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’.
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. First, Kate’s story.
When I first started teaching, I found that I was drawn to working with pupils who displayed ‘challenging behaviour’. I suppose, with the clarity of hindsight, I wanted to be the kind of teacher I needed when I was twelve. Today, I would be described as a ‘school refuser’. I found school to be a confusing and unwelcoming place, and so I avoided it as much as I could. It was only when I left school and got a job that I realised I could teach myself the things I needed to learn. I became fluent in French, worked abroad, became a parent and got a degree. Ten years after I’d left with two GCSEs, I returned to my old school as a very proud and slightly terrified trainee.
As a newly qualified teacher (NQT) of French, I didn’t think much about the learning side of things. My focus was on teaching. I wanted to do a good job, to make a difference, all that stuff. My NQT year was going well – my mentor was very supportive and encouraging about my developing practice. However, I couldn’t shake the feeling that I was missing something. Had I missed an important lecture during my teacher training perhaps?
My problem was this: no matter how diligently I planned my lessons, some of my students – not many, but a significant minority – seemed all but incapable of learning stuff and retaining it from one lesson to the next. I began to wonder whether there might be more to this teaching lark than designing lesson plans and wall displays. I became increasingly concerned with the question of how learning happens, and whether it might be possible for children to learn how to get better at learning stuff. Slowly but surely, this interest grew into an obsession that I’m still in the grip of almost 20 years later.
One incident really shaped my thinking about how teaching should and shouldn’t be done. It came halfway through my NQT year. I was drawn to my door by a kerfuffle in the corridor. Raised voices, scurrying feet, doors slamming. A Year 10 boy was being what I can only describe as ‘kettled’ by some of my colleagues. He reminded me of a fox cornered by hounds. He didn’t want to do what they wanted (to go back into the class), and they weren’t going to let him escape. I felt his fear. I wanted to intervene. I felt protective of him. But who was I? I was just an NQT. He wasn’t my student. It ended badly and the boy was excluded.
The incident marked me. I couldn’t help but wonder if there was a better way to deal with children who sometimes find it difficult to stay in the room. I wanted to find a way of teaching that renders that kind of conflict-based behaviour management obsolete; to create a culture and an environment where children are not just forced to learn through the threat of unpleasant consequences, but where they feel safe enough to willingly engage in learning, to be nourished by it and to grow stronger from the experience.
The ‘so what’ moment
I moved to a new school – let’s call it City High – where the proportion of students eligible for Free School Meals (FSM) was well above the national average, and around 50% were on the Special Educational Needs and Disabilities (SEND) register. At City High, many students found it difficult to stay in the room for a full lesson without pushing the boundaries and getting into trouble. Many wouldn’t put pen to paper willingly. If a mistake was made, their exercise book would literally go sailing out of the 2nd floor window and onto the grass below. Suddenly, the question of how to engage students in learning had become fundamental to my ability to teach.
One day, it occurred to me that I needed to stop focusing on how to teach French, and start thinking about how to teach them. Who were these young people? Why did so many of them find it so difficult to stay in the room? Why were they so frightened of making mistakes? I thought that if I could answer these questions, it might become easier to teach them the content I was being paid to deliver. Perhaps then they would be able to engage with the curriculum and make progress. Perhaps they might even enjoy the experience!
So, as well as burning the midnight oil making colourful OHP slides to engage my students (that’s an overhead projector, Gen Z readers), and as well as drilling behaviour routines to create a positive climate for learning, I fed the hungry ones and I kept a store of clothes for the underprepared ones. I had spare books, food, shoes, pens, pencils, bags and time. Time to listen, time to watch, time to learn who they were, what they liked, why they were tired, frightened, lacking in confidence. After a while, the books stopped flying out of the window, the students stayed in the room and I could begin to teach some French.
Building relationships with my students in this way was making teaching possible. They were calm enough most of the time, they were listening, they were trying their best to absorb the information and pass the tests. There were other signs that gave me confidence I was on the right track, too. The ‘Star of the Week’ display in the corridor had students stopping and smiling as they moved through the school. The displays of key grammar didn’t have comedy penises drawn on them any more. I gave out fewer sanctions and more rewards. With my amazing colleagues, we made it department policy to be ‘emotionally literate’ (early 2000s!). We would start lessons by asking how students were feeling in the target language and we would to listen to their responses, look for any outward signs that they weren’t ‘ca va bien’, and respond accordingly. The impact was profound; we doubled our uptake at GCSE and had to expand the teaching team.
So, when a school inspector was invited in to support the school, I practically skipped to his office, clutching my ring binders, eager to gush about our bilingual breakfast club, our emotionally literate behaviour policy and our nurturing systems. As I recounted each initiative, the inspector responded with the same question: ‘So what?’
