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 two posts, we looked at Kate’s story and James’s story. Today, we will share a few vignettes that paint a picture of what it was like to teach the Learning Skills curriculum.
A few vignettes
Sometimes, people are dismissive of stories. They say things like ‘ah, but that’s just anecdotal data’. The really annoying ones say things like ‘the plural of anecdote is not data’. We disagree. Without wishing to sound too folksy, life can be seen as a tapestry of narrative threads; we live our lives through stories, and in a sense our professional identities are characters in a story: ‘as a teacher, I pass on the best of what has been thought and said to future generations/help children overcome disadvantage/provide for my family’, and so on. So, without apology, here are a few anecdotes that we feel capture the essence of what it was like to teach Learning Skills. If hard data is your thing, you might prefer to skip ahead to Chapter 6: The evidence for Learning Skills.
‘I didn’t even have to be there!’ (Caroline)
The following is an excerpt from an interview James did for his PhD with Caroline, the Head of PE.
‘I came to this school from a school where attainment was higher and kids were more independent. When I arrived here, I found that all the kids expected to be spoon-fed. There was no independence. Even now, with the Year 11s, they still crave that spoon-feeding. Because they haven’t had any Learning to Learn. They even struggle to start a piece of coursework off. I have to put a page up on the board where I put the title up for them, I show them how to lay out their work, I show them how to structure it with like an introduction, their research, findings, opinions, their conclusions… they just don’t know how to structure their work. I even have to start their sentences off – like they don’t even know how to start a sentence…’
How is your experience different at Key Stage 3?
‘It’s huge. The type of feedback that they give to each other is much more constructive, it has more meaning and it’s clearly not made up. It’s accurate and demonstrates that they’ve really thought about what they’re saying. I’ve got sentence stems that I take with me to some of the lessons and I don’t need them, or if I do they only need to use it once and then they can transfer it and use it again and again in some of the other practical activities. In Key Stage 4, when we’re teaching teamwork and leadership skills, there’s usually the same students who do most of the leadership, whereas in Key Stage 3… there is contribution from all students. And they don’t seem as scared to get things wrong. They’re much more forthcoming, they give it a go and they are more critical of each other. Because it’s a practical subject, some of the dialogue is in very short bursts. So we do practical activities and then we call them in and fire say three questions at once, and then say discuss. That could be in twos or in groups of six sometimes. And they usually have a time limit of say 30 seconds to discuss it with each other. Sometimes with Key Stage 4 they just sit there and just talk about something else, or they just sit there, but in Years 7, 8 and 9 they have good discussions they stay on task… nearly all of the time, coming up with the appropriate answers.
Thinking back to what Key Stage 3 was like before Learning Skills, it just doesn’t compare. Like asking them to discuss and give feedback – the feedback would always be so basic. Say in gymnastics, they would just say ‘she didn’t point her toes’ – they’d just say what the person before them said. Whereas now, they all say different things and they all seem to want to say something different, they watch to say something different that they’ve observed. In terms of leadership, my Year 7s – even leading a warm-up, they could do that a lot better than the Year 11s. Working together to set up equipment as well. That was a major problem when I came to the school, to ask them to set up a 10×10 square, it would take them a long time to do that, but now they are much more doers. In one lesson… a few weeks ago, was the feeling I had where I just facilitated the lesson, I didn’t have to even be there really! And another teacher came over, and it was Year 7 girls, and they had to design a warm-up… they had to teach it, they had to organise themselves and agree on their own roles within it. They did this so quickly, they then led another group through the warm-up activity, and once they’d finished the other group, they had a big group discussion about what level each student achieved on their leadership skills and why they then each had to give that feedback back to each kid who did they warm-up activity. And the other teacher who came over couldn’t believe the quality of the feedback. It included grades, and advice as to how to improve… Each session, I gave minimum instructions to them. You know, I didn’t give them much to go on at all. And they just exceeded my expectations, they were brilliant. I definitely think that Learning to Learn has been a big influence in that. I also think the way in which we deliver PE has been a big influence on that, which does focus more on them leading each other, and using the whole school INSETs and whole staff meetings about Learning to Learn, using that within PE and discussing within meetings how to do it in PE.’
