Thursday, November 05, 2009

Guy Claxton - building learning power.

Anyone who has attended one of Guy Claxton' presentations ( as I did yesterday) ought to buy his book 'What's the Point of School'. This book is powerful and timely examination of why our schools are built to fail, and how to redesign them to meet the needs of the modern world.' The challenge of redesigning schools is a big ask but the book gives lots of very practical advice about how to create enthusiastic learners and more effective teaching. In particular the 'learning power' ideas gives guidance to how New Zealand teachers can implement the 'key competencies' of the new curriculum.

I have just spent an enjoyable day listening to Guy Claxton talk about 'Building Learning Power'.All the more enjoyable because I have long been an avid reader of his many books and find myself often quoting him.

After such a day the question is what will those attending do when they get back to their schools? He asked us all to consider the ideas he was sharing and to place them into three baskets : 'We already do it', Maybe? Or we used to'; and 'ridiculous'. Good advice.

With the onset of National Standards the day was even more valuable.Although not mentioned at any great length the message was that by focusing on developing students 'learning power' ( our 'key competencies') teachers and their students will cope the standards without too much anxiety. As Claxton quoted, 'Are we preparing our students for a life of tests or the tests of life?'

We need , he said, 'To provide our students with the emotional and cognitive resources to become the 'confident, connected, life long learners'; the vision of the NZC. To achieve this is all about powerful pedagogy

The important thing, he said ,was to infuse the Key competencies into every thing that happens at school and not see them as a 'bolt on'. Those who have attended presentations by Art Costa will recognise this 'infusing' approach. Costa's habits of mind are another version of the future orientated key competencies. Such capacities, or dispositions, need to become part of the culture of the school. It is about what Claxton sometimes calls 'learnacy' - the openness to continually learn. This 'learnacy must be at the forefront of all teaching in any subject area. Powerful thinking classrooms could have student generated 'What to do if you are stuck' charts.

At center is the belief that all students can develop their learning power? How do your students see their ability - one one fixed by birth and set for life ( a 'fixed bucket') or one that can be continually expanded ( a 'learning muscle'). The 'mindset' a student holds will effect all their future learning - or non learning. We need, he said, to ask our students about their mindset about learning. 'Bucket thinkers', high or low achievers, do not like taking risks for fear of failing. 'Learning muscle' students are 'have a go thinkers' - the right mindset for National Standard testing!

Both teachers and students need to know what habits of mind ( learning muscles) that they need to exercise, stretch and strengthen. These 'learning power' capacities need, as mentioned, to be part of all learning. They must be a permeate of the culture of the school. 'Messages' that learning power is important ought to be obvious to all. Everone at the school should speak 'learnish' - using common thinking phases .

When we introduce content to our students they need to experience it as a means to develop such habits, to be skeptical and questioning, to use their imagination, develop empathy ( what Kelvin Smythe call a 'feeling for') as well as in depth understanding. This is process and content.

I agreed with Guy Claxton when he said that much of what is seen in many classes makes little impact: thinking styles -we all have our own style; de Bono's hats - more displayed than used; and mind maps - poorly used. Not that, he said, they all can't be useful. And all that drinking of water! With much isolated thinking skill teaching their is little evidence of transfer into new situations. Teachers have to help their students develop this facility in new situations; use it or lose it. An excellent metaphor Claxton introduced was that of 'split screen'; teaching where the teacher interacts with their students ( say when experimenting with magnets) providing prompts to support students process/science thinking and as also developing in depth content thinking.

Claxton repeated, what we all know, that it is the quality of the individual teacher that counts - that, 'there is a fourfold difference between the most effective and least effective classrooms( Dylan Williams)'. And this is backed by John Hattie's 'meta research'. Teachers have to be the best learners in their classroom. Students pick up 'learning power' by example as much as anything. How teachers demonstrate how they struggle though a problem is an excellent lesson for their students!

The language we use is also important. We need to say 'you could do' rather than 'this is the way' makes a big difference. Even replacing the use of the word 'work' for 'learning' makes a big difference. Worth trying as school?

The room environment should also celebrate children's thinking, their prototypes, as well as their completed projects. I like the idea of students having 'thinking journals' ( 'process folios') where they draft out ideas to help them sort out their thinking. Such a book would be a vital means for teacher,students and parent dialogue.

Students and teachers, Claxton suggested, could discuss what makes a powerful learner -and a teacher. These could be displayed and shared with parents. The key competencies would provide ideas for such an activity. Students , Claxton said, after compiling such a list of dispositions, could then self-assess themselves to see how good a learner they are. Resiliency would be top of my list.

As for reporting on students progress towards being powerful thinkers ( with key competencies in place) the suggestion was to write narratives indicating strengths and areas to focus on for individual students - plus of course the results of National Standards testing!

'Learning power ( the key competencies) is the lifeblood of happy life.' Happiness' quoting Csikszentmihalyi, 'arises ...from engaging in a worthwhile challenge'. 'Where there is hope of success'.'Progress is made'.'Full absorption is possible'.'Feedback is clear'

Today wasn't about worthwhile challenges it was about giving students the power to 'seek, use and create their own learning'.

'Things won are done; the joy's soul lies in the doing',Claxton quotes Shakespeare. I agree with this but the feeling of achieving something great lasts forever as well.

I am sure all who attended left with their 'practical thoughts and possibilities' baskets full.


Mark NP said...

I also attended the day Bruce and thought it was brilliant. The ideas around 'learnish' and 'learnese' really stuck with me. Also the metaphor suggesting the brain was not a bucket to be filled but a muscle to be stretched. Love it.
Its great that you mention his book because it is an easy read that stretches the brain muscle.
Enjoyed the blog a great way to sum up a great day.

Bruce Hammonds said...

Thanks Mark.

It is not often that local teachers have an opportunity to hear such a respected educational speaker.We, well those who still are in the game, need more such days!

Vishakha Vartak said...

Education is truly indispensible in today's economy centric world, and the new vistas that modern education is opening up are quite enthralling. With a scope to forge a promising career in fields like Sound Engineering, Gemmology or Radio Jockeying, a number of institutes are popping up all around the country to guide aspirants of these vocations. One of the premiere institutes that has come up in pune is SeamEdu, India's first and only creativersity, with eminent founders like educationist Dr. Arun Nigavekar. To get an overview of newage career options, you can log on to

Tom said...

Hey Bruce - this is a timely blog for me - just great.

Thanks - we have had an awesome year - some of our preliminary test results are showing major gains (even though I could already see it!) and already have a couple of ideas for next year. Lots to do but heading in a positive direction.

Love the book!

Bruce Hammonds said...

Thanks for your information Vishaka.Appreciated

Good to hear from you Tom - pleased you have had an awesome year you deserve it. All the best .