Champion of the unorthodox

1st August 2008 at 01:00
Thinkers who have shaped modern education Part 2 Guy Claxton explains to Judith Judd why he wants pupils to challenge things more

Imagine, guy claxton sometimes says to a headteacher, that you're walking along the street and you meet an 18-year-old who left your school a couple of years ago with a single D-grade GCSE, and he stops you and says: "I just wanted to tell you what a really good education I had." Wouldn't you feel fantastic?

To teachers beset by demands to improve results, Professor Claxton's challenge to government orthodoxy is liberating. "How we get from 45 per cent to 55 per cent of students getting five A-C grades is a small game," he says. "The more interesting and very rich game is with the 45 per cent who still don't get the grades. How do we get them to walk away from school saying they had a good education?"

Professor Claxton's admirers come from all quarters of the education world. He is the toast of education conferences, and teachers in around 600 schools have signed up to the building learning power programme that is based on his ideas. Sue Palmer, author of Toxic Childhood, and Mick Waters, curriculum director of the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority, have applauded his new book What's the Point of School? And next month he becomes co-director of the new Centre for Real-World Learning at the University of Winchester, where he will be asking what schools would look like if they were an apprenticeship for life and how adults learn in real life.

At the core of his approach is a shift away from the view of intelligence as a fixed IQ, towards the idea that intelligence is malleable and about using resources such as the web, working with others and solving problems. It follows that schools should be about teaching people how to learn and apply their learning, rather than instructing them in a body of knowledge. "Shakespeare and simultaneous equations have to defend their place in the curriculum not as cultural treasures, but in terms of the occasions they afford for mental activity," Professor Claxton says.

Talk about learning to learn is not new - in 1941, Sir Richard Livingstone, the Oxford scholar, wrote about "the capacity to learn"; and in 2003, David Miliband, former schools minister, spoke of "learning to learn in preparation for a lifetime of change" - but persuading teachers to act on it is. Professor Claxton believes that, for the past 10 years, he has helped teachers think more deeply and effectively about how to make it happen. Before that, he says, "the better-ways-of-learning territory was colonised by simplistic models such as Brain Gym, mind maps and individual learning styles". The ubiquitous Assessment for Learning guidance, much praised by Mr Miliband, has in practice turned out to be more about teaching than learning.

So what does Professor Claxton mean when he talks about "extending learning capacity"? He says: "Learning capacity is as much a matter of character as it is of skill." In the past, he says, public schools and grammar schools talked about character forming. No one wants to go back to a system that prepared the privileged to run an empire and the less fortunate to obey, but that should not deter us from thinking about the importance of building character through education.

The aim, Professor Claxton says, should be to make pupils curious, independent, reflective, resilient, brave and collaborative. The list is not definitive and he asks teachers to add their own qualities. They can pave the way by teaching particular skills - for instance, how to ask questions, how to concentrate, how to think critically. But to foster such characteristics, they need to change pupils' attitudes and values - their disposition. It is no use, for example, teaching a pupil to be a skilful questioner if they lack the courage to ask the questions. All of this applies as much to those who do well at school as to those who struggle: pupils can get good exam results and still lack resilience and resourcefulness.

Professor Claxton's advice reflects his background; he read natural sciences at Cambridge. From cognitive neuroscientists, he takes the belief that imitation is useful and that teachers who are inquisitive and prepared to admit when they do not know something are more likely to teach pupils how to learn than less open-minded colleagues. We know from experimental psychology, he says, that people who are willing to act on a hunch and who can cope with uncertainty are more likely to be creative problem-solvers than those who need everything to be cut and dried.

One of the keys to changing the way teachers approach learning is to change the language they use, says Professor Claxton: "In the traditional classroom, there is a lot of talk from the teacher about work. It reinforces the idea that the point of being there is the satisfactory completion of tasks. But if you go into a learning power classroom, you will hear kids asking how do you do that, how can we do that differently, how is our group working?"

None of this sits easily with a government agenda that concentrates on pupils' exam results rather than their characters. Professor Claxton hopes he is convincing teachers that "it's not a question of eitheror". Schools can notch up the results they need while helping their pupils to learn more effectively. He talks about planning the "split screen" lesson: on one side is the content (magnets, equations) and on the other the development of, for example, confidence in asking questions. Evidence from 100 secondaries and 500 primaries that are following his ideas suggests that making pupils more independent helps to drive up standards.

Measuring the development of qualities such as resilience and confidence among pupils is trickier, but the indicators look positive in schools that follow the building learning power programme. Students ask more questions than in a traditional classroom, where the average number of questions is derisory, and their self-perception, which usually deteriorates early on in secondary school, also improves. Only a longitudinal study would give a clear picture of the programme's effects, but individual teachers are already convinced.

Meanwhile, Professor Claxton's view of what schools should do remains at odds with the Government's. In his new book, he says: "The biggest block to these new goals taking root is the examination system." Until schools value broader outcomes, they will never change, he argues. Yet he is optimistic. "In many individual schools, the amount of thoughtfulness and engagement has changed during the past five years. Teachers are much more innovative."

Dr Bethan Marshall, senior lecturer in English education at King's College London, says: "A lot of education thinkers are working within the Government's parameters. Guy Claxton says you can ignore the parameters and your kids will do better. That's why he is influential."


Hare Brain, Tortoise Mind: Why Intelligence Increases When You Think Less (Fourth Estate, 1997)

Wise Up: The Challenge of Lifelong Learning (Bloomsbury, 1999)

Building Learning Power (TLO Ltd, 2002)

The Wayward Mind: An Intimate History of the Unconscious (Little, Brown, 2005)

What's the Point of School? (Oneworld, 2008).

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