Year 7 projects that sound like PhDs (James)
In recent years, teachers and educational researchers have become very sceptical about the idea of ‘discovery learning’, and it is easy to understand why. It is certainly the case that if you want children to learn a chunk of subject knowledge that they will later be tested on, it is far more efficient to teach it to them rather than hoping that they will discover it. However, the next story is an example of how an open-ended project that some might dismiss as ‘discovery learning’ can lead to the development of powerful knowledge.
‘The first time we ran an independent research project, we let the children choose their own topic. We soon realised our mistake: cue lots of presentations about footballers, fast cars and The Hunger Games, which was all the rage at the time. We put up with the choice of topics because the students were still developing the skills of data collection, sorting, prioritising, presenting and so on. But we learned our lesson. The following year, we ran another independent research project, this time in groups of three. We took our students to the school library and said ‘you can research any topic you like, but it has to be from these shelves here’. In so doing, we directed them toward topics that you can learn about at University level, but not so much in school: life in other countries, politics, architecture and so on. The only catch was that they had to agree on a topic as a group of three, and then work on it together for six weeks, culminating in a presentation to the class.
One girl – let’s call her Rose – picked out a dog-eared book from the 1970s called An Introduction to Feminism. She hadn’t ever heard of feminism before, and it immediately resonated with her. She was resolute: this was going to be her topic. Meanwhile, her group buddy Joe had selected a coffee-table book about South America, full of huge colour photos. He realised that he knew next to nothing about this entire continent, a situation he was keen to resolve. We returned to the classroom, where the students reviewed the books their group had collected, and agreed on a topic to investigate for the next six weeks, which they would then present to the class. Neither Rose nor Joe wanted to relinquish their topic, and they soon became mired in deadlock, each reading their own book in silence. They were sitting at the front of the room, and I happened to be in earshot when Joe turned to Rose and said: ‘What if we do it about feminism in South America?’ My eyebrows shot up and my heart rate shot even higher as I fought the urge to interrupt them: this was incredible! However, there was a third student, Martin, in that group who was absent that day. Would they be able to persuade him to get on board?
Martin didn’t need to go to the library. For some reason, he was obsessed with China and already had several books on it at home. He was learning Mandarin in his spare time, as well as Chinese calligraphy, which he doodled incessantly. There was no way he wasn’t doing China. You can probably see where this is going. Over the next six weeks, this group of three 11-year-olds did an independent research project called ‘The history of feminism in South America and China’. They needed a bit of help from the teaching assistant to understand the reading materials they discovered online – there were no websites ‘for kids’ that covered their chosen topic – but they ran with it. They soon discovered that communism linked the two regions, and they were quick to draw parallels between communism and feminism in that they both are concerned with ideas of fairness and equality. In South America, they focused on influential historical figures such as Eva Peron and Frida Kahlo, while in China they discovered things like the one child policy, foot binding and recent changes to the law to bring about greater equality for women. It was jaw-dropping stuff, and serves as a useful reminder that once children can read to a reasonable standard, an open-ended ‘discovery’ approach to project-based learning can result in the learning of powerful knowledge that they might not otherwise learn at school.
In the final lesson of the half-term, I sat with bated breath as Rose and Joe went up to present their findings to the class (Martin was absent again). Unfortunately, we hadn’t done much work on presentation skills yet. Joe turned bright pink and read nervously from his notes, while Rose spoke so quietly that you literally couldn’t hear a word she was saying. I realised that we needed to work on their presentation skills, and fast.’
This brings us neatly to our next story, about a project that was very much focused on public speaking…
Harry’s assembly (Rav)
The following is an excerpt from an interview James did with Rav, a teacher of Learning Skills cohorts 2 and 3. It concerns a research project Year 8 did on endangered animals, which the students then presented to the whole school through a series of assemblies.
‘Harry had a severe case of dyslexia and behaviour issues, and was a low achiever in all of his subjects and constantly getting into trouble. So that was his background. And I think he didn’t have any confidence… in terms of his reflections, he was really insecure and had a very low sense of confidence, not just with his learning, but in life, with his parents, with himself as a person. Yeah, that was Harry.
So on the very first day that we had our assembly presentations, I think it was to the rest of Year 8… he showed up, but then he disappeared 10 or 15 minutes before they were due to start their presentation. Everybody had their own specific roles, and they had rehearsed this. And Harry hadn’t shown any sign of not wanting to do it or nerves… if you met Harry, he was the type of person who wouldn’t show that he was nervous, he was always quite well spoken and always had something to say. So you would think that he was quite confident, but… anyway, I was surprised.
