Flex your pupils' learning muscles

6th January 2012 at 00:00
Many teachers swear by Building Learning Power, but though the approach is still gaining ground after 10 years, others remain sceptical. Helen Ward looks at how it works in practice

It is harder to dismiss an approach to education as a passing fad when it has been gaining ground in schools for 10 years.

A decade is, after all, a long time in education: 10 years ago, your Year 9 class were still in nappies and free schools were just ones you did not have to pay to attend.

This anniversary is a good time to revisit Building Learning Power (BLP), a practical guide to help schools promote learning to learn that was published in 2002 and has been growing in popularity ever since. It was written by Professor Guy Claxton and, since its publication, he and colleagues at Winchester University's Centre for Real-World Learning have been examining how the approach has been taken up in the classroom.

Teachers have tried out BLP in thousands of primary and secondary schools, not just in the UK but in other countries including the US, Singapore and New Zealand. However, it has sometimes been met with a sceptical response.

The Learning Powered School, a recent follow-up book, quotes a cynical teacher saying: "BLP sounds like warmed-up 1970s romantic liberalism to me. It didn't work then and there's no reason to suppose that it will work now."

The core idea behind BLP is that intelligence is not fixed but can be expanded. This idea, which has been developed by Professor Carol Dweck of Stanford University, is illustrated by drawing an analogy between body and mind. Just as you exercise physical muscles to make them grow, you need to exercise your "learning muscles".

To achieve this, BLP offers schools tools. Perhaps the most important are a pair of frameworks: the "supple learning mind" looks at what it means to be a powerful learner and the "teachers' palette" examines the tools teachers have at their disposal (see panel, page 7).

Four Rs of learning

These frameworks provide a shared language for teachers and pupils to talk about the process of learning. In the case of the students, this means referring to the four Rs of BLP: "resilience, resourcefulness, reflectiveness and reciprocity".

The approach aims to make pupils more responsible for organising and evaluating their own learning through giving them opportunities to exercise independence and self-discipline.

But this does not make it hands-off for teachers. Just as pupils are expected to develop the four Rs, so teachers and heads are expected to get into the habit of promoting them.

The flexibility inherent in the approach may be part of the reason why schools as diverse as an inner-city primary in Bradford and a selective boys' secondary in Buckinghamshire find it useful.

"I can honestly say, out of all the things I've come across, this is one of the best," says Gordon Hamilton, head of Mosborough Primary, which serves a village on the edge of Sheffield.

Mr Hamilton introduced BLP when it first came to prominence. "It does sound gimmicky, as if there's a superhero involved, but it's about helping children develop important attributes," he says. "What BLP does is very simply explain what the key elements are of becoming a good learner. For a lot of children, education appears to be something done to them. This shows them they have a huge influence over how they learn and the progress they make."

One of the benefits is helping pupils to see how they can transfer certain habits - such as resilience - between situations. This ability came in handy for a pupil called Joe.

"Joe was the class clown," Mr Hamilton says. "He was in Year 5 and he gave funny answers because he was struggling academically and he drew self-esteem from this role.

"Well, in Year 5 the pupils are introduced to cross-country running and Joe was naturally very good, so then his identity changed from the class clown to Joe the runner."

The school used praise to draw attention to how his learning was improving. "He came into key stage 2 with level 1, but left with level 4. But the really interesting thing is that (with a) bit of self-belief, (he) realised he could make a difference by himself. He could do better academically."

Sara Rawnsley introduced BLP at Princeville Primary in Bradford when she became its new head, tasked with turning it around, in 2006. The inner-city school had seen only 32 per cent of pupils reach level 4 in English and 40 per cent in maths. "The school didn't go into special measures, although if the inspectors had come before the end of the first year it would have gone into a category," she says. "But they came at the end and we got satisfactory. In our last Ofsted we got a good."

A holistic approach

Mrs Rawnsley and her former deputy first heard about BLP when they attended a conference in Bradford on developing a creative curriculum. "Guy Claxton was speaking there and what he said resonated with what I wanted for the school," she says. "It was a holistic approach - so, not just about children getting their Sats marks, but about children who go on to have meaningful lives."

They bought Professor Claxton's books and started to try out the ideas for themselves. One such idea was that pupils, rather than teachers, should be allowed to decide the difficulty level of lessons using a "risk-o-meter".

This means that, after the teacher has introduced the lesson and its aims, pupils can decide whether they feel confident enough to take the high-risk task or, if they feel unsure, would prefer a lower-risk task. The choice is negotiated with the teacher. The strategy links with the core BLP idea of avoiding giving children messages about the limits of their intelligence.

By 2009, 84 per cent of Year 6 pupils at Princeville had reached level 4 in English and 92 per cent had done so in maths. Mrs Rawnsley now trains others in introducing BLP and is working with 10 local schools.

"What BLP did was focus us on seeing children as individual learners and on the skills those children needed to improve. Some need to flex their perseverance muscle, some need to be more empathetic, some more reflective.

"But we don't 'do' BLP. It is not a tick-box; it's about a change in how you see children."

Dr Challoner's Grammar School in Amersham, Buckinghamshire, could not be more different. Far from needing to turn around the selective boys' secondary, headteacher Mark Fenton led a school where 99 per cent or 100 per cent of pupils achieved five good GCSEs, including English and maths, every year.

"Our boys get exceptionally good GCSE and A-level results," Dr Fenton says. "And that is important. But to us, what's really important is how good a learner are they?