We’d reduced the number of exclusions from lessons to almost zero. We rarely set detentions. Students kept their exercise books for a whole year. We’d doubled our uptake at GCSE. ‘So what?’ came the question, again and again.
I was crushed. I was lost for words. ‘So what?’ I wanted to spit back. ‘Are you kidding me?’
I went home and I cried. Hot, angry tears of frustration. I was exhausted, but I knew deep down that the inspector had a point. I’d given it my all and yet I’d missed the mark. I felt sure that our actions had made a difference. I’d have bet my house on it. I can still picture the children whose lives those actions impacted. The children for whom I wrote letters to philanthropists so they could go on school trips. The children who wore my kids’ hand-me-downs. The children I visited in hospital and at home. The ones I let sleep in my cupboard when they’d been up all night hiding from an abusive home life. The ones I know I kept a little longer from slipping through the cracks.
I thought that what we had done was enough, but suddenly it was clear to me that we had sacrificed measuring student progress on the altar of student wellbeing. I wasn’t able to point to any evidence that any of it had had a positive impact on learning. ‘So what’ indeed! For every child I’d helped to feel included, there were probably ten more who I hadn’t been able to give enough of my attention to. It simply wasn’t a sustainable model. One teacher cannot maintain that level of input – not in a school that had so many students with additional learning needs. I was on the right track, but my thinking wasn’t quite there yet. It wasn’t a question of whether my job as a teacher was to keep the vulnerable ones safe and build them up as individuals, or to teach all students the knowledge and skills they need to pass exams. The education system has to do both. I needed to figure out how to have my cake and eat it – and to be able to spend time with my own family, to enjoy my work and not be a wrung-out tearful wreck.
First forays into Learning to Learn
A question began to form in my mind: what if it were possible to teach the children how to get themselves ready to learn, instead of relying on adults to do it for them? If we could teach them how to help themselves and each other, they would be able to maintain that learning trajectory over time, and I would be able to focus on teaching and assessment, tracking progress and evaluating the impact of what we were doing.
The first step was to focus on language for learning. For the first half term of Year 7, we followed a curriculum designed by my colleague to encourage a deep understanding of language and culture. This not only helped us to isolate specific skills, it also created a context within which learning the target vocabulary made sense. We focused on developing oracy skills, the rationale being that the more confident they were about speaking and listening in English, the easier it would be to transfer those skills across to learning French and Spanish.
Around this time, the school’s leadership team was wrestling with the question of how to help our Year 7 students overcome the often-difficult transition from primary to secondary school. Essentially, the problem with transition is that the children go from having one teacher in one classroom, to many teachers in many classrooms. This has several consequences. It can be unsettling for pupils – their physical environment changes several times a day, whenever a bell rings. And it is challenging for secondary school teachers, who often have as many as 200 pupils pass through their classroom each week. It is therefore not possible to get to know your pupils on anywhere near the level that is possible in a primary school. So, we decided to implement a ‘junior model’ curriculum where the students had just one teacher for the majority of their lessons. We still had timetabled lessons – Geography, English, Art and so on – but it all took place in the same classroom, and was taught by the same teacher.
I suspect that at this point, some readers will be recoiling in horror. ‘So you had teachers teaching outside of their subject specialism… across multiple subjects… through choice?!!’ Well, yes we did, and if we had our time again, we wouldn’t go down that route. It did have some advantages, though. We got to know the students really well, which meant that we had far fewer problems with behaviour than with previous year groups. It also meant we could identify very quickly who had the literacy skills required to access the curriculum and who didn’t, who had social and emotional needs that were affecting their learning, what the circumstances were that sat behind these difficulties, and so on. It also meant we were able to form much stronger relationships with parents and carers. So, from a getting-to-know-the-students perspective, the junior model was really, really powerful.
From a workload perspective, however, it was a tough gig. As teachers, we had to work constantly to gen up on our knowledge of geography, history, art, drama, ICT and so on. And because we were teaching outside of our subject specialism for much of the time, the quality of teaching and learning was inconsistent across the piece. Looking back, it’s clear that the junior model was very much a developmental phase – something we had to try in order to realise that the answers must lie elsewhere.
