This is the first in a series of extracts 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.
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What’s the one thing you would change?
If you had a magic wand, what’s the one thing you would change about your pupils? We ask teachers this question a lot. Sometimes, they say things like this:
‘I wish they would read for pleasure.’
‘I wish they would behave better.’
‘I wish they would respond to my feedback…
they make the same mistakes week in, week out!’
These are perfectly sensible things to wish for and to work towards, and there are many excellent books that can help you achieve these goals. This book is about something different. Because whenever we ask this question, by far the most common response we hear is a variation on the following theme:
‘I want my pupils to be more independent.’
‘I want them to be less apathetic/needy/helpless.’
‘I wish I didn’t have to spoon-feed them all the time.’
Let’s be clear: education is a truly wonderful thing. It’s humanity’s best hope for a brighter future. To paraphrase Dylan Wiliam: if education was a pill, you’d neck the bottle. But there is a problem with the way in which we educate young people, and it goes something like this. Children don’t know what they don’t know, and so teachers set the agenda for what needs to be learned, and how, and by when. This makes for an efficient use of time, but it has an unfortunate side-effect. Many children become dependent on their teachers, and often they come to depend on them so much that they can’t do very much… well, independently.
This problem takes many forms, and it can reach ludicrous extremes. For example, in primary and even in secondary schools, it is quite common for a pupil to approach their teacher to inform them that they have reached the bottom of the page. These young people have become so dependent on an adult telling them what to do that they feel they need permission to turn the page in their own exercise book! And it goes way deeper than end-of-page-itis. In researching this book, we posed the following question to the wonderful world of EduTwitter:
‘What’s the most helpless question a pupil has asked you?’
We don’t typically get much reaction to our tweets, but this one attracted over 150 responses. The responses make for alarming reading. Here are some examples, grouped together into loose themes:
Non-problems, posed as a statement rather than a question:
- ‘My pen’s on the floor.’
- ‘My pencil broke.’ (while holding the pencil out to me. It needed sharpening)
- ‘I don’t have a chair’ is one of my favourites. There’s usually a stack quite obviously in the room.
- Student: ‘I haven’t got my book.’ Me: ‘Where is it?’ Student: ‘I think it’s in my bag.’ Me: ‘Well then…’
- It’s the questions they don’t ask. Like, five minutes into a task and you ask why they haven’t started and they say ‘I haven’t got a pen.’ And they’re not the kind to be deliberately avoiding the work… Oh God, this is making my blood boil.
- ‘Should I sharpen my (very blunt) pencil?’
- ‘Can I use blue pen instead of black?’
- ‘Should I use a ruler to underline the date and title?’
- ‘Shall I stick this in my book?’ (which they then don’t)
- ‘Why do we have to use the index, can’t you just tell us the page?’
- ‘Can you fold this piece of paper for me?’
- ‘Can I get him to draw this part for me? I can’t draw.’ (Year 6 art lesson)
- In the middle of my lesson: ‘What lesson do we have next?’
- What has that got to do with my lesson?
- Why would I have your timetable memorised?
- Why don’t YOU know your timetable, or at least have a copy to hand?
Not listening / following instructions
- 5 mins into task I’ve explained, had another student explain AND is on the board, ‘Miss, what do we have to do?’
- Me: (writes p54 on board) ‘Turn to p54… guys we’re starting on p54…’ Two sentences into reading… ‘Miss, what page are we on?’
- ‘Do we have to write in full sentences?’ (after I’ve specifically told them to and it’s written on the board)
- Me: ‘Let’s discuss the lesson objective, don’t copy it.’ Student: ‘Miss, go back I didn’t finish copying the objective.’
Questions they really ought to know the answer to:
- ‘How do you spell DNA/TV/GCSE/PSHE/ICT/KFC?’ [There were a lot of these!]
- ‘Do I have to put my name on this?’
- ‘How do you fold in half again?’
- Student: ‘Where’s the water?’ Me: ‘In the tap.’
- When doing any form of assessment: ‘Is this a real test?’
- ‘Do I need to answer in French?’ (Day before mock speaking exam)
- ‘What lesson are we in?’ (Twenty minutes into it)
- ‘I’ve done question 1, what should I do now?’
- ‘Where shall I put the rubbish?’
Now, you might object that holding the words of children up to scrutiny in this way is a bit uncharitable, and you would have a point – to a point. For example, at first glance, ‘How do you spell TV?’ is a funny question. But a child might never have seen it written down, or been told that TV is short for television, or they might have thought it was spelt ‘teevee’ or something. Also, some schools have strict protocols around how children set out their work, and so asking whether they should use a ruler to underline the title might be a reasonable question to ask. Fair enough. Asking questions in order to find out about the world is the cornerstone of child development. We often say to children ‘there’s no such thing as a silly question’ (even though there definitely is), but the sentiment is well-intentioned: in schools, it’s important that children feel comfortable to ask questions without fear of ridicule or the dreaded sarcastic retort.