So he disappeared just as the assembly hall was filling up, and he was nowhere to be found. Some students and a couple of teachers went to look for him around the school building, and he hadn’t turned up. A few minutes before we were due to start, another student, Mo, said that he would step up – his exact words – and take Harry’s place.
Just as they were about to start, Harry turned up, and he was bright pink and just really flustered and looked frustrated. I asked him ‘What’s brought this on? You can do this, we’ve rehearsed this many times – this is your opportunity to stand in front of everybody and do something amazing!’ I think he really wanted the time to talk it through, but we didn’t have that time… So for that assembly, he refused to go up and speak. Somebody else had to speak on his behalf.
The following day – we had a whole week of presenting to every year group – I think after seeing the first presentation and then overcoming his nerves, he agreed to go up. And it was great. I think he was a little bit nervous, but everybody was really supportive. I think he needed to do something like that just to prove to himself, and I think to everybody, that he was capable of speaking and memorising his words, and sharing his learning journey with everybody. And he spoke about his challenges and how he overcame those.
That was a really big moment for him. The fact that he had downright refused to speak, and he became quite aggressive about it, disappeared and then came back and then refused to go up… I don’t really know what happened for him to change his mind. I think he just needed time and to see everybody else stand up and to see the sense of achievement they had afterwards. Maybe he wanted a sense of that as well. But he did agree to do it in the following assemblies, and it was perfect. It was really perfect.’
An accidental display of awesomeness (Kate)
‘This story doesn’t exactly cover me in glory, but here goes. One day, while heavily pregnant and increasingly forgetful, I was late to my first lesson. I had overlooked the fact that on Wednesdays, we didn’t have tutor time and lessons started at 8.30. I didn’t have a tutor group and thought I had 15 minutes to spare. When I got to my classroom, I found that the students had found a key and let themselves in. Not only that, but they’d got their folders out, arranged themselves into groups and were cracking on with their projects. I thanked them for being so amazing, apologised profusely for my lateness, and sat at my desk to take the weight off my feet.
When I looked up, to my horror I saw six NQTs standing at the back of the room, scribbling furiously in their notebooks. As well as forgetting what time school started at, I had completely forgotten that I was hosting a group from the University who had come to find out about Learning Skills, which by now people were starting to talk about across the city. Naturally, I was horrified, but they were blown away – they had never seen children organising themselves in this way, in the absence of adult supervision.
Obviously, I wouldn’t have planned it that way. But I couldn’t have wished for a better display of how Learning Skills had unleashed the students’ potential to become proactive, independent learners.’
Teachers modelling failure
Not everything we did went swimmingly – far from it, in fact. A theatre production about recycling, which involved every child in Year 7 and was performed to parents and carers one painful afternoon… well, let’s just say it gave us a newfound respect for drama teachers. And a campaign project fell flat because the whole point of a campaign is that you keep going until you achieve your goals and so our students mainly just felt disappointed at the end of that half-term, that their work had been in vain. That didn’t feel great, and we admitted as much to the students. We tell students all the time that they need to learn from their mistakes. It’s important that as teachers, we afford ourselves the same luxury. In the culture of high-stakes accountability that the teaching profession is very much in the grip of currently, it’s easy to forget that failure can be a healthy thing – as long as you don’t allow it to stop you taking risks. Because if you never mess anything up, you’re just doing things you already know how to do – and where’s the fun in that? And more importantly – where’s the learning in that?
So, there are loads of things we would do differently if we had our time again – we’ll share a few examples in the next chapter. However, in the stories above, we hope you can see how through a combination of factors – extended independent learning projects, high expectations for all and a culture of stepping back and allowing the students to find their feet – the Learning Skills curriculum enabled our students to achieve things that they and others did not think they were capable of. Removing the spectre of endless progress checking gave the students some breathing room. They had the time and space to take risks, make mistakes and learn from them, to try on new skills for size and to get to know one another’s strengths and weaknesses. They all had a chance to be brilliant at some things and to realise they had a long way to go with others. This challenged their perceptions of themselves, and enabled them to be more open-minded about what they might achieve in the future.
If you would like to buy a copy of the book, you can do so here.