Yearning for good learning

19th March 2004 at 00:00
Teachers can take off the blinkers that have kept their focus limited to the curriculum - and at last look forward to a strategy that emphasises the broader process of learning, says Hilary Wilce

What will help children learn to learn? What will bring out their talents? How do you pinpoint the learning skill that will help a child who is good at English also be good at maths? The primary strategy hopes to find answers as it develops a new teaching and learning framework. It is a big and important idea, a concept whose time has come.

Guy Claxton, visiting professor of education at the University of Bristol, and an expert in learning skills, says that many heads and teachers - as well as academics - welcome it. They do not regard it as yet another dollop of stodgy bureaucracy, but as a mechanism of enablement. "There is definitely a shifting climate in schools," he says. "There are a lot of things out there now, and this is knitting them together. There is, I think, a real hunger among teachers and everyone for understanding how we can do this properly. It doesn't feel like another damn thing to do. It makes a lot of sense to a lot of people."

For years, primary schools have been locked into the strait-jacket of tests and targets. Now the focus is to be less on what children learn and more on to how to help them become good learners. Schools are being encouraged to become more flexible, and to take charge of their own development. And teachers are back at the centre of the process.

But all this will only work effectively, says the primary strategy, if everyone understands what leads to excellent teaching and learning across the curriculum, and makes sure that the work they are doing is firmly grounded in it.

This, of course, is the world of a thousand research projects, not to mention many commercial offerings in slick packages. Thinking skills, study skills, accelerated learning, brain-friendly classrooms, active learning, multiple intelligences, motivation, confidence, creativity, different learning styles, speaking and listening skills, and the art of asking good questions all play their part in the overall picture. The primary strategy aims to draw all these threads together into a coherent strand of thinking about learning, and present this to schools in such a way that they can weave it to suit themselves.

The strategy asks such questions as: what makes a confident and effective learner? What does progression in reasoning look like? And what skills can we expect from an effective learner at five? And at 11?

As the framework is being developed, it is drawing on many experiences in schools: of the literacy and numeracy strategies; talking to learning experts; teacher feedback; and studies of such things as what happens when even very young children get involved in planning their own learning ("What do I do when I get stuck?"), and on the classroom changes that come about when teachers substitute the word "learning" for the word "work".

Videos are also being recorded of sample lessons to show how key learning skills can be mapped on to the curriculum. In a Year 3 PE lesson, for example, pupils pass different-shaped objects across a mat using only their feet and then discuss which three objects to leave on one side. This not only develops the physical skills of dexterity and co-ordination, but allows opportunities for collaboration, thinking logically, making judgments and communicating well with each other.

Another example is a history lesson on the Greeks. Pupils chant the names of the city states, handle Greek armour and discuss questions such as 'Why did they have small shields instead of big ones?' This addresses all kinds of learning styles, as well as developing pupils' empathy and reasoning.

"It's not at all about new materials," stresses Maureen Lewis, regional director for the strategy and in charge of developing the teaching and learning framework. "What we're doing is helping make people explicitly aware of what they're doing, and helping them plan. So that a teacher might think, 'Well, if I ask just one or two more questions here, maybe I'll be able to do a bit more to develop this aspect of their reasoning.' Or, 'Maybe I can show them that what they're doing here is exactly the same as the way they went about tackling problems when they were doing maths.'

"We've had overwhelming support for it. It makes immediate sense to schools. And they can see that it's genuinely collaborative and that they aren't going to be told to do anything."

A management guide that maps out this terrain will go to all primaries in May. By next September schools should have received resources on planning and assessment, the climate for learning, and understanding how learning develops. There will be discussion prompts, ideas for staffroom work and suggestions for classroom practice. Progression grids of key skills are also being drawn up, although where individual children will appear on them will always depend upon numerous variables, including their own abilities and the learning context.

Andrew Pollard, professor of education at Cambridge University, welcomes the way the strategy puts principles - "understanding why we are doing things" - back at the heart of teaching, in place of checklists of skills.

"Teachers have huge reservoirs of skills and resources to draw on," he says, "but there is always scope for coming at things in a more coherent way, and this is much more central to the core expertise of teachers."

Robert Fisher, director of the Centre for Research into Teaching Thinking at Brunel University, whose ideas are helping develop the framework, says:

"In the past we stressed the content of the curriculum, rather than the processes. But simply feeding children content is never going to be successful in developing habits of mind that children will need to take away with them in the future.

"We know we have to develop children's thinking and their creativity, and give them the skills they are going to need for lifelong learning. A lot of research has been done in this area and has been drip-feeding into the consciousness of teachers, but it hasn't yet appeared in a coherent form.

This should lead to more joined-up thinking about learning, and generate professional development materials that will enable teachers to apply things in their own way, in their own school."

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