Hello. My name is James, and it has been several years since I last blogged.

It’s not that I haven’t wanted to. It’s just I’ve been writing a book – co-authoring, to be precise – and had I not suspended blogging, I sincerely doubt whether the book would ever have seen the light of day. As it was, it took a global pandemic and a prolonged period of enforced lockdown to get the thing finished. But finish it we did, and it gives me enormous pleasure – and not a little shudder of trepidation – to announce that Fear is the Mind Killer will hit the bookshelves in the Autumn term. Should you wish to acquire a copy, details of a 35% discount code will be included at the end of this post.

The book is about Learning to Learn, a topic that was all the rage just a few short years ago – both in the UK and internationally – but which has all but disappeared from view in recent years, as the educational zeitgeist has shifted its collective gaze toward such things as cognitive load theory, retrieval practice and the ‘knowledge-rich curriculum’.

Fear is the Mind Killer tells the story of Learning Skills, a new approach to Learning to Learn that Kate and I have been working on, alongside many colleagues and young people, for much of the last 15 years. Essentially, Learning Skills is an attempt to rethink Learning to Learn from first principles – to examine previous initiatives in close detail and see whether we might be able to salvage the best bits, ditch a few dodgy ingredients, add one or two sprinkles of our own – and stick it all back together again to create a ‘complex intervention’ that is greater than the sum of its parts.

I carried out an eight-year evaluation of Learning Skills for my PhD. It took eight years because we followed four cohorts of students from Year 7 through to Year 11 – one control cohort, and three Learning Skills cohorts. This evaluation that found that Learning Skills led to significant gains in subject learning across the curriculum, with accelerated gains among children from disadvantaged backgrounds (see infographic and references, below). The book provides practical guidance for any teachers and school leaders who may wish to replicate – and potentially to improve upon – these findings in new and diverse settings.

In writing the book, we sent the manuscript to a large number of reviewers from across the educational diaspora – teachers and researchers, NQTs and retired headteachers, trads and not-so-trads. As well as being hugely constructive – the book is in far better shape as a consequence – the feedback we have received to date has been overwhelmingly encouraging. Which is rather a relief, what with it having taken so long to come to fruition. So, by way of an uplifting return to the blogosphere, the remainder of this post consists of kind things people have said about the book. In the coming weeks and months, I will share one or two choice excerpts from the book on these pages. I also hope to use the blog as a testing ground for material for my next three books – one on implementation science, one on practitioner inquiry, and one on oracy. On all of these fronts, I look forward to hearing your thoughts, dear reader.

I really enjoyed ‘Fear is the Mind Killer’. One of the most original pieces I’ve encountered in a long time, it elegantly sets out the case for Learning to Learn in a way that is both robust and fair. The Sea View study is handled very carefully and the impressive results make a comprehensive case for taking Learning to Learn seriously. The measured balance of the arguments actually makes the case stronger. ‘Fear is the Mind Killer’ reclaims those important aspects of provision which bring learning alive, deepen understanding and support pupils to become learners in the deepest sense of the word. Highly recommended for everyone in education.

As school systems around the world recognise that they are preparing their students for a world that no-one can imagine, attention has, perhaps unsurprisingly, turned to whether it is possible to teach learners how to learn, and this has led to a rather polarised debate. On one side are those who argue that our traditional curriculum is unfit for the needs of today’s learners, and that we should instead focus on the so-called 21st century skills. At the other are those who provide mountains of evidence that such skills tend to be highly specific to particular subjects and that learners rarely transfer what they have learned in one subject area to another. The truth is that both sides are right, about some things. Some of what we need our students to learn are highly specific to a subject, but there are also ideas that go across the whole curriculum. The challenge is to discover what those are, and how they can be effectively incorporated into the curriculum.

This is why Fear is the Mind Killer by James Mannion and Kate McAllister is so welcome. The book tells the story of the implementation of a “learning to learn” curriculum in an English secondary school, and how that approach increased student achievement, while, at the same time, closing the gap in achievement between students from more affluent and less affluent homes. More importantly, the story is told in sufficient detail that it provides a clear plan for how to implement such a curriculum elsewhere, with honest discussions of the challenges and difficulties encountered. I don’t know of any other book that provides such clear guidance on how to harness the common elements of learning across the curriculum, bringing greater coherence to pupils’ experiences in school while at the same time respecting the real differences between school subjects. Highly recommended.

