I was inspired by Guy Claxton’s talk at the Stephen Perse Foundation’s conference, What is Learning For, where he gave a long talk about his ideas concerning how children should be taught in the 21st century as well as a short talk for part of a panel, which is posted below. His ideas about building “learning power” are essentially “child-centred”, but rooted in hard-nosed, empirical evidence. I found them refreshingly free of the dogma and the hypocrisy that punctuates some discussion about making learning “child-centred”. Above all, Claxton wants children to become genuinely independent learners. This means that they have to be allowed to make mistakes, they have to experience difficulties and get stuck, they have to figure out how to solve problems for themselves. This really resonated with me as a teacher because I’m routinely confronted with children who say that they don’t know what to do and could I solve the problem for them? In a busy classroom, it’s very easy to give students a ready-made answer rather than saying “work it out for yourself”.
Claxton’s central idea is that teachers need to nurture and foster these moments when children “get stuck” and get them to answer the question “how might I work it out for myself?” Teachers need to “model” getting stuck, and figuring things out, they need to make mistakes in front of their pupils, they need to show that learning is a messy business which involves quite a bit of trial and error. Of course, much lip-service is paid to this approach in schools, but how many schools actually really embrace the fundamental tenets of Claxton’s philosophy?
Too many children go through school being told the answers and being told that they need to regurgitate them in an exam. I know this because I have been — and can still be at times — guilty of this myself; it’s scary when a parent/teacher/inspector complains that you’re not covering the syllabus properly, and that you not “preparing” children for an exam/coursework in the right way, ie telling them all the answers. Your immediate reaction can be to dish out a worksheet providing all the answers on a plate — just to get the complainant off your back. This often happens when senior managers are not supportive. And yet, as Claxton shows, children need to experience these moments of getting stuck and LEARN to figure out the answers for themselves. If they’re “supported” to the hilt at school, is it any wonder that when students leave school that they are often totally flummoxed when they’re told to do an essay/solve a problem without any outside help? The sheer amount of texts/topics that teachers have to get through means that a great deal of material is more easily covered by a lecture-based approach. Many teachers do not like children to discuss issues in groups, preferring them to write answers down in their books in relative quiet. Group work can degenerate into rowdy classrooms.
Claxton argues for a school-based approach which embraces “building children’s learning power”; they need to develop behaviours and attitudes of mind which enable them to problem-solve, to think of ideas freely, to discuss issues in a coherent fashion, to think laterally. He is particularly scathing about terms like “creativity”, “potential” and “motivation” which he sees as a woolly and vague. He feels we need to be very specific about the sorts of independent learning skills children develop. His talk definitely made me think and also made me immediately change some of the tone and approach of my lessons. I’ve ordered his books Building 101 Ways to Learning Power and The Learning Powered School — Pioneering 21st Century Education. Having looked at his free downloads on his website I found them very practical and sensible. What do you think?