November 29, 2011

Guy Claxton: What's the point of school?


For the past year I've been pushing educators we've been working with on The Design Thinking School to get a copy of Prof Guy Claxton's book, What's The Point of School. If ever you've wondered what about the rationale behind the way we currently do things, and what might be a suitable response to the objections of what's being proposed by people like us, then this is a good place to start.

I've summed up the key points for me, along with some of my own commentary, in this post.

In the book, he summarises a literature review that looked at, what he terms, The magnificent eight qualities of powerful learners:

  1. Powerful learners are curious
  2. Confident learners have courage
  3. Powerful learners are good at exploration and investigation
  4. Powerful learning requires experimentation
  5. Powerful learners have imagination
  6. The creativity of imagination needs to be yoked to reason and discipline, the ability to think carefully, rigourously, and methodically. to analyse and evaluate as well as take the creative leap.
  7. Powerful learners have the virtue of sociability and sharing.
  8. Powerful learners are reflective: what assumptions have we made? how are we going about this? They don't consider themselves with a fixed mindset, as 'good' or 'average'.

From this, he has also summed up what the research tells us about the reasons we want to learn:

  • Responsibility for learning
  • Respect for their views on their education, being taken seriously
  • Real things to explore, not pseudo contexts
  • Choice in what, when, where and how they are learning
  • Challenge of getting their teeth into something difficult, but not demoralising, and experience the satisfaction of making genuine progress.
  • Collaboration so that thinking and struggling happens with others in the same boat.

If the only thing we asked teachers to do was to balance their planning, teaching and student learning success against these "three Rs and three Cs", then we'd be doing well each and every day, no questions asked. 

Of course, there are always detractors of anything that challenges the status quo of "the curriculum says this", "the exams require that". To this, Claxton retorts: how many of the status quo assumptions have actually been tested against research, and how many of the detractors have themselves read the research if it even exists?

To this point: Research shows that old-fashioned teaching of grammar has been ineffective even in terms of developing pupils' practice literacy. A large-scale review from the University of York in 2005 found no evidence that teaching the parts of speech, noun phrases, relative clauses and so on helped 5-16 year olds improve the quality of their writing:

"Predictably, the traditionalists retaliated to this attack on one of their most cherished beliefs by ignoring research and reiterating their articles of faith.

'Children have to learn the basics and grammar and syntax before the can develop their writing', thundered Nick Seaton, chairman of the campaign for Real Education'. 'A knowledge of grammar must always come before creativity."

And blind faith and bombast must always come before a weighing of the evidence, apparently."

(cf Richard Andrwe, Carole Torgerson, Sue Beverton, Allison Freeman, Terry Locke, Graham Low, Alison Robinson and Die Zhu, 'The effect of grammar teaching on writing development', British Educationa; Research Journal, 2006, 32 (1), pp.39-55)

Good results versus engagement

The research shows that the former is surpassed by the latter. Schools should always be about engagement first and foremost. (Chris Watkins, International School Improvement Network, 2001: learning about learning enhances performance.)

Students need to be encouraged to get into the habit of questioning those founts of "correct" knowledge: textbooks' purpose is to be used as the subject of the following questions:

  • How do we know this is true?
  • Whose claim is it?
  • For what purpose was this knowledge generated?
  • What is the unacknowledged vantage point of the textbook authors?
  • Why are they keeping themselves so well hidden?

What do you do to show you're learning?

For 10 years I've been encouraging teachers to keep a learning log, online preferably to share their practice. It's often met with complaints of time to do this, or "who wuld be interested", but for me sharing one's learning is amongst the most important work of the teacher.

Peter Mountstephen in Bath, plays a new musical instrument - badly - at the beginning of every school year and then learns how to play it better throughout the year. Students don't just see him learn - they hear him, warts and all. Who's modelling learning about learning to our children? And what's the effect on learning when adults do, publicly, show their learning?

Public learning logs or learning leaderboards celebrate people who are at the edge of their own learning. Not comparative to others in the class, but how much they have improved on their own learning, into new, uncomfortable places.

A "Riskometer" - or Traffic light systems to let learners show how much risk they feel they are taking - allows teachers to make informed judgements about how hard a kid feels they're pushing themselves.
This sort of self-benchmarked formative assessment is much more motivating than moving up and down a class list or league table. (W. Harlen and R. Deakin-Crick 'A systematic review of the impact of summative assessment and tests on students' motivation for learning', Research Evidence in Education Library, EPPI Centre, Social Science Research Unit, London, 2002.)

The Could Be Curriculum

Learning about learning is a bit more fake when the teacher knew the answers all along. What about a ‘Could be’ curriculum instead of an ‘Is’ curriculum. What about thinking like scientists instead of being taught what scientists discovered?

