These 4Rs can alter an ethos

17th June 2005 at 01:00
Martin Whittaker on how a primary has been Building Learning Power

Hannah More primary has faced challenging times. Teachers have come and gone, as have pupils whose behaviour has often been poor. The school, in inner-city Bristol, has a multi-ethnic population, with Somali children now making up a third of pupils.

But headteacher Julia Timlin says it has undergone something of a transformation in the past two years. Behaviour has improved, shown by a 75 per cent reduction in temporary exclusions, while test results at key stage 2 have also got better.

There have been other, more subtle, changes. "The school is calmer," she says. "There's less frustration - the children are able to articulate more.

Pupils are working together and taking more responsibility, and there's a real buzz and excitement about learning."

Hannah More has sought many solutions, but one has really caught on. Mrs Timlin and her staff introduced Building Learning Power (BLP), a programme designed to help pupils to become better learners. So far it has been adopted by more than 30 education authorities, and is used in more than 850 schools.

Teachers believe BLP helps pupils become more confident learners, according to a study by the University of the West of England.

Milton Keynes education authority certainly has a great deal of faith in the approach. It has involved more than 100 primary and secondary schools in training their teachers in BLP - the biggest implementation of the programme to date. Greg Morris, its assistant head of education, said he believes it will help to raise standards.

"We want our learners to have competence, confidence and self-esteem so that they can become better learners and better young adults both within the school and when they leave," he said.

So what is Building Learning Power and how does it work? The approach is based on the work of Professor Guy Claxton, a psychologist and visiting professor at Bristol university.

In a break at a conference on BLP, he summed it up: "What would education look like, what would the average wet Monday morning look like, if teachers saw themselves as being in the business of helping to develop real lifelong learning skills?"

He says everyone has the potential to become a better learner, and his approach is as applicable to the heads of corporations and members of the adult learning community as it is to schoolchildren. "When you get down to the generic issues of what is it to be good at learning, a45-year-old chief executive of a company could identify with those basic skills as much as asix-year-old," he says.

"Good learners stick with things when they are difficult, they ask questions and they say if they don't understand something. They are good at sharing with other people, and they like to sit down and think things through."

Claxton says that instead of spoon-feeding learning to children, teachers implementing his approach get more motivated learners who are able to concentrate more, think harder and find learning more enjoyable. They do better in exams and are more satisfying to teach.

His ideas were taken on board by education consultancy TLO. The approach is complex and is based around the idea of four key learning dispositions, which Claxton calls the 4Rs:

* Resilience, knowing how to stick at it;

* Resourcefulness, the ability to learn in different ways;

* Reflectiveness, the ability to take stock of your learning, and;

* Reciprocity, or being able to learn on your own or with others.

These dispositions can, says Guy Claxton, be thought of as learning muscles which can be exercised just as we exercise physical ones. Expanding pupils'

capacities to learn involves the ways teachers talk to children, organise their classrooms and design activities, as well as the way they teach.

The approach calls for teachers to be constantly discussing how to develop learning power with students, to encourage children to use the language of learning.

Teachers also write schemes of work with the 4Rs in mind, commenting on the learning progress students have made. And an important part of the approach is to be a role model and show pupils that you are learning alongside them.

Hannah More primary began using BLP two years ago after Mrs Timlin and her deputy head, Sue Ramsay, did some training with TLO consultants.

They began by getting Year 6 children to look at how to manage distractions in class and subsequently introduced BLP throughout the school.

Mrs Timlin says that it is difficult to measure gains, but she believes it has helped to change the school's ethos. "We have done lots of surveys with the children about them reflecting on their learning," she says.

"The way they deal with confrontation is much more thought-provoking. They try to put themselves in other people's shoes, and they more readily understand the process of conflict and being able to resolve it."

She says the programme has also helped pupils become more responsible and make their own decisions. For example, the school council has taken ownership of a project to create artwork for the playground, using allocated money and their own initiative.

At Hannah More, great attention is paid to displays on the classroom wall.

Julia Timlin has an "I've been caught" wall in her class, where children have their photos on show for a range of achievements, such as "I've been caught working well in a group," or "I've been caught helping someone else."

Another advocate of BLP is Year 2 teacher Julian Swindale at Sefton Park infants in Bristol. He has used a range of images on his classroom wall, created and named by the children, which relate to different aspects of learning. One pupil asked for an image of a clock so that any child seen making good use of their time had their photo stuck on it. Another drew a beehive, which was put up to celebrate when pupils were buzzing with ideas.

He also has a "Riskometer" on his wall - a giant thermometer with Velcro, where children can stick photos of themselves - designed to encourage them to be more adventurous in their learning.

"What this did in effect was to cause us as a group - teacher and children - to be talking about these things throughout the day about how we are working together, how we are challenging ourselves," says Mr Swindale. It is less than two years since BLP was introduced in his school.

"The whole process gives the children the language to talk about why they are successful, rather than me just rubber-stamping a piece of work and saying 'Well done'."


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