Learning to Learn: High impact for low cost, or snake oil for hipsters?

By |2020-11-07T18:45:07+00:00October 19th, 2020|Dr James Mannion|0 Comments

This is an extract from our forthcoming book Fear is the Mind Killer: Why Learning to Learn deserves lesson time – and how to make it work for your pupils.

The feedback we have received so far has been pretty phenomenal.

You can read all the very kind things people have said about it here.

And you can buy it here (John Catt) or here (Amazon).

Learning to Learn: High impact for low cost, or snake oil for hipsters?

‘Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.’

George Santayana (1905) [1]

 

In 2010, the UK’s newly formed coalition government announced the establishment of a new body, the Education Endowment Foundation (EEF), on a wave of uncompromising rhetoric about ‘turning around our weakest schools’ by ‘trailblazing innovative, bold and rigorous approaches to school improvement’. [2] The EEF’s mission statement explains that the organisation is ‘dedicated to breaking the link between family income and educational achievement. We aim to raise the achievement of 3-18-year olds, particularly those facing disadvantage; develop their essential life skills; and prepare young people for the world of work and further study’. [3]

In 2011, the EEF published the Teaching and Learning Toolkit, which aims to help schools figure out how best to spend the Pupil Premium (additional government money paid directly to schools with the aim of improving outcomes for disadvantaged children). This essentially involved carrying out a wide-ranging review of the educational research literature and comparing the effect sizes of various practices in a kind of league table, ranging from the highly impactful to the highly counterproductive. [4] It proved influential; by 2016, according to EEF chairman Sir Peter Lampl, ‘a staggering two-thirds of UK schools’ were using the Toolkit to inform decision-making. [5] At the time of writing, this figure is likely to have staggered even higher.

Figure 1. The ten most impactful practices in the EEF Teaching and Learning Toolkit. [6]

As we can see in Figure 1, perched atop this league table of educational effectiveness – which is actually quite a problematic idea because it compares apples and oranges, but let’s park that for now [7] – we find ‘feedback’, which we are told provides ‘high impact for very low cost’. Which sounds absolutely amazing, doesn’t it? High impact? Very low cost? What’s not to like? Well, quite a lot as it turns out. Because when you dig into the research that sits behind this headline, you find that if you implement a feedback intervention in your school, for example, there’s around a one in three chance that you’ll be making things worse. [8], [9]

This is rather an astonishing fact, don’t you think? Remember, this is ‘feedback’, which sits at the top of the Toolkit – education’s best bet, you might say. Imagine if a head teacher stood at the front of the school hall on a training day and said ‘Good morning, colleagues. The senior team and I have consulted the research, and we’re all going to do this new thing. There’s just one thing – there is around a one in three chance that we’ll be making things worse. WHO’S WITH ME?’ They would be unlikely to garner much support for their initiative. However, this is precisely what school leaders risk when rolling out any new research-informed policy. The moral of the story is clear: when seeking to implement findings from the research literature in new and diverse contexts, we need to tread with extreme caution.

 

Metacognition and self-regulation: the dynamic duo

In second place, bobbing in feedback’s turbulent wake, we find ‘metacognition and self-regulation’. No, before we go any further, we should probably address the fact that the phrase ‘metacognition and self-regulation’ tends to induce a range of emotions in people, not all of them positive. This is not language you often hear at the bus stop or down the pub. Who are these impactful imposters, and what do they want? Well, that’s more or less what this book is about, so let’s get cracking.

The EEF Toolkit suggests that metacognition and self-regulation provide ‘high impact for very low cost, based on extensive evidence’, which is even more impressive than the entry for feedback, whose claims to glory are rooted merely in ‘moderate’ evidence. To get to grips with this dynamic duo, we will begin by quoting the EEF Toolkit entry for ‘metacognition and self-regulation’ at length. This is not the best definition in our view – we’ll explain why in Chapter 2: A brief history of Learning to Learn – but it will serve our purposes for now:

‘Metacognition and self-regulation approaches aim to help pupils think about their own learning more explicitly, often by teaching them specific strategies for planning, monitoring and evaluating their learning. Interventions are usually designed to give pupils a repertoire of strategies to choose from and the skills to select the most suitable strategy for a given learning task.

