This is an extract from ‘Fear is the Mind Killer: Why Learning to Learn deserves lesson time – and how to make it work for your pupils’.
The book is about the Learning Skills curriculum, a whole-school approach to teaching and learning that we developed at a disadvantaged school in the UK. An 8-year evaluation with the University of Cambridge found that Learning Skills led to significant gains in subject learning across the curriculum, with accelerated gains among students from disadvantaged backgrounds: the Pupil Premium gap at GCSE reduced by over 65% from one cohort to the next (Mannion, McAllister & Mercer, 2018). 
Often, teachers and researchers describe things in quite scientific language – interventions, data analysis, input and output variables. But in our experience, when you’re a teacher you don’t feel much like a scientist. Teaching feels more like a vocation – something that involves your whole identity as a human being, something that it isn’t always easy to switch off when you go home.
So, in this mini-series of three excerpts, we will tell you the story of the Learning Skills curriculum as we experienced it as teachers – warts and all. In the last post, we looked at Kate’s story. Today, it’s James’s turn.
The probation office
When I was at 6th form college, you had to do something called ‘complementary studies’ alongside your A-levels. I chose ‘keyboard skills’, picturing myself noodling around on synthesisers in the music room. As it turned out, I found myself in a room with no teacher, an electric typewriter, a book of typing exercises and a tea towel to cover your hands with. So I didn’t become a pop star, but I did learn how to type really fast. Years later, I found myself looking for temping work, and because you get slightly better pay if you can type fast, I found myself working as a typist at the local probation office, which was absolutely fascinating.
When someone has been convicted of a crime, a probation officer interviews them to find out about their life and what led them to do what they did. They then write a pre-sentence report, which is sent to the judge to inform sentencing. It was my job to transcribe the probation officers’ dictated notes into pre-sentence reports. Over a period of a few months, I had an incredible insight into the life stories of hundreds of people whose lives had gone off the rails – most often, in the cases I was dealing with anyway, habitual shoplifting in order to feed an addiction to drugs and/or alcohol. In the database, there were literally thousands of people in my city whose lives had gone down this path.
Perhaps it’s the way probation officers write pre-sentence reports, but after a few weeks I started to notice a pattern. Typically, the story would begin with the normal good stuff that fills people’s lives – a job, a partner, a place to live, some kids perhaps. Then, almost without fail, something bad would happen – a redundancy, a sudden illness or death in the family, an infidelity perhaps. Next came the bit I found the most puzzling: a complete inability to cope with whatever hand it was that life had dealt them. Almost without exception, they would start self-medicating, which in turn led to addiction and debt. Over a period of weeks or months, they would lose their job, their partner, their friends, their accommodation, access to their children. Finally, they would ‘hit rock bottom’ and find themselves homeless or living in sheltered accommodation, stealing stuff from shops to feed their addiction.
Now, you might think that this is an extremely shallow and generalised account of a complex social phenomenon, and no doubt you would have a point. I’m not holding this up as a robust sociological theory, but at the time it really influenced my thinking and my decision to become a teacher. Some children are born into unbelievably difficult circumstances, and it’s obviously a lot harder for those children to make “good choices” as they grow into adulthood. Fixing this problem is really difficult because it takes place in millions of homes around the country, and it never ends. But every one of these people pass through the education system – a 12-year, almost-daily window into every young life. I began to wonder: to what extent do schools prepare young people for how to deal with life’s knocks – which come to us all, sooner or later – without falling apart and losing everything they hold dear? And is there more we could do in this regard?
Students right in front of me, but beyond reach
When I became a teacher, I soon found that I was more interested in helping children develop non-cognitive characteristics (defined as the ‘attitudes, behaviours and strategies that are thought to underpin success in school and at work, such as motivation, perseverance, and self-control’ ) than I was in teaching science. No matter how hard I tried to engage certain students in a conversation about electromagnets, or respiration, or the reactivity of alkali metals – whatever we were doing that day – they would just stare at me blankly in a way that made clear that they wanted me to leave them alone. These students were right in front of me, but somehow, they were beyond my reach. I don’t think it’s that they were incapable of understanding the work – they just didn’t see the relevance to their lives, and they didn’t feel it was something at which they could succeed. I found that this was especially true of students in the lower sets – those who are branded a failure every time there’s a graded assessment (several times a year, year in, year out), or whenever they hear their class being referred to as the ‘bottom set’.
One day, there had been some issues with bullying at the school, and I asked my Year 8 class if we could talk about it if they got their work done with 20 minutes to go. I had prepared some fictional scenarios for them to discuss, firstly in pairs, and then as a class. All of a sudden, students that I hadn’t been able to squeeze two words out of all year of came to life, constructing persuasive arguments as to why so-and-so was out of order, demonstrating their ability to consider a complex situation from multiple perspectives, and changing their minds in real time as new evidence came to light. The transformation was really quite astonishing.
In order to develop students’ learning skills, dispositions and attitudes – speaking and listening, interpersonal skills, critical thinking and reasoning, organising their time and resources, being proactive rather than reactive, and so on – you need something for them to think and reason about. Maybe it’s a reflection of my lack of skill as a science teacher, but I found that topics like electromagnets and respiration and the reactivity of alkali metals are of limited use in this regard. It’s a lot easier if the subject matter has a creative, moral or mysterious dimension. Animal rights, crime and punishment, do ghosts exist, can we imagine a world without money, is the world a computer simulation – that sort of thing. Such topics do crop up in science, from time to time – the ethics of designer babies, for example – but they are the exception, rather than the rule. To err on the side of clarity, I am not maligning the teaching of science in any way. I firmly believe that the solutions to the biggest problems facing humanity are in the hands of scientists rather than politicians, and I know many science teachers who do a brilliant job of it. It’s just that as a teacher, my interests lay elsewhere.