The following year, instead of having timetabled subject lessons, we carved up the curriculum and arranged it into cross-curricular topics. For example, when we created the topic of ‘Italy’ we taught mountains and volcanoes in Geography, the Renaissance in History, made 3-D models of Italy in art and learnt Italian in modern foreign languages. The next term, the topic was the Battle of Hastings, and everything was lined up around that: in English we read Beowulf, in art we created tapestries…
From the pupils’ perspective, this approach helped them make sense of their learning. It was much more joined up, and it enabled them to make links between different subjects and to transfer their knowledge and understanding from one subject to another. Each term, instead of being all over the place, they were anchored in time, space and topic. It was also a fantastic opportunity for teachers to gain knowledge and skills through collaborating with teachers from other departments.
From a teaching perspective, colleagues who were comfortable and happy to teach in this collaborative, joined-up way flourished. But some were more old-school. They wanted to teach in the manner to which they had become accustomed, and they did not enthusiastically embrace this new way of working. The problem was that we didn’t have a team of teachers who could fully embrace all that Learning to Learn requires. We were taking some teachers too far out of their comfort zone, so the students didn’t feel as safe as they needed to be to feel courageous and take risks in their own learning. The main lesson we learned was that in order for Learning to Learn to work, you really need a small team of dedicated teachers who are up for working in a different way.
The previous year, Stuart had moved to a local school, Sea View, where he encountered a familiar picture – Year 7s struggling with the transition from primary school, struggling to organise their time and resources, and struggling to make meaningful progress in lessons. One day he phoned me and invited me to join him, to lead on a new Year 7 Learning to Learn curriculum. I didn’t have to think long – Stuart is the most inspirational headteacher I’ve ever worked for.
Safety: an antidote to fear
Although I knew we hadn’t quite cracked it at City High, we had made huge strides and I was buzzing with ideas about how to make it even better this time around. I had made three key observations. First, students can only learn effectively and make good progress when they feel safe. This might seem obvious, but it takes time and effort to build the relationships and the trust that create a safe climate for learning. We needed to find a way to build those relationships that didn’t rely upon the teacher doing all the work. What I wanted was to get the students themselves to create that climate by weaving their own relationships into a supportive web that could hold them all. It isn’t sustainable to expect one adult to hold the responsibility for forming all those positive relationships. We needed to develop an approach to classroom practice that allowed the students to really get to know one another, and to create that climate of safety and security.
Second, you can’t leave that to chance because in schools, fear is everywhere. It’s not always obviously recognisable, but it’s there. Fear of being rejected by peers, fear of being ridiculed, fear of standing out and becoming vulnerable. In the most extreme cases, this fear of failure can stop some students from trying altogether. I had noticed that during school trips, my students’ behaviour was completely different. They were nicer to one another, polite to strangers, they were more relaxed and open and more inclined to give things a go. It was as if there was a set of behaviours and attitudes that were woven into their school uniform, but which came off when you took them out of the school environment. The fear subsided somehow. Although I didn’t yet know why they acted so differently outside of school, I knew that I wanted to recreate that relationship to learning in the classroom – the curious, collaborative, playful attitudes to learning that I had seen. And I knew it had something to do with safety being the antidote to fear.
When a student has reached the point where they’re actively trying not to learn stuff, we can only conclude that the education system has failed them. If we were going to help all our students get better at learning, we had to figure out a way to disrupt this vicious cycle and replace it with a virtuous cycle where learning becomes its own reward. I imagined a classroom where students would ask questions and share answers without fear of ridicule… a classroom where students collaborate effectively, even with students they aren’t close friends with… a classroom where children are able regulate their learning, their feelings and their behaviour… a classroom where thinking and questioning is common-place and where failure is not only tolerated, but accepted, normalised and embraced as a fundamental part of what it means to be a successful learner. Instead of being the only person in the room exercising these skills on behalf of the students, I imagined a community where we were all actively engaged in achieving our learning goals together, each sharing our strengths and working on our weak spots. In such a classroom, there is every possibility that students who lack confidence can begin to trust themselves, and start to get that virtuous cycle in motion.
The third insight was that an initiative such as this needs to be designed and delivered by a team of teachers who really believe in what they are doing and who are willing to inject their own strengths and talents into the mix. In the same way that I wanted the students to weave a supportive web of trust that would hold them when they felt nervous, I wanted the same thing for my colleagues. We had to trust one another if we were going to make this work. We had to overcome our own fears around making mistakes, over-stretching or underachieving in order to truly transform the way teaching and learning happened in our classrooms. We held a competitive selection process to appoint a team of teachers dedicated to the cause. In the interviews, it was immediately apparent to me that at Sea View, there was an abundance of talent and experience on which to draw. It was a bit of a dream ticket really. Stuart had given us five lessons a week to do with as we wished. At our first team meeting, which, as I recall, took place in the local, the excitement was palpable. We couldn’t wait to get started.
If you would like to buy a copy of the book, you can do so here.