· Formulate ideas better
· Write better papers, emails and business letters
· Speak more precisely and persuasively
· Understand what you read in more details
· Read faster because you understand better
· Get better grades in all subjects, as good literacy is essential across the curriculum
· Perform better at job interviews

The website even claims: “After you have done FreeRice for a couple of days, you may notice an odd phenomenon. Words that you have never consciously used before will begin to pop into your head while you are speaking or writing. You will feel yourself using and knowing more words.”

How does the FreeRice vocabulary program work?

FreeRice has a database containing thousands of words at varying degrees of difficulty. There are words appropriate for people just learning English and words that will even challenge academics.

FreeRice automatically adjusts to your level of vocabulary. It starts by giving you words at different levels of difficulty and then, based on how you do, assigns you an approximate starting level. You then determine a more exact level for yourself as you play. When you get a word wrong, you go to an easier level. When you get three words in a row right, you go to a harder level. This one-to-three ratio is best for keeping you at the “outer fringe” of your vocabulary, where learning can take place.

This certainly is a different way to develop literacy skills and the international dimension…

Friday, 16 November 2007

MFL Resources Launches New Wiki

Already a favourite with many MFL teachers, the MFL Resources Yahoo group is a useful resource moderated by Helen Meyers and a handful of helpful volunteers. It is a very busy-and friendly- forum where languages teachers from all over the world exchange ideas and materials to teach MFL in a creative manner.

For those of you who do not know Helen Myers, she is a MFL teacher & Assistant Head at The Ashcombe School in Dorking, Surrey. She is also the President of ALL (Association for Language Learning) and ALL London Branch Chair. Through her work at The Ashcombe School and ALL, she has inspired many teachers across the country to use ICT amongst other tools to motivate students and provided constant support to language teachers, in particular through her research and actions to raise awareness of the issues linked with Severity of Grading at GCSE in MFL.

The MFL Resources Yahoo group also has a website at
which houses resources kindly donated by members of the group.

Helen has now set up a Wiki for MFL Resources at

The idea is to use the Wiki initially as a way of sharing recommendations for 'published' resources so as to complement the resources created through the MFL Resources group. A few categories have already been set up and it is also a great way to develop “Wiki Skills” for all of us. I have added this link to my favourite Language Links as this project will no doubt grow bigger and bigger over the next few months.
Thank you, Helen!

Monday, 12 November 2007

Rt Hon John Redwood’s Diary: Learning Foreign Languages

I came across this article in via Joe Dale’s blog (see link in my favourite sites)

Rt Hon John Redwood’s article is interesting and relevant and I liked his comparison between compulsory Latin and the current situation in mfl. Those were different times and the main motivation was then to get into University, with languages recognised as a selection criteria.

“There is a case to say that children under 16 do not always make informed choices about what subjects are best for them, and that a modern language should be one of the elements of a balanced education. Making children study a language up to 16 gives them the option to develop this interest later in their academic careers if it works for them.”

Why later? This goes again all research that suggests that it is easier to learn a language at an early age.

Joe Dale’s answer focused on the following points:

· Compulsory languages at Primary level is a positive step although there are training issues.
· Sustainability and progression are key.
· KS4 uptake is affected by perceived difficulty of MFL compared to other subjects.
· This perception is backed up by data and a proven severity of grading at GCSE.
· Relevance is questioned and there is a lack of motivation.
· Languages are not necessarily a priority for schools’ Senior Management Teams, who prefer to concentrate on other subjects to achieve their 5 A*-C targets.
· We must find a way to reverse the downward trend and ICT may have a role to play.

I think you have said it all, Joe!

As regards Primary Language, I feel like you that good quality training is key as well as the co-ordination at LA level to ensure smooth transition between KS2 and KS3. Indeed, no single school can take this on-particularly if you happen to have 40-odd feeder primary schools.

If I remember well, it is the old transition chestnut that was so hard to crack in the previous PL experiment that it lead to its failure... However, I would argue that this should not be the role of Language Colleges only-it can also be a glimmer of hope and a breath of fresh of fresh air for all MFL colleagues.

Perceived difficulty is a tough one too. It is backed up by data and as much as I disagree with some decisions taken at Senior Management levels in schools, it is true that Languages for all is a luxury many schools cannot afford if they want to compete in leagues table.

Motivation is an issue, but that's when the wonderful creativity of so many of our colleagues comes into play. Anyway... are all our students motivated to study English, Maths or Science?

Equal opportunity of access to ICT for all MFL classes is one issue I want to look at to boost motivation. Why should only a few classes be allowed access, as is often the case, depending on random timetabling and staff ICT Training?

Maybe we should move from a plain "Languages for All" to a "Languages with ICT for All"...