The heuristic hippo

By |2019-02-04T01:59:38+00:00December 4th, 2016|Dr James Mannion|2 Comments

On Friday evening I received this series of 3 tweets from Greg Ashman, who writes a blog called Filling the Pail.




I wrote Greg a fairly comprehensive reply, but he didn’t get back and so I thought I would share it here.

Hi Greg. You are quite correct, they are related and Guy’s version did indeed come first, although we actually adapted ours from another school. Guy and I discussed it when we met for a beer one evening. I would be happy to explain how and why we developed this language of learning, why we chose to present it in this way and how our students found it to be useful if you like.

The academy chain we were a part of had 6 attributes that it wanted its students to aspire to – the 6 large words on the brain diagram. But these words are far too broad to be helpful – “we are going to use teamwork in this lesson” is so broad as to be meaningless. What we wanted was to develop a language of learning that enabled pupils to drill down through these broad attributes to focus on specific learning behaviours that they could practice and improve at.

I know people like you refute the notion of generalisable thinking skills, but these are ‘doing’ skills which are absolutely transferrable: managing distractions, public speaking, argumentation, engaging in exploratory talk, organisational skills, learning how to memorise stuff – the minutiae of being an effective human being. All of this is rooted in 3 key ideas: metacognition, self-regulation and oracy.

As you know, as a general rule skills tend to remain rooted in the context in which they are developed, and they do not automatically transfer to other contexts. However, this does not mean transfer is a hopeless cause. It just has to be carefully managed, at both ends of the process – in our case, transfer out from L2L lessons, and transfer in to other subject areas. Have you read the paper Neil Mercer and I wrote about this study? There’s an explanation of the brain diagram on page 13 of this version, but it should really be viewed in the context of the entire paper, and certainly within the context of the lengthy discussion of transfer that surrounds it (pages 10 to 14).

It is also worth noting the outcomes of the study. After 3 years (in which the L2L cohort participated in more than 400 lessons of L2L), compared with the pre-L2L cohort there was around a 10%increase in the proportion of pupils hitting or exceeding target. A fairly modest improvement. But among Pupil Premium students, the improvement was 20%. By the end of year 9, the Pupil Premium gap in the pre-L2L cohort was 25%. In the L2L cohort, the gap was just 2%. The gap closed, from the bottom up.

Furthermore when L2L cohort 1 reached year 11, they achieved the best set of results in the school’s history by some margin, and the school saw by far the greatest reduction in Pupil Premium gap of any school in the city – in a year when the PP gap increased across the city as a whole. So you can call our brain diagram ‘spurious’ if you like, but I am incredibly proud of the role I played in these students’ education and I am strongly persuaded of the novel contribution our study can make to the education debate more widely – not least, with respect to the notion of complex interventions.

To return to the language of learning, I see it as essentially pre-teaching the vocab. If you want students to learn about electricity, you might provide them with a set of key words we use to describe and explain electricity – voltage, current, resistance et al – that they can refer back to as and when the need arises. Likewise, if you want students to get better at learning, they need to develop the vocab we use to describe how learning happens, how *they* learn in different contexts – and how they might get even better at learning. As they start to use, assimilate and internalise this language, they begin to develop a stronger identity of themselves as learners.

For what it’s worth, if I had my time again I’d probably use the glossary of 225 learning terms I published recently. Although I’d probably try to find a nice visual way to present it… Come to think of it, your heuristic hippo is kind of neat. I’ll be sure to reference you.


Ashman, G. (2016) The heuristic hippo. Available here.


  1. jamesisaylestonebulldogs August 16, 2018 at 11:49 am - Reply

    But the activities or goals in your diagram are all things that cannot be taught as things in themselves. It is impossible to teach creativity, it will only arrive on the basis of enough knowledge of something to be creative with it. So if I know how to write a play (from reading them – your accidental learning btw – or being taught the conventions of playwrighting -explicit teaching) and know enough about a subject, say the murder of Arthur of Brittany, to be able to say something meaningful about it then I can write a play about that murder. If I know nothing of how a play is written and nothing about Arthur of Brittany I not only cannot be creative in that direction, I cannot even think much about Arthur of Brittany. No amount of resilience, creativity, or reflectiveness will get me there: I need to know stuff before I can use those skills. I think you might have put your hippo before the cart.

  2. rethinkinged August 16, 2018 at 5:16 pm - Reply

    Hi James. Thanks for your comment. I’m not sure which diagram you’re referring to here. “My” diagram as you put it is the one on the top right. Look at the small words in black font. Are you suggesting that it isn’t possible to teach students people how to argue, hypothesise, memorise, take responsibility, think together…? That all of this will somehow magically flow from an exclusive focus on teaching subject knowledge?

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