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Lessons for a life of change

Techniques to ensure children learn for a lifetime are more than just another fad, writes Guy Claxton

Schools minister David Miliband says that one of the core functions of education for "the young Britons of the 21st century" is "learning to learn in preparation for a lifetime of change". And indeed primary schools have been keen to embrace techniques that claim to help children to be more effective learners.

Everywhere you go, children can draw a "mind map", tell you their "learning style", and explain why they need to keep sipping water while they are learning (because if they don't their brain cells will dry up).

But do these hints and tips actually help to achieve Miliband's ambitious aim? Is helping children learn better the same thing as helping them become better (lifelong) learners?

How have approaches to improving the quality of learning changed over the past two decades? And is it now possible to meet Miliband's intention more powerfully and more reliably?

There have been four stages so far in the evolution of aproaches to learning to learn. In the first generation, "improving learning", to put it bluntly, just meant raising standards. For these schools and teachers, learning is another word for achievement.

A first-generation teacher creates interesting, orderly lessons that will put her children firmly on the path to good results. But she does not think much about what is going on at the students' end of the teaching-and-learning process.

The second generation of approaches saw learning as a process, as something interesting that happens between children's ears. These teachers thought of learning as a matter of skill or technique, and taught their children a range of strategies that would help them understand, organise and retain knowledge, and manage their time and tasks more effectively.

Pupils learnt how to create pretty diagrams like spindly trees that showed how the animal kingdom was structured, and how to use mnemonics to remember the colours of the rainbow.

Study skills, revision skills or learning skills were the name of the game.

But being an effective learner involves more than technique - preference and personality come into play as well. So new third-generation approaches homed in on "learning styles", and assumed that teachers could help children learn better by finding out what their predominant style was, and teaching them accordingly.

A third-generation teacher would give her children learning styles questionnaires and use the answers to adjust her teaching. She might put notes in her lesson plans reminding her "not to forget the kinaesthetic learners", and to do some "brain gym" exercises. She might also believe that physical and emotional conditions affect learning a good deal, and that self-esteem and emotional intelligence are crucial.

The third-generation approaches were holistic, not strongly developmental.

Often the categories used were rather crude and scientifically suspect. The evidence is that we are all much more changeable as learners, both between different tasks and contexts, and over longer periods of time, than such models supposed.

A child who says: "I can't do all that reading, Miss, I'm a kinaesthetic learner" has not been liberated and challenged to grow. And a teacher who succeeds in creating a calm and safe learning environment may not be giving her children the "hardening off" they will surely need to thrive in less protected environments.

More recently, a new generation of approaches has begun to develop. They too recognise the importance of dispositions but see them as habits to be cultivated. This means seeing the classroom as a place where positive attitudes and tolerances are encouraged, over time, rather than just dealt with in a one-off lesson.

Helping children to learn how to learn in preparation for a lifetime of change - Miliband's wish - is not just a more efficient way to get good test results but is a result in itself. And teachers have to start to think of themselves as learning coaches - a role that weaves right through literacy and numeracy and science and history.

The growing realisation is that, though this means more than water bottles and brain gym, it is practical and achievable.

But just as two minutes of brain gym every so often will not make you fitter, so the hints and tips and bottles of water will not, by themselves, develop learning power. It means going beyond flatpacks and fine words and discovering smart, low-cost, low-risk, high-leverage things that teachers can do to shift the learning climate by five degrees.

When that happens, children's levels of achievement and attainment go up.

They learn more about the world they live in. Their literacy and numeracy improve. And dozens of action research projects up and down the country have demonstrated that they also come to feel more confident, capable and creative in the face of the real-world challenges they meet.

As two Cardiff 10-year-olds reflected "this will be useful to us when we are sitting exams and can't ask the teacher", and "they tell you how to do well and not just in school".

Guy Claxton is professor of learning sciences, Graduate School of Education, Bristol university. Teaching Children to Learn, Burning Issues in Education, No. 11, 2004, National Primary Trust, into Building Resourceful, Resilient and Reflective Learners The Cardiff Learning to Learn Project Vols. I, II and III; from Cardiff schools senior adviser Alice Griffith,

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* are curious, creative and critical

* they like to ask questions - they wonder "how come"

* they use their imaginations to explore possibilities - they wonder "what if?"

* they don't take things for granted - they tend to say "yes,but..."


Fourth-generation teachers help children develop "learning muscles" and "learning stamina" (terms which they might well use as they chat to them).

They aim to create a climate where it is "cool" to try, have a go, make mistakes, ask questions, use your imagination, and talk about the "how" of learning. They make a point of saying "I don't know", "That's a good question" and "How could we find out?"

The children are seen as partners in finding out about learning, a process that complements and supports the curriculum.

Interest in learning is palpable in the classroom.

There may be a "wonder wall" where the children have amassed all their own questions, and it is a reward to be the person who picks one and leads a "wonder session".

There could be a "riskometer" on the wall where the children stick their photos to indicate their self-selected level of risk as they embark on an activity.

There is often a big poster about "what to do when you don't know what to do" which the children have made, and to which they frequently refer. They discover and add new ideas to it as they go along. And each child may have their "explorer's log-book" in which they reflect on their learning: what did I find hard? How did I get over it? What did I learn about how to be a good learner? When else could I use that strategy?

In the fourth generation, the idea of teaching children to be lifelong learners becomes a reality.

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