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The Conversation: Learning to learn

Derek Wise, head of Cramlington Community High in Northumberland, is a firm believer in helping students learn how to learn and boasts impressive results. Geoff Barton, head of King Edward VI School in Bury St Edmunds, Suffolk, asks him what the approach means in practice

Q: Cramlington High is well known for its emphasis on learning to learn (L2L). What does that mean exactly?

A: The futurist Alvin Toffler said that the illiterates of the 21st century wouldn't be those who don't know how to read and write, but those who don't know how to learn, unlearn and relearn.

For years we've taught kids subjects without teaching them explicitly how to get better at learning. But our students will have to be learners all their lives, so we have made L2L a core course for our intake year, with a time allocation on a par with maths and science.

We try to develop pupils in three ways: by making explicit the attributes of a good learner the 5Rs: resilience, resourcefulness, reasoning, responsibility and reflectivity together with thinking and ICT skills.

Q: So, how would day-to-day lessons be affected by that philosophy?

A: The discrete L2L lessons have given us a common vocabulary of learning, shared by both staff and students. The 5Rs are increasingly developed in lessons. All school reports have an attitude-to-learning section in which the 5Rs are evaluated on a five-point scale.

We noticed our students being more reflective and independent in their learning, so we extended our lessons to 75 minutes to support these processes. No doubt because pupils can see progress, it has increased expectations and their willingness to take on new challenges.

Q: Discrete L2L lessons can be seen as a bit marginal because they aren't subjects and have no exams. How do you give them credibility?

A: We started off with an hour a week and ran into exactly those problems. So we did away with tokenism. We allocated four hours a week and created a three classroom Discovery Zone for group and multimedia work. This involved refurbishing a block, purchasing ICT equipment and having furniture built to facilitate group work. Learning is central to everything we do, so it is natural for pupils to see themselves as being trained in L2L.

Q: Four hours a week! That's a huge amount of time a sign, I guess, of the importance you attach to L2L. So what kind of activities do pupils do and who writes the programme?

A: Learners of the 21st century will inevitably use ICT as a learning tool, so all our ICT teaching at key stage 3 is integrated into L2L. Lessons include group discussion and activity, individual work and reflection, group and individual presentations, and whole-class or group assessment against negotiated criteria.

Increasingly, an enquiry-based approach is used, with students choosing which aspects of a topic they wish to explore. All the time, however, students are challenged to reflect on their progress against the 5Rs, each of which has three levels.

Initially, we wrote the course ourselves, but later joined with Alistair Smith's company Alite (Accelerated Learning in Training and Education) to create a three-year course.

Q: And what's the impact of all of this what can your learners do now that they couldn't do before?

A: Our learners have a greater understanding of the learning process and know that they have some control over it. They have the confidence to try out different ways of learning. They understand the vocabulary of learning and are better equipped to communicate with their teachers. They work in groups better and our more able pupils are showing a greater degree of independence. They use ICT applications and are able to select relevant thinking tools to solve problems.

Of course, 13 is too late to reverse all their dependent habits. But we are making progress and it's no accident that our first L2L graduates got our best ever exam results and we are achieving consistently better results across the board.

There are many factors at work and it may well be that the lasting benefits of L2L only become apparent after pupils leave us and become the lifelong learners we hope they will be, with the habits, skills and confidence to learn, unlearn and relearn throughout their lives.


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