As someone who has always been somewhat sceptical about the potential for Learning to Learn, I found this book an eye-opening and refreshing read. It clearly acknowledges the criticisms of previous attempts to implement the teaching of learning skills whilst also showing how it could be implemented successfully in the future. As interest in metacognition and self-regulation grows, this will be the handbook we’ll turn to.

The field of ‘learning to learn’, or the development of ‘learning character’, has come on in leaps and bounds in the last 20 years – and Mannion and McAllister’s book makes a new and significant contribution: it extends still further the state of the art. It is accessible, witty and grounded in well-conducted research and a broad and deep understanding of the scientific literature. I can’t recommend it too highly.

Engagingly written and stylistically seamless… I found it not only informative, but it filled me with hope.

Fear is the Mind Killer’ is an excellent, accessible, first-hand account of how teachers can successfully carry out an educational intervention in their own school which, while being based firmly on available evidence from educational research, also takes into account the specific context and needs of their students. It should be an inspiration to all teachers who wish to do the same, as well as making an important contribution to our understanding of school-based research more generally.

Steeped in evidence, delightfully balanced and highly accessible — a much needed grand tour de force of the theory and practice around learning to learn.

A focused, ambitious and intelligent attempt to answer one of the more interesting questions of our educational era: is learning to learn of any use? Its authors, who have spent the small matter of fifteen years (count them) researching and implementing highly developed and academically trialled programmes argue, quite convincingly, that it is. Whilst its tone is light – on occasions it is very funny indeed – its intent is highly serious: the desire here is to find a way to make our students more independent learners. For those with an interest in this area, it will become a compulsory text.

As someone who is very critical of educational books I was very pleased to see how James and Kate captured the great challenges of education. The personal, professional journey that is involved with engaging with deep and fundamental issues of learning. They open-mindedly explore their own claims with rigorous analysis and reference to a wide diversity of research. Their own stories and the level of commitment to a broad humanistic concept of education are still guiding many of my thoughts about my own future practice. A book to read, re-read and keep coming back to for advice.

A fascinating read that examines the controversy and draws exciting conclusions about the purpose and future of education. Its brutally honest analysis of the story of Learning to Learn and implementation of a Learning Skills curriculum in one school is told in a pragmatic and extremely readable style. This book reflects my own experience of the transformative influence of a curriculum that embraces the Learning to Learn philosophy. But it offers much more than that. There is a thoroughly researched and extremely comprehensive story of a Learning Skills curriculum and its effect on outcomes. The authors show how students, especially the disadvantaged, learn more effectively if they experience a powerful Learning to Learn input delivered by a committed team of enthusiastic teachers. The GCSE results for the Learning Skills cohort demonstrate a closing of the gap for disadvantaged students and better results for all. The book isn’t just a convincing argument for the power of teaching metacognition, self-regulation and oracy; it offers a useful checklist for schools to create their own bespoke Learning Skills curriculum. Perhaps the most important conclusion is that schools improve when their primary focus is on the ‘how’ of learning rather than just performance. Transferring Learning Skills across the whole curriculum creates just such a learning culture. The journey outlined at Sea View demonstrates that a laser-sharp focus on Learning to Learn develops better teaching, better outcomes and more emotionally resilient future citizens. And, as the title suggests, it might just help our kids become the fearless learners we want them to be!

James and Kate’s work on the topic of Learning Skills, as laid out in this excellent book, is the initiative that I’m most excited about in education at present. I see nothing more powerful, promising, or impressive, than providing students with the tools and freedom to take charge of their own learning.

A quite remarkable book, which describes findings that everybody in education should sit up and take notice of. Written with clarity, humour and commendable honesty, Fear is the Mind Killer builds a compelling case for the Learning Skills curriculum. The book leaves the reader with just one question: why isn’t everyone doing this?

This book is a fascinating, and rich, account of the creation of a Learning Skills curriculum, and will be invaluable to any teacher who believes that we can help our students to become more confident, curious, proactive learners.

