If you can find the courage to turn every lesson into an experiment, and let children become their own teachers, then the Holy Grail of education is within your grasp, says Guy Claxton…
In his book Visible Learning for Teachers, Professor John Hattie sifts through a mountain of evidence and comes to a rather surprising conclusion: “The greatest effects on student learning occur when teachers become learners of their own teaching, and when students become their own teachers.” The most powerful way to raise children’s achievement is not to worry about setting or streaming, but to make two small adjustments to the way you teach.
The first is to see every lesson as an experiment, in which you are always ‘trying something out’, and looking carefully to see what effect ‘that way of doing it’ has on the children. You become an inquisitive and imaginative scientist, constantly tinkering with your own practice, noticing what happens, and tinkering again. If you develop this habit, three good things happen. First, you become a better teacher faster than someone who thinks they have already found ‘the best way’ and are stuck in their comfortable groove. Second, you become more observant about the effect your teaching is having on the children, and so better able to keep adjusting your teaching so that it always achieves a good fit with the way this particular group of kids goes about learning. And third, you become a better, more visible role model of learning for the children. You act like a learner – you show curiosity, resilience, reflectiveness and the desire always to improve – and those qualities are contagious.
But it is not just any old tinkering that has the desired effect. The second part of Hattie’s conclusion says you have to tinker towards a particular end: helping the children become more independent and thoughtful managers of their learning for themselves. If you tinker towards becoming an ever more controlling – or entertaining – teacher, the research says you are heading in the wrong direction. The right kind of tinkering always looks for ways in which the learners can take control and make decisions about how they are going to learn for themselves.
I observed some lessons in a pioneering Building Learning Power (BLP) school, Bushfield School in Milton Keynes, a little while ago. In the Year 3 class, I watched Kate Truan describe an activity to the children and then she said: ‘But before you start, I’d like you to talk to your learning buddy for a minute about what you think the best size of group would be, to do this activity”. After their chat, the children confidently shared their different ideas…but the majority of the class thought that threes would be good. “OK, then,” Kate said briskly, “Form into threes and off you go.” At the end of the lesson, she asked the children to reflect on whether they thought their choice had been the right one. Her children were learning to think about how to plan their learning activities for themselves. And Kate was learning about how much control she felt comfortable sharing with the children, and how much control they were ready to take. Everyone was being a learner – not just about the subject matter of the lesson, but about how to make the classroom the best possible incubator of learning it could be.
And that brings me to the most important point. Hattie’s evidencebased ideas do not just help the children get better marks. They help to build skills and attitudes towards learning that will stand pupils in good stead whatever they learning, as they move though school and out into the real world. I thought of that lesson the other day as I was watching a squad of a dozen 13-year-old lads from the Sunderland Football Academy organise a training session for themselves. Elliott Dickman, Head of Coaching at Sunderland and another BLP fan, teed up the session with some suggestions, and then I watched as the boys regularly stopped to assess their progress and adjust the rules of the game they were playing in order to keep themselves stretched and interested. They were not just learning to play football; they had clearly been encouraged to think like coaches for themselves. I think they were learning faster, more efficiently and more thoughtfully as a result. And I think that learning to think and do at the same time will make them better footballers too.
If only we could keep slightly over-estimating how much children can do for themselves – and noticing how it goes and adjusting accordingly – we would be growing powerful learners who get the best possible results. And that, after all, is the Holy Grail, isn’t it?