"Our students had definitely learnt how to get good examination results, so they are good learners in one sense, but it's a narrow sense.

"We had a range of outstanding grades on Ofsted and thought, 'What's next? How can we add more value?' The more we thought about it, the more we thought that, far from our students being the finished article, there was more we could do to send them into the world as more resilient, more resourceful. Those things happened as a by-product of what we were doing, but we wanted to make it more systematic."

The situation at Dr Challoner's illustrates one of the other questions raised by schools about the BLP approach: isn't it just good teaching?

Providing a common language

Dr Fenton agrees that a lot of the ideas are implicit in good teaching, but for him the power of the approach is in making them explicit by providing the teachers and students with a common language to describe learning.

"The learning habits pupils used for learning English are quite similar to those you need for geography or physics, but there was no way to talk about it," he says.

"Everybody understands that if a musician is learning the piano, they have to practise scales, or a footballer has to practise dribbling skills. But you don't tend to use that terminology in schools - they don't use the same vocabulary to describe the process of learning inside school as outside school. We want to encourage the boys to think of things holistically and apply that thinking to everything they do.

"It's had a pretty significant effect on our teachers. People who have been teaching here for 20 years are completely revitalised."

Not only did the school's headline GCSE results remain at 100 per cent from 2007 to 2010, but its contextual value-added score rose from an above-average 1014 in 2007 to 1031.8 in 2010.

However, the prime aim of BLP is not to raise exam results. The Learning Powered School does not cite external evaluations showing a causal link between the programme and raised attainment. What the research that has been carried out does show is that teachers feel there has been a positive effect on the habits the programme is focused on, such as pupils' confidence and their attitudes towards learning.

To learn is to be human

One criticism of the approach, which is not mentioned in the book, is a more philosophical one.

Dennis Hayes, visiting professor at Oxford Brookes University and co-author of The Dangerous Rise of Therapeutic Education, has criticised the whole idea of teaching people how to learn.

He has written in TES (http:bit.lysmIvyO) that being able to learn is a defining feature of being human, and that such a viewpoint risks blaming the pupil for failing to learn, rather than looking more closely at what is being offered up as education. Professor Claxton disputes this, saying that teachers cannot fail to teach pupils how to learn - they do so simply by teaching. What BLP is about, he argues, is teachers realising they are doing it.

"According to Lauren Resnick, intelligence is the sum of one's habits of mind," he says. "If that is true, then teachers are in the habit-forming business. So are we going to form habits about being curious and resilient ... or being dependent? You can't opt out - whatever way you teach, you are in the mind-training business. It's a superficial understanding of what BLP is about."

Professor Claxton adds that, although there is science behind learning to learn, which he devoted his 1999 book Wise Up to exploring, the movement has really grown in the classroom rather than in academia.

"The real surprise and delight of the last 11 or 12 years for me has been working with schools and teachers, and discovering all the practical, ingenious ways that they have made the theoretical framework translate into classrooms."

Perhaps the most difficult criticism for BLP to counter is the one that seems so slight: apathy. Many things in education look good, sound good, could be good. But when it seems something new turns up every week, why bother?

Professor Claxton's answer appears to be that if you are in that mindset, do not try it. "If schools do this as an add-on, then it doesn't take. I like to think it's something that should be part of a 21st-century education.

"Education is about preparing people to flourish in the future. I have come to believe in a way of doing that is a sustained, gradual, relentless culture of change in schools; it has to get into the bone marrow if it's going to deliver."



Professor Guy Claxton first introduced the idea of learning power in his 1999 book Wise Up: the challenge of lifelong learning.

In 2002 came Building Learning Power, a book that set out to be a practical guide for teachers.

Professor Claxton's new book, The Learning Powered School, is co-authored with Maryl Chambers, Graham Powell and Bill Lucas. It explores how the ideas have developed since the programme's launch.


The supple learning mind

This aims to provide a coherent picture of what the powerful learner is like. It consists of the four Rs:

Resilience - includes being able to accept setbacks and keep going.

Resourcefulness - includes being able to collect and make good use of resources.

Reflectiveness - includes planning and self-appraisal.

Reciprocity - includes being able to argue your corner and keep an open mind.

The teachers' palette

This maps the aspects of a school and classroom culture that help to cultivate those habits of mind.

Explaining - includes giving direct information and practices in learning.

Modelling - externalising the thinking of a learner-in-action.

Orchestrating - includes choosing activities that develop the learning habits.

Commentating - includes drawing individual students' attention towards their own learning.


"Many schools are not used to focusing on the habits and processes of learning itself. Teachers are used to thinking about their lessons in terms of two dimensions: the subject-matter they are trying to get across (the 'syllabus') and the effectiveness with which they have done so ('assessment').

"But there is a third dimension which is at the core of learning power: the learning habits and attitudes exercised by the way those subjects are being presented, taught and assessed.

"You can teach Macbeth, and get good exam results in a way that stretches students' abilities to imagine, collaborate and question. And you can also teach it and get good results in a way that makes students more passive, docile and dependent. For BLP, it is this difference that is crucial."

Claxton, G. et al. The Learning Powered School (2011). TLO Limited


When you start to push students towards taking more responsibility for their own learning, you should:

Start small - make just one or two small shifts to "the way we do things round here".

Be persistent and consistent in reminding pupils what your expectations are, and in noticing and commenting approvingly when they meet those expectations.

Do not try to get them to run before they can walk and do not back down in the face of any resistance.

Remember, BLP is not laissez-faire - you are coaching and training your students in a positive attitude towards learning.

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