Self-regulated learning can be broken into three essential components:

    • Cognition: the mental process involved in knowing, understanding, and learning;
    • Metacognition: often defined as “learning to learn”; and
    • Motivation: willingness to engage our metacognitive and cognitive skills’ [10]

According to the EEF, then, self-regulated learning is a broad umbrella term comprised of cognition (thinking), metacognition (thinking about thinking) and motivation (the desire to learn). And all of this can be further broken down into a number of processes, including knowing and understanding; planning, monitoring and evaluating learning; thinking about learning; learning how to get better at all of the above; and being willing and able to do so.

So, it should be clear at the outset that we aren’t talking about something simple here. Metacognition and self-regulation are inherently multifaceted concepts that are comprised of, and intertwined with, many other aspects of cognitive, social and emotional development. To put it another way: Learning to Learn is complex.

It is also worth mentioning that Learning to Learn is popular. Perhaps unsurprisingly, there is no shortage of people on the planet who want to get better at learning stuff. For example, an online course called Learning How to Learn has been taken by over 2 million people in around 200 countries, and was described by the New York Times as ‘the most popular course of all time’. [11]

Here, however, we encounter the first indication that there may be more to Learning to Learn than meets the eye. The creator of Learning How to Learn, Professor Barbara Oakley, recently co-authored a book of the same name, [12] which was described in glowing terms by one reviewer as ‘rescuing the idea of “learning how to learn”’. [13] But hang on a minute. According to the EEF, metacognition and self-regulation – widely viewed as synonymous with Learning to Learn – are among the most impactful practices teachers can use. Why on earth might something so impactful need ‘rescuing’?


Dissenting voices

Despite the EEF’s glowing report for metacognition and self-regulation, not everybody is equally enthusiastic about Learning to Learn. There are a number of reasons for this, which we will explore in detail in Chapter 3: Learning to Learn on trial. Here, we will briefly consider a few common objections, beginning with the fact that Learning to Learn often involves children working in groups. Here’s the EEF toolkit again:

‘These strategies are usually more effective when taught in collaborative groups so that learners can support each other and make their thinking explicit through discussion.’ [14]

The idea of children learning through collaboration and discussion may not strike you as particularly controversial, but not everybody is on board with it. Presumably Michael Gove, the former Secretary of State for Education in England who set up the EEF, did not familiarise himself with the key recommendations of the organisation he founded, because in 2013, he said:

‘All too often, we’ve seen an over-emphasis on group work – in practice, children chatting to each other – in the belief that is a more productive way to acquire knowledge than attending to an expert.’ [15]

To be fair to Mr Gove, who would later famously declare that people have had enough of attending to experts, [16] he is not alone in his dislike of group work. For example, if you type ‘group work meme’ into an image search engine, you find things like this: [17]

Whenever we share these images in our workshops, they tend to raise the laughter of recognition. But don’t you think they’re also a bit tragic? If people’s experience of working with others leaves them feeling that they can ‘trust no one’, we have a serious problem. Human beings are amazing – we made the internet out of bits of metal we found in the ground, for goodness’ sake – but it is fair to say we could do with a few pointers in how to get along with one another a bit better, as anyone who has spent more than five minutes on the internet will attest.

We understand why this anti-group work feeling exists. If you get children working in groups without first teaching them how to do so successfully, it can easily go pear-shaped. As Littleton and Mercer (2013) point out, group work is a bit like the little girl in Longfellow’s poem: when it is good, it is very good indeed – and when it is bad, it is horrid. [18] Happily, it’s surprisingly easy to teach children how to talk and work productively in groups. By agreeing a simple set of ground rules for how to talk together, we can transform the quality of group work overnight. We’ll explain how to do this in Chapter 5: Components of a complex intervention. We’ll also explore some powerful arguments for ‘children chatting’, otherwise known as oracy education.

