The death of Learning to Learn has been greatly exaggerated

By |2020-11-07T19:42:02+00:00November 7th, 2020|Dr James Mannion|0 Comments

This is an extract from our forthcoming book ‘Fear is the Mind Killer: Why Learning to Learn deserves lesson time – and how to make it work for your pupils’.

The feedback we have received so far has been pretty phenomenal. You can read all the very kind things people have said about it hereAnd you can buy it here (John Catt) or here (Amazon).

In the last post The case against Learning to Learn, we outlined three arguments people use to suggest that Learning to Learn is perhaps not the best use of time in schools. Briefly, these arguments are:

  1. Knowledge is foundational
  2. Children are novices
  3. Generic skills can’t be taught / don’t transfer

In the book, we rebut these arguments in detail, and then offer three positive arguments for Learning to Learn:

  1. The field has evolved since it was last evaluated.
  2. Scaling up is hard to do, but implementation science is a thing now.
  3. The death of Learning to Learn has been greatly exaggerated.

This excerpt focuses on the third of these arguments.

The death of Learning to Learn has been greatly exaggerated

A good example of how the death of Learning to Learn has been greatly exaggerated can be seen in a speech the Schools Minister Nick Gibb gave at the 2015 researchED conference, entitled The Importance of the Teaching Profession. In his speech, Mr Gibb lent his vocal support to the Education Endowment Foundation (EEF) Teaching and Learning Toolkit:

‘The work of teachers has allowed the EEF to make great strides since we founded the organisation in 2011… The thirst for quality education research, which is so evident at this conference today, has begun to change how decisions are made within schools… But there is still a long way to go. We created the EEF due to a belief that high-quality, robust research could empower classroom teachers, and I firmly believe it can.’ [1]

In the same speech, Mr Gibb decried a 2006 report published under the preceding New Labour government:

‘It remains important to ask why so many poor ideas were sustained for so long within schools. To answer such a question, we must not forget the role played by central government. To give just one example, in 2006 the Department for Children, Schools and Families formed the “Teaching and Learning in 2020 Review Group”. Their subsequent report, entitled 2020 Vision, threw its weight behind “personalised learning”, explained as:

“Learners are active and curious: they create their own hypotheses, ask their own questions, coach one another, set goals for themselves, monitor their progress and experiment with ideas for taking risks…”

2020 vision suggested that the school of 2020 should pursue: “learning how to learn”; “themed project work”; and “using ICT to enhance collaboration and creative learning”. Lots of talk about learners learning, but almost nothing about teachers teaching.’ [2]

The remarkable thing here is that the passage that Mr Gibb holds up as an example of a ‘poor idea’ – students setting goals, experimenting with different ideas, monitoring their own progress – is strikingly similar to the EEF’s definition of self-regulation. As we saw in Chapter 1: High impact for low cost, or snake oil for hipsters?, the EEF Teaching and Learning Toolkit ranks metacognition and self-regulation – which it describes as being synonymous with ‘learning to learn’ – as the being among the most impactful practices teachers can use, providing ‘high impact for very low cost, based on extensive evidence’. Here’s a reminder of how the EEF Toolkit describes these practices:

‘Metacognition and self-regulation approaches aim to help pupils think about their own learning more explicitly, often by teaching them specific strategies for planning, monitoring and evaluating their learning. Interventions are usually designed to give pupils a repertoire of strategies to choose from and the skills to select the most suitable strategy for a given learning task.’ [3]

Here, then, we have a Schools Minister who proclaims the golden age of the EEF Toolkit, while decrying the very practices the EEF Toolkit says are the most effective – in the same speech! It is difficult to know how to interpret this. One could be forgiven for thinking that politicians cherry-pick research evidence that suits their ideological position, and wilfully ignore that which does not. We subscribe to the more charitable view that this is unknowing, rather than wilful – but either way, such a partial reading of the research literature by those who shape education policy should be robustly challenged.

In Chapter 2, we reviewed the research evidence relating to Learning to Learn. On the one hand, we found overwhelming evidence relating to the significant impact of metacognition and self-regulation on improving student outcomes. On the other, we saw that four large-scale evaluations of Learning to Learn in the UK had ‘mixed results’. These mixed results are important to understand, and we have suggested that they were likely due to a combination of factors, namely: patchy implementation; being a product of their time; researchers throwing the net too wide when evaluating findings across dozens of schools; and the difficulties associated with scaling up. None of these problems are insurmountable, and in this book we propose a number of practical ways in which we might avoid such problems in the future.

