by Mark Quinn

This originally appeared in CollectivED Working Papers, Issue 12 (December 2020). 

If you had a magic wand, what’s the one thing you would change about your pupils?’ This is the question that James Mannion and Kate McAllister open their new book with, and it’s one they frequently ask teachers. Teachers tell them that they want their pupils to be more independent, less needy, more responsive to feedback. So far, so predictable. But it was the response of one colleague that summed up Mannion and McAllister’s joint passion – a passion that has led to a PhD, a professional development programme and even the creation of a new school – that gave this resultant, triumphant, joyful book its counter-intuitive title.

‘I don’t think a day goes by where I don’t refer . . . to how fear of failure is paralysis for the brain. How just being afraid of getting things wrong will stop you learning faster than anything . . . Because it’s true. It’s like in Dune, isn’t it? Fear is the mind killer.’

Fear for Mannion and McAllister (as it is for Dune’s author Frank Herbert) is ‘the little-death that brings total obliteration.’ In a classroom, it is the substance that prevents a child from raising their hand, even when they do know the answer; it’s the thing that prevents pupils from learning from their mistakes, because they are too fearful to make the mistake in the first place.

The authors faced this – and perhaps their own – fear when they took on the leadership of a novel Learning Skills programme at their secondary school in the south of England. Given licence by their headteacher, Stuart McLaughlin, and a generous allocation of curriculum time, they grew their team and their programme over the 8 ensuing years, tracking four cohorts of students from year 7 through to GCSE. They cast their programme as a ‘complex intervention’ of many moving parts (explored powerfully and pragmatically in their sprawling fifth chapter), but boiled down to the three goodies – metacognition, self-regulation and oracy. The interaction between these three is what (in their ‘theory of action’) results in more effective, self-regulated learners. Any teacher interested in such skills, and any leader interested in embedding them across their school, could do a whole lot worse than to keep a learning journal (a favourite technique) as they read this chapter. Their entire learning to learn curriculum is here, replete with rationale and what it looks like in practice. If you were not a fan of project-based learning before, you might well be converted by the time you have 113 113 read about their allotment project and the £2 challenge.

Converts are definitely on the authors’ minds here. I have never read a book of educational leadership stratagems or pedagogical approaches so determined to give airtime to its potential detractors. They freely admit that many previous L2L attempts have failed upon first contact with a classroom. They devote an entire chapter to putting ‘Learning to Learn on Trial’, giving full voice to those for whom knowledge is foundational, children are novices and skills are non-transferable. But, being a ‘trial’, the case is also put for the defence. They explore why educational initiatives, however promising on paper or successful in micro, often flounder when scaled up: it’s the lethal mutations which eat away from within. Their answer is implementation science – for which they provide a checklist. They advocate for an implementation team, drawn from all sections of the staff. They contend that Learning to Learn skills should be both transferred out of dedicated lessons and transferred into subjects across the curriculum. They argue strongly for clear communication about the vision and purpose, and for rigorous monitoring of the impact, not just of the acquisition of learning skills but on academic attainment too.

For the naysayers, that might just be the clincher here. At their school, where they implemented L2L with treatment and control cohorts at key stage 3, then tracked their outcomes at GCSE, there were ‘statistically significant gains in subject learning among the Learning Skills cohort as a whole and among students from disadvantaged backgrounds.’ This is just the first punch in a barrage of 5 research findings. They found too a correlation between the quality of Learning Skills provision in year 7 with their eventual attainment at GCSE. The programme was associated with a narrowing of the disadvantage gap at GCSE by over 65%. An analysis of qualitative data suggested that transfer of learning skills into other subjects did take place in a range of ways. And there were non-cognitive gains too, with improvements in attitudes to learning, interpersonal skills and public speaking.

Early in their book, Mannion and McAllister admit that the literature on Learning to Learn has to this point presented a polarised picture. It offers either ‘high impact for very low cost, based on extensive evidence’ or something rather different: ‘a snake oil hoax peddled by unwitting hipsters.’ On the evidence of this book, I would say that Learning to Learn is no snake oil. For this reader, the fear has gone.