This important book dives deeply into what many of us know instinctively as teachers – that children learn better when they connect with their peers and are given tools to reflect on and understand the process of learning. This thorough and well-documented study sheds light on why learning-to-learn has had such a rocky journey to date; looking carefully at the nuances of the classroom and learning that have so far made it difficult to implement and replicate learning-to-learn strategies. It is also a book that builds empathy and understanding across the plurality of views in the educational landscape and thus not only invites us to find ways forward to develop more confident, articulate, reflective and tolerant learners, but encourages us to uphold these qualities as well.

What a fantastic read! ‘Fear is the Mind Killer’ brilliantly balances its grounding in research with clear practical advice. Above all else, it tells an inspiring human story of improving learning in schools to better prepare children for life. I want to buy a copy for every teacher I know.

Andy Threadgould, Head of Upper School, Dulwich College

A very thoughtful and thought-provoking book about the processes of learning that will stimulate dialogue among colleagues. The act of dialogue will, in itself, clarify thinking. The quantity and quality of references, academic books, papers, articles and blogs from a range of authors, shows the breadth and depth of research that underpins this book. It’s a book that questions itself and its own premise, through a fascinating discussion of the pros and cons of the Learning to Learn approach. The book manages to be both academic and practical. It recognises that the central core of teaching is telling children things but extends this through the idea of children becoming more successful independent partners in their learning. I was struck by the resonances with other books in my career, most notably the two by John Holt that I had to read before starting my initial teacher training; ‘How Children Learn’ and ‘How Children Fail’. ‘Fear Is The Mind Killer’ sits very comfortably as an update to those books. It will support any teacher from beginning through to experienced colleagues.

I had my highlighter all over this book as I was reading it… so many ideas… I just wanted to keep reading more. It made me feel like I was being invited into an exciting place where discourse is welcomed… how the book is written models exactly how we should work with children. It self-regulates! It’s human. It’s why I came into teaching. It’s what, for many, will provide a lightbulb moment. It may reinvigorate knowledge-swamped teachers. And it makes a strong case for the teaching of Learning Skills in any curriculum.

This book is both visionary and realistic, rooted in classroom-based experiences that have been carefully researched and deeply examined by both scholars and practitioners. A pleasure to read, too.

Fear is the Mind Killer’ is a welcome addition to education’s literary canon. It has a contemporary feel and situates itself firmly in current educational debates about the role of learning skills. It may come as a surprise, but some feel that education should concern itself primarily with the storage of knowledge in long-term memory. In fact, Ofsted’s current definition of learning endorses that view. The book deals with the problems of such a view before outlining the authors’ experience of introducing a learning skills intervention into a school. As such, it provides a useful antidote to an overly mechanistic view of educational practice. Additionally, it offers a detailed view on what constitutes learning skills – structural elements, oracy, metacognition and self-regulated learning – before considering avenues for future thinking. ‘Fear is the Mind Killer’ is a research-evidenced view of learning skills that would be a worthwhile addition to any educator’s bookshelf.

I found this book incredibly refreshing. The introduction really draws you in – I found myself nodding along. Mannion and McAllister are thorough in their use of evidence to back up claims, allowing the research to speak for itself. They present their research findings in a way that is easy to read and understand for teachers who may have limited experience of education research, without ever patronising the reader. They write as if they are talking to their peers, sharing their experiences in a frank and honest way. They tell the story of Learning Skills warts and all, leaving it up to the reader to make up their own mind. This is an important read for anyone with an interest in education.

Power to the pupils! This inspiring, thoughtful and amusing book is jam-packed with stories, insights and practical steps and sets out an important manifesto how the education system can be reformed to better serve the next generation of learners.

35% discount code

Should you wish to secure a copy, you can get a 35% discount by entering the code FEAR35 on the John Catt website.


Mannion, J. & Mercer, N. (2016) Learning to learn: improving attainment, closing the gap at Key Stage 3. Curriculum Journal, 27(2), 246-271.

Mannion, J., McAllister, K., Mercer, N. (2018) The Learning Skills curriculum: raising the bar, closing the gap at GCSE. Impact, the Journal of the Chartered College of Teaching, Sept 2018.