But it would be an impressive feat of intellectual acrobatics to write off this entire list as a normal part of growing up – something that we as teachers can do nothing about. Every teacher will be familiar with questions and comments such as these, and the sense of exasperation that runs through the list is palpable. Indeed, many of the teachers we have worked with over the years have described a sense of feeling weighed down by the constant need to deal with questions that their pupils really should not need to ask.
It is also quite common to see these behaviours persist into late adolescence, and even into adulthood. Witness this recent account, relayed by a University professor:
‘Recently, I received an email from a student asking me the name of a writer – a writer whose book we’d been reading for two weeks. (And discussing in class. And writing about in class.) It was not a textbook, anthology or unusual digital source. It was an old-fashioned printed book containing one play by one writer. I knew that the student owned the book, because I had seen her with it in class, and in fact, she had told me she was enjoying the reading. However, when it was time for her to do an assignment on the playwright… well, she was stumped. She just didn’t know his name. I had to explain to her, carefully, and with what I hope was compassion, that if she hadn’t picked up his name in the class discussions so far (or, I was thinking, in the course syllabus and calendar), then she could always try looking on the front cover of the book.’ 
Note that in all of these examples, the questions are almost always focused on mundane procedure, and not on learning. Just imagine how much more learning could be achieved if we could teach children in such a way that they become more confident, proactive, independent learners! Here, we arrive at the first of several burning questions that compelled us to write this book: Is it possible to teach children to become more confident, proactive, independent learners?
At first glance, this may appear to be a non-starter. How can you teach someone to teach themselves? It’s like asking how can you feed someone to feed themselves – it’s a logical absurdity, a snake that eats its own tail. And yet it remains a question worth asking. After all, we do feed children until they learn to feed themselves. At first, they make a mess of it and just mash stuff in the general direction of their face, but they get the hang of it eventually. And the messy phase is important, developmentally; the caterpillar must turn to mush before it can take flight on brightly coloured wing.
What if, as well as teaching children what to learn, we could also teach them how to become confident, proactive, independent learners? Would this not be the most incredible gift we could bestow upon every young person before they head out into the world beyond the school gates, where there isn’t always (or really ever) a teacher to tell you what to learn, and how, and by when? In fact, should this not be the central aim of our education system – to equip young people with the confidence, the curiosity and the skills they need for a life where learning never ends? In this ‘post-truth’ age of fake news and ‘alternative facts’, the need to teach young people how to learn, how to think for themselves, and how to evaluate the reliability of sources, for example, has never been more pressing. Is it possible to teach children in such a way that they become more discerning, more curious, more critically engaged with the world around them? And if so, why aren’t we already doing it?
Before we address these questions, there is another common answer that we often hear when we ask ‘what’s the one thing you would change?’ This was expressed memorably by a teacher we worked with recently:
‘The resident evil of fear of failure.’
As teachers and as parents, we knew immediately what he meant. Among young people, fear of failure is all too common and it can take many forms: fear of getting a bad grade, fear of public speaking, fear of putting their hand up to ask or answer a question, fear of letting people down, fear of what their peers will say if they do anything outside of accepted social norms. If they mis-spell a word, some young people will tear the entire page out of their exercise book and write it out again, rather than have a single word crossed out. Some children’s exercise books become extremely thin because they do this so frequently.
Fear of failure really is endemic in our schools, and it’s really problematic. It causes many students to experience anxiety around exams. It contributes to any number of adolescent mental health conditions – especially in private schools, where students often feel an additional pressure to perform.  And in an education system where all young people are required to sit exams that around a third will fail (by design), fear of failure can ultimately stop some students from trying, in a last-ditch attempt to preserve a sense of self-worth: if they don’t try, then they can’t really fail, because they ‘don’t care about school anyway’. When we have arrived at the point where a young person has literally stopped trying to learn stuff, we can only assume that something has gone very badly wrong.
Notice how, in each of these cases, fear stops people from doing things. Fear can stop young people in their tracks as they go to raise their hand, even when they’re confident they know the answer. Fear can stop young people from volunteering to speak publicly, even when a part of them really wants to give it a go. Fear can stop young people from succeeding in exams because they’re so worked up, they can’t even begin to access the contents of their long-term memory. Fear keeps you in your lane, and makes you afraid even there. In a literal sense, fear really is the mind killer. It prevents young minds from growing and developing and trying new things, as young minds should.
