Book review: The Learning Power Approach

Exploding the educational hamburger with complexity

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The Learning Power Approach: Teaching Learners to Teach Themselves
By Guy Claxton
Crown House Publishing, 248pp, £18.99, paperback
ISBN 978 1785832451


The education community seems to be churning out books. There is a sense in which it feels like we are all one great big greasy educational hamburger, eternally feasting on ourselves.

So, it was with a particular sense of gentle cynicism and Weltschmerz that I picked up another “educational approach” book – especially one with the title The Learning Power Approach.

Those familiar with author Guy Claxton’s decades of work might be a step ahead here. It became clear pretty quickly that this wasn’t just another “educational approach” book. It might skirt around the edges of “this one new trick to edu-philosophy!”, but Claxton’s ideas are well formulated, researched and articulated. He makes a conscious effort to encourage the reader to stop and be critical of everything he presents.

Claxton starts with a familiar, if sensible, gazette of the failings of our educational system: “If one talented hairdresser, footballer, dancer, or cartoonist comes out of school feeling like a failure, we should look again at our teaching”. “In some classrooms, teachers act as if being a ‘bright student’ or a ‘good student’ means getting all your answers right, quickly, the first time – and preferably without much effort. This is not a good idea to embed in young people’s minds.”

He develops a point about complexity and nuance that reminded me of Debra Kidd’s work: “Joseph Tainter, University of Utah historian and anthropologist and author of The Collapse of Complex Societies, says, ‘The simpler past seems more attractive than today’s complex reality and so people choose…simplicity and locality over complexity: [local] identity over internationalism. Politicians promote themselves by giving voice to this.’”

Considering this idea of complexity in education also leads to an entirely sensible list of the “family” of approaches, organisations and projects to which The Learning Power Approach belongs. This is so often a glaring omission in education books, which feel like they are renaming and reframing, rather than acknowledging the pyramid of sturdy path-forgers on whose shoulders they trample.

Meeting with a mentor

This book is both provocative and useful, without taking itself too seriously. Claxton provides oodles of things to try in the classroom and beyond, with clear rationale and while taking the time to acknowledge a plurality of approaches. It felt like a meeting with a mentor who understands how to coach teachers of all levels and persuasions.

A few small criticisms: the language is laudably accessible, but at times teeters on patronising (“pumping those learning muscles”, anyone?). Claxton makes extensive use of metaphor and catchy nicknames, which sometimes grates, but writing for such a wide audience in this genre it is not out of place. Most significantly, I have no doubt that Claxton has a wealth of knowledge on the research basis for some of his ideas, but they are not always explicitly explained here. The referencing seems slightly patchy in places.

Rising above

I am used to reading material that I quickly identify as belonging to a particular educational “camp” or not – and judging quickly as to its agenda, purpose and usefulness. I haven’t come across a piece in some time that seeks to rise above this educational gerrymandering in such a self-aware way. Read this description and try not to imagine EduTwitter, if you can: “simplistic thinkers squaring up to each other, threatening to escalate tension by their impulsive actions, and thus rendering the world more dangerous and volatile.”

Those who scoff at the “learning to learn” or “developing independent learners” strawmen that abound may find it takes a few chapters to be convinced. But there is joy as well as ammunition here: celebration of good practice, a clear commitment to acknowledge the source and give credit for ideas described and an international, grounded – at times positively avuncular – perspective.

Claxton both exploits and explodes some of education’s most famous false dichotomies with this book – and about time, too. After the dust settles, who knows: we might even be able to begin plant a community garden in what once was a no-man’s land. My metacognitive proficiency biceps do feel like they’ve had a good workout, after all.

*rolls up sleeves*

Lucy Rycroft-Smith is a former teacher. She is now a writer and editor. She tweets @honeypisquared

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