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

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