Here, we arrive at our second burning question: Is it possible to teach children in such a way that they become more courageous, fearless learners? Is it possible to help them become more willing to take risks, more willing to step outside their comfort zone, and more willing to recognise failure for what it is – feedback in wolf’s clothing – rather than something to be avoided at all costs?
Introducing the Learning Skills curriculum
We are not the first people to ask such questions. Around 40 years ago, a field of educational theory and practice known as ‘Learning to Learn’ emerged in an attempt to answer questions like these – with mixed results to date, a fascinating puzzle that we will unpack in Part 1 of this book. For the last 15 years or so, we have been on a mission to rethink Learning to Learn from first principles – to examine previous initiatives in close detail, to pull them apart and see whether we might be able to salvage the best bits, ditch one or two dodgy ingredients, add a few sprinkles of our own – and stick it all back together again to create a new approach that is greater than the sum of its parts.
This 15-year mission has culminated in the Learning Skills curriculum, a new approach to Learning to Learn that we developed at Sea View, a secondary school in the south of England. We believe (and have evidence to suggest) that Learning Skills advances the field in three important ways. First, it is a complex intervention, meaning that it has several moving parts. In this way, the ‘marginal gains’ to arise from each individual component stack up and interact, resulting in a larger effect size overall. We’ll examine each of these moving parts in detail in Part 2. However, the Learning Skills approach really boils down to a combination of three key ideas:
Metacognition: Monitoring and controlling your thought processes
Self-regulation: Monitoring and controlling your feelings and behaviours
Oracy: The ability to speak and listen effectively across a range of contexts
Metacognition and self-regulation have long been associated with Learning to Learn, as ways of helping children become more independent in their learning. Previously, oracy has not generally been viewed as a critical part of this process. However, we believe that developing children’s speaking and listening skills is fundamental to helping them become more confident, proactive, independent learners. As well as learning how to listen and therefore learn more effectively from those around them, oracy helps young people find their voice – literally and metaphorically – and learn how to use spoken language as a tool for getting things done.
Second, we adopted a combined, taught *and* embedded approach. Throughout the last 40 years or so, there has been an ongoing debate about whether you can teach Learning to Learn through a discrete course, or whether it should be embedded throughout the curriculum. There are pros and cons to each approach, and for some reason, previous Learning to Learn initiatives have almost always taken one or other of these positions. Adopting a pragmatic stance, we realised that if you really want to make this thing fly, you need to do both. You need to have timetabled Learning Skills lessons, and to try as far as possible to have metacognition, self-regulation and oracy embedded in subject learning throughout the school. And third – crucially – it is necessary to put in place strategies to facilitate the transfer of knowledge, skills, habits and dispositions out of the Learning Skills classroom and into subject learning across the curriculum.
To cut to the chase: we are convinced that the answer to these two burning questions is a resounding YES! It is absolutely possible to teach children how to become more confident, proactive, independent, courageous, fearless, effective learners. We know this because the Learning Skills curriculum was subjected to a rigorous, eight-year evaluation as the focus of James’s PhD.  This evaluation found that Learning Skills led to significant gains in subject learning across the curriculum, with accelerated gains among children from disadvantaged backgrounds. ,  We will explore this evidence in detail in Part 2, but the essential ingredients of the Learning Skills curriculum – and the key findings from the Sea View study – are summarised in the infographic below.
Learning Skills was developed in a secondary school, but it’s really a universal set of ideas and practices that can help anyone – adult, teen or toddler – become a more effective learner. The approach is already taking root and bearing fruit across a range of contexts: from reception classes to universities, from schools in deprived areas to elite international colleges, from workplaces to refugee camps. Although we adapt the methods we use when working with different age groups and in different settings, the underlying approach – the combination of metacognition, self-regulation and oracy – is fundamentally the same. It is still early days, but the evidence we have collected to date suggests that we might just be on to something here – and there is good reason to believe that Learning Skills will go from strength to strength in the years to come.
 Isbell, L. (2017) Can’t or Won’t: The Culture of Helplessness. Inside Higher Education, March 14; original emphasis. Available at:
 Walker, P. (2015) Depression and self-harm soar among private school pupils, poll suggests. The Observer, October 4. Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/education/2015/oct/04/depression-self-harm-eating-disorders-private-school-pupils-headteachers-poll.
 Mannion, J. (2018) Metacognition, self-regulation, oracy: A mixed methods case study of a complex, whole-school Learning to Learn intervention. PhD thesis, Hughes Hall, University of Cambridge. Available at: https://www.repository.cam.ac.uk/handle/1810/289131.
 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.