But the challenges of implementing ‘metacognition and self-regulation’ successfully go beyond group work. Here’s another extract from the EEF Toolkit:

‘The potential impact of [metacognition and self-regulation] is high, but can be difficult to achieve in practice as they require pupils to take greater responsibility for their learning and develop their understanding of what is required to succeed.’ [19]

Again, the notion of students taking greater responsibility for their learning might seem reasonable enough – desirable, even. However, some people – typically, those on the traditional (as opposed to the progressive) side of the aisle – are unconvinced. Children, the argument goes, are novices – they don’t know what they don’t know. It is therefore more efficient if the curriculum is designed and taught by an expert, rather than letting the children call the shots. Traditionalists often cite a study – the unfortunately named Project Follow Through – which found that Direct Instruction, a highly structured, scripted approach to teaching, was more effective than other approaches. [20] Such concerns are perhaps what prompted Tom Bennett (2013) to write: ‘Learning to Learn: It isn’t even a thing. We’ve been hoaxed… the hipsters are selling snake oil on this one, whether they know it or not.’ [21]

Elsewhere, we find educational researchers and commentators objecting to Learning to Learn on the basis that ‘teaching generic skills does not work’, [22] or that the idea we can teach transferrable skills is a ‘myth’. [23] Essentially, the argument here is that attempting to teach generic skills such as critical thinking in the absence of subject knowledge is misguided – that in order to think critically about a particular historical event, say, the most important thing is that you are knowledgeable about that period of history. [24] Knowledge is foundational, and our ability to think critically emerges from a rich knowledge base. Therefore, instead of teaching generic ‘learning skills’, schools should focus primarily on teaching subject knowledge – the stuff that critical thinking is made of. This understanding of the primacy of knowledge draws on ideas from evolutionary psychology and cognitive science, and it presents a serious challenge to advocates of Learning to Learn. We will explore these arguments in detail in Chapter 3: Learning to Learn on trial.

We also find articles by people like Professor Dennis Hayes, who has written that ‘Education is bad for you when it is about the process of “Learning to Learn”, rather than learning’. [25] In their book The Dangerous Rise of Therapeutic Education, Ecclestone and Hayes (2008) suggest that an ‘interest in personalised learning and learner voice, learning to learn and assessing soft skills erodes [the] belief that young people need subject knowledge’. [26] Elsewhere, Hayes has warned against the ‘damaging claim that it is important for children and young people to engage in “Learning to Learn”… What all the supposedly exciting and innovative techniques amount to is the idea that children and young people need to learn to learn before they can, er, learn’. [27]

 

Educational marmite

Hopefully you can see by now that the literature on Learning to Learn paints a rather puzzling, polarised picture. Either Learning to Learn is one of the most effective games in town, offering ‘high impact for very low cost, based on extensive evidence’ – or it’s bad education that overlooks the importance of subject knowledge; a snake oil hoax peddled by unwitting hipsters. There is not a great deal of grey in this picture.

This unsatisfactory state of affairs – or this fascinating mess, depending on your attitude toward complexity – is the Learning to Learn paradox, and this is the overarching theme that runs through Part I of this book. Learning to Learn, it seems, is educational Marmite. Either it leads to the palace of wisdom, or it’s the road to hell. Which, of course, begs the question: which is it? Or might the truth be something more nuanced; something more interesting; something in between?

As with all the best stories, if you really want to understand what’s going on, you need to start at the very beginning…

In the next extract, we will look at how the EEF gets metacognition, self-regulation and self-regulated learning wrong – and provide what we believe is a far more helpful model for thinking about these important ideas. 

FOOTNOTES

[1] Santayana, G. (1905) The Life of Reason: Reason in Common Sense. New York: Scribner’s, p284.

[2] DfE (2010) New endowment fund to turn around weakest schools and raise standards for disadvantaged pupils. London, Department for Education, Press Notice 2010/0115: https://www.gov.uk/government/news/new-endowment-fund-to-turn-around-weakest-schools-and-raise-standards-for-disadvantaged-pupils.

[3] EEF (2018) Our mission: https://educationendowmentfoundation.org.uk/about/history.

[4] Higgins, S., Kokotsaki, D. & Coe, R.J. (2011). Toolkit of Strategies to Improve Learning: Summary for Schools Spending the Pupil Premium. Sutton Trust: https://educationendowmentfoundation.org.uk/evidence-summaries/teaching-learning-toolkit.

[5] ‘The EEF at 5: We’ve done a lot. There’s a lot left to do’ by EEF Chairman Sir Peter Lampl: https://educationendowmentfoundation.org.uk/news/the-eef-at-5.

