Saturday, 15 August 2009

Summer Reading: Guy Claxton-What’s The Point of School?

Atlas, it's time for your bath

Guy Claxton is an Honorary Visiting Fellow at Bristol in the Graduate School of Education and the Institute of Advanced Studies. I first found out about his work nearly 2 years ago and I have found it a source of inspiration ever since. Although "What's the Point of School? looks at the UK Educational system, there are many universal themes including how a heavy testing regime can stifle creativity and be detrimental to “real” learning. There are so many thought-provoking points in his book that I will only focus on those that are meaningful to me now. This is definitely a book to pick up every so often to find inspiration on how to deal with new issues...

Guy Claxton’s Building Learning Power programme is defined by a series of small achievable steps building towards deeper change in learning habits. It is not the main theme of the book but it is mentioned as an example of how to encourage the development of “real” learning in school, in opposition to just ensuring students are ready for exams.

BLP has four 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 are being coached in how to be usefully reflective about their own learning journeys, they are also developing collaboration skills and developing a richer meta-language in which to talk, not just about the content of their learning, but bout its process as well.
“What’s the point of school” does consider what learning in schools should look like in the 21st century but its focus is more on the faults of our UK educational system as it stands and how a shift of priorities is needed to improve the current system.

So, what is a confident learner according to Guy Claxton?
· A curious individual-up for new challenges and ready to investigate them;
· Somebody who is resilient;
· Somebody who can balance imagination and logic in order to think “with a mix of creativity and clarity”;
· Somebody who is confident enough to ask for help when needed and receive feedback without getting upset;
· Somebody who can slow down to think things through.

This vision of a confident learner shows how important it is to manage emotions in order to teach effectively. The argument throughout the book is that all children are naturally curious and eager to find out about completely new things. Although I would not dispute the fact all children were born that way, I am not convinced that this appetite is still fully intact by the time our students reach us as teenagers-a time in their lives when their emotions are even more problematic to manage not just for the adults around them but for the teenagers themselves.

Maybe it has something to do with the fact that the more untouched the area of learning, the more enthusiasm for learning it is likely to generate-hence the need for world languages to introduce content in a wide variety of ways and find compelling contexts to do so and avoid the deja vu feeling of replicating activities done in the mother tongue . An element of choice also gives students the feeling that they are more in control of their learning. However, for languages this choice will have to be more limited at the beginning of the language-learning process as learners are more dependent on resources like dictionaries (or teacher!).

From a “Confident” Learner, Guy Claxton moves on to a “Powerful Learner”.
Curiosity, the confidence to say “I don’t know”, investigation skills, imagination are still there, but other attributes are also mentioned like:
· “The ability to think carefully, rigorously and methodically”
· Sociability, being “ good at sharing ideas, suggestions and resources”
· The ability to “step back and take stock of progress”
· Self-awareness

I was really interested by the list of “subjects” suggested by teachers to be part of an ideal curriculum aiming to prepare young people for the complexities and uncertainties of their future:
· Human rights
· Statistics and probabilities
· Empathy
· Risk-management
· Negotiation/ Mediation
· Ecology
· How to think
· Epistemology
· Collaboration
· Literacy
· Global awareness
· Ethics
· Healthy scepticism
· Body awareness
· Neuroscience
· Resilience
· Creativity
· Will power
· Giving and taking feedback
· Relaxation

My first reaction was-how useful, but how do you teach this? My second reaction, however, was to see how easily they could all be taught through my subject, languages. For instance...
Human rights? teach them about schools and corporal punishment or differences in school rules between countries
Statistics and probabilities? Do/study surveys on favourite leisure pursuits or holiday destinations
Empathy? How can you tell this person is happy, worried, tired etc.. by listening to their voice or watching a short video clip
Risk-management? Create safe environment for students to practise the language, reward those who are willing to model good language for others.

Although no direct reference was made to the specific situation of languages in the UK, Guy Claxton did mention languages when pointing out to how unreliable published school performance data can be. “If young people are encouraged into easier subjects-by letting them drop say, Physics or French-results can look better”, with the added opinion that “The more important you make the achievement of measurable targets, the more people will find a way of massaging the figures”. Nothing new there...

I would agree that there is far too much emphasis on measurable targets, but what’s the point of a target you can’t measure? I can see that a lot of targets should rely far more on qualitative data rather than raw exam results but it seems to me that as the whole system is caught up in a data tangle, individual schools cannot take it upon them to disentangle themselves on their own. The system must include safeguards for underachievement, but apart from that, why is laissez-faire only ever good enough just for the economy? Challenging thought, I know...

I also loved the words from Joseph Payne, dating back to 1856, against continual testing and likening it to “continually pulling up the plants to see the conditions of the roots, the consequence of which was that all good natural growth was stopped”. I suppose it is a bit like constantly opening the oven door when a cake is baking: what looked at first quite promising could end up completely deflated and ruined.

As far as the power of ICT to "save" Education is concerned, I agree with Guy Claxton that the focus should be on “helping them to develop the kind of reflective awareness that builds discernment and transfer” rather than “doing ... tedious busywork”. This is where networking is so useful: You never know what technology can do for you until you start experimenting with it. The more experimentation, the more idea on how to creatively use ICT to encourage "real" learning...


Marcy Webb said...

Does Guy Paxton suggests dismantling the current system as it exists now, in order to make room for those subjects which results in more satisfying learning and teaching?

I ask the above because, with every new innovation that works, something has to be thrown away that isn't working to make room.

Perhaps a summer read next year for the faculty and staff @ my place of employ. Thank you for your post.

aliceayel said...

Very interesting post Isabelle, thank you. I do agree that the main pressure in the UK are the exams/ tets, levels/grades students must achieve which ruins the fun part of teaching and learning. We don't have time to do exciting projects because we have to follow the curriculum. Guy Claxton's book seems very thought provoking and I am considering reading it, thank you.

IC Jones said...

Thanks, Alice. Well worh a read indeed and great to reflect on what our schools are doing as well as our individual practice.

IC Jones said...

Hi Marcy
As I understand it, Guy Claxton is looking at ways to re-energize "real" learning within the present system. He does not prescribe any lists of subjects but does talk about the quality of the learning experience in terms of buiding leaning skills. If you read the book, do let me know how you see it.

Anonymous said...

I know you wrote this a long time ago. But I would like to know where the Joseph Payne quote is from, a book? A speech? as I would like to cite that quote in a research project I am working on.
Please post back on here.