Power to the pupils

An innovative experiment in which primary school teachers and their pupils become learners together is scoring top marks in classrooms around the country. Hilary Wilce finds out more
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The Independent Online

Julie Green's top primary school class is doing experiments with magnets, but she doesn't want them only to write down answers. She wants them to write any questions that come into their minds, too. Why do the ends of the magnets seem stronger than the middle? Will this magnet still work if it's wet? "You have to ask questions," explains pupil Emma Baxter, "because you might not be being told what you need to know."

Julie Green's top primary school class is doing experiments with magnets, but she doesn't want them only to write down answers. She wants them to write any questions that come into their minds, too. Why do the ends of the magnets seem stronger than the middle? Will this magnet still work if it's wet? "You have to ask questions," explains pupil Emma Baxter, "because you might not be being told what you need to know."

Green also wants them to think about what they know already, that might help them with these experiments, and to notice how, as they work, they are listening to, and collaborating with their team-mates.

She passionately believes that all children can become good learners, and that the way to help them do this is by constantly and explicitly directing their attention to how they go about learning.

And the results bear her out. Last year her pupils did spectacularly well in their key stage two tests. In science, four times as many children hit level 5 than were predicted to, while three times as many did in maths, and more than twice as many in English. All her level 4 targets took a big leap, too, and she also saw a major change in attitude during the course of the year. "We do practice SATs papers, and they would be going, 'Oh no, Level Three. I'm not happy with that. Give me another one and I'll take it home and do it there'. By the end, they were completely taking responsibility for their own learning."

At her school, Blaise primary, on the edge of Bristol, she and other teachers follow a programme called Building Learning Power (BLP), which encourages children to develop "the four Rs" of learning (see box) and to become familiar with all the many ways they can do this, from learning how to ask good questions, to making good use of resources, using their imaginations, and not getting side-tracked by distractions.

In her classroom a "washing line" of learning techniques dangles above pupils' heads, and they unpeg cards to remind them about the different ways they can use their minds. At the back of the room, a Learning Wall charts goals and progress, giving them another reminder to think about thinking. BLP is not a classroom bolt-on, but integral to everything being taught, and although it takes time to bed down in schools, when it is done properly, the results are revolutionary. "I was just about ready to give up on teaching, with all its targets and testing," says Julie Green.

"I'd done it for four years and I was thinking, 'Is this what I really want to be doing?' But this completely changes the way that you teach."

For one thing it changes the relationship between the teacher and the taught. In a BLP classroom everyone is a learner, including the teacher - Julie Green keeps a learning log book, just like her pupils, and freely confesses in it how distracted she is in class by thoughts of her new kitten, Bella.

For another, it changes the relationship that children have with their own brains. The programme shows them that everyone has their own learning strengths and challenges and that everyone sometimes finds learning a struggle. But it also provides an armoury of techniques they can use to help them, and confidence rockets as they draw on these tools to make progress. Children learn how to "unstick" themselves if they get stuck, and how to work on their own, or with others.

As a way of boosting motivation, achievement and self-reliance it works for all students, in all schools. Nursery-age children start off by using "I can do" prompt cards, while pupils with special needs get as much out of it as high-flyers. "And look at behaviour," says Graham Powell, a consultant for TLO, the Bristol-based education consultancy behind BLP, sitting in on Julie Green's lesson. "This is north Bristol. It's not the greatest area, it's part of an Education Action Zone, but behaviour just isn't an issue. These children are behaving well because they are learning well."

BLP is based on the work of Guy Claxton, visiting professor of learning science at Bristol University and an international guru on thinking and the mind, who says that research from around the world proves that learning "muscles" can be exercised every bit as effectively as abs and lats in the gym. "This is a way of getting people over the hump of the idea that the mind is limited, and that children have different abilities and that's it." The notion of teaching learning is not new, but he believes many of the packages available are simplistic. Teachers can go on courses that skate "in a rapid and highly-entertaining manner over the surface of learning - the charismatic presenter long gone before any doubts or deeper questions have time to bubble to the surface" and come away thinking that it only takes a Bach quartet and some brain gym exercises to wake up children's minds.

In contrast, his programme has mapped in detail the habits of mind children must acquire in order to improve their learning, and given teachers a framework within which they can develop them in the course of their everyday work. It is, he says, a much more "systematic, sophisticated, subtle and sustainable" way of going about things. Although, he says: "It takes time to put in place, and it is a growing thing. It really works when the teacher is infused with the spirit, but it's not easy. It means, for a teacher, ceding some control and risking exposing yourself as a learner. It is about, if you like, learning to be cheerfully fallible!"

But, more and more teachers are lining up to take that risk. In four years the programme has spread from Sussex to north-east England, and into Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales. In Sheffield, Gordon Hamilton, head of Mosborough Primary School, got involved three years ago, specifically to raise the achievement of boys and feels "almost evangelical about it. It's given us all language we can share about learning and it has had a terrific effect on individual pupils. It's shown them that you don't have to be the brightest pupil to be the best learner. And, while we did it mainly for the boys, it also allows the girls, who often are nervous about getting it right, to see that mistakes are part of learning, and be more willing to have a go at things. In the past, learning was something we did to children, now they're part of it." As for his low-achieving boys - "we've just had our annual assessment report, and this is the first time we haven't had a minus in that column!"

Back in Bristol, Julie Green's Year Sixes are still new to thinking about learning, but they already know the vocabulary. Reporting on how they felt about their work with magnets, Shannon Rogers says that Table Six persevered in trying to find out where North was, and Luke Harrison says he made links back to work he had done on magnets in a younger class.

Later, when they do a team exercise, building structures from newspaper and Sellotape, Niall Sanderman throws up his hands in despair. "It won't work! It can't! Because we're not listening to each other!"

Guy Claxton says that when schools introduce BLP results go up and children become more confident, curious and creative. "What it does is give them a flying start to their learning lives." Allys Parsons agrees. In her learning log she has written: "I don't just use BLP in school, I use it in everything I do. I didn't know what BLP meant, but now I use it all the time, and much of the time I don't even realise it."

For more information visit: www.buildinglearningpower.co.uk


The Building Learning Power programme says children will become better learners if they develop the following:

RESILIENCE: knowing how to stick with things and work through difficulties. This includes being able to become absorbed in learning, to manage distractions, to notice patterns and details in experience, and to persevere in the face of difficulties.

RESOURCEFULNESS: being able to learn in different ways, and to use internal and external resources. This includes being able to ask questions, see connections between things, using your imagination, call up reasoning skills to think methodically and examine arguments, and draw on the full range of resources in the wider world .

REFLECTIVENESS: being ready and willing to plan, take stock and draw on your experiences as a learner in order to get the best out of yourself. This includes thinking about where you are going and how you are going to get there, being flexible, distilling the essential features of what you are learning, and knowing how you learn.

RECIPROCITY: being ready and willing to learn alone or with other people. This includes knowing when it's best to learn on your own or with others, knowing how to collaborate, understanding how to listen to others, and constructively imitating other people's methods and values.