To recap: the evidence in favour of Learning to Learn – conceived in the Learning Skills approach as a combination of metacognition, self-regulation and oracy education – is abundant and compelling. In the ‘mixed evidence’ column, we have four large-scale evaluations that we have already discussed at length. And in the ‘evidence against’ column, we have… tumbleweeds. On balance, it would be fair to say that the weight of evidence remains overwhelmingly in favour of Learning to Learn – and we add to that weight of evidence in this book.

We saw earlier that Learning to Learn has been described by various commentators as ‘bad education’ [4] and a ‘snake oil hoax’. [5] Having reviewed the literature and explored the surrounding issues, these claims now look rather overblown. Indeed, these claims seem to have been based solely on the basis of the ‘mixed results’ of the four studies we examined above. Bennett’s critique of Learning to Learn focused primarily on two of those four studies, while Hayes’ concerns focused mainly on just one of them. [6] We have done a more thorough job of critiquing the field in this book. But we also recognise what we believe to be the glaring truth of the matter – that there is far more evidence in the ‘for’ column.

The conclusion is clear: the death of Learning to Learn has been greatly exaggerated – in the literature and in political speeches, at least. As we saw in the Introduction, the demise of taught Learning to Learn courses in UK secondary schools in the last ten years is very real.

It’s time to redress the balance.

Ladies and gentlemen of the jury. We have seen – and we will continue to see throughout Part 2 of this book – that the field of Learning to Learn has evolved significantly since it was last evaluated on a large scale. We have seen that the ‘mixed results’ of previous large-scale evaluations of Learning to Learn were due to a combination of factors – not least, the challenge of scaling up effective practices – and there is good reason to believe that we can overcome these challenges in the future. And we have seen that claims relating to the death of Learning to Learn look rather ill-founded in the face of the overwhelming research evidence we see when teachers and school leaders take the teaching of self-regulated learning seriously. In seeking to unravel the Learning to Learn paradox throughout Part 1 of this book, we have considered three questions:

  1. Is it possible to teach children to become more confident, curious, independent learners?
  2. Is it possible to improve how Learning to Learn is implemented in new and diverse contexts?
  3. Is it possible to improve how Learning to Learn is evaluated?

We believe that the answer to each of these questions is a resounding YES! We should not casually dismiss Learning to Learn on the basis of a small number of studies carried out over ten years ago, or a selective reading of the research literature. Instead, we should ask: why have the positive research findings relating to metacognition and self-regulation not been replicated when these practices have been scaled up into whole-school approaches? Is it because it cannot be done – or just that it has not successfully scaled up yet? Is it the metacognition and self-regulation that’s the problem, or might it be something to do with the complex task of scaling up and evaluating impact across a large number of schools? And, perhaps most importantly: have all lines of inquiry been thoroughly exhausted, or might there still be ways to learn from and build on previous work in this area – both in terms of implementation and evaluation?

We hope that in this chapter, we have succeeded in opening your mind to the possibility that Learning to Learn is currently undervalued and underrepresented in the way schools are organised. We hope that your mind will open further as you discover what the Learning Skills curriculum looks like in practice. And we hope that it will open further still as you and others begin to trial and evaluate these ideas and practices in the months and years to come, and when further evidence of their efficacy comes to light.

To find out how the Learning Skills curriculum advances the field… well, you’ll have to buy the book!

FOOTNOTES

[1] Gibb, N. (2015) The importance of the teaching profession. Speech at the researchED conference. Available at: https://www.gov.uk/government/speeches/nick-gibb-the-importance-of-the-teaching-profession.

[2] ibid.

[3] Education Endowment Foundation (2020). The Teaching and Learning Toolkit. Available at: https://educationendowmentfoundation.org.uk/evidence-summaries/teaching-learning-toolkit/meta-cognition-and-self-regulation.

[4] Hayes, D. (2012) Education is bad for you. Huffington Post, February 3. Available at: https://www.huffingtonpost.co.uk/dennis-hayes/education-is-bad-for-you_b_1249900.html.

[5] Bennett, T. (2013) Teacher proof: Why research in education doesn’t always mean what it claims, and what you can do about it. London: Routledge.

[6] Ecclestone, K. & Hayes, D. (2008) The Dangerous Rise of Therapeutic Education. London: Routledge.

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