[6] https://educationendowmentfoundation.org.uk/evidence-summaries/teaching-learning-toolkit; accessed June 20, 2020.

[7] If you’re interested, there’s a fascinating interview with Professor Adrian Simpson on the Education Research Reading Room podcast that deals with this issue comprehensively: ollielovell.com/errr/adriansimpson.

[8] Mannion, J. (2017) Evidence-informed practice: the importance of professional judgment. Impact, the journal of the Chartered College of Teachers. Interim edition, p38-40. Available at: https://impact.chartered.college/article/mannion-evidence-informed-practice-professional-judgement.

[9] Kluger, A.N. & DeNisi, A. (1996). The effects of feedback interventions on performance: A historical review, a meta-analysis, and a preliminary feedback intervention theory. Psychological Bulletin, 119(2), 254-284.

[10] Education Endowment Foundation (2020). The Teaching and Learning Toolkit entry for metacognition and self-regulation. Available at: https://educationendowmentfoundation.org.uk/evidence-summaries/teaching-learning-toolkit/meta-cognition-and-self-regulation.

[11] Schwartz, J. (2017). Learning to Learn: You, Too, Can Rewire Your Brain. New York Times, August 4. Available at: https://www.nytimes.com/2017/08/04/education/edlife/learning-how-to-learn-barbara-oakley.html.

[12] Oakley, B., Sejnowski, T. & McConville, A. (2018). Learning How to Learn: How to Succeed in School Without Spending All Your Time Studying. New York, NY: Tarcher Perigee.

[13] Christodoulou, D. (2018) Book review: Learning How to Learn. Times Education Supplement, September 7. Available at: https://www.tes.com/news/book-review-learning-how-learn.

[14] Education Endowment Foundation (2020). The Teaching and Learning Toolkit entry for metacognition and self-regulation. Available at: https://educationendowmentfoundation.org.uk/evidence-summaries/teaching-learning-toolkit/meta-cognition-and-self-regulation.

[15] Gove, M. (2013) Speech on the white paper ‘The importance of teaching’. Available at: https://www.gov.uk/government/speeches/michael-gove-speaks-about-the-importance-of-teaching.

[16] Mance, H. (2016) Britain has had enough of experts, says Gove. Financial Times, June 3. Available at: https://www.ft.com/content/3be49734-29cb-11e6-83e4-abc22d5d108c.

[17] We have no idea how to reference a meme, but presumably someone made these, so whoever you are, thanks 🙂

[18] Littleton, K. & Mercer, N. (2013). Interthinking: putting talk to work. Abindgon, UK: Routledge, p15.

[19] Education Endowment Foundation (2020). The Teaching and Learning Toolkit. Available at: https://educationendowmentfoundation.org.uk/evidence-summaries/teaching-learning-toolkit/meta-cognition-and-self-regulation.

[20] Engelmann, S., Becker, W. C., Carnine, D., & Gersten, R. (1988). The Direct Instruction follow through model: Design and outcomes. Education and Treatment of Children, 11(4), 303-317.

[21] Bennett, T. (2013) Teacher proof: Why research in education doesn’t always mean what it claims, and what you can do about it. London: Routledge, p160-170.

[22] Tricot, A. & Sweller, J. (2014). Domain-specific knowledge and why teaching generic skills does not work. Educational Psychology Review, 26(2), 265-283.

[23] Christodoulou, D. (2013) Seven myths about education, London: Routledge.

[24] Counsell, C. (2011) Disciplinary knowledge for all, the secondary history curriculum and history teachers’ achievement, The Curriculum Journal, 22(2), 201-225.

[25] Hayes, D. (2012) Education is bad for you. Huffington Post, February 3. Available at: https://www.huffingtonpost.co.uk/dennis-hayes/education-is-bad-for-you_b_1249900.html.

[26] Ecclestone, K. & Hayes, D. (2008) The Dangerous Rise of Therapeutic Education. London: Routledge, p47.

[27] Hayes, D. (2005) Learning’s too good for ’em. Times Educational Supplement, August 19. Available at: https://www.tes.com/news/learnings-too-good-em.

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