Learning through an authentic (to the student) challenge avoids the conundrum we hear in many a classroom" “What are you learning? Page 38, sir”. WALT (What Are we Learning Today) needs to be negotiated. not decided in the lesson plan of the teacher and 'shared' at the beginning of a lesson.

Students in one classroom were noted as not putting their hands up when they were stuck or asked "does anyone have any questions?" as they felt you "had to know the answer to the question you were going to ask".

To get around this, matching the creative process of Design Thinking where learners need to start further back in a broad topic, Claxton suggests that teachers instead design "Wild Topics of 'Plores'", areas for exPLORing. This is what we do in our Design Thinking School.

The goal is to explore genuine knowledge making, not regurgitation of consumed transmission. Well designed challenges (quite tight with flexibility) increase attainment, motivation and skills of learning about learning, as well as covering the content. (Jo Bealer, Experiencing School Mathematics, OU Press, Buckingham, 1997)

Battling with duplication

When a subject justifies itself first and foremost on which learning muscles it flexes, then, if another does it better, why duplicate? (e.g. maths/science, French/English).

This excerpt reminds me what St George's School for Girls has been doing with its Curriculum Wall:


Developing empathy

Experiment with building mental models of how someone else would have approached a problem (How would Mahatma Ghandi have approached global warming?)

Buy the book - it'll be by your side for a long time.

Pic: Bored by Matt


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I was struck by this question you posed: "Who's modeling learning about learning to our children?" I find that to be an interesting question because the idea of modeling learning seems to have two camps.

The first camp - the one your example fits - is that of authentic learning. Of taking on something where you might not hold a great amount of expertise. Of not being afraid of failure, and actually realizing the inherent value in failure.

The second camp - one that I often see my school leaders in - has teachers utilize "think alouds" to model learning and thinking to students. This all too often is a contrived exercise that has zero authenticity or meaning to the students - and not just personal meaning, but no actual relationship to learning.

My question is how does this way of thinking and teaching gain widespread traction in larger school systems. In the schools where I work, there are pockets of teachers who think and teach in this way. But in a system of nearly 700 teachers - teachers being instructed to do think alouds and read alouds (which I don't believe are inherently bad, by the way) - we fail to make a lot of headway down this path.

Really intriguing post. Interested to hear your thoughts.

I am moved by the very basic question about education that you raised here: "What is the need of a school?".

Education should stimulate the imagination and creativity of a child, in addition to installing human values which will make him a better human being. Learning which cannot translate into something creative to the society would not have much value. The motivation to contribute to fellow human beings will come from the moral values.

I remember the importance my teachers gave to teaching "Bhagvat Gita" during my primary school days. Although it took me some time to realise the importance of the teachings, it is one course that contributed the most to shaping my character and attitude towards life.

Thanks for posting such a thought provoking article.

Very interesting article about innovative schools, students that are confident, and the need for curiosity and imagination. The question as I see it is how to motivate students to WANT to learn, and how much of this is environment and how much is just genetics or whatever?

I've been trying to motivate my granddaughter to start looking at different types of careers out in the real world and think if she might be interested in that field - then she will have an idea of what to take in high school. She is 10 years old and already, for the last couple of years is dead set against college (yes, I am talking up college already, trying to motivate her) maybe she will change her mind in the future - but she says it sounds like "too much work". So this is the opportunity - how to motivate children that they will WANT to work hard in school and further their education. How to make them want to learn just for the sake of learning? She is an average student in an accelerated school - but just doesn't seem to want to work hard enough to excel - just doesn't have that drive.

Is this drive innate? Can it be put there by teachers and parents? Will a school that tweaks their curiosity motivate them to WANT to learn? Can the design of a classroom or the hard work of a teacher instill imagination? That is the basic question I would like answered because I think some things you just have from birth and if a student doesn't have that to begin with how can all the creative classrooms and innovative teachers help? I'm fond of the old saying, "you can lead a horse to water but you can't make it drink". Finding the right motivation may be key for many students.

@Devin - ThinkAlouds (I had to google them to see what they were!) might have some value if they happen out of genuine uncertainty from the teacher, rather than 'feigning' ignorance and working through it. In Design Thinking, where students have often picked a problem to solve where the teacher doesn't even know the answer, then think alouds like this would simply constitute genuinely good questioning to and fro - both student and teacher having a deep conversation working through lower to higher order questions.

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Ewan McIntosh is the founder of NoTosh, the no-nonsense company that makes accessible the creative process required to innovate: to find meaningful problems and solve them.

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