Whenever an opportunity arose to do something other than teaching science, I leapt at it. First, I became the school’s Gifted and Talented (G&T) coordinator. It was at a G&T conference that I was introduced to Philosophy for Children (P4C). My mind was blown – I got trained up as soon as possible, and used it in my teaching whenever possible. In case you aren’t familiar, P4C is a teaching method where the class sits in a circle and discusses a question of their choosing (and framing) at length. P4C is less concerned with teaching children a domain-specific curriculum, and more concerned with helping them develop a range of domain-general linguistic, interpersonal and critical thinking and reasoning skills. The better you get at running P4C sessions, the less the teacher has to say and do, because the students themselves learn how to scan the room and choose the next person to speak. Observing quietly as my students took turns to politely and articulately interrogate their own and others’ ideas; looking on in awe as 11 and 12-year-olds deconstructed complex questions and arrived at new shared understandings; feeling a quiet swell of pride when a student spoke up for the first time in months, and walked out of the room an inch taller… helping young people find their voice, literally and metaphorically… this was what I had come into teaching for!
A six-month research project that “didn’t work”, and was utterly transformative
Next I became the Head of Personal, Social, Health and Economic (PSHE) education, a wonderful subject that will thankfully (finally!) become compulsory in the UK in 2020. PSHE covers a wide range of topics – sex and drugs and proportional representation, and everything in between – and I love teaching it because the subject matter so often hits that criterion of being inherently interesting to the children.
Around this time, I did an MA in Person-Centred Education, where I combined my two newfound loves in a research project looking at the use of P4C as an approach to teaching PSHE. I recorded myself teaching six lessons, and transcribed everything the pupils said. I then spent the next six months analysing the data and bashing away at a keyboard, only to discover that it hadn’t had any discernible impact on what the children said, or how they said it. The problem was that I was trying to run before I could walk – I was still very new to P4C – and I had been teaching someone else’s class, so the relationships weren’t there. Writing the dissertation almost broke me. One day, I dragged myself away from my darkened room to attend a friend’s 30th birthday on the seafront. ‘There’s a homeless guy eating your buffet’, said one guest to the birthday girl. ‘No, that’s just James’, came the reply. ‘He’s doing a Masters.’
By the end of the summer, I was spent. ‘No more academia for me’, I resolved. ‘I have scraped the bottom of the barrel, and I don’t like the noise it makes.’ I submitted my dissertation and went back to teaching. When I did, however, something was different. Not just something. Everything. I planned, taught and spoke differently. The children spoke and behaved differently, and I responded to them in ways that were different again. And most importantly – they seemed to be learning more effectively.
Even though my P4C intervention hadn’t ‘worked’ on paper, the act of carrying out a research project and then writing 20,000 words on it – reading, thinking and reflecting deeply on the role of spoken language as a driver of thinking and reasoning, and of learning itself – had been utterly transformative. Ideas that I had previously grasped only on an intellectual level, I now felt in my bones. Without wishing to over-egg the pudding, I felt as though my professional identity had been taken apart, reconditioned and put back together by people who knew what they were doing.
Naturally, I was keen to take my teacher research journey to the next level, and started looking around for potential topics for a PhD. As luck would have it, this was the year that the Learning Skills curriculum began. It was an obvious choice. I had suddenly found myself in a team of enthusiastic, dedicated teachers who had just been given the whole of Year 7 for five lessons a week, to do with as we saw fit. This was an unprecedented opportunity to do something bold and different, and I was keen to capture what we were doing in the most rigorous way possible. But first, there was the small matter of deciding what should go into the programme itself!
In our first few meetings, we talked a lot about the students’ fear of failure. By this time, I had come to understand that despite the best efforts of teachers, the compulsory GCSE exam filter through which all must pass systematically brands a significant minority of young people – around one third  – as failures. I had studied self-esteem and ability grouping as part of my MA and through this, I had come to understand that in order to shore up their sense of self-worth, many students simply stop trying: if they don’t try, then they can’t really fail, as Kate mentioned above. As a profession, this is something we have known for a long time – at least since Covington and Beery published their Self-Worth Theory in 1976. 
How might we design a curriculum that would enable our students to take risks without fear of failure? How might we help them develop the levels of self-confidence and articulacy we often see among the alumni of expensive independent schools? And how might we empower them to take greater responsibility for their learning and unleash their potential as confident, curious, independent learners? One thing was clear: this was a complex, multifaceted problem that would require a complex, multifaceted solution.
 Gutman, L.M., Schoon, I. (2013) The impact of non-cognitive skills on outcomes for young people. Literature review. An Institute of Education report for the Department for Education. Available at https://helmtraining.co.uk/wp-content/uploads/2017/03/Gutman-and-Schoon-Impact-of-non-cognitive-skills-on-outcomes-for-young-people-1.pdf.
 ASCL (2019) The Forgotten Third: Final Report of the Commission of Inquiry. Available at: https://www.ascl.org.uk/ASCL/media/ASCL/Our%20view/Campaigns/The-Forgotten-Third_full-report.pdf.
 Covington, M., Beery, R. (1976). Self-worth and school learning. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston.