Schools have two main aims. One is to help young people develop the skills and knowledge they will need for further study, and the grades that will get them into the courses they want. They will need to know how to write a decent essay, and to get the two Bs and a C that will get them onto that engineering apprenticeship, say. The second is to help young people cultivate the attitudes and dispositions they will need to benefit from these courses, and to be successful in work and life more generally. Good grades open the doors of opportunity; good attitudes help people to flourish in the long run. To be successful, students need knowledge and skills and habits of mind such as perseverance, curiosity and imagination.
Some people, however, are set on proving that these goals are incompatible. They want you to believe that it is either knowledge or skills; either rigour or resilience. Trads – the traditionalists – are for knowledge and rigour and against what they think of as nebulous qualities such as empathy or ‘grit’. Progs – the progressives – are all in favour of lifelong learning and character strengths, but don’t give a hoot about Shakespeare or calculus. Or so each team in this futile tug-of-war caricatures the other’s position.
But the battle is phoney and unnecessary. It is possible to teach in a way that delivers both. You can teach for good grades and transferable habits of mind. That’s what a new school of thought about teaching – what I call the Learning Power Approach (LPA) – has discovered. It’s a mistake to see these vital attributes as something to be ‘taught’, and as competing for time with maths and English. Dispositions are more like a deep layer of learning that is always present in the classroom.
Think of it like a river. On the surface, packages of knowledge float by. Just below the surface are the skills and literacies that are being developed more gradually. And down in the depths of the river, moving more slowly, and even harder to see, attitudes towards learning itself are being formed. These attitudes either steer students towards independence and resilience, or towards dependency and passivity. You can teach the Tudors in a way that encourages thinking and experimenting, or in a way that develops an obsession with grades and a fear of making mistakes. It’s down to how you teach.
In the depths of the river, pedagogy matters more than curriculum. Different styles and methods of teaching lead to different outcomes. One style can lead to happy children with poor levels of achievement. Another can get good results but runs the serious risk of creating students who are compliant and dependent. But there is a third – the LPA – that gets good results in a way that also develops independence, initiative, determination and a love of learning. That is the holy grail of pedagogy: it delivers the best of both worlds.
In my new book The Learning Power Approach: Teaching Learners to Teach Themselves (published in November 2017 by Corwin in the USA and Crown House in the UK), I distil 20 years’ practical experience with my Building Learning Power framework, along with findings from a range of kindred approaches, into a set of design principles for teaching. The other pioneering pedagogies include Ron Berger’s Expeditionary Learning, Art Costa’s Habits of Mind, Ron Ritchhart’s Creating Cultures of Thinking, Lois Hetland’s Studio Thinking and Monash University’s Project for Enhancing Effective Learning (PEEL).
If a teacher implements a series of small tweaks to their classroom practice, students are gradually coached to take on responsibility for designing, managing, trouble-shooting and evaluating learning for themselves – and are thus better prepared for life after school, whether that is at university, college or in work. Fitting the learning turbo-charger means they will also learn what they need to know in school more deeply, flexibly and efficiently. Instead of the phoney war, we now have a win–win way of teaching. (Actually, it’s a win–win–win, because this type of student is easier and more satisfying to teach as well!)
Meet the author this spring at the Learning Power Approach (LPA) event in London as Professor Claxton draws out common threads and practice. Take a look at the full agenda and secure your place today.